An Englishman In Medecia
From the coast, the track (it cannot justifiably be called a road) leads north-east towards the distant, mist-obscured hills of Morton Brag. It climbs slowly -- at times almost imperceptibly -- but after a couple of hours of walking you can stop and look back to see the vast yellow-green expanse of the Shale Marshes spreading out below you, to where they merge with the distant sea.
On either side of the track the heather and tall marsh grass has gradually given way to swathes of softer green grass, springy underfoot if you stray from the dirt of the path.
The path itself rises more steeply for a while, until suddenly it is surrounded on either side by woods of tall, wide-trunked trees. The upper branches of the closest of these trees arch over the path, forming a dark tunnel, musty with the smell of the leaves and earth that now carpet the path. Even in high summer few rays of sunlight penetrate the gloom. In the humid warmth of late summer the path through the wood is refreshingly cool, but at most other times of the year it is chilly and dank. This is in fact the trailing end of the Withermede forest, where it winds around the lower reaches of the Brag, and walking the path that runs through it is inclined to make you grateful not to have to find your way through the main bulk of the Withermede.
At length the trees begin to thin out, and the path grows lighter again. The sound of rushing water can be heard somewhere ahead, and the path turns to the east, bringing you to a small stone bridge with low walls, across a stream of water tumbling down from the heights of the Brag, vanishing through the last remnants of the wood, eventually to merge with the Shale Marsh and the sea beyond. This is the River Hazel, whose name appropriately means 'swift' in the language of Skae.
On the other side of the bridge stands a stone building with an inn sign outside, invariably creaking in the breezes that blow either from the sea or from the Brag (depending on the time of day), and you have reached the tiny hamlet of Hazelbrack.
The hamlet consists of less than a dozen buildings, including a small temple that is, in common with other places of worship in Skae, little more than a low-walled area surrounding an altar, open to the sky. The continued existence of Hazelbrack, and possibly its origin, no doubt depends on the fact that it lies a day's journey away from Garrick. A traveller who departs from Garrick in the early morning will arrive at Hazelbrack not long before nightfall, and will no doubt be more than ready to accept the hospitality of the inn.
The inn itself is of a type familiar to a visitor from Earth, and provokes the thought that perhaps such places are common throughout all universes, however strange and alien they might be in other ways. The main lounge is a smoky room with a low, timbered ceiling, and an innkeeper stands behind the bar ready to welcome the traveller and ply him with the local equivalents of ale or cider.
On the evening that I arrived there, the inn was noisily full. On mentioning Graegor's name to the innkeeper, I was made welcome, and directed towards a middle-aged woman of cheerful countenance and disposition, who proved to be the mayoress of the hamlet. Somewhat crassly, perhaps, I commented that such a small place as Hazelbrack hardly seemed to warrant the presence of a mayor. Fortunately she took the comment in good spirit, and made the observation that her main duties generally involved making welcome travellers such as myself who happened to pass through Hazelbrack.
Our further conversation was for a while interrupted as a small group of men and women in another part of the bar launched into an impromptu performance of a somewhat raucous, but elaborately harmonised song. I at first assumed that these were members of some local choir, but later discovered that such singing was common in all parts of Skae, and most people were, to a greater or lesser degree, able to join in such spontaneous harmonisations. Unfortunately, in spite of the skill displayed, the harmonies themselves struck me as somehow barbarous and discordant, which I attributed to some difference between the music of Medecia and the music of our world.
Being unable to appreciate the music, and unable to converse further while it was continuing, I took the opportunity to look round the room at the other occupants.
As might be expected, they formed a motley collection, though most of them were clearly labourers, with faces lined and darkened by the sun, and wearing clothes clearly made by their own hands. This is not to say that their clothing was poor, though -- it was obvious that tailoring was a well-practiced art here. Both men and women tended to sport a collar-less shirt, often dyed either to uniformly bright colour, or sewn with multi-coloured patches (the women tended to favour the latter, though both types of shirt were apparently worn by both sexes), and a loose waistcoat-like jerkin, apparently of leather, over the top. Women generally wore long skirts, and the men wore loose slacks. Both sexes wore large, rather ungainly boots. I was later to learn that most of the inhabitants of Hazelbrack either worked as shepherds on the Brag above the village, or harvested (when in season) certain prized grasses from edges of the Shale Marshes. These grasses are similar to the wheat of our world, albeit in a wilder form, and similarly yield grain that can be ground into flour. Being wild, though, the grain is of poor quality, and mainly used as a supplement to their own diet, rather than for selling on.
There were a couple of people wearing somewhat more elaborate clothing. I was to learn later that one was the priest of the local temple, and was never to be seen without the appropriate ceremonial robe for the particular season. The other was a town eccentric, who purported to be a sorceror, and dressed according to his own ideas of what a sorceror ought to wear, in dark blue robes ornamented with esoteric symbols, but was widely regarded as a mere charlatan, and the butt of mild teasing and occasional practical jokes.
It was at this point that I noticed a young girl sat by herself in a far corner of the bar, dressed in a high-necked dress ornamented with a curiously elaborate embroidery. Her costume seemed somehow foreign, and certainly different to the attire of most of the others in the bar, and something about her face also struck me as foreign, though I could not quite explain why. It seemed to me that there was something about her that, had I met her in our world, I would have described as slightly Asian. It also struck me as somewhat disquieting to see a girl so young (she seemed to me to be in her early teenage years) sitting unaccompanied in a rowdy inn.
As soon as the singing had finished, I drew the mayoress's attention to the girl, and remarked on my surprise at her presence here. The mayoress seemed to find some amusement in this, and gestured to the girl, who left her seat in the corner, and maneuvered her way across the rather crowded room.
The mayoress introduced me simply as 'a traveller from a distant country', which provoked a curiously knowing smile from the girl, almost as if she realised (as the mayoress did not) just how distant. She shook my hand with what I can only describe a kind of solemn gaiety, and the mayoress, somewhat to my chagrin, repeated my comments about the girl's youth. The girl smiled again, this time with some amusement, and explained who, or rather what she was, and I learnt that I was having my first encounter with one of the other intelligent races in Medecia, because she was in fact not human (or Medícae as humans are called in Medecia), but was rather a Psyru.
- Hazel: [Editor's note] In fact, hésl. The narrator is correct in saying that it translates as 'swift'.
- Hazelbrack: [Editor's note] Héslbraq, a name which translates as Swiftbridge.
- mayoress: [Editor's note] Lagíros, a corruption of lané-gíros, or town-ruler. The same title would apply, whether the current holder of the title was male or female -- see the narrator's note immediately below.
- It was notable on my travels that Medecia enjoys far greater equality of the sexes than our own world, and any given post -- such as the mayor of a town -- is as likely to be occupied by a woman as by a man.
- [Editor's note] The narrator is evidently not a musically educated person himself, otherwise he might have realised the truth of the matter, which is that the music of Medecia (or at least of the western kingdoms) is based on a scale that is different to those he is familiar with. This is not the place for a long disquisition on the subject, but essentially the main scale used in Medecia is based on octaves of 15 equally-spaced tones.
- Graegor Pendrake, my original host, was a genuine sorceror, and was normally attired in a plain, unornamented suit. Sorceror's robes are commonly only worn on formal or ceremonial occasions.
- Psyru: [Editor's note] Saeru would be more correct. Quite why the narrator chooses to interpret this as a pseudo-Greek name is not clear.