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Fantasy Adventure Historical Fiction

Mother says my brother is sick. The stones, cut slate, are set firm into the earth; they do not budge as I race towards the town of Bayle. To either side of me runs the wall. It is crumbling, but still high. My footfalls are mostly silent, but they are enough to startle a raven into flight. The leaves, though turned for autumn, have yet to fall from the trees. Filtered through them the morning’s light is honey-colored, dripping into puddles on the forest floor. The crisp air sears my windpipe and squeezes my chest tight, my breaths are quick and shallow. But the thing behind me means that I cannot stop. It’s some kind of wolf, I think. Breathe in...out…in...out...in…Unlike my own steps, I can hear wolf creature’s over the sound of the forest, my gasping for air. Heavy and deep the sound is, wafting through the air and shaking the trees. Now some leaves are falling.

I don’t know how it found me. I had stayed on the path! The path goes on and on. I don’t know how much longer I can run. I had only peeked over the wall once…. It cannot catch me; I must help my brother. Find someone in Bayle. Pain crackles through my shins with each footfall. In out in out in out. Breaths get tighter, closer together. The creature is getting closer… I can smell it’s breath; it smells of something once sweet, but now rotted foul. Spoiled milk and decomposing fruit… then I see something. A leaf! There is a leaf on the path ahead of me, summer-colored, green. It yanks my gaze to it -- away from the slightly upturned pathstone, and I’m slapped against the ground. The leaf is right there. The wolf is sure to close the distance within the second, so I don’t bother myself to get up, instead reaching for the leaf. It’s so curious, being out here, not even turned orange-yellow-red like the others. A strange shape too, and big. I lift it up, and there’s something underneath.

A sort of knot made of metal, no, a dark grey wood. I glance back, and the beast is on me. It’s not a wolf… what it is though, I had never seen the likes of. Its massive front paw is pressing me down, and the pain is a great tree in my chest, the pain from the running, now a blade of grass. I raise my left arm to fend off the creature’s maw, beating it on the snout. The stinking smell clogs my nostrils and I twist my head away. With my right arm I try to pull myself backwards, but the rock is smooth and my fingers cannot catch. They brush against the object under the leaf as I bring my arm back to my leg, where I finally remember I had strapped a knife, and the pain disappears for a moment, before I get my hand round the knife-handle. 

That’s when I feel my left arm aflame as the beast’s teeth grind into it, and all I can think is to stop the agony; I scream and drop the knife, reaching back to that wooden knot and nearly crushing it with the force of my grip. The pain is gone the moment I touch it. Then, I realize, so is the beast. I can see what looks like a shadow hanging in its shape in the air, but its paw, its teeth, are gone! The wounds it dealt are very much real though -- I can see that my arm is bleeding heavily. Shaking, I stand and hobble over to the wall. I watch the shade of the beast as it turns and walks away. Too dumb to realize whatever just happened isn’t supposed to happen, I figure.  

Once it’s gone, I set down the trinket, and the pain washes back over me. I get to work binding my wounds, tearing off strips of cloth from my shirt. Fortunately the arm does not appear broken so I don’t need to worry about making a splint. Half an hour later the bleeding has mostly stopped and I know I must press onward, to Bayle. To get help for my brother. The thought spurs me to my feet and I feel guilt for even waiting this long.  

Back holding the knot, I look at it more closely. It certainly feels like wood, but it’s joined in a circle, somehow without seams, weaving about itself in a series of loops and whirls. It reminds me of those decorative designs the monks love stuffing into the empty parts of letters.   

Several hours later, I’d walked perhaps six miles and the sun had reached its peak. In the distance, I think I see the flashing glass windows of the city’s cathedral. The cathedral was built on this edge of the city, to protect the citizens from whatever stole through the wood -- day and night. Whoever has passed the cross at the near side, the priests said, were protected by God, so long as they did not blaspheme. I feel my steps quicken, gladdened immensely by the idea. I’ll certainly be there by eveningtide.

Yet as I draw closer to the cathedral, it stays stuck in that haze given by distance to a familiar object, even as it grows in size.  

