Part II: The Valley of Ankhor
The harsh, brutal ground fell away to either side and let Martin pass through, stumbling half blind and crippled into a wide valley of rocky soil and scattered clumps of hard grass. The sky was clear. The furies could not follow him here. Though he could feel them still, waiting for him out on the moor. They would not go. They would not ever go.
Martin walked on, blinking the tears and dust from his eyes. Able to see and hear again, now that he was out of the endless wind. He walked down the valley, following the path, and rounded a corner of rocky outcrop.
There, standing before him was a dead man that blocked his way with a smile, wearing a hat at a jaunty angle.
Exhausted, Martin fell to his knees and stared at the dead man for an age. The terror he had thought of when he first saw the dead man faded until only confusion remained. The dead man was still and silent and held a sign. The words on the sign that was being held up so helpfully didn’t make sense, the letters danced madly. Martin blinked and struggled and then they settled among his tear stained eyes.
“Welcome to Ankhor.”
Martin read the last word again but it still made no sense. The dead man didn’t seem to be about to attack or even to move so Martin crept forward, no longer able to feel the pit of his stomach that had gnawed so incessantly a few days ago. He felt like he was asleep, hallucinating. But he knew that was just the lack of food and the fever that had taken him on the moor.
As Martin passed the dead man he noticed that he was tied to a broad stake driven into the ground and tied to it so that it only looked as though he was standing tall. He was a skeleton, bleached bone and sightless sockets. But someone had dressed him in new clothes and washed his face so that it shone and kept him standing proud and tall to greet any visitor to the valley with a friendly smile and a sign of welcome. The road carried on, further into the valley and so Martin, with nothing else to do, kept on walking.
There was a hut, a cluster of them, then some more huts scattered further on. Around and about the dwellings were ridges and hills of rock and earth. On some sat dead people, sitting quite still and watching the valley happily, dressed in new clothes, washed and beaming.
Martin peered into the huts and there was a table where dead men and women sat and played with a new deck of cards, where women sat in the process of knitting; the half finished scarf in their bony hands, where skeletons chatted with rotting yet clean corpses, perfumed to hide their unfortunate smell.
And the dead did not frighten Martin like he had thought they would. They did not seem really dead, not like this, in such positions of action, of care and continuity with the world of life.
There was a town ahead, a row of wooden houses built along the thin path. Martin walked towards them curiously. The street, early in the morning, was deserted. The shadows of the mountains stretched out across the valley floor. Everywhere was dry and bleached clean by the sun. There was a building with the sign of an inn hanging outside. This had the picture of a grinning skull winking out at the world. The legend beneath read “The Fortunate Dead.”
Outside the inn was a table. And a dead man sat with a pint of stout in front of him. Martin was tired and wanted to sit down and there was a spare chair beside the silent figure. So he sat down.
He stared, blinking stupidly in the clear morning air, the figure doing nothing but sitting and looking back at him, one hand curled around the glass of ale. Martin felt he should say something but he didn’t know what to say.
“Nice place this.” He said. There was no reply but he hadn’t expected any. Not really.
“My name’s Martin. I’ve just come from across the moor.” There was another pause and Martin relaxed.
“It’s pretty bleak out there. I can’t remember how long I was walking but it seems like forever. It was a relief to find civilisation again, I can tell you.” He smiled with a sense of dark humour at this strange valley he had come into.
“And company such as yours is hard to find in this harsh old world.” He sat back in his chair and looked into the blank holes and the ridged edges of his companion’s face.
“To be honest,” he continued, more soberly, “this place is kind of a relief. I was scared of…well of people like you. But now I see you sitting here enjoying the morning air like regular sorts you don’t seem so bad. Out on the moor the thought of,” he lowered his voice to say, “’dead’ people” in a sort of embarrassed whisper and carried on, “was really frightening. But you’re not such a bad fellow are you.” He took the pint in an excess of joviality and knocked it back, draining half the glass, the ale actually quite fresh.
