31 January, 2008

Brick's Tale

So, I have yet another book started. The working title is Brick's Tale, but that will be subject to change. As always, please let me know what you think; I yearn for constructive criticism.

Brick Chapter One

My name is Brigham Something-or-other. That’s right; I don’t rightly know what my last name is. My father’s name was Olaf, or something, but he sold me to pay off his gambling debts before I ever thought to ask him what our family name was. Actually, I don’t even use Brigham any more. It wasn’t a name befitting a man of my station. I guess I should start this over.

My name is Brick. I am a thug. A very good thug, if I say so myself. I stand just a little over six feet tall and weigh a very muscular two hundred and thirty pounds. I am very proficient in a variety of weapons, many of which I carry about with me wherever I go. At the start of this tale, I am about to enter a merchant’s shop in company with one of the younger members of the Organization. Strapped to my back is the biggest sword you are likely to see. Hilt and blade, it is about as long as I am tall. I rarely use this weapon, but it gets a reaction. Next to it is my working blade, a much smaller, but still sizable, hand-and-a-half broadsword. Heavy enough to work well with two hands, it was also light enough to use one handed, in conjunction with the large round shield that was also strapped to my back. On my arms I had strapped two pairs of knives, one on the forearm and the other just above the elbow, hilts pointed down for easy drawing. None of the knives actually matched another, but they were all of the heavy fighting type. They also made for good bracers in a pinch. On my waist I carried an axe and a war hammer, though I never really expected to get in a fight with anyone too heavily armored. They were for effect, just like the big sword. I also had a couple of smaller dirks stuck into my boots. A leather gambeson sewn with a few bits of metal was all the armor I wore. With all this hardware, I struck a pretty intimidating figure. To round it all out, I could scowl with the best of them. I was also very good at looming. Which is just one talent my job description calls for.

My companion, on the other hand, carried no visible weapon, and I’d be surprised if he had more than a knife hidden somewhere in his slightly upscale clothes. He was dressed as a moderately successful merchant, which were the kind of people we were visiting today. He was neither short nor skinny, but looked like he was both as he stood next to me. Mismatched as we were, we proceeded into the interior of the shop. I entered first, eclipsing the sun through the doorway for a few moments as I paused for effect and scowled at the world within. It was a fairly small specialty shop, with only samples of the wares on the uncluttered shelving. Delicate porcelain sat in unassuming, yet attractive poses in the confines of this surprisingly well-lit place. My eclipsing maneuver was spoiled by the light streaming in from a skylight. The shopkeeper looked up from the counter and asked in a doubtful voice, “May I help you?” I didn’t respond, just stood aside so that my associate could walk in. He did, and, with a smile, began the job that he had been sent to do. I had done this so many times that the script was almost second nature. I moved off and began to examine the merchandise, always in view of the merchant. I picked up a few pieces at random, studying the patterns in the porcelain, and carefully put them back, never looking at the conversing pair at the counter. My associate was just as careful to never acknowledge my presence in the store. It was a very carefully choreographed scene.

In spite of myself, I began to be drawn into the works I examined. This store had some really nice pieces of very fine porcelain. I found myself in front of a small alcove, staring almost reverentially at some obviously very select pieces. A couple of mirrors hanging from the ceiling directed the light form the skylight into this alcove. I very carefully reached out and picked up the plate that held center court in the display and held it up to the light. It was almost translucent, it was so thin. It had blue and gold leaf scrollwork patterned all around the rim, in lines some of which had to have been painted with a brush that had a single hair. How the craftsman had gotten the gold leaf so fine, I have no idea. The center held a pattern I recognized as a mandala, a geometric pattern that was supposed to represent the entirety of the universe. I had seen several examples in a book I had once read, and this one was at least as beautiful. This plate was a work of art.

As I was doing my job to keep the merchant nervous, I kept my ears on the conversation taking place. It was not going well for my friend.

“I am sorry good sir,” said the merchant in a plaintive voice, “but I simply don’t have that kind of money. I have very high margins in this business, yes, but very few sales.”

“You seem to be doing quite well for yourself,” said my friend, gesturing at the fine merchandise in the store, “There are some very high-ticket items on display here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”

“Indeed it would, sir,” replied the merchant, “but I must trust to the Gods to protect me, as all of my money is tied up in this ‘high-ticket’ merchandise.”

I almost snorted in laughter at this last statement, which would have been a disaster as I was still holding the plate. A good sneeze could have shattered it. The negotiating went on a little more, my associate coming out rather shorter than the bosses would like, when I decided to throw him a line. Still holding the plate, I abruptly turned towards the counter and walked slowly towards the pair. The conversation died as they watched my approach. The merchant had been keeping an eye on me during the whole time, but he was old enough to know how the dance went. At least he thought he did. I was suddenly throwing in a step that he hadn’t encountered before. He grew noticeably paler as he watched this ox carrying the most expensive piece in his collection. I arrived at the counter and very carelessly waved the plate at him.

“How much fur dis pretty plate,” I demanded, very ingenuously. The merchant spluttered. My associate turned to me, a little puzzled, but quick.

“Now Brick,” he said, as if to a small child, “You know you shouldn’t interrupt when I’m talking business.”

Furrowing my brow in a worried expression, I said “Oh, sor-ry, I forgot.” With that I grasped the plate with both hands and went into looming statue mode. My grip on the plate was in truth very gentle, but looked like I was about to snap it in half.

“Now,” my companion said, turning back to the merchant, who couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the plate in my hands, “where were we?”

Back outside we paused for a moment in the street, basking in another victory. If you haven’t already guessed, we were in there to collect an insurance payment. With enough money, we insured that we wouldn’t bust up his merchandise. To be fair, and before you judge us too harshly, we also insure against all the other accidents of life with the same policy, and we rarely hesitate to make good on a claim. We just give the merchants little choice about paying the premiums. It was a service the Organization offered to all the finer establishments in our fair city, and just one of quite a few activities we engaged in. In addition to being a thug, I was also a guard, a bouncer, a debt collector, an enforcer, a courier, a negotiator, a mover of heavy objects, a remover of obstacles, a surgeon, and in fine, anything the Organization needed me to be when they needed muscle. I was also something of a secret weapon, because most people can not believe that muscle can think. Even some of my employers are sometimes surprised by it.

“Thank you,” my associate said, once we started walking back towards the office.

“Don’t mention it,” I said. “He’s a tough customer; been playing this game for a long time.”

“Well, thanks anyway. I don’t think I would have gotten quite so much from him without you.”

“Just doing my job.” And I was, more than he thought. Before we had left, Rico, one of the bosses, had pulled me aside and told to keep an eye on this fellow. He was new to being a boss, and showed some promise, but was still learning the ropes.

Back at the office we separated, him to go upstairs to make his report, me to go round back to the barracks. My intention was to head for the training yard and see if I couldn’t find someone to spar with, but I had just managed to get my shield and swords into my locker when one of the boys we used as messengers found me.

“Hey, Brick,” he said by way of greeting.

“Hey, Fish,” I said, using the name he had earned when he was caught poaching pike out of the palace moat.

“Boss Hannigan wants to see you,” he said. Hannigan was more or less in charge of the muscle. He probably had another assignment for me.

“Ok,” I said, and finished stripping myself of my weapons. I also went ahead and changed into some clean clothes, replacing my barbarian style kilt with more serviceable pants, and my jerkin with a fresh shirt. I decided against polishing my boots and just gave them a quick brushing.

I was glad I changed when I arrived at his office. Waiting outside in the reception area were two people, one cloaked and hooded, the other wearing plain but well-cut clothes, who turned out to be clients.

“Hey, Mary,” I said to the secretary shared by Hannigan and a few other bosses, “Is Hannigan in?”

“Hello, Brick,” she smiled politely, “Mr. Hannigan is expecting you. Go right in.”

With another glance at the two waiting people, I walked into Hannigan’s office and closed the door behind me.

"Ah, Brick," he greeted me in his normally loud baritone, "Sit down. I might have another job for you."

"Thank you," I said, and took a seat in front of his desk. "This job have anything to do with the mysterious strangers out there?" I asked, hooking a thumb at the door.

"Yes, actually," he said. "I know you only got a glimpse of them, but what was your first impression?"

I thought for a moment, then said, "Well, a man and a woman, upper class but trying to appear lower. The man knows how carry himself. He could probably hurt me in a fight, but I think I would probably win. That would make him a fighter by profession, but if he's a soldier then he's definitely an officer. Didn't see much of the girl, just her hands, but they looked young, and the nails were well manicured. My guess; she's the daughter of a noble, and he's her bodyguard."

Hannigan was nodding when I finished. "That pretty much agrees with my assessment," he said, "but here's the kicker; they're trying to pass the girl off as a boy, with the man as 'his' uncle. They came here to hire a guide and a guard to take them to Denlas." That raised my eyebrows. Denlas was the capitol of the neighboring kingdom, Stunael, and the road connecting the two cities, called the King's Road on both sides of the border, was well maintained and heavily patrolled. Two people traveling alone needed neither guide nor guard. There was even a regular coach service between the two cities at a surely affordable rate for these two.

