It must be close. He said it was in the valley around here.
Lohmen trotted along the dusty trail, and a town of sorts came out of hiding behind a ridge. Just like the barman in bek-Rim had promised, Kisilimli wasn’t so much a town but more of a campsite. The inland village was a stunningly broad collection of yurts only appreciated fully by soaring birds. His subject, the Banner of Fire Horse Fire, waved at him from a thick standard driven into the ground. Were it not for that, this place wouldn’t have had a definitive entrance at all.
“Hello!” said a happy child, around nine or ten-years-old, as he approached Lohmen.
“Hello. I believe I’ve arrived at the House of Fire Horse Fire. Am I correct?”
“Yes! Though we name ourselves Horse Two-Fires.” The young boy inspected Lohmen, his horse, and his bags as they exchanged pleasantries.
“This is an ancient house, right?” Lohmen recalled Kahriah telling him about the Ancient Banners. Any houses bearing only animals and items of the earth were the oldest houses, some with histories dating back thousands of years.
“Yesser, here since the Strangers. And long before the mythical or weapon houses.” He made a disapproving look as he mentioned the more modern Banners.
Lohmen recognized the look; Kahriah had the same disdain for the houses of the sixteen orders. He started, “My wife feels the same way. she–”
“Is she with you, too?” The question came before Lohmen could finish. The childlike innocence cut through him like a dagger.
“Just me today. But say, I’d like to paint your Banner in my book, if that’s all right?” Then he added, “I’ll be sure to mark its ancient status.” Lohmen smiled, and then reminded himself of warnings to keep the tome hidden.
He’s just a boy.
“Oh, yes, but make sure to capture the pride of the horse. I will inspect your work when you are done if you like.” The boy was delightfully precocious. Lohmen took a deep breath through his nose to abate emotion.
“Who should I ask for when I’m done?” Lohmen played along, forcing a smile despite enjoying the banter.
“My name is MoShar.” Before Lohmen could say anything else, the boy took off with a pack of other children darting through the yurts.
The house of Fire Horse Fire was his first Ancient Banner and, given its place on the standard, the first one he could see up close. There was no wear or fray. He tried to recall the previous thirty Banners, but they had been hung much higher on town and city gates. He didn’t recall any wear or age, but it hadn’t become apparent until he ran one through his fingers.
With no stones or gates to rest upon, Lohmen sat cross-legged in front of the standard and prepared his tools. An hour later, he lowered his brush and blew softly onto the tome and its thirty-first addition, which yielded a proud smile on the face of its creator. He picked up the brush and added one more feature to the horse: a slight bend in his brow to signify the determined pride MoShar had required. Even with a well-defined subject, Lohmen found ways to infuse his imagination and talent. The pure satisfaction of his work never lasted long before it became sheepish approval laced with shame for letting himself enjoy something.
While waiting for his work to dry, he did some basic arithmetic in his head.
Banner thirty-one…of twenty-five thousand. I’ve been on the road for three days…
It will take…twenty-five-hundred days to paint them all…? That can’t be right.
He now had a sample, which was slower than he had initially estimated. Tomeera had said there was no time to waste, but it hardly made sense to rush such a great task. He pondered her haste while closing the tome and safely slid it back into his pack. Lohmen had settled into an old routine: reconnaissance under the guise of dining post-illumination.
Every Banner is one step closer to Thesdon.
Since Lohmen had packed all his belongings and broken the tether, the commission was an opportunity for him. A chance to search the world for his loved ones.
If I deviate from my course, what’ll become of me?
Will they send that mute Ranger to twirl his dagger in front of me and set me back to task?
Another question for the man with too few answers.
The community didn’t have a bookbinder, a tavern, or any discernible buildings, just the circles of yurts. They were arranged around a core where Lohmen found a massive fountain-like structure that would look at home in even the grandest of cities. It wasn’t carved from marble or twilight quartz but made from countless stones of varying sizes, skillfully arranged into a communal structure. And it wasn’t water in the fountain: it was fire. Not a giant inferno, but a collection of many low fires burning independently of each other.
Built into the circular structure were several inlets furnished with everything from metal grates to flat rocks and spits, ready to roast the spoils of a successful hunt or harvest.
Thick wood stumps were strewn around the fire-fountain used as chairs and tables. Beyond the stumps, a set of posts were driven into the ground with short pieces lashed across them. Lohmen saw a horse tied to one on the opposite side of the fire-fountain and did the same.
An old woman sat by herself on a stump and gestured to the one beside her. She smiled, and he sat, placing his pack to the side. “I’m Lohmen.”
