The other day I was delighted to come across a TikTok video of a tiny, adorable kitten lapping up milk from a teaspoon, making the cutest “numm numm nlumm mlumm” sounds as it did so. That would have been good enough, but the video went on. The kitten’s nlumm sounds were put on loop, and then a series of musicians added instrumental layers until I was listening to an amazing little song. This song, right here:
The lyrics were great. In particular the phrase “Towns of ash with a music borne sickness” simply would not get out of my head. It kept playing over and over again in my mind, maddeningly. Really evocative, isn’t it? “Towns of ash, with a music borne sickness“. It made me, as sometimes happens with certain well-turned phrases, want to write.
So Wednesday night I opened a blank document and started typing. That’s the main reason I didn’t get to bed until 4am, drank a large chunk out of my poitin reserves, and kind of completely missed Thursday altogether. But I really liked what was coming out of the click clack of my temperamental lappytop. The result is below. Enjoy? Or not? I’m not a cop I’m not telling you what to do.
“Welcome to Pennford” declares the sign at the edge of town. It’s painted a rather optimistic shade of blue. Friendly black print informs the reader that Pennford was established some 500 years ago, a ferry service across the least treacherous part of the Barrow River for 10 miles or more. The cost to traverse the river was a penny in those days, and when the Penny Ford Inn was built on the southern bank, it was only natural that the town that grew around it adopted a facsimile of the name. The sign also boasts about a bustling ceramics industry which owes its success to the fine clay found along the river banks. The Royalty personally sponsored no less than three pottery and ceramics companies from Pennford, an unheard of number at the time, but all three operations blossomed and became the envy of much longer established concerns, to the point where enemies and friends were made at court depending on the maker’s mark on the underside of the tea cup one sipped. Guided tours of a great many workshops and kilns are a popular draw for tourists, claims the sign. Pennford proudly counts over a thousand permanent residents, claims the sign.
Today, one can verify none of the sign’s claims. Pennford is a ruin, a gutted corpse of blackened wood, plague pyres and scorched cobblestones. A town of ash and bone.
Past the remains of the town, the Barrow runs swift, as it always has, down from the Kestrel Hills and across the tangled forests on its way toward the marshlands of Rhodda. The old ford is gone, centuries of digging and engineering in the name of commerce making it deep and wide, but it still flows with mighty energy, all swirls and eddies and undercurrents ready to drag the unwary down into the smothering depths. It remains a wild beast, and it demands respect. The noise of the town overwhelmed that of the river for centuries. The babbling of children at play, the flow of traffic and of commerce were rivers in their own way, fitting replacements for the roar of the waters as they were torn in two by mighty rocks jutting from the north bank, and the foamy susurrus lurking under the piers and boardwalks which crowded the south. The Barrow has since reclaimed its voice, a never ending roar of defiance that will brook no challenge. The kingdom sees no reason to argue. The place is shunned by all but the desperate and those cursed with curiosity, and even they do not tarry.
The ferryman of Pennford was a revered member of the town’s leadership in the early days. He could read the weather, predict floods, and a word from him would cease all river travel, no matter the rank or status of his passengers. As the town grew and the twin evils of money and influence wormed their way slowly into the fabric of society, the integrity of the ferryman became a more fluid thing. In the Clash of Three Duchies, the ferryman of the day became one of the wealthiest men in Pennford as he took money from all sides to carry, or refuse to carry, certain people, goods and messages. By the time the three Dukes uncovered his deceit, the Royalty was already besieging their homes to put a stop to their squabbling. Rumour had it that the ferryman had been in the Royalty’s pocket from the very beginning, escalating tensions between the Dukes until the Royalty had the perfect excuse to make an example of them and grant their lands to more loyal servants. Historians generally agree that acts of petty corruption such as this were the catalyst for what was to come.
