Thursday, February 24, 2011

IV. Heart of Poison

            The Fencer liked to believe in the honesty of his upbringing, of hardship, sacrifice and perseverance in the face of Winters brutality.  When out hunting Narwhal it was absolutely imperative that each hunter coordinate properly with the others or else the entire expedition might fall through a sheet of weak ice, or fall prey to the bulls who liked to attack unseen from the depths and impale the unwitting on their lances.  The village was gone some months now and in that time the last survivor had been beset by secrets, both within and without.
            Once he had been starving at the bottom of the world.  The red snowfly didnt seem to struggle in his grasp as he freed it of its golden cage.  Fluttering towards some unknown height he devoured the thing.  The Fencer never had full measure that creature he ingested in such desperation.  He found he couldn’t even explain the matter to the Trumpeter in totality, despite the mountain man being his constant, if erratic, traveling companion.
            The secrets came soon after.  Memories of another time and place gathered.  Not fully formed visions or even dreams, this haunting of his mind took the form of experience, of knowing things without having learned them.  He knew how to hold a sword.  Where to stand against a left-handed opponent.  So on.  Occasional flickers of duels against numinous creatures and otherworldly people he recognized as family broke onto the Fencers consciousness.  But these werent the Fencers.  Still, he knew what to do with a blade in his hand.
            The boards outside the room creaked.  With a flicker Dhala danced through the wall, cutting the door in half.  Two bodies hit the floor, wet and heavy.
            More ruffians, the Fencer noted as he stepped out carefully through the wrecked portal.  Each held long, pointed blades capable of piercing through the walls and doors of the inn.  Clea was silent as she quickly slipped on her clothes; carefully replacing her magics with the same practice with which she had set them out.  Shouts.  Noise.  There were more attackers.
            With deft, sure strokes the swordsman cleared the top floor.  A tumble of bodies, cries and murder in the night.  Two assassins reclined in death outside the Fencers unused apartments.  Each wore a slim heart-wound.
            Descending the narrow stairs, the Fencer stepped over the body of Corinzes prime man who had been backed up against the steps.  On this floor the melee was still in full force as bodyguards fought off the varied assassins.  Only a few oil lamps glowed.  Mad shadows danced to death against the wooden walls.
            A swordsman slipped in through a side window and had his blade shorn off by the Fencers weapon.  He tossed himself into the melee in an effort to escape and quickly vanished.  Indeed, the mass of murderers were already fighting to withdraw or just plain ran.  Some laughed like animals.
            Corinze was dead; all this bodyguards couldnt protect him from a length of steel being driven into him through the wall from a side room as he cowered in a corner.  Many of his retainers had been asleep since there were so many others around to diffuse their responsibilities.  These sleepers died along with their master.
            The press of combat along the narrow halls and stairways made it impossible for the Fencer to close with those running away.  Frustrated, he gave up.  Things seemed over.
            Clea was back up top, scarf over her mouth, standing over another mob of assassins when the Fencer found her.  They slept with their eyes open, dreaming impossible things.  She meant well when she called him over.  She couldnt have known to close the window.
            A familiar bit of metal sunk into his shoulder as the Fencer moved to inspect the enchanted men.  A laugh outside.  Clea flattened against a wall, out of shot.  What was left of the door to Cleas room creaked.
            Again, those devoured memories twitched and Dhala plunged through the timbers.  The wood parted like paper but with a familiar cry, and a clang, the strike landed on something metal and unyielding. 
            What was that for? demanded the Trumpeter holding the murderous icicle at bay with his instrument. 
            Where the hell have you been? countered the Fencer, pulling his blade free and clearing the way for his untrusting companion to exit, which he didnt.
            Theyd never think to find me here, said the Trumpeter, checking for blemishes on his holy trumpet.  There were none.  This excuse didnt explain how the mad musician had slipped past both Clea and the Fencer, but there was a lot going on and the Trumpeter knew how make use of chaos.  Probably not the time to be reminding you there are no more hells.
            Instead of thinking too much about this the Fencer merely coughed a curse and went to peer from the window, out of which Clea was already sticking her fool head.  Steam clouds and the night smells of fresh water and oil lamps mingled.  A few figures struggled across the rooftop topography in retreat.
            It wasnt the strange memories that possessed the Fencer to climb into the window frame, to crouch there, measuring the meters to the next roof.  Surrounded by secrets and plots his old demon seethed as he leaped from the inn to the top of the adjoining building and raced after the fleeing assassins in search of answers. 
