The Dauntless Rook (§.16)

Continued from §.15

 

When Sprill realized his tenants were either sleeping, hiding, or vacant, he gave a soft grunt of irritation, produced a keyring and turned the lock. Adair followed the landlord and moved through the small, sparse room to the window and peered out into the cluttered lane below, spying only a grim, gray-clad man, conversing with two mailed sentries of the paramount, who stood before a swelling crowd, barely visible in the great thoroughfare beyond the alley. Though Adair could not make out the conversation, it was clear from their body-language that an argument was underway, in which the ashen man was rebuffed. He subsequently turned and left off from the ramshackle lane, shaking his head and muttering and vanished back from whence he’d come.

Adair turned from the window to behold Hoston starring at his pocket-watch.

“Apologies, my comitem. I’ve no idea where they’ve gotten off to.”

“No trouble at all. Perhaps I’ll stop by another time. Wherefore all the commotion?”

“Outside?”

“Aye.”

“Thou art surprisingly unprimed of thy classes own affairs.”

“Sir?”

“The Lord Paramount has organized a parade in honor of Baron Avarr’s triumphal return.”

“The Torian noble?”

“Aye. I mean no offense, my comitem, but should thee not know of this? Surely thou wert invited?”

“If I was, I remember not, but thou speaketh rightly – unfortunately, I’ve been swamped of late. I am to be married and-”

“Why, that is wonderful! I had not heard.”

“Of that I am pleased. I should not wish for my life to become a staple of the gossip columns.”

“Nor I!”

“The business has been most taxing. I’ve had little time for anything else.”

“I suspect that blackguard what came after ye, has somewhat disturbed the tranquil waters of thy recreation.”

“Thou hath heard of my adventure?”

“Heard of it! I should be a queerly isolated soul were I to have not. Why near the whole of town is jawin’ of it. It were said that thee dodged the brigand’s pitch. Is it true?”

“A man may accomplish the extraordinary when by it, he is beset.”

Shortly after the words had left his mouth, he froze, eyes fixating upon a small, black thing at the periphery of his vision. He turned to the left and beheld a feather, laying upon the ground beneath a chair. He bent to a knee and plucked it from the ground, turning it in the ambered light.

It was a crow quill, familiar in constitution.

“I’d no idea they’d a bird,” declared Hoston, briefly observing the feather, “Hmph! How dare they sneak such a creature in here! I’ll have them on the street for this!”

“Its not from a living bird. Note the glue upon the shaft.”

Hoston bent to the feather and peered at the quill.

“Ay. Must have come from a costume… Well, I must be off, my comitem. I take it the path out lays fresh in thy mind?”

“It does. I thank thee for thy time.”

Sprill bowed and left whereupon Adair unfurled himself from the hardwood floor, placed the plume in his inner-jacket pocket and gave Dren’s curiously unfurnished room one last cursory glance before shutting the door and hailing a hansom.

He twirled the feather between his fingertips as the vehicle clattered down the cobblestone streets, wondering why the absent renter had stolen his coat.

The Dauntless Rook (§.01)

The aristocratic coterie padded the twisting rain-slick cobblestones of Ersentwyer, nattering beneath gaudy paper parasols as disjointed crowds of performers, merchants, day laborers and vagrants moved about them like minnows round the smooth-hewn rocks of a rambunctious stream.

“Now I’ve a proper clarity of thy fresh attire,” Aldwyn Blythe declared, taking in Oeric Adair’s onyx feathered overcoat, “I must remark upon its extraordinary character.”

Oeric nodded, bemused.

“Outlandish, isn’t it?”

“I should say! Never wert thou so coxcombly. Wherefore this downy curiosity?”

He paused and adjusted the curious garb with wry amusement, feet shifting nervously over the scuffed and gamol folde, “It was a gift from Cerelia,” Oeric Adair responded with a sigh, casting his hands up into the air, as if dispensing grim confetti, “Its style wars dreadfully with my own, but how could I decline? Especially when our wedding wends so near? Imagine her reaction were I to pawn it; to say nothing of what the other Wealdmaer’s would think, sour as they are with our union. Merely forgoing its flagrant display might prove sufficient to prompt an unseemly reaction; and so I’m featherbound; fated to foppish plume; gaoled in tufted geomor.”

“Wise it were. Had thou peddled it, she’d have cawed louder than the beasts from which it were fashioned,” All the men laughed boisterously, save for Adair, whose visage grew increasingly glum.

Edlin Boyce continued with a wide, mischevious smile, “Worse, that old codger Grædig would use it as yet another reason to declare thee unfit to agan his fruit.”

“Such churlishness ill-attests thy station.” Adair snapped dourly, crossing his arms and looking off towards the old theatre at the far northern end of the thoroughfare.