It is generally agreed that Pennford was founded soon after the Throne Wars, that dark era when the lines of succession had become so blurred and indistinct that no less than five families could legitimately claim equal right to rule. Prince Tohsen of Rhodda supposedly found the ford and used it to surprise his rival, the Northern Sovereign Luga, in a surprise attack. With the balance of power securely in his favour, Tohsen called for peace and invited the remaining families to a council to find a way forward, and so began the rule of the Royalty, a council of the remaining families with ties to the old kings. This much is true, at least. Official records omit a great many details in their efforts to justify Tohsen’s actions, however. The crossing that would become Pennford did not exist at all before Tohsen’s arrival. A handful of crumbling scrolls in the deepest vaults of the royal library speak of a blood pact between Tohsen and the mighty spirit of the Barrow River. According to these records, Tohsen offered the spirit the blood and heart of his finest scouts in return for a means to cross the river. The spirit of the Barrow indulged the power-hungry prince, on the condition that he would build a temple to the spirit within seven summers, and that this new priesthood forever keep the laws and traditions he would bestow upon them. The prince kept his promise, and two years after the Royalty was established, the final stones of the Barrow temple were set in place.
It is lost to the world whether the priests of the river, who became the sole appointer of the town’s ferryman, originally had kind or unjust strictures. It is only known that in later years they became increasingly susceptible to bribes from the merchant families, even to the point where the office of the ferryman could be purchased outright, ignoring their own secret tradition of succession. If certain stories are to be believed, the first such corrupt appointment occurred seven years before the destruction of Pennford.
According to those tales, the day immediately after the appointment of the new ferryman, some inept fop from a decadent house of wine merchants, a hooded figure arrived in town. Stray dogs and cats flocked to him, and pigeons and crows alike flitted down from the rooftops to alight on a shoulder or his gnarled walking stick. He gave a kind word to each and every one before they bounded or flew away happily. He delighted the children too with tricks and games, and as he reached the open square outside the office of the ferryman, a crowd was already forming, though they could not say why exactly.
No records of what the man said exist. Even the few surviving men and women who were there can only agree that whatever was said, the man was angry and pleading. His voice roared like a waterfall, like a father desperately warning his child to step back from a cliff edge. The words of the ferryman, from a window above, are known, at least. After tossing the contents of a chamberpot on the old man’s head, he shouted:
“Away you old beggar! Nobody crosses for free!”
The crowd, perhaps of its own accord, perhaps incited by agents of the ferryman, at once erupted in laughter and mockery. It is unknown what happened next; the only survivors of Pennford were those that left that same day and did not return.They remember feeling sorry for the old man, if they were present at his humiliation at all.
Seven years went by, and Pennford’s wealth and corruption grew hand in hand. The wealthy lived lives akin to the Royalty while the poorest fought for scraps in the gutters. A month before the anniversary of the ferryman’s appointment, the hospitals and poorhouses of the town noted an unusual illness among their patients. The symptoms were similar to the marsh fevers caused by insect bites around Rhodda; the sick burned hot, their minds flooded with delirium. They babbled and raved, seemingly without end. No treatments seemed effective, but the strangest effect of the fever only became apparent once the poorhouses were filled to capacity with victims of this new sickness. The moans and cries of the sick had a pattern not unlike some macabre song. One patient would rave, “Hei! Gr’ruk entael…” only for another to continue the cry, “…th’ana Barroth! Nahe llae…” and another, and another. In the largest wards healers were subjected to a constant and relentless river of sound. “Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!” The babbling became the words of a chant, the moans and cries harmonizing in some obscene manner that chilled all who heard it. The plague was unholy, it was said.