            The dagger still lodged in his shoulder spoke of something he had left undone out in the snow.  Whether it was the failures of his own mercy or the stubbornness of Yogos life didnt matter.  The Fencer would finish things before that thug got too out of hand.
            After the first jump travel across the murky rooftops of Nock grew easier.  Buildings crowded the avenues so only a little bravery and a lot of momentum was needed to send a body from tile to brick to shale and slate.  The water condensing from the steam clouds made things a bit slippery but the Fencer was used to the ice and this provided means to gain on his assailants. 
            At first the murderers slowed, thinking they were free of pursuit, but the loud sounds of the Fencers boots on tile sent the fleeing men into a desperate scatter.  Some slipped down drain spouts or hid behind gargoyles.  Others panicked and leaped hastily; the sounds of bodies landing on slick cobbles and cries of pain drifted through the hazy steam along with colored smears of lit windows and street lamps diffusing through the mist.
            The Fencer ignored the rabble, even running right past some youthful brigand who huddled in the corner, begging.  He had one goal in sight which bobbed and jumped with strength and skill ahead.  In many ways the swordsman was back in the Wondering Mountains, here scaling cliffs and navigating ridges of a more human construction.  This time he was the pursuer.
            The lamplighters were out in force now, clubbing those assassins they could find.  For good measure they bludgeoned just about anyone out walking the streets that night. 
            The heartbeat of Nocks namesake grew stronger the longer the Fencer chased his quarry.  With each knock of the clock he seemed to find his strength ebb little by little, while the sword in his hand grew colder and colder.  Running out of buildings at the great square he descended to the cobbles, a slight quiver in his leg.
            For a moment the Fencer was distracted by the visage of the clock, luminous platinum features beaming, and that moment was enough.  It was a foolish instinct which made him bring up his offhand defensively.  Both his instincts and his devoured memories chided him as the pain surged through his right hand.  His quick reactions caught the dagger before it could find his throat; palm first.
            More laughter, now from the clock itself it seemed, or streamed, a light from its balmy face.  A cold light, telling of the hours of the days, measuring out plots and death.  A cold air took hold of the Fencer.
            Beneath the face the wide open grinning man with one arm stepped out of the shadows.  The Fencer shouldve known him, but something awful was creeping into his mind from both recent wounds.
            The man sauntered confidently closer, despite his unbandaged left arm, cut clean away a bit below the elbow.  In the light of the many lamps around the square strange blisters and pox showed purple and black around Yogos severed arm.  Something familiar in that scrawl of inky veins. 
            The Fencer listed, trying to walk, fighting against his poisoned blood, his old demon and his borrowed memories all leaning towards confrontation, but his body was weak.
            A turn of the head from Yogo and then the rogue scrambled back towards the rock face below the clock, to where the great steam apparatus of the mechanism gushed and hummed.  As he swooned the Fencer though he heard a trumpet blare.
Back at the inn, a tizzy of motion.  The innkeep looked on with a tilted mouth at the exodus of clients from his normally prosperous establishment.  A half-dozen bodyguards counted amongst the dead, along with their mortality obsessed master and a score of wayward men paid for this task of violence. 
Rumors already moved through the late night streets of Nock; for so long they had been protected from without by the lingering sorceries of that old man of the mountain, Glym, that there was no precedent for such a concerted attack from within.  What of Lord Vael up on the cliff?  Almost in answer sell-swords and wastrels prepared to depart the city the next morning, anticipating certain reactions by the young despot.
            Complaining loudly, the Trumpeter returned with the Fencer.  The man was delirious.  He cried out at floating cities and blue-haired gods.  This was the sort of thing which earned ostracism among more rural sensibilities and banishment amongst the cities.  He went on to mutter something far worse.
            Yogo is still alive? frowned the Trumpeter as Clea helped him get the Fencer to a bed.  Firo, untouched by the attack, managed the operation because he couldnt help himself.
            Nobody could survive out on the ice like that. responded the Driver, but his tone was uncertain.
            The Fencer made to get up, hands searching for his blade which the Trumpeter had kicked under the bed and out of reach.
            Who? asked Clea as she pushed the wounded man back down onto the bed.
            A conspiratorial rogue I employed to help move the Heart from Ahgren, explained Firo.  He attempted a coup, presumably to sell the thing himself, but these two wanderers maimed him and left him to die out on the ice.
