CHAPTER 4: A LESSON WITHIN A LESSONS
Spring rains pelted TaleSpinner as she hurried to the Hall of Mirrors. Gloomy skies dulled scales that were normally a lovely shade of purple, leaving them dark and flat, almost the color of an old bruise. At the Hall’s entrance she shook herself from snout to tale, leaving a drake-sized puddle.
TaleSpinner entered the Hall’s cheery warmth and was immediately assailed by the smell of hot cider. The aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon and other flavoring spices tickled her nostrils. She exhaled a quick breath of primal as the tickle threatened to turn into a sneeze.
She stood for a moment, as the Hall’s warmth soaked into her scales and drove away the rain’s chill. TaleSpinner smiled to herself as she saw that her guests were already seated and chatting amongst themselves as they sipped their warm cider .. well in Flozzie’s case, warm ale.
Silence fell. For those who waited had caught a flash of amethyst. They knew that the time had come for the night’s telling. In a moment, the rite began as it always did. Youngling voices began the chant:
" A tale... a tale.... a tale...."
The lights in the Hall went out. A moment’s pause.. and then, from the darkness the voice came..
"Did ye ever hear tell of Thunder and Lightning? Of the Fool and the Fair?"
And the light came again. TaleSpinner’s eyes sparkled in a small flame that danced and flickered as she settled herself on the raised place of speaking. As she had done twice before, she began by speaking a child’s rhyme.
Sonea Finder, blood lust on her,
Father buried long.
Shield-heart lost at teacher’s cost,
Mind-mazed and alone.
TaleSpinner looked out over the audience and, seeing that all were enwrapt, she continued.
Of a time the games of childer must end, and the labours of life take their part. And for those that must dance where the ravens call, war is no game and weapon skill like unto breath itself. And Sonea was no different, and the stuffy man stood alone, and she stood with others in the training ring. For the next three years, she walked there, some days working on technique, and others building muscle and endurance. Though she never gained the strength of her larger companions, Sonea became lightning swift with her steel-tipped staff. And she could hold her own for a short time against her father. By her tenth year Randar felt she had learned enough to stand with another’s blade or staff where the stuffy man had been.
Came a day that dawned bright, through the leaves burned near flame’s colour for Fall was falling in Sonea’s tenth year. On this day, after breaking her fast, Sonea gathered up her staff and took herself to Rander and the training circle. But on this day her father was not alone. The men of the company did stand around him, and did cheer as she came forth. The father placed Sonea in the center of the ground. And then he did make call for Borg, the smallest of the armsmen, who had just recently come to manhood, to stand and face her.
The armsmen moved to surround the two that they might watch, wondering what manner of sport Borg would make of her. But Soni stood ready, not a bit nervous. In fact she seemed in a wise excited, though she stood a head shorter and Borg far outweighed her. And at her father’s word, Sonea quickly launched into a ferocious attack.
They fought round after round, his heavy, brute strength against her light step and speed. The fury of her attack was magnificent, and frightening to be coming from one so small. And she seemed to dance away from his blows. When her father finally called a halt, Sonea stood, head bowed, taking deep shuddering breaths. She was tired to the bone and was covered in scrapes and scratches. Borg, however, had not fared so well. He limped out of the clearing with a broken nose and bruised ribs. And a somewhat bruised pride, though he appeared to not take it amiss. He praised her skill that the others might know he held no ill feelings.
It seems that in this matter, perhaps Sonea’s father was a wise man. For the lesson, and it was a lesson to the men of arms, gave notice that the little girl, who would soon start to blossom into a woman, could turn into a demon, if she had need.
Now, the young man named Borg did become a frequent sparring partner for Sonea. Some days he would emerge from their bouts unscathed. But many a day he did leave nursing some hurt or other. And on those days he made sure to praise her efforts. As Sonea grew in strength and skill, the sparring became more and more fierce. Sonea seemed to know no restraint, but rather she attacked each and every time as if facing the very Blight itself. As her skill grew, so did a blood lust begin to rise in her. Until the day it nearly o’er came her.
On this day, Borg’s sword did seem to find its way past her defense, not once but two times. The first time, Sonea did increase her attack. But the second time... ah the second time, Borg thought he must have unleashed the golem king himself. Sonea’s staff was everywhere. Where he parried, she changed attack and found purchase elsewhere. And she didn’t soft-set her blows. He was fighting for his very life!