Then I was there, and it was certainly not the town of Bayle. Nothing seems to grow the way they ought - trees, dwellings, shops. I go into the cathedral, which is empty, save for one man standing at the far end by the baptismal font. From afar he looks small enough to be a child, but grey-haired, and he calls out to me in a deep voice. I walk towards him. There are no pews here but in their place a pool, filled with dark red liquid, so still that I nearly mistake it for floor.

As I work my way around the pool up to the font, he grows taller in my sight at a quicker rate than it should, so that I see his height actually surpasses mine!  I don’t recognize him, it is not Father Herry, but he has a kind appearance.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve gotten myself lost I believe. I was headed for the town of Bayle.”

He stares at me with green eyes and says, “This is Not Bayle. You are Lost,” enunciating the beginnings of certain words in a lolloping rhythm.  

“But what is in Bayle that is not here too?” He adds.

“I am supposed to find Father Herry. My brother is sick and needs healing; failing that, last rites.”

“I’m a Fair healer Myself. What afflicts Him?”

So I tell him about my brother, how no longer eats, nor sleeps the night, nor babbles to mother or laughs at our dog. The man stands very still, and once I’m finished, he makes a clicking sound with his mouth.  

“Selvana,” he says. I look at him. 

“Selvana? Is that the name of the illness?”

“Your Brother is Not Your brother. I believe Your Brother is Here with Us. Selvana is known to Do Such Things. Your Arm!” He points straight with his ring finger. “You were Wounded by one of the Beasts of the Forest. You were not Told Not to cross the Wall?” 

I sigh. “I was. I climbed it but did not cross, I don’t understand it.”

“Smelled your Breath,” he mutters. “I too have been Mauled by those Creatures. Torn like a Rag! But eventually the amusement wears off…”

I would not be the first to call my encounter "amusing." But keen to herd the man back to the business of my brother, I ask him if he can help. At first it does not seem like he hears. His eyes have not moved from my arm, and the eeriness of this place, with its crimson cisterns and the akilter proportions, was creeping into my mind like the cold into my bones. Then he spoke.

“You have my Knot. I will help You, but I Will Need My Knot in Return.”

Opening my hand, I glance at the wooden trinket. I’d hate to give it up, but it seemed a fair price if it really was his.

“Did you make this?”

“It took Me many Years to Devise it. It keeps One Safe from the Creatures of the Forest, and lets One walk Between Your Realm and Mine.”

So that’s why I’m not in Bayle, I realize. I must have crossed into some kind of faerie realm, a fey reflection of the real city! 

“It’s most impressive,” I say. “But without it, my arm is in great pain… if I give it to you, will you heal me and help me with my brother?” I pause. “Those are my conditions.”

“Yes,” the man says, snatching the knot from me with one hand and gesturing with the other. The knot is now gone, but the pain does not reappear. I look down, and not only are the bloody bandages gone, the wounds healed like they never were there, but my tunic has been repaired from where I tore the bandages themselves!  

“Now, I need You to go Get the Imposter. Bring Him Here.” He makes another series of gestures above the Knot. “Here,” he says. “I have Added a Charm to Prevent you From Stealing It. Make Haste.”

I run all the way back to my home, where it is nightfall, and my parents are sleeping. The house is nearly invisible -- then I remember to set down the knot, and it solidifies as I cross back.  I don’t bother to wake anyone.  My brother-who-is-not-my-brother is also asleep, thankfully.  I gather him up in my arms and start walking back. The dog is stirred by our exit, but does not bark. He just gazes at us with his big black eyes. He seems glad that the small thing I carry is leaving.  

I don’t have the energy to run back, but I still keep a quick pace and arrive with the moon shining still high in the sky. Is the way through faerie shorter? It feels that way. When I reenter the cathedral, another man is there along with the healer. When the healer notices me, he dismisses the newcomer -- Selvana? -- who leaves with a sheeplike look to him. I see that the healer has changed into a much more elaborate outfit -- and a crown, asymmetric and ornate, perches above his brow! 

“Are you king here?” I ask.

“I wear a Crown. I am the One who hears the Sewing Tear... Now, bring That Creature here.”  

