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The Luck of the Beekeeper

by Daniel Sifton Connolly

part 1 of 2

Exhausted, the beast began to slow down in the early afternoon. Shouts of encouragement from the anxious teamsters had no effect, nor did the voltage applied to the ox’s weathered flank. After repeated prodding, the beast ceased its pained bleatings, and the only sounds were the curses of the driver and the crackling snaps of the prod as it bit into flesh.

“You’ll kill the thing. If it doesn’t drop dead first”, said Thorne, one of the animal drivers.

“Bah! He’s a spare, and he can’t even hold his own weight. We’re just lucky the rest of them have the strength for the leagues ahead.” A dozen animals to the right of the men grunted noisily as they stomped through the mud, wholly ignorant of their colleague’s plight.

Thorne spat out a plug of tobacco: his fifth today, “At this rate, we’ll have to cut him loose before sunset.”

Taris barked at his friend, “Aye, we’ll cut him all right.” He grabbed at his friend’s arm, deeply spotted from over-exposure to the sun, stopping it just before it reached for another plug. “Let’s get an augur up here and see what he thinks.” The prod buzzed angrily again.

Snaking down the broad slope for a league or more, the pack train rolled, stomped, and slid westward, and upward, as a dozen drivers and runners relayed a message down, down, down the line, to the augury wagon, where robed men, ringed by battered and bandaged Fargastu guards studied the sky for portents.

At dusk a single haruspex stood beside the now prone ox, the drivers fidgeted nervously as the caravan began to halt for the evening. Juice rolled down Thorne’s chin. Evidently he had found another plug of tobacco.

“You were right to send for guidance when you did,” said the augur through thick lips set upon a smoothly shaven face. His skin was without blemishes or scars, a study in cleanliness. The steady beat of his heart was visible through a ducat sized fontanel in the center of his forehead, radiating calm to those uncouth enough to stare.

Flies as big as grapes flew clumsily about his shoulders, encircling him in a tenuous, dynamic net. Thorne and Taris, subdued by his presence, watched quietly as he whispered hushed tones in the beast’s ear. Frantic, laboured breaths became increasingly shallow. In moments the suffering ceased and the beast lay motionless beside them.

Standing, the haruspex spoke in a strong voice, a voice not used to being questioned, “Did you notice the flyer this morning? It came in low from the Heipal plateau, and tumbled eastward. The vanes wrote a delicate pattern of electrostatic tracers just before dawn. It was beautiful.”

“No Decemvir, I missed that one. Must ‘a meant something though?” asked Taris, watching a brightly coloured fly alight on a scrimshaw brooch. It twitched with the warm evening wind.

He nodded briefly at the honorific, “That’s where you are wrong, driver.” Snapping his cloak open, the augur drew a long blackened blade in one graceful motion. “It meant nothing. A courier, nothing more. Portents are seldom what you expect them to be.”

With one hand on the blade and both eyes fixed stonily on the drivers, he thrust the long knife into the top of the ox’s chest, and pulled it down through muscle, sinew and bone from throat to tail. It took but a second, but while his eyes were fixed on the drivers, time ground down. Hearts beat with glacial slowness. And, like a river of ice suddenly exposed to the full fury of the sun, the beast’s insides spilled out, steaming into the short grass. Taris covered his mouth and eyes while Thorne, ever sensitive, reeled away from the carnage to vomit into the mud.

“Now, now, gentlemen! This morning you were eager for a glimpse of the future, were you not?” the augur chided as he knelt to study the complex interplay of the warm ropey coils that twisted and turned, doubling back on one another, forming knots of stunning complexity. “Such beautiful patterns. Oh! If only you could see them, could know them, such as I do. These knots may seem like chaos to you, but let me assure you, the underlying fabric of our existence is not chaos!” he shouted to the backs of the drivers as he coaxed new patterns from the cooling entrails with long fingers and eyes of fire.