“Let him perturb thee not; I think it wonderful,” Bullard Kyne responded, moving to stride in tandem with the other men, “Mayhaps, if the other members of our circle had greater familiarity with the fairer sex, they would understand it is not the thing itself that is important in a gift, but the sentiment with which it is selected.”

“Aye. Well said. For my dear Cerelia, I would bare the burden of every feather in the world!”

Even Boyce could not help but smile at that. Shortly thereafter, the four men moved past a series of stalls whose ferverous throng had overflown into the central thoroughfare and there vanished into the crowd.

*

A man watched the aristocrats at a distance, his garb drab, hair long, gray and ill-kept, his manner martial, yet ferine. He looked down at the sketch of his target with cold eyes, and then again to the man in the corvine coat.

An exact match.

The stalker smiled and folded the parchment back up and slid it into his dusty coat pocket.

“Enjoy thy frivolity, Oeric Adair, whilst yet it is afforded thee.”

*


Continued in §.02.

Hath: Meaning & Usage

Hath (hæθ), sometimes heth, is a interesting word whom most avid fiction readers or students of history have chanced across. Hath comes from the Old English hæfþ (has) which comes from the Proto-Germanic habaiþi (has). In its common, Middle English and latter usage, hath is a third person, singular present tense of have (i.e. haveth) that can be used in relation to a man (he), woman (she) or thing (it), thus, it is a synonym of has (hast may also be utilized as a substitute). Example:

“He hath no knowledge of the broil.” (“He has no knowledge of the fight”)

According to the very excellent Collins English Dictionary, hath was in common and quite popular usage from 1708 to around 1888, where use of the word began to markedly fall off.

However, before one goes about hath-ing your haves, it bares mentioning that, to the Irish, hath has a secondary use and meaning as a mirthful exclamation. Thus, in some Irish literature (most of it archaic) hath! does not have the English meaning of have/has but rather, means instead, “ha!” or “huh!”


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Fiction Writer’s Compendium: Middle English

Below is a resource for writers, consisting of dozens of Middle English words paired with their modern-day equivalent meanings. The list is not meant to be exhaustive of all Middle English. If there are any words you wish me to add to the list, feel free to contact me and let me know (Middle English to the left, current English to the right broken by ‘-‘).


al, or, al be that – though

als – as

anon – at once

artow – art thou, thou art

atte – at, at the

aventure – chance

axe – ask

ay – always

been – are

bet – better

beth – are; (imperative) be

brenne – burn but,

but if – unless

can, kan – know, be able

canstow – can you, you can

cas – happening, chance

certes – surely, certainly

clepe (n) – call

clerk – scholar

cokewold – cuckold

coy – quiet

ech – each

echo (o) n – each one

eek, eke – also

er, or – before; formerly

everich – every; every one

fay, fey – faith

forthy – therefore

fro – from

gan, gonne – began

hastow – have you, you have

hem – them

here – her

hight – named, called

him lest (list) – he wants

hir (e) – her, their

ich – I

ilke – same

kan – know, know how to; can

konne – learn; know how to; can

koude – knew; knew how to; could

kynde – nature

lasse – less

le (e) ve – dear

lite – little

lystes – jousting or tilting fields; enclosed grounds for formal combat

maistow, maystow – may you, you may

make – mate, husband, make

mo – more

moot – may, must, ought to; so (also, ever) moot I: as I hope to

morewe – morrow, morning

mowe – may

muche – much, many

nam – am not, namo, namoore, no more

nas – was not

nat – not

nathelees – nevertheless

ne – not, nor

nere – were not

nolde – would not

nones, nonys – occasion

noon – none, no

noot – know not

nyce – foolish

nys – is not

o, oo, on, oon, that oon – one

of – of; off

pardee: (lit. “by God”), a common oath – certainly

prime, pryme – 9 A.M.

quod – said

rakel – rash

rathe – early, soon

rede – advise; interpret; read

seistow – you say

sely – innocent, simple

seyde – said

seye – say

shaltow – you shall

sikerly – certainly, surely, truly

sith – since; then

somdel – somewhat

sooth, soothfastnesse, sothe – truth

swich – such

syn – since

than (ne) – then, than

thilke – this, that, at that

tho – those; then

tweye – two

unnethe – scarcely

unwemmed – undefiled

verray – true, veritable

wantrust – distrust

wene, -eth – think, thinks

whylom – once, once upon a time, formerly

wight – person, thing

yaf – gave

ycleped – named

ye – eye

yeve, -en, -est, -eth – give, given

ynogh – enough

ywis – surely, certainly

Məhshinēk Horryr, Prt.2

To the machine, performative contradiction is anathema. Theoretical contradiction is nonexistent. 