Now Borg’s blade was not the most feared of the company. Were it other, things might have made a different turn. Sonea, in a mad frenzy, showed no tiring. But poor Borg, heavier and slower, and working hard to preserve his skin, soon felt the fatigue that comes with exertion. A falter, a misstep, none knew for sure, and Borg lay on the ground, eyes wide in surprise, and fear close company to that surprise. For Sonea was plunging the tip of her staff toward his belly. The look on her face of anger and old hatred and older fear paralyzed Borg.
Thank the gods, Borg did not feel the death bite of Soni’s staff that day, for at that very moment, a large hand, attached to an even larger arm did reach round Sonea from behind and lift her clean off the ground. The unexpected movement did break the hold that the blood lust had on Sonea and after a startled moment, she collapsed, limp against Jorquas’ chest. And the tears came as she realized what she had almost done to one who had been nothing but friend to her.
Borg refused to spar with Sonea any longer, saying she had surpassed his abilities. And again he praised her speed and skill.. and vigor. And over the next several months, Borg was seen on several occasions conversing with Sonea about some nothing or other. But whenever Borg drew near Sonea, if ye happened to be observant, ye would also have seen that Jorquas drew near as well. And at those times he always had his club to hand. Sonea thought this was sweet of Jorquas, though she did oft tell him that his concern was unwarranted.
Sonea’s father had great concern, nay even fear o’ this rising bloodlust. He knew that things could not go on as they were. What if she lost control entirely? Again, he lay awake of a night, pondering..
At last Sonea’s father called her to him. This time to speak of a task he would set before her, a task that she might find to be a source of some delight. Ye see, a Cleric had begun traveling with the mercenaries. Having a healer near was a boon since those of war often found themselves in need of a poultice, or some stitchery. Though the Cleric was capable, he had greeted many years and his age was keeping him from venturing forth that he might gather the parts and simples needed to concoct healing mageries.
The task, ye see, was to provide assistance to the old man as he went about his craft. But here is a thing.. as Clerics may wield non-edged weapons, Sonea could yet continue to train with her staff. Soni soon found herself dividing her time between war training and studying the healing arts. And thus Sonea began studying the ways of the Cleric.
Mornings were spent war training with her father. But of an afternoon Sonea would most oft be found head to head with the Cleric, both squatted over a small fire brewing some unguent or other concoction that might be useful for healing. Or on a nice day ye might find her wandering in the forest or roaming the fields seeking the plants and other things that the Cleric set her to gather. And where Sonea roamed, so went the ever watchful Jorquas, though he stood to one side and never helped her with the gathering.
More and more oft in the evening, ye would find Sonea in Borg’s company talking of weapons and armor, or laying on their backs on a rock in the middle of the stream near their camp, staring up at the stars in the night sky. It was during these times that Borg seemed most relaxed, and he would speak of his childhood in Harro. And he would speak of how his father trained him in the ways of war, and how his father protected him from the Avatar of Pain and its gang of burlies. The one time that Sonea asked of his mother, Borg turned surly and refused to speak for the rest of the night.
Then came a dark day in Sonea’s life. Her father failed to survive an encounter whilst in the GraniteFall Mountains. If ye do recall, the father was not of the Gifted and thus his death was final. Sonea found herself bereft of family. But Borg and Jorquas and the other mercenaries did offer her what succor they could as she retrieved him from the field that she might offer the one who had found her, and protected her, and raised her, a decent burial.
As the last earth was thrown and the last cairn stone was laid, Soni’s mind began to slip. Jorquas guided her back to the camp that she might grieve aside in the veil of her own canvas. And he sat himself outside it that he might guard and offer such comfort as one of his great size and simple mind might.
For weeks after, Sonea sat in her tent, mind lost and eyes blind to the world, rousing only when urged to eat what Jorquas did bring her. If ye happened to look close at Soni during this time, there be a thing ye might have seen. For she held a small something in her hand. And from time to time she would gently shake it up and down. And when the sun was just right, it would cast its rays in through the tent’s opening, and ye might see a small blue sparkle.
Time’s candle burns, and in that fire it is said all wounds are burned away. And thus it was for Sonea also. One day she did wake, and the world seemed righted in her mind. And she knew the sun would rise, and the nigh fall whatsoever ill did find her door. She sought the old Cleric that she might find comfort in doing the everyday things that he asked of her. In this way, she rejoined her comrades and eventually found that her spirit though bruised by the loss of her father, had healed to the point that she could once more seek joy and delight in living.
