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This is a work of fiction any similarities between the characters, events, or locations in this story and actual locations, events, or people are purely coincidental.
© 2009 Warlord
The Rowan Tree
In the yard there grows a Rowan.
Thou with reverent care should'st tend it.
Holy is the tree there growing.
Holy likewise are its branches.
On its boughs the leaves are holy.
And its berries yet more holy.
Excerpt from The Kalevala,
a compilation of Finnish folk lore
The Mountain Ash that graced our boulevard covering the ground with its leaves and hard red berries succumbed to the fury of a September thunderstorm. Breaking off cleanly at ground level falling along the sidewalk with a tremendous crash lit by the continuous chain lightning.
The next day we stood on the soggy ground while my father cut the trunk into barely manageable lengths with his bow saw.
As kids will I decided that I needed a slingshot. My father cut a convenient fork plus a nice straight piece, “There make a slingshot and a baton.”
The forked stick was too slender to make a decent slingshot (that might have been his intent) but still I carefully stroked them with sandpaper and emery then polished varnished and oiled my two sticks until they shone from the tung oil.
Likely I even played at leading my big imaginary orchestra with the baton but then as kids often will, I forgot…
As I dashed to the house dodging the September raindrops I paused on the porch to gather the weekend mail.
I was puzzled by the package carefully balanced on top of the mailbox. I did not recognize the return address nor the careful handwriting on the label.
Inside, shrugging out of my raincoat I dumped package, mail, and briefcase on the dining room table. Toweling my hair dry I started the fire under the teapot and dug out the big jar of honey. The chill rain cried out for tea, honey and a wee dollop of brandy.
Mail was quickly sorted, catalogs into the recycling pile along with most of the bulk mail with the useful missives and bills in a more compact array. With that accomplished I turned to the mystery package.
Torn brown paper revealed a badly tattered musical instrument case. The kind a flute or clarinet might travel in. The worn case sitting on my table was mute in solving my mystery.
I popped the two tarnished catches and flipped open the case.
I smiled as memory blossomed. Someone, my Gran, from the look had decided to preserve my polished twigs.
The ‘baton’ and the “Y” shaped fork were both lying in the padded case on a bed of ash leaves surrounded by garlands of dried red seeds. I was grinning as I thought of Gran carefully laying the ash berries in the case with the leaves she collected.
She was nominally Irish Catholic but when no one was around to stifle the conversation Gran easily drifted back to her Celtic home island’s Druid roots.
I reached out to pick up the “Y” branch by a slender fork marveling at my youthful care in finishing the wood. As the branch moved sideways out of the case my fingers jolted in a static spark.
I dropped the stick shaking my fingers, “Now what the hell caused that?”
Moving the instrument case cover revealed the sterling silver place setting that decorated the table hidden from view. Frowning I stared at the silver cutlery, “That couldn’t be it. Could it?”
I picked the forked stick straight up by the slender branches. Holding it horizontally in my two hands I pointed the end over the table and gently panned it sideways.
Shit, there it was again. I held on this time as I focused to see the metal utensils just below the end of the stalk of polished wood.
I froze, barking out loud, “Holy shit, this is a dowsing rod.”
The testing of my “dowsing rod” proceeded apace after a slightly bigger dollop of brandy in a lowball glass with no ice…
Walking slowly across the kitchen floor, I came to actually ‘feel’ the difference between copper water pipes, electrical wires, and sheet metal ventilating duct. My trek across the basement located the sewer and water pipes while a short trip outside found the copper locator wire on the plastic gas pipe through the wet ground.
Then I looked through my ‘junk drawer’ to find a gold ring and silver dollar. Tossing them on the living room carpet, it was no trick to locate them even playing with the lights off.
The feel on my fingers was palpably different for each element as well.
Finally exhausted and deeply confused I glanced at the clock. I’d been at this for hours.
I gently set the drowsing stick back in its padded case as I stretched and yawned utterly tired.
I was beyond thinking wanting only my big soft bed.
My eyes opened to the sound of pounding on my back door.
The big red numbers read: 4:17
I mused, “This can’t be good.”
As I reached into the bedside drawer and scooped up my SIG 229, a touch on the grip turned on the Crimson Trace laser. I pulled on my jeans as my feet automatically found my docksiders the hoodie followed as I stumbled down the stairs
As I peered through the back door, the porch light shined on a cascade of honey blonde curls. Tucking the pistol into my sweatshirt pocket I cracked the door to see a face just as lovely in close up as the cloudy glass hinted.
