The metal had weakened; time and the elements had clawed at the very fabric of its twisted links. The chain now hung slack against the huge rings that held it in place. The gates strained against the dulled silver metal as what lay behind them tested the strength of the barrier that held it in check.
Three men stood on the top most steps hard against the gates; they too bore the marks of time. Each head was greyed limps not as strong as they were in youth, but each pair of eyes bright and sure. Each ones heart true to the burden that had been placed there when their predecessors had called them to this duty.
The smallest of the three sighed and stepped forward, his boot heels crunching in the mound of dusty leaves blown against the gate. He placed a hand on the tarnished links, a limb more used to the turning the pages of books than the tasks that now lay ahead of it “So it's a matter of when, not if?”
“Aye and it has already sought to strike at us through this small opening.” The tall regal man agreed running his own hand down the gaping gates. The fingers of his clawed right hand broke the light battering its way out of the opening in the huge ornately carved metal barrier.
He pulled away the arm easing the silk glove covering his deformity down over his wrist. The large sword in his scabbard hissed at the presence of the enemy it had been forged to fight against. He placed his right hand on the hilt and the blade quietened. His ice blue eyes softened with compassion as he looked at their third member.
The man straightened his bowed back as much as he could. A lifetime of striking metal on metal had stooped his shoulders. But that did not mean that he could not shoulder his part of the burden. In fact it was at him that the force behind the gates had struck, knowing that only one of his calling could replace the chain that held the gate closed.
“Will we have enough time?” He asked softly, his callused hand running down the intricate plait of his now thinning hair. The grey wisps were woven from the temple up and across his crown, down to the nape of his neck.” I must have time. Choose carefully, no mistakes. No mistake this time…” His head came down, the grief of what had lately happened drawn large on his features.
“You did last time man do not chastise yourself. Karl was a master, all thought highly of him he hid his true nature well” The smaller man placed his hand on his companion’s arm his grey eyes full of sorrow. He too had been won over by Karl’s charmed and honeyed tongue. The man had seemed the perfect choice for a mate.
“But she knew… she tried to tell me so many times. But I didn't listen, not until it was too late.” His thickened fingers came up and brushed away the glistening tear off his lined cheek.
“But you acted swiftly once you realised. The child is unharmed, yes?” The regal man asked straightening his well-cut tunic under his thick cloak.
“Aye safe and I shall not let her out of my sight until I am sure. There are a few promising men. But I need time. Both to watch them and manoeuvre their training in a way that will not be noticed.” The man nodded his head with each word, his grey plait bouncing on his back. It was as if he had to confirm each thing he said to himself.
“I too need time.” The clawed handed man said, “time to train men and horses. Some of the Lords and hopefully King Ferdinand will listen to me, but others.” He shook his head. “By my mother's bones, they will not take notice until the enemy are knocking at their door.”
“You're not the only ones that need time. Spell twisters do not walk openly among others any more. There have been too many burnings and hangings. Most have gone to ground, finding them and convincing them of the danger?” The five-foot scholar shrugged his slight shoulders. “Sometimes I feel it's behind that as much as what happened to your daughter.” He shook his grey bearded face; the young woman's untimely death had affected them all. It had been a blow they could ill afford.
For the chain could not be repaired where it stood, those that had originally forged the chain had fitted it to the gate in such away that to mend it you would have to remove it. Thus letting into the world what the gates and chain had been made to keep out. There was only one way the task could be done. The same way it had been done two thousand years ago. First they had to find enough of the rare metal arian and forge a new chain, then carefully remove the old one and fit its replacement. The bright rare blue silver metal bonded in place by a spell twister’s magic, a sword and three true hearts. But all of the men knew that would not be the end of it, not at all. The evil that had poured through while the gates were open would have to be fought and defeated. Thrown back to the pit of hell it had clawed its way out of.
Each member of the small group that made their way down the blighted shore knew in their hearts their people would endure years of war. The question upper most in each ones mind was how long had they to prepare for it? Also what would happen if the chain broke before they were ready?
September 13th, 2005, 03:42 PM
Under a late afternoon sky, Jer sat at the base of his favorite tree chewing grass. On the gently sloping hill before him there was sufficient grass to keep both he and his charges supplied through eternity, if such existed.
Half dozen cows, having mowed their way across the hill from left to right were now considering an about face to begin mowing the other direction but seemed to be in a communal debate as to whether there was sufficient time in the day to do the row proper justice or whether they should just go ahead and begin the amble back to the barn. Jer suspected they were going to vote for the return journey.
He considered the stem in his hand before inserting same into his mouth. Was there a word for that color green, so light as to be almost translucent? If there wasn’t there ought to be, he thought, and it ought to be called specter green in tribute to its resemblance to the spirits who travel abroad in the daylight.
Immediately, he put the thought into that mental bin reserved for private consideration but not to be shared with family or friends. Lately, folk in these parts had got religion and the mere mention of specters and such could send them into a frenzy straight off to the local Investigator who would pounce on the remark as the worst form of heresy. It would be as bad as mentioning the Gates, the Chain, and The Three. Those were old folk’s tales and best left in old folks’ heads. People hereabouts did not need such nonsense circulating among themselves to take their eyes and minds from the goal, the Hereafter that only the pious might reach.
