Art Pact 60

At the top of the mountain, when they finally broke the crest, they saw the beautiful rolling vista of the western county. The range stretched out to the north and south, the higher peaks still covered in a thin layer of snow from the winter.

They arrived in ones and twos - the priest first, the bellwether for the others, then the fittest and most driven, then the others graded according to their motivation, health, and the other numberless differences between them. They stopped at the top, quickly perching on all the stones that were big enough to act as chairs. As more and more people reached the pinnacle groundsheets were unfurled, rugs laid out, little folding stools set up, until eventually the rounded top of the mountain was covered in resting travellers. They were mostly silent - the climb had taken too much out of them for them to be as chatty as they were when they set off - but the few children who were among them quickly recovered, and dashed about laughing amidst the supine bodies of the adults. Their parents looked on, nervous about the potential for falls and the number of sharp rocks exposed by erosion, but none were strong enough to want to chase down their offspring.

The priest, first to arrive, was also the first to recover his breath. He lifted himself gingerly from his seat, favouring his aching joints, and moved slowly from one of his congregation to the next, muttering low sounds of congratulation and sympathy. The children swirled around him, but they seemed subdued by his presence, and the whole crowd took on something of the aspect of a whisper - every movement was gentle and tentative, every sound muffled just beyond earshot. Those of the crowd that were looking out over the western county began to point out to each other the aspects of the breathtaking sights that caught their eye - the spires of small towns that none of them had ever visited, rainbows dancing over the rapids of Old Leopard river. An old man dug deep into his pack to pull out a vellum scroll from a battered cylindrical leather case - when unrolled, it revealed itself a map of the western and eastern county together.

The children clustered round in interest. Only one of them had seen a map before, and the old man patiently explained what the drawings and words meant, first locating the towns each of the children had originally come from on the lower half of the map, then pointing to where the day's travel had begun and where they were now. Then, laying the map out so as to orient it to the view, he began to name the towns they could see: Stilfling, Atherton, Weyvill, Cat-come-quick, Bosterleigh, Sam's Town, Rivercross, Windcopse, Boast, Callipoor, Danevill, Lance By The River. There were other towns, too, towns that must have grown up since the creation of the map, and those that the map-maker wrote in but which had either faded to nothingness or perhaps gone underground in the intervening years. The old man got a second piece of vellum for those, one scraped so thin that it was almost translucent, and laid it over the first one, marking the mountains on it with a plume dipped in a little ink-pot from the pouches at his belt. When the unchanging contours of nature had been traced onto the upper sheet, he measured out with his thumb the rough distances between the remaining towns, head bobbing up and down as he tried to reconcile them with the markings on the map. The children stood in a crowd around, aping his movements so that at one moment all of them were stood arms outstretched with thumbs up, one eye closed and the tips of the tongue poking from one side of the mouth as an aid to concentration. Then the instant passed, and every child on its hands and knees staring intensely at the map itself.

The priest watched the spectacle, silently wishing that he himself had such an effect on his flock. He consoled himself with the knowledge that they had followed him up here, but there again, there was no small amount of self-interest in those decisions. He paused for a moment in his rounds to cast his gaze back to the eastern county. The sight was unnerving - the thick black clouds had devoured almost all of the furthest ridings, and were well on their way to Port Fen. At this rate, it would be barely a fortnight before half of the county was gone, and then - a month, perhaps, before the clouds reached the mountains?

They did not have much time.

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