“Here’s to you,” he waved it at the man, “my new friend. It’s a pleasure my good man. A pleasure.” He put the ale down.
“And what shall I call you,” he continued. “you look like a Luke. Or maybe a Tim.”
“His name’s Gregory.” The voice made Martin almost jump out of his chair. He wheeled round to see a broad shouldered woman standing in the doorway of the Inn, her arms crossed and a displeased expression on her face. “And I’ll thank you not to be drinking my grandfather’s ale.”
“He..he didn’t seem to be drinking it.” Martin stammered.
“And how would you know? Did he say you could have it?”
Martin stared back at the silent figure across the table, the morning sun gleaming off his polished skull. “Well, no,” he admitted.
“Quite. He may have been saving it. He always liked to savour his pint when he was younger.”
She glared at him. “He’s a hundred and thirteen so it’d be a few years back by now.”
“And er…how old was he when…you know?”
“I know what?” Her face was as stony as the soil outside, and he saw no levity in her eyes.
“When he…passed on?”
“Passed where? What are you talking about?”
“When he died.”
She stared at him in incredulity. “He’s not dead,” she replied.
Martin stared at her, studying her face for some kind of clue. He stared back at Gregory, wondering if maybe, by some astonishing way, his first impressions were wrong and the skeleton was just very old. He looked hard at Gregory. He was certain the man was dead. Well, 99 per cent certain. Perhaps…? He couldn’t be sure of anything much nowadays. If Gregory was dead why was Martin sitting here talking to him, why was he drinking a pint?
“Look at him.” He cried. “He’s not moving.”
“Lots of people don’t move, doesn’t mean they’re dead.”
“His heart’s not beating.”
“So what. That happens when you get old. You can’t expect a heart to go on forever can you.”
Martin struggled for a winning argument. “He has no skin,” he tried
The woman was unimpressed. “Course not, it went bad, poor man, I’m not going to leave my own grandfather sitting there in filthy skin. I took it off and cleaned him up; just like I make sure he’s dressed smartly every morning.” Martin stared at her, unable to think of an argument.
“We believe in talking care of our family here.” The woman asked. Then she fixed him with a glare. “Now, who are you and what are you doing in our valley?”
“Erm…well, my name’s Martin. I’ve just come across the moor.”
“Which moor is that then?”
“I don’t know its name. It was pretty big.” He cast around for something to explain his presence in front of her, sitting at her table drinking her grandfather’s pint. “It’s back there,” he gestured along the path towards the mountain pass he had made his way through. It couldn’t be seen from the village. “Sorry.” He finished, hopelessly lost under her eyes.
“We don’t travel much outside the valley. Not that way anyway.” She studied his face and then thrust out a thick hand. “My name’s Gwen.” Martin shook it. “It seems my grandfather’s taken a liking to you so you can’t be all bad.” A thin smile appeared on her face. “You look starved. Come inside and I’ll rustle up some breakfast.”
Martin stammered some thanks and followed her into the Inn. Grandfather Gregory stayed outside to finish his pint of ale.
Gwen led Martin up to the counter that partitioned the Inn from the barrels of beer across the back wall. He rested on a stool as she stepped behind the bar and plied a pint from one of the barrels, releasing the tap in its front to fill the wooden flagon with the foamy hops.
She passed the container to Martin as she stepped wordlessly through a door to the kitchens beyond and after a few moments there was the sizzle of pork in a pan and the crack of eggs being laid out on the heat. The scent of this simple food was glorious after the rich, strange foods of before and the starvation of the moor.
Martin had glutted on the best and worst that could be glutted on and he had felt sick within himself even as he had grasped for more. Now he felt hollowed out and purged by the thin winds of the moor. The simple innocent taste of bacon and eggs as it was brought before him and into him filled his heart with a warmth and contentment for the first time in an age.
“Good?” Gwen inquired.