Jer bit down on the grass stem with his molars feeling the juice spread over and around the teeth, semi-sweet, all delicious.
Piety! Phah! These modern ones with their twin gods and set ways, their disremembering the old gods and the old ways as if magic did not, could not exist in a sane world. Phah! Any fool could see the magic. Just watch Mal command the cattle to move this way or that, a single short bark, and those poor cows turned as one to head in the direction the old dog directed. A single bark, mind you, and they were off to do Mal’s bidding. If the those cows had thought about it a bit they would have seen they were five times the dog’s size and any one of them could have kicked the dog into tomorrow morning. But, no, he barked the magic word and off they went.
Mal, of course, only gave the magic bark when Jer signaled him to do so. That fool dog would spend an entire afternoon watching Jer just in case he gave the sign to bark. No naps as old dogs are supposed to do. Just lay there waiting for Jer’s sign and his chance to bark his magic command, brown and white pelt raising and lowering with his breathing, steady beat of his tail, the model of patience.
Moderns claimed it was training and breeding and all very natural. But, Jer thought, watch that dog communicate with those cows. It’s as if they spoke a common tongue and each one knew its place in the world. Mal’s place was to tell the cattle when and where to go. The cattle’s place was to hear and obey knowing if they did so some other person would come along and relieve them of the burden in their sacs.
When he thought about, chewing his grass stem, Jer could see how moderns could come to such conclusions. All they had to do was ignore the look that passed between young man and dog, concentrate on the gesture, remember the thousand times it had been repeated prior to this time. Like doing sums, practice and practice and practice and pretty soon the answers are just there, no thinking, no calculating. They’d just be there as if the calculating wasn’t a magic all its own.
No, better not to point out the obvious to these moderns. Best to just wave at that stalk over there and invite it into his hands when no one else was around to see it jump to his bidding. No sense in complicating the moderns’ lives or becoming a target for their Investigator. Putting out fires trying to burn you takes a great deal of concentration. If you’re bound to a stake and the crowd is cheering the fire on, it’s anybody’s guess whether you’’ll succeed or not. No sense tempting fate, now, is there?
His poor old ma had drummed it into his thick skull enough. His long lost pa would have done so even more but he got trapped in another town, accused, tried, and burned before anyone even suspected he was at risk. All he’d done was speak in favor of an old woman accused of witchery, said he’d known her all his life and he didn’t think she was a witch. Investigator discovered in the court that the woman was a witch and further discovered that pa, speaking for her, must be allied with witches and him not having a magic bone in his body. The magic came down from ma’s side of the family; it ran true from generation to generation. Jer had no doubt of it.
The old woman had not been a witch as all the true witches knew. Still, the Investigator discovered in a court of law that she was and that was an end to that. She burned and Jer’s pa burned right after her. Made for a fine village picnic, all those moderns gathered to watch justice done, instructing their children as to what was happening and why, telling them to be on the lookout if the witch used her magic to escape the fire. It had happened once or twice, they told their children, and it was a sight to behold.
Jer thought that the fact it happened ought to have given the villagers pause. A witch powerful enough to escape burning at the stake ought be accorded some basic respect. What if she chose to use that power on you? The witches never did; Jer knew that. They never would, either. But, you’d think the possibility would give the Investigators and the courts and the villagers pause.
Jer’s ma explained to him that all the true witches who’d ever been caught had escaped and all those accused and burned at the stake had been innocent. But the fact the accused had burned proved the power of modern’s twin god as far as the moderns were concerned. Those ‘witches’ had no power equal to the moderns’ twin gods and thus they had died for their sacrilege.
Ah, well, the world is as it is and you adjust accordingly. Jer closed that mental compartment to open the one that signaled to Mal. It was time to take these cows home.
September 16th, 2005, 05:49 AM
A man watched Jer and his dog herd the cows over the bridge and with neat precision turn the lead cow down the lane to the left. The rest of the animals followed, casting the odd glance at the young man and dog that ruled this part of their lives. The cloud of dust in their wake blew gently across the village green, stopping a few inches from the man.
He sighed and shuffled on the bench where he sat his hands curling round the tankard on the table in front of him.
“Another, sir?” The sharp-eyed bar maid said. His movement had been noticed as she made her way through the early evening customer’s sunning themselves outside the ale house.
“No thank you,” the man replied, though part of him did want another, that part of him foolishly believed that with a couple of pints under his belt things would go swimmingly. It would not of course. He did not have to be here; even now he could walk away. The Master spell twister would not fault him, in fact had argued against him doing this. But he had too, it made sense.
He was dead to these people. Had been for a long time and being dead none thought, as he sat here in the ale house he used to frequent, to recognise him. He snorted in amusement at the absurdity of it. When they burn you for saying a woman was not a witch you expected to be dead. Alf had thought he was. On moment he was feeling the flames, the next he was sitting by the sea by the side of an old man.
“Too many innocents have been burned,” The Master spell twister had said. “Can’t have that happening, not right, spell twisters protect life, but then you know that don’t you?”