She was wearing a Victorian riding habit, buttoned modestly panel and all, a confection of silk and wool with a scarf protecting her hair from the weather.
Behind her, off the porch, out in that rainy weather were two men clad in leather.
One of them was big, very big, NFL BIG! The other looked small only by comparison. They looked miserable. The water dripping off the end of Mr. Pro Bowl Tackles nose would have been amusing on a smaller man perhaps one who was not frowning so hard!
I toed the outer door open saying softly, “May I help you?”
Just as I leaned out, a noise to my right started me. I wheeled to confront an athletic dark haired beauty in a leather bustier. The laser red blossomed on her chest as we froze.
I glanced at the blonde who whispered urgently, “Please, she is…”
She paused, “We are…”
Taking a deep breath she finally got it out, ”We are bound, Sir Mage.”
I cocked my wrist panning the laser to the right, away from the brunette as my eyes swiveled to the blonde.
Funny what you notice all in a burst, like a series of quick flash pictures.
The big man was carrying a flanged mace and had what appeared to be a massive claymore on his back with the two-handed grip visible next to his head while his smaller companion held a bearded axe. They were dressed in rough leather jerkins. Very wet jerkins. The brunette’s leather bustier was a breastplate with two ivory sword hilts visible in cross draw.
“We would speak to you Sir Mage. Please.”
The blonde’s soft entreaty broke through my scattered disjointed thoughts.
I looked back at the black-maned beauty. Something was subtly wrong with her appearance but before I could process it my thoughts were derailed by the blonde’s torrent of words, “Sir Mage we scryed you. Well, our witch did. Well, she’s not really our witch… She’s more like the local hedge witch… “
Picking up speed, “…She sensed your magic. Incredible power. So much power, she could use it…”
She dimpled prettily as she wound down, “…Placing us in the shade of your Rowan tree, Sir Mage.”
Goggling, “My what?”
Big Man pointed at my Mountain Ash visible in the porches reflected light, “Your Rune Tree, Sir Mage. We call such Rowan.”
I stared at the tree for a moment then my eyes slowly traversed the figures frozen in tableau. The only movement the dripping of water, the only sounds the rain and ‘squishing’ as the two men shifted uncomfortably.
My gaze shifted back and forth but I was no closer to understanding who they were or what they wanted. Obviously they were sodden and chilly; at least two of them were thoroughly uncomfortable.
I shook my head as I waved the brunette to stand by the blonde saying: “I don’t mean to be inhospitable, god knows I’ve been cold and wet but I don’t understand. You’re dressed like Ren Fair it’s not Halloween and I’m just too friggin tired to look for the hidden camera.”
The blonde looked dismayed: “Sir Mage you would send us away without hearing our petition?”
She reached down holding up a leather dispatch case, like a bike messenger might wear. Flipping the strap over her head the blonde offered me the case: “The words of my father his urgent request Sir Mage, Please Sir Mage we beg you at least…”
I held up my hand stopping the torrent of words. Blondie looked on the verge of tears while the rest looked even sadder if that was possible. I finally said, “I’ll read the message, with no promise but I’ll keep an open mind.”
Blondie had a seriously dangerous smile, a major league knee weakening spine tingling type smile even under these dour conditions. I needed to cut this short.
I reached for the dispatch case.
Blondie thrust the case into my hand saying happily, “Oh thank you Sir Mage. I just know that once you read my fathers words...”
She paused then slower in a questioning tone, “Please Sir Mage we would return to hear your reply?”
I nodded, “Yes of course but no so late next time. How about dusk? Come at sunset and I will have a answer for your father.”
This elicited another of those perilous megawatt smiles. Blondie turned stepped off the porch walking toward the back of my property trailed by her two large protectors.
Her dark haired companion glided off the porch in their van moving like some lithe cat peeking back over her shoulder through her mane with a smoldering quite provocative smile of her own then with a smirk and just the merest glance at blonde’s retreating form she saluted me then followed.
I shook my head; if the blonde smile was dangerous, this graceful utterly alluring dark maned beauty was positively unsafe at any speed.
As I stepped back into the kitchen, I glanced out the window to see the group gathered by my garden shed donning packs and picking up bundles. I felt bad sending them off in the cold fall rain but I shook it off.