-Məhshinēk Horryr, Prt.1

The Scourge of Neo-Luddism

In our previous installment we looked into the pervasive aversion to The Machine and ventured into the labyrinth of the intentionalizing instinct, that primal inclination to attribute agency (and often malevolence) to the inanimate (rocks, bushes, machines) which lies at the root of it (your chances of survival increase dramatically if one jumps at every rustling bush since occasionally there may be more than the wind moving it). Doubtless we have all heard someone say, “The internet is making people [X].” If you haven’t as of yet rest assured that at some point in time you will. Whether [X] is a negative or a positive attribution one is here saying the internet is forcing a individual or individuals into a particular set of behaviors. This makes no sense at all, the internet cannot force anyone to do anything anymore than a gun can force someone to shoot it. Both are machines. Both are oft attributed agency where none exists. The internet can no more will a thing to be anymore than can a gun or a stapler. What is really occurring when one utilizes the internet and finds one’s behavior altered is that one is merely adapting to the internet in a particular fashion. To say, “The internet is making me lazy,” may indeed sound convincing enough but what made you use the internet in the first place? Certainly not the internet itself. Impulse drove one to use it and impulse, reaction, drives one to continue doing so, whether that impulsive and instinctual set of chain reactions leads one to utilize the web for  largely positive or negative or mixed ends will, as with everything, end up being constrained to the biological makeup of the individual using it.

Consciously or not, this move (internet agency attribution) is one which absolves oneself of agency in near totality (that is to say, to think outside of and beyond genetic propensities – to think in realms of pure fate, designs without cause). The Machine then becomes conceptualized as a agent who functions counter to it’s silver-screen cliche  – whereas Hollywood machines are oft lumbering or digitally deft and invasive monstrosities of twisted, malicious steel – the machine here is a scapegoat for personal failing. For the hedonist, the machine, in this particular conceptual matrix, is not a villain but a savior. A comfortable scapegoat whose woolly backside offers a bounty of inter-personal reprieve. This brings up a interesting question: Why does the fear of The Machine, run so deeply if in most situations the end result is merely a waste of time, a trivial annoyance? The answer is that machines as we have known them have never actually been cognizant agents able to operate in the world by their own designs. There has never been properly thinking and self aware machines, that is to say, AI or Artificial Intelligence. Thus why, as we covered in the first installment, the fictional conceptions which have become icons of both horror and science fiction are so often just that. Whether it is 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Hal 9000, Eagle Eye’s ARIIA (Autonomous Reconnaissance Intelligence Integration Analyst) or Prometheus’  sinister and charming human facsimile, David.

Rather than being mere representations of the intentional instinct these characters are possessed of their own. They have agency. Will. Designs and desires. That is to say, they are not machines, or, at least, not simply just. The first fear entailed here is – in stark contrast to a fear that something like the information superhighway is “making” some nebulous “us” do X – is that artificial intelligence will, due to it’s inherently superior informational processing capabilities and virus-like ability to recursively self-replicate; the first AI has 1 million times the computational powers of a average human, let us say, it creates a new AI which has twice that computational information processing capacity and so on and so forth. If this happens to be be the case (as seems likely) AI’s would swiftly overtake human-kind as the Earth’s supreme apex predator (or they would at least have the capacity to earn that title, though this is far from certain) as humanity is either reduced to nothing more than chattel (as depicted in The Matrix) or utterly annihilated (as happens in one of the timeline eventualities of The Terminator). This fear is one which is felt up and down the social hierarchy, popper and priest alike shudder at the thought (even if they are simultaneously elated as well, as far as end times scenarios go it is one of the “cooler” ones).

For example, the tech maverick and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk has referred to the eventuality of AI creation as “Summoning the demon” whilst the diet supplement merchant and boisterous founder of InfoWars, Alex Jones, has stated, “Death to all robots!” in response to a public exhibition of Hanson Robotic’s newest product, a human facsimile named Sophia (whom David Hanson, the founder and CEO of the tech company, claims is already, to a very limited degree, self-aware, though this is nearly impossible, objectively, to quantify – my assumption is that this is untrue and is merely a PR move due to the seemingly scripted nature of most of the “android” Sophia’s public appearances). The philosopher and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, echoed Musk’s sentiments in a 2016 TED talk concerning AI wherein he stated that, “We are creating a god. Now would be a good time to make sure that it’s a god we can live with.”

