by Tom Underhill
part 1 of 2
Twilight’s fading rays flitted in through the lone window, adding little illumination if any to that already cast by the tavern’s sputtering lamps. Pipes packed with noxious weeds contributed miniature constellations of sparks, but most of these pinpoints were swallowed by the accompanying fog of smoke.
This combination of fumes and feeble lighting made for a visually near-impenetrable common room, one almost as mute as it was dim. The stranger silently toasted the muffled effect with every sip he took.
He’d secluded himself in the darkest corner, his only companion a twice-drained mug. And although he had yet to keep his eyes open for more than a few seconds at a stretch, the stranger knew the exact location of every other customer in the bar: the rhythmic clattering of dice from the gamblers three tables over, the quiet arrangers of an assassination four tables in the other direction, the uneven breathing of a farmer near the front...
Seven other patrons. Making him wince with every noise they made, however soft. But they were ignoring him, and he couldn’t ask for more without deluding himself.
A particularly loud oath from one of the gamblers caused the stranger to cringe. He responded by finishing what was still in his cup and gesturing blindly for a refill. The barmaid had been remarkably attentive, given the surroundings, but when it became clear that she’d failed to catch this last signal, he sighed and opened his eyes.
Finding her after several moments of squinting, he beckoned with a finger and dropped his gaze back to the table. He started to shake his head as he pictured the girl navigating around the tavern’s scattered furniture and idly groping hands. A mistake: fire and acid ripped through his body.
When he could feel other sensations again, the stranger found himself gripping the table’s edge so hard the wood seemed to scream. As he forced himself to let go, he noticed that his mug was refilled. The stranger contemplated it for a ten count before downing it in one draught.
* * *
“We’ve arrived, lad. Look around if you like: dinner and evening services won’t start until half past six. You’ll know when you hear the bell.”
Blinking the sleep out of his eyes, the child stumbles off the back of the wagon, his paces awkward until he regains a semblance of balance. After taking a few smoother strides, he finally really looks at the terrain around him. Stops. And stares.
A large, red-brick abbey rises up to his left, its base sunk into the side of one of the landscape’s myriad hills. Colossal in scale, the structure is like no other he’s seen or even imagined. Flanked on all sides by immaculate gardens, the building is further insulated by a river, two ponds, and countless fields that stretch off into the horizon. The vista is marred only by the swathe of misfit forest that straggles skywards to his left. It’s in this last direction that the child tentatively steps when he begins moving again.
The uncertain look he shoots back at the monk evokes a quiet chuckle. “Go on, lad. The trees are sturdier than they look. Have a climb. I’ll be in the courtyard when you want your proper tour.”
The child smiles slightly and ambles off towards the closest oak. Upon reaching its trunk, he spends several sticky moments in ascension before finding a satisfactory perch. His forehead beads with sweat from the effort, and it’s all he can do not to claw at the rawness etched around his right eye as his body’s salt begins to aggravate it. By the time he’s settled and facing back towards the abbey, his smile is gone.
Jerking a leaf from a drooping twig, the child lets it drop, and rips free another. The moisture wetting his face is no longer just perspiration.
* * *
The dice game grew more heated, and the stranger made another urgent summons to the barmaid as the resulting curses began to fly. His plea went completely unnoticed this time, however, as a new group of travelers stomped their way into the tavern.
The four men’s entrance thinned the smoke a bit as the fresh air they let in swept out some of the foul, allowing the lamps to shine a shade brighter. Shouts for food and strong drink drowned out the still squabbling gamblers, and the stranger came dangerously close to lashing out.
Squeezing his eyes shut again, the stranger tried in vain not to eavesdrop as three of the four new voices wandered from discussions of the day’s events on the road to more worldly news and rumors.
“...bread’s good as always...”
“...long way to Midvale... worth the trouble?...”
“...sell plenty... you’ll see when we get there...”
“...town under Jenowades’ control now? Or have the Jonderins retaken it?”
As inconspicuously as he could, the stranger shifted, huddling deeper into himself.
“Retaken and re-lost. Won’t be much left of it now. Still, they’ll need clothes. Pass the bread this way, would you?”
“...soup’s been better...”
“...you don’t like it, give it here...”
“...didn’t say I wouldn’t eat it...”