"Yeah, I know," said Hannigan, knowing where my thoughts were going. "It turns out that they would rather avoid the King's Road, and are planning on taking as many back ways as possible." I grunted my response to this. "This whole thing kinda stinks, and I wanted your opinion before I agreed to anything."

"Alright, let's bring them in and talk."

Hannigan pulled the string that would ring the bell to summon Mary. She poked her head into the office and Hannigan asked her to show the two "men" back in. I stood up and moved around until I stood just behind and off to the side of the desk, freeing up the two chairs in front of it. They came in, the warrior striding in and assessing me without expression, the girl shuffling in her heavy cloak. Hannigan invited them to sit, and they did, but I was having a little staring contest with the guard as they did. He broke it off first, without looking like he did, and fixed his stare on Hannigan.

"Well?" he said, "Have you decided to help us?" His tone was annoyingly imperious, and I took an instant dislike to him.

"That depends," I answered, "on what you want of us exactly." I kept my tone even, but cool.

"We have already stated what services we will require: a guide and an additional guard to travel with us to Denlas," was the curt reply.

I was about to respond with a remark about his manners, which would have lost us some business, to say the least, when the girl placed a hand on the man's arm and spoke in an artificially low voice. She said, sounding like a diplomat, "I believe what the gentleman meant, Uncle, is that they would like a few more details." The hood turned towards me and I got a glimpse of a delicate chin. "We will be most happy to answer your further questions, sir, but first, may I ask your name?" Nobly born, for sure. Even a rich merchant's daughter would not speak so well.

Hannigan answered her question before I could. "This is Brick. He will be your guard if we come to an agreement." The man began to scrutinize me more closely. I resisted the urge to flex my arms a little, and ignored him.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Brick." she said, "I am called Johnny, and this is my uncle, Thomas."

"The pleasure is mine," I replied, just as warmly as she, "but please, just call me Brick. I am no 'mister'." I gave her a wry grin.

"Very well, then, Brick. Ask your questions, and we shall answer them as best we can."

"Thank you," I said. I paused a moment, trying not to mess up this opportunity to begin again. "I suppose," I said, slowly and thoughtfully, "the first question would be: how important is it, that you be disguised as a boy?"

Several things happened at once, or rather, did not happen at once. First, Thomas nearly left his chair in a lunge towards me, and I nearly brought my foot up to kick him back into it. After that, we almost went at each other like two starving ferrets over a single prairie dog. Except, before either of us could quite begin to react, "Johnny" laid a hand on Thomas' arm and laughed. It was a light laugh, and not falsely pitched, a laugh of wry amusement and perhaps self-deprecation.

"Is it really that obvious? Am I truly so poor a boy?" she said. She had spoken in a more natural timbre.

"Forgive me, Miss," I said, again impressed with her manner. I affected a formal bow and said, "It is not your acting abilities, but rather certain qualities that simply can not be hid." I think her manner was catching.

"Such as?" she asked, in way that showed real curiosity.

"Well, for starters, your wrists and hands. They are too delicate for a man's hands, and the proportions are wrong, even for a young boy. Also, the way you sit. Few men would ever assume the posture that you do, but it is common to women. And the way you walk and move, there is a little too much grace and, forgive my forwardness, too much movement of the hips, for a man." There were of course other, smaller distinctions, but they were hard to quantify, so I did not mention them. "In short, miss, you are a woman, and there is no way to hide it."

"I see," she said pensively. We all waited for a moment as this sank in, then she said, "Well, then how would you suggest I disguise myself?"

"That depends on quite a few factors," I replied, "such as who you are hiding from and how they would recognize you, as well as the actual route we will be taking, and the speed at which you wish to travel."

"Then let us discuss those details, and formulate a plan," she said. And we did, at length. We soon learned that she wanted to avoid royal guards, but how easily they would recognize her was in question. She was a regular at court, but had little to do directly with the guards. It was possible that some of the higher ranking officers would know her on site, but she got rather vague at that point. They were also very adamant about avoiding the Royal Road, but gave little reason for it. In the end we decided that we, Thomas, myself, and whoever our guide would be, would pose as three brothers whose father had just passed away, and whose farm was sold to pay the debts. The girl, who gave us the name Jean, would be the wife of one us, and Hannigan agreed to let us take Fish along as their son. I suggested Fish for several reasons. One, I wanted to work with him some, but also because he really was a gifted poacher, and people rarely suspect a group with a child of any wrong doing. For a price, which Hannigan negotiated, the Organization would provide a wagon, and four horses to pull it, as well as all the other needed supplies. It was late afternoon when we ended our discussion, and one of the boys came to show Thomas and Jean to some lodging for the night, and to take them to Mirna, our resident seamstress, to fit them for appropriate clothes.

After they left, Hannigan and I exchanged a look, thinking similar thoughts. "Well," said Hannigan, then stopped. "Yep," I replied. There were a lot of unanswered questions here, but as fishy as it smelled, the money was too good to pass up. After another moment of musing, Hannigan said, "I need to talk to some other bosses about who your guide is going to be. Why don't you see procurement about the supplies?"

"No problem boss," I said and left the office. The headquarters of the Organization were quite large. Taking up a whole city block, they contained the office building we were just in, which had about four stories above ground plus a couple of basement levels, the barracks and mess for any member without private accommodations, stables, warehouses, and practice yards, as well as several shops that served as fronts for the rest. You may ask yourself how such a large facility had been overlooked by the law. The simple answer is that it hasn't. A more complex answer would include something about how we are unofficially tolerated by the powers that be, because of certain services we provide them. The Organization is not just a parasite, it is a symbiont. One small example I could give of this relationship is the information we often pass along. Whilst robbing people, one can often get a good look at their secrets.

Procurement was a warehouse and adjoining stable where all supplies used by the Organization were stored when not in use, and doled out when needed. It was run by several clerks, most of whom seemed to believe the supplies were their own belongings and were always affronted when anyone asked to borrow anything. I had learned long ago that being friendly only wasted their time and mine. Before I went, I wrote up a list of everything I could think of, being sure to include a few farm implements to bolster our cover story. I walked into the warehouse office and went up to the desk. I was in luck; the clerk on duty was one of the indifferent ones, not one of the nasty ones.

"Good afternoon," I said.

"Good afternoon," came the reply, without raising his head from the ledger he was writing in. "What can I do for you?" He sounded bored.

"I just got a new assignment, and I need a few supplies. I have a list right here." He looked up and took the list without comment. He read through it carefully, then said, "Authorization?" I gave him the mission code and Hannigan's name, which he carefully wrote in the ledger.

Then he began on the questions. I was ready. "What kind of wagon?" "Medium freight smuggler, and I'm going to need these supplies packed in the smuggling hold." "Horses?" "Draft is preferable, but they need to be broke for riding, not just pulling." "Saddle sizes?" I had to guess on those. "Ornamentation?" "No." The questions came for while as he tried to find the specific object I wanted. Many of the questions seemed repetitive to me, as I thought he could find a theme and go with it, but clerks are notoriously thorough, and I guess there was good reason for it. Finally he asked, "When do you need it?"

"As early in the morning as you can."

He frowned in thought. "This is rather short notice, and there are several items here that we do not have on hand. We will need to go to the shops for them in the morning." I asked him to point out which items, and after further discussion found suitable substitutes that were on hand. How he knew the entire contents of the warehouse is beyond me. He thought a little longer. "I believe we can have the wagon packed and the horses hitched by the second bell. Will that do?"

Two hours after sunrise. It was a little later than I wanted, but good enough. "Alright," I said, "and thank you." I left him poring over his ledger. I headed over towards the barracks. Along the way I whistled over another little boy and sent him off to find Fish for me. He caught up with me as I was doing some preliminary packing for myself, going over my weapons and other gear.

“Hey, Brick,” he said, coming up to me.

“Hey, Fish.”

“Someone said you was looking for me.”

“That’s right. Go pack your things. You’re coming with me on an assignment.” I dropped that little bomb very casually, trying not to laugh. Boys generally don’t go on assignments, and he’s not even close to the right age for graduating from errands. In fact, I would judge his age to be between about ten and twelve. Hard to tell with an orphan. I should know. His eyes went wide as my words sunk in.

“Wait, what?” he asked, the confusion plain on his face.

I grinned at him. “Pack your things, some clothes and such. Maybe any snares you have made. You’re going to work with me for a few days.”

He seemed to be in shock. I could see his thoughts working out what this would do for his stock with the other boys. “A few days?” he said, “Where are we going?”

I put on a sterner expression and said, “Never mind about where we are going, just go on and pack. If you need help, come see me. And come see me when you think you’re done packing, too. I want to inspect what you think you will need.”

“Yes, sir!” he shouted and ran off as quick as he could. I laughed as he went. Kids can be a lot of fun. A worrisome thought broke through my mirth. I hoped I wasn’t getting him into anything too dangerous. Sobered, I went off to find some food in the mess, then returned to my preparations. It was going to be an early and long day tomorrow.

31 August, 2007

Chapter Four

If you haven't been following the Saga, then you will probably want to start with Chapter One, or the explanation on the right.

