A couple of readers expressed interest in more of The Bard's Apprentice, the young adult fantasy novel that I started serializing some time ago. I stopped when a reader pointed out discrepancies in the story-- characters appearing out of nowhere, characters changing names, little things like that.
I can't remember if I pulled the particular post containing the errors. I suspect I did.
Since then, I lost access to the old laptop that The Bard's Apprentice, A Hundred Nightmares, and several other would-be masterpieces were stored on. I mean, I know it's still there, and it's safe, but it would be a bother to get to it and retrieve my stuff from it.
However, while looking for something else, I discovered I had the complete manuscript of The Bard's Apprentice in my email, as an attachment.
I thought about sprucing it up, but I'm too lazy. As Chesterton said about one of his books: "There is in everything a reasonable division of labour. I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to read it." Or as another author, multilinguistic and rather lapidary, once declared: "What I have written, I have written." Apparently Homer's Iliad is riddled with such continuity errors. Who am I to outdo Homer?
Make a game out of it! For every character whose name changes, three points. For every character who appears out of nowhere, eight points. If a character comes back from the dead, twenty points. Day turning to night, one point. Sudden location changes, four points.
You could even make a drinking game out of it, though I want to stress that this blog promotes the responsible use of alcohol, fireworks, firearms and bowling balls.
I think there is a coherent narrative and the discrepancies are minor. But if anything in the story is actually confusing, please point it out and I'll try to clear it up. Hopefully I won't be like Raymond Chandler, whose novel The Big Sleep was so complicated that, when it was being made into a movie and the film-makers asked him who had killed a particular character, he had to admit he didn't know.
Anyway, here's the first of the rest. I'll post more very soon since I suspect I posted this already.
The first thing that struck him was the cold. He seemed to be indoors, though his eyes were still recovering from the purple flash and it was hard to see. But the cold was still biting. He found he was hugging himself instinctively, the metal box dropped to the floor.
“Fox?”, came a voice, and his body surged with joy when he realised it was Grandy. There was relief in that voice, but even now, it was guarded and gruff. Grandy never lost his self-control.
The boy’s eyes recovered from the flash, and he began to make out the scene around him. He was in some kind of a tent, or a house, or a mix between the two. It had a huge timber frame, with a roof that could not be reached by a tall man on the shoulders of another tall man. In between the timber supports, there were thick skins of some sort, brown and beige and pink. Under his foot were the same skins. There was a golden glow from lamps that hung from the ceiling.
Grandy’s friends and Jasma were standing around, looking at him as if they expected him to have explanations.
“Where’s the stone, boy?”, came a thin voice, and Fox turned to see the criminal standing a little off from the other. He looked more frightened than any of them, but less dangerous than he had seemed through the Proximator.
“I…” Fox looked down at his hand, and realised with a jolt that the purple stone was gone.
The criminal groaned and lowered his hand to his head. “That’s it”, he said, limply. “We’re stuck here forever”.
“What are you complaining about?”, asked Grandy. “They would have hanged you if they hadn’t shot you straight away, where you were.”
The criminal did not reply. He just looked at Grandy with a strange mix of respect and anger.
“For my part, I’m rather happy to be here”, said the old man, giving one of his crooked smiles, “now that Fox has been clever enough to bring my box”.
There was a chorus of agreement from the other players, and Fox had never heard anything more heartfelt. He flushed with pleasure and pride.
“I thought it was all over”, said No-Sooner, walking to the box and lifting it lovingly.
“But you don’t have any boards, or pieces…” Fox began.
“Oh, we can build those”, said Goodfellow, watching Twelvemorning lift the box. All the other players were doing the same, like capsized sailors stranded on an unknown shore, gazing at the sail of a ship coming to save them.
“But without these records…”, said No-Sooner, who had a white furry cloak around him. “It’s funny how we thought we were safe. We all had our own copies in our own boxes and chests, hidden, under lock and key…”
“I wonder if anyone will ever find them?”, asked Goodfellow. “Maybe the game will begin again.”
“But where are we?”, asked Fox, shivering, wishing he had a furry cloak like Goodfellow’s.
“Well, it’s kind of hard to say”, Grandy replied, finally taking his eyes from the box. “We can’t understand a word the natives speak, which is not too surprising. But it’s no country in our world, that’s for sure.”
“What do you mean?”, asked Fox, though he knew what Grandy meant.
“The stars are different from any stars you could see on our world”, said Grandy. “Haven’t you heard stories about people who went through pools, or mirrors, or paintings, into an entirely different world? Of course you have. You listen to Jasma’s ridiculous stories all the time.”
