Saturday, August 31, 2013

For The Greatest Good -- Part XXI (Dana)

Part XXI -- Account by Dana MacDonald

The night air was cool. The wind’s breath whispered around tree and bush as I crept towards one of our company’s sentinels. The guard glanced back at my approach, and then returned his gaze to the dim forest scenery. I stopped at his side and pulled my cloak about my body to ward off the chill.
   “Seen anything?” I whispered.
   “Nay, MacDonald. No sign o’ movement or pursuit. Really think they’ll come after us?”
I nodded and kept my attention outwards.
   “No doubt about it. Set wouldn’t give up, not after the threat he made.”
The guard grunted in reply, and then fell silent, as did I.
   “Prison can’t be much farther off, aye?” he said after an interval.
   “If we start at dawn, we’ll be there by midmorning, or so says the scout we’ve followed.”
   “Is the course true, then?” he asked, glancing at me. I nodded.
   “So far, we’ve traveled aright.”
I glanced back over my shoulder. Kearney had left her spot by the tree, and I felt neither the desire for sleep or further conversation.
   Quick look ahead wouldn’t hurt.
I pulled my hood up and took a few steps forward.
   “I’ll be out looking ahead, shouldn’t take more than an hour at most. If I don’t return, keep following the scout forward.”
   “Aye, MacDonald,” the guard murmured. He, like the others, knew me well enough neither to worry nor question the action.

   I wound a path through the dim tree cover, occasional breaks in the foliage illuminated by moonlit radiance. The darkness and overall silence was soothing, and I paid little attention to my actual course, allowing my mind’s compass to guide me forward.
   She could be right.
I pushed a branch aside and climbed a short rise, pausing a moment as I gained the summit.
   There was never any list of who lived, and who died. No record of the battle’s details. What if…
Several pine trees grew from the hill’s face ahead of me, and I forced my way through the bramble of needles and branches. At the same time, I attempted to quell the thought. It echoed within my head’s confines.
   There might yet be a chance. Maybe-
   “No!” I spoke, rather than thought. “Every time I’ve tried to picture a solution, there’s been no path. In all the time I studied, searched, there hasn’t been a trace of a clue or hint. Why should I dare hope now, only to have it destroyed all too easily?”
The warring voice in my head offered no reply, but I did not feel at rest about the matter regardless. I focused my attention and moved onward to restrain any other stray thoughts. The ground beneath rose in an incline, and I moved upwards. What looked like a clearing lay at the top of the rise, and I made for it, thinking to gain a better view of the surrounding forest. I gained the summit, finding only a few stray trees here and there to block my view. Behind, I could see the forest stretch out of sight. I turned my gaze forward. Several miles beyond and below, I saw the glimmer of orange flames, tiny and steady, as well as a dark mass that looked different than the tree shadows around it. The sheer size of the mass was staggering, even larger in width than Campbell’s fortress.
   The prison, I thought grimly to myself. I allowed my inner compass to weave its course before my eyes… and then stopped, confused. The prison wasn’t the destination. My gift urged the course onward, beyond the prison.
   That can’t be right. My path is set on Kearney’s brothers, and this prison is the only bastion of Ross’s in this region.
I shifted my mind’s guide from Percy and Seph and focused on the Prison itself. Immediately, I felt a wave of revulsion and inner warning, so strong I could scarcely entertain the thought of moving forward, much less trying. Whatever lay within the prison, it would be to our death to attempt entrance now.
   This can’t be. Her brothers lay within the prison, surely it would be our destination!
I probed once more, receiving the same response. I stepped back, and then turned away from the hill’s summit and made my way down the slope. Wherever our course lay, it was not at the prison. Not now, at least.
   How am I supposed to explain this to Kearney?

Friday, August 16, 2013

For The Greatest Good -- Part XX (Penny)