NOTHING MOVED, not even a breath of wind. The wide valley looked much the same as the many others that they had passed through; tall pines on the hills surrounding it, a wide, open space in the middle where a stream would run in the summer, and the whole of it cloaked in the white of the deep snowpack. The only feature that would distinguish it from the others was the small cluster of large blackened holes near the center. A thin wisp of smoke still rose lazily from the largest of the pits.

"What do you suppose we should do?" asked Vuldi in a whisper. His attention was riveted to the charred remains of what was a farm only a short time ago.

"I don't know," said Michael, "What do you think, Tom?"

"I don't know. I guess go down there." They were lying on top of a snow bank that overlooked the silent valley.

"Why are we whispering?" whispered Michael.

"Because whatever did this could still be close by," Tom whispered back. Tom was just a few years older than the other two and was a friend of Michael's. He had joined them at the first farm they had stopped at returning from Greenpine. His family had sent him on ahead to secure lodging for them at his uncle's place in town. They had planned on splitting up again later that afternoon, since Michael and Vuldi were not traveling directly to Sweetwater, but now Michael was not sure what was going to happen.

"Well, just sitting here isn't doing anyone any good," he said as he stood up, "If whatever did this is still around, they would have heard us long before we saw the farm."

Vuldi stood up and said, "Michael's right. Let's go down there and see what happened."

"All right," Tom replied. They moved off the path and into the trees, what weapons they had at the ready. Michael held his strung bow in his left hand and his staff in his right, ready to drop one and use the other, whichever was needed. Vuldi had an arrow nocked in his bow, and Tom held a stone in his sling. What they were expecting, Michael was not sure, but, though fires were not unheard of on the farms, never did a fire claim every outbuilding as this one had. Their snowshoes crunched loudly in the snow to their ears, though in reality they moved so cautiously they could easily have snuck up on any rabbit they came across. The grays and browns of their clothing blended easily with the early morning shadows among the trees, making them invisible to all but the sharpest of eyes.

They came at last to the edge of the trees and paused, looking out on the clearing where the farm used to be. By now the thin wisp of smoke they had seen from up on the hill had disappeared. Not a sound could be heard.

"Vuldi, you stay here and cover us with your bow," Michael said, whispering again, "Tom, you come with me." Nobody seemed inclined to argue. Vuldi simply nodded his head and sunk further into the shadow of the tree he standing by. Tom put his sling away within easy reach and pulled out his long hunting knife. The nervous fear that had been so evident at the top of the hill had faded with their descent, to be replaced with a grim resolve. Something bad had happened, and they were the only ones available to deal with it.

Even with this newfound resolution, Michael felt a great deal of trepidation as they left the imagined protection of the trees. The short distance to the first burned-out building seemed miles long, though Michael tried to take comfort in Vuldi's ability with his bow. Vuldi did, after all, use a bow that no one else save Carral could draw, and his accuracy was not to be scoffed at either. He kept his eyes moving as they advanced on the former farm.

The nearest pit also seemed to be the largest, probably the barn, thought Michael. The closer they came, the more his attention was drawn to the charred remains. A few blackened timbers poked their heads above the rim, like the bones of some great beast. The snow had melted around the stone walls of the lower floor, and then re-froze, creating a treacherous and steep slope downward. He paused at the edge of this slope and looked around. Tom had also come up to the edge a few paces away. He was looking at Michael expectantly, waiting for an idea of what to do next. Michael looked back at Vuldi. If he didn't know where to look, he never would have seen him, Vuldi blended in so well with the trees. Michael began to worry less that any threat still lurked in the area. He motioned Vuldi to join them.

Tom began walking around the perimeter of the former barn, looking down into the ruin. About halfway around, he called to Michael and Vuldi, who had just joined him, and said, "Do you see any yak tracks anywhere?"

"No, why?" Michael called back. Looking around revealed no tracks of any kind, save their own.

Tom called back, "I can't tell if they got out or not." At this statement, both Michael and Vuldi peered closer into the depths. Michael could not see anything beyond the black and gray of ash and charred wood.

"It was snowing this morning," Vuldi reminded them. It was not heavy enough to hinder their travel, but enough to erase any recent tracks.

The other buildings proved identical to the first in all but size. In all there were the barn, the house, and three smaller sheds, all completely destroyed by the fire. What did not make sense was the buildings were spaced far enough apart that a fire in one should not have spread to any of the others. Also worrisome was the lack of any sign that the residents had tried to escape. The boys tried to remind themselves of the fresh snow, but they could not imagine that the family had not tried to save at least some things by throwing them out into the snow. It seemed as if the fire had consumed an already abandoned farm. The young men could not even agree exactly on whose farm it was, none of them ever having been this far to the south.

After their exploration, they regrouped and retrieved their packs, which they had left at the top of the hill above the valley. As they replaced the snowshoes they had used to explore the farm with their skis, Tom spoke up, "If this was the Wintsteds' place, like I think, then the nearest neighbors would be Willum's family."

"We were just there," Vuldi said, and it was true. They had left Willum's place over an hour ago, he and his family being the first stop of the day. The next one was the farm they had just left.

"So, what do we do?" asked Michael, as he stood up, shouldering his pack, "Do we go back to Willum, or do we proceed to the next farm?"

"I think if they got out," said Tom, inadvertently giving voice to the possibility they all feared, but did not want to admit. Tom swallowed, then continued, "I think they would have gone to their closest neighbor for help. They must have been cold, and it's the closest place for warmth."

"I think they would have headed into town. In fact, I doubt they were even here to begin with. I'll bet they they got an early start to the festival," said Vuldi in his usual I'm-right-and-you're-wrong-and-if-you-don't-like-it-here's-my-fist tone of voice. He looked at Tom, who flinched ever so slightly at his glower. They both then looked at Michael as he finally stood up from very carefully strapping on his skis. He looked from one to the other, shifting his pack to sit more comfortably on his shoulders. Suddenly he realized they were waiting for him to make the decision. Tom, he knew, would do whatever the majority said, and Vuldi nearly always followed his lead.

Michael thought for a moment longer, then said, "I'm not sure that it matters where they went. There's nothing we could do, and we need to get on with delivering the council's message." He looked from one to the other as they thought about this. Vuldi, he could see, was already agreeing with him, as he usually did. Michael was perhaps the only person Vuldi would readily agree with, perhaps because Michael was his only real friend and perhaps because Michael could usually keep him out of trouble. Tom, on the other hand, was taking a moment to mull the situation over. Finally, he spoke.

"There really isn't anything that we could do, is there?" he said. Tom sounded a little defeated, and Michael could sympathize; he too would prefer to help than to abandon the family to their fate. "Well, let's get going, then." With a kick, he started off down the gentle slope, Michael and Vuldi following.


They arrived back in Sweetwater late the next day. No news of the family had been forthcoming, though had been able to confirm whose farm it was; the Winsteds', as Tom had thought. He had left them that afternoon as he had planned, when Michael and Vuldi had turned to go further south. He had likely made it to town that night. After several families had announced that they had planned on leaving the the next morning anyway, Michael and Vuldi had decided to simply strike for town instead of heading north to the other farms they had yet to visit, reasoning that everyone would be heading there by now for the festivities.

Late as it was, several hours after sunset, the town was alive with preparations and anticipation for tomorrow, when the celebration would officially begin. The frozen air had come to life with the smells of baking bread in all their variety, from salty and crunchy, to sweet and gooey. The hearty scent of meat pies mingled with the tantalizing smell of fruit pies, made from winter preserves.. Tomorrow, Michael knew, many racks of meat and fowl would find their way onto the spits, with a multitude of sauces and gravies made from their drippings. Many vegetables, too, would find their way up from the cellars and into stews, soups, and steaming pots. Even with the abundance of cooking, the ovens and cooking hearths would be almost constantly tended, cooking even more food, throughout the celebration.

Though most of the activity was indoors, the sounds of merriment still permeated the air as much as the smells. Laughter, both from the children and the adults, called out to Michael and Vuldi, as they made their way to the inn. Only the games and sporting events would be held outside. As Michael let himself imagine the scenes of the coming days, he saw the common room of the inn swarming with people, eating, laughing, playing stones, telling stories, and simply enjoying being together. The homes in the towns would also be packed, but the inn would be the center of everything. There, in the evenings, all the official business would occur. Packed all the way up the stairs, and even spilling out into the kitchen and stables, the people would hear speeches from the winners of various contests, and schedules for the next day's events, as well as the more subdued parts of the Solstice Celebration. It was the stories, however, that would dominate the evening gatherings, and the stories most told would be their own oral history, stories of ancestors who had fought both man and nature to win and preserve the prosperity they now enjoyed.

The thought that maybe they would have to fight again suddenly sobered Michael and brought his mind slamming back to the task at hand. Vuldi had been walking grimly silent beside him, lost in his own reverie, as they approached the inn. Though very little light escaped the tightly shuttered building, noise enough escaped to betray the crowd of people inside. The two of them paused at the door to lean their skies against the wall. A blast of heat, as from a furnace, hit them as Michael swung open the door, as well as a blinding flood of light, and the full cacauphony of noise. They were greeted by many people as they wound their way down the stairs and through the room, looking for the Mayor. The greetings, Michael knew, were more for him than Vuldi. At least everyone was being polite to him.