This completely odd appearance right on the heels of my discovery of my own unexplained ‘ability’ was just too weird. Swords and witches and petitions and who knows what the hell else, left me standing in my kitchen staring at that dispatch case.
It was beautiful! This leather case would easily be a couple hundred bucks from Levengers. Soft glove leather with silver buckles and corners reinforced with silver bolsters. Embossed with a heraldic crest of some sort of winged lion thingy. If this was a prank someone was taking enormous pains to make me believe. I looked outside again.
They were gone!
I did not see any sign of them or where they went. For a moment I thought the ash tree shimmered…
...Get a grip! They more likely had a car waiting in the alley beyond the lilac bushes that marked the property boundary.
I opened the case and tipped it slightly as I extracted the papers. A loud ‘clunk’ as a small velvet bag landed on the tabletop was a surprise. I opened the bag’s drawstring and a heavy ring fell into my palm.
Large ornately carved and ‘seemed to be’ made of gold with a very finely detailed crest where the gemstone usually sits like that on the bag with two large diamonds and two large rubies set around the flat sides of the ring.
If that was really gold and those gems were genuine…?!?
I glanced outside again shaking my head. I can’t believe she didn’t realize this was in the bag.
Setting the ring aside and picking up the first page of fine vellum. A beautifully illuminated text covered with colored borders and letters done in highly styled calligraphy. Centered on the page was another of those stylized lions in gold leaf holding up a letter M:
Sir Mage, by this missive I bring you greetings from Duke Emmet Valentine Morgan of House Morgan, and from the people of Ten Sleep. I hereby introduce my daughter Princess Dawn Anastasia Sirocco Morgan of House Morgan and Niamh Sinead Lúthien of Nargothrond, Elven of royal lineage and my daughters Bound Mate
Sir Mage, House Morgan and the people of Ten Sleep man The Wall that separates the civilized lands from the Wastelands. By this sacrifice House Morgan protect the Seven Kingdoms from the Hordes coming out of those ruined places.
We would humbly ask Sir Mage for your help as we do battle with Lord Dunstan Peerenboom of the Ruined Places as he seeks to breach The Wall that protects us all
At the bottom, the duke’s signature and next to it some ribbons held by a lump of wax with an impression in the center that neatly matched the ring I was holding.
Then a simple folded page with a few lines in feminine script:
To the Mage by the Rowan.
You have not learned to mask your power and it is a bright beacon to anyone who cares to see it. We seek only your help but others would do you harm to prevent your power. Take care. You are in grave danger
Then a small book with carved leather binding, opening it I found a spell book. At least I think it was a spell book. Most of the pages were in unintelligible language but one page was titled: “Mak the Fyre” with drawing for holding your wand thusly and instructions for saying…
…Ahhh…perhaps given my recent experiences we won’t!
Taking the book and my baton I stretched out on the couch in my front room slowly turning the pages trying to make sense of the nonsense words as the dawn lightened the sky outside my windows.
The next thing I remember is the grandfather clock gonging twelve times as it marked noon!
Stretching and rubbing the sleep out of my eyes as I stood up, I was getting too old for the late hours I was keeping. Worse than that I was famished. I tossed the spell book and baton on the music case in passing as I walked up the stairs heading for the shower.
After my shower and getting dressed I felt almost human. I thought about coffee but decided to check in with Eddy and see if he was up for some lunch. As I walked out into the kitchen I saw the velvet bag and the note from Melissa the hedge witch. Everything from the night before came flooding back. I decided Eddy needed to see that ring and I would heed the hedge witch’s counsel.
I picked up the SIG off the kitchen table and walked it into the office where I opened the gun safe. I put the SIG on the shelf and took a Smith and Wesson 642 for my carry gun. I loaded five rounds of +P. The gun went in one pocket of my leather jacket with the ring in the other then I paused with my hand on the safe door. I rounded up the dispatch case with all the documents and placed them in the gun safe along with the spell book my baton and drowsing stick. Then I slammed the gun safe.
I walked out the back door. I locked up then pressed the key fob that armed the alarm. As I stepped off the porch, I flipped up my collar it was still raining and I was chilled immediately as a drop ran down my neck. I saw the tracks where the princess and her party left the porch and picked up their packs then walked to my Rowan Tree where the tracks sort of petered out. The ground all churned up by the big man carrying his heavy pack then nothing!