Part XX – Account by Penny Kearney

  As the red haired young soldier walked away, securing the curious parchment in his pouch once again, John let a long wisp of smoke curl from his mouth, a thoughtful frown on his face.
  “You could show that to MacDonald. He could read it, I’d wager.”
  I nodded. Dana had mentioned reading old Order texts in his libraries up North. “I may do so tomorrow. He isn’t too pleased with me at the moment.” I ran my thumb over my lip in recollection.
  “And how do you know that, my lady?”
  I tilted my gaze away from him. “Because I am stubborn. I believe he wishes I would help him in his endeavor instead of thwarting his quest for Set’s blood.”
  I quelled the flare of warmth that started inside me and forced my thoughts to avert. I didn’t want to get angry again now. With a small sigh, I opened my mouth to say goodnight.
  “Don’t tell him that.” John moved to sit by his tree again.
  I frowned, watching him. “Don’t tell him what?”
  MacCullen settled before replying. “He doesn’t want to.”
  “Doesn’t want to what?”
  Tipping his gaze upwards, he met mine squarely. “He doesn’t want to die, my lady.”
  “I didn’t say he did…” I managed, unsure of what John was getting at.
  “No. You didn’t. Nor did he say he was upset.”
  “Were you listening?” I narrowed my eyes.
  “Didn’t have to. I know him well enough to tell when he’s angry.”
  I considered this. Perhaps I hadn’t been the only one to pass by MacCullen’s post this night.
  The old captain leaned back against the trunk of the tree, an ember in his pipe snapping quietly. “MacDonald knows well enough what happens when he goes after Set for blood. Only reason he did it recently was to get you out. Aye, he tried to kill Set. But… for all our sakes, I’m not sure he really would.” He took a long draw on his pipe, gaze flicking to me again as he let it out. “Maybe one way of not letting everyone down is by convincing them this is the only way. After all, if we’re all in one accord, who’s to disappoint, aye?”
  I shifted my gaze, letting John’s words sink in slowly.
  “That’s one thing his master couldn’t do, because he was still too furious,” John said. “Call his bluff. Give him a reason, my lady, a good one. He’s gone so long convincing himself, maybe even with his Gift, he can’t see proper.”
  I looked at the old soldier, studying him hard. I had all but abandoned the hope of convincing Dana to agree there might be another way out. Again the look in Dana's eyes when my blade had halted his flashed through my mind. Could that have been a bluff, too?
  “What kind of reason is a good enough one?” I ventured.
  “I don’t know, my lady. Any, I suppose. There hasn’t been another reason so far.”
  Only a heartbeat passed before I answered, “I’ll find one. Thank you, John. For talking.”
  “You will, Lady Kearney. If anyone will.”
  A smile turned the corner of my mouth. “Thank you for that, too… Goodnight.”
  With a nod, he pulled his hood over his head once again, but not before I caught a glimpse of his own smile. I left him there, his pipe still glowing in the darkness, and silently returned to the tree I had been sitting under before. For another long while I pondered the parchment, and John’s words, but at last I curled up amidst the knobbled roots and fell asleep.

For The Greatest Good -- Part XIX (Penny)