“Why are they ridiculous? It turns out they’re true”, said Jasma, glaring at Grandy.
“Certainly they’re true”, said Grandy. “But you never really believed them, did you? That’s what made them ridiculous.”
Jasma didn’t say anything, and Fox saw the criminal smile to himself.
“So why can’t we get back?”, asked Fox, almost choked with panic.
“Oh, by the thirteen hundred names!”, cried Grandy. “Boys are meant to be adventurous, aren’t they? Aren’t you happy to leave behind a dying Empire for a new world? A whole new world?”
“But It’s so cold”, said Fox. Only then did Harkness take the fur cloak from his own shoulders and put it around the boy, looking rather ashamed that he had only thought of it now.
“You think this is cold?”, asked Grandy. “You should have been in the Great Sickle back in the Maraguan campaign, when our rifles seized up in the freezing air. When five hundred men slept virtually on top of each other…this is a cool autumn day in comparison”.
“Don’t be so pompous, Grandy”, said Goodfellow. “You were in your twenties back then. Fox is ten years old.”
“Eleven”, corrected Fox, automatically.
“I meant eleven”, said Goodfellow, but at that moment the door of the enclosure opened—there was a rattle of beads—and some people entered in, carrying platters of food.
No wonder these people liked high ceilings, thought Fox. They were all giants. There were four women and three men, and none of them were less than six foot two. The tallest man was at least seven foot. They were broad as well as tall, though the fur cloaks they wore (black, white and brown) added to the impression.
They were not especially attractive, though Fox would change his opinion of their looks before too long. They had strong noses and wide mouths, low cheekbones and pale complexions. They looked so far from friendly that Fox felt afraid.
They brought the food (which smelled pleasant enough) to a star-shaped table in one corner of the building. They ushered Fox and the others to high wooden chairs, that were hard but surprisingly comfortable.
One woman carried a large bowl of earth, a smaller bowl from which steam rose, and a yet smaller bowl with some kind of cream, all borne on a tray. She had a length of cloth folded around her arm.
She went to Grandy first, put the bowl upon the table before him, and extended her hands, palms facing upwards. Grandy looked at her questioning for a moment, then extended his arm in the same way. She spread some of the cream on his palms, and rubbed her palms together briskly. He did the same.
Then she put the bowl of earth beneath his outstretched hands, and lifting the bowl of steaming water, poured it over them and into the earth. He rubbed them together again, taking the cloth from her arm to dry them.
“They don’t use forks or knives, then”, said Jasma, disapprovingly. She always grabbed any opportunity to be offended.
As soon as he had washed his hands, Grandy was grabbing food from the platters. Fox knew it was curiosity rather than appetite that made him eager. Grandy seemed to live on a diet of tobacco for the most part. Fox was a chubby boy and didn’t understand.
“It’s pleasant enough”, he said, chewing it and looking around the table. “Fish of some sort. Peas. Some kind of biscuit. All mixed together. Doesn’t look too pleasant though, does it?”.
There was a smile around the table, and an amused murmur. The mash, whatever it was made from, was coloured a greenish-grey that did not excite the palate. But the others were helping themselves, anyway.
Their hosts were trying to speak to them again. The language was quite melodious and soft, and accompanied by constant hand gestures. But the newcomers couldn’t make any sense of it. They began to seem frustrated.
“What do they expect?”, asked Twelvemorning, seeming a bit offended herself. “They don’t understand us”.
“I’d guess this is some sort of common tongue they expect everyone to know”, said Grandy, with the air of self-satisfaction that turned so many people against him.
“I think Ezwayna is their name”, said the criminal.
“What’s that, Piper?”, asked Grandy, roughly. He never liked somebody else to know more than him.
“What would you know about their language?”, asked Jasma, just as sternly as Grandy.
“I’ve spent a lot of time going from place to place”, said Piper. “On the run.” He said it almost defiantly, in response to Jasma’s mutterings. “I was always good at picking up languages I’d never heard before”.
“Indeed?”, mused Grandy, his irritation forgotten now. “Try speaking to them. Do something useful, for once. And don’t even think about double-crossing us.” The criminal only smiled at this.
“They confiscated the pistols, you know”, Jasma whispered to me. Fox didn’t understand why she was whispering, since neither group could
understand the other. “They were very angry when they saw them. So they have pistols, and we don’t.”
“You’re scaring me”, said Fox. She delighted telling him horrifying tales, and they delighted him just as much as they did her. When they were told by the kitchen fire. This horrifying tale was happening, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“Well, I’m scared, too”, said Jasma, rather sulkily. “They look pretty savage to me.”