The delicate viscera steamed as they spilled out into the cool morning air. His practised fingers quickly assessed the serosa: smooth to the touch and almost frictionless. Quickly he withdrew his hands to limit to limit his influence and maintain the purest reading possible.

Several patterns began to emerge from the glistening entrails. First the spring flower in the garden of the electress untangled itself before his unblinking eyes. This bode well. The sight of a flower blossoming in the inner garden of the body foretold growth, beauty, and kinship with the natural world. But like all living things the presence of the flower soon faded as the knot unwound itself to form the river that bends toward the sea, a dark omen if ever there was one.

The haruspex spoke as he studied. “Look men. Do you see the spiral ansae?” Thorne flashed him a look of confusion, his eyes steadfastly avoiding the carnage.

“Apologies my friends. This is my domain, not yours. I refer of course to this doubled loop of colon. So intricate and so riddled with portents of change.” The Augur’s voice wavered with excitement.

The drivers listened carefully to the excited reading, struggling to separate the speech from the squelching sounds of soft innards and to restrain themselves from further vomiting. Nearby, canvas tents were erected, fires were lit, and animals were fed and massaged as porters–small, mean, dwarf-like men and women–set up a series of pumps from which they would fill cisterns from shallow streams that bubbled noisily by the road.

Overhead, the leading stars of the The Beekeeper twinkled to life low in the southwest. Daylight faded slowly as the haruspex interpreted a dozen patterns, each one increasingly suggestive of some minor event concerning violence and intoxication in the immediate future.

“Listen, men. This beast gave its life so you would be better prepared for your own. This is no time for squeamishness. Come closer out of respect for the dead!” he commanded.

“Yes, Decemvir.” As one, they dragged their feet, and with eyes firmly fixed on their soiled boots, they listened intently in the hopes of sifting through the extraneous details and memorizing those that truly mattered.

“This is the pylorus” The augur pointed with long fingers at the region where the stomach joined with intestine as the drivers closed their eyes. “Do you see the tight circumvolutions as the jejunum again takes the shape of the river that bends toward the sea? No, I guess you don’t see, do you. No matter. The river flows whether we see it or not. And eddies and currents are always dangerous when the river bends as much as this one.” He paused and sucked in his breath slowly. “A rather troubling pattern, no?”

Thorne braved a question, “Is there anything we need to worry about?” His eyes remained closed fast.

“Worry, is an overstatement. But you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Watch for the unexpected. It has a way of surprising you, even when presaged.” He leaned forward on his bloodied hands to emphasize his next words, “This spilling may give clues to the immediate future of the entire caravan, not just two sulking drivers.”

Squinting, so as to render the scene before them in dark silhouettes the drivers stood alert as the interpretation continued.

“But lo! What is this?” He pointed his index finger as if following a dancer at a section where purples and greys of the tableau gave way to a mottling of brown and black. “This growth is a world unto itself; a world of hate and rage where the hard-hearted take refuge. See how the plague touches its neighbours? There is much here gentlemen. But not so much that you need let fear of the half-known consume you.”

Suddenly, a slippery avalanche of entrails broke free, surprising the augur. He knelt closer. “Look at this coiled section; it keeps creeping further down into the grass. It has been some time since I’ve seen motion like this. Tomorrow you may be in for a surprise. It will come quickly.”

Thorne and Taris, braved a look at the augur. “We’ll be prepared Decemvir.” the said without conviction.

Reaching in his cloak the Haruspex drew forth a whistle carved from a stained tusk and blew a tattoo of nine short bursts. “As best you can. One would expect nothing less,” he said patiently as fourteen sullen porters emerged from the growing maze of tents to ring their summoner.

Five knelt on calloused hands and knees. Four others climbed onto their backs as three more scaled this second level. The final two formed clambered over their fellows to form the top of a broken pyramid fully twice the height of a grown man. With quick agile steps, the haruspex scaled the pyramid — without a single grunt of complaint from his living staircase — and in the rapidly darkening light, scanned the sea of tents for the banners and coloured fires of his junto.