Part XIX – Account by Penny Kearney

  Time drifted past. Lost in my own thoughts, it seemed irrelevant. In fact I entirely forgot about it. When I finally lifted my head and glanced at the sky, the moon had crossed over the branches of the tree above me, to the one across. It seemed the only living thing not asleep. Even the crickets were lethargic in their chirping.
  I pushed myself to my feet, stretching my stiff muscles and letting the night air mingle with my thoughts.  Under various trees, behind bushes, and against rocky outcroppings, Dana’s men lay sprawled out or curled up, snoozing. I kept my steps light as I wandered from my resting place.
  I didn’t have a destination in mind. The forest surrounded me, and the slumbering soldiers in every shadow warded away the fear that would come from being alone in a dark place.
  I wandered for several minutes before a figure rose from beneath a tree at my approach. I guessed I must have run into the perimeter of encampment and caught the attention of the night guard.
  “Lady Kearney?” He ventured, notes of surprise in his tone. “You should be resting, our time here is short.”
  Slowing to a stop, I regarded the darkened form. He sounded familiar. John. John MacCullen, Dana’s captain I’d met yesterday when I’d woken up. Though slight, I caught the Northerner accent in his voice. My thoughts settled to the present as I answered, “I can’t sleep at the moment.”
  John nodded, returning to his place by the tree. “Do not let me disturb you, then.”
  I paused a moment, watching him. “Actually… Can I talk with you a moment?”
  He nodded. “If you wish, my lady. What is it you want to discuss?”
  “Dana.” I moved into the shadow of the tree near his and kept my tone hushed so as not to rouse any other soldiers. “How long have you known him?”
  “About five years now. When he was officially declared by his mentor, the elder knight.”
  “So you’re from the North, as well?”
  “Aye, my lady.” John said. “Warriors from different villages, some of us freed slaves that joined him during his trek down here.”
  I nodded, folding my arms and leaning back against the tree behind me.
  His head tilted in the darkness. “May I ask why you inquired, my lady?”
  I shrugged. “In the year I’ve known him, he has become a good friend. But come to think of it I don’t know that much about his past; what has made him who he is today.”
  He nodded. “He’s had quite a run compared to me, and he’s only half my age.”
  “It seems he has.” I murmured. There were times I would look at him and wonder if I even knew him at all. Times I felt so far away, so helpless.
  My army gone, my brothers prisoners, my people endangered. Right now I felt less like the ‘queen’ Set called me and more like a lonely, desperate warrior simply trying to survive one battle at a time. My heart would not let me rest, yet I longed for any comfort or encouragement to tell me I was doing the right thing.
  “Would you please tell me about him?”
  John regarded me through the veil of night with a steady stare. “What is it you want to know, my lady?”
  “I don’t want to know anything specific.” I said. “I can’t sleep, and I’m curious. I want to understand him better, because right now…”
  Pulling his cloak tighter around his broad shoulders, John nodded in understanding. “You’ll not be able to convince him, my lady. His own mentor couldn’t do that, right before he left.” He frowned in thought. “He was always helpful back home. He’d wander from village to village, a Guardian Knight; people would flock to greet him. But he’d get the most delight from helping a child find a lost toy, to give an example.”
  I listened intently to each word as he continued.
  “Even at sixteen, he was the best swordsman on the Northern shores. And yet, for the most part, he saved it for a last resort.” A darker note entered his tone. “That changed when Set came to us.”
  The all too familiar shudder trickled down my spine at the mention of Set. John produced a pipe from under his cloak, holding it up in question.
  I waved in acquiescence. “By all means.”
  Lighting it, he took a long draw, the embers glowing.  Smoke curled from his mouth with his exhale. “We found his native village completely destroyed. His master was distraught. People started disappearing, bands of thieves harassed us, harvest was short. That year was a hard one.
  “Then he came back. He returned to us much different than when he had left. Hard, bitter, covered in scars. He looked older than I did. It wasn’t two days before he’d called all the warriors together. Told us about Set, and the threat he posed. No one gainsaid him. We all agreed… and I doubt he would’ve taken no for an answer.”
 “Then all of you…” I eyed him. “You would all kill Set, given the opportunity.”
  John shook his head. “He didn’t tell us that bit. Besides, the look on his face, none of us would have taken away that right to kill Set himself away from him. Not after what happened to his village. It was a matter of honor.”
  I shifted my gaze. Honor….
  “But that day…” John shook his head. “That wasn’t justice. It was rage, anger, uncontrolled fury. I was firsthand what a Gift could do, turned evil. Our attack was flawless. Dana foresaw any mishaps, any ambush, any weakness. He wouldn’t brook any survivors. Ordered  them all destroyed. He led the advance to find Set, and wouldn’t let anyone stop him.”
  I remembered the flicker in Dana’s eyes when I’d interrupted his duel with Set in the dungeon of Ross’s castle. I remained quiet, hoping John would finish in spite of the distaste I detected in his tone.
  “When he found out Set had run, he was might angry. I took command then. We’d taken captives, and I wasn’t about to execute them out of spite, Gift or no Gift.” John paused, several clouds of smoke curling upwards before he spoke again. “Dana took this awful quietly, and he slipped off. I didn’t have to worry about his getting lost, for sure. He came back a few days later, a bit more composed. He apologized to me, talked with the elder guardian for a bit, then left again. I didn’t see naught of him for a few months. I think that’s when he first travelled Southwards, and found you and your brothers.”
  I nodded in silent response to John’s glance.
  “Then he returned to rally us all down here. He seemed more at peace with his lot then, a bit wiser and older.” He shrugged. “You’d know the same as me after that.”
