Monday, August 30, 2010

Tears of Knowing (Part the Fourth)


     Clarendon knows the King is in council.  He's seen him walk past the inside Palace door.  So he waits for his master, who is not in fact, the King.  Clare likes it that way.  In another life, perhaps he'd be fine with the position of Dragoon.  That would be nice.  Those soldiers or much more respectable than the palace guards Clarendon's been staring at.  These men are all pomp and circumstance.    Pomp and Circumstance, the two guards that flank to door to the inner Courtrooms, watch the Lady leave with interest.  Clare watches the hounds with interest.  No one should ever call them dogs, he thinks.  Those animals are a different breed entirely.
     Clarendon’s sure that Hu’s distaste for her is not limited to her overwhelmingly attractive presence.  For though Hu is a frustrated man, the mage is not superficial.  However, Clare doesn't know exactly why Hu loathes her so.  Clare thinks about it every time he sees her, why the mage hates the lady.  But whatever Hu's reasons, Clare is sure they are founded.  The man has in indelible wisdom for a reason.
    When Bladt leaves in a hurry Clare’s thankful yet again that he doesn’t work for the castle’s defensive legion.  For with a scowl, Blandt makes Pomp and Circumstance quick-step behind him.  The three of them disappear behind a cloud of strong words concealed in hushed commands.  A thought occurs to Clarendon in the briefest of instants that like he, Clare, is loyal first to Haitang Hu, perhaps those soldiers are  more loyal to Bladt than the King.  It's an interesting thought, Castle politics being the tricky thing they are, it’s never easy to be sure.
     All the pieces are so fun to observe that Clare never minds waiting.  He literally never minds it.  Consequently, waiting is something Clare does very, very well.  Not just here, but anywhere.  Clare can sit and watch for days and nights on end.  He's thankful that the mage is almost always the last out of the door, but he’s always a touch disappointed when the swirling robes slide between the oak doors and out of the council room.  This time is no different.
    Though everything in the castle is red and black, wherever the mage is there is always the presence of the desert and the sea.  Even if it's only just the hint of an essence or fragrance of sand or mist, wherever Hu is, there's more than the color of might.
His robes follow him like wind swept sand, constantly in motion unless he's seated.  And the blue stone that swirls with life above his eyes provides a constant reminder that without the blessing of water all land would be as barren as cold stone.
     “Come with me,” says the mage.
     The younger man pushes off the wall and walks by Haitang’s side down the corridor.
     “I hope this is the last time that I underestimate the King.” Says Hu, as they walk through the main castle walls.  "I cannot waste more time doing it again."
     “Surely you won't.”
     “I can hope. But I think it will be incredibly difficult to stay ahead of him now.  He has things moving more quickly than I planned.  We will be fighting multiple wars, Clare.  Not just the one I had thought.”
     Clarendon stays silent.  When Hu is agitated it's best to stay quiet.
     They descend the last staircase of the inner Castle, which feeds them out onto the stubbed grass of the outer courtyard. Because of Cassius brilliant mind, the King’s chambers are farthest from the ground entrance and the closest to the rockface overlooking the sea.  It is defendable from attack in every respect.
     Clare has guessed right to stay quiet.  It's obvious by their furious pace.  When they're past the steps and into the courtyard the old man continues.
     “This is a long story, which I will cut as much as possible.  It will suit you to know it.  Are you listening?"
     "Yes master."
     "Then, there was an expedition a long time ago, before the North Kingdom was united under Cassius.  During this time, the current Duke of Yarbrough’s grandfather was King of the Northern lands.  The men of Cochran Green held their freedom then.  Those were the days actually, when Cochran the barely older than ladhood.  But they were also days when the Sandy Sea and South March lands frequently tasted blood.  Men were more tribes than countries then.
     "In search of a way past the desert, and to prove that his sailors could tame the dangerous seas, one day Old King Perandor christened a ship to sail past the edgewaters and claim the other side of the world.”
     “Master, there's always some boat trying to be financed to make that journey.  People will always try."
     “Yes some men still try, but not many anymore.  No wood is strong enough to withstand the winds that strike once you reach those tides.  And besides the wind, there's the crushing weight of the sea by the edges of the earth.  Nothing is strong enough.  It is an established fact that the tide itself unconquerable.  But once, long ago, the King named a captain and the captian chose a crew and for nearly a year men from Cochran Green and some others from further north, this land in fact, began building the strongest ship that human eyes have ever seen.”
     “Ahh, I have heard this story,” says Clare.  “The Argosy.”
     “Indeed.  It was an extraordinarly expensive venture.  The King drained the vaults of gold to make new metal widgets and new kinds of tar.  Resins were created that no one had previously seen.  The word resin itself appeared.  All of the roads of the kingdom were built during that time.  It was the age of enterprise and it was all because of a ship.”  Haitang sighs.  “There are other details, and I have purposefully forgotten them, but if you wish, they are written in the annals of history.  I have some books that you might read."
     "I have read them," Clare says.  "That's why I know the ship's name."
     "Of course.  Well, as the story goes, three men aboard the ship decided not to take the boat to and through the edgewater tides.  They had a better idea.  Rather than sail to the otherside of the world, why not just sail around this side of the world.  They decided to try to go around the Pinnacle, just out of reach from the elvish curses therein, and trade with or pillage the Tribelands only heard of, and never before seen.  I say pillage or trade with because they didn't know how powerful the unseen there would be.  Now others believe that this story of mutiny to be true.  But I believe that pillage was the plan all along, for Perandor was, like Cassius, a ruthless man.  Besides, descent never breeds quickly when in company of friends.  The crew had a year on land to bond.”
     “Master Hu, you've used that line before, but when I heard it you said 'descent breeds quickest in the company of friends.
     The mage smiles.  “Yes, perhaps I did.  But, no matter.  What's important is that the ship did not manage to make it to the other side of the earth, but it did manage to wreck on the other side of this earth.  You follow me?"
     "I do."
     "Good.  The survivors were all cursed, but didn't know it then, for they hadn't managed to completely escape the Pinnacle's influence.  Also, when I say survivors, I mean three.  The rest were eaten or sunk into the sea.  Three men washed up on the furthest western shore of this world.  It's important to know that regardless of the version, in every story these men wash up dead."
      Clare thinks on that fact for only a moment, it seems less relevant than his more pressing question.  “Were these the same three men that started the mutiny?”
     “In fact, no.  Well, perhaps.  The way I know this story, two were mutinous and one was not.  The odd man out managed out of exceptional strength.
     "Now," the mage continues, "We are all well acquainted with the great Forest's eastern side.  But these men landed on the western edge.  The Forest's curse, being different of kind than the Pinnacle, would have killed them--"
     “But they were already dead.  Or so you say.”
     “Indeed I do say, and indeed they were.”
     Clare and Hu are well passed the courtyard's lemon trees.  They now walk among the bustle of business.  Tents with vendors, people with gifts; everyone selling or buying food, wears, skin, something to trade.  Life buzzes all around them.
     “I am thankful for your company after the darkness in that castle,” confesses Hu.  “I’m glad he meets me often in my own little spire.  I dislike the weight of this fortified place.”
     They walk for a while in silence and pass through the main gate of town and into the fields just outside the castle.  Haitang’s Spire is well outside of the Castle's walls.  It's placement is purposeful for myriad reasons, all of them eccentric.  They are obviously bound for it.
     Onward, Hu continues the tale, “So the men are dead.  In this state and laying on the shore, they are found by a particular elf, a princess of cunning and wild.”
     Clare has heard Haitang speak of the elves rarely.  Though the curse of the Pinnacle is well known, he almost never mentions them otherwise.  Few people sing the tales of intrigue that surround the Forest Curse and the Great Wandering Fog that engulfs any who trespass those woods.  Everyone sings of the dwarf war, few sing of the elves. Every time Hu says elf, Clare listens keenly.