A short time later, the Cleric set before Sonea a task. She was to roam the hills near Bristugo and seek the herbals that she might find growing at this time of year. Soni spent the morning roaming and gathering. As the sun neared its zenith, she stopped atop a hill to enjoy the view and eat a small meal that the Cleric had packed in her basket. It was a beautiful day, the sun warmed her skin, and then a breeze cooled it again.
And Sonea ended up spending a good bit of time on her back in the soft grass, fingers locked behind her head, gazing upwards, watching the local draku dart and spin as they played a game of sky tag. After a time, the draku moved on and she began seeking familiar shapes in the billowy clouds that decorated the sky. And then she had fallen fast asleep, and didn’t wake until the shadows of nearby trees had grown long enough to block the sun.
Sonea gathered her basket and scrambled out of the hills, wondering why Jorquas had not wakened her. Ah well, he must have been needed back at the camp. At the edge of the hills stood a grove that she must pass through ere she reached camp. Sonea hurried through it, head down, watching for roots or holes that might catch the unwary foot in the fading light, hoping to reach the camp ere full dark set in.
She came to the stream in the center of the grove, the very stream where she and Borg would lay and watch the stars, and she placed her hand on a tree that she might steady herself for the jump to the other side. Now the stream was burbling and gurgling and singing a merry song as its water passed over its stony bed. And it seems to me that this must be why Sonea heard naught. Ye see, a shadow did step from behind a tree and it slid up behind her. And just as she was poised to jump, the hair on the nape of her neck rose. And the shadow grew arms, and then hands. And one hand reached around Sonea’s head to cover her mouth. And the other grabbed her about the waist and the arms pulled Sonea into the shadow’s embrace.
Now a slip of a thing she was, and though lightning fast when facing a foe, when grabbed from behind and held tight, there was little that she might do. Her basket of herbals sailed through the air and splashed, interrupting the stream’s song. Sonea lashed out with her legs, and wriggled and fought, but the arms of the shadow were as bands of steel. And the shadow bore Sonea to the ground.
While one dark hand covered her mouth lest she cry for help, the other ripped her leggings. Sonea held herself as stiff as a board, but the shadow forced her legs to part. As it leaned back to work loose the bindings of its own leggings, a hint of moonlight broke through the trees. And lo! Sonea saw that the shadow had a face.. and the face was one she knew! It was Borg. Her eyes widened and then her brows drew into a frown and she made as if to speak. But his hand was still tight upon her mouth and no sound could she make.
Sonea’s mind began to slip again as long forgotten horrors did start to resurface. But as Borg fumbled, there came a crashing so loud that it could be heard o’er the song of the stream. Sonea felt Borg freeze atop her, and then suddenly she was free. As she curled into herself and stared at the darkness, she heard the sounds of a mighty struggle. And then she saw the light of torches, for the men of the camp had come seeking.
What she saw in the torchlight was this.. the giant Jorquas with his hands locked about Borg’s neck. And Borg, try as he might, could not pry Jorquas’ fingers from their deadly embrace. Ere the deed was done, Borg removed one hand from prying and did pull from a sheath at his side, a dagger with a wicked sharp edge. As Jorquas had his mind on the killing task at hand, he did not notice the dagger until its point entered his heart through his ribs. But he felt it, and in his final breath, Jorquas snapped the neck of the betrayer.
For the second time in her life, Sonea did scream: “NOOOOOO!” And she leaped to her feet and ran to the fallen Jorquas. She felt for his breath but found none, for his heart had truly been pierced. And it was Sonea’s fault. Had she only listened, Jorquas would have been near and the betrayer, he would not. Now, to me, what happened next did so only because Sonea’s mind had started to slip. For had she been right-minded, I like to think that things would have taken a different turn.
Upon seeing that Jorquas had breathed his last breath, Sonea ran to the Cleric, seeking his aid. She begged and pleaded that he might return Jorquas. Ye do know that it takes great power to resurrect the fallen. The Cleric, who was quite old, was reluctant to try. Sonea, nearly mad, ran to her tent and brought forth her staff that she might force the old man to her will.
The Cleric had come to care deeply for Sonea, as if she were his own grandchild. And he knew she did love him as one might a grandpere. But on this night, the Cleric did see the demon of war within her. And he saw that if he did not her will, then he would measure his length to the forest floor and his life would be reft from him. And for this reason, he attempted the healing. And the Cleric’s call was answered, and the casting called forth the near-giant’s spirit and Jorquas was raised.
But all things have their cost, and this no different. As Jorquas gave his first gasp of new breath, the old Cleric clutched at his heart and breathed his last. And Sonea stood staring, mute, in shock. Jorquas came to himself and saw Soni standing o’er top the old man, staff in hand. In his simple mind, there was only one thing that could be.. Sonea had been o’ertaken by the bloodlust and killed the Cleric. She looked up at him, wide-eyed and frightened. In that moment, Jorquas turned his back on Sonea. For he could not bring himself to protect one who would harm an innocent.
Sonea saw the rejection in his eyes, and her heart broke, and the doors to her mind slammed shut once more. She ran, mindless, towards the tents of the camp. But for all of his size, on this night one was swifter. And Jorquas outpaced her. Reaching her, he stretched out one arm and stopped Soni dead in her tracks.
Stern, yet strangely gentle, Jorquas took from her the staff she still bore in her hand. At first she seemed to resist, but she could not o’ercome his strength. And he took the staff, and his hand gripped it, and tighter it gripped... tighter.... till with a crack, the staff shattered and fell to the ground.
Then Jorquas picked Sonea up and carried her limp form to where her tent stood. And he tore down the tent support, letting the canvas walls fall in upon themselves. And he reached in, and his hand seemed to take a small thing forth, and he placed the thing in the hand that had held the staff. Then Jorquas took Sonea to the edge of the camp and set her to her feet, and... let go.
With that small something clutched tightly in a white-knuckled fist, Sonea looked about her, frightened eyes unseeing and lost. A loud crack from a burning branch in the camp’s fire startled her. Sonea froze for a moment.. and then she bolted. And the night took her and the dark swallowed her. And to the camp, to the band... perhaps to the very world.... Sonea was gone.
TaleSpinner stopped speaking and blinked to clear a mist that had covered her eyes and turned the audience into a swirling blur of color. As the faces of her listeners swam back into view, she smiled sadly and continued.
“Poor Soni.. mind-lost, and alone again. Worry not o’er much for Sonea. I promise ye that in the next telling, things begin to look up a bit for her. For now though, Soni wanders, the Tale sleeps, and this night’s telling is done.”
With those words, the ghost flames flickered and went out. After a few moments, the Hall lights came on. TaleSpinner was gone from the stage. Those who had gathered twisted and turned in their seats and eager scanned the walls. Each hoped to be the first to spot a new visage, and each wondered what form the visage might take. But there was nothing .. nothing new had appeared.
And so all made to leave the Hall and return to hearth and home. A mother held back scanning the Hall for her youngest who was wont to wander off whenever she cast her gaze from him for the smallest moment. It seemed he had done so yet again. She called his name quietly, for this night’s tale, and mayhap the gloomy weather, had left the listeners in a somber mood, and she would not disturb them from their musing.
There! She spotted a mass of wild hair that could only be her son’s, bouncing in time with its owner who was hopping up the steps to the stage of the speaking place. As she worked her way to the front of the Hall, she lost sight of him. Then she smiled as she saw the tousled hair again, no longer moving, for the boy stood still, hands clasped behind his back as if to keep himself from touching a thing that he knew he should not.
He faced the wall behind the stage, his little head tilted upward, peering into the almost darkness near the ceiling where the light from the Hall barely cast its glow. The mother’s gaze followed her son’s up the wall and she started as she saw a ghost of movement where none should be. She picked the youngling up, settled him on her hip, and moved closer to the wall, squinting up into the darkness.
The boy squirmed in her arms and reached both hands forward as if to catch something. He shouted, “The birdie, momma! I want the birdie!” And sure enough, the visage from this night’s telling was made. In a darkened corner it was, perhaps in tribute to the darkness of the night’s telling. But nonetheless, there it was. As the mother watched, it almost seemed as if she could see the bird’s wings move up and down, ever so slightly.
The boy’s cry had caught the attention of the other listeners and they quickly crowded ‘round to see. One brought a candle close. In its glow, all could see what must surely be the little bird that had been a gift from Sonea’s father. The youngling clapped his hands and squealed with delight, for he could now see that the little bird was flying.
His joy was infectious. First one did smile, and then another, until the somber faces were gone, replaced by smiles and some chuckles as they shared the boy’s delight and wonder. With lightened hearts, those who had gathered left the Hall, traversing the tree covered walkway to the courtyard entry of Heart's Ease.
Bidding friends and neighbors good eve, each hurried home to warmth and safety and shelter from the chill dampness of the Spring rains.
The Hall was empty now. The lamps were doused and the fire gone. Above, the bruised sky still shed its burden to the land below. Cold and dark, silent and alone, windows streaming... the Hall wept.