As Michael was about to answer a question from Crag, a friend a year younger than he, a voice rose above the merry din. "Michael! Vuldi!" it called. Michael turned with Vuldi to see Wil waving at them over the heads of several people he was talking with by the hearth of an inviting fire. Moving towards them, Vuldi right behind, Michael spotted his mother's honey-blonde hair, and then saw that she was watching him approach with a slight smile. He knew she would be relieved to see him, as he was to see her. He wondered again what it could have been that she was doing. She stepped away from the circle of men and caught him up in a tight embrace.

"Are you all right?" she asked with concern.

"Yes, I'm fine," he said, pulling out of her arms, "and you? Where did you go?"

A puzzled look crossed her face. "Meryl didn't tell you?" she said.

"She just said that you had something to take care of, but didn't know what," he said.

Tenahj rolled her eyes and muttered fondly under her breath. "I'll tell you later," she said as she turned back to the circle of people, keeping one hand on Michael's shoulder. The group that had been politely waiting through their reunion, now turned their full attention to him. Michael now saw that what he had thought was simply a gathering of men was, in fact, a council meeting. Councilwomen Andil and Firan had been hidden behind the taller men. Carral was also there, looking pleased to see them both, but his pleasure seemed muted, overlaid with a preoccupation of the situation. The fourth and last member of the council, besides Wil as the Mayor, was Aduon, the town's fuller. There were several other men as well, which was not unusual. The council never met except in public, and would often invite other members of the community to join and lend their counsel.

Michael nodded a greeting to the group, then waited politely to be addressed. He did not have long to wait.

"Michael, Vuldi, we're glad to see you safely home" the Mayor began with sincerity, "Why don't you go ahead and give us your report?"

Michael cleared his throat, conscious of so many people listening to what he had to say. He began by removing the letter from the Greenpine council from inside his jacket. He handed it across the tight circle to Wil, and began his narrative. The Mayor broke the seals and read the letter as Michael listed the families they had visited and their responses, then passed it to Andil standing next to him. The letter passed to the other council members, with others reading it over their shoulders. Michael finished his report shortly after Carral, standing on Wil's right, looked up after finishing the letter. The faces looking at him, eager to hear his news a moment before, now gazed at him with varied emotions, ranging from fear to anger, but all of them grim.

"Is that all?" the Mayor asked when Michael fell silent.

"No," Michael whispered. He swallowed and looked at his feet. Since they had seen the Winsted's farm the thought had floated in the back of his mind that the fire had been deliberate. Walking through the common room just now, he had overheard snatches of conversation that made his blood run cold, that made him suspect the Winsteds' tragedy was not the only one recently. From the reactions of those gathered in the circle, he also suspected the letter from Greenpine told similar tales of woe.

By now the contents of the letter had swept the large room. The laughter had ceased and conversation had died to a whisper. The circle of council members and spectators seemed to hold its collective breath, waiting for Michael to speak. Without looking up, Michael asked the question, though he feared he knew the answer, "Has there been any word of Fil and Fayla Winsted?" He silently winced at the gasp that seemed to come from everyone. The terrible suspicions he had begun to harbor were confirmed when Carral spoke.

"First the Howids," he said, "then the Hewidsons. And now the Winsteds." His tone was one of great mourning. On hearing the names of the other two families, Michael almost staggered from a burning rage that threatened to take over. The disappearance of the Winsteds, and Michael now had no doubt that they had perished in the flames, was tragic, but they were an older couple living alone. The Howids and Hewidsons, on the other hand, between them had seven children, the oldest, only eight years old. The thought of those children being the victims of so malicious an attack made controlling the blind rage near impossible.

Wil spoke, silencing the whispering that had begun and helping Michael distract himself from his burdgeoning bloodlust. "What exactly did you see?"

Michael quickly and succinctly described the scene, how it immediately struck them as deliberate, how thoroughly burned every building was, and how there was no sign of attempted flight. Silence met the end of his narrative. Andil was the first to break it. Addressing herself across the circle to Aduon, she said, "The two in Greenpine make five. Now do you believe?" Her voice, dry and raspy with age, had a bit of an edge to it. It was obvious to Michael that this was a point of heated dispute between them.

Aduon's face could have been carved in stone. The crowd seemed to hold its breath while it waited for his reply. After a pause he folded his brawny arms across his chest and said, "I concede that the creatures appear able to use fire, but I still don't believe they are as organized as you say!" The last few words had to be almost shouted, though they were still nearly lost in the tumultuous and angry shouting that broke out like a storm. While not the majority, a large portion of the room seemed to back Aduon, while the rest stood with Andil. Even the council joined the shouting, with Carral trying to be the peacemaker between Aduon and Andil.

Michael looked out over the heads of the crowd and noted that no one was seated any more, and the crowd had grown, if that were possible. Fists shook in the air, both men's and women's, to emphasize their arguments. Wil finally raised both hands in the air and began calling for silence in a loud voice. When the noise finally fell to a few angry mutterings, Wil put his hands down. People were still shooting arrows at each other with their eyes, and seemed on the verge of another shouting match, but the Mayor spoke calmly, pitching his voice so that everyone could hear him. "Before we continue our polite discussion," he began. With emphasis on 'polite' and a wry smile, Wil seemed to have relaxed many high-strung nerves. Michael looked around again and saw that several people were blushing at the Mayor's rebuke, and some even had the grace to look ashamed and mutter a quick apology. He continued, "I believe we should listen to the rest of what Tenahj has to say. We were just listening to her report before young Michael gave his. This is obviously a serious situation, however one looks at it, and we need as much information as we can get before we form our opinions. Tenahj?" he finished, inviting Michael's mother to speak.

When she did, her voice carried the calm authority and self-assurance that only comes from experience. She, like the Mayor, also pitched her voice to carry through the room. "Thank you, Wil," she said, with a nod of her head, "As I was telling the council earlier, a few days ago I set out to contact the Yekrut, in order to learn from them whatever they knew." She did not need to say what she was trying to learn about. Some low mutterings could be heard at this statement; not everyone in the town held the Yekrut in as high esteem as Michael and his mother did. "When I came to their wintering grounds, I found it abandoned. They had left only a few days earlier, and in some haste, judging by what they had left behind." This revelation came as a great shock to Michael. Their more primitive neighbors claimed that those grounds had been given to them at the time of the Creation. They did not give ground easily. Tenahj continued, "On the return trip, I crossed the tracks of about fifty of the creatures. I followed the tracks west-northwest to an abandoned campsite."

"Campsite?" broke in Aduon, with an incredulous voice, "what do you mean, 'campsite'?"

"Exactly that, Councilman," came the cool reply, "The snow had been trampled over a wide area, there were piles of pine boughs, obviously for bedding, and the ashes of several small campfires were blowing around the clearing. I'm not sure how they kept them from sinking into the snow. I wonder if..." The rest was lost as a new wave of noise engulfed the room once more. Rather than angry shoutings however, fearful mutterings, gasps, and whispers were the prevalent sounds. No one seemed happy about being proven right, in that the creatures were intelligent enough to use fire. The Mayor once again raised his hands in a bid for silence. Again, silence came, albeit slowly.

"Perhaps we should allow Tenahj to finish," he said, as the crowd's attention again focused on the small circle by the hearth.

Tenahj roused herself from her private thoughts and continued, "A further inspection of the camp showed that they used a communal latrine, which they had buried under the snow. I also found scraps of cooked meat, bread, and cheese." She paused, as if thinking about what to say next. No one said a word as the people thought about this astonishing revelation. Michael's own mind was in a turmoil. Not only able to use fire, but used it to cook and bake! These creatures were not animals, they were people. Tenahj spoke again, "I've spoken with several others who have seen tracks, and, from size comparisons, I believe the camp I found consisted mainly of females and their young."

"Females and their young?" Carral broke in, "You mean, as in families? An entire community?"

"Yes," she started to reply, than hesitated, as if reluctant to continue.

The mayor, sensing her reluctance, prompted her, asking, "Is there something else? Do you have any idea why they are here?"

Tenahj looked into the eyes of the council, one by one, and said, with a gravity Michael had rarely, if ever, heard from her, "I can not guess the reasons why they are doing what I think they are doing, but I believe they are searching for a new home, and I believe they have chosen ours." Although Michael did not quite see how his mother had arrived at such a conclusion, he knew she would not make such a preposterous statement without reason. Others among her audience, the council included, seemed to share Michael's faith in her reasoning or, at least did not dismiss it outright. The rest on the other hand, did not. The argument that broke out in response to Tenahj's last words was as much an assault on Michael's ears as the one sparked by Aduon's response to Andil's question at the end of Michael's report. Once again, the Mayor spent several minutes trying to restore silence.

Once their attention was again on Wil, he spoke to the crowded common room. His voice, to Michael's ear at least, carried a hint that the long-suffering innkeeper, though still polite, was beginning to lose his patience. "I would like to remind all those who are witnessing these proceedings, that this is a council meeting, and would ask that you behave yourselves accordingly. Thank you," he added, after a slight pause. "Now, we have heard Tenahj's conclusions about why these creatures are here, and why they are attacking our people." This was greeted by some more muttering, but not enough to distract the Mayor. "Would anyone else like to present their own views to the council?" Several hands shot up into the air as Wil asked this, indicating that they would like to speak.

