Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Salt

It's called The Salt. Or just Salt, depending on your grammatical preferences. There are other names in other languages but you don't speak those languages and you won't need those names.

Salt is not one desert, though foreigners sometimes can't tell the difference. The north is cold; sleet and ice and salt. The north kills you without you ever knowing. Here the salt is spiteful. The centre is hot; sun and sand and salt. You can feel your death days away. Here the salt is patient. The south is not a desert at all; scrub and hogs and salt. In the south it is the people that kill you. Here the salt is valuable.

In truth, all salt has its uses. Pink salt, wrapped in northern ice, burns with unrelenting flame, makes fireworks and lures evil spirits. Black salt, still warm from the desert sun, burns out poisons and gives glimpses of the future. White salt, scraped off the desert mangroves, tastes really, really good.

The salt trade is everything in Salt. The country is named for it, after all. The deserts won't grow food crops. Even the far south cannot support the grains and cattle other nations thrive off. Instead, great caravans turn the Three Wheels of Salt. The northern wheel runs clockwise, from glacier down to frozen sand. The aurochs are biggest here, the height of five horses. Loads are strung up on their backs and ribbons knotted through their manes. The middle wheel runs counterclockwise. From frozen sands through a hundred leagues of dunes down to the broken spine of stone that marks the parched delta. The aurochs here drag stone sleds. Bone and bark armour clatters on their scarred, fur-less shoulders. The southern wheel is small and flat and bent. It runs clockwise below northern cliffs, down dry riverbeds and up their banks, touching two dozen different kingdoms that cart salt yet further south. The aurochs here are of another lineage. Scarcely larger than cattle, they work in teams to pull wagons and pick fights with hogs and wildcats.

How to make Gold from Salt

If you can get hold of an aurochs it's easy to find goods to trade, and there's always profit to be made turning the wheels. Most of this profit will not stay in your purse though. The Companions have steep protection fees, and setting out without a company's flag to fly is likely to cost your life.

It's possible, too, to turn against the wheel. Work is harder to find but few of the larger companies make trouble for a small caravan carrying messages and parcels on special request.

Travel without an aurochs is difficult, though not impossible in some regions. The western dunes have oases to rest at and to the east, on the slopes of the vast, dead plateaus, there are hardy groves of dates and figs, little herds of scrawny goats. Down south the there is far more food and water. The threats here are hogs and wildcats and bandits, if you've no circle of aurochs to shelter in.

Those roads that a woman may walk, that an aurochs cannot, hold some of the greatest treasures of Salt. The fine sands of the central deserts will swallow a lumber aurochs whole. Adventurers on sand shoes will have better luck pushing out to the ancient temples buried in the dunes. The cracked valleys in the east wind too tight for an aurochs to turn. Their bones can be found at the dead ends of these valleys, left to starve when their masters could not turn them back towards the desert. Here are the burial chambers of a thousand dead queens and princesses, sandstone guardians standing watch over funeral hordes. In the south there are battlefields from centuries past. Over bracken and broken trails that wagons cannot cross you may find the swords and axes of ancient warriors, caked with salt from each fiveyears' flood.

The north holds the richest treasures and the greatest perils. Deep in the ice are artefacts not of this realm. Devices of black stone and ancient magic. Ships that sail on the skies, leaving green wakes to light the snow below. Great snakes of ice, wolves the size of aurochs, ghasts and ghouls with bones of sleet and the ice madness, ever whispering. Here are the gates to Hyperborea.

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