The anxiety concerning AI, however, does not confine itself merely to fears of violent planetary takeover and human overthrow but also to more mundane quandary economic usurpation. Job replacement. Western workers have for years and years voiced their concern surrounding automation. The most stark example of the this technophobic attitude is the Neo-Luddites, a revivalist movement of the 1811’s anti-machinist movement (who opposed weaving looms not because they detested the machines themselves but the replacement of the jobs they represented). The Neo-Luddites first appeared around 90s with the publication of the Neo-Luddite Manifesto penned by “ecopsychologist” and anti-technologist, Chellis Glendinning. Glendinning’s manifesto, much like what we can call mainstream Neo-Luddism, protested almost all new and potent forms of technology and decried the atomizing and exploitative effects (on both peoples and lands) of the world capitalist industrial hegemony. This philosophy is predicated upon several pillars which are long overdue for hewing down. First and foremost is the absurdist idea that there is a “natural state” of man, this is quintessentially Rousseauian notion. The idea that collective Man no longer existed in “his natural state” and had become perverted and malformed from his separation from “the natural” was also a notion upheld by none other than that most supreme devotee to Rousseau , Maximilian Robespierre, one of the principal sources of The Terror during the French Revolution. The idea that man had a specific “natural state” which was far removed from technological invention and industrialism is not incorrect because it happened to be adopted by Robespierre but it is worthwhile to not the personality types who seem most drawn to such notions, that is to say, extreme ideologues for whom the “pure” and transcendent” oft trumps decency and the sanctity of life itself. But the natural state idea is still wrong to its core in every conceivable way. Consider a beavers dam. This is not something which would “naturally” occur unless a beaver built it but a beaver is a “natural” creature. One sees the parallels instantly. The beaver’s dam is no different in how it was brought about than any industrial factory or house crafted by human hands. Certainly, in terms of scale, the dam is generally dwarfed, but both a human house and a beaver’s dam were created by cognizant agents and would not have occurred otherwise and yet no one ever refers to the dam as “unnatural” and yet many would have no hesitation in calling a industrial factory a perversion of nature. If the natural world is all there is that is amenable to our sense perception (and a good deal of things which are not) then there is no need even for the word itself. The problem is reflected in how the idea of the supernatural is so wholly self defeating. If the supernatural is that which is beyond nature (that is to say, other or extra-dimensional or beyond our notion of space-time) then it would not be, in anyway, amenable to our perception and if it is not amenable to our collective perceptions by definition then there is simply no reason to refer to anything as supernatural which can be perceived within the natural order because, again, by definition, if it were truly supernatural said supernatural entity would not be in the natural world to begin with. The natural state of man position of the neo-ludds is then hopelessly flawed from the start.

A secondary problem with the neo-ludds is the wholly negatory tenor of their rank-and-file. They are not one’s who create but only seek to destroy, they do uphold an ideal but merely seek to take apart others which they encounter that have more demonstrable potency in the real world. Much like the anti-tribe crowd who I wrote about in my previous article, The Opposition Identity of the Anti-Tribe the neo-ludd is constantly mewling and whinging about “the singularity” or the way in which “computers are making people isolated and degenerate, lazy and stupid.” It is not that these are not valid concerns to hold and questions to raise (they certainly are, for the price for machines which think may well be men who do not), but rather that their solution is… what? Destroy all electrical grids and live in some neo-feudal dystopian agrarian waste? Yes, let us get rid ourselves of all of our guns and computers and railways and electrical equipment and refrigeration units and life-support systems and throw on some grass skirts and live in mud huts like those “noble savages” of old. One might as well shoot oneself in the head! Consider the fact that the destruction of the US powergrid would literally send us back in time and cause a total social collapse into grim and filth ridden anarchism. Everyone in hospital life support would die. Water would stop flowing. There would be no more lights, no more GPS – cars would smash into each other on the free way and various individuals would no longer have any idea where they were going given the rarity of paper maps – toilets and sewer pumps would cease working causing massive sanitation problems, paper money would cease being of any worth and all markets would collapse and all the social hierarchies which were built up by them. Not to mention that nearly the entire defense system of the USA would be rendered powerless which would then leave the empire open to attacks from hostile foreign powers in a way as yet unprecedented in the countries history. It would be the end of the USA as we know it and as it was known.