  All of what John had just told me wove through my mind. I remained still quiet for several minutes, considering each word, each point, of the entire narration.
  “He has his moments,” John murmured. “When I think what’s happened, what he’s done, comes back to him. He’ll get quiet, won’t talk more than a few words at a time… Aside from that, he’s much like I knew him before, save a bit older.”
  Something inside me kept twisting. “You’re right. I don’t think there’s a way to change his mind about Set.”
  To this the Captain released his pipe from between his teeth and turned his gaze on me once more.
I suppose the defeat in my tone awakened some sense of sympathy in him. “Who knows. Perhaps you’re more stubborn than he is.”
  I could have laughed at the idea, but right then I couldn’t muster even a sarcastic one.  Not because I disagreed with his point, but because I wasn’t sure if he really meant what he said, or if he was just giving me half hearted encouragement because he was afraid he’d upset me.
  “Am I the only one who believes there has to be another way to stop Set?” I tilted my gaze to scrutinize his expression as he answered.
  “Has to be?”
  “Is that a yes?” I raised a brow.
  MacCullen settled back against the tree with a shrug. “I’m just an old soldier, Lady Kearney. I never learned to read in all my days. I couldn’t tell you yes, or no.”
  “Would you help me if I found a way?”
  He frowned in thought, glancing at me through puffs of smoke.
  “I’m not going to give up.” I added as his silence continued.  “But I would rather not have to fight against everyone including Dana in order to try and find another way to stop Set that doesn’t require Dana to die.”
  “I’d help you, Lady Kearney, if you could find a way. But I wouldn’t be of much help in finding one.”
  Tension I hadn’t noticed build up in my stomach unwound at his response, and my breath came easier. “Thank you.”
  From a nearby tree, another voice joined the conversation. “You’d go to the loremaster for that.”
  I turned my gaze towards a young soldier who lay within the confines of a bush, leaning on his elbows. For a moment I wondered how long he’d been listening, feeling somewhat self conscious at the thought, but my curiosity got the better of such fleeting emotions.
  John chuckled into his pipe. “Aye, the loremaster. That’d be an idea, wouldn’t it.”
  I detected a hint of jest in his tone, frowning. “Loremaster?”
  “Aye, masters of folklore where we come from. Told stories of werewolves, star dancers, and tree grabbers. You won’t find it in any book, I’ll tell you that.”
  “My grandfather knew one.” Thomas added.
  This time John laughed outright. “Aye, Thomas. And he was a bit on the deaf, blind side, wasn’t he?”
  “This was before all that, capt’n.” Thomas insisted. “Before he was in that avalanche. He’d tell me stories about the loremasters, even told me where to find their home.”
  “Aye, just as we all were.” He began half to himself. “Walk ever westward ‘til you cross the yellow sea…”
  Thomas joined in. “When you have gone farther than your body can muster, and the sea is a mockery to life and memory, you will find it.”
  “The tower of lore.” John smiled. “My Mum used to say the same thing.”
  I folded my arms, glancing between the two soldiers. “I don’t exactly have time to cross oceans…”
  John shrugged. “It’d be yellow, too. Goblin stories, no more.”
  “Then a loremaster isn’t going to help me much.”
  “They’re true, I’m telling you!” Rising, Thomas dug into a pouch attached to his belt. “I can prove it, too.”
  This caught my attention, forestalling my disbelief for a moment. The object he produced proved to be a parchment, lined and aged beyond any number of years I could fathom, and made of a strange sort of animal hide I had never seen before. He handed it to me, and I stepped to the side a few paces to examine it under the traces of moonlight shining through the branches. Sequences of characters were scrawled in black over the surface of the parchment in odd, distinct clusters of shapes. After a moment, John rose from his place and joined me, peering down at the markings, as well.
  “My grandfather gave this to me,” I could feel Thomas watching for my reaction. “Said it’d be important someday. Or at least, that’s what the loremaster told him.”
  The older soldier puffed. “It’s not even in common, Thomas. You can’t read it, how do you know they’re even words?”
  Suddenly I remembered. Memories of searching the library corners, dusty chests, and old desks; old books long forgotten filled with genealogies and official creeds of the Guardian Order, the inspiration for my quest to rebuild the Order once thought mere legend.“I’ve seen these before…” I said.
  He glanced at me, humor fading. “What is it?”
  “I saw it in some of the books in the library of the castle I grew up in.”
  “You mean… it’s an actual language?”
  “I think so…” The closer I looked, the more convinced I became that these symbols matched those I’d seen in the Order books I’d found almost a year ago. Little scribbles along the margins, handwritten notes in the back of the book, or symbols stitched into the leather binding as, I had thought, decoration. Looking at the sweeping designs and geometric placement, indeed this could be mistaken for abstract scribbling of a lethargic artist, but having seen these same exact markings elsewhere, the similarity and distinctness was undeniable.
  This was their language; their code. I longed to know what it said, and wondered if this could possibly be a mere coincidence.
  “See, Capt’n?” Thomas grinned in triumph. “I told you it was writing!”
  I glanced up in time to see the sharp look Dana’s captain shot his subordinate. “Aye, so it might be. Can you read it, my lady?”
  “I can’t read it.” I shook my head.
  “But what is it, then?”
  “I don’t know…” I handed it back to the red haired lad. “Would you keep it safe? I might be able to find someone, somehow, who can read it. You know about the Set and Dana dilemma, I assume?”
  “Aye, my lady. A shame, it is.”
  “Then you would be willing to help me find a way around it?”
  “Of course, my lady.” Even in the darkness I detected the excitement in his expression. “Do you think this writing has anything to do with it?”
  “I’m not sure, but it might. And thank you…”
  He nodded. “My pleasure, my lady.”
  I smiled, this time sincerely.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Legend Post -- The Cooper and the Two Dragons