“Yes I know, but am I dead?” Alf as said as he watched the gulls dip across the incoming tide.
“Yes and no…” The Master spell twister said with a sigh. “Yes you are alive, not burned. But to your family and friends you are dead. To go back and say you are alive when all know they burnt you with a witch would have them burning you and your family the next time.”
“I understand,” Alf said, but he did not, not then. Over the following years he came too. He learned that the three, the master smith, master spell twister and master warrior were fighting a strange battle. A battle to get things ready for when the gates opened as open they would. Hopefully the new chain would be ready by that time and it would be a matter of open, shut, fix new chain, mop up and breathe a sigh of relief. It might not though.
He knew the master warrior played a dangerous game, he needled King’s and Lords into thinking they needed to increase their men at arms. Yet he had to keep them from fighting among themselves, especially since his cousin, King Ferdinand liked the idea of a new model army, but was less inclined to believe in what lay behind the gates.
The master smith he was trying to train up a number of his kind without them really knowing what he was training them for. He needed a good dozen skilled enough that when the time came they could attempt to weld the Arian. Also hopefully one from among them would have to have the strength, love and courage to control her, for without her, the Arian would not flow. It had to be sung as it was forged and only she had that talent, as her mother before her and their mother before her.
The enemy had struck once, killing the mother, her child only surviving through luck and the well aimed hammer of the master smith as it smashed the skull of the traitor and father, Karl.
Then there was the master spell twister, he needed those of talent, to act as spies, guides, weavers of trip wires, healers of wounds to man, beast and land. He needed a network ready to move the moment things began to go pear shaped. Though all of the three hoped that things would not go too pear shaped and they would see the new chain fitted and hand over their responsibilities to the next three.
Where did Alf fit into this, well he had, seeing all thought him dead been an ideal person to become a recruiter, he had an eye for those with the gift, being married into a family of one helped. Over the years it had eased the pain of knowing he was dead to those he loved, knowing he was doing something, knowing that others had kept a weather eye on his family. Spell twisters looked after their own.
There was no network in this area yet and that was why Alf was here, it was also the reason the Master spell twister would not blame him if he left and passed on the job to one of his fellows. The ones he needed to recruit were his wife and son.
September 16th, 2005, 10:57 AM
Polymnia was a spoiled brat.
Since her mother had been taken, the rest of the family had overcompensated to assure her childhood suffered no further trauma, a program designed to satisfy all her minor wants and desires but instill no discipline whatsoever. A simple tear on Polymnia’s cheek would move the earth in its firmament to erase whatever imagined hardship might exist. A sigh brought an army of jesters to brighten her day. And best not to consider the response to the frustration of a stamped foot. At fourteen, Polymnia held her tiny village in thrall, hated and feared by her peers, but catered to by every adult.
She sat before her mirror, tossing blond curls this way and that attempting to find the configuration that pleased her fancy. Deep blue eyes, plump cheeks, lips the color of reddest apples stared back at her, smiling only when she smiled, a fact that threatened to disrupt her mood. Why couldn’t her image smile on its own, praise her on its own? Why did it do everything she did and make her look stupid in the process? There was something not right about mirrors, not according to the world plan to which Polymnia felt entitled. She considered breaking the mirror for its insolence but realized that it would not change anything. The next mirror would act exactly the same. Perhaps, she should just avoid mirrors.
She shifted consideration from her hair to her dress, the standard shift worn by all the women in the village, practical to a fault, with only a trace of embroidery about the circular cut neck. Very few young ladies in the ladies, three at the most, boasted embroidery about the neck as someone was required to perform the embroidery and there was no professional seamstress available. Woman who wished embroidery did it themselves. Yet, one aunt had taken the time to provide Polymnia’s shift with decoration, an act of great love and sacrifice, devoting time to a project for her niece that she could have devoted to her own clothes.
“It’s very nice, I suppose,” Polymnia conceded to herself, “but that Maryann has a gold and silver thread embroidery about her neck while this is merely blue. You’d think Aunt Vera would have had more style.”
Polymnia’s hands brushed the dress down, straightening wrinkles, molding the garment to her body, in the act spying another source of irritation, the absence of a great mound on her chest. “Maryann is fully grown, has enormous breasts,” she thought, “that all the boys make fools of themselves staring at while I have barely sprouted. Yes, Auntie says I will grow..eventually..but what good is eventually? By the time I am fully developed all the worthwhile boys will be carted off by early bloomers.”
The thought of all the worthwhile boys sparked a giggle from Polymnia. “As if any boy in this village is worthwhile. They are all such…what is the word?…such dullards! Yes, dullards; that is the word. Grow up, wed, sire children, grow old, die. They have no sense of the wide world, of the possibility for adventure. They are grounded here now and forever and I am made for greater stuff. I am a Singer and Singers do not grow old and die in tiny villages in the middle of nowhere. Singers become involved in great ventures, mighty deeds, and stunning romances.”
