“So what was it like, growing up in the mountains?” said Lark. “Beside cold.”
Cob made a face and prodded at the fire with his stick. “Difficult, I s’pose, compared to what I see down here. I lived near the line between Low Country and High Country, above this little town called Risholnis. We were jus’ barely within the treeline, so most of the houses were rock patched with mud. My family was in a cave on the cliff, so we were actually warmer than them, heh—not much wind gettin’ in through the mountain wall, right? We raised goats.”
“You just…lived in a cave?” said Lark, blinking.
“Yeah. M’ father chipped it out a bit, but mostly it was natural. Lots of caves in the Thundercloak Mountains.”
“Well, what’d you do beside raise goats?”
“What d’you mean?”
“You– It can’t just have been goats all day long.”
“You ever try wranglin’ five goats?”
Cob sighed. “Right, look. We’d wake up at dawn. Me an’ father’d milk the goats while mother stirred the fire up an’ cooked somethin’. We’d eat, an’ I’d take the goats out along the mountain to forage. Father’d– I’m not entirely sure what he did, what either of m’parents did when I wasn’t around. I think he carved things, tanned the old hides, hunted. Probably met with his comrades from the peaks. Mother preserved food, made stuff from the goat wool and the plants I brought home. We weren’t starvin’, but we were always busy. Anythin’ we made that we didn’t need, father brought down to town t’sell.
“Not that they needed much from us. They had a bit of farmland that they terraced up, right? An’ this patch of low trees, so they even got wood now an’ then. The valley was tiny, like some god stuck their thumb in the mountains, an’ it was right at the edge of Senket’s Scar—this big chasm we needed these rickety rope bridges to cross. Sometimes a merchant came up from the Low Country to trade, because sometimes we found metal or nice stones in the streams after a thaw, but we’re not allowed to mine the mountains. They’re holy. So nobody had much interest in Risholnis an’ Risholnis didn’t have much interest in us.”
“Nice stones? Precious stones?” said Lark.
Cob shrugged. “I guess. The Thundercloaks are riddled with riches, I hear, but it’s every Kerrindrixi’s responsibility to protect the mountains, keep ‘em from harm. At least, the High Country Kerrindrixi. My father’s people, the ones from the peaks, they’re called the Little Men of the Mountains sometimes ‘cause they’re kinda short—I guess bird-blooded—but they’ve always been dedicated to the worship of the mountains. They got temples and shrines all over those nearly unreachable peaks, an’ only they know where the gates to the Murian cities are. Aloyan Erosei the Elder was one of ‘em, the first man to actually go into a Murian city, back when they had shut themselves up to avoid the wars of humankind.”
“So what about the Low Country Drixi?”
“Eh. Well, I worked with a lot of ‘em in the quarry when I was enslaved, an’ they seemed like bastards t’me. Low Country folk, they live in towns an’ cities. They farm like all you lowlanders, or herd a bit, but a lot of ‘em mine. They’ve forgotten our vows to the Murians an’ the spirits of the mountains, an’ they chop into the flesh of the earth to pull out its gut an’ muscle. Yeah, I did that too, but I didn’t have a choice. An’ then they ship it down to the southern lands. Don’t even do anythin’ with it themselves.”
Lark frowned. “I know Savinnor’s walls are made of Thundercloak stone…”
“Yeah, like that,” said Cob, nodding. “There’s a big difference between the High Country folk who revere the mountains an’ the Low Country bastards who exploit ‘em. I’m told the Low folk are mostly Deer tribe, some other things that kinda blended with us, maybe some Bear, but what they really are is greedy. Everyone down there is tired of ekin’ it out in the mountains; they want the houses an’ nice clothes an’ jewels an’ stuff that the rest of the world gets, an’ to have that, they cut into the mountains an’ send ‘em away.