At long last, another Legend Post. Once again life has kept me away from my poor blog, which by now is certainly gathering dust and cobwebs in the corners. This makes me sad, and a little guilty, but between having guests over (again) and trying to finish two stories (FtGG and my other novel), I end up with very little time and energy for posting anything here worth reading.

I have also randomly created a tumblr account. After chatting with Ani, I'm considering transferring a more doable schedule to tumblr, so that when I don't post things here, I can still post something quick over there. I'll keep you all updated.
"The Cooper and the Two Dragons"
Drawing by Lynnae Direain, specifically for this post.

Now, to the point. The Cooper and the Two Dragons. This is a tale from Switzerland, and for any of you who don't know what a cooper is, it's a person who " makes wooden staved vessels, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper's work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers." [~ Wikipedia]  For the sake of simplicity, we'll just say coopers are barrel makers. Much less of a mouthful.

The cooper who is the main character of our story today doesn't have a name. I like things to have names, whether people, animals, and even some objects. So give me a moment while I find a good Swiss name for him.


Stefan. I'll call him Stefan.

Now for his adventure.

In Switzerland lived a man, a cooper by trade, who one day climbed the soft slope of a nearby mountain to a forest of oaks and birches to find wood. It was autumn and the ground was covered with a thick carpet of dead leaves. The cooper deviated soon from the path, in search of some good low branches to cut and carry home on his mule.
At the falling night, he noted that he had been mislaid. He scanned the darkness in the hope to see the campfire of some hunter or the hut of a coalman. The branches lacerated his face while he advanced in the obscure forest, and sudden it seemed to him that the ground was falling under his steps. He released the leading-rein of his mule, tried to advance, lost foot and fell at the bottom from a ravine, bringing in his fall several roots and stones. At the bottom, the ground was covered with mud and the air impregnated of a strong odor of manure and burned foliage. Exhausted, the cooper shrivelled in a corner and fell asleep.

With the pale gleam of the dawn, he woke up, sored all over, and contemplated the thin band of sky which cut out between the walls of the ravine, so high and abrupt that he could not think of climbing them, and he sank in a deep despair. Then he heard the sigh of a drowsy animal, so near and so powerful that he felt his hair to straigt up on his head. This breath was hot like the breath of a furnace and passably sulfurous. It seemed to emanate on the side opposite of the ravine and the cooper leaned ahead and scanned the darkness. In a jump, he stand erected. Not far from him, their folded up rings and their massive forms cutting out vaguely in the dim light, their heavy half closed eyelids because the winter torpor, two enormous dragons were rested.
Our man fell to knees to beg the sky. At this time there, one of the dragons emerged from its torpor. The wings folded up like a fan, it came out of the cave in a great unfolding of scaly rings, carried by four short clawed legs. It agitated the tail in direction of the cooper and it was rolled up around him. The dragon looked a few moments at the prisoner with glaucous eyes, then released him and re-entered in its den, leaving poor man with his knees trembling of terror, but unharmed.

Knowing his rescue improbable and his escape impossible, the cooper spent the winter in the ravine, accompanied by the drowsy dragons. He nourished from mushrooms growing on the wet walls, heated by the breath of the dragons, and was refreshed by collecting the dew in his hands. As he was left in peace, he lost his fear and, one night when the snowflakes fell thick and where cold bit him, he slipped into the cave and settled himself well at the heat from the hollow of the rings. One of the dragons turned the head but, accepting the intrusion, it took again its position and left him quiet.
The cooper thus spent the night and all those which followed and, with the return of spring, when the melting made waters cascade in the ravine, the dragons saved his life. One morning, he woke up alone and frozen in the smoked den. He heard the sound of the beating of large wings. He went outside and saw one of the dragons spreading its membranous wings and, whipping the air from its tail, rising in the sky. The other dragon was also on the point of flying away in the bright light of the morning and it slowly unfolded its wings. The cooper seized it by the tail and he hung on with all his strength while the animal rose off the ground and into the sky.
Arriving at the edge of the ravine, the man released his grip and fell gently on the ground. He looked for a moment upon the rise of the dragons in the luminous sky. Then, he found the path from which he had deviated the preceding autumn and followed it until he reached his home. There, he told his adventure to his friends and relatives, who were amazed. They thought he was dead since his mule had returned alone, several months before. [Text taken from]

While that is the end of the tale, I do not think it is the end of the story. I can easily imagine that the two dragons and the cooper, Stefan, remained fast friends. Maybe even protected the city from some disaster or attack at some point. Something fun for the imagination to play with, eh?

Dia duit,