     “You’re going to tell me that the elves can bring people back to life?”
     “That’s part of the story yes, though not so believable.  It's true though, it must be.  Maybe one day you can tell me those particulars.  What I know is that since the men were dead, there was no problem with them trespassing into the forest.  Because of this, the princess laid them on her horse and rode with them to the sacrosanct places of her birthland.  She should not have done so, but she had never seen men before.  In this way curiosity and love change the world.”
     “This story is kind of amusing,” Clare says happily.
     "So far, yes.  But there's more.  The three men, upon entering some special place I do not know of, came to life and in the presence of such ancient wonder, all three fell immediately in love.  This is curious, and perhaps amusing as well, but one fell in love with a tree, one fell in love with a princess, and the other fell in love with himself.  Ahh! And look, here we are.”
     Haitang pulls a key from his robe and unlocks the Spire’s main gate.  Then he whispers two words to the wooden door just behind it.  Without a creek, it opens.  The master and apprentice walk up the winding staircase together as Hu continues.  “But love is a sort of gift, and after they left that place, each of them found that their love had transformed into something quite physical.  And so, there love's became physical gifts.  Tangible when they left that mysterious realm.  For elves are beings not so much beings of heart and mind, they are physical perfections of self.  Unlike us, they are not bound by their flesh, they are perfect within it.”
     Sometimes Clare understands his master, but sometimes he doesn't.  In the latter cases, such as now, he focuses on something that he can understand.  “What were the gifts?”  he asks.
     “One received wisdom, one received strength, and the other was given deceit.”
     “Deceit does not sound like a gift to me.”
     “Yes, that one is not easy to understand, but wisdom is not kind, nor is strength invincibility.  You will understand, being as patient as you are, that sometimes virtues are a curse.”  Haitang pauses to breathe on the staircase.  “Bound by flesh, you see?”
     Clare nods.  He knows their little walk is soon over and that he will be dismissed in front of Hu’s study door.  His master has never let him within that study.  But that is for the best, for there is much to do and the day has just past noon.
     “But lost in that telling of the story is that two children were born that I know of, though I think maybe three.  And also, that elves grow on trees.”
     “What?!”  Bursts Clare, before reeling in his surprise.  “They grow on trees?  That is, hmmm…  Well, actually, that is rather in line with what I know of elves.”
     “And what do you know of elves?” asks Haitang, beginning to walk again.
     “Only what you say.”
     “Yes.  I should hope.  But nevermind the birthing thing, these children, they are the key.  They are the blood of both the tree and of men and thus half mortal and half elven.  I tell you, something happened with those three that since then, no elves have been born.  In part of our Lord's infinite wisdom, the King has decided that these boys must be killed or captured for his own games.”    “So the King is the deceitful man?”
     “So what does he want?"
     “That, I don't know."
     “But dead elves are a bad thing.  Yes?"
      “You are, dear Clarendon, always the epitome of observation.”  Hu reaches within his robes again and pulls out his second key.  He only has two.  They have reached the Master’s study.  “You are also a very patient.  Perhaps so much so that you failed to realize that you are at the end of your studies.  It is time to kick the bird from the nest.  There is nothing I have left to teach you that you cannot more easily learn on your own.”
     “Master?” Clare would never have guessed that this would be their last trip to the spire.  He does, indeed, feel kicked.
     “I need that boy.  If the King kills him the elves are the least of our worries.  If he captures him and tries to use him… Well, there are worse demons that will be summoned if either of these children come to harm.  Find the child, if there are two, find them both.  But find at least one and bring him to me.  But whatever happens on the way, do not harm this boy.  If war has broken out then keep it safe until you breathe your last.  For if you bring him to me, that is what I shall do.  If you find two, and have to choose, take the youngest.”
     Clare looks deeply into Hu's old eyes and sighs.  He can't leave for the last time without at least a departing gift.
     The young man squats to the ground and closes his eyes.  He whispers to his hands and sweeps them just above the floor.  A green mist rises high enough for him to kiss.  Instead, Clare kisses his fingers and curls them around the light fog.  Solid whips form.  Small flares flicker underneath his hands and sparks of blue and green, small and fleeting, dance quietly along the ground.  As the mist congeals on the floor into tendrils, the little fires stop.  The twists grow from the tile into small roots that curl into a box of knotted wood that is green and blue and brown.  Clarendon picks it off the floor and stands.
      “For you, Master Hu.”
      Haitang takes the box.  It is light.  It seems knotted and brambled.  It looks thorny but is somehow smooth.  The vined sides have subtle grooves.  It is, in fact, a perfect cube. “Is there anything in it?”
     “Not yet,” says Clare.
     “Kongerei, Master Hu.” 
     Clare sees a soft flash in his master’s eyes, something from long ago.  But he says little. Hu only replies in kind.  “Kongerei, Clarendon.”
     The young man turns without bowing and rushes off down the stairs.  It is true that Clarendon is patient, for him, everything is waiting.  But as true as this is, Clarendon does not waste any time.

     Once his apprentice has disappeared down the stairs, Haitang’s key enters the final lock hole.  With a hiss, it melts into the door.  Once finished, and the door and key are one, Hu turns the small piece left in his hand.  It gives without a click; the silence always provides Hu with some small satisfaction.
     But there's more to be done, always more.  Whether or not Clare succeeds, Haitang must settle some old business.  Besides, there are preparations for the King's visit tonight.

Tears of Knowing (Part the Third)


    There are no floating motes of dust for the light to bounce from.  Indeed, there is little light at all.  Yes there is a fire, but two black dogs lay with dangerous boredom by the hearth.  Certainly they are finely groomed, but importantly, they are gigantic.  The light and the heat doesn't make it past their paws. 
    These creatures the King breeds for strength, speed and obedience.  Their more vicious qualities are bones from training only.  Here are two of five, all the others have been killed.  The King keep a tight leash on their breeding program.  No other dog can match a Wolfhound from the Northern Hollow, and no other Wolfhound can match the Royal Five.  The two here are bored dangerously because rather than be sleeping in the chamber by a fire, they would prefer to drag men on stone roads or chew on elk flesh.  But they are well trained, and lay down in front of the heat ready to obey the call of two voices and two voices only.
    The first voice is the King's.  He rules not from a throne, but from an oblong obsidian table, the largest cut of it's kind.  This table was taken from the only ship to return from a convoy voyage to Mt. Parnassus long ago.  It returned crew-less, the ship, and the King was happy to take the mysterious stone from within.  He rules from it now, in this room, with the counsel of one woman and two other men.  Those three are all sitting, bored like the dogs, dangerous like the dogs, waiting for their master to join them.
    Of the three, the Lady Diana Bouchard can command the dogs.  She sits perfumed in vanilla, fresh rain, and spice.  No longer the courtesan she once was, she has given up scanty trappings, but she still loves red.  She's well threaded in the passion color this afternoon.  She's laced up in a red and maroon affair.  Two holdovers from her younger days struggle to stay bound by the cinnamon and rose gown she wears.  Each inhale from her full lips strains the fabric further, threatening to unleash the flood.  But this is as she likes it.  The tight fit forces her to breathe calmly.  This gives her an air of authority when the men around her get heated and fight with their words.  She calms their heat with a whisper from her lips.  However, there are times when she gets agitated and when she is agitated no one can look away from her wrath, and no man from her breasts.  That also, is as she likes it.
    The mage Hu sits next to the Lady Bouchard.  He is desert kin, born far south of the king’s lands.  As such, for his ancestor's sake, he keeps no hair atop his head.  His thin mustache and long black beard are worn for the same reasons.  The bald man’s face is not wrinkled, his eyes lay narrow and flat against his face.  Haitang Hu is often silent, watching and contemplating as the fire darts and waves.  Of the other two, he is the most calm.  He may even be the most dangerous.  The smells of sugar and spice that fly to his nose from the perfumes of his female compatriot annoy him.  He has never understood the power of sensual experiences.  But he does understand emotional trial and pain.