Piper was trying to talk to their hosts, and he seemed to have scored at least one hit, because they seemed pleased and excited. They waved their hands even harder, and raised their voices, and seemed to have forgotten about anyone other than Piper.
“Look at him”, said Jasma, viciously. “He thinks he’s the robin’s crest.”
“But it looks like he knows what he’s doing”, said Fox.
“Of course he does”, said Jasma. “He’s a conman. Trickery and winning people’s trust is how he’s lived his life. Don’t turn your back to him for a moment.”
Meanwhile, Grandy and his friends were back to discussing Spiral. This had probably been the longest break Fox had ever heard in that never-ending discussion.
“What if someone discovers our boards, and our records”, asked No-Sooner, as if this had been troubling him for some time, “and they start playing themselves, and continuing the game in…in the old world, in the Empire? And we continue it here? What happens if we ever go back? Either we’d have to be right, or the people back there. Hundreds of games just wasted”, he said, with raw pain in his voice.
“It’s nothing to worry about”, said Grandy. “We’re never going back. We may as well get used to it”.
No-Sooner and Goodfellow both looked happier at the idea. Going home seemed to be less important to them than keeping Spiral free from contradictions and muddles.
“How long do you think it will take to build two new boards?, asked Goodfellow. The Proximator wasn’t the only gadget he owned. Goodfellow
was the only one of the three who used his hands for much more than moving Spiral pieces.
“They seem like fair craftsmen”, said No-Sooner, glancing around the tent-house. “I’m sure they have the tools for the job. Of course, they won’t be as sumptuous as our boards…”
“That doesn’t matter”, came the chorus from the other players, and Fox could almost taste their impatience to get back to playing.
They launched into further discussion—Fox understood it little better than he understood the talk of this world’s natives, but he loved listening to them. He loved the lost expression on their faces. He had spent many dreamy hours and days looking at the children playing games in the street, but even they never seemed as utterly serious and utterly enchanted as these old people, talking about shuttles and unicorns and wells and all the other, bewildering parts of Spiral.
He sat there, eating and listening, until he noticed that Jasma was crying softly behind him, unnoticed by anybody.
“What’s wrong?”, he asked, putting his hand to her shoulder but drawing it back at the last moment. She had only hugged him once, earlier today, and it felt too strange to try.
“Oh, blood”, she swore. “Listen to them all, so happy to get away from their lives. That’s all right for them. They’re not leaving anything behind”.
“Oh…your family”, said Fox, suddenly struck by sadness for Jasma. Her sisters and her mother were back in the Empire, depending on her wages.
“My mother always said I was flighty”, she said, fighting back the tears angrily. “She always said I’d disappear without telling her, as soon as someone offered to take me away.”
“She never meant it”, said Fox, who never understood why people said such cruel things of the people they loved.
“I know”, said Jasma, finally giving way to the flood of tears. “That’s the worst thing about it. She’ll think she was wrong about me all along.” She hid her face in her hands, shaking with grief, and for the first time in his life Fox realised she was very young. And he grew a little older in that moment.
The pistols were not used on them, despite Jasma’s fears. They were simply thrown in a nearby lake. The Ezwayna hated all guns and all violence. They were willing to fight, if they had to—in fact, they had been highly prized as soldiers in the lands they had recently fled. But it went against their nature, which was gentle and peaceful.
Gentle and peaceful, but not cheerful. The Ezwayna were a gloomy people. That very night, a woman had sung them a song that seemed to go on for hours. Fox didn’t have to understand the words to know that it was sad. There was centuries of sadness in her voice, and her people wept openly, the men as well as the woman.
They slept on thick woollen mattresses on the ground—they were very comfortable—and, though the early morning was so cold that Fox thought he might never be able to move again, soon the temperature became more bearable.
He roamed around the country of the Ezwayna the next day. The tent-houses, which the Ezwayna called tamzans, were dotted at distant intervals in this sprawling landscape. They usually in the shade of the massive trees that the Ezwayna called “benefactor trees”, which were broader than any tree Fox had ever seen. They looked like huge domes from far away.
It was winter, and thick snow fell every day. The Ezwayna went hunting, fishing and working at other occupations during the day. Their children seemed to spend most of their time amongst the branches of the benefactor trees, or playing a complicated game of marbles.
The old people launched into the task of making new Spiral boards, using Piper as an interpreter with the Ezwayna, and showing little gratitude for his help. All four of them set to whittling, sawing, smoothing and painting with an energy Fox would never have suspected they possessed. They had them made within two days, though they were certainly not as pretty as the old ones.