“...see the cloak in the corner, there? Odd garb he’s got up in... Queer-looking fellow, if you ask me.”
This first comment from the fourth traveler made the stranger’s muscles feel like they were being drawn and quartered. The effort required to relax as the party’s seeming leader responded was almost more than he could muster.
“I didn’t ask: no one did. Leave him be; it’s too good a meal for you to waste it jumping at shadows again. And will you pass the blasted bread?”
“Not from around here, though. Looks foreign... Mark those boots. And the cloak itself... A strange one, to be sure.”
“How can you even tell in this cave? Do us all a favor and use your mouth for chewing, just this once. I’m tired of waiting on you to finish every cursed meal.”
Agonizingly loud bursts of laughter suggested that the other travelers agreed.
“Seeing an enemy at every turn again, Briad? Next you’ll be saying it’s that Jonderin ‘Demon’ the tales are so full of.”
“Does he really believe those fables? That Demon’s only real to old women and sniveling children... and maybe men who still soil their sheets.”
Despite the conversation’s seemingly safer turn, the tension in the stranger’s fibers still refused to be anything less than excruciating. He promised his body he would leave as soon as it would let him, slink away to seek out a new solitude somewhere far from here if this “Briad’s” companions succeeded in shouting him down.
“...break you if you ever talk to me like that again, Kayon... Just seems off, is all. Different character, that one.”
“So are you, for what it’s worth. Scared of your own shadow, tattooed up and down. While we’re on the subject, the new one, that bloody snake on your arm you’re so proud of, makes you look like a heathen sailor. Damned embarrassing to be in public with you now...”
“...got a snake because he is a snake...”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear either of you rag dolls. And I’m still keeping an eye on that one.”
“You do that. I hope he is the Demon, Briad. I’d love to see what you think you and your snake could possibly do about it. But for now will you at least pretend to forget it? I’m too tired for your nonsense tonight.”
“Pass the loaf, then.”
The mock applause this concession occasioned was deafening.
“If it will keep you quiet.”
The stranger felt himself uncoiling somewhat. He breathed deep, and gathered himself to order what he vowed would be his last refill as the first three travelers drifted back into miscellaneous topics.
“...marketplace at Rankin... busy as always... love that town... those farmers are so naïve...”
“...rare day that was... do with more of them...”
“...can say that again... pass the salt...”
The tavern door opened briefly and quickly creaked shut again. Whistles and hoots replaced the now harmless conversation. Hazarding a quick look through his wince, the stranger sighed as the woman and her daughter from a few hours ago leaked in through his lashes.
He was too exhausted to wonder how they’d found him. Head lowered again, the stranger marked their hesitant, delicate footsteps above the resuming din, wishing with all his heart that his cup was already topped off when they stopped at his table.
* * *
“And why must I read this, Brother Gable?” The boy peers over the manuscript’s fraying edges, shifting unconsciously to adopt the straighter posture he’s always reprimanded for lacking.
The monk blinks as he meets the boy’s gaze. “You know well, lad. The tenets of Brother Jonders hold for all walks of life. Learn from them so you can live by them.”
Laughing dubiously, the boy gestures with his head at the tome in his hands. “So you knew him, then? He himself told you all these rules?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t try my patience today, lad. Brother Jonders spoke his code well over two hundred years ago, but his words were set down verbatim on sheets like those you now hold so irreverently.”
The monk leans forward slightly. “We know them to be true not because of the way they sound but because of the way they feel. They feel... like life. My own faith is reaffirmed every day with every service, as yours should be, and will be in time. When you let it.”
The boy stays silent for a moment. “But how can you be so sure he’s the last word on... on everything? How could one man get everything right? Couldn’t there be at least a few errors here and there? Mistranslations even?”
The monk shakes his head, leans further forward as he rapidly grows more animated. “It’s true that questioning only strengthens belief, lad, but you have more proof than any other man, woman, or child could ever need. Your denials are beginning to wear thin. You know it to be true, and you demonstrate with each passing day that it can’t be otherwise. Your gifts, your Light-given gifts, have brought forty more initiates to the abbey in the last four summers. How can you still doubt your power?”
“Maybe fear is a better word than doubt.”