    The Captain of the king’s guard is not annoyed by the Lady's smell, nor is he unfamiliar with the value of pain.  Where Hu is wise, Antony Blandt is strong.  He is cunning when the Lady is hot.  He is quiet when the King is speaking.  He is forceful when he speaks and doesn't back down.  He has not known the King for as long as Hu and because of this he treats the mage warily.  Blandt's stern demeanor are known throughout not just the Guard, but the entire army.  It is only discipline that keeps him in the Council Chamber.  He would rather be outdoors in the rain or snow or heat.  He hates these meeting and endures only by clenching his teeth, smelling Bouchard’s perfumes, staring at the rise and fall of her chest, and ignoring the magician across from him.
    In this way, the three of them sit in silence, each guarding thoughts of their own.  The room is guarded as well; from the outside, here are guards outside.  They are alone for quite a while until finally the door opens with a loud suck, click and grown from the solid mahogany double doors.  Their king walks quickly in.
    “Hello, my friends. Urgent business, as always, keeps my attentions from this necessary place.”  Captain Blandt rises more quickly than the others.  They all sit when the King sits.  The dogs haven't moved.
    “My Lady, how are the people this midmorning?  Will they soon be ready for a war?”
    Her shock red lips and her honeysuckle breath have kept Blandt at a medium flush.  But they have no effect on the King.  “Yes Lord.”  She says.  "They will soon be ready."    “And the dragoons?” He asks Blandt.   
    Blandt stops chewing his teeth.  “The Calvary should be near to Moeltown by now.  The children will soon be yours.  I have sent Quinn with them in order to deal with the matter personally.”
    Hu comes from his far away thoughts.  “Children?”    “Of course mage,” says the King.  “Go on.  Tell me Captain, when will you know?”
    “One of the mage's birds is kept with Quinn his men.  As soon as we have them, you will know.”
    "Their orders?"
    "The same you gave me, my Lord.  Kill the father, take the children."   
    “That is well.  And how go the dwarves?”   
    “They wait, Excellency.” Hu says.    
    “Are the grey beasts with them?”   
    “No, sire. But they will make it to the caves shortly.  Before your dragoons, I have no doubt.”   
    “Thank you.  That is all I needed to know.  Send for me if anything changes today.  Just as yesterday, even if the sun has fallen, if anything comes up, you will have me informed.”   
    Lady Bouchard raises an eyebrow.  “Lord King.  At the first of the month I was puzzled why you did not leave with your dragoons, or have Blandt at least go with them.  I’m especially curious now, for it seems you are keen to meet every day.  Not only do you have us wait here for you everyday, but these exquisite gatherings are over so quick.  So suddenly assembled and so quickly dismissed." She pouts, her lips kiss themselves.  "Why have you passed on such a great adventure?  You know that I am always eager to have the palace to myself.”  Her smile is sin and bone.   
    “I do.  And I would have.  But I am more prudent than quick, my dear.  I did not travel with them because I did not wish to be caught away from this mighty place and your wonderful company if they do not succeed.”   
    “If they do not succeed?” scoffs Blandt. 
    “Of course they shall succeed.”   
    “Yes, of course Captain.  And if they do, I am certain that our ever-mindful Duke Yarbrough will haste to our borders with arms and men eager to knock down our walls and slit my throat, such are his allegiances to foolish legends.  If my, pardon me--when my dragoons succeed, I wish to be here, so that I can asses the situation from a distance,  so that I might be clear in thought when I respond to the inevitable.  War rolls quickly once the fires start burning.  We will be able to conscript shortly, yes.”   
    “Yes Lord.” Says Blandt
    “Very good.  However, it occurs to me just now that they might fail. Quinn, I mean.  It has happened before.  Even I, heavens forefend, have failed in this pursuit before.  Many times men just disappear into that god forsaken fog.  It's not far away!"
    "My Lord," begins Blandt.  "The fog is days aw—"
    "No.  No it's not!  Well, maybe it is.  But it might happen.  And if that happens, then I also wish to be right here.” He lets out a sigh and inhales the darkness of the room.  “This table is such a gift, don‘t you think?  A trophy.”  The King spreads his fingers out along its smooth surface.  He pets the stone.  "There has been successful conquest before, and there will be again.  We will walk among the stars.  You shall see.  It shall be."
    “I am glad to know it is not our company that keeps you happy, your Majesty,” says Hu.
    “Indeed, I’m sure you are.”  The King almost smiles.  “I have also, just now, decided to send an emissary to the Duke in the West.  And while I’m confident Hu has plenty of reasons to talk to that old acquaintance, I’ve decided that Diana should go.”  Suddenly calm, Cassius looks at Bouchard impassively while rapping his fingers against the cool black tabletop.
    “Oh really?” She asks.  “Why?  And why me?”
    “I thought you might like a little ride in the country.  Or through it.  Whichever.” Hu wryly smiles as the king continues his sarcastic tone.  “And I know that you so enjoy being alone, away from me.  But mostly," He says honestly.  "Mostly I think you may be able, with your generous and plentiful gifts of charisma and, oh, personality, to persuade Yarbrough not to come attack me directly.  Or at least, stall his response when he learns that I'm killing trees and burning children or whichever.  I could burn them, the children I mean.   Either way, if we can stall our conflict with the bastard Duke we're all the better for it.  You do like challenges, don't you Diana?”
She says nothing.
    "Or don't you?"
    “Oh, I enjoy challenges my Lord.  As you would say so eloquently, I know how to stroke a man's charisma."  With a shake of her head Diana asks when she should leave.
    “Immediately.”  Royal eyebrows scowl at her for a brief instant and Bouchard believes that she might be being punished for the one instance she refused the King’s bed.  No matter.  How perfectly male to push something away in an effort to get it back.  She can play games too.
    “I see.” She stands.  Blandt does as well.  “Well come along boys!” she calls to the dogs.  "We'll leave these beasts here to their business."
    They rise up and the room immediately shrinks to a quarter its normal size.  Their massive coats extinguish the flame between them, squishing it from view like a spider running from a fearless thumb.  She adds to the men in the room.  “And when shall I return?  You will, as you put it, send for me, I’m sure.”  Her deep breath inhales six mortal eyes.
    “Indeed I shall.”  Says the King.  "No run along.  Us dogs have work to do."
    “Very well.”  The Lady Diana Bouchard opens the two mahogany doors and follows the wolfhounds out.  With a gentle crunch, the door closes and Blandt sits back down.
    “I grow weary of her,” confesses the King.  “I believe her usefulness is at an end.”Blandt looks at his King intently. “Do you want me to do something about it?”
    “No Antony, it is not an immediate concern.  She can serve me elsewhere and I believe she will."
    Hu laughs.  "Are you certain?"
    The fire in the hearth blasts with raging ferocity with the two large shadows gone.
    "Very well.  Anthony yes, there is something you can do.  She will succeed in keeping Yarbrough at bay, for she is as interested in what the elves have to offer.  She will want to keep him uninvolved as I do, as do you,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
    “But I do not want to share the fairies' little fruits with the Duke should he change is mind and try to ally with us.  Can you imagine the insult?!  If our purpose were to become clear he might try to share our power.  It is an unlikely possibility, but it is present.  Find a man, your best, and Quinn is not your best.  This man should be unswayable to her persuasions.  He should be unwavering in duty and compelled to follow command.  Find him and task him with her life, and Yarbrough's too, if things go too well while she is away and wants to bring home friends..”
    “I could go.” Hu offers smiling.  “I have only ever seen her fully dressed.”
    “Please, mage.  Silence.  I too have seen her dressed and would have her dressed down if I believed Blandt could persuade Yarbrough to wait."
