Wednesday, October 14. 2009
“It took the king almost a week to get up the courage to invite the Heffian ambassador into the court for an audience. When he did, he found that his fear was justified. After some bluster and babble about how great the king was, the Heffian ambassador said, ‘You must understand, your majesty, that you have given my master great cause to worry about your intentions. He has lived long with the Dina. He knows that they, and their god, Tor, are little more than animals that will fight for food, for money, or for any slight of their supposed honor, no matter how minor it may be. My master has always harbored good feelings toward you and your people. He sees you as a people of the land. He has felt that you are good neighbors, and that our peoples are good friends. Your alliance with the Dina has caused him to doubt these feelings.’” Gannon paused for another bite, and Lena cut in.
“How do you know so much about the goings on at court?”
Gannon finished chewing, and then replied, carelessly, “I was a journeyman at the time. Kingsbury was my guild station, and I happened to enter Kingsbury to buy birds on the same day that the Heffian ambassador did. I decided to stay in town and find out what was going on. One of the masters that I knew in Kingsbury got me into the audience chamber.”
I had no idea what Gannon was talking about, but Lena nodded as if she understood. Not wanting to look foolish, I kept my questions to myself, and willed Gannon to continue his story.
He picked up the thread after a few more bites. “The ambassador didn’t have a whole lot to say after that. Basically, he finished with a threat. He said that we had a short time to break up the alliance with the Dina. He also said that if we didn’t break it up, that they, the Heffians, would regard us and the Dina as a single people, and that they would exterminate us from off their lands as noxious animals.”
Lena’s face looked thoughtful. “We thought it was bluster. But it wasn’t, was it?”
Gannon shook his head. “You were there, at the battle at Goat Pass. Did you notice anything?”
Continue reading "13"
Saturday, October 10. 2009
Gannon laughed. “See, you’re a snoop, too. But no matter. Here’s a question for you: why do you think you’re here with me, instead of with her father?” He gestured toward Lena with his chin.
“I don’t know. Some kind of emergency in Torwell?”
“That’s a pretty good guess. But not quite. Several years ago, the king got the idea that we should ally ourselves with the Dina. They’re great warriors, but they’ve always had trouble feeding their people. We, on the other hand, are great farmers, but our armies are fair to middling at best. In the king’s mind, we could be perfect allies. They would supply most of the military might, and, in turn, we would supply most of the food. It sounded like a good idea, but the king’s Mask warned him that if we allied ourselves with the Dina, that they would drag us into a war that we could not, and would not win.”
“So, what happened?”
“The fool ignored his Mask. He finalized the alliance just three hours after he heard the warning, and we’ve been sending our surplus food to Aster and Torwell ever since.” He paused. It was starting to get dark. I had been listening to him too carefully, and had barely started my cage, but he had been working as he talked and had finished another cage. “Let’s put these things away, and go get some dinner. You can finish the other cages as we drive tomorrow.”
He gathered up the willow switches and carried them over to the wagon. I put the newly-repaired cages into their places in the bird hutch, and piled the remaining ones under the bench of the wagon where I could access them easily the next day.
When I got to Lena’s fire, she was serving Gannon salt pork, beans, and an apple in tight-lipped silence. I picked up a bowl and ladled out some of the beans for myself, and chose a seat between them. For a moment, we ate in silence.
Gannon swallowed a bite of his apple, and started talking. “About eight months after the alliance was finalized, a Heffian ambassador showed up in Kingsbury with his entire entourage. Nobody had even known that he was coming, but he walked into Kingsbury dressed in scarlet and gold, and announced that he had come to speak to the king.” He paused, gulped a spoonful of the beans, took a long drag at his bottle, and continued. “Of course the king tried to delay, tried to make it look as if he wasn’t worried, but it was pretty obvious that there were some very worried people at the court.”
When Gannon paused for another bite, I found myself willing him to hurry up. I wanted to know what happened next, and I wanted to know right away.