All technologies are extensions of our phenotype, of us, of our will. They are not some foreign and alien thing which has slithered in and corrupted the fabric of society and in any given situation where a prevalent or prospective technology has caused perceived irreparable “harm” (porn, TV, nuclear weapons, dirty bombs, nano-tech “grey goo” ecophagy, repressive runaway A.I. systems, ect.) the “harm” is often poorly defined – there is almost always a trade-off, speaking in terms of instinctual biological drives, those being the primal desires for sex, propagation and the power to secure a means to the two former eventualities. That is really at the root of the luddistic problem, they themselves cannot adequately articulate the problem itself. They fail to realize that everything is an arms-race, there was a golden age, a good ole fashioned time when “things were simple” and people were pure and just worked the land in wholesome contentment unvarnished by capital or machines and all the hideous detritus they brought with them. Well cast your blinded and bleary eyes out upon all those “noble savages” who still as yet live in a state of archaic agrarianism, the cannablistic Arawak and the ritualistic Maya, the shamanistic Yanomami and the self-isolating Sentinelese of the Isle of North Sentinel – where are they now and where will they go? The answer to the first question is that almost without exception all of these tribes have been conquered and subjugated, those who have as yet not been assimilated into a prominent industrialized nation (such as the Sentinelese) maintain their independence and security only due to the good graces of their neighbors. Due to a lack of industrialization, general technological innovation, immunization to foreign diseases and so on, these indigenous tribes are placed in a exceedingly fragile position against every other modern civilization. They generally number some couple hundred a village and possess nothing to defend themselves but wooden bows and wooden arrows, sometimes tipped with poison, sometimes not and clubs and, on occasion, the odd knife or sword. Against a small band of US military troops any one of these secluded peoples would be utterly decimated. Against bulletproof flak jackets, night-vision googles, hundreds of years of tactical war planning, training and advanced ballistics technologies primitive stick and stone weaponry would be rendered utterly useless. This is not to say that such a eventuality is likely or indeed to be hoped for, it would be a grave and depressing slaughter-bench, but it is to say that the neo-luddistic instinct would foster a inability for their own survival comparable to the aforementioned indigenous peoples, many of whom will not exist 200-1000 years from now, some of them will vanish from histories great loom even sooner. Survival is the greatest metric across all periods of time because there are no other heuristics for human success without it. Even in those instances where a given individual of a particular tribe finds it prudent to sacrifice himself for the good of his folk the whole of the aim is to ensure the survival of a set group of individuals. The neo-luddite then, in their paranoiac and misplaced terror of the machinic ends up adopting a thanotropic drive to purity over survival which accounts in many ways for why they are so few and far between.

Tomb of the Father: Chapter Two, Home & Hearth

Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to his shadow by some eldritch witchery and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions where one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales for forgotten times and well lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.

When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the quitch and bracken and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most lavish of paintings. He could almost hear its call.

Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of ever size and shape. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.

He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”

Suddenly there came a raucous calling, a intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.

Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden, the way the earth could so swiftly devour. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to dust. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor, those seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.

He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen, How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been!

As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.

*

Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of queer shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the phantasmal skeletons of some macabre stage-play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present perfidy.

Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces were covered by cloth halfmasks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congression, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.

Bodies.

Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun. They were male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed for the moment to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.

One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.

“What easy fool is this?”

“No fool, sir. But a traveler.”

“Those that here make passage are foolish enough to warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”

“Tis a pitiable sight. Wherefore didst they meet Dactyl’s scythe?”

Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scarfaced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.

“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”

“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”

“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thy, with your calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”

The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.

Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cartmen at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.

Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass turning from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte which rose as the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:

Ħaberale

The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay there beyond. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling up towards the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of this land, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.

“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”

Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.

“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”

“If that is your venture then you’re headed the way all awrong. Your foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“The night last I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants it seemed.”

“Three you say?”

“Now two.”

“We thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to your business, traveler?”

“My business is my own to keep.”

“Suit thyself. One word of parting, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we leave you, sir.”

Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks all aflutter. He brushed his locks from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. Then he thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green. Times had changed indeed.

Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.

*

Gunvald woke in twilight and passed through the northern archway of the quaint little conglomeration of hamlets as the sun rose full and fierce above the distant mountains heralding the end of Night’s devious reign. Through and beyond the northern stone archway ran a well worn path of rough cobbled stone which merged with the town’s main thoroughfare. It was at this junction that a statue of the goddess Marta lay, a man standing beneath it. The man was young and slim and dreadfully pale and wore a thin leather patch about his left eye. He was dressed all in tatters and sat cross-legged upon the ground beside a little wooden bowl which he glanced at from time to time as if he were afraid it might grow legs of its own and run off to be with its own kith and kin.

Gunvald’s footfalls sounded in short order upon the little, tatterdemalion man’s ears at which point he languidly raised his shaggy, windswept head and affixed the traveler with a most marvelous gold-green eye.

“Greetings and salutations, m’lord.”

“I’m not yer lord, beggar.”

“Not yet, good sir, not yet. Give it goodly time.”

Gunvald wondered momentarily if the man were mad, decided that it mattered not; he was pitiable all the same.

“Wherefore do thy wear that mangy patch?”

“Tis not for fashion, sure enough. But for those necessities of form that civilized men do aspire to. When War upon the Men of the Rimn was declared I, to my everlasting shame, made to abscond from those duties that bind blood to blood. Alas, I failed even in my wretched treachery and was apprehended and press-ganged to the front lines in service to Tor. It was there mine eye met the fearsome edge of a grayman’s axe, hence the patch.”