    "I could do that, my Lord," says the Captain.
    "No I think not.  An ambassador requires certain natural gifts and certain levels of skill."  Cassius looks to Blandt and traps the man with his eyes. “Your best.  So that when I say it, she will die.  A man’s passions lead to blood, not tears.  Do you understand?"
    “I do Lord.  And I know you know I too have seen her undressed.  But I swear to you I can do this thing you ask for only men who have slept with that woman and know it for what it is, could resist her charms."
    "Interesting," says the King and he claws at his beard.  "I'm immune.  In fact, I want her dead!  And I've slept with her.  But you?"
    "My Lord, I could do it.  I want to do it, but not enough that I'm unwilling to give the duty to another."
    "Fine.  You may go.  But I'll bet she's leaving now, so make sure to let Hu know how you were planning to arm and organize the expected conscripts."
    "Yes Lord," says Captain Blandt.
    “Thank you Captain.  And bring a chalice with you, I want you to be able to send word when the boys are dead."
    "Dead my Lord?  I thought only the Father?"
    "Yes, fine, either one.  Kill the Father and take the kids."  The King raises his hand but the gesture is unnecessary.  Blandt has already bowed stiffly and headed for the door
     “And you, Hu.  What do I need from you?”
    "Jesting you were not.  Our presence does not keep you at ease, or if it does, look at how quickly you banish your comfort!  You have cleared the room Majesty."
    "Of everyone but you," says the King.
    Haitang breathes through his nose.  He enjoys doing this.  His sense of smell is excellent, and with Bouchard gone he enjoys the smokey flames and the smell of stone.  He measures his thoughts with care, and eventually opens his mouth.
    “There is one thing.”
    “Always one thing, mage.  Ever since the beginning it’s been one thing.  I am eager to hear it.”
    “I have been sitting on this a while.  And am only now fairly sure.  This stone, it's dwarven stone.  It's cold and black.  It's well polished.  But the dwarf lord is not well polished.  He is, I believe now, and I only realize this now, not a dwarf.  He should be well considered, the master underneath the hills.”  Haitang looks into the fire.  He sees the rolling south country; the caves hidden under almost every hill.  The alliance is a delicate balance.  The dwarves are building and singing, crafting and drinking, in their hills.  They sit at council every night in a grave stone hall.  Here in Campbello, the mortals aren’t singing or drinking.  Around this table it is all strategy and brooding.  But not under those hills. "I can see it, Majesty.  The dwarves are dwarves, but the Dwarven Lord; it is a different beast."
    Down underneath the yellow grass of South March, one being sits on a throne.  It listens to the dwarves as they bring complaints, praise, or simple story tales.  It is larger than the others and shrouded by a swirling cloud of coal and gold.  Its arms are thick and stubbed, hairy and strong.  Its eyes glow red as rubies with irises that shine diamond white.  “Yes Lord, he is not a dwarf.  When we are ready, we must be wary.”
    “Thank you mage, but we are already wary.  And I for one am weary of being wary.  It is time to act, and take the consequences as they fall.  Their Lord is not Valkyrie?"
    "No, I did not say it was."
"No, you did not.  But if you did, it might as well be true. Listen mage, and listen well.  We are playing with all fates.  Every creature, every being, every soul on either side of this earth and beyond.  We are toying with destinies of powers we have never even seen.  We only know they exist because I've seen their opposite.  That's all.  I know they're real. They're more real than stories, Mage.  So yes, I am wary."
    "They are real," agrees Hu.  The mage drops the point.  The dwarf king may be more dangerous than anyone, even the eldest ones.
    "Does it have a name, their Lord."
    "Yes, I've heard it in fairy tales.  It's name is Koshei."
    "Ah yes.  I've heard that before.  And truly I care not if the little children in Yarbrough's scattered tribes curse the monster.  We will use their fear, for they have already sewn it among themselves."
Haitang nods grimly.  The King is right.  Before the dwarf war, men were alone.  They were new and young on the earth with nothing to fear but themselves.  Now they are not so young.  Nor are they alone.  There is more to be afraid of than there once was.  Hu stands and thinks that perhaps he should not be referring to men as they.  For he is one of them, is he not.
    "If that is all?"  Asks the mage.
    "You may go," says the King.
    When Hu bows his robes pool out across the floor.  He is at the door when he hears the King's last words.
    "One more thing, Hu.  You are not a pawn on my board.  But know too that I am not a pawn on yours.  I will kill the children.  I will bring them to me and I will drain them or train them.  I think it more likely that they will die.  I know you don't like it, and you need not understand it, but you will suffer it."
    Haitang Hu does not turn.  He simply opens the door, but his leaving is interrupted again.
    "I’ll see you tonight, in your spire.  For you're right about one thing: When we’re done with our dwarves, we'll need that dwarf Lord dead.”
    After Hu leaves, The King stares.  He looks into the fire and thinks on the mines just south of the castle.  He thinks about the Meckineers working under Blandt’s orders to build a machine that spews fire.  That will be a beautiful sight.  He thinks of the Yeff'ry that Haitang has enchanted and what they will look like when they are enraged and spitting fire of their own.  He thinks of the metal army being built under the Hollow to the west.  That one will be the greatest trick, a metal army that will burn the forest to the ground.
     Unlike Hu, Lord Cassius can’t call forth the future and watch it dance its portending steps.  He can't see meaning in the past through brick backed shadows.  He can’t hear distant voices or see long lost faces.
     But he doesn't need too.  The fire is enough.  It is pure and brilliant and cleansing.  It soothes him and coos to him.  It promises to him that when he has all Dominion, he will place humanity among the stars.  Among the legends.  He will do it.  He will do it because no one else will.
    When his mania has taken him and his heart races with happiness, Cassius closes his eyes.  He lets his spirit fly into waking dreams, dreams of a great tree burning forever in an endless night.

Tears of Knowing (Part the Second)


Daniel wakes abruptly, his mind bumbling around while his eyes register the contrasting shadows in the candlelight.  Emmanuel, his older brother, sits beside him on the bed.  He shakes Daniel’s arm.
     “Finally,” Daniel hears.  “It’s still dark out.  You haven’t been asleep long, but you’ve got to get up.  Dad just got back.  Come quick!”
     “Boys!”  Entreats the strong call from the kitchen.  His eyes adjusted to the shadows, Daniel sees Emmanuel’s hurried face.
     “Get dressed,” his brother says, “And be fast, I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”  Emmanuel pops off the bed and rushes out the door.
     Daniel takes a quick moment to himself.  The insects are quiet, so it’s definitely late.  Also the dogs aren’t barking, so he’s not in danger.  But Emmanuel was frantic so perhaps he should hurry after all.  He pulls his britches out from under his bed and slides them on.  He’s shorter than his older brother, but not by much.  Actually, a month ago the pants were Emmanuel’s.  The clothes he wears are nothing like what they get in Cochran Green or Campbello.  They work fine enough though, he thinks, pulling dirty cotton sleeves over his arms.
     “Daniel!”  His Dad calls again from the kitchen.  Barefoot, the youngest son reaches for the candle and picks it up.
     “I’m coming,” Daniel says, stumbling a bit from his room into the tiny hall.A torch sticks out up above the hearth.  It’s been alight a while, Emmanuel must not have gone to bed.
     His brother sits at the table watching his Dad rush around from the master bedroom to the door.  There’s a rucksack open near the oak doorway, and his Dad’s short sword lays propped between the green leather bag and the door’s stone archway.  Outside the horses are stomping and huffing.
     “Didn’t you just get back?  Where’re you going?” Daniel asks, still waking up.  His brother takes the candle from him and puts it on the table.  The hearth is likewise blazing.  Emmanuel must have fed it while Daniel was in bed.
     Daniel joins his brother and the two dogs, Hez and Briar, as they watch Richard Alderick fly around the house.
