The Elephant

Travelers from the east are known to visit graceful Irem, but very few travel the eastern route. The way overland is a difficult one, and plagued with bandits and slavers. Caravans large enough to make the passage worthwhile follow the coast, and smaller groups find it easier to board ship for the port at Mira.

Still, some hardy — or foolhardy — souls brave the overland passage. And some of those, the ones with a sense of wonder and history, arrive at Irem filled with questions. What is the name of the great and ruined city that rises far out on the plateau? How could a place that once housed so many now lie empty save for wild dogs and carrion birds? What people could have built such high walls, only to let them tumble to rubble and dust? Such proud towers, now shattered and scorched?

Ask a merchant of Irem and he will smile a bit too broadly and try to change the subject. Ask a tradesman or a farmer and they will shake their heads and say it is unlucky to speak of such things. But a few wend their way here, to the great library of Irem, and ask their questions of me, the Archivist. I tell them the name of that once-great city was Arnoch, and there are many tales told of its fall.

The simplest answer, and the one I tell them is most likely, is that the sands shifted and the caravans that had brought so much wealth and power to Arnoch chose different routes. Or perhaps the men of Arnoch went to war with the bandit kingdoms to the north and exhausted all their treasure and the best blood of their young. Or perhaps there was a plague. Who can say for certain? I shrug my shoulders, my hands spread wide. I’m an old man now and mistaken easily enough for a fool.

But there are some — of the few who make the journey, of the few moved by the sight, of the few who seek me out — there are some who stay and talk until the library quiets and the shadows fall. We talk of libraries and archives. Of the strange, futile impulse to hold on to the past. For the history of all mankind is much like the memory of a single man: so much more is lost than can ever be retained. Entire lives. Entire cities. Entire kingdoms. And then they or I call a boy from the street to fetch an ewer of wine — for talking about lost ages is dry and dusty work — and then they or I find a plug of tobacco for our pipes.

And then I tell them of the doom that came to Arnoch, although I also think it unlucky to speak of such things.

Great and shining was the city of Arnoch at its height, with mighty walls and seven gates and a people that did not know hunger or fear. The several noble houses lived in peace, their private guardsmen pledged to the city’s mutual defense. As for the common folk, for every trade that hands may ply there was a guild to tend the interests of its members. Goldsmith, brewer, cooper or ragpicker, it made no difference; all were guildsmen — and why not? With peace and prosperity, what had any man to do but fatten his purse and pursue his ease?

There was even a beggars’ guild, where novices were apprenticed, the valued streets and squares apportioned out according to seniority and custom, and those who grew too infirm to practice their craft provided for.

Now, some of the beggars’ guild grouped themselves by cohort, with so many apprentices to a journeymen, so many journeymen under a master, as the other guilds did. But some grouped by cadre to better practice their trade: all the lame, for example, or all the deaf (who were happier speaking in their finger-tongue, which few outside their cadre could master). The lepers of course could group no other way.

One such cadre was the blind. And it came to pass that its most senior members had some mystery of their guild to discuss, and needed to be sure that it would be done away from prying ears.

So they somehow contrived to travel outside the city walls, and as they were walking out on the plateau the city rests upon they became... confounded. I’ve read several accounts of what transpired (and oh, there used to be so very many accounts of that day) and none of them can say for certain what took place or how. Some say they traveled no more than a hundred yards from the great eastern gate; some say they found their way into another world entirely.

But all the blind men agreed that they came suddenly into the presence of a fabulous creature, the likes of which none of them had ever encountered before. And each reached out their hands to better understand what it was.

The first came across something broad and leathery and almost like a fan.

The second felt a thing wide, solid, and rough like a wall.

The third, a something pointed and sharp and hard as bone, very nearly like a spear.

The fourth nearly recoiled in horror at something muscular and undulating like a snake.

The fifth grasped something thin and tough and ropelike.

The sixth, dropping to his knees in awe, felt something round and massive as a tree.

Suddenly there came a sound like trumpets blaring, and all the blind men drew back in fear. Then with slow, ponderous footfalls, the creature moved away, the sound of its movement growing ever fainter, until it could be heard no more.

The blind men, their business now forgotten, struggled to understand what had happened — and immediately took to arguing among themselves. The only consensus they had managed to reach by the time they returned to the city was that whatever the creature may have been, it was certainly an omen or an emissary sent by the gods.

Within a week the story of the creature had spread throughout all of Arnoch. In many quarters it was told for a laugh. The city’s poorest inhabitants, however, received it with great seriousness. Partly this was because the beggars came from the poorest class, so it was there that the story first spread, and no one who heard the tale firsthand from one of the blind men could dismiss it. Not only did each of them exhibit that strange, oracular demeanor peculiar to the blind, but each spoke with the absolute conviction of one who has touched the divine.

