Sometimes, settings leap out at me so clearly that I have to write something about them down, but then the plot doesn’t go anywhere, and I am stuck with an interesting setting wanting a plot. The fragment here entitled “The Road” is part of a hypothetical series of stories set at a high-fantasy truck stop, a last-chance service station on the road to an archetypal (and surprisingly multifarious) quest location. For unknown reasons I am fascinated by places like this one, entirely mundane establishments serving as a relentlessly practical mirror image of the spiritual sites they support, and I wanted to have one of my own. Still waiting for the plot to strike me on this one, though.
* * *
There is a Road; there has been a Road here as long as anyone can remember.
The Road leads through acres of wild blue-grey country, eventually arriving at the Mountain. The Mountain predates the very concept of remembering. It predates any man and any living thing. It predates the earth from which it, toothlike, juts. As far as I can tell, it has quite literally been there forever. As old as the Road is, it is perforce a relative spring chicken when compared to the Mountain. Somebody had to build the Road; the Mountain just is.
The Road was built at the dawn of human remembering by an empire unknown. Their motives are a little inscrutable but, in the end, pretty easy to guess at: there are, have always been, things people want on the Mountain, and so one builds a Road to take oneself there. Simple enough.
And, because the journey along the Road is hard and tiring, people built the Travel Plaza. This was, oh, the last couple of years or so.
As far as we’re concerned, this country is called Defile. It is also called the Country of Important Capital Letters, for obvious reasons; Lorddamned cartographers. The GlamourKin — who were here first — have yet another name for it. I am better at understanding the arcane syllables of the Gee-Kays better than most people on my half of the existential divide, and even so, I cannot grasp all the subtleties, let alone communicate them to a third party. So you must understand that I do the phrase a great disservice to tell you that the Gee-Kays call this country “Crumble Spin Eternal”. It’s the best I can do.
The Gee-Kays do not have a name for the Road. We call it the Bob Schlesinger Memorial Highway, Transcontinental 8. Or, because it really is the only road around here, we usually just call it the Road to the Mountain.
Both camps call the Mountain “The Mountain”. It defies any attempt at cleverness.
The Travel Plaza is also just called the Travel Plaza, but not because it defies anything in particular. It is open twenty-four hours a day. It has excellent soda fountains, clean restrooms, and extremely fresh donuts, baked onsite. There is a hostel in case you need to spend the night, which you likely will. If you want a shower, showers are available, whether or not you’re renting a room. We sell towels and little snow-white cakes of soap that smell strongly, terrifically, of the wild lavender that grows rampant on the rocky grey hills around here, and people really seem to enjoy the experience. We also sell coffee. Sweet lord, do we sell coffee. A dizzying variety of the stuff, tweaked and affected and augmented to your specific needs. There is a domed atrium in the center of the Travel Plaza you can relax in and enjoy your coffee; actually you don’t even have to have purchased coffee to relax there, although you really probably want to. The reasons you probably want to do this are as follows: (a) this is the last chance you have to buy anything, coffee included, before you hit the Mountain and (b) it really is pretty good coffee. I’ve had a lot of it, myself.
Also, we sell swords, because people always ask for them. We require people to sign a waiver when they purchase one, wherein we state that we would really prefer that swords be in the hands of professionals and are they really certain this is the right thing to do, and wouldn’t they rather purchase something else, like a hot shower or a sweet-roll and maybe with the money they have left over (because of the Travel Plaza’s incredibly reasonable prices) they could hire a man who already has his own sword, and wouldn’t that be so much better?
Invariably, they cheerfully tick the box that reads, “No thanks, I really do want the sword.” And when they leave, they leave for good. Most people who go up to the Mountain with swords in hand don’t come back, and that is the way of the Mountain.
We sell axes, too. It is a better sign when somebody asks for an axe. Not much better, mind you, but somewhat better. A man who asks for an axe is someone who knows that a weapon is a tool, and they’re looking for the right tool for the job. None of the romantic knight-in-armor bullshite, just a big heavy thing with a wedge on it, useful for taking bits off whatever enemy they’re aiming to find up there. Most of them don’t come back either, but it’s usually not because they had any poorly-formed notions.