Friday, October 9. 2009
We stopped early that day, setting up our camp near the place where the road curves around the feet of Mount Arian. Lena busied herself starting a fire and preparing dinner. At Gannon’s request, I unloaded the cages that had been damaged when my predecessor dropped them. While I rearranged the wagon in my quest for the damaged cages, Gannon wandered over to the banks of the Fangos. He returned bearing an armful of willow switches, and piled them near the stacks of damaged cages. Pointing to a roll of hairy twine, he called out to me, “Grab that cage twine, and come help me.”
I’m not sure why I looked for Lena before I asked my question, but I didn’t want her to hear me ask it. “I don’t understand. How can you be a Mask when you don’t believe in Mora? Why would you even want to be?”
He looked at me for a moment, and then responded, “Watch.” A small box crafted from a dark colored wood sat on the ground by his side. From that box, he took a short knife with a curved blade. With quick, practiced strokes, he cut the twine that bound the broken withes on one of the cages. He pulled sharply at the broken twigs, gradually working them out of the loose weave that made up the cage. When they were gone, he carefully wove the new ones into their places, re-shaping the cage as he went. “What do you think? How does it look?”
“Good, I guess.”
Continue reading "11"
Tuesday, October 6. 2009
When I returned to the house, Lena was still asleep. I could hear Gannon’s voice out front, so I wandered out to see what was going on. He was talking to a small woman with dark hair that stood out around her pixie-like face in wild curls. “I know that it can’t be secret if it’s going to Forestal,” she said, her voice piquing. “I don’t care if it’s secret. Just make sure that it gets there before nightfall. If they don’t hear soon, they’ll be worried.”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Gannon reassured her. He tucked the small silver coin that she offered into his belt pouch, and they parted, she hurrying off down the street, and he down the alley toward the barn.
I heard a ladylike voice utter a very unladylike curse, and turned to see Lena hopping up and down, holding her toe, and scowling at the sign of the red mask that lay on the floor. I looked up at the sign yard, and noticed, for the first time, that the sign had been taken down. Just then, Gannon walked in from the back of the house. Lena stopped hopping and stood looking at him primly.
“Breakfast’s ready,” he growled, pointing to the pot over the fire. “I’m going to tie up a few loose ends, and then we’ll be off.” Less than an hour later, the wagon rumbled out of town on its way to Belkeep. Gannon hunched on the left, his mask dangling from its cord around his neck, driving in taciturn silence. Lena perched on the right, acting as if Gannon didn’t exist. I sat sandwiched between them, trying desperately to think of a way to break the awkward silence.
My opportunity came when a question popped into my head. “How do you send a message to Forestal?”
Gannon looked at me, incredulous. “The same way you send a message anywhere,” he answered. “You send a bird.”
“But,” I protested. “Forestal’s in the Deep Weald. There aren’t any Masks there.”
“No, there aren’t,” he agreed. I noticed Lena looking our way. “We can’t send secret messages into the Deep Weald, but they do just fine with regular messages.”
“How do they know how to use the birds?”
Continue reading "10"
Sunday, October 4. 2009
The Ford of Sovea was a small town. While it was larger than the village where I grew up, it normally would only have been large enough for a Journeyman Mask. It merited the presence of a Master Mask only because so many traders passed through it. If there was something bound for the Central Weald, or traffic coming and going over Goat Pass, it had to pass over the Ford of Sovea. This traffic meant that messages were always coming, going, and waiting for people who would be passing through, and some of those messages were secret enough to merit the services of a Master Mask.
We bumped our way across the shallow water of the ford and threaded our way through the dark streets of the town to a small house where a large red mask hung from the wrought-iron sign yard above the door. A rangy man with a red mask on his face emerged from the house immediately after Lena’s father knocked. Without a word, he handed the khasar’s Mask several large saddle bags and began leading the wagon into the alley beside the house. Lena jumped clear of the wagon and ran to her father. I watched around the side of the wagon as he raised her face to look at his, stared into her eyes for what seemed like a long time, and then, without a word, turned, mounted his horse, and rode away.