The Ezwayna were fascinated by their efforts, especially the young men and women. They watched Grandy and the others making the boards with the
keenest attention, though they never offered to help. They stood a distance back, as if they didn’t want to distract the workers.
“Maybe they’re amazed at how stupid we are”, laughed No-Sooner.
But the Ezwayna always seemed to show the deepest respect to the old people. They all but ignored Jasma and Fox.
“They just think old people should be honoured”, said Piper over dinner, after he had been talking to them for three days. “The head of the people is always the oldest one.”
“Even if it’s a woman?”, asked Jasma.
“Yes,” said Piper, not looking at her. Fox couldn’t blame him; she took every opportunity to be rude to him.
“I don’t think much of it as a philosophy”, said Grandy, who had made the happy discovery that the Ezwayna smoked pipes, though he wasn’t too keen on the weed they used. “The idea that old people automatically grow wiser is very mistaken. Most old people I know are senile fools.”
“Except for all of us”, said No-Sooner. “And I’m not old, anyway.”
“I think it’s stupid”, said Jasma. “Old people are selfish and cruel.” Nobody contradicted her. They just went on eating their fish soup.
“Oh, something you’d better know, Fox”, said Piper. “You don’t speak to your elders here until they speak to you. You don’t disagree with them, and you never criticise them, unless you’re talking to someone your own age.”
“How long have they been here?”, asked Harkness.
“About fifteen years”, Piper replied. Sometimes it was hard to remember that he was a criminal, he was so well-spoken and polite. “They call it Wild Haven.They come from a place they call the Anarchy. People made fun of them there, because they’re so gentle and peaceful, and were always trying to provoke them. Also they found it difficult to deal with cheeky children, and twenty-year-old bureaucrats telling them what to do.”
“Do they believe in God?”, asked Jasma, who was very religious.
“They do”, said Piper. “But please don’t mention the subject. Talking about God is taboo here. It’s considered blasphemy. You have no idea how hard it was for them to explain that to me, without actually talking about God.”
“I agree with them there, anyway”, said Grandy. “What’s more egotistical than the idea that God wants us pestering him?”
Jasma threw more salt into her soup, and flared her nostrils. “How is your ridiculous game going?”, she asked.
All of the old people started talking at once, all to the same effect: the game had resumed wonderfully, and the Ezwayna were almost as absorbed in it as they were.
“This is all I wanted for my declining years”, said No-Sooner. “Leisure to play Spiral, and no distractions. And who do you have to thank for that, except for Mr. Piper?”
Piper smiled, and bowed his head slightly. “Thank you, Mr. No-Sooner”, he said. “I’m not used to gratitude, and I’m sure I don’t deserve it.”
“I agree with that”, said Jasma, with a bitter smile. “Have you told the Ezwayna that you’re a jail-bird?”, she asked.
“No”, said Piper. “This is a new start for me.”
“The tree puts out the same leaves every year”, said Jasma. She knew thousands of proverbs, and all of them could be used to chastise.
Jasma had told him something of Piper, since they arrived here. He was a builder who had joined the Skullmen, the secret society that took it upon themselves to punish brutal bosses and foremen. An informer had given the police his name, and ever since that, he had been on run.
He’d stolen the purple stone from a mansion in Butter Street, the richest part of our city. “He said the man who owned was cruel to his workers”, said Jasma. “As if that made stealing all right.”
“Grandy says lots of poor people in the Empire have to work twelve hours a day”, said Fox.
“Well”, said Jasma, putting on her most prim look. “At least when a poor man is working he isn’t drinking, or beating his wife. And I’ve often worked twelve hours a day”. But Fox knew that Jasma went to sleep whenever she felt like it, and spent hours talking to Mrs. Summershower, the woman who peddled laces and brocades from door to door. Jasma spoke harshly of the poor when she meant other people, and pityingly when she meant herself.
“Do you think more people are going to come here, if they find the purple stone?”, Fox asked Grandy, over supper one night. Meals were the only chance he got to speak to Grandy. The old man spent almost every other moment playing Spiral.
“I don’t expect so”, said his grandfather. “Piper was carrying it for years before it did anything. Something about that moment made it…do whatever it did. Why, are you pining for home?”
“No”, said Fox. “I like it here”.
“So do I”, said Grandy, and his eyes sparkled. Moments like that were the closest they came to affection.
He grew more accustomed to the cold, as time went by. He began to pick up some words of the Ezwayna language. Soon he could speak it without thinking. One day, months after they had come to this world, he realised that he had been speaking Ezwayna to Jasma for an entire conversation, without even realising it. Before long they hardly ever used the language they had brought with them.