* * *

Long after the fires had turned to glowing embers, Thorne lay awake in his bedroll fretting about tomorrow. The camp was next to silent, with the exception of the steady rhythm of snores from pack animals, and exhausted men, women, and children. Once or twice he thought he heard the faint cries of a baby, who no doubt had awoken in the dark, a strange and frightening place, and sought comfort and protection in the warmth of his nearby parents.

His children were long since grown. Telion, his eldest, was mauled when hunting bearded apes. Now with mismatched, waxy grafted arms, he made a small fortune flogging chits on the favour market. Liderat and Jebline, his beautiful twin daughters, had settled in the Plenoptic archipelago after marrying ex-gladiators who, after long and deadly years of wielding the glaive, became paired-captains on the All-Seeing Eye; a squalener of some renown. The women lived together in a great house overlooking the clear waters of the Crisea, with windows perpetually open to the salt rich breeze that washed away worries and nourished the spirit with calm certitude.

If only that breeze could blow here and now, Thorne would be able to get some rest. When Telion was just a yearling, Thorne and his wife shared their bed with their only son. Their home was small and poorly heated, but their hearts were large, and the bed was warm and safe. Unless, of course, it was one of those evenings when the night haunts circled the small house, scraping and prattling on the windows and doors.

His wife would whisper to him soothingly, “Shhh! It’s just the wind,” but he knew it was not the wind. The wind did not chase your thoughts. The wind did not encircle you with pincer-like military precision. Round and round the stone house, the haunts tormented poor Thorne. They rattled the back door and then hobbled around to the front, dragging their claws across the stone walls as they moved, disjointed but with a terrible, fevered purpose.

He would move closer to his son, putting his face next to Telion’s, breathing quickly but quietly — so as not to wake his wife and face her disapproval — and let the purity of his son’s exhalations fill his fear racked body, banishing the haunts back to the dark pits from which they came. A little guardian, the son protected the father. But only at night mind you. In the waking hours Thorne was strong and resolute and often spoke of the violent things he would gladly do to any and all that threatened young Telion.

If only he were here now, small and warm beneath the bedroll with his father, his breath a welcome breeze from the worry and fear that gnawed at the edges of the musty blanket like a band of ragged demons stretched tall and thin that had come to torment a father while he tried to rest.

At daybreak, Thorne broke camp with tired limbs and puffy, red-rimmed eyes. On this morning, as on every other morning, great black sigils, impossibly distant, marched across the dome of the sky. One by one, they dropped slowly below the horizon, seemingly expanding as they did so, until the last was gone. Dawn had been decreed.

Thorne saw the morning as if through a haze. The cleaned carcass of the ox alone seemed concrete and sharp to his senses. The fleshless ribs, inverted like some immense skeletal crown thrust upward from the stained earth, held his tired eyes, demanding study and posing questions that he could not answer.

Slapping him on the back and breaking his reverie, his friend stood near, “C’mon old freebooter. That spilling means what you let it mean. Those sortilegists give the same tired old chaw every time. It’s up to you to make the best of it.”

A cloud of insects descended upon the bones. “I know that,” said Thorne, blinking rapidly. It was a bright morning, but the sun was presently obscured by thick band of cloud. “I’m just tired. My dreams kept waking me.”

“Best forget about those dreams. We won’t stop until mid-afternoon.”

As they walked behind their animals, which in turn followed a half hundred more wagoners, walkers, and long waving tails, Thorne turned twice to get a glimpse of the red bones of the ox. He saw them only briefly before they, too, were hidden behind the throng that wound steadily up the slope. His feet were made of stone, but his neck was loose and bobbled as he fought to stay awake.

No amount of rest could have prepared him for that afternoon.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Sifton Connolly

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