“Then thou must except my apologies, I myself am a veteran of that heinous enterprise and would never have spoken so tersely to thee had I known…”

The yellow eyed man held up his hands in entreaty and shook his head sadly, knowingly.

“Tis nothing. One as wretched as I am deserving of no apologies.”

Shamed to silence, Gunvald stood a moment in awkward contemplation, his thoughts coming to him with unusual langoriousness. It was in that meditative reverie that he spotted a small cloth mat, rolled and neatly bound with an old vine. A sleeping cover more suited for a cot than the rocky, pitted ground.

“Have you lodgings?”

“No, m’lord. All that I have I carry on my person. Everything else I lost in the war. Now I lodge with the goddess, who, in her grace, has embraced me warmly.”

With a look of horror and self-vexation, Gunvald dug into his left pocket and withdrew a small handful of coins, silver and stamped with the Royal Seal of Tor, a stylized chimera perching atop a proud, jagged spire of stone on one side and on the other the stylized face of King Chester III, Sovereign of Tor.

He proffered the mintage to the faineant without hesitation.

“I can’t accept that, m’lord. Tis far too great a sum.”

“If you shan’t accept my gift I shall force it upon thee.”

“Your magnanimity exceeds all expectations, sire. May Marta bless thee!”

The man-at-arms cracked a wry smile.

“Of that, she’ll have a most arduous time. Tell me, vagrant, what do I call thee?”

“Frey, m’lord. Jameson Frey.”

“Well met, Jasmeson. I am Gunvald. May Marta bless thee likewise.”

“One word, before your leave-taking, m’lord.”

“What is it?”

“The town overfloweth scoundrels.”

Without another word he turned and left off from the shrine as the pale vagrant bowed respectfully as if to some imperial magistrate. Some forty feet down the road Gunvald entered the town proper, passing through the old, low, stone archway which let out into the thin and winding main thoroughfare, passing between two old cobblestone huts, their smokestacks painting the sky gray with their exhaustive alcahest. He followed the road aways, passing between row after row of small cobbled huts with low hanging roofs of laiden brown thatch, small circular windows exposing the heads of a silent and solemn population who gazed out upon the lone wanderer with a mixture of wonder and fear. Their eyes spoke volumes, the unmuttered words those of caution, a collective flashing of looks that seemed to say, “Beware!”

His pace quickened in tandem to his pace, soon he settled into a light jog and closed his hand about the door of the fourth house to the left of the entryway. He braced himself for the coming encounter and feared his heart might wake the inhabitants with its knocking. Then he entered.

Inside there was only a old woman who looked up without surprise, as if she had been expecting him. After a moment, her eyes adjusted and a look of somber knowing came unto her face.

“I remember that face. Gunvald Wegferend, it pleases me to see you alive and well, dour faced as ever.”

He remembered the old crone, Paega well, she the former nurse-maid to his beloved and a fishwife at that.

“I trust you’ve been well, old fox.”

“Ack, don’t try your charms on me, I’m too old for flattery.”

“Very well.”

“To answer true… I’ve been better, all here have-”

He interrupted suddenly, unable to contained his excitement and curiosity.

“Leofflaed… is she here?”

The fishwife paused and gave a long, sad sigh before answering.

“Leofflaed is gone.”

“G-gone?”

“Due your feelings for her I shan’t keep anything aback. Her father sold her to Lord Eadwulf, the cattle baron, I trust you remember him. She lives with the lord even still, in that old stone manse upon the southern plain.”

“Hamon sold her?”

“Yes.”

“For what purpose.”

“To pay off a gambling debt.”

“What purpose for Eadwulf?”

“It were better I not say.”

Gunvald face was red with wrath, his fists trembling. He wanted to loose his rage without hesitation and would have had Eadwulf been there before him.

“My Leofflaed, sold like a common whore!”

“Hush, now, young master Gunvald. She was never promised to you. All vows made were between thee and she alone and none other. Now come, sit, you must be weary with your travels.”

“Nay, but I thank thee for thy troubles, Paega.”

He turned to leave but the old woman rose and grasped his forearm.

“Do nothing rash, young master, Eadwulf will not permit it and-”

“I’ll not be lectured to, especially not by a woman. Now take your hand from me this instant.”

She did as he commanded, fear and worry mixing in equal measure from the dull pallor of her withered cheeks and the slight glint in her weathered, squinting eyes.

Without another word he left off out of the house without closing the door and stalked through the streets with a lion’s fury. For a moment the man was directionless and then he remembered the old inn. A drink would well enough calm the nerves as it dulled the senses. For the present the soldier wished to feel nothing at all.