He made friends, although sometimes that was a trial. The older boys lorded it over the younger ones here, and speaking out of place earned you a stinging smack on the face. Somehow that didn’t offend these peoples’ hatred of violence. But there was no bullying, and he had more friends than ever before. But he still spent of his time alone, wandering the lakes and woods and thinking his own thoughts.
One day he found himself passing a tamzan, and heard a gale of laughter coming from inside. He went towards it. Nobody thought it wrong to enter a strange house here; knocking at doors was unknown.
An old woman was sitting in the centre of the tamzan, surrounded by dozens of other Ezwayna, of all ages. They were all sitting cross-legged on the floor, transfixed by what the old woman was singing. Some were sipping chora, the bitter berry drink they loved here.
It was a long narrative poem called—Fox subsequently learnt—The Twelve Voyages of Tamar the Innocent. When he joined in—nobody even looked around, although Fox could have sworn that the woman was suddenly addressing him—she was describing how Tamar was being chased by his
shadow, which had grown sick of his endless wandering, and wanted to pin him down.
Fox saw young children actually rolling around the floor, which was something he had always considered a figure of speech. He found himself laughing, not so much at the story—it didn’t seem that funny, and was probably funnier if you’d been listening from the start—than from sheer infection of mirth. It was impossible not to laugh, when laughter was shaking the beams of the tamzan.
The woman did not smile, though. Her teeth were mostly misisng and her skin was wrinkled, but she was curiously beautiful. There was something so hardy and serene about her.
Soon, Fox was as lost in the tale as any of the others. Tamar had managed to cage his shadow inside a little box, and gave it to a squirrel to guard. He moved on to the country of the Queen of Flames, who had murdered her son in a fit of madness, and who sought to detain Tamar, convinced he was her own boy. Suddenly laughter seemed to belong to a different world, and eyes—not just those of children—were glinting with tears.
He stood there for two or three hours, listening. Turn after turn came in the tale, with comic and tragic, heroic and piteous scenes passing through the listeners’ minds, one merging into the next seamlessly. Nobody so much as shifted uncomfortably, through all the time Fox stood there. And how long might she have been talking before Fox arrived?
As she told the tale, Fox thought he could hear a melody behind the words; a silent melody, a music that was softer and yet more overpowering than anything he had ever known before. It was nothing other than life itself, but life as he had never imagined it until now. He had never guessed there were such depths to existence. The old woman’s tale made it seemed so plenteous— an overflowing abundance of different emotions, and characters, and scenes, and possibilities—but not a chaos, either. No, there were patterns in the storm, pictures in the eternal fire. Patterns he might understand one day, or begin to understand.
Of course, he could not have put these thoughts into words, even in the simplest manner. He just stood there, listening to the old woman’s tones
washing over him, feeling more excited than he had felt in his short life. For eleven years, his soul had slumbered in its womb, and in that single moment it was born.
He listened until the very end of the tale—which was no end at all, but a promise of future, greater tales—and began to clap loudly.
Two dozen eyes turned towards him in shock, although the old lady did not seem surprised, or even look at him. He had never a sound more sickening than the echoes of his lonely applause in the spacious tamzan. Then there came laughter, a small whisper at first, followed by a gale.
He turned away, tears of humiliation in his eyes, and stormed out of the tamzan. He strode across the snowy landscape, feeling cheated of his moment of joy. It was cold, but he was hot with shame. Only after a few moments did he realise somebody was following him.
He turned around. It was a boy of his own age. He had curly hair, black like the hair of all his people, and an infuriatingly saucy expression.
“What do you want?”, asked Fox, rudely.
“How old are you?”, asked the other boy.
“Older than you”, said Fox.
“How do you know?”
“I can tell”, said Fox. “I’ve seen more than you’ll ever see”.
“You haven’t seen a madman”, said the other boy.
Fox didn’t reply to this. It was unanswerable.
“Why did you do that?”, asked the boy, his eyes boring into Fox.
“It’s called clapping”, said Fox. “It’s what we do in civilised countries.”
“Everybody thinks you’re weird”, said the boy. “I bet I could beat you to that fence over there.”
Fox had never done much running. But there was no way he’d refuse such a challenge. He nodded, and the very next moment they were both rushing towards the fence.
As might expected, the other boy took the lead within a few seconds, but Fox kept running. He was determined to catch up, no matter what. He pushed himself harder and harder, and he felt the distance between them shortening. The fence was not so far away now…
Then the ground gave way beneath him, and he was tumbling. He seemed to be tumbling for an eternity, and suddenly…
The purple flash again, the one that had come over him when he held the stone. But this time it had come and gone in a moment, almost too quickly to notice.
