Monday, June 27, 2016

Green Means

Mark was sitting at his usual table by the bar again. His borrowed lute was lying on the table, though tonight he hadn't tried playing it, yet. Instead, he was listening to a conversation at a neighboring table that was growing increasingly heated.

"Are you calling me a liar?" was the comment that finally prompted him to turn his chair a little, and address the occupants of that table as a group.

"I've seen herbal magic done. It isn't just herbalism and a lot of fooling about. I mean, think about it: blood magic uses the blood of animals. Herbal magic uses the living tissues of plants.

"My grandmother used herbal magic a lot. She made torches from pine branches that didn't consume the wood. She used leaves from Foxbalm to instantly heal cuts. There was a certain white berry that grew in clusters on bushes during the late spring which could be used to start a hot fire without the use of tinder or flint and steel.

"But all of this could probably be dismissed as simple herbalism. The full power of herbal magic I didn't witness until one day when our lives depended on it.

"We lived in a wooded land, where most people made a living by grazing their cows and goats in forest clearings. There were a few woodcutters and a charcoal burner, and most women spun and wove flax and linen. In the winter we would hunt and fish, and in the summer the children would collect roots, berries, and mushrooms. There was a city some distance away, where Duke Albert ruled, but it was a day's ride away.

"This was in the early summer. We'd had a very wet week before, and I had been sent out to collect mushrooms. They were everywhere, but I had a taste for a particular kind which grew in secret spots under certain oak trees. My grandmother had shown me these spots, and I now wandered quite far from our small cottage to visit them.

"After some time I heard other children in the forest, who had also been sent out to collect mushrooms. They were some distance away, and were spending quite a lot of time just playing about, as children will. They were shouting and calling to each other. I didn't go to join them since I was just seven years old, and small for my age."

At this comment Mark's audience laughed as they considered Mark's huge frame which towered head and shoulders over most of them. Mark grinned and went on.

"My basket was maybe half full when I found a small clearing where the Sun had dried the ground and warmed it. The scent of flowers and herbs was thick, and the humming of bees busying themselves amongst the blossoms was stupifying. I found myself overcome by sleepiness. There were plenty of cozy spots to bed down, and I was soon snoozing in that clearing.

"The danger with sleeping in the forest is, of course, that there is no one to wake you. In my case, however, I was soon awakened by cries of alarm from the forest. There were the shrieks of children, as well as the shouts of men. When I became aware of them, I grew afraid. I shrank back into my sleeping nook and stayed there, quietly, until the forest became still again.

"After a while my fears calmed down enough for me to think about my predicament. Clearly someone bad was in the forest. Like any child who runs to his parents for help, I wanted to get my grandmother to help. I quietly crept from my bower and looked around. Nothing seemed to stir. I was sure that the danger was nearby, since the birds were quiet, sitting still in their nests.

"Near my hiding place I found a patch of soft moss. I pried up a small chunk, and crushed it between my small fingers. When the juice began to run, I drew a certain rune on the soles of my shoes. My grandmother had shown me this trick when she found that I was too clumsy to sneak up on a rabbit with my small bow and arrow. My steps would now be almost completely silent, until the moss charm wore off.

"Picking up my basket, I hurried towards my home. I dodged from tree to tree and from bush to bush, keeping low, and hardly daring to breath, though my heart was pounding as if it wanted to jump from my breast. Even though that was more than twenty years ago, I still remember everything quite clearly: the silence of the forest, the texture of the bark on trees, the scent of the wild roses, the buzzing of the bees in the sundappled spaces under the trees. It should have been beautiful, but for me it was filled with terror.

"Eventually I neared the vicinity of the village. Here the forest was crossed by many paths. I didn't come here often, as my grandmother's cottage was some way off in the forest, but I knew that normally I would have seen a few people walking on their business. However, just as back in the forest, everything was unnaturally quiet here. I began to imagine the worst, and started running towards my grandmother's cottage.

"Just then I heard loud voices calling from the village. They sounded angry and commanding. I stopped to listen, and then determined to see what was passing there, so I changed course towards the village. Near the village there was a tall beech where we celebrated on the summer's solstice. It was a lovely tree to climb in, and near its top there was a sturdy branch on which a lad my size could sit and overlook the entire village, while almost certain not to be seen from below. I had to circle the village a short way to reach the tree, and, once there, climbed it in short order, leaving my mushroom basket below.

"It was now late afternoon, and the Sun was slanting into the village square. Crowded there in the middle was a gang of men, maybe a dozen, though I certainly didn't bother to count them. They were armed with swords and clubs, and at their feet lay several bodies. At first I thought the bodies were slain, but then I saw one of them stir a little.