     “Sit with your brother D, I’ll be out in a minute.”  The cool but rushed voice comes from the bedroom.
     “I am,” says Daniel and then looks at his brother. “Were you sleeping when he got in?”
     “No, I just got to bed.  Threw a log on though, seems to have been a good idea.”
     “Yeah, I saw that.”
     “You remember Dad ever this frantic?”
     Daniel doesn’t have to think long.  “Yeah, you remember when the King asked him to be the charge Ferrier for the new cavalry.”
     Emmanuel nods.  “Yes, that’s true.  A fortnight of whirled preparations.”
     “You went with him.  Don’t you remember how bossy he got?”
     “No.  I guess I was too wrapped up in it too.”
     They watch their Dad fly from the bedroom to the doorway.  The door wrenches open with seeming ease.
     “He doesn’t even look tired,” says Emmanuel.  Hez raises an eyebrow.  Briar barks once.  A hand comes around the doorway and picks up the sword.  Both disappear again in to the night.
    Daniel’s heart begins to race.  Even with the King’s request, Daniel doesn’t remember him ever acting this frantic.  In fact, his Dad’s always been peaceful.  Sure, every now and again things got bad at the Smith or hunting was short out in the wood.  But Dad never lost his temper.
    “You think he’s lost his temper?”  Daniel asks his brother.
     “Ok boys – ” Richard steps back into the house.
    “We’re about to find out,” Emmanuel says and pats Daniel’s leg gently.    Richard stands in front of the doorway.  He’s not young but he looks powerful.  His face is warm, his beard not quite as old as his eyes.  Emmanuel has his shoulders and Daniel the long and practiced arms.
     Their father is dressed to travel. His brown leather gloves keep each hand.  His good boots have a few new stains of grass and mud.  Richard hasn’t stopped moving since he got to the house.  Now, He looks at his sons and takes a breath.  The room looses a little of its edge.  The torch and candle relax.  Briar lowers her head.  Only Daniel perks up, he puffs up in his chair.
     “That is the first thing that has to change.  You’re not boys anymore.  You’re men.”  His face is impassive or proud.  It’s difficult to tell.
     Daniel looks to his brother, but Emmanuel is looking straight at his Dad.
     “What?  Just like that?  What about festival?”
     “No time.” He walks to them and sits across from the boys.  The large chair groans with satisfaction.  “When I’m done talking, you both run to your rooms and gather what things you can.  Tonight is your festival.”
     They both nod.
     “Our wonderful King Cassius--”
     “If I can’t piss on his feet, I’ll piss on his grave.”
     Richard doesn’t even smile.  “Emmanuel, No interruptions, and careful where you say that now, eh?”  Richard reaches over to his older son and pats him on the hand.
    “He’s out for blood, the King is.  Which we knew would happen eventually.  I don’t know what exactly he’s learned from his smaller friends, the dwarfs I mean.  It’s been years since the dwarf war; before you were born.  Anyway, I don’t know.  Maybe them, maybe not.  But whatever’s changed his mind, Cassius is on the move.  On this ride home from Cherry Grove, I passed a good few score of men.  Beasts too, huge grey things with two thick legs each.”  
     Daniel’s mind is back to racing again.  Where too?  The North Kingdom has been peaceful since its establishment after the war.  There’s no need for further conquest.  No need unless, perhaps, he’s after the Western lands.  That must be it.  The Duke of Yarbrough was not so keen to suffer under Cassius’s royal scepter.  He was the only one who fought.  Also, he won.  
     “War again?” Asks Emmanuel, always a step ahead of his brother.
    “Yes, but perhaps not as bad as the one before.  Thankfully you were not around for that one.  Though it seems that is how these things go.  Here’s the plan” Richard continues, “I stopped by the Rookery outside of Moeltown.  Paul Trident thinks this march is real; more and more soldier-like folk have been to the tavern this past year.  Not just regular grunts, some odd ones too, he says.  He told me to meet up with an old acquaintance in Cochran Green.  Paul said he’d come over to you two and tell you what was up, but I wanted to be the one who told you myself.”
    “Tell us what?”  Daniel asks.
    “Well," He says, trying to stall and buy time he doesn't have.  "That was well asked or I might not have said it.  Boys, tonight’s your festival night.  You are men now because we’re splitting up.”
     Daniel can hardly breathe.
     Richard looks deeply at his sons.  Emmanuel’s chest swells evenly, but it’s swelling full.  Daniel’s eyes dodge from his father and brother to the dogs on the floor.  Briar perks up.
    “What does that mean, Dad?”  Emmanuel asks.  
     “I have to meet this old friend.”  
     “That, Emmanuel, I can’t tell you.”
     “But Dad!” Daniel’s older brother raises his voice.  Hez rights up on his hind legs barks loudly in protest.  He howls away until Emmanuel call him over.  Finally, the animal pads over to Emmanuel, licks the boy's hand and sits proudly on the floor.
     “Emmanuel.  Please.  You’ll find out sooner or later, but for now, I cannot say.  Trident will give you a bed while I’m away.  Andrew has something for you there as well.”  Richard looks at his younger son, “And Daniel, you’re going to head to Aunt Caroline’s in Chester; and you’re going to ride by yourself.  It is not wise for either of you two to stay here.”
     Ride by himself?  That is odd.  Daniel’s ridden down to Moeltown on his own but not all the way to Chester.  That’s halfway to Yarbrough and Yarbrough’s never even ridden to.
     “Daniel’s never ridden that far alone.” Emmanuel says plainly.  His hand protectively stopped on his brother’s shoulder.  
     “I know, but I think the ride up to Caroline’s and Al’s place will be safer than the shorter ride of yours.  And listen Daniel, just like Andrew has something for Emmanuel, Aunt Caroline has something for you.”  
     “What is it?” Daniel asks.  His mouth dry with excitement.  There’s fear too, like a balled pit, caught in his gut.  epushes the pit down.    “I can’t tell you.”
     “Why?” asks Daniel.
     “In case you don’t make it.”
     Silence hangs in the air like death.  Like death, thinks Daniel.  And Daniel knows that Emmanuel’s thinking the same.
     “I hope you do,” Richard says.  “I believe you will.  But there’s a chance that you won’t.”
     Briar stands up and snorts, together she and Hez walk out through the open door and into the night.
Daniel watches them leave.
“What are we going to do about the dogs?” Emmanuel asks.
    “We’ll leave them.  I think it best to move quickly, I need to leave tonight.  The stars have some light yet and morning’s not too far away.  The Trident’s promised fresh horses along the run, so I think I can be to Cochran Green and back in just over a fortnight.”
    “Fresh horses?”  Asks Emmanuel.  “What do you mean, ‘fresh horses’?”
    “Yes.  This is an expensive venture.  It’s a messenger’s run, Emmanuel.  Paul’s been expecting this, and it’s good that he has or we’d not have this chance.  I’ve certainly never been to the coast and back that quickly.  See what I mean, the time of talk is over?  Our little crowd of dissenters has been growing for years. Tensions are high, most loyalties are tight.  We're a touch better organized than the King would like a mob to be.”  
    “Is he headed West?  To Yarbrough?”  
    “Perhaps.  Maybe further.  He might be making a grab for the Old Powers themselves.  Bedtime stories I used to tell you, remember?"  
    Emmanuel nods.  Daniel does too.  Bedtime stories used to be about a kid named Jonathon Jesse.  They were silly rhymes, always taking place near the Forest of Mist and Dream.
     Dad goes on, "Anyway, I don’t know where the men are heading, but I know that them heading anywhere is not good.  West makes sense, but south does too.  The beasts with the company I passed looked like desert creatures."
     With a long standing reach, he scruffs Daniel's hair, "Now go get your things.  Pack what you need and decide whether you want to leave with me tonight or when morning breaks.”