“Mmmm…mmm.” Martin replied through a mouthful of food. He swallowed heartily and filled his mouth up again, ravenous as though he hadn’t eaten properly since he had arrived in this strange land.
As the good, hot food and cold ale washed his throat clean of the sauces and wines of Hypnos and of the dusty winds and loneliness of the moor his mind seemed to be thinking clearly for the first time.
He could still remember little of his life before he had come here, there was a block in his memory he was still reluctant to break through. But of this world he could remember all. He would try hard to forget Hypnos though. And the things he had done there. The things he had done to ignore the moor that had been right in front of him every day.
“What is this place?” he asked in an interval between fork and mouth.
“Why Ankhor it is, did you not see the sign?”
“No, I mean the country, these mountains, the moor, beyond the valley.
“You mean the land. We are standing in Acheron, if you please. A country without a king.”
“Then who rules it?” Martin asked.
“Whoever wishes to cross it. Father tried a while back but no one did hear of him any more. Generally we do live as we please. And in Ankhor we live as you see. And we care for our folks better than most I dare say.
“I don’t know why father left, for truth. He went funny one day he did and spoke of his father as though he was far away. Though the old man was standing right by him so he was.”
“So Ankhor rules itself?”
“Aye, like the rest of the folks of the land. The moors folk rule themselves, if you call that ruling, for they seem to have no law I do recognise, from the tales we do hear. And the people down the valley in the plains do have their own law and beyond them…I do not know but I daresay they do live how they think appropriate, strange though it may seem to us. There is no direction or command from any king so we make do by ourselves. Or at least no command we hear from way out here.”
“Then the capital is further on.”
“Far away it is in truth, further to the east. Out here we know little of it save scraps of tales we remember for the last king died two thousand year ago or more.” Gwen gave a short laugh but it had little humour in it, her eyes now hard and suspicious again.
“But do you be wanting to leave off our valley so soon, traveller.” She asked “You find Ankhor uncomfortable? For some folks do and move on to the moor soon after.”
“No.” Martin cut in quickly. “No, it’s very nice indeed. In truth, I find it very comfortable. Better by far than the moor.”
Then the smile returned and the proud defensiveness was vanished at Martin’s flattery. “Why, of course it is. The moor is a lawless place and that town of moor folk be strange and wrong. I don’t doubt you fled that place in a hurry soon sharpish after seeing it.”
Martin nodded guiltily. He wasn’t about to tell this woman the tales of the painful and feverish things he’d done in Hypnos. That was over now, in the past. And he would forget them if he could, the memory of them only serving to make sure he never went backwards. If he left this place, and he could see no reason to do so now, he would make sure it was forwards and not back to that place that had been so cold and empty, even among the crowds.
“Aye,” Gwen continued, “you’ll find it a quieter place in Ankhor. We lead a simple life in truth but none the worse for that. Those that are young enough to work do mine the hills for tin or they do keep pigs and goats. We trade with those lower down the valley and some of the plains folk do travel up to sell their crops.
“We eat plain but well and keep to our own and take care of our families and all get along the better for it. The folk of Ankhor come here for a tipple or a bite to eat for ‘tis the only Inn in the valley. And the line of homes along beside the place are kept as shops for food and cloth and wares.”
Martin nodded and made conversational noises as he finished his plate and let Gwen talk on, bestowing the simple graces of her valley on his ears as he ate. She seemed pleased to have someone to talk to for, despite her love of her family; Martin did not suppose they were very good at long discourse.
Yet Gwen, her tongue now loosened by Martin’s silent interest, talked on at length of the valley and her home and the people that dwelled here. Though as she spoke of them there seemed no distinction in her descriptions between those who lived as she did and those who were more in the state of her grandfather. Slowly he began to understand that this was because there was no distinction. They were all folk she knew and loved and interacted with daily, whether they were active and spoke back to her or still and quiet.