The redface led the wagon around the corner of the house, and unyoked the oxen. I helped him lead them into a small barn where he fed and watered them before leading me back around to the front of the house. Lena was still standing in the street, staring off in the direction where her father had disappeared. She started when I touched her shoulder, and followed us into the house.
Behind the heavy shutters, the yellow glow of tallow candles and a fire on the hearth made the house seem friendly and warm. He led us, without a word, to a table where bread soaked in warm milk, poached eggs, and an oniony cheese waited for us. He spoke in a voice that sounded rusty from long disuse as he pointed. “There are beds in the back room for you.” With that, he stumped up the stairs, leaving us to our supper and our thoughts.
I woke early the next morning to the sound of someone rattling around in the main room of the house. I stumbled blearily out of my bed to see the man from the night before stirring something in a pot over the fire. He glance over his shoulder at me. I was surprised to see that his mask was hanging from a cord around his neck, instead of being on his face.
“Morning, boy.” His voice didn’t sound as gruff as it had the night before. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Gannon.” He gestured to a large bucket by the table. “There’s water for washing, and an outhouse around back by the barn. Do you know when her ladyship’s going to be getting up?”
Shaking my head mutely, I shuffled out to find the outhouse, wondering why Gannon didn’t wear his mask, and why he called Lena “her ladyship.”
Tuesday, September 29. 2009
Just before darkness fell, another bird fluttered down onto the wagon. With practiced hands, Lena scooped the bird up. “You’re a tired one, aren’t you? Poor thing.” She cooed at the bird softly, and called out to her father. “There’s another message.”
His hand emerged from the slit in the cover. He took the bird. “Thank you.” His voice sounded tired. “Light the driving lamps, will you? We need to move quickly. They’ll let everyone know we’re here, but the speed will be worth it.” Reaching into a box beside the seat, she took out a clockwork fire starter and handed it to me, pointing silently at the lantern that hung beside me.
For several hours, we talked quietly, but eventually, the conversation lagged. I was nodding in my seat when the canvas rustled open and the Mask emerged, startling me so badly that I nearly fell off my seat.
He stretched, reaching upward until I could hear his back cracking. Sighing, he clambered over the back of the bench and sank down between us. Lena handed him the reins without a word. After a moment, he spoke. “There’s a master mask waiting for us at the Ford of Sovea. He’s got supplies for me. I’ll take the horse to Kingsbury, and he’ll drive with you to Belkeep. Once you get there, refill the bird cages and head to Torwell as quickly as you can. If all goes well, I’ll be waiting there for you.”
My head was in a whirl. Everything seemed so sudden. I knew that the birds somehow carried messages between the masks, but I still didn’t understand how. Lena said that the masks couldn’t speak to each other’s minds, but that seemed a lot more believable than the idea that birds carried enough information to tell the Mask everything that he seemed to know.
“What about Ian?” Lena’s words surprised me.
“Take him with you. Tell the redface what’s going on, and have him help you train Ian. By the time you get to Torwell, he might actually be useful.”
With that, the Mask turned and winked at me. I think his wink was supposed to reassure me, but in the dim light, one of his eyes just seemed to disappear behind his black mask, and the effect was more grotesque than comforting. Some unseen landmark spurred him into action. “We’re almost there.” He handed me the reins, and once again disappeared into the wagon, where we could hear him rummaging for supplies.
Thursday, September 24. 2009
We drove in silence for what seemed like hours. I kept waiting for her to say something, but she stared straight ahead, clucking at the oxen occasionally to keep them from straying after the lush grass that lined the road. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. “What’s he doing?”
“Do you know what a Mask is?”
“The Masks are Mora’s servants. They are the keepers of secrets. They can speak to each other’s minds across the Reia and the Weald, and they speak in a language that no one else can understand.”
She giggled. “That’s what they want you to think, anyway.”
I huffed. I didn’t like having a girl laugh at me. “So what do they do?”