"I wanted to see more clearly, so I plucked a few beechnuts from a amongst the leaves by me, shelled a handful of them, and ground them against the tree's hard bark. After a bit I had enough oil on my fingers that I could anoint the corners of my eyes and the lobes of my ears with a small rune. This was another trick my grandmother had taught me, and it sharpened my vision and hearing enough that I now could tell more clearly what was happening in the village below me.

"I first discerned that the bodies were of children. They appeared to be tied with ropes, hand and foot. The men standing over them were brandishing their weapons. One of them was standing a small distance away from them, and it was he that was shouting.

"'The shadow almost touches the first brat! If we don't see gold before then, she will be the first to die!'

"At the time I wondered what nonsense he was speaking, but I now know that he had arrayed the bound children in the village square so that the sinking Sun would cast the shadow of one of the cottages by the square across the children as it advanced. But while I sat there, half paralyzed with terror for the children, I heard steps on the path below me. As I looked down, I saw that my grandmother was walking towards the village. She glanced up into the tree, just as if she knew I was up there - which she probably did because of my mushroom basket at its foot - and then went on.

"A short while later the head ruffian's shouting subsided. My grandmother had reached the village square and stood, facing the bandits. I don't know how they saw her. To me she had always been like a mother, at times a comfort, and at times intimidating. She was no very large woman, and I suppose she was no great beauty, either. The bandits, however, froze as they saw her. Finally, their leader shouted,

"'Have you brought the gold?'

"My grandmother reached into her bag which she carried over one shoulder, and brought out her hand. I saw something glinting in her palm, and caught my breath. Where did she find so much gold? The bandits' leader was advancingb towards her, eyes greedily fixed on the treasure, and even the other men abandoned their position and stepped forward.

"Just then my grandmother threw the handful of coins into the air, where they fluttered like autumn leaves. I saw her draw a breath, and blow on the falling leaves. The leaves whirled, and a blast of wind seemed to come from their midst, tossing dust and stones into the air and at the staring bandits!

"When the wind hit the leader he staggered, then caught his balance. His men were less fortunate; the wind picked them up bodily and tossed them across the square like a pack of rag dolls. Their shouts caught the leader's attention, who turned to stare at his men scrambling to their feet. Then he turned back to my grandmother.

"'Bitch! For this you die!' he cried.

"He raised his sword, and in response my grandmother brought a poplar switch from between the folds of her skirt. The leaves were still on the twig, glistening in the afternoon light. The bandits' leader walked towards her. My grandmother stood her ground, but when the man came close enough, she twitched the wand towards him. A searing light crackled from it, arcing towards the bandit, surrounding him with a coruscading net of sparking lines. He convulsed, his arms akimbo, dropping his sword, then jerking forward and falling to the ground, where he writhed, the light buzzing and hissing on his body. My grandmother brought the wand back, and the dancing light ceased. Its victim lay on the ground before her, still, not even moaning.

"His companions stood rooted to the spot at first, but then they decided to revenge themselves for their commander. Several of the men picked up their weapons and strode toward their helpless captives. But again my grandmother was ready for them.

"Her hand arced through the air as she cast something across the square. The bandits at first ducked, but as the contents of her hand scattered harmlessly on the ground around them, they straightened and continued. They took no more than two or three strides, when the seeds my grandmother had thrown burst to life! Green vines grew forth, writhing across the ground. They sprouted all around the men, who shouted with alarm and shied from the wriggling growth like horses. But the vines were impossible to avoid, twining around the men's legs, and climbing up their bodies as I watched. The more they struggled, the more they became entangled in the growth. Their cries became shrill with panick as they fell to the ground. Their struggles grew weaker, and from my perch I soon could see no movement, except for the vines, which still writhed in their burgeoning growth. I began to feel afraid for the children who were also caught under all that green.

"But now my grandmother was advancing into the tangle. She had taken a small cruet from her bag, and was sprinkling its contents ahead of her. Wherever the liquid hit, the vines shrank back, making a path for her. Then she reached the place where the children lay. I saw her touch each child freed from the growth, and speak to them. A blade flashed in her hand as she cut their bonds. They stood carefully, and she led them out of the square, following the path she had made.

"At that point I climbed from my tree, gathered my basket, and ran to meet her. She had passed the children to their parents, and several of the village's men were now in the square with grandmother's cruet, dealing swiftly with the captured bandits. I don't imagine that any of them saw any mercy that evening, not when everyone had seen them ready to murder defenseless children. The vines wilted overnight, drying into a dusty straw by morning.

"I asked my grandmother later why the aspen leaves would blast a wind, why the poplar twig had made lightning for her, or why the vine's seeds would spend their life so prodigiously. She just led me out into her garden, where all kinds of herbs and flowers grew.

"'I take care of them,' she told me. 'Nature is kind to us when we are proper stewards of her bounty.'"

