The Knowing. Part 1
Come to me, wayfarer. Come into me. Come inside.
No, I. . . I. . .
So lonely. So cold. Share my warmth.
Cold. Yes, I—I am cold.
Come closer. Give yourself.
Oh, your heat. Oh, your heart. So sweet, so tart.
What is—what are—no, wait. Please, wait, I—
Sweet little fly. Sweet little soul.
No, please, not that—not my—soul
In the rainy country of Hylomoria, far from the Ogre-beleaguered cities of the North, was a little town called Rooksnest. It was a simple but ancient settlement, at least by the standards of this perilous land where the lives of men were brutal and short. One of the secrets of its longevity was that it lay roughly between nowhere and nothing at all: no army would occupy it en route to any strategic locale, nor would any horde would go out of its way to pillage the place. A single muddy river and a single muddy road were the only inlets to Rooksnest; and up the latter, one windy eventide, a single muddy bard came ambling.
Variol of Sendroval had been away from home a long time. He was heading back South on business, but it wasn’t his nature to take a straight road. Thus he found himself on the path to this haunted hamlet as the thunder began to mutter overhead. On the outskirts of town, he passed a ruined old church of Gordash, and a strange smile crossed his face. He was older than he looked, and remembered a time when that name had been revered.
Like any bard, he headed straight for the first tavern he saw; but he didn’t even make it inside. Out in the village square, a dozen folk were gathered around a surprisingly ornate fountain, singing and sharing casks of drink. Variol drew the birch-carven flute that swung at his hip like a longsword, and wreathed himself in music as he approached. His notes blended neatly into theirs, and they made way for the flutesman as if they’d been expecting him for years.
A few dances and a few shared draughts from the wine-skin at his waist, and Variol was best of friends with everyone. “What’s your name, stranger?” bellowed a redbeard barrel-chested fellow with a scimitar.
“Variol the bard, and you?”
“Queldritch the soldier!” He hoisted a cask, and they drank to a fellowship that might last decades or minutes. Twenty years ago, Queldritch would have called himself “the warrior” with pride; but the War-God’s name was now spoken only with a sneer (or a sob).
“And what brings you this way, man of song?” asked a young lady with roses in her hair.
“On my way to Sendroval, to compete in a great tourney of the bards. It’s not for a few more weeks, so I thought I’d wander a bit from the thoroughfares.”
All voices rose in laughter. “Well then, you’re in the right place!” guffawed one old man, nearly toppling into the fountain. They steadied him, and he snatched the liquor-cask from an unwary hand and swigged. “Now let’s have another song, minstrel!”
A light rain began to fall, but none heeded it. Variol played, and the townsfolk sang, and Queldritch and another big man picked up sticks to mock-fight. Good spirits flowed, and torch-smoke rose to meet the rising storm as the sunlight disappeared. Then a ragged figure entered the circle of dancing light.
“Gods of Death and Hell,” said Queldritch. “Another one.”
The revelers recoiled. Gaunt was the newcomer, and the sockets of his eyes were doorways to the black between the stars. He reached out, drooling, his mouth forming senseless words, and stumbled to and fro like a traveler in a wilderness of nightmares. The rose-maiden shrieked, and the old man fainted. The others drew back in horror, but Variol merely stood. In his face was not dread, but sorrow.
“It’s Ulrig the smith, from Ettinsmoor,” Queldritch said. “He must have—must have strayed into the church last night.”
The ruined man shambled past them, unseeing, and wandered toward the edge of town.
“What church?” Variol demanded.
“The—the War-God’s church. It’s been abandoned ever since—you know.”
Oh, he knew.
“And why have no brave soldiers faced the thing in there?” the bard asked coolly.
The big man dropped his gaze. “Some did. None lived, nor died, but met the morn as ghouls like that poor smith. We tried to burn the church, but something—something made us stop.”
Variol exhaled. He’d seen such things before. Despite his reflexive ire, he realized it would take something other than steel to give a merry close to this grim tale. Sheathing his flute, he turned and headed back the way he’d come.
“Bard, don’t be a damn fool. Variol!”
As he walked, the poetry woke inside of him. He chanted:
Three deep slow bongs, the steeple’s song
That keeps a long night vigil here
O’er slain conclaves in rainswept graves
And saints’ stone glaives and granite spears.
The nave’s dark stained-glass cave, domain
Of ravens, faintly throbs with tears
Downflung from weeping-wrung cloud-heaps
Among the sleeping stars and spheres.
The rainfall intensified. The spire of the cracked and crumbled holy place drew near. It was time for the Knowing.
jJ.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu, he and his lovely wife have just had their first daughter, Ms. Sonya Magdalena Rose.
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