“You’re mostly right. They are Mora’s servants, at least most of them. Some of them serve silver drachms more than they serve Mora. They are the keepers of secrets, and the oracles of Mora, but they can’t actually speak to each other’s minds. They have trained pigeons that carry their messages. One of their pigeons can fly from Aster to Norwood in three days. The messages that the birds carry are written in the language of the Masks. I’ve heard people say that once upon a time, some Masks could speak the language, but that time is gone. Now, it’s only a written language, and even that is hard to read.”
“Oh.” I knew that she was trying to answer my question, but I still wasn’t making the connection. “So, what’s he doing?”
Her exasperated sigh told me that she thought the answer was obvious. “He’s reading, or trying to read. And he’s probably writing a response, too.”
Once the silence was broken, talking became easier. As Sal rowed the sun toward its resting place, she told me about the birds, how they were trained, and what I would have to do as the Mask’s bird keeper.
“Why doesn’t he have you do it?”
She greeted my question with a long silence, and a wistful smile. “It’s different in the city.” Gesturing toward the trees of the Weald, she continued. “Out here, and in the villages, men and women work together. Nobody gives me a second glance, or even a second thought if I’m helping my father. In the cities, though, I can’t be seen helping with things like this. It would be unseemly.”
“So, what do you do in the city?” In my mind, a city was just a big village. I couldn’t imagine a place where women weren’t out helping the men with the crops or the herds.
“I sew, I read, I clean our house, and I prepare our meals.”
“What about your mother?”
“She died a long time ago. I don’t really remember her.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Her smile in return was sad. I looked away, staring into the shadows.
In my mind, I relived the moment when Mora’s thread had turned my life. The gleaming black mask glared at me again over the wattled wall of the corral. Its deep voice shouted at the hapless boy scrabbling at his feet. “A trade,” it shouted, over and over again.
“What if I’m not good enough?” I whispered.
I didn’t think my voice would even carry to where Lena was sitting, but it did. “You will be,” she reassured me. “Mora will teach you.”
“Couldn’t Mora teach him, too?”
Her face went hard. “He wasn’t Mora’s.” She spat the words. “He wasn’t even sure whose he was. He was born to Festian, but he liked Sal better.”
Again, I didn’t know how to reply. I couldn’t imagine someone trying to choose who his ara would be. Lena noticed my dismay. I felt her touch the back of my hand. “You’ll get used to it. You just have to let people go their way, and make sure that you don’t lose yours.”
Wednesday, September 23. 2009
The big ger, a nearly-empty bird hutch, a bookcase full of ornately bound books, and the rugs and pallets that had been scattered about the ger all went into a large wagon with a brightly striped cover. There were carefully designed trunks and boxes for everything. “A place for everything, and everything in its place,” the Mask sang out, as we began packing.
His daughter, Lena, saw me running my fingers over the book bindings, and asked, “Do you read?”
“No. Do you?”
“Yes. My father taught me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who could read. A lot of the people in my village could do figures, but there’s not much call for reading.”
“Would you like to learn how?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know where I’m going from here. My village is gone. My brother’s dead. My parents probably are, too. They were in the battle. I could probably get a farmer to take me on as a farm hand, but I don’t have anyone to vouch for me as an apprentice . . .” My voice trailed off as I realized how precarious my situation was, and I felt myself tearing up, but Lena was kind enough not to notice when I sniffled and wiped my nose on my sleeve.
“Don’t you remember? You’re supposed to learn to be my father’s bird keeper.”
“Yes, that’s why he traded for you.”
For a moment, I was thrilled, but then I remembered what had prompted him to trade for me. “What if I don’t do a good job?”
She looked like she was about to reply, but then I saw the Mask looking our way, and I cut her off. “We better get to work. There will be time to talk on the road.”
We had just finished hitching the oxen to the wagon, and tying the riding pony to the ring on the back corner of the wagon when a fluttering pigeon landed on the seat. The Mask beckoned to it with a strange warbling call. It hopped over to him, and he turned to Lena. “Get us on the road while I find out what the king has to say. The Weald seems to be deserted, so we’ll be safe to drive all night. Have Ian spell you when you get tired. I have a feeling that we’re going to want to get to Belkeep much faster than these oxen can take us.” With that, he disappeared into the wagon, drawing the flaps of the cover tightly behind him.