            Pardon, but you dont seem all that worried about my friend here, admonished the Trumpeter.  He was giving the woman a very lukewarm glare.  Despite your, uh, relationship.
            Im not worried, she said as she removed the Fencers tunic and revealed his wounds, frightening things showing latticed marks of virulent purple and black, welts of red peeking out like eyes.  The Trumpeter put his hand over his mouth.  Clea simply poured one of her concoctions down the delirious mans throat. 
            The Fencers eyes continued to loll in his head but his breathing eased.  Clea made a worried sound.
            Something is wrong, she said.
            Poison? asked Firo.
            Im not sure.  It could be a disease.  The woman made a good and studious face, but didnt offer up any sudden solutions.  I think that elixir is working, just slower than it should be.  Hell need some time to come out of it.
            Well, Ill get going then.
            The Trumpeters remark was so sudden and out of place that Firo and Clea gaped for a few seconds as the tall musician checked his pockets and then made to leave.
            Where, asked Clea, shaking away the shock.  The Fencer laughed.
            Its simple enough.  The Fencer wants to find whoever he was chasing and Im going to do it for him.
            I dont want to be unkind, but weve conversed much over the past day, began Firo as he fretted with his beard, and Im not sure youre up to this.  I mean, The Fencer is the one with the magic sword and the more violent tendencies.
            A compliment without peer, was the Trumpeters only reply.  He stepped from the room and the others followed him through the inn, attempting to appeal to his reason.
            In the end they failed and the Trumpeter tramped off into the pre-dawn mist of Nock.  He carried something special with him, three special somethings to be specific.  Clea had described them carefully, which he found boring, and pedantic, but he was getting good at putting on his Im-listening face.  One of these gifts was a crystallizing solution, another a vial containing the strength of a demon, and the third was some potion of clarity.  As the musician walked carefully through the darkened streets toward the clock, where the Fencers garbled directions took him, he was having a hard time deciding which liquid was which.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

III. The Emerald Lady

            At first a fearful sensation, like that of drowning, welled up in the Fencer as he fell under the enchantment of the emerald lady.  But she was gone now; a sea of green grass welcomed his feet, and comfort, and warmth.  Father, his great facial tattoos speaking of ferocity, paddled by in his canoe, hunting narwhals.  But his other father was here too, way off in the distance, red hair streaming.  Other figures presented themselves, drifting in and out of the non-narrative.  Many had the marks of magic and his dark haired mother cried because that meant more drownings when the sound cleared enough during the sun time. 
            Eventually these disjointed forms dissolved into a greater ocean of unresolved nouns even as massive emotional structures arose from the green waters.  Forms of Joy coalesced.  Understanding flapped like a single, elusive butterfly.  The word for such a creature became known to him, as did those other memories he had eaten back in the forbidden place beyond the Wonder Mountains. 
            Green spoke of envy and desire.  Where there was green there was life, though the Fencer had never seen such gardens as those which sprung up.  The Stranger had been surrounded by them as he practiced the sword with the tall pale man and his animating blade.  He had nothing to do but smile and smile in the bloom.

            The eighth bell rang as the Trumpeter cleaned his namesake.
            Thats a fine oddity you have there, said Firo the treasure hunter as the two contemplated the comforts of civilization for the first time in weeks.  The murmur of the inns clientele thawed their moods.
            It is a wonder and a sacred charge, responded the Trumpeter with reverence.
            From what material is it wrought?
            It looks the part.  Tell me, has it ever been damaged?
            I have brained a few lemur-men and ruffians with it and found small notice on the metal.
            May I see it?
            Indeed but I believe it needs a proper introduction, grinned the Trumpeter who finished the shine and stood up on his seat.  I will let it speak for itself.
            For once the Trumpeter didnt blast with his instrument of station.  A controlled beauty rolled out, tall and distant, towards the far off cold night beyond the steam clouds of Nock. 
            The men of the inn looked up from their ale and isolation to this sound, a koan of mystery and space.             
            The sound was far receded into the dark when the shouts and turmoil reached them.  Sorcery!  Theft!  Murder!  The Fencer was brought in and with him a lady of Summer.

            Now would be a good time to use your reason, recommended a familiar voice as the Fencers dream-haze turned bright in the light of stark morning. 