I have a sword. I barely have any notions about it at all. I just find that a straight blade sticks less when you try and pull it out.
It’s night, now. I’m drinking coffee on the little cement patio which overlooks the freight yard. I am wearing a dark shirt and olive-colored suspendered pants, and I am watching another drover bring in the brass oxen. The eyes of his team are dull and cinder-like, not the healthy blaze red I am used to seeing, and it is my wholly non-professional opinion that he got them girls here to the Plaza just in time. They still stamp and snort, but half-heartedly. It’s not a good sign, but it’s fixable, and this is the place to do it, the last place, in fact, before throwing ’em headlong at the Mountain.
The drover stows his gear and waves absently to the Gee-Kay handlers who, on his signal, begin flitting about in little swarms, singing excitedly in some arcane faerie tongue amongst themselves, patting down the great metal beasts and preparing them for a drain and replenish. One of them, probably tonight’s foresylph, tips her tiny little brim cap to him. He forks over a bill from his wallet that is approximately the size of her entire body and then trudges up toward the Plaza, toward where I’m sitting.
“Oxen running a little low, there,” I mention.
The drover shakes his head and spits into the bushes. He’s a kid, yet. It’s impossible to tell with any degree of certainty, but his hair might be blond under the grease and oil. He has a sharp little chin. It’s hard not to like him and harder still to come to terms with the fact that in a matter of days the Mountain would probably take him.
“Lorddamn seals on the heel pins are loose,” he says. “Picked ’em up at Trico.”
“That there’s your first mistake,” I say.
“If only,” says the kid, laughing back at me a little. “Anyhow, they’ve been leaking land’s blood over half the country at this point. Hoping it’s just the heel pins and not that the entire herd’s bad.”
“Where you hailing from?”
“No shit,” I say. “What the hell brings you to the Mountain?”
Kid sighs. “I’m carrying an entire cargo of ice. Heard there’s a market for it on the Mountain.”
I raise an eyebrow and take another swig of coffee. It’s bitter tonight, but that’s how I asked for it, so I ain’t complaining, exactly. “You came all the way from West Continent hauling ice.”
“Special ice,” says the kid. “It never melts.”
“That is pretty special,” I say. “You sure you couldn’t find any buyers more local?”
“Naw,” says the kid. “Problem is, it never melts, but it’s not cold either.”
“Oh,” I say. And then, after a moment, “Maybe you could build something of it.”
“Maybe. Anyway, there’s buyers on the Mountain. I’m sure of it.”
“I’m sure there are,” I say. And I am, in fact, sure of this. The Mountain has everything you want. Helluva lotta stuff you don’t, too, but, well, that’s where folk like me come in.
Anyhoo. Kid nods and stretches. “Well. Long road. Looking forward to a bed.”
I nod. “Seeya on the bright side,” I say.
“Say, um,” says the kid, turning around at the last before venturing through the glass doors leading to the warmth and light of the Plaza. “You wouldn’t happen to know any good sellswords around these parts, would you?”
“If I know myself,” I say. “‘Cause I’m the goodest there is.” I ain’t cocky about it, it’s just a fact. The day I meet somebody better, I’ll stop saying it.
“Huh,” says Kid. He scratches at his greasy hair. A few flakes of dandruff drift down. “‘Cause, ah, ’cause I heard there’s… things up there.”
“Won’t do me much good to unload all this ice, finally, if I’m too dead to spend the profits.”
“Wouldn’t seem so,” I reply.
Kid works up his nerve. “I don’t suppose you’ve got an open calendar for the next few days…?”
“I do,” I say. I rustle around in my satchel and pull out a copy of my fee schedule. “This here is the going rate.”
He whistles through his teeth, then shakes his head. “Unless you work on advances.”
“No,” I say. “Payment in full, up front. Life’s an uncertain bitch. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any of us say otherwise.”
“Huh,” says the Kid. “You’d think there’d be market for a bank or something here. Some kind of middleman.”
“There ain’t,” I say. “Same reason.”