As he made way to the old inn Gunvald was perplexed by the empty streets which, in his youth, had been so full of mirth and gaiety and merchants haggling their glitzy baubles and minstrels singing songs of heroic struggles of some olden, mythic age, all of lion-slaying and monsters and magical princes and damsels and goddesses so fair they would blind all mortals who dared gaze upon their supple, naked forms. Now there was nothing but silence, broken at sullen intervals by the cracking of the old flags, green and emblazoned with the chimeric crest of Tor, that flew above the ramshackle houses from the watchtowers where they stood before the low, stone walls, overgrown with moss and unkempt as if in abandonment.

It looked liken to the domain of the dead.

He continued along the thoroughfare and passed beyond the low-born housing and moved on to the town square and passed the shuttered armory and the barren fish-market where only a few shadow-faced gypsies sulked, and moved to stand before the inn as an icy wind blew in from the north and crows gathered in the sky and landed upon the eaves, cackling as if with malicious mirth at his present plight. The looked to be Loessians, those curious folk what had crossed the great desert that moored itself to the World Spine and bulwarked the whole of the Kingdom of Tor from the other noted lands. Gunvald wondered at their presence: What were they doing so far from home?

Abruptly, one of them looked to Gunvald with keen interested and muttered something in a foreign tongue to a younger compatriot. The younger man drew himself up and instantly ran off, headed for inn to which Gunvald was headed. The armored traveler paid the boy no minded and moved to stand upon the low, flat veranda of the venerable establishment. He barley recognized the place, so hewn with odd etchings and strange graffiti was it, all in some foreign hand. Loessian, he fancied.

A old man sat upon a overturned bucket upon the leftmost side of the wide porch of the itinerant’s lodge. He was a sunken-eyed creature, dour and vacant, garbed in a thick fur coat and hat, a long wooden pipe gently set between his small, yellowed teeth upon which he puffed from time to time with methodical regularity. At length he spoke without turning.

“You know what they say? Those wall-scrawlings?”

Gunvald shook his head.

“I’ve little penchant for symbolism.”

“Tisn’t symbolism, tis Loessian. I don’t like the way they leer. Like cats.”

Gunvald waited a moment, expecting the old man to say something else and at length, after a long, meditating puff of his wickwood pipe, he did.

“You know how to swing that sword you carry?”

“Well as any.”

“You’ll need it shortly. The sword and the knowledge of its swinging.”

“Is that a threat, old man?”

The withered smoker screwed up his face, as if insulted and then spoke with forced restraint.

“Nay, a warning. I remember you. Gunvald, wasn’t it? Allotar and Aedelstein’s boy, but a boy no longer.”

“I don’t recall ye, old man.”

“Didn’t expect ye to. I knew your parents, knew them well. Thyself I met but on two occasions, ye but a babe, dew-eyed and grasping.”

“I do not wish to be rude, but I’m in no mood for chit-chat.”

“Fine then. To the heart of my warning. This lodge is owned by Lord Eadwulf’s right-hand man, Baldric, a very dangerous and intemperate man. His cohorts are seldom better. It is also, formerly, the favored haunt of the Loessian gypsies you see leering at us so ill-mannerly. Baldric can’t abide the Loessians and they, likewise. There are often fights. Killings. There are other places to drink than here and for a triumphant Son of Tor, I would gladly spare the whole depth and breadth of my samovar twice over, or more.”

As Gunvald opened his mouth to answer the doors to the inn swung open at the behest of a powerful hand, a powerful form swiftly following. A man, some six feet tall emerged, looked left then right then left again towards the duo and moved to stand before Gunvald. Gunvald turned full about and beheld the newcomer. He was some forty years of age with a thick and well trimmed beard all of red set below small black eyes and innumerable scars that ran from temple to cheek and from chin to neck. Gifts of the battlefield.

For a moment all was silent as the scar-faced man gazed upon Gunvald with great intensity. The next moment he surged forwards and latched Gunvald with a powerful embrace.

“Valiant Son of Tor! Welcome back, welcome back! A venerable procession I would have prepared had I known of thy arrival!”

Gunvald returned the old battle-hound’s embrace with a merry smile.

“You’re looking well, Uncle.”

*

The men sat around the rickety wooden round table in the center of the raucous inn. The lodging was all of thick-cut timber, with a small chandelier made of antlers and bone and which illuminated the laughing faces and the amber brew, overflowing, below. Gunvald smiled faintly as he looked about the old establishment. Exactly as he had left it. It was good to know at least some things had remained the same since the passing of the war. The room was still long and rectangular. The pitted, polished bar still stood in the back left corner, arranged all with brilliant crystalline glasses that proudly shone down upon the stuffed animal heads that lined the walls like curious spirits and the chortling merry-makers who swilled their hearty brew and smoked their oversized pipes, dancing light like dutiful sentries. Prune-faced was the owner who barked orders at the service wenches, their youthful limbs, limber and fast dancing about the shuttered ambit, wheeling great mugs of ale and mead and some strange smelling concoction that escaped Gunvald’s ken to the baying host therein who clacked their heels and struck up a tune here, or there quipped back and forth, arguing over a game of cards. The whole of the place a whizgig of energy and motion. A pen of mirthful chaos.