Before Wil had the chance to call on anyone, Carral spoke up, bringing the hands down again. "Mayor," he said, "I could be wrong, but I believe the question of why they are hostile is moot. The fact is, they have already begun attacking us. We must address the issue of defending ourselves without further delay." Murmurs of assent rumbled through the room. Young as he was, in fact the youngest council member in anyone's memory, Carral had already earned a reputation for wisdom. That wisdom, combined with a quiet, self-effacing attitude, had many people talking about him as Wil's successor.

Whispers floated around the densely packed room as Carral's statement was pondered and discussed. The council, for their part, remained silent for a few moments as they also thought on this.

After a time, his face contorting into an even more sour expression, Aduon spoke. "The blacksmith speaks true," he said, as if the admission were a painful ordeal. "That these things are attacking us, the evidence is difficult to dispute," he continued, coming as close he would to admitting that Tenahj and Andil were right, "Defense should be our primary concern."

The plans for defending the town were about to get under way when Tenahj interjected once more. "There is one more thing," she said, silencing the crowd, "they have magic." Magic! That simple word sent Michael's mind reeling. He knew of the existence of magic from books and traveler's tales, though he had only half believed them. There had been a few travelling jugglers claiming such powers, but their tricks had later proved to be simple sleight of hand, although it was entertaining enough that Michael had learned a few such tricks. But magic, real magic, being able to make things happen by simply wishing it, Michael had never seen.

His mother started talking again, in response to a question Michael had missed. She said, "I followed a single set of tracks to a tree in a meadow, where they stopped. Branches moved independently, like something heavy was moving around up there, but I couldn't find anything."

"Are you saying they can disappear?" asked Aduon. The skepticism in his voice could not be missed. "Perhaps they simply blend in so well that you missed it."

Tenahj looked at Aduon coolly. "Even the best hidden animal reveals itself when it moves, councilman. This moved quite a lot, judging by the branches, but did not even cast a shadow."

Another moment of pondering followed her response, during which Michael watched Aduon's expression turn even more sour as he failed to think of another explanation. He clearly did not want to believe their foes had magic; the town had no defense against it.

"What else can they do with their magic?" a nervous voice asked; Michael did not see whose it was.

Tenahj replied to the unspoken part of the question first, "I don't think they can fight with it. I sent a few arrows into the tree, trying to scare it out of hiding, but it remained in the tree and did not try to attack me or defend itself. I am not an expert in magic, but my guess is, hiding in plain sight is their one ability."

After this, the council got down to business planning defense. People began to trickle out as they received assignments to prepare this or that. A chain of command was established for several tasks including construction of barriers, patrols around the perimeter of the town, chopping more wood for many reasons, and even continuing preparations for the festival. It was agreed, though Aduon agreed reluctantly, that the festival was needed as much as anything to maintain everyone's spirit. Farmers who had already arrived were assigned to help various craftsmen and -women in producing all manner of supplies, while others were sent back out to accompany those who had not yet come in. A special voluntary tax was set up to help pay for supplies, though all labor would be donated to the cause.

Michael wanted to volunteer for a number of tasks, especially when Vuldi was put in a patrol of other young men and women, but his mother would not let him. After several thwarted attempts to volunteer, Tenahj whispered in Michael's ear, "I need you to help teach how to use the tips Carral is making." This made sense, since he and Tenahj were the only ones to have ever practiced with them. It rankled though, that she had already decided what he would do, without consulting with him first.

Since his job had been assigned, and since it was apparent that the meeting was not ending any time soon, Michael slipped out of the room in search of Vuldi, who had left earlier in order to round up the rest of his patrol and tell when they were to go out. It was late, and Michael was feeling the fatigue of the past several days, but he suspected that no one would be getting much sleep for a while.


16 August, 2007

Astronomy and Traffic

Not an original story, but still very funny.

An astronomer was pulled over for running a red light.
"But Officer," he explained, "The Doppler effect made the light appear green!"
"Well," replied the policeman, "I suppose I can understand that. Alright, I won't give you a ticket for running the red light, but I am going to have to give you a ticket for speeding!"

07 August, 2007


I remember in school when I was first introduced to fractions. I and a few other students in my class sat at a semicircular table facing our instructor and a blackboard. The first fraction we met was 1/2. Together we explored the nature of this creature and how the bottom part, called the "denominator," told us how many parts there were to the whole, and that the top part, called the "numerator," told us how many parts we had. 1/2 meant that a pie (we all liked pie) had been cut into 2 pieces, and we had one of them. This was illustrated on the blackboard, much to our wonderment. The instructor than drew a pie on the board and sliced it into four pieces. She then asked us how many pieces we would need to have the same amount of pie as 1/2. One student said one piece, since we had one piece in the first example. I silently scoffed at her specious reasoning. Another said two, which was praised as the correct answer. Then came the difficult question: how would we express this new pie as a fraction? After some deep thought, 2/4 was spoken in a hesitant voice. Correct! exclaimed the instructor, who then wrote it on the board by the four slice pie. We spent some more time exploring how 1/2 and 2/4 were "equal" fractions, how they described the same quantity, but with different numbers. We also learned that a good way of identifying equal fractions was to "reduce" them by dividing the top and the bottom by the same number, which we all agreed was a very useful fact to know. If we divided the top and bottom of 2/4 by 2, we would get 1/2. Our instructor then encouraged us to employ this new found skill by thinking of other fractions that were equal to 1/2. Several examples were given and tested, some were right and others wrong. 4/8, 8/16, 16/32, were among the correct answers. Up to this point I had refrained from responding, wishing to give my classmates the opportunity to expand their own minds, as I had already grasped the principles being taught with my lightning intellect, but now I felt the need to remind everyone, including the instructor, of just how superior my mind was. I raised my hand and, when called upon, smugly offered 3/6, a set of numbers that had yet to be explored by any of my class mates. The instructor duly wrote it on the board and then quickly put it to the test. "Who can tell me what 3 divided by 2 is?" she asked. It was readily apparent that this was an impossible calculation. "I'm sorry," she said to me, "but 3/6 can't equal 1/2 because 3 can't be divided by 2." Needless to say, I was crushed. I knew I was right. It was impossible for me to be wrong. I would have pressed the issue, but as a small child I had not the skills necessary to debate the facts. The rest of the lesson is a fog, as I spent it in shock trying to see how 3/6 did not equal 1/2, but failed in every attempt.

Looking back, I think this is moment I began to lose my belief in the infallibility of adult knowledge, and to lose my respect for my school teachers.

Public Education

If I have learned only one thing from my public education, it is that the key to happiness is to lower your standards until they are already met.

30 June, 2007

Admissions Interview

I'm not sure I really like this one, so I doubt it's going to go anywhere. I like the idea, but I just couldn't describe the conversation the way it went in my head.

“Please, come in, have a seat,” the tall older gentleman politely said as he rose and extended is hand to greet them. “I’m Tom Crenshaw.”

“Thank you. I’m John Peters, and this is my wife Anna, and this is little Johnny.” Mr. Crenshaw shook their hands as they were introduced, lingering briefly over the boy.

“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” he said, holding the gaze of the boy as he said it. Looking up, he invited them again to have a seat, and took his own invitation. They all sat the large oak desk that dominated the scholarly office. The wall behind the desk consisted of a large window that offered a stunning view of snow capped peaks and lush evergreen forests. The other walls were hidden behind large oak bookshelves filled with terribly impressive, leather bound volumes, interspersed with various antique instruments of art and science. The shelves were only broken for the door and window. The desk was neatly arranged; an old fashioned in and out box on one side was balanced by a large computer screen on the other, with a few executive knick-knacks and family photographs in between. The chairs were leather and comfortable, the kind of chairs a successful businessman would have in his office.

“Thank you for seeing us,” said Mrs. Peters once they were seated, “We realize the semester has already begun…,”

Mr. Crenshaw cut her off with a wave of his hand, brushing aside their concerns. “Think nothing of it; it’s a very minor matter. If young Johnny qualifies for admittance into our institution, we’ll be happy to enroll him, whatever the date.” Leaning forward and resting his forearms on his desk, he said, “Now, your email suggested that your son has some remarkable abilities.” He arched an eyebrow, inviting the family to elaborate.

The two sides of the desk were a study in contrast. Behind it, Mr. Crenshaw sat, calm, collected, very much in control of the situation. In front of it sat the Peters family looking very nervous and very much out of their element. The boy looked more disinterested than nervous, letting his gaze wander aimlessly, but he cast frequent furtive glances at the man across the desk. These looks were not lost on Mr. Crenshaw.

The two parents looked at each other, than back at Mr. Crenshaw. “Before we discuss our son,” said Mr. Peters in a slightly apologetic tone, “we were hoping to learn a little more about your school.”

Mr. Crenshaw smiled in a way calculated to put them more at ease and leaned back in his chair. It had a positive affect on the family as they relaxed a little more. “Of course. What would you like to know?” His voice had gained a little grandfatherly quality to it that helped the family gain a little more confidence.