            He emerged from something similar to sleep.  Eight sounds chimed in the distance.  Inn voices and city murmurs came to him as the ladys enchantment fell away.  Then he remembered.
            The three of them, the Trumpeter, Firo and the Emerald Lady, sat or stood or reclined in the wooden box which the Fencer had come to understand as an Inn room.  She, that witch, was very close and the details of her troublesome looks showed clearly in the light spilling in from the open window.
            The lady was ageless in a way the Fencer found hard to describe.  He had no context for much beauty; the hardships of Winter weathered away such things.  Her face was fine and unblemished, her eyes the same color as her hair, which was decadent and sculpted around her features.  She had changed from the heavy traveling robe and cloak she wore the previous night and now had on some green dress which his upbringing would deem improper but was still more substantial than that worn by the many prostitutes he had seen in Ahgren and Nock.  Jade ribbons crawled up and down her arms.
            The Fencer began searching for his sword.
            I see you have met Clea, began Firo.  She is one of my clients, the rest of whom I am meeting this afternoon.
            Wheres my sword?
            Somewhere nearby but out of reach.  Your companion has mentioned certain customs to which you treat those born with marks of the gift.  Let me be the first of what is left of civilization to inform you that such is not a universal sentiment.
            Oh Im sure, glowered the Fencer as he sat up blinking into all that was happening.  They had bathed him and cleaned his seal skins which lay folded on the window seat; this was a vulnerable sensation.  Thats why I see so many green haired thieves wandering these cities.
            Clea smiled.  The Fencer noticed a scent he had somehow missed before, as if his nose had been overwhelmed by something previous.  It was a complex perfume, heady, strange; he would call it a mix of sharp fear and golden bliss.  She smelled of trouble.
            Firo had stated that none of the buyers would be allowed to view the object before the sale.  I wasnt willing to wait and see what I was going to spend so much gold on.  Her voice was clipped and well practiced.
            Its not like I could stop her if she wanted to steal the thing, so I dont blame you for your bit of activism, Fencer.  Anyhow its all over and cleared up.  You couldnt do her any real harm.  Theres some silver on the table; Ill be needing yours, and the Trumpeters, services for another day or so.
            Negotiations for my Heart start in three hours.
            This is indeed how that afternoon went.  The Fencer felt strangely refreshed by the sorcery with which Clea had subdued him the night before.  Fatigue from the long trek and the wounds hed suffered from Yogos blades, both of these lessened, and a powerful energy agitated him through the process of negotiation, something he had no patience for. 
            There was Clea, and a merchant from far away named Corinze, and an armored woman representing Lord Vael.  They all wanted the thing and promised certain qualities and quantities of metals and other lumps and sums which the Trumpeter and the Fencer couldnt care less about.
            The merchant had arrived that morning and filled the Inn with his bodyguards, of which there were many, glaring.  Behind all these men, Corinze himself hid, aging and little fat.  He reeked of fear.  Quite the opposite with Vaels representative. 
            The two travelers had never seen such armor, formed so well; she seemed of steel.  Illem was her name and she wore her hair tightly wound in an array of tribal braids.  Her eyes had the look that those who have stared out across the blinding white expanses of snow and ice often gained.  Not so with Clea.
            Gulfs of difference lay between the emerald lady and all others in the room.  At least in the Fencers mind.
            Because one party had seen the giants heart the other two demanded satisfaction, in the spirit of fairness.  So they all marched out to the staging grounds and with many a gawking local and curious artisan looking on Firo loosened the tarp.
            The rock was nominally heart shaped, but the Trumpeter loudly declared he had seen many boulders of the exact same kind before.  It was strange thing though.  A sense of weight, of gravity increased whenever one was near it.  Firo demonstrated by dropping a falcon feather a few meters away from the stone and indeed the plume drifted unnaturally through the air, landing against the faintly reddish object.  Sorcery.
            Negotiations ended without a clear winner and Firo declared he needed a day, twenty-four knocks of Nock, to cogitate and allow for bribes.  Then the Trumpeter and owner of the Heart began wasting time with their idle exchange of trivia.  The other parties wandered off to plot and here the Fencer made his move.
            Tell me, he demanded when he caught Cleas at the door to her room back at the Inn, of Summer.
            A flicker of fear in her eyes warmed to an insufferable smile.  The Fencer flinched.
            You are from there, are you not?  I must know, he continued intensely.
            Yes, I suppose.