A Singer, she’d been taught, is an ancient calling. Her mother had been a singer, one known to The Three, and that fact had brought much to the village. Food, clothing, livestock to support the smiths the village trained. For smithing was the village trade. The hills the village nestled in boasted iron, tin and copper in quantities not found elsewhere in the land. The smiths wandered the hills extracting the ore in just the quantities they required, no more, no less, and fashioned the instruments and artifacts of their own design. There was little that was rich or daring in their work. Polymnia thought them mostly plodders in the trade but there was competence and attention to detail that few other smiths could match. They made a living, these smiths, and thought it good, all save Polymnia. She knew in her heart of hearts there was better to be had.
Her mother’s talent had brought the frills to the village, the niceties that the smithing could never provide. Those fancies came from The Three, tribute and compensation to her to keep her voice trained lest it be needed.
“Why would the The Three need her voice?” Polymnia asked at least once a week. “They have their purposes,” she was told and that was that. Her elders seemed not at all interested in what The Three might want from a village woman, Singer though she be. Or, if they did know, they seemed not at all interested in telling Polymnia and that was the one continuing frustration in her life. “What do Singers do?” she wondered as her aunt stepped her though her vocal exercises. Endless scales, up and down. Endless leaps from register to register. Endless sounding of a single note, unwavering, pure, clean, long. Polymnia was rarely allowed to pursue a melody, a tune, a song. Scales, registers, and notes were her fare. She kept to the practice because of the promise it contained, a new life, away from here, a life of adventure and great deeds and greater heroes.
It was just all so vague.
Tonight, though, was the night when all the village would gather to celebrate the Spring Equality, that one time when night matched day, equal length, perfectly balanced. A like celebration occurred in the fall but that was more somber, more ritualized, more concerned with endings than beginnings. This night was for laughing, dancing and singing. This night was for announcement of weddings to come and the naming of babies. And this night, Polymnia would sing, solo, for the entire village. The song was traditional, had been sung every year by everyone in the village in grand chorus, but this night was Polymnia’s night. She might wish the tune were more demanding, more designed to display the range she worked hard to maintain but she contented herself that Maryann would never get a solo no matter how large her breasts grew. Only Polymnia was Singer enough to be allowed a solo performance.
That thought brought a smile to her face, a smile she could regard in the mirror as her due. She giggled again and stood to leave for the village square.
September 17th, 2005, 07:20 AM
“He drops his shoulder as he moves forward.” The Lady’s voice cut into the Master Warrior’s concentration. He turned from observing the training session in the castle court yard to letting his gaze run over the lady that had come silently to his side.
“Aye, that he does.” The Master Warrior replied. The lady was but twenty five yet already wore a widow’s weeds. “My commiserations at the loss of your husband.” He said and gave her a sketchy bow. “He was a good solider.”
“And a bad husband,” she replied.
The Master Warrior could not deny the truth of what she said. “But now you have your independence, for though a bad husband he was a rich one, you can follow your own path.” As he spoke the sword at his side whispered and rattled. The Master Warrior lowered his crippled right hand to the pommel, absorbing its remarks through his clawed fingers.
“Yes…” The Lady said as her eyes dropped to his clawed hand. “Was that the result of combat?” Her question made the Master Warrior’s eyes narrow. Men would look away rather than ask such a question, even though it lay on their tongue.
“No, it is the price I pay for carrying the burden of this sword.” The Master Warrior said softly.
“The price for being the best?”
“I was never the best, even in my youth. I just made a foolish choice and accepted this blade and everything that went with it.” The Master Warrior cleared his throat and changed the subject, addressing the matter of which the sword had spoken. “do you like music Lady Joanna?”
“Indeed I do,” She replied with a soft smile.
“Then ride with me tonight and watch a performance.”
“I would be honoured sir,” Lady Joanna said and curtsied low.
The village was gathered, the singer centre stage.
A Master Smith, old and bent had joined the Warrior and the Lady, with him a man of thirty- five summers who snorted with disgust as the blonde girl began her song.
“You do not like music sir,” Lady Joanna asked behind her hand.
“I like it well, but this village has done that child a disservice, spoiled rotten, head full of cotton wool. Her mother was not such, she was kind and cared. The daughter cares for nothing but herself. ”
“Not that bad, surely.” Lady Joanna said as the girls rounded tones floated over the crowd.
“Sadly yes….” The Master Smith and the Master Warrior said as one.
“She needs a firm hand; one that knows what is a stake and can measure the strength in her.” The man said again his eyes on the Lady.
“Mathew, you speak my mind.” The Master Smith said as the song ended. “You will command the men who forge the metal when the time comes, but the task of teaching the child the error of her ways is not for you. She needs a firm hand, a warrior’s.”
“Lady, have you need of a maid?” The Master Warrior said as the crowd began to shuffle and move away.
“My choice?” Lady Joanna asked.
“Yes,” the men answered.
“Then yes…” The Lady replied. The Master Warrior took her right hand and kissed it, then placed in on the pommel of his sword. As he did so, his own right hand straightened and hers became a claw.
“I will die in your service, Master…” The once Master Warrior said as he watched the tears roll down the widow’s face.