    Daniel stands up.  For the first time the news really sinks in.  Goodbye house, goodbye room, goodbye dogs, goodbye—
    “Are your horses rested?” Richard asks.  Daniel picks up his candle and walks to his room.
    “Yes,” Daniel hears Emmanuel say.  “We’ve been house bound for a few days, Dad.  Not much is new.  We finished all the shoes and hilts you wanted.  Did all the planting and hunting and such.  Someone came about the mill from Drake’s property.”    “Good boy,” Richard says, but the rest of their conversation is lost when Daniel gets to his room.
    Daniel’s breath is short.  He pulls his own satchel out from under his bed and opens his wood drawers.  There’s not much to put away.  Most of the money in the house isn’t in the form of coins, it’s in the metal they smith with.  Well there’s that and the mill hat Dad’s trying to build a league or so south of the main well.
    But none of that matters now.  Daniel can feel it.
     He picks up another set of pants and his leather jerkin.  Unlike Emmanuel, he doesn’t own any boots yet so there’s nothing else to take but some wool socks and the one book he owns on metallurgy.  That book might be good to have, even for only a few days up with Aunt Caroline and Uncle Ray.
     Suddenly Daniel stops.  Something’s not right.  The ride north to Chester will take almost a full moon cycle.  That’s over fourteen days.  But Dad can get to Cochran Green and back in a fortnight! Daniel tosses the book in the bag and runs back to the hearthroom.  
     Richard’s facing the fire, his back leaning against the chair.
    “Dad,” asks Daniel.  “Why are you sending me to Aunt Caroline’s?  You’ll be back before I get there.”
    His Dad’s hands grip the back wood.  Daniel let’s the words soak in slowly, even as his Dad turns around to face him.  “Daniel, I may not be coming back.  That’s why.  Caroline’s got something to give to you, something I gave her a long time ago.  She’s expecting you, you know.  Well, you didn’t know that, but she is.  You can wait with her for a while until I get back.  It should only be two weeks, but I’m guessing it will be much longer.  Now I promise to send for you when I return home.  I’ll probably even ride up myself.  But I have to get to Cochran Green, and I have to leave tonight.  Right now, that’s all I know.”              "Can't we come with you?" asks Daniel.  
     Richard shakes his head.  
     “But why not?”
     For that, his father has no answer.
     Daniel stands still across from him.  His heart flutters.  Perhaps Emmanuel’s wouldn’t.  Maybe Emmanuel even expected something like this.  But Daniel didn’t, not like this.  “Does Emmanuel know?”  
     “Yes, I do.” Says Emmanuel, peeking out from his bedroom doorway.
     His brother walks forward and Daniel leans into one of two strong hands as Richard pulls his sons as close to him as he can; something not as easy as it once was.  Emmanuel's broader than he used to be, and Daniel, given just one more year, would be looking into Richard’s eyes.  A little brother not so little, thinks Richard.  Hugging them he realizes that his sons are young, too young.  Shamefully he satisfies himself knowing they are at least built like men.  Well, Daniel is close enough.  They are men with a love of family in their hearts.  They are closely bonded kin.  Maybe that will be enough.
     Richard kisses them each on the head and speaks softly, still keeping them close.  “If things turn sour, for either one of you, head far north to the west side of the great Tooth Mountains.  Go up past Chester and just east, barely east of the great Hollow.”
    “Edgewater,” says Emmanuel.
     “Yes, to the beaches of sapphire and gold.  It’s a far ride.  Perhaps even farther than necessary.  But there are friends along that route who will not be surprised to see you.  Besides, I have always said that things begin and end with the sea.”  
     “Old legends always say stupid things like that,” Daniel says quietly.  And they’re never true, he thinks to himself.  
     In the following silence the torch flickers.  Briar barks again from outside in the starlit night.  Guided by her call, the cool air whispers in through the door.  There are some chirps too from the few bewitched insects curious enough to brave the loneliness of a summer night.  Daniel feels the stillness of the hug, the sounds of the house and the outside dark that awaits them.  He breathes it in deeply and tries to think it into his mind.  He tries to think it in so hard that he will never forget it.
    Emmanuel’s the first to let go.  Quiet and strong he looks up at his Dad.  Richard looks into his eyes and smiles.  “I’m proud of you Emmanuel Praetor Alderick, and I hope to be fortunate enough to see the man you will yet become.”  Emmanuel steps back, giving room for his father to bless the other brother.  “And you, Daniel Shenir Alderick, I am proud of you as well.  From this night forth, the earth will never again recognize the feel of your feet on her.  You are my sons re-born! The weight of your manhood will move the mountains of the earth. The passions of women and men alike will fire under the grace of your hearts.  Push when you can but endure only what you must, for all things, good and evil, have their end.”
    Richard rises and places a hand on each head.  He does not shuffle their hair.  “You are my princes of wisdom, I love you and I believe in you.”
     “Father, you'll see me in the Rookery,” says Emmanuel, too stubborn to cry.  “I’ll wait there for your return.  I’ll be there with Trident and Andrew.  We will see you on your way back here.”
Richard Alderick smiles one last time at his eldest son.  “Maybe on my way back, but you won’t be able to catch up with me tonight.  And perhaps instead I will see you both back here.  Daniel, you are ready.  You have been born for this, even if you never thought it.  Remember my sons, no one is your master.”
And those are the last words Daniel hears from his father’s voice before the man slips out of the door, onto his horse, and into the mysterious night.
     Briar makes some noise as the horse starts it's gallop, but not much.  After the small fuss, both dogs make their way inside.  They are more used to departures than the boys, but undeniably, something is different this time. Agitated, they walk up to Emmanuel and Daniel excitedly and circle around and around and around and around.  Emmanuel has to tell them to sit by the hearth.
     Daniel looks up at his brother. “He said we could leave with him tonight.”
     “Yes,” Emmanuel lends a nod. “But apparently he didn’t mean ride with him.”
     “What are you going to do?” asks Daniel.
     “You have your things?”
     “Yes, do you?”
     “Ok, one moment.” Emmanuel rushes back to his room and comes back with a short leather scabbard.  “You might need this.”
     The eyes in Daniel’s head nearly fall to the floor.  “I’m not supposed to have that yet.”
     “No, you’re not.” Emmanuel agrees.  He takes out the blade and twirls it around gently in the firelight and then slides it back.  “But now you do.  Besides, Dad just did the stupid ceremony, so we're men now.”
     Daniel’s fingers clasp the warm leather bound handle.  “It’s not stupid Emmanuel, thank you.”  He hugs his brother quickly and bites his teeth hard.  His eyes feel thick and large, not out of surprise, but a pregnant couplet of excitement and sadness.
     “You’re welcome.  Now I don’t think we should rush out of here without a little thought, but we should leave before morning.  If Dad was in that big of a rush, then we should hurry too.  Thankfully there will be some starlight left for our night ride.”
     Emmanuel sits by the fire and the dogs, “Go get your bag D.”
     After a quick sprint, Daniel has his satchel on the table with some clothes, a book and a sword.  “What should I put in it?”
     "Take this," Emmanuel tosses him a small clay pot from near the hearth.
     "I don't need this." Daniel says.
     "What?  Are you going to take the iron cauldron?  I know I don't need it, but you've got a much longer trip.  Take it just in case.  You’ll need to cook your food.  But not during the day, only at night."
     “I knew that,” Daniel puts it into the satchel.  "Anything else?"
     The dogs follow Emmanuel to the table.  The fire’s been put out, only the torch on the wall and the candle give any light to the room.  Emmanuel sorts through Daniel's odd assortment of things with ease.
     “That looks fine.  You’ll probably need some of these too.”  Emmanuel walks over to the torch and picks it off of the wall.  He turns the metal hook that the torch was hanging from and pulls out a stone the size of a fist.