            Either you are or you arent.
            Im guessing you want to know more about it.
            Youve read my mind then.
            The Fencers eyes were all cold tumult as he looked into hers, searching for the answer to a riddle.
            Summer is difficult to describe; even if you live there you arent really a part of a community in same way the Icebound have their tribes and villages, even cities like Nock dont compare to the Floating World.
            They were outside walking.  The steam clouds had returned, making the afternoon grey and warm.  The knocking of the clock grew steadily with each footstep.  Clea was back in her thick robe and hooded cloak.  It would seem that the status of magicians was tenuous even in the more civilized places.  She walked with poise, like it was an art.
            Not difficult to describe; impossible.  She even spoke like it was an art and the Fencer frowned on the dance of words with which she was leading him.  Why so curious about Summer?
            There are things I must know and a man, if it is a man, whom I must meet there.  Perhaps you know of him.
            He has blue hair and he made a mountain turn to silver light.  I believe he is insane from being a tree for many, many years and has a twin brother, who is now dead.  I am certain he has the answer to Winters Riddle, even though he claimed he did not. 
            The words tumbled out fast and strange.  Clea remained calm, thoughtful, as they found the broad open square at the base of the crag which housed Vaels keep.  Here the clock knocked away the day.
            Set into the diorite cliff, the clock was a mechanism of chains and weights and metal tubes made to funnel the heat of the energies deep below into running the contraption.  Standing about a dozen meters tall the clocks platinum face broadly spoke some system of symbols that the wise could doubtless understand.  It seemed to stare at the Fencer but he was more eager for the ladys response than the mindless tellings of time.  A man watched them.
            Blue is a common enough color for those with the talent as it represents power.  Do you know what green represents?  Again she turned the conversation around.  Secrets.
            The Fencers face hardened.
            Why do you want that rock so badly? asked the Fencer, trying to play her game of words.
            Oh, its my calling.  After Sol brought the gods low and Uplifted the mages and seers, there were still powerful and dangerous mysteries lying hidden under the ice of Winter.  I make deals to bring such artifacts to Summer, where they can no longer menace those unfit to defend themselves, she stated easily, as if she had said the same thing many times before.
            So you have ways to travel to Summer? he burst out excitedly.
            There are secret ways that I know, she said, losing something of her smile, which was good; the Fencer found it insufferable.
            Fantastic and impossible the thing developed within him.  Summer.  It didnt matter that her story of the Uplifting differed greatly from the one he knew or that it featured no red demon.  It didnt matter that she spoke at oblique angles without facing his queries head on, taking him further into some labyrinthine construct without a string to guide him back.  Hope stirred.
            What exactly are you after? she asked and the Fencer didnt see the way she tried to read meaning in his grey eyes.  Didnt see the desperation that went slightly unveiled.
            Clea, whatever it takes, whatever you desire, Id grant you those things.  If we were back home and I had my lance Id hunt as many seals, albino narwhals, and ice tigers as it took to pay your bride price.  Here, Id happily lop the heads off as many local bravos as you require or steal as many Hearts as it took.  If civilization demands some obscure task or ceremony completed I am prepared.
            For just a moment her mask of balance cracked but quickly she adapted to this sudden turn in what had become a negotiation.  She laughed, quite loudly against the knocking of the clock.
            Lets finish our walk and see where that takes us.
            They lounged together into the evening.  All mixed up inside the Fencer watched Clea closely.  Everything she did had purpose; from how she laid aside her clothes to how she arranged the strange little cylinders of glass she pulled from hidden recesses in her robe.  Everything she did seemed practiced, but upon close scrutiny he couldn’t find anything vastly different about Clea compared to other women he had known. 
            What are these? he said, plucking a little blue vial off the desk and holding it up to the candlelight.  Inside liquid sapphire filled the glass.
            Magic, she whispered.  My magic.  One will make you strong and one will make you weak.  Another cures the pox and still another grants it.  I have one which will let you live forever, somewhere around here.
            Which ones? he asked, looking over the kaleidoscope of potions before him.
            She didnt answer and he turned back to see her smiling and playing with an emerald curl of hair.
            I told you; my magic.
            His old demon self heated at the thoughts of still more secrets, and the color of secrets, but he had no time to boil as that quiet sound of many bodies moving carefully up the stairs brought his mind back up to present things.  The Fencer finished dressing by the time a cry of murder brought the whole Inn to chaos.