I set the imposter on what I thought was the baptisimal font, but is actually just an octagonal podium of some kind, topped with polished onyx. The healer, the king, examines the thing in some detail. He looks inside its mouth, pulls back its eyelids and peers at both eyes too, moving his free hand in a kind of dance in the air.

“I can see why Selvana wouldn’t want This One. He’s Another Biter.”

Then he picks up the child, and scarcely without looking, tosses him into the cistern. He sinks into the wine-dark liquid without a sound, making hardly a splash! I, although still not entirely pleased with the thing for replacing my brother, dive in and fish him out after a moment’s inaction from shock.  

“Why did you do that?” We both ask simultaneously. He begins. 

“I told you, he’s a Biter. Do you know what happened the Last Time Selvana had a Biter? This happened Years Ago, Selvana, not This Selvana, but Selvana, had just had a Son. The King always Greets each Newborn Here, so he Went to see Selvana and his Son. But when Selvana handed the Child to the King, the Child bit his Finger, Selvana’s Finger. The King had never Been So Enraged! He had Never Been So Insulted In His Life! For a Child to Disrespect one of His Dear Subjects Like That! So he took Action. Obviously the Child was the Chief culprit, along Parents of the Child, for raising him so... so Rudely. They were all put to Death -- the Child, the Mother and Selvana -- along with Two out of Three Corporeal Grandparents, and the Child’s Favorite Playmate, for Good Measure. And Thusly Selvana’s Honor, and the Kings, became Restored.”

As he spoke, his face contorted itself first into dark fury, wrinkled and ancient, and then softened, becoming more and more youthful at the story's conclusion.

“But wasn’t that just Selvana in here? And aren’t you the king? How does killing him save his honor? I’m afraid I don’t understand your story.”

“Yes, that was just Him,” the King smiles down at me. “You can Imagine He Is Keen to Prevent Something like that Happening Again. But I promised, I would help you Get Your Real Brother Back. So Selvana must take his own Son. Selvana!” 

He calls out, and the sheeplike man from earlier comes back in, folding himself into a lopsided slouch. In his arms, he holds my brother. My real brother! I was still holding the imposter, who smelled like wine still and had taken on a reddish hue from the liquid.  

“Here, your majesty. Here is the human child I stole and replaced my own son Gliesch with. This boy can have him back. But please, your majesty... can he also keep Gliesch?”

There tears welled in his eyes.   

“Ouch!” I suddenly cry out.  Looking down, my finger is clamped in the baby’s mouth. I give it a tug and it pulls out easily. Faint pinkish teeth marks are visible. I look back up and both faeries are staring at me. The king seems at a loss; behind his eyes I can nearly see his thoughts swim and collide.  

“He Bit You… but You are not My Subject!  My Honor is Intact.  Yours lies in Shambles, but That is Not for Me to Fix. I Have Upheld My Bargain. Your Brother, Returned to You! Your arm, Healed! I am not Obliged to Kill Anyone for You.”

As the king speaks, the expression of dread on Selvana’s face fades, a great broad smile replacing it. The king wheels to face him, and points, saying “He may still Be a Biter Yet, Silvana! And Pray God, not a Breaker!  But I will Ascry It.”

Walking over to me, he pulls Gliesch from my arms and brings him back to the podium. He gives him a smack on the chest, and Gliesch spits on the onyx.  

“Now Take Him Back,” he tells me, and I do. With one hand the King smears the saliva in a film over the black stone, making it even more mirrorlike than before, and with the other, he begins a new sequence of motions. He starts chanting. Selvana and I both watch the process, each holding the other’s kin. This process is apparently quite complex, and we wait for what feels like hours.

Eventually the King starts smiling and the chanting stops, although the last few lines continue to reverberate through the sacrarium.  

“He Has No More Need to Bite,” he announces. “It seems he Just had the One in Him…”

“And he wasted it on this fool!” laughs Selvana. “Come here, Gleisch! My Gleisch!”

Seeing as Gleisch is too young to walk, I head over and we trade -- Gleisch for my brother. My brother, although certainly too young to understand any of what has happened, nonetheless seems relieved to take leave of Selvana. I look at the King, who is still by the podium, smiling.  

“Our Deal is Done. Take your Brother and Leave, and Do Not Cross the Wall!”


November 05, 2021 22:28

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