The latter, he understood at length, had only one distinction allowed them, they were ancients. Alive still of course, no different in Gwen’s mind, though not just old but ancient. So ancient their hearts no longer worked as well as the youth of the valley. So ancient some had no hair left, or skin, some, such as her great-great-grandfather Maurice, who were so ancient they were confined to bed, mere bones lovingly arranged between the sheets. Yet still they lived and observed the world and thought their thoughts. And though they did not move or speak that was their decision and who could criticise them for that.
As Gwen explained, “if our elders wish to keep their own council then so it be. After so long working in the mines they do deserve that without nobody speaking out against them. They do deserve their rest in truth. And ‘tis the duty of us all to care for our family if they be too infirm to do so themselves.”
And Martin could not disagree with that. Perhaps it was a strange custom, but he found it comforting, this simple denial of death. It was so obvious, after all. People were still skin, flesh, and bone, just as before, what difference did it make if they moved or not? Why should he allow their stillness to terrify him so much? Why should he allow it to have such power over his mind that he could not face it without feeling the furies upon his back? Why not pretend that death simply did not exist – that they all carried on, in their own way, just like before. Why not – when the alternative was so harrowing.
Martin nodded and smiled and wiped the egg yolk up with a hunk of warm bread from the oven. And they talked as the sun rose above the mountains and the miners returned from their morning work and came to the Inn.
The door banged open as the miners returned. “Good day to you Gwen my dear.” Theodore called out as he strode to his regular table with his friends. All three were big men with earth on their faces and thick leather caps padded to protect their skulls from the low ceilings and sharp rocks of the mine tunnels.
They kicked their heavy boots under the table and called for ale and for stew and Gwen, who, despite her conversation with Martin, had been cutting and chopping and filling a pot that morning automatically as she talked now pulled the steaming pot from the fire. She ladled brown gravy and thick chunks of potato, turnip and pork into wooden bowls for Theodore and his friends and the others stamping the earth from their boots and sitting heavily down to the benches set out on the sawdust floor, loudly talking and crying greetings to their friends across the room.
“Here,” Gwen said to Martin, passing him two brimming bowls of stew, “Take these over to the far corner and come back for more, if you be helping out then you can have a bowl yourself if you do like.” Martin nodded and took the bowls in both hands, carrying them to Theodore and his friend Wilbur who nodded at him companionably.
“New to the valley are you?” Wilbur called above the hubbub within the close room.
Martin nodded that he was. “My name’s Martin.” He told them as he handed over the bowls and then his hand. Wilbur and Theodore took it in turn and greeted him warmly with their own names and turned to their stew hungrily as he departed to the counter again. And Martin took another two bowls along with Gwen and they began to walk about the room and outside, bringing bowl after bowl to the men that crowded and shouted and laughed and greeted Martin with slaps to the back and handshakes that made his eyes roll. And as it ended he realised a natural smile had been on his face the whole time.
And so that hour passed, the lunchtime rush emptying Gwen’s stew pot with themselves having the last bowlfuls and spooning it down with gusto in between plying pints for the miners as they passed lumps of tin across the bar as currency for the foaming beer.
They all had tabs with Gwen and most did not bother with the tin, Gwen passing them their flagons with an appraising glance at their faces the only recompense that was taken. Once a month regular they would come in and pay their credit with tin pieces or with freshly killed meat or like goods acceptable to the price they owed. For now though little currency changed hands and Gwen’s stew emptied and the barrels were drained and then with cries of parting the room emptied and became silent once more.
Gwen looked at Martin appraisingly. He had worked hard and eaten with a hunger born of that hard labour rather than the boredom of living in his previous habitation.
“So, would you like to stay?” Gwen asked approvingly. “Help out about the place, wash and clean and serve and you get full board.” She thrust out her hand and, after a moment’s pause, Martin took it eagerly. He liked this valley and he liked the Inn. It was clean and simple and caring and respectful. And though Ankhor didn’t answer the questions that had led to his expulsion from Hypnos it argued that there were no questions to be asked. And Martin could live with that.