“It is nice to meet you, Lohmen. I am NaaShar.”
“Kisilimli is beautiful. I’ve never seen anything quite like this place.” The woman smiled in response to him, her wise eyes disappearing under old skin.
The painter dispensed with the pleasantries. “I’m looking for my son, NaaShar. He disappeared five years ago in Umlom. Do you remember hearing of it?”
“Five years is a long time, child.” She went on slowly,
“Why do you only search now? Umlom is not far.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I see. I did not hear of a missing boy, but I will ask my cousins in the house of Three Fires. They live quite far, but we have other means to converse.”
“What kind of means?” Lohmen was genuinely curious.
“I cannot say, nor would you understand if I did.” She went on, “When you come upon a house of fire, ask for news of Umlom, and they will tell you if there is anything to know.” Lohmen pondered this but wasn’t convinced. Shar picked up his scepticism and laughed.
“We cannot see visions in flames, Lohmen. Do not worry. Though we are an ancient people, we were not the first. We are descendants of the house of Three Fires. It has existed since creation itself. They live on a Continent of Detection, as you might know it, but that is a more modern name.”
Lohmen cursed himself for getting into a conversation with an old woman that began at the dawn of time, but he paid attention to learn more about conversing over great distances.
“The Three Fires have burned since the beginning and were lit by the sun itself.” Pride of history beamed through her voice.
“One day, a thousand years ago, there was a violent tempest. It raged hard but was not long. When the clouds cleared, a flame had been snuffed for the first time. The same day they found a Stranger washed up on the shore. He had no clothes, no weapons or possessions. Not even a name. The Three Fires took the Stranger in and treated him as one of their own.
“But the third flame would not light. The Flamekeepers tried different woods. Different oils. They tried praying to the sun gods. Nothing would relight the third flame.”
Lohmen looked up as a boy brought a large dish of meat and root vegetables, and NaaShar offered some to Lohmen. The arrival of food renewed his interest in seeing the story through to the end.
“The Stranger stayed with the Three Flames, though many believed the extinguished fire was his fault. Soon they came to blame him for any misfortunes that befell the village. What else could it be?
“Then, one day, a brave little girl dove into the waters near his landing and retrieved a bag from the seafloor. She brought it to the inner fire and showed it to the Flamekeepers. They did not know what to make of it, but the Stranger saw it and told them it belonged to him. He did not know how; only that he knew.
“After much debate, they allowed him to dress in its contents. When he put them on, they fit as if made for him. The third flame re-ignited when he hung his blade on his belt.”
Lohmen smiled as he ate but failed to see any relevance.
“The Stranger had become one of the people, received the kiss of the coals, and stayed for a time. When dressed in the things from the bag of the sea, he developed strange new abilities. It was then we learned to communicate over great distances. And short.
“But the Stranger did not stay. The world beckoned him. Some people travelled with him as he crossed the realms. Some settled along the way. That is how we are here.” She smiled.
“Very interesting. I look forward to visiting the house of Three Fires someday.”
Her gaze hardened.
“You do not listen, Lohmen. They were searching for answers at the flame itself. Just like you search for clues and disturb the meals of old women.”
Lohmen took another bite and thought.
But they didn’t know they were looking for a bag; the girl just happened upon it.
“But if they had searched where the Stranger landed as the girl did, they would have lit the third flame more quickly. Where did your mystery start, Lohmen?” Her face softened as she leaned back.
Lohmen stopped chewing.
How did she do that?
“I told you that you wouldn’t understand.”
Lohmen sat silently and ate, trying not to think ill of the woman. He thought of his son and the years spent searching before the commission letters.
“Maybe you have more than one mystery.” She propounded.
He thanked her and stood. She refused his offer of coin, and the boy who had brought the food was nowhere to be found. Lohmen walked to the fire and picked up a cold piece of charcoal well away from the flames. On a page torn from his cartography notebook, he sketched the harmonious scene at the fire fountain, the old woman appearing in the foreground wise and smiling. He tossed the notebook back into his bag. After scribbling his initials at the bottom of the page, he handed her the piece.
“I will cherish this, Lohmen,” she said when he gave it to her. “Thank you. May the fire be your friend.” He nodded and left her to finish her meal. A cough came from near the woman. MoShar had appeared and looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“Right, of course!” He pulled out the tome and held it on display for inspection.
“Very good. I like how you captured the eyes. Where will you go now, painter?” The boy asked.
Lohmen smiled at him with sad eyes before stowing the tome away. The question hung on him for a moment before he answered.
“I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m going to see a bookbinder.”