September 19th, 2005, 11:19 AM
The cows could have been left to their own devices, Set loose in a pasture, they would have made their own schedules but pastures need fences and water, cows need lots of water if they are to be expected to provide milk, and no one in the village felt up to the task of fencing a pasture. It was just as easy to assign a person to take them to a hill with a good stream and have that one pass the day protecting them from predators, human or otherwise.
There were predators about these days, more than in recent memory, even the normally skeptical old women acknowledged that fact. Seems that droughts and floods and winds and rain off somewhere in the hinterlands had set people to moving about. Loss of homes, loss of property, loss of loved ones can turn people from ordinarily good folk to folk you wouldn’t want as neighbors. Lots of them latter kind passing through these days. Best to keep a real person with the village’s stock of milk cows.
Jer let these reminders play through his consciousness as he sat snuggled against the rear left leg of his family’s cow. In the barn with him, other young people tended other family’s cows. There were bins to fill with hay, barrels to fill with water, and barrels to fill with milk just as Jer and his cow filled his.
Little Tom had brought the test basin by so that Jer could pull the first measure of each teat looking for the tell tale yellow of newly acquired disease. As expected, Jer’s cow had come clean. Now, she chewed stolidly as Jer relieved her of the eight gallons of milk she produced each day. Fingers on the teat, index matched to thumb to squeeze up at the base, others fingers joining one at a time, the milk squirting strong and straight into his barrel. Of the tasks Jer could possibly be assigned, this milking chore was his favorite. He and the cow had taken the measure of each other over the years and were comfortable in each other’s presence. As long as he did not allow his hands to do something foolish through inattention, the cow allowed him to be alone with his thoughts.
And what thoughts he had.
Today he sat thinking of the possibility of conversing with this cow, wondering what the cow would want to talk about, whether he would understand the feelings that drove the cow’s words. With people, if Jer paid attention, he could generally know what the mood was that provided backdrop to the other person’s words. Emotions such as interest, mild or intense, frustration, irritation, affection, all these customarily accompanied a person’s words. If Jer were interested, he could accurately discover the feeling without much trouble.
The talent made it difficult for people to lie to him and that fact had caused considerable pain over his younger days. Ma had had to take him to task time and time again for confronting friends and family withr their untruthfulness. Sometimes it had been simple things, like saying they admired a little girl’s curls when what they really thought was that someone should take a comb to that thatch. Or a friend might sayihe couldn’t play with Jer because he had chores but Jer would know that he really wanted to be play with another friend.
Jer’s ma called it the social graces and she demanded Jer learn his fair share. After a while, he began to understand that lies came in all shades and flavors; some were meant to harm, some were not and a smart young man learned to distinguish between the two, especially when Jer’s ma pointed out that too much knowledge about another person’s thoughts and feelings could bring an Investigator hopping to their village, a court convened, and some smart little boy could find himself burning at a stake.
“Cow, if I could know your words, then I could know how better to care for you,” he said in a voice pitched so low that only his cow could have heard. He expected no answer, was just indulging his musing about cow language. The cow took another mouthful of hay to begin chewing contentedly before she turned her head to look at him. “Well, sure,” Jer said, his fingers moving from teat to teat, “look at me as if I’m missing the obvious. Easy for you to act superior; nobody expects you to say anything. Nobody expects you to be thinking anything or taking responsibility for anything or demonstrating you’re all grown up and ready to take your place in the affairs of the village.”
If he didn’t know better, Jer would have sworn that cow raised an eyebrow at him. Its head sort of drooped a bit as if pointing to the place between her rear legs that occupied Jer’s hands. “Yeah, right, giving milk is taking your place in the village’s affairs.” The words came out humorously but no sooner had he voiced them than Jer realized the truth of the matter. “Were you truly telling me you understand your role in this place?” he asked not expecting any response, simply asking to let his mind walk away from the consideration it might be so. That fool cow raised an eyebrow at him. This time there was no mistaking it; the cow was laughing at him.
“Cows can talk?” Jer asked. The question was both for them, himself and the cow. The cow had turned to take another mouthful of hay but its head bobbed an affirmative.
“Well, then, what do you talk about, you cows?”
The cow’s head came around again, hay hanging from both sides of its mouth, its jaws working patiently to grind the mass into the pulp mass its stomach coveted. Food, of course, and water, and dugs aching to be emptied, where are the calves that ought to be scampering about, does yours have cold hands and rude technique, the sun is warm today and a hundred other things that cows find significant. Jer knew the cow made that answer though he heard no words.
“Well, then,” he asked, “do you think about the big things? War and famine and earthquakes and magic?”
War ruins the hills; so does famine. Earthquakes swallow cattle, sooner or later we all die. Cows know these things as well as humans. And magic? What does a cow need magic for?
Jer laughed. “Makes things more interesting, I think,” he told the cow. “Well, that does it. You’re dry as last night’s mug, old girl. I’ll leave you be now.”
Jer moved his stool and the barrel with fresh milk away from the cow, placing the first at the stall’s gate and the second in the middle of the barn to be picked up by the night crew. He poured a gallon or so into the jug provided to take up to his family’s kitchen and then started off to deliver it.