With that Mark leaned back in his chair. He realized that he had emptied his mug during his tale, and was about to wave to Sera when the fellow who had just been loudly denouncing any possibility of herbal magic, calling it simple sleight of hand and bunkum foisted on the gullible by the unprincipled, held up a restraining hand.

"Let me buy you your next drink, friend," he said. "I don't know if your grandmother was really such a powerful witch, but you spin a fine yarn!"

Mark just grinned at him and nodded in thanks.

Ghost Story

Mark was crawling on the floor, peering under chairs and tables, and cursing under his breath. Two stupid things: first he'd suggested Troek try the ring, and then he'd allowed it to get lost while Troek was helpless. The floor was fairly clean, as tavern rooms go, but there was a litter of pipeweed ashes, tinder twigs, and, mostly, clods of dried mud and leaves, in any of which a small ring could be hiding.

He barely took note of Felter's warning, <<Ghost!>> and scrambled to his feet just in time to see Fawn appear beside their table again.

Standing where he was, he watched the spook give something to Troek. After a moment, Troek turned to him, holding a ring aloft. "Mark, I've got it." Then she turned back to Fawn, talking to her as calmly as one would to a mortal.

When Fawn disappeared, this time not bothering with walking between the tables and chairs, and Troek turned to him, asking, "Mark, who was that?" he pulled himself together. He returned to their table, sat, and took a long draught from his mug, draining it to the dregs.

"Sera!" he called, and looked for her to appear in the door by the bar. When she did, he waved his mug in the air, and she nodded and disappeared again. Now he felt ready to deal with reality again.

"She told me that she is Fawn. I happen to be told that she is a ghost. Where I come from, ghosts are terrible wraiths, doomed to wander the Earth for the rest of existence, and apt to wreak terrible deeds on us mortals. They do not like being interfered with, so when I saw her serving you drink, I made no comment, not wanting to upset what all here seemed to accept. Now it seems that Fawn is in fact no danger, but I'm having a hard time coming to terms with a ghost, all the same.

"I've encountered a ghost, once. I make no idle comments when I say that experience took years from my life."

Mark looked at his hands, still holding his empty mug. He put the mug back on the table and turned his eyes on Troek.

"It had been a few months since that one-eyed man gave me his sword, and I was still learning my new rok. I had just left the employ of a merchant's caravan, my pocket full of silver and a new horse between my legs in the bargain - ah, sometimes the Norns will smile on us! - and was making my way back along the caravan's route. Night was falling, and there was an old ruin along the way where I thought to seek shelter. I guided my horse along a ravine that ran up the side of this hill, at the top of which were the walls I was looking for. Reaching the walls, I hobbled the horse in a patch of mature rye grass, covering it with a blanket against the morning dew, and examined the ruins.

"They weren't much to look at. Once they must have been an imposing pile of stones, probably the redoubt of a robber baron who sought tribute from any who traveled by. Now, however, they served as little more than a wind break, weeds growing from their crumbling mortar. I saw no entry just there, and made my way around. The light was fading, and I hoped to start a small fire for warmth, but wanted a nook within these walls for it.

"A few paces further I found a gap in the wall. A tree, at its time probably a giant of those forests, had toppled and breached the stone work. Shrubs and grasses were growing in the opening, and I climbed over them to enter the ruins. Inside, the wreckage was much worse than without. The roof had been covered with fired clay tiles, and when the weight had become too much for the rotting beams, all had collapsed to lie within the walls. The beams had long since rotted, leaving a fertile mulch for all sorts of herbs to grow in, but the tiles still formed treacherous piles of rubble where I could easily twist an ankle. All the same, I was determined to see the place, so I proceeded.

"Well, there wasn't much to see. From without, the ruins had appeared imposing, but the thickness of the walls deceived. I did find the actual entrance, facing away from the road and to the South, probably to fend off the icy blasts of winter winds which would only have found a castle gate to be an invitation to enter. I also found a snug corner along the wall, probably just on the other side from where my horse was grazing. I collected scraps of dry wood to last the night in the last glimmerings of twilight, and lit my fire.

"After eating some of my road rations, and drinking some chai brewed over the fire, I lay down to sleep. I do not know how long I slept, but in the middle of the night I awakened. At first I didn't know what had disturbed me, and then I heard a soft moan. I listened for a moment, trying to make out if it were the wind or a beast. The moan was interrupted by a sob, and I decided that I was listening to a woman's lament.

"I'm no hero, no dashing rescuer, but who wouldn't help someone in need? I decided to see what was happening. I withdrew a fistful of brands from my fire, and fanned them aflame. With them to light my way, I carefully sought the source of the sound. It continued without ceasing, and I soon found my way into a room, as devastated as the rest, with the difference that it contained a carved stone box. Kneeling at the foot of the box, her head resting against it, was a woman's figure, shoulders heaving with her crying.