“Well,” began Mr. Peters, “we had some questions about the curriculum.” Mr. Crenshaw nodded in encouragement. Mr. Peters continued, “Well, we went through website pretty thoroughly. Very interesting, very informative.” Mr. Crenshaw’s smile faded into a thoughtful, but still friendly, frown. It was a difficult expression to master, but he had years of practice to perfect it. “We just have a few questions.” He paused again, then continued when Mr. Crenshaw just waited. “Well, for example, we found where the curriculum is outlined by subject, and we studied it pretty thoroughly, and there was one topic which caught our attention.” Although Mr. Crenshaw’s gaze was steady on Mr. Peters as he spoke, Mr. Peters did not seem able to maintain eye contact for very long. Mrs. Peters did, but not in any confident manner, and since she was not speaking at the moment, Mr. Crenshaw did not attempt to hold her gaze.

“Go on,” invited Mr. Crenshaw.

“Well, it was buried pretty deep, in the sciences, almost like it wasn’t important, so maybe it’s nothing, but it still caught our attention.”

“And what is this topic that caught your attention?”

Mr. Peters frowned and finally locked gazes with Mr. Crenshaw, almost challenging him. Mrs. Peters’ eyes narrowed in a more intent stare than before. “Paranormal phenomena.” Mr. Crenshaw took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “What exactly is taught about this subject?”

The Peters were still nervous, but now they added a certain expectancy to their attitude. Mr. Crenshaw felt distinctly that he was being tested. He had a ready answer, and gave it, “It is a case study for the scientific method, to show that anecdotal evidence, no matter how prolific, is not conclusive evidence, and that only proper testing under controlled conditions can offer conclusive evidence.” The emotional intensity in the room suddenly dropped, like a great sigh, but it was not from relief. All three of the Peters seemed somehow disappointed. Mr. Crenshaw studied them for a moment, then decided to take a leap. Leaning forward again, he asked, “Am I to understand that young Johnny here exhibits abilities in this vein?” That caught their attention and held it, though no one responded to the question. He looked into each of their eyes by turn, and then addressing them all said, “Perhaps we should begin the interview.” Before any of them could respond to this suggestion, he turned to his computer and clicked the mouse around a few times. Turning back, he addressed Johnny directly in full grandfather mode. “How about it, Johnny? How would like to answer a few questions?” He beamed at the boy. Johnny looked at his mother who nodded encouragingly.

“Ok,” he said. He seemed much more sure of himself than his parents. It was a confidence tempered by caution, as evidenced by his looking to his parents first.

“Alright then, first question. It’s a tough one, so think carefully before answering.” He paused for dramatic effect, then said in a very solemn voice, “How old are you Johnny?”

Johnny grinned at the joke. “Nine.”

“Good. I remember being that age once, long, long ago. It was a lot of fun, as I recall.” Mr. Crenshaw turned to the computer to enter this information. “What sorts of things do you like to do? Do you play any sports?”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t really play with the other boys much.” This didn’t seem to bother him at all, just another fact. “I play with my dogs instead.”

“I love dogs! Tell me about yours.” Mr. Crenshaw managed to continue typing on the computer while giving Johnny his full attention as they discussed Johnny’s dogs for a while. Johnny became quite animated as he described their personalities and shared some stories of their adventures together.

Laughing after a particularly amusing story, Mr. Crenshaw said, “Dogs sure can be wonderful friends, can’t they?” Everyone had relaxed at this point, and Mr. Crenshaw felt that he had their trust. “So,” he said, again addressing Johnny, “what else interests you? Video games, books, TV?”

“I can draw,” he said, enthusiastically. Then his face suddenly changed, as well as the faces of his parents, as he realized what he just said. They were back on uncertain territory. Mr. Crenshaw pretended not to notice, and pulled a pad of paper from a desk drawer as he said, “Really? Would you mind drawing something for me right now?”

The boy looked down at his hands in his lap and said in a hesitant voice, “I don’t really draw on paper. Wood is much better.”

“Right. Will this do?” Mr. Crenshaw pulled a wooden board about the size of a piece of paper and about a quarter inch thick out of another drawer without blinking an eye at the unusual medium. This did surprise the family, though. “Don’t worry,” he said, deliberately misunderstanding their looks of concern, “I’ve got plenty of these lying around and nothing to do with them. I really would like to see what you can do with it.” Johnny thought he heard a little too much emphasis on the last part of the statement. Looking yet again to his parents for reassurance, he waited to take the proffered board.

Mr. Peters was looking very intently at Mr. Crenshaw. Still nervous, but now with confidence of a man defending his family, he said, “Mr. Crenshaw, I’m not sure if we should pursue this matter any further.”

The kindly old man met the father’s gaze equally intently, and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Peters, few things surprise me anymore.” They held each other’s eyes for a few moments, then Mr. Peters looked at his son and nodded. Johnny took the proffered board in his hands and stared at it for a moment. Without looking up, he asked, “What do you want me to draw?”

“Anything you like.” Seeing him hesitate further, Mr. Crenshaw suggested, “Perhaps you could draw one of your dogs if you like.”

The boy nodded and touched the board with the tip of one finger, then hesitated. He cast one more look at Mr. Crenshaw and then began to trace an outline with his finger. Mr. Crenshaw could not see the board as the boy moved his finger across it, but he did not fail to see the thin wisp of smoke that trailed up behind it. The sweet and acrid scent of burning wood soon filled the office. The parents seemed frozen as they watched their son draw on the wood. He worked swiftly, changing fingers, sometimes using more than one, and finished after a few minutes. At last satisfied with what he had wrought, he held the board out across the desk to Mr. Crenshaw.

“Remarkable,” he said at last, after studying it for a few minutes. The family tensed, as if expecting a blow. “The detail is exquisite. This must be Rufus, correct?” The detail was amazing; the picture burned into the wood was very lifelike. The family let out a collective sigh.

“You aren’t… surprised by how he drew it?” Mrs. Peters asked.

“No,” he responded succinctly. Setting the board down on the desk, he leaned forward again and looked very intently at each of them. “I believe it is time to stop beating around the bush, as they say. The Academy of Arts and Sciences is no ordinary prep school, as I’m sure you have already guessed.” The parents nodded and Johnny looked at him with a suspicious frown. “We are in fact a school for people who are gifted in much the same way as your son. Like you, Johnny.”

“You mean there are others like me? Really?” He almost pleaded the question.

“Oh yes, many more. There are currently seventeen students in your age group alone, and we have students of all ages here.” He could clearly see many questions in all of their faces. He reached into another drawer and pulled out a thick, folded pamphlet. “I expect you have many questions flying through your thoughts right now. Most of them should be answered here, in our real brochure.” He handed it over to Mr. Peters.

“Thank you,” he said in bewilderment. He opened it up and read the first heading aloud, “’So Your Child is Telekinetic.’ Is that the official word for it?”

“For your son’s talent? Yes, we have found that families more readily accept telekinesis as the explanation than a few other words it could be called, including magic and the like. It all amounts to pretty much the same thing, that your son can manipulate the environment around him through rather unconventional means.”

They talked for a while longer about the school and its real curriculum, its history and purpose. Mr. Crenshaw told them that the key purpose of the school was to teach the students how to use their gifts responsibly and ethically. When they began to delve into the deeper philosophical questions implied by the tremendous power wielded by members of the Academy, Mr. Crenshaw deflected the questions by saying, “We could spend hours, even days and years, discussing these questions. Indeed, many in the Academy are still debating the answers. Will you be satisfied for now if I tell you that we will do our best to give your son a strong code of morality and ethics?” As they reluctantly nodded their agreement, he added, “You will, of course, never be shut out of this process. In fact, we encourage extensive participation from the parents, and any objections you have to what we teach your son will be duly noted and immediately acted upon. We will teach your child nothing that you do not want us to.” They nodded with more assurance this time.

“Alright, we’re convinced that this would be a good school for Johnny,” said Mr. Peters, “but what about tuition, and books and things? The rates quoted on your website were rather high for our means.”

Mr. Crenshaw chuckled. “Don’t worry at all about that. Those rates are all part of the façade we have to put up. We have other means of financing our operations. To be honest, our costs are far lower than expected for a normal school, as I’m sure you can imagine, and our alumni take care of what expenses we do have. Sort of a student loan with voluntary payback.”

“That’s very generous,” said Mr. Peters.

Mr. Crenshaw nodded in agreement, then said, “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue with Johnny’s interview.” The family nodded, completely relaxed by now. Mr. Crenshaw cleared his throat and addressed Johnny, “By the way, just so there is no confusion, you do meet the qualifications for this school and there is definitely a place for you here if you want it.”

“Thanks,” said Johnny in a very sincere and enthusiastic voice.

Mr. Crenshaw continued, “The questions I’m going to ask now are mainly to measure your potential, and where to begin your education. Ready? Good. Ok, the first thing I need to know is where you are in regular school. I assume you’ve started the third grade?”

“Actually,” interjected Mrs. Peters, “we’ve been home schooling him all his life, and he’s almost passed the state standards for fourth grade.”