September 19th, 2005, 11:20 AM
The inn, such at it was, had a common room, a kitchen, and four bedrooms down a hallway off the common room. The road through this village was a trade route, a means of delivering goods across the land. There were not many who journeyed the road for pleasure so that the inn rarely accommodated folk who needed rooms. Given the tenor of the times, most of its guests would spend the night with their cargo. But the wagoners all wanted food they didn’t have to cook and drink they couldn’t carry in any quantity because of the load of feed and water they must carry for their oxen. And they all wanted gossip, the measure they carried with them and that they could learn from the villagers.
Only recently had Jer decided he was ready for the inn and its ale and its conversations so that he had taken himself down there after dinner. His first night, the elder village men had drinks on him and that was pretty much that. He would pay for that round by extra service to the innkeeper, a load of wood toted or a barrel of butter churned or carrying off the night soil. His arrival was neither news or newsworthy, just part of life that would happen for all the village children sooner or later.
On this night, just a handful of villagers had so far made it to the common room as well as a mere handful more of wagoners so that the noise was low, the conversation not yet ribald enough nor political enough to rouse the passions and thus the voices of the customers. His cousin Marge was here, of course. The innkeeper’s daughter could be counted on to be here serving the paying guests. She was the only woman in the place.
One guest sat a table alone. As Jer drew his draught from the barrel on the bar, he considered the man. Taller than Jer, older, but roughly familiar, as if a cousin or uncle from some other village come to pay his respects to the clan. Well, there was only one clan head in this village and he was not the head of the clan Jer called his. Most of the villagers belonged to the Beavers; this was a timber producing village after all. The clan head, Michael, held court most days from the front porch of his home. The man never conducted his business in the inn because the Innkeeper, Rafe, belonged to a different clan, the Arrowheads, whose clan home was three days hike from here. Rafe was here because Maggie, his wife, was here and she was clansman to Jer, an Owl, and what the Owls might be doing in a Beaver village was more accident than purpose, or so the family history told.
The man seemed an emotional blank sitting at the table regarding his ale. That idea intrigued the younger man. Emotional blanks sometimes happened through nature; they seemed to be born with no capacity to feel the things normal folk will feel or they could be made that way through magic – usually the uglier side of magic – or they could school themselves to be so. The problem of which this man might be needed resolution so Jer took himself and his ale to the man’s table.
“We haven’t met. I’m Jer, Owl clan, and I generally talk to cows. I’d rather try talking to a person tonight. You available?”
“Been waiting for you,” the man replied. “Have a seat.”
“You mean you’ve been waiting for someone like me to take up a conversation with or that you have been waiting particularly for me?” Jer peered hard the man’s eyes trying to find some clue, something to form a judgment on but those brown orbs just stared back at him revealing nothing more than that there was life behind them. Though the man remained blank, a smile played on his lips. That was curious, too, because the smile appeared but there was no great sense of humor behind it.
“You, boy, I’ve been waiting for you. You and your ma have work to do.”
September 23rd, 2005, 02:56 AM
The gates rattled as if a winter wind hammered at them. They strained against the chain, testing its strength. A link, weakened by time split and opened. What was behind the gates noticed and pushed more. The broken link fell from between its two companions. A soft clink filled the air.
The gates stopped straining against the chain. There was no mightly explosion, no rush of air or foul smell as the gates slowly opened. Just a mist, a damp haze that hugged the ground. It rolled and tumbled down the steps, billowing, heaving.
Slowly forms began to take shape in the mist.
Voices began to chatter.
The forms were small, barely a foot in height. Ungainly children with large heads, lopsided grins and skin the colour of chalk. They chattered and laughed, hopped and skipped, as more and more of them tumbled through the gates.
Questions hissed between them as they took stock of this world.
"What to do?"
"Every where, each nook and cranny, all the hill tops and valley floors."
"Cause trouble, steal, upturn, chase the cows and children, pick both up by their heels. Burn the barns and pull the women's hair. Sour the milk and pinch the men's britches. Blunt the plough and the sword. Cause trouble, trouble... " As the answers flowed like the mist round the ever growing numbers of imps, the very ground beneath their horn-toed feet groaned.
A spell twister watched from the edge of the shore. His eyes round, his mouth dry with fear. Into his boat he tumbled, quickly unfurling the sail, black, the colour of warning. As if nature saw his haste and the reason for it, a breeze rose, filling the dark sail. It drove the small boat swiftly, the salt spray splashing high, coating the man's clothes and beard.
He turned the tiller, dodging the small boom as it swung across. His direction now changed. His course set towards the high cliffs.
On the cliffs a soldier rubbed his eyes. His duty this dawn as always was to look and wait. By his side a beacon ready, the tinder and flint dry in his pocket. He rubbed his eyes again removing the last of the sleep. A dark sail against a silver sea. A mist rising on the Island. A weakness in his knees. Fingers fumbling with tinder and flint. The mist gaining height, rolling, fish leaping, no snatched from the sea and hurled.
"Damn-blast it!" The soldier swore then whooped as the beacon blazed. He glanced westwards, his heart thudding. Yes; a blaze of fire answered his, cutting the dawn sky.