"My sword, which I've already told you bears a spirit, warned me at that moment. Now, I knew the reputation of ghosts, already. My foster mother, Olanye, had told me about them, and even my foster father, Brother Hendrik, had a tale or two, though he scoffed at them. But nothing so pitiful as that apparition could frighten me.

"Holding my brands aloft to light my way, I approached the specter. She took no notice, though my steps clattered on the broken tiles, and the light from the burning twigs danced on the walls like the Wild Hunt. When I was close enough, I stretched out my hand, to touch the specter's shoulder."

Mark took a shuddering breath and shut his eyes. The memory of that awful moment was coming back to him, and he squeezed his folded hands together, trying to control his emotions. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped. He opened his eyes to the light of the tavern room, and Sera was beside him.

"Your grog," she said, indicating the freshly filled mug on the table. When he reached for his coin purse, she put a restraining hand on his. "We'll settle up in the morning," she told him, and walked back to her work.

Mark took the mug in both hands, relishing its feeling of warmth, and drank deeply again. With the heat of the grog in his belly, he put the mug back on the table and continued his story.

"The specter was cold. Deadly cold. If you put your hand in a snow bank, that is cold, true, but it passes with speed. This was a bone searing cold, a burning, killing, awful cold. The cold of death. At that moment I knew I had made a very bad mistake. I withdrew my hand, but it was already too late.

"The ghost had stopped its moaning. Its shoulders no longer shook. For a long moment we both must have seemed like statues, frozen in some strange tableau. When the ghost finally moved, I started to feel true fear, and began to back away. It turned until I saw its face. It was illuminated not by my flickering torch, but by an unworldly inner flame. I first noticed the lips, drawn back in a rictus to expose broken teeth. The skin seemed black, at first, and then I realized that the face had been flayed, and what I saw was blood running on the exposed flesh. Lidless eyes stared at me.

"And then the apparition rose before me. The body it wore had been horribly tortured: Flayed, and then torn open, with its very entrails exposed. I had heard of such tortures, indulged in by people of my country many years ago. Here was a product of that horror.

"By now I was backing away as fast as I could. I hit the wall behind me with my back, and sidled along it in a desperate search for the opening. I held my torch before me as one might a sword, and I believe I must have screamed like a woman.

"The ghost just stood there.

"Having found the doorway, I backed out. Stumbling, yet not daring to watch where I was stepping because that would mean taking my eyes off that horror. When I had turned a corner, and the ghost was now hidden, I turned and ran.

"The light from my brand wasn't really enough to see where I was going, so I quickly ended up slipping on the tiles. I tried to catch myself, but the arm with which I had touched the ghost was entirely dead to feeling, and I fell, measuring the length of my body amongst the rubble. The burning twigs flew from my other hand and went out. Now I was in the dark.

"I don't know how long I lay there, afraid to move. Then the darkness seemed to thicken, blotting out even the stars above me. There was the sound of whispering, and a malevolence so palpable that I broke out in a cold sweat.

"I've never been afraid of the dark, but now I knew that the dark contained a very particular horror. Weeping with fear, I found my way to the nearest wall by touch alone, and then worked along the stonework, my dead arm hanging uselessly by my side. The creeping horror seemed always just behind me, whispering words that were only on the other side of hearing.

"Miraculously, I had found the outside wall, and after a few moments, I had the opening. Stepping through was the work of a moment, and then I was running headlong into the forest. Heedless of the possibility that I might fall and injure myself in the dark, I ran until I was completely exhausted and fell to the ground. The whispering was no longer after me, but then a scream rose behind me, and gave me renewed strength through the terror that it inspired.

"Sometime late the next morning I awoke. I had fallen in a faint, I suppose, and had no idea where I was. I took note that sometime during my ordeal I must have soiled myself. I could clean up at the nearest brook, but without food or water I was in a lot of trouble. Orienting myself by the stand of the Sun, I found my way to the road, and then to the spot beneath the ruins where the previous night's terrors had beset me.

"It took a while to work up enough courage to climb up that ravine again. At the top, I was greeted by a buzzing of flies and the smell of a charnel house. A fly-blown heap of offal in the rye grass first seemed strange to me, and then I realized that I was looking at the remains of my poor horse. Flayed. Torn open, and the entrails pulled out. The bizarre mass hanging in a tree at the edge of the clearing was its hide. The scream I had heard in the night had no doubt been its death cry.

"I think I almost ran at that point. It was one of the most difficult things I ever did in my life to climb back into those ruins to retrieve my possessions. They had apparently been left unmolested."

Mark interrupted himself for another drink, and then looked at Troek again.

"You understand that I don't believe that the ghost I first touched and the thing that pursued me were the same. The ghost probably saved my life by warning me of the awful evil that haunted the ruins. All the same, ghosts have my abiding respect."