“Listen to me: that foal the other day, those wounds you... healed... I haven’t felt such a deep conviction in the righteousness of our Order in more years than I care to remember. How can you not share it with me? You, who possess the gift? Believe, lad. Trust me, trust Jonders. For all our sakes, trust yourself.”
The boy lowers his gaze to the aging parchment. “I didn’t ask for this.”
“No one gets to choose their fate. Best to just accept it and play the part you were marked for.”
“I wasn’t marked for anything until I met you.” The boy mumbles this last into his assignment, his brow furrowing of its own accord.
“Your reading, lad.”
Staying silent for a space, the boy runs his thumb back and forth along the edge of the dusty page several times before speaking again. “If Jonders is so clearly right, why did my parents follow Jenowade?”
The monk rocks back in his chair, raising its front legs off the cobblestone courtyard for a moment before he leans back in with a guarded expression. “Now who told you that?”
“Does it matter?”
“Probably not... probably not...” Exhaling loudly, the monk looks directly at the youth and plunges into it. “Your parents were good people, lad. Good people. They sent you here to save you, even though they risked everything in doing so. Good people...
“But that never precludes anyone from being misguided. Like so many others, they were poisoned by false promises. Partial truths and deceitful prophecies... Jenowade was nothing but a blaspheming heretic. Never forget that. His followers, believing his ignorant ravings, would chastise and persecute one with your gift. To your death, lad, to your death. Where we would embrace your powers. Embrace you. As our savior.”
“Are you trying to make me hate, Brother Gable?”
The monk pauses before answering. “Continue your reading, lad. You will see... you will see.”
* * *
“Sir? Sir? I... we... would like to thank you. For today... Sir? Are you in pain?”
The stranger accepted the inevitable and forced his eyes open as wide as he could manage, angling his neck enough to find the woman’s chin floating above her daughter’s head. “It’ll pass... Sit if you’d like.”
The woman started when she met his gaze, although she did her best to hide it. “Thank you.” Collecting herself after a moment’s pause, she gently pressured her child into sitting across from the stranger before squeezing in next to her.
Pressing close against her daughter, she put an arm around the young girl when she tried to wriggle away. The table rocked unsteadily as one of the two brushed against it.
Nothing further was said for several moments. Trying and failing to maintain eye contact, the woman repeatedly broke off every instance of direct vision whenever some trivial motion elsewhere in the bar provided an excuse for letting her sight wander.
He appreciated her attempts, though. Rotating a few degrees, the stranger watched the girl fidget in spite of the reproving hand on her shoulder. It took a serious effort to keep his head from swaying noticeably.
“I... I don’t have much to offer in return,” the woman finally ventured. “I’m sorry I screamed earlier. It was just so... unexpected. So miraculous. And that glow from your eyes... Sir? Are you sure you’re alright? Sir?”
The light in combination with her sound had overcome him again. Eventually, he took his hands from his temples and reopened his eyes into the empty mug. “I’ll be fine. Could you signal for another cup, perhaps? I’d be obliged.”
The woman eagerly turned away to fulfill his request. Once the task was accomplished, however, she seemed at a loss as to how to renew the conversation. He did little to help, keeping his head down and his eyes closed as they waited.
“What’s that around your eye?”
“Lyla! Be polite, for Light’s sake! This man saved your life!”
Upon opening his eyes once more, he found the unabashed girl looking back at him intently. She was worrying at something in her pocket now, the labor causing her right eyebrow to curl down and her tongue to stick out and up.
The stranger’s mouth twitched dangerously close to a grin as he felt a sudden wave of calm crash over the pain. “An old scar symbolizing a lot of forgotten nonsense. Given to me when I was close to your age.”
“How did you make it glow?”
The calm ebbed as quickly as it had flowed, and he closed his eyes again. “It’s fine, Miss. And it’s not worth knowing, little lass. Best to forget it.”
He jumped slightly as he heard the splash of a refill, mumbling his thanks as the barmaid scrambled back to the center table. Managing to drink without raising his head more than a few inches, the stranger could almost hear the woman’s sudden disapproval. He knew he reeked of it, but then again she was the one who’d sat down next to him. “Better alcohol than blood, Miss. Better alcohol than blood...”
She made no reply; he wasn’t certain the murmur had carried beyond the confines of his cup. Shrugging, he drained what little remained.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill