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[Back-story: This was a dream sequence I originally wrote for the novel. It was supposed to introduce the secret motivation of one of the primary characters. I cut it, though, because I thought it was just too much too soon in the story. But I kind of really liked it! Well, at least it looks better in my head than it actually reads, if that makes any sense. I have a long history as a photographer/cinematographer, so I guess I tend to “think” cinematically. Trouble is, translating that into the written word. Anyhow, it’s going back in, but not as a flashback/dream.]
“Griff!” CLANG! “GRIFF!” CLANG! The heavy hammer slammed into the glowing metal on the anvil, the ringing sound of metal on metal reverberating through the forge. Griff seemed oblivious to the call. He lifted the hammer again, raised it high, brought it down swiftly, surely, precisely. CLANG!
“Don’t pretend not to hear me, Griff!” A figure now stood before him, red in the glare of the light cast by the fire of the nearby forge. Griff looked up from his work. The workers continued pumping the bellows, feeding oxygen to the fire within.
A woman stood before him. She was slightly shorter than him, her hair, black as the coal that fed the forge’s flames, fell in neatly plaited braids about her face, her skin ruddy beneath the glow of the roaring fire in the forge. The scarlet and gold trim of her tunic glowed here in the smithy, the firelight danced in her eyes. Or was it her wrath, Griff thought absently. He returned his eyes to the metal he was shaping on the anvil. He did not speak.
“Don’t do this, my son!” she implored, her tone softening somewhat. He ceased his work but did not look up, still not speaking.
“Why, Griff?” she asked. “Why this course of action? Your place is here, with the clan. Morden has already stepped forth to fulfill this task, allow him to do so. Stay here, where you belong, where you are needed.”
Griff sighed. Again, the same old argument, the same old words. Could his mother not understand him, understand that he must go? Why was she making this harder on everyone? Why could she not simply give her blessing and allow him to go in peace? He looked up at his mother’s eyes.
His words were terse and to the point. “You of all people, mother, must surely understand why I must go. It is for the clan I do this, not me. It must be done and it is my duty to do so. I cannot deny it or set it aside. Would you have me do so? Would you have me betray our clan, our family, our honor? You know me better than any other, look into your heart. You know that there is no other course of action.”
His mother looked intently at her son, hoping the pain she was feeling was not reflected in her eyes. Yes, she knew. Nevertheless, a mother must try, she thought. Try to protect her only son. “This consumed your father,” she began. Griff winced. If she noticed, she showed no sign. She continued. “Then, it claimed your brother, gone these 10 years now. Must I lose my last son, as well? Morden…” she started to say but Griff cut her off sharply, slamming the hammer’s oaken shaft onto the huge anvil before him.
“This is not Morden’s duty!” he growled, his temper rising. “This duty falls to the sons of the clan’s founding father and Morden is not of that line! You know this, mother. My grandsire’s father was the first, then his son. Then my father. Then my brother. Now it is my duty to fulfill this charge or give my life in the attempt.” Why was she pushing this issue again? Did she think he enjoyed these arguments? Had she no idea how much it pained him? “Let Morden fill my place here, while I am gone. He is competent and the workers respect him. His head for business is clear and keen. He will do good service in the name of the clan. But this duty is mine and mine alone, it cannot be set aside, willingly or unwillingly.” His voice was firm, his will resolute. Moreover, his mother knew it. He was too much like his father. Too much like all the men of his father’s line. Determined. Strong-willed. And obstinate, she would have added, but never openly. She stepped forward, took her son’s hands in her own, held them tight.
“Then fulfill your duty, Griff, son of Grom, son of Rogar. Fulfill your destiny and bring honor to our clan and hearth.” Her blessing poured forth unexpectedly. She released his hands, turned quickly and strode away, hoping her only remaining son had not seen the tears starting to well up in her eyes. Griff did not watch her leave. He continued to stare at the now-cooling slab of folded and melded metal before him on the forge. Almost without thought, he picked up the heavy tongs, grasped the hot metal between its teeth and shoved it back into the fire of the forge behind him. His assistants dutifully continued pumping the huge bellows that fed oxygen to the fire of the forge, seemingly oblivious to the events that had transpired. Beads of sweat poured down Griff’s brow from the heat, running into his eyes, clouding them. Hiding his own tears, which were welling up.
A casual comment from a good friend of mine last week clicked a synapse in my head, which, in turn, triggered a series of cascading ideas regarding my fantasy novel I started too many years ago. A radical re-write is now in the works, especially (and most importantly) the beginning.Here’s the low-down….
This whole mess started when I began thinking back one day to my later days in high school. I had written a short story for an Honors English class which had received very good reviews from my instructor (a Ph. D. who had studied under Tolkien, no less!). The actual story has been lost to the ages but I still remembered it pretty clearly. So, I sat down one day to see if I could re-create it. And one thing led to another and I started thinking that maybe I could make a book out of it. Problem is, the original short story really wasn’t strong enough to hang an entire book from it. The further I went along, the less enthused I became with the project in its entirety. Mind you, there are a lot of pieces of it which I really like and I still think can be part of a good story. And the over-all story arc, I think, could be pretty interesting. It was the “connecting-the-dots” part I didn’t like. Which leads me to the re-write portion. My friend expressed a good deal of “like” for my short story “What You Do Best“, which had no connection to my novel in the slightest. And that is where the idea cascade hit me. I could add it to my novel and add a measure of complexity to the story that was not there before, plus open up new avenues of confrontation and struggle for my heroes. I think it might be a win-win situation.
The small figure trudged along the trail, whistling gaily as he went. There was no one around to observe his presence, which was exactly as he preferred. Had anyone been walking along that trail at that time, they would have at first mistaken him for a wandering dwarf. No dwarf was he, though. Roughly the same height as the bearded dwarves of the mountains, his ruddy skin, deep blue eyes and jet-black hair would have raised suspicions. Of course, his close-cropped black beard would have been a warning. No respectable dwarf would have been seen in public or private with such a diminutive beard! However, the nose was a dead giveaway. To say it was big would have been a disservice to that nose and an insult to its owner. In fact, the owner of that nose was quite proud of its size. All members of the Gnome race possessed a large nose; it was their one defining feature among all the intelligent races of the land. They took a great amount of pride in that fact.
This particular gnome was enjoying the early morning air as he walked briskly along. There was still a chill to the air, left over from that evening’s cold snap. Nonetheless, the hood of his travelling cloak was thrown back, the cold air making his cheeks appear even ruddier than normal. His tunic and breeches were of rough-spun wool, brown like his skin. In fact, there was little of color about him and if he had stopped and stood perfectly still (as he was quite capable of doing for long periods), a casual observer would have mistaken him for an old tree stump, which was exactly as he wanted. Being noticed was not something he was in favor of most of the time. That is because this particular gnome was a thief, although, had you called him such to his face, he would have expressed great indignity at being called such. “Professional Treasure Finder” was how he preferred to think of himself, thank you very much! Procurer of things rare and wonderful, which no one wanted any longer. That he sometimes did not bother to ask the item’s owner if it really was no longer wanted seemed to escape his notice.
None of this, of course, was in the gnome’s thoughts as he walked along, whistling gaily, enjoying the wonderful weather on this wonderful day. No, his thoughts were on the item stuffed into the over-sized pack strapped to his back, that rare and wonderful item he had found last night. The item he was certain that the fellow in that camp really did not want any longer. He had watched the fellow studying the intricately-wrought woodwork of the box (mahogany, he knew that dark color anywhere!), had seen him open it, watched fascinated as the man had stared for a time at the box’s contents and then had closed the lid, wrapped it in black silk and then placed it in a pack. What could possibly be in such a fabulous case? He just had to see the contents. But how? It had taken quite few hours of waiting perfectly still in the wooded shadows, watching the man until he was sound asleep, and then creeping slowly, ever so silently, into the camp, deftly removing the case and then, ever so silently, sliding noiselessly back into the darkness of the night forest. He had force-marched all that night, passing unseen and unheard through the forest, as only a gnome can, until the sun’s first rays started to lighten the night sky. He did not want to open the case too close to the man’s camp, for fear of waking him, of course. The man had looked like he needed his sleep and it would have been rude to awaken him. And so it was, as the sun was starting to make its appearance on this fine morning, he had finally allowed himself a moment’s rest to inspect the case and its mysterious contents.
“Ah! What a wonderful thing Life is!” he exclaimed as he walked along. “Once again, you’ve outdone yourself, Felsing Banilor!” That was his name, of course. Not that many people knew that this particular name belonged to this particular gnome, which was also how Felsing liked it. Anonymity was a bonus in his chosen profession, although he preferred to refer to it as “humility”. “I think a little music is in order, don’t you agree?” he said aloud to himself. “Why, yes, Felsing, I do believe that once again you have arrived at a capital idea!” he replied. With that, he reached inside the leather vest he wore over his woolen tunic and withdrew from some secret compartment a finely carved wooden flute. If anyone had been present, he would have launched into a long story about how he had found this particular piece of wood all by himself and how he had carved it into this beautiful musical instrument, all by himself. Felsing’s nimble fingers were good for a few things other than the lifting of other people’s property. Placing the instrument to his lips, he gave a few quick experimental blows of breath and, liking what he heard, began playing a boisterous walking tune which he himself had composed (which he would have gladly told anyone, had there been anyone near to listen to him). His deft and nimble fingers danced along the instrument, his gait took on a slightly jauntier aspect. Yes, Life certainly was good for Felsing Banilor, he thought, and it was only going to get better. Oh, yes! It was definitely going to get better.
[Back-story: I started writing this about 8 years ago and then got side-tracked when I started my fantasy novel. This is definitely a “first-pass” writing, never edited. I’m not even sure where I was taking this. In any case, here it is for your perusal. As always, opinions/comments are eagerly welcomed!]
The wind blew hot across the blacktop of the tarmac. Small zephyrs swirled among the parked ships, kicking up the dust from the nearby dunes. The noonday sun beat down relentlessly in its eternal attempt to burn everything to a cinder. Sane people were doing all they could to stay indoors away from the blistering heat of the afternoon sun. Even the flightline crews were keeping a low profile today, only venturing out if necessary and then running back to the cooling shelter of the hanger bays as soon as their tasks were completed. The man shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun as he made his way to the Administration Building. It wasn’t that he loved the heat and the misery it caused. Far from it. It was simply that he hated being here in the first place and the only way he was going to get off this god-forsaken rock was to make his daily pilgrimage to the Administration Building and try once again to get the fools there to do there damn jobs.
A high-pitched whine overhead caused him to look up instinctively. The blunt-edged triangular shape of an Imperial Scout was on final approach. Drachen-class, thought the man absently, one of the new classes. Another poor fool consigned to this living hell, he thought.
The glass doors of the Administration Building slid apart with a barely audible hiss as he approached them, the chilly refrigerated air slapping him in the face as he entered the building. The whine of engines and the shouts of the flightline crews were silenced in mid-sound as the doors slid closed behind him, surrounding him in the cold air and the quiet hum of machinery. He strode purposefully across the lobby, stopping before the receptionist’s desk. The pretty young girl looked up from her terminal, an official smile plastered on her face.
“Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?” she asked in her bureaucratically correct manner, the official smile never wavering.
A thousand sarcastic replies flew through his mind in an instant but were discarded just as quickly. Sarcasm would get him nowhere fast. Besides, it wasn’t really her fault that he was still stuck on this wind-swept, sun-baked planet in the middle of nowhere. He put on his own official smile, the one he saved for people who wanted something from him, usually money.
“Mr. Lury, please,” he asked, trying to force as much pleasantness into his request as he could.
“One moment, sir,” she replied, adjusting the volume on her headset as she placed the call, announcing the visitor to the unseen person on the other end. After a moment, she turned her attention back to her visitor.
“Mr. Lury will see you shortly, sir. If you will just have a seat…” She gestured towards the cluster of faux leather chairs in the middle of the lobby.
He was taken aback for a moment. For the past eight days, he had been greeted with one brush off after another. Missing paperwork, improperly completed paperwork, it went on and on. One thing he would not miss when it was all said and done would be the paperwork. The Service was drowning in it these days. Now, just like that, he was suddenly one step closer to his goal.
With a thank-you to the young receptionist, he turned and took a seat in the lobby. Settling into one of the over-stuffed chairs, he tried to relax. No need to go into the meeting with a short temper, reasoned the sensible side of his personality. No need? replied the other half of his mind. Eight days stuck in this backwater of the Imperium was more than enough reason. Twenty-eight years of loyal service, constantly putting his life on the line and the least they could have done for him was to arrange his for his retirement to take place on a more hospitable world! When Sorenson mustered out last year, they arranged for him to be cut loose on Regina. And he with only sixteen years of service! They even put him up at a first-class hotel, all expenses paid, while they processed him out. Not that he had anything against Sorenson. Far from it, he was a good man and had gotten a bum deal when they had refused his re-enlistment request after sixteen years of exemplary service. They had certainly owed Sorenson some kind of a perk, at the very least, he thought.
The lobby of the Administration Building looked just like all the other lobbies in all the other Imperial Scout Service Administration Buildings in every other starport he had ever traveled through over the years. They might as well have been pressed out of a form-cutter in some nameless factory somewhere. Give the Admin boys credit, though, he admitted. What they might have lacked in design style, they more than made up for in creature comforts. Even at a Class C facility like this one, they certainly weren’t hurting. From the deep pile of the sound-absorbing carpet, to the rich, dark reds of the imported wood paneling (Boughene River Valley mahogany, he thought, impressed), only the best would do, it seemed. Even the over-sized, flat-panel video monitors imbedded in the walls were state-of-the-art, providing a constant stream of entertainment and news for workers and visitors alike.
He was only vaguely paying any attention at all to the newscast streaming across the monitors. The smartly dressed newsreader was rattling off the latest trivia that was passing for news these days. Besides, he thought, the time-stamp on this newscast is over two weeks old. News only travels as fast as the ship carrying it. Class C facilities like this one weren’t exactly high on the Express Boat Service’s customer list. If they were lucky, a passing Scout or an enterprising Free Trader might drop by with the latest entertainment modules but that was rare. In a place like this, you took what you could get and counted yourself lucky.
He turned his attention to the people coming and going around him. For a Class III starport, Hefry was doing pretty good business. Of course, the presence of an Imperial Scout base did a great deal to boost the local trade presence. If the Scout Service ever pulled out, Hefry would probably quickly slide down to a Class IV rating and that would be the end of that. All the better to get out of here fast, he thought ruefully.
As it was, trade looked to be brisk in this corner of the Imperium and Hefry was doing its best to pull what share of it in that it could. The expansive lobby area was being crisscrossed by an assortment of individuals. Newly-minted Scouts in their neatly pressed white uniforms, looking oddly out of place as they tried to impress their fellows on what was assuredly for many of them their first duty assignment. More than one of them stared at him in his worn flightline kit, the black leather jacket showing off the colorful service patch of the Exploration Branch on his left sleeve, the gold-toned winged serpent coiled on the left breast, the symbol of the Imperial Scout Service. The silver rank insignia on the collar standing out brightly against the jet black of the jacket. Scout Leader, it said to any who could interpret the symbol. Not many made it to this level. We are a dying breed, he reflected sadly. Which is why he took special pride in wearing the old-style duty uniform. Someone needed to keep the old traditions alive, to remind people of the things that had made the Service what it was.
[Back-story: This was written 5 years ago as an entry for a writing competition. If I learned something, it was that I do not write very well when the subject is determined by someone else. I think it started out decently enough, but it didn’t really go anywhere I felt good enough about, as it was dictated by the mandates of the competition. But, I put it here in case someone else might find some possible merit in it.]
“Should we touch it?” asked the first one.
“I wouldn’t!” answered the second one.
“What do you think it is?” asked the first one.
“How should I know?” replied the second one sarcastically. “You’re the bookworm, you tell me!”
“That doesn’t mean I know everything,” the first one shot back hotly.
“Oh, yeah?” smirked the second one. “Then why do you always act like you do?”
“What the hell is wrong with you two?” interjected the third as he pushed his way between the two others kneeling in his way. The two others started suddenly, surprised by his stealthy approach.
“Stop doing that!” they both shouted.
“Not likely,” said the third. “It’s what I do best,” he added as he stared intently at the object of his friends’ conversation. “Were you planning on taking this thing, or just sitting here and jabbering all day?” he asked.
All three were now staring at the dark object before them, nestled safely in its small wooden chest. The third one of the group, smallest of the three, reached forward as if to touch the thing. His friends cried out in surprise.
“What is wrong with you two?” cried the third in frustration.
“We don’t know what it is!” fired back the first one. “What if it’s cursed or something?” he added, looking sidelong at the dark object, as if he expected it suddenly to do something sinister.
“What does it matter?” cried the third. “It’s valuable, or else he wouldn’t have put up such a struggle to keep it, now would he?” The other two couldn’t come up with an argument against that. They were all sporting the remnants of the struggle. And poor Hedrick! There wasn’t much left of him after it was all said and done. Whatever this thing was, it had been worth fighting over and that meant money to the three survivors.
The third one suddenly shot out his hand, grabbed the thing and lifted it out of the chest before the others even knew what was up. They gasped, shrinking back from their friend as if they expected him to strike them suddenly, but nothing happened. Their friend was kneeling there between them, hefting the object in his left hand, examining it closely with the professional eye of the trained thief, for thief he was.
“It’s heavier than it looks!” he said admiringly as he drew it closer to his face. His two friends leaned in expectantly to get a better view. Whatever it was, it was dark, darker than dark, in fact. No light glinted or reflected off its perfectly polished surface. It was larger than their little friend’s hand, slightly oval, suggestive of an egg but not quite an egg.
“Maybe it’s an egg of some kind!” opined the second one. “Maybe a dragon’s egg! That’d fetch a fortune!” he whispered, eyes wide.
“Don’t be an idiot!” shot back the first one. The third one sighed at the bickering of the others.
“Would you two shut up?” growled the third irritably. “It’s not an egg.” He went back to studying it. “And it’s not a jewel, either,” he added quickly, before either of the two idiots could say a word. “It looks like glass but I’ve never seen any glass anywhere that even comes close to this thing,” he said admiringly. He suddenly returned the dark object to its silk-encased nest in the little wooden chest and snapped the lid shut. He scooped up the little chest and clutched it under his left arm, like a mother hen protecting her chick. He quickly stood up, looking down at his still-kneeling friends. “Can we get out of here now?” he asked.
They made good time in leaving. Hedrick they buried under a quick mound of rocks and stones there in the cavern. Not that there was much left of their poor friend to bury. His broken shield they placed atop the stones. It wouldn’t fetch a brass button in its current condition, in any case.
“Well, any idea what it is?” It wasn’t the first time the question had been asked since they had left the caverns. For two days now that seemed to be the only thing either one of the two had been asking the little thief. Once again, he was sitting by the campfire, studying the perfectly smooth, perfectly dark, glass-like object held in his hands. He was becoming accustomed to its strangeness now; it was looking and feeling like an old friend, as if it had been part of his life since the day he was born. He was ignoring his friends and it was annoying them greatly.
“What are we going to do with it?” asked the first one. “We’ll be there soon enough; shouldn’t we have some plan for selling this thing or something?” He was looking at his little friend, who was ignoring him still.
“Yeah,” interjected the second one. “We haven’t talked about what we’re going to do with it. Sell it? Or what?” The third one ignored him, as well. The two looked at each other, then back to the third. “Well?” they cried in unison.
“How am I ever going to figure this thing out with you two badgering me like this?” he cried irritably. He carefully replaced the dark object in its case, arose and walked to his bedroll. Placing the small chest back in his pack, he lay down, drew his blanket over his small body and tried to sleep, his back to his friends.
Talk to me.
The third one mumbled in his sleep. No one heard him.
Please talk to me.
This time, he rolled over on his back, eyes tightly shut in sleep.
Why won’t you talk to me?
This time, he shot upright, eyes open, struggling to focus in the darkness. “Who’s that?” he mumbled, half-asleep. No one answered. The other two were still asleep, tightly rolled up in their blankets on the other side of the dying fire. Only the night sounds of the forest answered him. He listened for a while longer but the voice was gone. “Stupid dreams,” he muttered as he lay back down and struggled to find sleep.
Stupid dream or not, it wouldn’t leave him alone. The next night, the same voice, calling out to him and awakening him. And again, the next night. Between the stupid dream and his stupid companions, he wasn’t getting much sleep and he was getting more than a bit irritated about the whole thing.
“Who are you?” He had no idea where he was.
Please, help me.
He was alone and it was dark, very dark. He could see nothing, not even a glimmer of light but for some unknown reason, that didn’t bother him. “Where are you?” he whispered.
He stopped, listening. Something grabbed him, shook him violently. He cried out in shock and surprise.
“What’s wrong? Wake up!” They were on either side of him, each with a hand on one of his shoulders, shaking him awake. He pushed himself up and away from his two friends, looking wildly about. It was nearly dawn; the first hints of the new day were slipping into view over the surrounding treetops.
“You were shouting in your sleep,” the first one said. They looked worried.
“It was just a stupid dream,” he said, gathering up his gear and ignoring the others. They looked at him for a bit, finally shrugging their shoulders and returning to their own morning chores before they broke camp for the day to resume their march.
Another night, yet another dream.
You came back.
It was still dark and he still could not see anything but he knew that he was not alone. Odd, he thought almost absently, but I’m not afraid. He wasn’t. Should he be? Maybe I should be, he thought and then he stopped worrying about it.
I’m glad you are here.
The voice was warm, almost pleasant, like an old friend. He smiled, relaxing. Who are you?
I’ve been here so long, so alone.
So sad, he thought. You’re not alone now, he thought.
Don’t leave me alone!
I won’t, he thought. The voice needn’t have worried. He had no desire to leave.
They won’t let you stay, you know. Your friends. They’ll make you leave. Please don’t let them.
However, they did. Again, they woke him. Harder, this time. It was getting harder each time to bring him back from the world of sleep and they were becoming worried and he was growing more annoyed with their actions.
“Why can’t you two leave me alone?” he growled one night, after a particularly annoying argument with the two of them. They looked at him surprised.
“What’s going on?” asked the first one, poking the fire with a stick. “Ever since we left those caves behind, you’ve been sullen and surly and a pain to be around!” Frustrated, he tossed the stick he was holding into the hottest part of the fire. Sparks flew up into the night sky.
“Yeah,” chimed in the second one. “This is getting to be too much. We should be there tomorrow, next day at the latest, and you still won’t tell us what’s going on with that thing,” he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the little thief’s bedroll. The little chest with its dark object was quickly becoming a source of contention between the three. Gone was the initial excitement of discovery. It had now been replaced with resentment and a trace of anger.
He looked darkly at his two companions sitting across the fire from him. What were they plotting? They were after his treasure, he was sure of it. It would just be a matter of time before they took it from him. What could he do?
Another night, another dream.
You have to stop them; you can’t let them take me away!
But what can I do? I am just one and they are two, he thought.
Do what you do best.
Yes, what I do best, he thought. What I do best.
The next day he awoke refreshed and rested, such as he had never been before. He was in a merry mood, whistling gaily as he packed his gear carefully, making sure his treasure was safely stowed in the bottom of his pack. He made sure to spread plenty of dirt over the remains of their smoldering campfire. He even went so far as to tuck the wool blankets tightly around the lifeless bodies of his two companions, as if to ward off the cold that had already taken over their bodies. They would sleep now for all eternity, he had made certain of that.
He couldn’t wait for night to fall that day. He wanted to return to that dark and comfortable place, the place with the warm and inviting voice, the one that made him feel so welcome and wanted. He sat for many hours that night, holding the dark glass orb in his lap, occasionally caressing it with one of his hands. It was so smooth, so dark…
He was falling. Instinctively, he knew he couldn’t be falling, that he was still sitting there beside his lonely campfire but he couldn’t convince his mind. His arms and legs shot out, as if to grab hold of something to break his fall and then it was over. There was no impact, no sensation of movement of any kind, but he knew that the fall was over. He looked about, bewildered, but darkness engulfed him. He was confused. This was so unlike the other nights. What was happening?
As he tried to look around, he slowly became aware that the darkness was lifting, if only by degrees. A faint glow was growing far above him. First, only a fuzzy dot in the heavens above him and then growing slowly larger. A disk of vague shape, reddish-yellow grew high above him, flickering. It reminded him of a fire. Just then, a dark shape moved between it and his eyes, silhouetted by the mysterious fire-like light. The light from his campfire, he realized with shock.
Thank you, little friend.
The voice was back inside his head but he was confused. It sounded less warm, less inviting. For the first time since hearing that voice, he felt alone, terribly alone, and afraid. A soft laugh filled his mind.
I couldn’t have done it without you, you know.
More laughter, this time cruel and mocking. There was no friendship, no warmth in this voice.
Dark glass, created from the remains of a fallen star, forged by dragon’s breath, the only substance that could bind me and trap me! It has been ages since I was tricked into entering my little prison. I had given up all hope of ever escaping, especially while the dragon stood guard over me. Imagine my surprise when your little band managed to overthrow my captor!
Shock filled the little thief’s mind. Captor? Guard? A prison? What had they done?
That laugh again.
Yes, why do you think he fought so hard? To protect a treasure? Hardly! It was to prevent me from escaping! I am the Lord of Despair, trapped ages ago in the dark glass, waiting only for an innocent fool such as yourself to make the proper sacrifice, at the proper time, to take my place.
His friends! Asleep forever in death. Now he understood the “sacrifice”. He wept.
Despair! How good it feels to hear that once more! I shall soon hear it from every corner of the world. I shall move across the heavens and despair shall flow from me like a blanket!
The dark shadow moved suddenly, the reddish-yellow light spun away, out of sight, plunging the little thief into total darkness again. He cried in despair and in fear, but no one heard him.
The man stood up from where he had been crouching by the campfire, a small wooden chest tucked under his arm. He stroked the neatly trimmed black beard on his dark face. The campfire flickered red in his dark eyes. A grin split his face as he looked down at the little chest secured under his arm. He patted it fondly with his free hand.
“Yes, my little friend, despair for all eternity! Be witness to what you have wrought, for you and I shall be companions for all time.” With that, he strode into the night, despair flowing behind him like a billowing cloud.
[Back-story: I wrote this about 5 years ago or so. It was an idea that popped spontaneously into my head one night. I had been thinking on some of the characters for my RUNEHAMMER series and their backgrounds/motivations and I guess that was what fueled the germination of this idea. This is the original as it was first written, with no revisions or editing. The first and only pass and then forgotten.]
The old man reached carefully into the wooden box sitting on the desk between him and the boy. The boy hated it when the old man made him sit across from him at the old desk in the study. For one thing, the desk was huge. He felt like a dwarf next to it. The second problem was the chair the old man always offered him. No matter when he visited the old man, somehow he always ended up in the same chair. The legs were too short, which made him sit with his knees bunched up in front of him. Worst of all, though, was that it made the old man’s desk seem even bigger and today that was really annoying for the boy, because it was preventing him from seeing into the mysterious box sitting there between them.
The old man stopped what he was doing, his right hand hidden inside the box, as he peered down at the young boy. “Are you still with me today?” he asked, smiling.
“Yes, sir,” replied the boy meekly.
“Good!” exclaimed the old man. “I wouldn’t want you to miss…this!” he said with a flourish, pulling his hand from the box and placing it palm up on the top of his cluttered desk.
The boy leaned forward eagerly to see what wonder had been released from the mysterious box. As quickly as his hopes had risen, though, they fell. In the old man’s hand sat a frog, and a particularly ordinary frog, at that. It took no special skills to read the disappointment etched across the young boy’s face. The old man smiled even more.
“What? Were you expecting the King’s crown or something?” he asked gleefully.
The boy scowled. He wanted to say “Why, yes, I was!”, but all he could do was to shake his head slowly in a silent and sullen “No”. The old man continued smiling.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“A frog”, replied the boy.
“Excellent!” exclaimed the old man. Suddenly, he snapped the fingers of his left hand over the frog. There was a sharp pop and the frog was gone. A small rock was now lying in the old man’s hand. “Now, tell me, what do you see?” he asked calmly.
The boy looked puzzled. It was a rock; surely, the old man could see that? He hazarded a guess. “It’s a rock?”
The old man cackled with glee. “It’s a frog!” he cried triumphantly. “Can’t you see?”
The boy squinted, leaned forward, and peered as intently as possible at the frog-that-looked-like-a-rock. He leaned his head to the left. He leaned his head to the right. No matter how he looked at it, though, it still looked nothing like a frog. The old man sighed, snapping his fingers yet again. The boy was now staring at a small block of wood.
“What do you see?” repeated the old man, this time quietly. He was staring intently at the young boy across from him.
“A block of wood?” whispered the boy tentatively.
Oh, dear, thought the old man. He’s going to be a tough one. “A frog”, he whispered to the boy. The boy sat back in his chair, dejected. The old man sighed deeply and placed the block of wood on the desk in front of him. Snap! The frog was now sitting there quietly, staring back at the young boy.
“Terram, auqam, auram!” snapped the old man suddenly. The boy jumped. “Well?” the old man inquired.
“The…the…three states of matter, sir?” he squeaked.
The old man was smiling again. “Nice to see you’ve learned something in Brother Thaddeus’ classroom,” he said. He leaned forward on his desk, his bearded chin resting on his clasped hands before him. He seemed to be studying something on the other side of the room, as far as the boy could tell. At length he spoke.
“Everything is composed of matter, whether it is a frog, a rock or a block of wood. That can never be changed. We can change its appearance, we can make it look like something else, but the very essence remains immutable. Do you understand?” He looked questioningly at his listener. The boy sat there dumbly, afraid to speak. The old man sighed yet again.
“The frog, though it looks like a rock or a block of wood, never stops being the frog it originally was.” He paused, studying the young boy sitting confused in front of him. “Things are not always as they seem, lad”, he added with a twinkle in his eye. “Now, be off with you! Brother Thomas has an intensive grammar lesson in store for you, so pay attention!”
“Yes, sir!” shouted the boy, as he shot out of the chair and bolted for the door of the study, as fast as his sandaled feet could carry him. The old man shook his head sadly and leaned down to peer at the frog before him, now staring back at him intelligently.
“It’s going to be a long apprenticeship, isn’t it, Humbert?” he asked the frog. The frog only stared back at him.
The small figure at the great wooden desk looked up sharply from the work he had been poring over. The expansive desktop was littered with parchments and scrolls, some exuding small clouds of dust as they tumbled to the floor, knocked carelessly there by his sudden movement. The dwarf-like creature listened intently. There it was again, the ringing of the bell in the aviary. One of the master’s messengers had arrived.
He hopped down from the tall stool he had been perched on and shuffled to the door. He produced a large iron key from a pocket in his patched and faded breeches, fitted it to the lock and turned it. The lock clicked and he pulled the door open with ink-stained dirty hands. He slammed it shut behind him, locked it, and trotted slowly down the stone corridor.
It was bitterly cold here, high on the mountain, yet the dirty and shabby little figure seemed not to notice as he moved through the corridors. The torches in their brackets on the walls cast hugely misshapen shadows as he passed by. The cold, the shadows, these were all things that escaped his notice. He had little interest in his surroundings; in fact, there was very little that interested this particular dweorg.
The dweorgas were a sundered race, split from their kin, the mountain dwarves, long ages ago. They were now a shabby and pale reflection of their once mighty selves but in one respect they still excelled, surpassing even their more noble kin. They were superb alchemists and their magic was much sought after, especially by those with ambitions.
This dweorg’s name was Rigg and he was in the service of an ambitious man. His master was a man of great power and he was on the verge of a momentous achievement, or so Rigg believed. When that moment arrived, Rigg would be on hand and then he would exact his payment for the duties he had performed all these years. Yes, there would be payment. There was always a payment, when a dweorg was involved.
Today, however, he was a mere servant, hurrying to the drafty and frigid aviary, to retrieve another of the messages his master received from distant lands. He produced another key as he approached the iron door that marked the entrance to the aviary. The lock opened soundlessly and the door swung open on well-oiled hinges. Cold air slapped Rigg hard in the face but he ignored it. He entered the large room and scuttled quickly to the great perch. Yes, there it was, a small grey bird waited patiently next to the silver bell, a message canister attached firmly to its left leg. Rigg rolled a ladder over to the perch and climbed to where the bird waited. It chirped gaily when it saw Rigg, recognizing its master. Rigg took it gently in his calloused hands and descended the ladder. Once at the bottom of the ladder, he headed to the far side of the aviary and placed the bird on the workbench there. Carefully he undid the subtle bindings holding the container to the bird’s leg and placed the message holder safely on the workbench. The bird he deposited in its cage, where it quickly burrowed deep into its nest of down and straw, thankful to be free of the cold wind.
Rigg picked up the small container and examined it closely in the dim light of the aviary. No, he would need to take this back to the library, to examine it properly. Pocketing the container, he left the cold chamber to its feathered residents.
The ancient dweorg carefully assembled the tools he would need to open the message and transcribe it for his master. The light was much better here, in the library. He picked up the message holder and studied it under the lens he held in his other hand. It was definitely one of his holders. The seals were intact; no one had tampered with the contents. He carefully placed the lens on the worktable before him and picked up a delicate silver knife. Carefully he applied it to the seals. Instantly the lid loosened. Replacing the knife carefully on the table, Rigg slowly removed the lid and peered inside. Yes, it was there, the standard parchment message. Snagging it carefully with the tips of his grimy fingernails, he eased it carefully from the container, being careful not to tear the delicate parchment. He unrolled the strip before him, pinning the ends to the table to hold it flat for him to study. He examined the delicate script. Yes, standard code, so far everything seemed correct. He hopped down from his stool and went to one of the many shelves lining the walls of the library. He ran a finger across one shelf in particular, stopping on the tome he required. Pulling it from the shelf, he shuffled back to his workbench, all the while rapidly flipping page after page, looking for what he needed. With a smile, he dropped the book on the table, one finger stabbing the entry he needed, the other grabbing his magnifying lens, in order to read the message better.
He worked in this manner for several minutes, his head moving from side to side, as he consulted the text and then translated the message. The missive was brief yet to the point; however, Rigg repeated the translation a second time, there must be no mistake. There wasn’t. He had decoded the message correctly. Grabbing a quill and ink, he hastily scrawled out his translation.
As he scurried through the corridors, the message clutched tightly in his hand, Rigg was thinking furiously. If what he suspected was true, his master really was on the verge of a great achievement. Not necessarily the achievement he had in mind, thought Rigg gleefully. No, there was a payment due the dweorg, a very heavy payment, and soon it would be time to collect what was due. There were preparations to make, thought Rigg. All must be in order when the time came.