He looked down at the small boat. The mist was almost on it. The sail was shreaded. Timbers smashed and the spell twister flung high in the sky. The soldier could see flashes in the mist, small figures forming, laughing, some exploding.
"Magic, he is giving them hell. Up you lummocks!!!!" He called to his fellows still asleep in the small hut behind him. "Incoming!!!!"
September 24th, 2005, 10:54 AM
Nearly two days since she sang for her village. Just two days but the world had turned the wrong way over and whatever she once thought was true had fled from her consciousness. She had been the center of attention, the one catered to, the one whose value was unquestioned – in her mind or any others. Now she seemed to be the least little slave following in the wake of her lordship.
First there had been the summons. The Master Warrior desires your presence, her auntie had said, and Polymnia had thrilled with the thought. She had seen the old man, still a brute but an old man and she knew that old men were the easiest of all to cajole. His stringy gray tresses, that massive neck and those shoulders. Yes, he had been something in his youth but now in his dotage, yes, she could handle him.
The Master Smith as well. Not as old as the warrior but far enough from her in age that he would be at a disadvantage, awkward, unsure of himself. Men at that age still regarded young women tenderly, never as competent, just things to be guarded and fretted over. Yes, she could handle two such as these.
Polymnia had checked her appearance again in the mirror, pulled one lock away from the neatly ordered rest and draped it down her forehead as if it had come loose and she was unaware, a sign of innocence, a girl not yet woman enough to be aware of her appearance. She would have skipped out the door had not her auntie taken firm grasp of her hand to escort her into the presence of two of The Three.
Polymnia had noticed the woman who accompanied the Masters. She had paid little attention to her knowing full well that the Masters were the ones she needed to impress. The Masters would decide if this Singer was good enough to accompany them to their palace. All she needed to do to escape from this village and these peasants was to accept the homage her due from old men . Already her mind envisioned the journey to be made, her new home in the grandest of estate, her long overdue ascent into greatness. Looking around at the village that had been her home, a tremor of revulsion shivered through her frame. How could anyone be content to live in such lack of fineness?
Her first shock had been to notice that her auntie was leading her forward towards the Master Smith and the woman. Perhaps she had misread the situation. Perhaps this woman was the Master Smith’s consort and therefore of more importance than she had assumed. But, then, she noticed the man she believed to be the Master Warrior sitting beside and slightly behind the woman. Her aunt proceeded in a direct line to the Master Smith and the woman. That did not seem right but she could not fathom an explanation. Hadn’t her Auntie said the Master Warrior wished to speak with her? Perhaps her aunt had misspoken. Perhaps the Master Smith wished to speak with her. That would make sense. Singers worked with smiths, after all. That must be it. The Master Smith wished to notify her of her selection as his new associate. Of course, that fit perfectly.
Polymnia regained her poise, her head lifted haughtily, a small smile of victory allowed to form and then immediately banished. Best not to be too confident. Best to portray some humility at the honor the Master Smith would pay her.
She thought herself extremely clever that, when she and her aunt arrived directly before the Master Smith and his woman, that she went to one knee, her head bowed. She so surprised her aunt that the woman near released her grip but managed not to, instead yanking hard at Polymnia’s arm to get her to stand.
“We do not merit such grand gestures as your bowing and scraping indicate,” the woman said. Her voice was low, deep alto, but unwavering. Polymnia heard strength in that voice, unyielding strength and, for an instant, was very glad that she was merely the Smith’s woman.
“Stand and present yourself to the Master Warrior,” her aunt hissed. “We brought you up better than this foolishness.”
The Master Warrior? Wasn’t he sitting behind these two? Her eyes came off the floor to search for the man who was the Master Warrior. On their way up, Polymnia noticed for the first time the sword nestled between the woman’s legs, tip down, her right hand resting on the pommel. That hand, she noted, was mangled into a cruel form barely able to maintain its position on the hilt.
The woman spoke again. “The Master Smith sees potential in you, girl, but potential means nothing till it is realized. The task ahead is difficult, demanding, and dangerous. I do not yet see in you the mettle to aid his cause but there is still time. We shall see what stuff you are made of.”
“Now what is that prattle all about?” Polymnia thought. “I am a Singer. I do not have to prove myself to anyone.” Thinking such a thought was the same as saying the thought, it seemed, for the woman spoke again.
“There are other candidates who may be the one we need. Or it may be you. Who can tell without examining the candidates. Do you wish to be examined?”
“Testing?” Polymnia gasped. “You want to test my singing?”
“Nay, lass. We’ve heard your singing; we want to test you.”
“What kind of test?” Polymnia asked, a thrill of fear rushing through her being.
“A test of who you are?”
“And, if I fail?”
“Then, we will send you home.”
“Noooo!!!!” Polymnia screamed but her scream was in her mind and not aloud for all to hear. “That can’t be true. I am destined to leave this place, not to be sent back. Imagine the things all these dolts would say about me if The Three sent me home.
“What if I refuse?” she asked.
“We leave; you stay. We have not time for foolishness, girl. Do you wish to be tested or do you wish to remain here at home with your family?”