“Excellent,” said Mr. Crenshaw as he typed some more on the computer. “Our standards are a bit higher than most state standards, so we end up doing a lot of remedial work with our new students. But it sounds like you will be able to jump right in.” Finished typing, he turned back to Johnny. “Alright, next question. You drew the picture by burning it into the wood. Is there anything else you can do with fire?”

The interview continued for some time after that, mainly focusing on the boy’s more extraordinary abilities. They set up an appointment for further academic testing and a tour of the campus. By the time the family left, the entire afternoon had passed, and all their concerns had been allayed. They were very relieved to finally find a place where their child wouldn’t be the unusual one.

When his office door closed behind the Peters family, Mr. Crenshaw sat back in his chair with a heavy sigh. It had been a successful day; though he had not revealed it to the family, Johnny was definitely the strongest in his peer group, and perhaps in the school. Mr. Crenshaw offered a prayer of thanks to the fates that had led little Johnny to his office, and not to one of his rivals. He would have to protect him from their prying eyes. He knew to what lengths they would go to have the boy’s power for their own, if they ever learned of his potential. He suspected that he would find very little rest for a long time to come.

22 June, 2007

Farmer Ben

This is going to become an "interstitial" story. For most of the book, it will appear completely unconnected from anything else, then at the end will become very important. Episodes of the life of Farmer Ben will appear from time to time, often focusing on the fight with the Rock. I'm not sure who, but someone is going to stumble on the rock towards the end, I think right in the middle of the final duel, and as a result, good will triumph and the book will end. I don't have a whole lot of experience running a farm, so let me know if I need to change anything.

Ben woke up and lay in the darkness before dawn, listening to the regular breathing of his wife. He only allowed himself to indulge in this manner for a few moments before he slid out from under the warmth of the blankets and into the crisp predawn air, being very careful not to wake his still slumbering wife. She would wake only a few minutes after he left the room, he knew, but he wanted her to have every extra minute he could give her. Once awake, she would spend the day working every bit as hard as he did, despite being heavy with their second child. He had been blessed far beyond deserving to have her as his companion. As he did every morning he offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for this blessing. He dressed quickly and silently in the darkness, trying not to wake his other great blessing. In a crib by the bed, his first son, not quite a year old, slept fitfully. Then Ben was out the door ready to begin the day.

Outside the air was cold and the stars were still bright. The eastern glow that announced the sun had not yet begun to kindle, but Ben knew it would at any moment. His chores before breakfast were simple but time consuming: feed the animals and milk the cow. Halfway across the yard to the barn, he stumbled, as he often did, over that small rock. He did not fall, but he did let out an annoyed curse directed at the familiar stone. Over the years, this rock had proven itself an obdurate opponent. It had resisted all of Ben’s efforts to dislodge it, no matter how herculean those efforts were. Only a small lump, no bigger than a man’s fist, protruded from the dirt, but digging soon showed how it broadened into enormous size, reaching out underneath both the house and the barn, ironically providing their very solid foundations and the very reason Ben’s ancestor had chosen to build there in the first place. He had attacked that knob of rock with chisels, only to wear out his tools without making a scratch on the rock. He had ruined both a pickaxe and a sledgehammer against the unyielding surface. His father and grandfather both had waged war against the stone, only to concede in defeat. Ben was not yet ready to give up, and as he continued towards the barn he renewed his vow to persevere in his private battle with the stone.

Ben put the rock out of his mind as he came to the barn. Inside he found his old mare waiting for him, as well as the mule. The two cows and the calf came in through the pasture door even as closed the yard door. Though he called her old, she likely still had at least another decade left to her. Next month he would take her to the manor house, to be bred to the Baron’s prized stallion. He could save a lot in stud fees if he chose to breed her to a lesser stallion in the area, but thanks to several bountiful corn harvests in a row, Ben had managed to save up enough to cover the Baron’s price. He considered it an investment. Whether the foal be colt or filly, he would have a magnificent animal, and whatever foals produced by it would command fair prices.

He gave them all some dried corn to supplement their grazing, then took some to the sow in her wallow. Only four little piglets nuzzled at her teats. Ben sighed when he saw them. They were all healthy, for which he was grateful, but it was definitely her last litter. She had lived a productive life; her litters had paid for the second cow. He was fond of her, but once the piglets were weaned he was going to have to sell her to the butcher. As old as she was her meat wouldn’t fetch much of a price, but the butcher could always use it in his sausages, and though Ben had done alright so far, he still couldn’t afford to feed an unproductive animal.

Back in the barn, Ben brushed down the horse and the mule, then milked the two cows. When he emerged again from the barn the stars had fled the sky, but the sun had still not quite shown its face yet. He threw a bucket of corn to chickens and carried to milk pails towards the house. Halfway there he caught the scent of breakfast and his stomach rumbled in response.

01 June, 2007

The Bus Station

I have no idea where this one is going. It's most likely the first chapter of a moderately long novel, and maybe even a serial adventure. I don't see it becoming an epic. I am curious to see how it evolves, especially how it will fit into our modern world. As far as this first chapter is concerned, does it read well? What are your impressions of the three characters introduced here? What are your initial speculations concerning the backgrounds of each of these characters? Do you want to see where the story leads?

No matter how hard I try to avoid it, trouble always seems to find me. Usually, it’s a woman. Usually, it’s a woman who has gotten herself into trouble. Usually it’s a woman who has gotten herself into trouble and who expects me, an innocent bystander and total stranger, to get her out of it. How they find me, I don’t know. I don’t stand out in a crowd; in fact, I can honestly say that I’m pretty invisible in a crowd, one of those people that just blend in so well that you can never remember seeing me. But the damsels in distress always seem to find me. This last one I saw coming from a mile away, like a deer can see the headlights coming.

I was sitting on a bench in a bus station watching the diverse crowd waiting for their rides. I like watching people, especially crowds of people. Sociology is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I find crowd dynamics very fascinating. At this particular time, I was enjoying watching the reactions of a very eclectic mix of people who were within hearing range of woman who was complaining very loudly about her legal troubles. Those closest to her were exhibiting some very blatant body language that she was not picking up on, and it was causing no small amusement on my part. I was on the verge of forgetting myself so far as to allow a grin to form, when my attention was diverted by a young girl who had suddenly chosen to sit next to me on the bench. Very closely next to me. This was odd for a couple of reasons. One, I was a stranger and two, the rest of the bench was quite empty. She was dressed unremarkably in jeans and a fleece sweater, her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a very pretty face. She was probably about fourteen or fifteen years old and would grow up to be a very lovely woman, if I am any judge of such things. She was craning her neck to scan the crowd off to our left with a nervous expression. It was pretty hard to miss the signs. A damsel in distress. And I was having such a nice day. I sighed. Might as well get it over with.

“Hello,” I said, to get the ball rolling.

“Hi,” she said, without looking at me.

A moment passed, and she continued to stare avidly off to the left. “Looking for someone?” was my next attempt. She turned and peered up at me. Here it comes. Her expression was artfully crafted to convey fearful innocence. They learn young.

“Well,” she began, letting her voice quiver just a little too much. She is young, after all. “Actually I’m looking for this guy.” Here it comes. “He’s been following me, and I don’t know who he is.”

Yep. A damsel in distress. Time for the first test. I made a concerned noise and frowned. “That sounds serious. Do you want me to call the police?” I pulled out my cell phone.

“What?” she said, genuinely startled. It seemed the idea hadn’t even crossed her mind as a viable solution. Not a good sign. She recovered quickly, but seemed a little warier with me. “No, no, that’s alright. I mean, I can’t really be sure he’s following me, and it’s not like he’s really done anything yet.” She was flushing a bright shade of pink as she rushed to dissuade me from calling the police. “Actually, I was thinking maybe I could just sit here, with you, and maybe he’ll think we’re together and go away.” Then she started on the pleading puppy look. She even touched my arm in a delicate and vulnerable manner. That’s the problem teenagers have. Caught between child and adult, they’re never sure which part to play, and always seem to get it wrong. There I was, clearly old enough to be her father, and she was trying to win me over like a woman when she should have tried being more of a frightened child. Ah well, c’est la vie. So far, all she had asked for was already happening, so I played along.

“Well, that sounds like a plan, if you’re sure you don’t want to call the police yet?” She shook her head, so I put away my phone. “So, tell me. Why do you think this guy is following you?” That was her cue to pile it on. She described a rather scary looking fellow whom she noticed as she was waiting to cross an intersection. He never got too close, but he had followed as she took a few twists and turns. I had to admit, she was pretty good, for a teenager. Her rhythm was a little off, and she fluctuated emotional levels a little wrong, but over all it was a compelling tale. She was well schooled and would one day be a formidable woman. I listened with the appropriate attentiveness, and made the appropriate noises throughout, and when she was done, I properly agreed that maybe we should wait to call the police. I even threw in that “we” to show that her storytelling had the desired effect.

The telling hadn’t taken very long, and the man had not yet shown up. At least, not to her eyes. I had marked him out of the crowd about halfway through her story. He was watching us very carefully, sizing up the situation, without ever really looking at us. To an untrained eye, he was as invisible in the crowd as I usually am, as forgettable as everyone else. But to a trained eye, such as my own, he stood with the powerful grace of a mountain lion on the hunt, or a falcon riding the wind and marking its prey. When he moved, that power and grace became breathtaking, and not a little frightening. Every move he made was perfectly balanced and fluid enough that he could strike with lightning speed, even from midstep. He carried no visible weapons, but whether he had any or not, it wouldn’t matter; he was a weapon.