Monday, September 21. 2009
They let me out of my bed two days later. When I walked out of the ger, what I saw amazed me. The buzzing city of tents was gone. In its place, a crazy maze of mud and grass crisscrossed a large meadow. In the distance, the Dina’s offering to Tor, a tower of bodies topped by a large banner bearing his symbol, marked the location of the battle. I gazed out at the emptiness, wondering.
“Who were the peasants?”
The Mask’s question surprised me. I hadn’t even realized that he was standing next to me. “I didn’t know all of them. Some of them were the people of my village.”
“The call to arms was raised about an hour after you fainted. The King’s Cavalry took the left flank. The Dina took the right flank. Archers and infantry made up the center, with pike men at the front, archers just behind them, and heavy infantry in the back. The cavalry herded all of the peasants into a mass in the center, and pike men pushed them forward. Because of that, our archers were able to rain destruction down upon the Heffian front ranks while they were trying to defend themselves from the fear-crazed peasants. Those peasants won the battle for us, but I don’t think a single one of them survived.”
“Most of them belonged to Mora. Doesn’t the khasar fear her wrath?”
“I am the khasar’s mask, Ian, not his mind or his soul. I don’t know what he fears, but I’m not sure that he even believes in Mora.”
My mouth must have looked unhinged when he said that. In my village, everyone belonged to Mora, except the smith, of course, who belonged to Festion. I knew that there were people, like the Dina, who belonged to Tor, but I had never heard of anyone who didn’t fear the gods. Everybody believed in Mora. Didn’t they?
I felt the Mask’s hand on my shoulder, steering me back toward the tent. He sighed. “Don’t worry. Mora always gets her due. We have to get on the road. We’re supposed to catch up to the khasar before the army reaches Belkeep.”
Sunday, September 20. 2009
Dim light filtered through the wall of the ger. My eyes felt sticky and heavy. In the distance, I could hear the roar of charging men, the clash of weapons, and call of the clarion. I stirred, and tried to get up, but a hand pressed me back down. I slept once again.
A man in a golden mask with birds at his feet stood talking to a boy, my brother. I wanted to run to him, to tell him that I thought he was dead, killed by the Dina, but somehow, my feet wouldn’t move. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but occasionally, they glanced my way. Finally, the boy reached up and took the mask off the man’s face. He played with it for a moment, holding it up to his own face, and then dropped it on the ground. It shattered, scattering pieces of gilt plaster across the stone floor, and startling the birds into flight.
He turned, looking at me with his funny half-smile. I wanted to talk to him, to apologize, to tell him that I didn’t know, to say that I wouldn’t ever throw rocks again, but when I spoke, I couldn’t hear myself, and he made no sign that he could hear me either. He just smiled at me, and glanced up at the man who stood beside him. Following his gaze, I looked at the man’s face for the first time. I stepped back in horror, and found myself falling.
And woke. I sat up, panting, drenched in sweat. The tent was dark except for the dim light of a candle in the next room. I started when a cool hand touched my head. A soft, feminine voice called out, “He’s awake, and his fever seems to have broken.”
A shadow crossed the candlelight, and a big man entered my room. He spoke softly. “Thank you, Lena. See if you can do something for the king’s birds. I have a message, but I have no bird. Mora, curse that boy.”
A girl slipped from the room, and the man took her place on the chair beside my pallet. “Well, boy?”
“My name’s Ian,” I replied.
“So, Ian, you killed your brother.”
“No!” A pause. “Well, yes.”
“How did you kill him?”
“The Dina came through our village. They chased him down and killed him.”
“Is that the whole story?”
“So, how did you kill him?”
Then the story, along with my tears, came out. I told him about my rock, the clang of the shield, the chase, and the sight of my brother spitted on the cavalier’s lance. He listened in silence. When I was finished, he sat without speaking for several minutes.