And then he was looking up from an unbelievably steep pit. The head of the boy who had been chasing after him peered over the edge.
“How come you’re not dead?”, he asked.
“Tell me again exactly what happened”, said Grandy, pointing his pipe at Fox before shoving it back in his mouth. He stared at the boy as if he was trying to see through him.
“I’ve already told you a hundred times”, said Fox, his patience—or his fear of Grandy—finally used up.
He expected Grandy to thunder at him. Or to slap him in the face. He’d done that before, though not for a long time. Instead, his frown deepened.
“Maybe you think you’re telling me everything. Maybe you’ve forgotten something. Did you see anything in this…this purple? Any shadows, or pictures, or shapes?”
“No”, said Fox, surprised now at Grandy’s own patience.
“Did you hear anything?”, asked Grandy.
“Not…not with my ears”.
“I told you to stop talking nonsense”, said his grandfather, lying back in his wicker chair, as if he’d been exhausted by Fox’s silliness. The shadows from the firelight made his wrinkles stand out on his face.
“It’s not nonsense”, said Fox, almost whispering. “You keep telling me to tell you everything, then you tell me to shut up when I try to”.
“I want to hear what happened, not your feelings”, said Grandy. He said the word feelings in the same way Jasma often said men. Then the look on his face changed; he’d obviously thought of something new. “Fox, have you still got the purple stone? Have you been keeping it quiet? You were always a great one for secrets and mystery.”
“No, I don’t”, said Fox, wishing it was a lie. He probably would have hidden the purple stone, and taken great pleasure in being the only person to know about it.
“And Piper says he hasn’t got one, and he’s too stupid to lie so convincingly”, mused Grandy, staring into the fire. “Well, you’ve caused a commotion here, boy. Half of the mothers don’t want their children mixing with you, and I don’t blame them. They think you’re some sort of a witch.”
Fox knew that the Ezwayna had been constantly accused of witchcraft in their old home. They were terrified of the accusation. The fear had made them paranoid, and they were quicker than anybody else to see witchcraft everywhere.
“But we appeared here in a flash in the first place”, said Fox. One again, he was perplexed by the logic of the adult world.
“Well, that’s different”, said Grandy, tipping the ash from his pipe onto the floor. This tamzan had reeds underfoot, rather than a carpet, but he would have tipped them onto a carpet, just the same. Old people did what they liked in this country, and Grandy had always done just what he liked. “They have stories where ordinary people are transported from one world to another. But no stories where little boys fall down a forty-foot hole and are completely unharmed. And unhurt. Are you unhurt?”
“Yes”, said Fox, wishing he could just storm out of the tamzan. But you didn’t do that with Grandy, no matter what world you happened to be in.
The old man mumbled something to himself, searching Fox’s face for the thousandth time, as if he was looking for clues in it. “Well, you don’t seem to be lying anyway, though maybe you’re just very good at it. So we’re just going to have to leave it there. For the moment, mind”, he stressed, seeing the look of relief on Fox’s face.
Fox made to go, longing to be away from this interrogation, but Grandy said: “Not so fast, buck. There’s something else I have to tell you”.
“Are you aware that there’s a big festival tomorrow?”, asked his grandfather, eyeing him up and down, like a tailor making mental measurements.
“No”, said Fox, surprised. Jasma often said he was made of ears, but he hadn’t heard a whisper of this.
”Typical of these people”, sighed Grandy. “They wouldn’t get straight to the point even if they saw a snake about to leap at you. And anything to do with religion turns their lips to marble. Well, for your enlightenment, tomorrow is the Day of Casting Off.”
“And what’s the Day of Casting Off?”, asked Fox, who hadn’t heard mention of it before.
“It’s a day when the Ezwayna cast off all worldly things. And that includes clothes”.
Fox giggled. He couldn’t help it.
“And that’s exactly why you’re not going to take part”, said Grandy, pointing at Fox with his pipe. “Not much point in expecting a pup like you to appreciate the spiritual meaning of the occasion. No, you’ll just double the size of your eyes, staring at the women.”
Fox thought he was going to burn away with embarrassment. He was glad Grandy had forbidden him from joining in. He couldn’t think of anything more mortifying.
“Are you going to….take part?”, asked Fox, finding it impossible to imagine, and trying not to smirk.
“Certainly not”, snapped Grandy. “People of my age aren’t expected to, praise be to the wisdom of the Ezwayna. There would be nothing to be gained, spiritually or otherwise, in looking at my bare body.”