     “Take this please," he says, gifting the torch to his brother.  Daniel takes it and watches as Emmanuel reaches into the wall and removes a small burlap purse.
     “Silver?” Asks Daniel.
     “Mhhmm.” Emmanuel tosses it to the table where it lands with a hard jingle.After he replaces the hook, Emmanuel takes the torch from his brother and remounts it on the wall.  “This is it.  We’ll need it all.”
     Daniel stares at the purse with disbelief, and when he's done looking at the brown burlap, he looks up at the wall.  Emmanuel's already talking again.
     “The book is good.  The sword is good.  You’ll probably need both.  But both are also dangerous.  Don't let anyone catch you with either of these.  You could be killed for either one of them if you run into the wrong thieves, or you could be handed over to the Guard if you’re caught by the right ones.
     “Now this, this money will buy you time.  But it will buy attention too.  I really don’t think we’ll be coming back after we leave tonight and if Paul Trident's going to gift him a crazy horse ride than Dad won't need any leftovers.  So, we take it all, you get more than me.”
     Daniel understands.  He and his brother have grown up well.  They can read and write, they smith and can fight.  They both ride horses, Emmanuel's better only because he's older and in control of his body.  Right now, Daniel's too big for his own skin.
     But he also understands that no one expects a child to have a book and a sword.  No one would ever see a young man in a tavern who had a purse filled with silver coins.  He’ll have to be careful and extremely discreet.
     “Do you have a sword too?” Asks Daniel.
     “Yeah, I’m taking Dad’s spadroon from his old riding and fighting days.” Emmanuel opens the change purse and takes out a small handful of silver pieces.  He gives the rest to Daniel after he pulls the tie tight.
     “Thanks brother,” Daniel says, putting the small brown moneybag into his larger sack.  The sword within is much smaller, though a little thicker than Dad’s old weapon.  That sword is still too difficult for Daniel’s bumbling limbs to handle.  Emmanuel will manage it well though.  He’s two years up in years and practice.
     “You ready? Let’s go saddle the horses.”  Emmanuel leads the way out of the door, picking his own satchel up on the way out.  The dogs follow them eagerly, Briar is particularly tail-happy but Hez’s tail is down.  Something’s wrong with the pair.  Usually they wag in tandem.
     “Gah!” vents Emmanuel to himself, “Too dark yet under this stable.  I don’t know how he did this.  D, will you get the torch?”
     Daniel goes inside to get it, leaving his brother in the quiet night.  Dad managed it because he had just then rode in, barely a moment to collect things before he sprinted off again.  He shakes his head in marvel while he picks off the torch and heads outside.
     “Great.” says Emmanuel.  His older brother thanks him.  Daniel watches as he puts saddles on and readies the horses.  Mulberry’s already alert.  Emmanuel will probably take him.  His brother walks into Toby’s larger hay stall and watches him pat her up and awake.  It doesn’t take much.  They’re just as alert as the dogs.  Soon both horses will be ready to ride.  Daniel remembers his satchel and bolts to the house.
     It’s darker.  Only the candle light from the bedsides fogs its way into the hearthroom.  Daniel picks up his satchel.  It’s definitely heavier with the sword in it.  He looks to his room briefly but finds nothing useful.  The house seems empty, almost dead.
     He hurries back outside.
     Outside the horses are ready.  The night seems warmer than his home.
     “Well, you look all ready."
     “Emmanuel, I’m a little scared.” Daniel says.
     “Ah well, there is that, isn’t there.  I am too.  But this is a far better journey to manhood than  festival, don’t you think?”
     “Oh come on!  Yes it is.  We're not a usual family Daniel.  Dad started the Underground.  We're part of it.  Do you know anyone else who's part of the Underground?  Any other entire family?”
     Daniel thinks for a moment.  Even Paul Trident's kids don't know.  “Just ours.”
     “That’s right.  How many other kids from up north in Chester speak out against the King?”
     “Well, up in Chester there are a few.”
     “Yes, there are.  Exactly.  And that’s why you’re taking the road west to Aunt Caroline and Uncle Ray.  There are people like us there.”
     “Emmanuel, I don’t think it’s fair that you get to go to Trident’s Tavern.  Everyone there is family.  Even if they’re not, they are.  I’m sure even Sophie will be glad to see you.”
Emmanuel doesn't smile back.  Even if Dad said the ride for him would be harder, it sounds much more rewarding.
     They sit in silence for a while.  Daniel’s breath slows.  Emmanuel looks up through the patchy clouds at the stars that shine brightly enough to overcome the moonlight.  The horses whinny.  They will not stand as scenery forever.  If they’ve been woken, they expect to work.
Emmanuel takes Mulberry's reins and tosses his satchel across the saddle.  With a similar gesture, Daniel does the same.
     “And you’ve never ridden at night before.  This is exciting!”
     “Maybe," Daniel says.  “Emmanuel, what are we going to do with the dogs?”Emmanuel thinks for a moment.  Daniel watches him, his skin emitting a pale glow.  His face is older and prepared.  His eyes are focused and clean.  Daniel sees in him the fire of adventure instead of the small cold pit of loss that he feels in his own throat.
     “That is a good question.  Dad wants us to leave them here--”
     “We can’t do that!” Daniel interrupts.  “If trouble’s coming they’ll be killed.”
     “That may be true.  But Hez and Brair are tough mutts, I don’t think even a dragoon would risk a fight with one of our two friends.  Isn’t that right?”  Emmanuel calls to the house.  A single bark of reply comes from within.  “Well, Hez anyway.  Do you want them both to follow you?  You’ll ride slower with their company.”
     Daniel doesn’t care if he rides slower.  Briar’s getting old, but Hez is still young.  Age doesn’t matter though, Daniel loves them both.  They can help him hunt, and they’ll make Daniel’s long ride more bareable.  Besides, a boy with dogs is less suspicious than a wondering child without them.  “I’ll take them both, we can catch rabbits with them on our way west.”
     “You have your sling just in case,” Emmanuel says.
     Of course, Daniel doesn’t have it.  He runs inside and takes the sling off of the mantle above the fireplace.  “Ok, come on boys.” He says to the dogs.  Hez barks a few times as they all line out to the stables once more.  “All set.”
      “Listen, the torch will die on it's own.  Even if it didn't, we probably don’t have to worry about fire anyway.  Come here.”  It's a bear hug.  His brother wraps around him and holds him.  It's not often that Emmanuel gives him such a large hug.  It's over too soon.
     “Don’t you think we’ll be back?”  Asks Daniel.
     “I do,” Emmanuel quickly answers.  “But I do not think it will matter if the stable is standing when we return.  Daniel, brother, Up north.  Remember?  West the Tooth mountains, East of the hollow, just north of Chester.  Say it back.”
     He struggles, but not because he can't remember.
     "That's good.  Come on now.  You are ready."
     His young age getting the best of him, Daniel cries a little, but proudly.  “Where do I go from Caroline’s?”
     “My brother.” Emmanuel says, his hunger for adventure getting the best of him, “You will know.  You are wise, and like Dad said, strong too.  The dogs will keep you company, and when Uncle Ray gives you that thing, whatever it is, you will know what to do.”
     “You promise?”
     “I promise,” says Emmanuel with full confidence.  “This is a night none of us will forget.”
     Daniel nods.
     "But, I'll see you again soon."
     Daniel doesn't nod at that one.  He's not sure that it's true.
    “So mount up.  I’ll ride with you a little while and then double back.  No need for me to hurry I don’t think, I’ve got the shorter path.  But we should go.  Mount up, I'll finish things up.”
    Emmanuel closes down the house and rushes out into the darkness to take a drink from the well.  He fills his own leather water pouch and makes sure Daniel does too.  When they're done, it's obvious that Emmanuel will be fine on his own.  Daniel, not so much.