Gunvald starred down into his mug, watching the light play across the contents halcyon surface as Baldric conversed with his men, they all armed to the teeth and red-nosed with alcohol. At length he turned and raised his glass to the meditative veteran.

“Here’s to Gunvald of Tor, Hero of South, Scourge of the Gray!”

“To Gunvald!” The men exclaimed with ecstatic unison as they tipped weighty flasks to lips and downed half the contents therein. They were young to middle aged, armed and armored, but poorly, and each bearing the sigil of Lord Eadwulf, a furious, brass bull, upon the pommels of their well-sheathed swords.

Gunvald at length raised his own glass and looked to each and every local visage and then intoned imperiously.

“To Tor, and all her bloodied men!”

“Here, here!”

After the cheers the Baldric ordered them back to their posts around the perimeter of the town, leaving the gruff vassal alone with his nephew. He turned to Gunvald and glanced to his cup; empty.

“Well that surely won’t do. Not at’tall.”

“I’ve had well enough.”

“Of mead, perhaps, what say you to the other delectable treats afforded us?”

Baldric smiled mischievously as a sultry waitress sided up to him, bearing a bowel of nuts and two fresh pints of mead, which she set gingerly down before the two seated warriors. She looked first to Baldric then to Gunvald and smiled pleasantly. When Gunvald made to pay her she shook her head and held up her heands in entreaty.

“For a hero such as thee, tis on the house. As many as you like. Tis our pleasure, m’lord.”

“I thank thee, and you’re old master,” Gunvald responded stoically, his eyes leaving the dark pool of his cup only briefly, then returning to distanced reverie. The bar maiden stood uncertainly for a moment, as if she wished to speak but could not formulate the words until at last she bowed, saying only, “Well, I do not wish to disturb thee any longer.”

Baldric gave a laugh and, as she left off, slapped her straight upon the bum.

“Get ye off to the other guests, Ebba, my pretty, little minx.”

“Incorrigible scoundrel!”

The bar maid made a show of huffing and puffing but crack a delighted smile despite herself and whirled away tsk-tsking.

“Have ye lost ye manhood entire to the cup?”

“Nay.”

“Ya didn’t even spare Ebba a glance, an she a right ole looker – oh how she makes my heart leap with every new visage! Should go after her, I saw the way she was a’looking at ya-”

“That isn’t what I want.”

“Well, what do ya want? Hell, you and the rest of the town haven’t yet realized it, but you’re a bloody hero, you can have anything you want. Anything. Hear me, lad? I should know, I read you’re letters and the missives tracking your legions movements through the Rimn. When I read the last one my soul nearly leapt from my body, my heart, ceased it’s knocking and… I don’t mind saying it, tears sprang into me eyes. It had come by wing from one of Eadwulf’s falconers; it read:

Fenrald’s 3rd Legion surprised by Grey ambush at Rivenlore.

No survivors.

“Upon its reading I froze and there starred at the words and read them again, but they did not change. The horror was immovable. So many of my friends. Dead. Buried or burnt all. The worst of it was the casting of my mind to thyself, my dearest nephew – to have lost you to that stony, ice-wrapt waste… I know not what I would have done! And yet, here ye sit, glum and stolid as ever, but here and well and alive none the less! I was o’erjoyed when the next letter came – the war was ended; the Grey Chief slain. Split from knave to chops and shoulder to shoulder, his head unseamed from his villainous corpse! And by none other than by thee, my dearest nephew.”

“I’m surprised ye have yet to send for Eadwulf. He’ll be desirous to know of my presence.”

“Oh, no ye don’t, I know you’re ways, ye want me ta call him so that ye can return to the dutiful fold of His Grace. So that you can get aback te fighting! Well, ya’ave slain well enough and now, to rest.”

“Twas four months in the crossing from the Rimn to Tor alone. I’m rested well enough. Now send for Lord Eadwulf.”

“Ack, that kin wait – looky ere, tis Freyda. Isn’t she just the bonniest thing-”

Without warning, Gunvald slammed his fist hard into the table and turned frightfully upon his uncle, his eyes wide, intense and burning with some effulgent property that filled Baldric’s mind with a sudden terror.

“Spare me the bar-room whores. Take me to Eadwulf. Now.”