“We used to get raided by the Jernizen an’ the Gejarans, the Krovichankans all the time, y’know? They’d cut their way through the Low folk an’ set up illegal mines in out-of-the-way canyons. Dig out all they could before the High Country folk came down t’wreck ‘em. We first joined up wi’ the Phoenix Empire because they promised to make the Jernizen stop harryin’ us, but what did the Empire do? They took all those mines an’ quarries an’ made ‘em official, started huntin’ the High Country folk an’ destroyin’ the temples—
“Well, the ones they could reach.
“A lot of the High Country folk fought. Mind you, this was before I was born. There was a ton of fightin’ between the High folk an’ the Imperial, but also between the High an’ the Low, because the Low folk wanted those Imperial things, right? Not jus’ protection but goods, food, luxuries that don’t belong in the mountains. An’ eventually the Low folk an’ the Empire won. Chased the true High folk into the wild peaks where no one lives—where no one can, ‘cause all there is is snow an’ ice an’ rock.
“So now most of the Kerrindrixi live in towns in the foothills an’ act like everyone else there by the Pinch. Wearin’ Gejaran fashions an’ fillin’ their houses with Averognan furniture, eatin’ Illanic food. Where I lived, Risholnis, was an almost-forgotten backwater—so far up the mountains that I heard half the troops who came for my father collapsed in town from altitude sickness. Pikin’ lowlanders.
“Once upon a time, we were fierce fighters, disciplined survivalists, devout spiritists. We worked hand-in-hand with the Silver Ones, the Murians, an’ were content with the unencumbered way we lived our lives.
“Now we’re jus’…Imperial tools or paranoid isolationists, I guess. I can’t say I’m proud to be Kerrindrixi anymore.”
Lark snorted. “I’m glad you’ve gotten over your Imperial tool phase.”
He gave her a look. “Don’t get me wrong, I still follow the Light,” he said. “Jus’…I don’t know that it’s the Light of Kerrindryr or of Empire. Most of the Low folk follow the Light now, maybe all of ‘em, and I used to think that meant I was among comrades but…honestly, it never did. I went to the Light because I wanted to be cleansed from what I did wrong, but most Low Kerrindrixi, they did it out of convenience.
“I’m not sayin’ they renounced the spirits for money, mind you. But livin’ down in the valleys, I guess it’s easy to forget about our history. We were driven into the mountains millennia ago, y’know—maybe even as far back as when the wraiths fell from the sky. Deer-folk fleein’ all the dangers of the world, hidin’ in the high places, shelterin’ with the folk of metal because they’re elementals so don’t feel any urge to eat us…
“They’re the ones who put the steel in our spines. Who took us in, taught us t’be strong after our spirit died. But they hardly ever leave their mountains, which isn’t surprisin’ since…well, like I said, they’re metal elementals. They’re made of the livin’ stuff that we make coins of now. Dangerous as pikes to fight, but if some brigands got a look at ‘em, they’d be swarmed in moments and chopped up for easy loot.
“Like I said, back in the day, Aloyan Erosei got them to fight alongside us, but that didn’t last long. Now they hide where the Empire can’t reach, lest they be melted down and minted.
“Kinda like—heh, here’s a metaphor. Kinda like we all have. I mean, the Imperials have minted us all in their image, right? The Low folk, but me too, and other High Country folk. Aloyan Erosei’s name is really spoken Aol Yian Ei Ros, y’know, jus’ like mine is Ko Vrin, but all of it’s been bastardized since they moved in on us. All the names, the places, everythin’ gone Imperial. Everyone converted to the Light ‘cept those few stand-outs who have to hide in the mountains lest they get murdered.
“Before I knew anythin’ about the spirits, about our history, I was fine with that. Those folk up in the mountains were all crazies, right? Like they talk about mad hermits in the woods. But now, I dunno, I guess it seems like they’re the only sane ones, the only true Kerrindrixi.
“And I was never one of them. My father was, but me? I bent to the Empire like all the rest.
“Makes me feel bad sometimes.”