    In the light from the cloudy moonlit night, Daniel looks back at the house.  It's big.  Dad never would have been a Duke, but he could have served in the court.  There's a lot of land.  So much, that the smith out back is too far away to see.  In the light, the house glows a very pale cream.  Cicadas whistle with cackled wings and the wind whispers as it always has; every summer night since Daniel can remember, the wind rustles the leaves.
    “Not too bad a night for a first night ride,”  Emmanuel says.  His older brother is up and the torch burning on the closest stable pillar is the only strong light around.  “Don’t worry, it’s not going to burn.  Come.  I tied a lot of spare shoes to your saddle.  I'm going to take some tools."
    As they head out on the dark night road to Chester, the dogs stay close.  It's not quite a burden to have to ride slowly.  It’s obvious right away why Dad told them not to take the dogs.  Hez and Briar slow them down.
    Emmanuel must have sensed Daniel's tension. He says,  “It’s probably better to travel at night than day, especially when you hit the woods near the river.  Go slow, and be quiet.  If there are footpads about, the dogs will smell them, and you can walk during the daylight.  Or you can find a hideaway and rest.”    Daniel looks over his shoulder.  The moonlight will help a lot.  Even if the torchlight weren’t keeping the stable a dull yellow, the house would still be visible.
    “Keep the money close too,” Emmanuel adds.  “You don’t want to have to steal food.”
“I can hunt it.  Just because you're older doesn't mean I'm stupid.”    “Sorry Daniel.  I know.  I'm just so excited!  I've waited for this moment.  You knew it was coming too.  Someday this had to happen.  It just had to.  We're going to have to deal with people now who view us as children.  Even though we're big, we don't want to be seen as children traveling alone.  Maybe Dad’s friends always treated us equals, but we're not.  Don't forget that.  No one expects a boy to be traveling about on horse with money.  It’s more than suspicious.”  
It's pointless to say anything else.  Emmanuel right, of course, which is good.  Because through his tears, it would be hard to speak.  How Emmanuel could be ready for this, Daniel will never know.
    “Dry your tears little brother, I can still see you.”
    After that, there's nothing else even Emmanuel can say.

    When they’re much past the house and only white-topped grass stands on either side, Emmanuel slows.  The moonlight bathes the field in its night song.  The hooves and pants of the animals out match any noise from the summer wind.  There are a few lights nearby, ghosts in distant country homes scattered like seeds in a field.  When the sun’s up, it’s a more joyful than solemn place.  Daniel and Emmanuel have both ridden the road before.    “Brother, it’s time I turn back.  I’m tempted to ride with you all the way to Aunt Caroline's, but I’ve a place to go too.”
    Daniel pulls Toby short and she stops quickly—the dogs dodge briefly off the road.  Mulberry walks Emmanuel up so that Daniel sees his brother fully in the moonlight.
    Emmanuel is dressed for this night.  His clothes are tight and dark.  His face sits tall and proud in the pale light. His eyes, the palest blue in the sun, are deep ocean blue.   They're almost black.  His satchel is wrapped around his back like the most experienced traveler.  Emmanuel looks almost magical, like he's being blessed by the power that guides the stars.  In this moment, his brother seems a small king.
    Mulberry stomps.
    “My brother, you look young.  I cannot deny that.  But you are not overly so in here,” Emmanuel puts two fingers over Daniel's heart.  “And I will see you again, probably not at home, but definitely at Edgewater.  It is a place for reunions, where the land keeps back the raging sea.”
    “You know I have never been.”
    “And you know I have only heard of it.  Uncle Ray will tell you.  Others in our family will lead you there.”  Emmanuel leans over, an awkward thing to do on horseback, and hugs his brother once more.  This time light and brief.  “I love you Daniel.  It won't be long before we tell stories of our own together again.  Can you imagine what Dad will have to say?”
    “No.  I can’t.” Daniel says softly.
    “Kongerei, Emmanuel.”
    Emmanuel, eager to leave, says the same.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tears of Knowing (Part the First)


    She kneels next to me.  Her blond hair made grey by the moonlight yet haloed with a trace of campfire red.  “Come,” she says.
    It is not cold, but then I am warmly dressed.  The wool that hugs my body stopped scratching long ago, and the leather that guards my back and neck protects me from the wind.
     She is confident and sure, so I stand and follow.  We step through the trees quietly, our breath visible as whispers where the moonlight penetrates the leaves.  These woods are unfamiliar, but she hints at something from my past, someone I should know.  As I watch her this hint becomes a loud itch in my head.  I may not know these woods, but I know that I know her.
    “I know you,” I say with more certainty than confidence.
    She does not turn, but she does talk back to me, “It would have been unwise to follow a stranger.”
    “No.  Really.  I have seen you before.”
    Walking backward, she turns to face me.  I can’t quite see her face, those features shadowed by her dusky cowl.  “You will see me every night from now to the end.”    Such a subtle tone.  Such an ominous prediction.  Yet it suits the setting.
     I am still convinced I've known here.  After hearing her the air seems warmed by honeysuckled tea.  Hers is the voice of my fondest memories.
    “Promise?” I ask.  "If you visit me every night, my dreams will come true."
     Her head shakes gently.  “Careful,” she says.  “You may curse me before the end.”
     I stop and frown.
     She turns and begins to run.
     I call to her, “I’ll curse you?”
     “Time runs short, keep up.”  She yells back.
     My first steps are slow, but she is fast, so I must speed up to follow her.  The further we go, the more the forest grows into dense silence.  I'm protected, and numbed, and as we run my blood beats warm.  Underneath my grey cape and hood I feel the rush and flow of life.  The colorless leaves strike at our faces as we pass. The night must be bitter cold for each exhale falls to the ground in crystals.  It is a blessing that I feel warm.
     She dances in front of me, light as only dreams can be.  I feel it too, this perpetual sprint.  And we run long, until there is no longer much light at all.
     My exhales falls in darkness.  Only with great concentration can I see the thin grey outline in front of me.    Suddenly, it stops.  I jog up to the outline, marveling as it becomes her form once more.  I stop behind her, whatever light there is, she’s blocking it.  I take a moment to catch my breath only to have it stop when she steps to my side.
     We are at the end of the forest.  The trees have finished; the edge of a cliff preventing them from journeying further out into the horizon.  A deep ravine falls before us, the stars shine above.  There is no moon.  Wisps and splotches of nebulae cloud the night sky.  But there’s something more.  Something I can’t express.  Something like a hole in the sky.  A strong black presence.
     As I adjust to the twinkling lights I recognize the black as a shadow.  A shape that is taller and darker, stronger and deeper, than anything I have ever seen.
     “It is the tree.”  She says.
     So she says.  I’ll take her word for it; words escape me.  Even actions have left me.  A dumbfounded glaze tries to slug its retreat across my eyes.
     So awesome is this sight, so complete.  I finally manage to look down where the ravine ends.  A lake pushes up gently against the rock wall.  Soft colors in the water reflect the brilliance of the night above.  There is no moon here; no shadow of the tree touches the rippling lights in the water.
     Somehow the water surrounds the tree; the tree with branches twisting and curling in long swept arches across the night.  It stands rooted in the middle of the lake. If it rests on an island, I cannot see it.  All I see are the lights and the empty space.
    I can sense that she has been equally enraptured, but unlike me, she is able to speak.  Her voice drops like iced gin in water, it pools thick with a cold and bitter threat. “You must come here.  And you must save it.”
    Vaguely, I nod.
    With her right hand she pulls down her hood and shakes her head at my non understanding.  Her brow is proud and her eyes are wise.  The stars bounce off her skin in the same colors they reflect from the water down below.  “I will be here, waiting.”
     The wind picks up.  The cold catches up to us at last, the brisk strike of frigid dark slapping my face.  I shiver while my lungs burn.
    I cough into a fist before I manage to reply.  “I do not understand.”
    Her smile is an endless day, “You will.  Now, rise and shine--”