The poor live closest to death — be it famine, war, or plague, it is on them Her hand falls first and heaviest — and so it is they who give the greatest weight to portents. And again, what have the poor to do besides ponder the workings of the gods? Say what you will for the delights and terrors of religion, they are for the most part free to all.

Within a month, factions had arisen, each rallying to a different “message.” The most prominent factions were that of the Wall and the Spear. The Wall faction called for improvements to the city’s defenses, even going so far as to suggest a general collection be taken for a new outer wall that would ring some outlying areas. The Spear faction demanded reform of the city guard, calling for more guardsmen under a new, unified command.

The Wall and the Spear were far from alone, however. The Snake faction hadn’t taken long to align itself with an ancient local cult. Look long enough in any city — even graceful Irem — and you will find snake worshipers. They spoke, as snake worshipers always do, of coming calamity and eventual rebirth. The goals and alliances of the Fan, the Rope, and the Tree are more obscure to me, but even they had followers willing to speak for them. And soon willing to march for them. Eventually, willing to fight for them, with all the killing and dying that fighting brings.

The blind men become lost to the story at this point. No doubt some of them remained key members of their factions, perhaps just in their new roles as prophets, perhaps with more control. They were high-placed guildsmen, remember, and no strangers to politics. At least two, perhaps three, became martyrs (both willing and unwilling) to their causes. And I imagine some went back to what obscurity they could find.

By the time a year had passed, the various noble houses had begun backing various factions, often with an eye to furthering their own purposes. This may lead one to believe Arnoch’s downfall was destined well before the blind men had their encounter, that the tales they told and the factions they spawned were simply the spark to that fire which must come after long drought.

But I do not believe it. Yes, nobles will ever connive and scheme, and sometimes it will end in blood and tears. But no house becomes noble in a day, and no house long endures without keeping one eye on advantage and the other on reconciliation. To know when enough blood has been spilled, when enough treasure has been spent, to know when to make peace: these are the essence of what we call noble.

There was none of that in Arnoch that year. Each faction believed — knew — that it was sole possessor and guardian of the truth, and so was irreconcilable to any other. Indeed, what manner of being, on this earth or any other, could possibly possess all the attributes ascribed to it by the blind men? It was like a riddle of the gods whose answer made no sense. One, at most two, could be believed — the rest were lies and infamy.

There appeared around this time a very beautiful poem — which today goes quite unheard — about the love of a Lady Thania, whose family was of the Trees, and Orgulus, a young nobleman whose family was for the Spears. Each defied their parents, abandoned their house, and surmounted great obstacles to be with their one true love. Each then discovered that they could not convince the other of the “truth” they still clung to. There is a bittersweet passage near the end in which they try to imagine a beast like a giant oak bristling with spear points, only to have their imaginations collapse beneath the weight of their conceit — and their love along with them. The poem ends with both lovers committing suicide — she with a knife, he by poison, if my memory serves.

In the years that followed there were knives and poisons aplenty in Arnoch. Killing led to killing, and as the bodies piled up, each side became more sure that it was in the right. The blood of heroes and the innocent will sanctify almost any endeavor. Walls were tumbled, towers set afire, and the most unspeakable crimes committed, all for the sake of the will of the gods.

I said earlier when speaking of the end of Arnoch that the caravans chose different routes, and indeed they did, for who in their right mind would carry their wares to such a market? I said that bandit kingdoms descended on the place, and of course the bandits came once they saw the city was weak and divided against itself. I said that perhaps it was a plague, and in this perhaps I spoke most truly, for what consumed that city was like a plague of the mind, spreading from person to person unchecked. Like all plagues there were many who succumbed, a few who did not, and once it had killed all it was going to kill, it passed. But by then Arnoch was no more.

And like all plagues, it might someday return to strike who knows where… I make very sure when I tell the tale to a passing traveler that they are such a one as will take it as a warning, as I take the story myself. Perhaps some day even graceful Irem, city of pillars, may be a husk as Arnoch is, and for the same reason. But I hope not. I think not. The people of Irem seem to have more sense. The will of the gods, they seem to feel, is always for men to guess at, but never for men to know. Take what ease life offers and leave such things to the priests, seems to be the general feeling.

Yet still... yet still...

I have read the accounts — some firsthand — of what happened that day the blind men left their city walls. They are filled with an awe and reverence that cannot be counterfeit. They certainly met with something. Something strange and wonderful. And perhaps I tell the tale (despite my misgivings) in the hope that some traveler of greater wisdom and wider experience then myself has heard of such a beast, or even seen one in the flesh. That the blind men might be reconciled; that it might be, somehow, that they all had told the truth. Then the seed of Arnoch’s doom would not be the malice and cruelty of the gods, but the folly, the frailty, of men.

Then we would all have eyes to see with, and all have hearts to tell.

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