“Whose are you?” His question surprised me.
I answered automatically. “I am Mora’s.”
“Then Mora will guide your brother home. Do you know who I am?”
“I am the khasar’s mask.”
Saturday, September 19. 2009
Sighing, I picked my way through the crowd to where I could collapse against the fence of our corral. I was filthy, covered in mud and the detritus of walking behind horses for more than a hundred miles, but somehow, that didn’t matter. According to the old man, I was going to be herded like a human shield in front of an army, but I didn’t care. I was so hungry that my stomach was eating itself, but that made no difference to me. Sleep. I just needed sleep. Sinking into the mud at the edge of the corral, I slept.
Something crashed into the fence just behind me. Startled, I jumped to my feet. I craned my neck to see over the wattle wall of the corral, and found myself staring into the hooded eyes of a black fullface mask.
He bellowed, startling me further, but his rage was not directed at me. A boy, two or three years older than I, was wrestling with a large basket. In his haste, he dropped it again, and the masked man shouted, “Stop! That is enough. Just stop! Get out of here!” The boy turned to leave, but the masked man grabbed him by the arm and said, his eyes fixed on me, “No, wait. I have a better idea.”
He marched over to the gate of our corral, stopping in front of the guard who stood there. Presenting the boy, he spoke. “A trade. This boy for that one.” He pointed across the paddock to where I stood, petrified.
“But sir . . . ”
The guard inclined his head. “Yes sir.”
He turned and yelled to me. “You, boy, come here.”
I found myself walking toward him, scared and unsure. Was I jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire? The gate opened just wide enough for me to squeeze through, and I stood there, dazed by what had just happened.
The man in the mask grabbed me by the hair and wrenched my face upwards. Turning my head, he examined me, then spoke to the guard without looking at him. “This will do.”
I think that he was going to march me off to carry the basket, but at that point, my strength gave out. My vision seemed to blur, then it narrowed and went black. I collapsed in a heap at his feet.
Wednesday, September 16. 2009
If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have gawked like a fish at the sight of the armies massed at the front. I’d never seen so many people in my life. Some loafed around outside their tents, cooking over small fires, telling stories, oiling armor, and sharpening swords. Others rushed around on seemingly urgent errands. Tension hung like smoke over the camp, visible even in the most relaxed soldiers.
The Dina paraded through the camp, banners held high, dragging us behind them. Just outside a large ger, a peacock of a man dressed in blue velvet stared haughtily at the Dina as they approached. Contempt dripped from his voice when he spoke. “Where have you been? The khasar was expecting you three days ago.”
The commander rumbled his reply. “I will speak with his majesty alone. I do not treat with flunkies.”
The little man set his jaw and disappeared into the tent, scowling. When he emerged several minutes later, he swept the door open, and bowed. If a bow can be sarcastic, his was. “His majesty will see you now, Dinar.”
The commander swept by him without even deigning to glance at him. He straightened, scowling, and then, pointing to us, with as much disgust as he could muster, said, “what are these?”
One of the Dina answered him with one word. “Gum.”
Gesturing with a jeweled staff, the chamberlain grinned, “take them over there.”
Once again, they dragged us through the camp, finally driving us into a large corral where several hundred other prisoners squatted miserably around a sullen fire. When they opened the gate, a prisoner yelled at our captors, but he ducked behind his neighbor when the soldier raised his sword.
When they had gone, I turned to an old man hunched nearby. “What are they going to do with us?”
He looked at me with listless eyes. “They’re going to herd us. Drive us in front of them. Use us as shields when they attack.”
He looked at me incredulously and shook his head, shuffling away from me as quickly as the press of the crowd would allow.
Tuesday, September 15. 2009
Since I know how much Pete loves stories that don't get finished, I decided to post the beginning of a new story. If you hate stories that don't get finished, you probably shouldn't read any further, because I will not guarantee that this will be finished.
Continue reading "1"
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