As if that were any choice at all. “I wish to be tested,” she heard herself answer and the feeling that filled her was far from elation. Another aunt came forward with a bag. “Your clothes and your personal items,” she said, smiling as if this were most natural occurrence.
“I take it then you are ready to depart?” the woman said.
In a last desperate gambit, Polymnia looked at the Smith and the man she knew to be warrior. “Sirs?” she asked as if they could put some sense into this, put things back in their proper order. The Master Smith answered. “You do yourself proud to submit the testing,” that one said. “You can trust the Master Warrior will treat you fairly.” But, then, he looked at the woman next to him and smiled his support.
“But he has not yet spoken,” Polymnia stammered.
“Yes, she has,” the Master Smith said.
Things went downhill from there. First, this Master Warrior person asked if she owned any trouser, any boots. Her aunt started to reply but the Master Warrior cut her short. “I asked the candidate,” she said as if merely clarifying her question. Boots? Trousers? Singers do not wear such clothes. People who toil in the fields or at the smithy wore such clothes but those destined for greatness wore dresses and sandals.
“It is a journey of several days to the Gates and the roads are rough. You can make it in sandals but your feet and legs will be better protected by boots and pants. I asked a question and you have not answered. Will you fail the test so soon?”
“No, of course not,” Polymnia answered. “I am a Singer,” she added in explanation.
“No, lass, you are not. You are a candidate.” Looking at the larger audience, the Master Warrior asked if any could supply trousers and boots to the girl. After an embarrassing passage of time, one voice, female, responded. “I’ll let her have a pair of mine if I can have the dress.” It was Maryann.
Instinctively, Polymnia gasped “No, not her!” but it was loud enough for the warrior to hear. “You refuse her generosity?” The manner she asked the question made it very clear she expected Polymnia to fail another test. “If this is what it takes to get out of this village, then this is what it takes,” Polymnia decided so that she turned to graciously accept her rival’s offer. Well, the words were gracious but the look wished to stab the girl with all the pain the world has ever known.
Dressed in trousers and sandals, no one had volunteered to supply boots, her bag of all her possessions draped on her shoulder, Polymnia next discovered why the boots had been important. The former Warrior had gathered the Master’s horses. They mounted and turned to leave the village.
“Wait,” Polymnia shrieked. “Do I not get a mount?”
The Master Warrior rounded her own horse so that she could regard the girl face to face. “Do you own a horse?” she asked. Polymnia shook her head.
“Does your family own a horse?“ Again, Polymnia was forced to answer “no.”
“Do you expect someone in this village to donate a horse to your cause?”
Polymnia considered that idea for a moment but quickly realized that no one had more horses than they needed. Every horse was put to work every day. Donating a horse to her meant someone would have to do the donated horse’s work. Looking around the faces of the villagers watching her leave, she realized she had no friend dear enough to wish to make her life easier, not at the cost of making their own lives unnecessarily difficult.
“Where do you think, then, that we will find you a mount?” The Master Warrior’s was brutally flat. “Do not waste my time with questions for which you already know the answer.”
The Master Warrior spun her horse around and walked it from the village. Her companions moved with her, none looking back to see if Polymnia followed.
A day and a half she walked till the blisters from her sandals bled. Then, and only then, did the Master Warrior allow her to ride behind.
September 27th, 2005, 06:32 AM
The tumbling froth of imps hit the coast line and stopped. They were in no hurry. Causing trouble lost it's pleasure when done in a rush. And the imps were intent on enjoying themselves. They always took their time. It would be tens of years before they would be finished with this world and need to move on back through the gate, to find another place to entertain themselves in.
Five fishing villages had lain in the path of their advance. These now were slowly being attended too. The imps did not bother if people fled, they knew they would deal with them at some point in the future and that was all that mattered.
Around the well of one village a group of imps were entertaining themselves with seeing who could throw the cat down and make it swim. The fun was not going to last, they were running out of cats.
"How about using dogs instead." A rotund imp said as he scratched his crotch.
"They can swim." one of his fellows retorted and poked the rotund imp in the eye.
"Ouch,,,,, that hurt...."
"Was it nice...."
"Very.... do it again.." The rotund imp grinned and blinked his eyes at his companion.
"How about cows..." A voice said from the back.
"Too big." The eye poking imp said as he stopped for a second in his persuit of the rotund imp's eyeballs.
"Babies...." another said.
"What sort of babies?" The rotund imp mumbled wiping his bleeding eyes.
"All sorts!!!!!!" went up the cry and the imps jumped as one and dashed to search the village.
"You have seen the reports?" The master spell twister said, looking at his two fellows.
"Yes... we have the arian and are ready to begin. My strength is gone, but I trust Mathew, he will lead the team." The master smith said.
"The girl..." The spell twister asked the master Warrior. The lady's crooked hand twitched but she said nothing. "You doubt her?" The lady still did not say anything as she rose from her seat and walked to the window.
"I see..." The Master spell twister sighed.
"You see nothing, as I see nothing, where is the one of your kind with the courage to seal the gates once the the chain is made." The lady's words were as sharp as her sword and the master spell twister felt them keenly, but he could not deny the truth of them.