Fox knew better than to laugh, though it was difficult. Grandy only made jokes on the understanding that they would be ignored.
“So I won’t go then”, he said. He was scared that the old man would insist on him going, once he realised Fox’s relief at escaping. It would be just like him.
“That’s not all”, said Grandy. “While the Ezwayna are communing with God—it all happens in the Great Hall— you will be making yourself useful. You’ll go from tamzan to tamzan, making sure no embers have started fires, or that foxes haven’t broken in.”
“There are almost four hundred of them!”, exclaimed Fox, trying to hide his pleasure at getting such a job. The Ezwayna were not a private people, but being in someone’s home when they were there was one thing, and being in someone’s house when they were out was another—and a much more enjoyable one.
“Well, you’ll have a busy day, then”, said Grandy, not trying to hide his satisfaction. “And now, go to Goodfellow’s house, and tell him I would greatly appreciate him joining me in a game of Spiral, in the Spiral House.”
The Spiral House was a tamzan entirely dedicated to the game of Spiral. Previously, it had been a sort of club-house for the younger Ezwayna men, but they had eagerly converted it to a shrine to the game that had seized their imagination.
Grandy and his friends had banned them from playing it, telling them that they didn’t understand it well enough yet. It was not for want of trying. Since they couldn’t actually play Spiral games of their own, the young Ezwayna had played out and studied the games of the past, which they had eagerly copied and re-copied from Grandy’s records.
Fox had even heard that Grandy, No-Sooner and Goodfellow all had their own fans. No-Sooner had the most admirers; he brought his good humour and happy-go-lucky spirit onto the Spiral board with him. But the others had their admirers, too. The Ezwayna who took Spiral most seriously were most likely to be fans of Grandy.
It was an early spring morning, mild for this climate. That was to say, only the faintest frost was still to be seen upon the grass. The moon was still in the sky, and few people were abroad
He went by the grove of benefactor trees’ that some called Bradda’s Walk. He found himself wondering, for the first time, whether Bradda was a man or a woman, and what he or she had done to be remembered here. He liked it. The ground was hilly, and it was full of little pools. He liked little pools. They were like toys, small and useless.
He was marching along, enjoying the crunch of stiff grass under his boots, when he heard voices high above him. He looked up. There were children hanging from the branches, some twenty feet up. No child ever seemed to fall from a benefactor tree. It would be like a bird tumbling out of the air.
As he looked up, they giggled, and he heard some of them chanting: “Woe to the witch! Woe to the witch! Woe to the witch!”. All the words were running together, so that it took him a few moments to realise what they were saying.
He hurried his pace for a few moments, then slowed again, frightened that one of his mockers would crash down from the trees, in their eagerness to keep up with him. Just because he had never seen it happen before, it didn’t mean it was never going to happen. And that would cause no end of trouble. No, all he could do was ignore them. Hopefully they would not start throwing things.
He trudged along for ten minutes or so, when he heard somebody drop behind him with a thump.
He turned around, but the child was standing up. It was a boy, perhaps nine years old. Fox thought he was a very ugly child, and he had a slightly dim-witted look, with mouth agape and staring eyes.
“Disappear”, said the boy, in a loud voice.
Fox walked on, but the boy followed him, not the slightest bit discouraged. Fox could hear the chanting following him through the trees.
“Go on, disappear”, said the boy. “I’ll give you a toy dragon. It’s this big”.
Fox didn’t even look around to see the grandeur of the object in question, though he was curious. He just said: “I can’t disappear”.
“But you did”, said the boy, as if this argument was decisive. “Do it again”.
Fox stopped, and turned on his heel. The boy stepped back a pace or two, as if he expected Fox himself to turn into a real dragon.
“Can you keep a secret?”, asked Fox.
The boy nodded, as eager as a cat watching birds.
“Well”, he said, lowering his mouth to the boy’s ear and whispering. “I can only work magic when I’m in danger. It’s part of the bargain, the bargain I struck with the Green Witch of Blood Valley.” He had to suppress his laughter at the awe on the boy’s face. “It’s to stop me using the magic for evil uses.”
“My mother said you were just lucky”, the boy whispered. “Wait till I tell her—“
“Hey!”, said Fox, feeling indignant himself. He leaned closer to his ear. “If you tell anybody about this, you’ll turn into cheese. Rotten cheese”.
“I won’t tell anyone” said the boy, putting his palm over his mouth. It was a gesture that meant silence amongst the Ezwayna, who were experts at keeping quiet.
“Make sure that you don’t”, whispered Fox, trying to make his voice as menacing as possible. “And stop following me.”