I apologize if my description sounds a little prosaic, but it is truly inspiring to see a master engaged in his craft.

A few moments after she had finished, the girl spotted her pursuer. She clutched my arm and hissed, “There he is!” Pretending I had not yet spotted him, I hissed back, “Where?” A few seconds passed as she pointed him out to me and I played at looking for him, then she said, “I’m scared.” I looked at her. This time, there was no artifice in her voice, only raw emotion. It wasn’t strong, but it was truth. She knew the man meant her ill. That changed the game a little, made it a little more serious. “It doesn’t look like he’s spotted us yet,” I said in a comforting voice, “and it doesn’t look like he’s looking for anything. Maybe he wasn’t following you after all.” I put a little cheer into my voice.

“Maybe,” she said, without conviction. She took her eyes off him long enough to look at me with a very serious expression on her face. “Would you ride the bus with me? Just until I know he’s not following me. I’ll pay for your trouble.” It came out in a bit of a rush, and the end was little pleading. She had definitely lost her composure. By rights, she should have built up to it a little more, but she was starting to panic. She was young, she would learn.

I was saved from answering by the man approaching us. Approaching me actually; he never looked at the girl. He walked right up to the bench and loomed over me. He smiled and said, very politely, “Excuse me sir, I hate to interrupt, but I believe you have something of mine.” I’ve always loved how dangerous men can use friendly courtesy as a threat. I’ve done it myself from time to time, and it’s really quite fun.

The girl had her head down and sat very rigidly. I had the distinct impression that she was ready to bolt.

“Oh?” I said, just as politely, “and what would that be?”

“The girl, of course.”

“Of course.” A moment’s pause as we smiled politely at each other, showing our teeth. I broke eye contact first, to glance at the girl, then looked back at the man.

“Well, it would appear that she is somewhat reticent to join your company.” I said it with sarcastic incredulity. I love using that tone of voice. It rarely fails to put people’s teeth on edge.

“I’m afraid I must insist.” A little clichéd, and he made it worse by raising his hand to reveal a small pistol. It was very small, easily concealed in his hand, but just as deadly as a big pistol. The pistol, however held little interest for me. Instead, I studied the tattoo on the back of his hand. It only confirmed what I had already suspected, but definitely changed the game. Any other little tests I might use suddenly became moot. I was still going to play it out though. I deserve a little fun every now and then.

“My goodness, is that a gun?” I said just a little too loudly, and perhaps a little too histrionically. People nearby looked over at us, some curiously, others with mild alarm.

He laughed heartily, as if I had made a joke. Spreading his suddenly empty hands in the air he said, for the benefit of the crowd, “Whatever, man.” He was very good. I didn’t even see the move that hid the gun, and I was watching for it. Much more quietly, and still chuckling, he added, “Keep your voice down or you’re both dead.” It definitely chills the blood to hear a death threat delivered by a chuckling man, even if it was another cliché. It is understandable, though, his use of so many clichés. A man in his line of work doesn’t need to be very creative in his choice of words, just so long as the point gets across.

He went back to the polite smile. “Now, sir,” he began again, “Why don’t we both be reasonable about this. I’m sure neither of us wants any trouble, and this doesn’t really concern you at all does it?”

We looked at each other for a moment while he waited for my response. The time of decision had come. I had forestalled the choice about as long I comfortably could, so I made it. Instead of answering the menacing stranger, I turned to the girl and asked, “What bus were you planning on taking?” She was not expecting the question and she stammered a little as her brain shifted gears before answering, “I, uh, bus 29.”

“Really?” I said with false amazement, “What a coincidence! I’m taking bus 29, too! I’ll be happy to ride with you to your stop.” I turned back to the man looming over me. “Well, it looks like it does concern me, since the young lady has just hired me as her bodyguard, and unless you’re planning on taking bus 29, too, then it looks like the girl is traveling with me, and not you.”

There it was: a direct challenge. The gauntlet had been thrown, right into the face of one of the more dangerous men I had ever met. I had dropped the polite smile, and so had he. We now both wore the faces of two men trying to prove who had the most testosterone, but hadn’t quite gotten to anger. That would come soon enough.

“Sir,” he said, still polite, but more menacing, “if you insist on this course of action, then I will be forced to deal with you very roughly.”

“What, here? In broad daylight? With all these witnesses around?” I scoffed.

“Yes.” He brandished the pistol again. That brought me up short. I knew what this man was capable of, and I knew he could very possibly get away with what he intended, but I also knew that it was a situation his kind strenuously tried to avoid. The risks and variables involved made it a rather difficult accomplishment, and there were always repercussions, no matter how clean the getaway. He definitely was not bluffing, so his simple statement underscored just how important his assignment was. Time to go into endgame.

“So,” I drawled very casually, “just out of curiosity, where are the other points of the Star?” I had already picked them out as soon as I had seen the tattoo, four other men who moved just like this one did nonchalantly scattered in the crowd; I merely asked the question for effect. He blinked. She stiffened next to me, though whether from surprise at my knowledge or that there was more than one following her, I did not know. Probably both.

The point before me had showed no other reaction, and his finger remained steady on the trigger, but I had made him rethink the entire situation. I had suddenly become a much bigger unknown than before. “I see that you have some passing familiarity with us,” he said, making the end just a little bit of a question, inviting elaboration. I didn’t give any. “Some,” I agreed. I couldn’t help it; I smirked.

“Then you understand what we are capable of.” Again, that half question. I was having fun.

“Oh, yes.” The girl was staring at me, her mouth half open. I like catching people by surprise, even when it’s easy.

“Then you will yield the girl to me.” He didn’t sound completely confident in that statement. He knew his skills, but he didn’t know mine. I didn’t look like I had any, but you didn’t get to be part of a star by underestimating your opponents. Those who did usually died long before making it into such an elite group.

“Well now, what kind of bodyguard would I be if I did that?”

He struggled to control himself. It was almost imperceptible, but I had definitely kicked the hornet’s nest. “Sir,” he said through clenched teeth, “I don’t believe you quite understand the situation…”

I cut him off. I had dragged out the charade long enough and it was time for everyone to drop our facades. Besides, the next wave of buses was about to arrive. “No, I think you don’t quite understand.” I looked him full in the face with a stern expression and allowed the rune etched in my forehead to glow faintly and briefly, just enough so that he could not mistake it for what it was. The gun disappeared again, even faster this time if it were possible. Sweat popped out on his brow and I detected a small tremor in his hands. It takes a lot to shake a starpoint, but I had succeeded. The other four points had suddenly tensed up, as they sensed a dangerous shift in the situation.

“Forgive me Great One,” he stammered, “I did not recognize…I mean, I did not mean to…I,” he swallowed, and tried again, “I am sorry, Great One.” He bowed his head and clasped his hands in the familiar sign of deference.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, very magnanimously, “I didn’t want you to know who I was, so there was no way you could. But now that you do, I suggest you report back to your employer at once, to tell him about the new situation.” I turned to the girl, who was staring at me and trying to decide how to feel about this turn of events, already dismissing the dangerous man from my thoughts and determined to hear the girl’s story. I was very curious as to who would send a star out after an obviously defenseless girl. The only thing I could think of was that she was not nearly as defenseless as she looked. That theory did not quite fit with the way she acted, though, so I was expecting a very interesting story indeed.

Before I could start talking to her, something very odd occurred to me. I turned back to the man and found him still standing there. I was, needless to say, rather flummoxed by this behavior. I stared at him for a long moment trying to decipher his intent. He was sweating now quite profusely and his hands had picked up their trembling. His eyes darted about, trying to look at anything except me.

“Did you misunderstand me?” I asked. I am nothing if not merciful. He knew and I knew that he had not, but by asking the question I was giving him a second chance to leave with his life. A lot of colleagues would already be teaching him a lesson in etiquette, but I always like to make sure they really need it first.

“Yes, your Greatness, I did.” With his own words he condemned himself. I was simply amazed. I have seen a lot of bizarre and crazy things in my life, and I thought I had lost the ability to be amazed or shocked, but this was like a dog having kittens. I wasn’t sure which ones exactly, but there were definitely some inviolable natural laws being violated right now.

Bus 29 pulled up, along with a lot of noise and very smelly smoke. I think it was due for retirement. I couldn’t focus on the situation, so I stalled. “What’s your name?” I asked the man.

“First Point Frank Jameson, sir.” He almost stiffened to a salute. He knew his life was forfeit at my leisure, so he was very eager to please me. I only asked his name, but he gave his rank as well. He also wanted to give me his regiment and post, but did not dare cross that fine line of talking out of turn with a Great One.

“Well, First Point Frank Jameson, why don’t we continue this conversation on the bus?” I stood up and offered my arm to the young girl who had drawn me into a so far very surprising adventure, and said, “Shall we?” I was now expecting a very interesting tale from both of them, the kind I hadn’t heard in ages, and I admit, I was kind of looking forward to hearing them. It never ceases to amaze me how stupid I can be sometimes.