The messenger pigeons sent by the rich for aid brought nothing but the royal armies. They declared a quarantine around the whole of Pennford, and any who tried to leave would be shot on sight. Investigators and thaumaturges bearing the royal seal of authority went into Pennford, to discover the source of the affliction, but found no success. Indeed, as the sickness spread, simply by hearing the maddening song while inside the walls it seemed, these learned men and women joined the ranks of the sick. Reports from soldiers manning the quarantine barriers write in trembling script of the terrible din of the voices of a whole town raised together in pained cries, like some grotesque orchestra of diseased meat. “Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!” The town was lost, they said. The quarantine was reinforced, and many expected an order from their commanders to put the entire town to the sword.
Then, a day after the anniversary of the ferryman’s appointment, on the stroke of noon, quarantine sentries suddenly spotted movement on the town walls. The town guards, in pairs seemingly dancing with each other, cavorting madly across the ramparts.The terrible sounds of the song intensified, as if all the town’s sick had left their homes to join the guards in dancing through the streets. The soldiers were already on edge; word had gotten around the camps that a hooded figure arrived at the general’s tent late the night before, though no sentries saw him enter and none witnessed his departure. Guards posted at the general’s tent could only make out the shadows cast by lamplight on the tent wall; General Mira, her long ponytail and broad shoulders; and the hooded man, a gnarled walking stick in one hand, the general’s fiercely protective hound meekly licking his free hand. None could make out the words of the meeting, but a messenger pigeon was sent to the capital that night, and one had come from the capital early the next morning.
The cacophony from Pennford only increased as the day went on. By evening, the shrieking had taken on a desperate quality, like cries for help in the minds of the soldiers. One soldier who climbed a tree to see beyond the wall swore that the whole town had gone mad: Every living soul, men, women and children, thronged the streets in frenzied song and dance. Bloodied feet or mangled limbs were no deterrent to the compulsion, as if some power were forcing their broken bodies into motion regardless of pain or injury. They danced to some maddening plan, concentric circles of townspeople spinning in opposite directions, centred on – the scout swore on all the gods – the square where the office of the ferryman were located. Then, as the sun began to dip below the Kestrel Hills, the first fires began. They must have started by the square, but no-one had been seen to do anything but dance through the streets. Still the townspeople danced and screamed. When the flames leapt to the clothes of the dancers, still they danced and screamed, carrying the fires to new buildings and new victims.
“Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!”
By nightfall, the entire town was ablaze, the guards on the walls cavorting madly even as their skin crisped and sloughed off, as their meat charred and their armour grew red from the heat. And even when the destroyed flesh fell from their bones the townspeople danced on, blackened bones moving like shapes cut through the flame to the night behind, and even when their lungs burst and burned to ash they screamed their unearthly song. The flames grew, so high and so hot that mere wood could not possibly have fuelled them. The one thaumaturge who had not been lost to the town said nothing, but the story was writ in the tears streaming down his face, the holy symbol clutched so tightly in his hand it bit into the flesh, and the numb stare of a man who had witnessed unimaginable horror.
“Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!”
For hours, Pennford burned. No soldier in the quarantine slept. The maddened screaming had not stopped, even though no-one could have survived the fires. Indeed, the quarantine line, from half a mile distant, saw some soldiers report mild burns from the heat. Just before dawn, the singing abruptly stopped and the flames ceased, as if some giant hand had reached down to snuff out a candle flame. By the cold light of the new morning, Pennford was a ruin. Barely a single building left standing, not a soul left alive. Only when the sun had risen did orders come from General Mira; pack up and leave. All questions were met with silence.
In a few scant years, Pennford slipped from the memory of the kingdom. It is marked on no maps. A great stone bridge was built across the river at the very edge of the Kestrel hills, where the Barrow is smaller and more easily tamed. Life goes on in the wider world. Only fools venture near the blackened stain that was once a town of a thousand souls, and nobody takes them seriously when they tell their tall tales. The fanciful works of an imagination without enough honest work, they scoff. Nobody could possibly believe their stories of the bones of the dead rising to dance in the dead of night, or the strange song that whispers from fleshless lips, strange words trickling forth like stream waters dancing down a rocky crevasse.
“Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!”