He looked around, and saw a long gap in the benefactor trees, perhaps a hundred paces away. He made for that, wondering how long the boy’s dread of turning to cheese would keep him from blabbing. Not very long, he guessed. Fox wondered whether the Ezwayna would take the boy’s stories seriously. If they did, it would mean more lectures from Grandy.
Sighing with relief when he reached the clearance, he marched along for ten or fifteen minutes, hearing nothing but the chitter-chatter of the birds, and seeing nothing but an occasional squirrel or rabbit. He tried not to think about the purple flash. The shadow of that thought always lay over his mind, but he did his best not to face it. Who knows where he might be whisked away to next? Some place far away from Grandy and Jasma, where he would never see them again?
He repeated of a rhyme he had heard a mother croon to her baby instead:
King Lazybones said from the head of his bed
I never will rise any more;
I won’t lead the force on my dappled grey horse
And I won’t ride away to the war.
But I’ll lie on my pillow, and hire a good fellow
To sing me a song of old times.
And the world can go by, while in comfort I lie,
And sleep through the eight o’clock chimes.
He was about to repeat it for the third time, enjoying the pictures it formed in his mind, when he saw a figure standing by a pool. It was a tall, lean young man—in his early twenties, perhaps. He had a long face and sad, dark eyes. His hair was rather untidy, and his boots were muddy. He looked up when he heard Fox passing by.
“You!”, he said, in a husky voice, and Fox groaned silently. Would he never be allowed to forget his accidental miracle?
“Yes?”, he replied meekly, falling naturally into the respectful tones required of children speaking to adults here.
“You’re Jasma’s friend, aren’t you?”, he asked, turning from the pool and staring at Fox, in a way that was almost rude.
“I suppose”, he replied, wondering what the man wanted.
“I adore her”, burst out the Ezwayna man, closing his eyes for a moment. This was even worse. The Ezwayna didn’t show any embarrassment about romance. Lovers would kiss passionately in any sort of company, and nobody seemed in the least bit put out. “She’s so beautiful”, said the man. “My name is Truevow. I know that yours is Fox”
Fox bowed low, the required thing to do when somebody older introduced themselves to you. But as soon as he had done that, he asked: “Jasma? Beautiful?”
“Don’t you consider her beautiful?”, asked Truevow, surprised rather than annoyed at Fox’s scepticism. “Her beautiful golden hair…”
“Weren’t there any fair-haired women in…in the Anarchy?”, asked Fox, trying to get over his shock at Jasma being called beautiful.
“In the Anarchy? No”, said Truevow, shaking his head sadly. “All black-haired, like us. The only fair-haired women I’ve met are the ones in old tales. I never thought a maiden would step out of the tales into the sight of my eyes”, he finished, looking back down at grass, morosely.
Fox wanted to kick him, but instead he said: “Have you spoken to her?”
“I have told her of my love for her”, said Truevow, nodding, still examining the grass. “She was…mocking. And yet, she kept listening to me. Is that her way?”
“The mockery bit is, anyway.” Jasma, beautiful?
“Has she spoken to you of any other man? Any other…young man?”, asked Truevow, looking up from the grass, staring at Fox in an agony of hope and dread.
“No”, said Fox.
Truevow sighed in relief and disappointment, and then—looking about him, and lowering his voice—he added, “Does she speak about Piper?” He spoke the name as if it was some horrific disease. “The Ezwayna ladies are all besotted with Piper, and I have seen him looking at her”.
“She only ever complains about him”, said Fox, wishing he could run away.
Truevow smiled at this for a moment, but soon his face was troubled again. “Women admire dangerous men”, he said, stating it as a simple matter of fact. “Piper is one of the most dangerous men I’ve ever seen.”
“Is he dangerous?”, asked Fox, suddenly feeling the skin on his spine tighten.
Truevow looked down at him, taken aback by his ignorance. “Of course he’s dangerous! Our old ones have told us all to be exceedingly careful around him. They say he is the kind of man who has murder for a travelling companion, and disaster for a pet.”
Truevow continued to babble on about Jasma’s eyes, and her skin, and the way she stood with her arms folded, but Fox was hardly listening. He was thinking about Piper, and of the way he looked at Grandy sometimes, when he thought nobody was watching; a look Fox could never understand, a deep and dark look. He was thinking about how Grandy had executed Piper’s father, and of Piper’s time with the Skullmen. Jasma had told him all about those cut-throat gangs, in story after bloodthirsty story.
And he remembered Jasma quoting one of their sayings during such a story, in a whisper of delicious dread, though it seemed less delicious now: Three lives for one, that is a good start for revenge.