Deciding this was not speculation for an empty stomach, I kept walking to the back of the property pressing through the screen of Lilacs and Russian Olive that marked end of my lot. I stepped out on the walking path confronting the back of suburban shopping mall.
This was an “old school” mall, a line up of stories with an open walk and parking in front and this service area behind. Neighbors along the cul-de-sac love to complain about the mall but other than an occasional over enthusiastic early morning garbage truck along the service road the mall itself acts as a traffic noise barrier.
I dodged the bigger puddles as I walked behind the BP and the Dairy Queen circling the end of the mall. I walked past the usual suspects: Ashley Furniture, Office Depot, Radio Shack with the ubiquitous Family Dollar Store before I arrived at Suburban Galleria but the tiny hand lettered sign taped to the door said: Eddy’s Archery. I pushed open the door as the bell tinkled and I walked into the domain of Eddy Larson. My friend Eddy makes and sells custom bows. His shop was a shopping experience guaranteed to give submariner claustrophobia. Eddy had cases and racks crammed into a tiny space in front of the store barely allowing the door to open.
Every inch of case, shelf, and rack was overflowing with bows, arrows and archery gear. The space behind is now filled with the machinery that Eddy uses to craft his bows, fletch the arrows and build the custom accessories
The walls are covered with pictures of hunters on every continent standing over game shot with Larson bows as well as target shooters winning gold medals with theirs.
Eddy for his part does not look like an entrepreneur who sells a specialized product that knows worldwide acclaim. He looks like a guy who found his clothes in a dumpster then slept in them for a week. In short, he looks very ummm creative, maybe eclectic would be more like it!
Eddy was on the speakerphone. He was engaged in another of his businesses as an antique dealer with a largish presence on e-Bay. He waved me toward the coffee pot as he concluded his call then saying, “Hey Sean, what’s up?”
“I’m looking for somebody I can buy lunch for. A successful buyer and seller of antiques, know anybody like that?” I asked grinning.
Eddy laughed, “I buy junk and sell antiques. Will that work?”
I nodded, “Taco bar at The Cantina?”
Eddy nodded as he headed for the front door. He taped up a paper that said “Lunch” in scrawled pencil and locked up.
We walked a few doors down and entered The Cantina our strip malls south of border restaurant. Actually it’s not so bad. Typical Americanized “fast food” Tex-Mex when you’re in a hurry and authentic Mexican classics when you have time for “slow food.”
Maria brought us a bowl of chips and salsa. Eddy ordered a beer and I decided coffee would be wiser choice for me. We both opted for the Taco bar. After Eddy made his third trip for half dozen tacos he finally decided he was “less hungry” and “How about a plate of that fried ice cream?”
I laughed, “Eddy I need your brain. I want your professional opinion about an antiquity.”
I tossed him the velvet bag, “Is this genuine?”
Eddy shook the velvet bag curiously then dumped the ring into his palm. He glanced over at me then resumed turning the ring over and around as he peered closely at it. Eddy looked up at me with one eyebrow raised.
I raised my hand to forestall his questions, “I got nothing Eddy, its what you see. Tell me a story.”
Eddy grinned, “It’s like that is it.”
He dug a small magnifier out of a belt pouch; humming softly he resumed his slow turning of the ring.
He looked up smirking, “It’s a ring.”
I laughed, “No shit! Thank you Sherlock.”
He continued calmly, “It’s a signet ring and truly excellent example of Itaglio or incised negative imaging.”
I interrupted, “Eddy, you hear that sound? That creaking noise would be my eyes glazing over. Get to a point, please.”
Eddy grinned, “No man this is fascinating, seriously.”
He pointed at the ring face, “See the design? The ring maker took an extra step of placing a small piece of onyx or agate on the face then engraving the design in that stone making it sharper clearer and much longer lasting used as a seal than just plain metal.”
Then he took the pen out of my shirt pocket and pointed at the design, “It’s a crest, heraldic. See that’s a letter ‘M’…”
I nodded musing, “Morgan.”
Eddy pointing again, “Yeah, Morgan works. That’s a Gryphon.”
I smiled, “Like Melanie?”
Eddy shook his head emphatically, “No, she’s Griffith and Kathy of the D-List is G-R-I-F-F-I-N, this is G-R-Y-P-H-O-N.”
“It looks like a weird sorta lion.”
Eddy smiled, “An important symbol in heraldry, half lion and half eagle. Lions were about valor and eagles were strength and immortality, when you combined the king of beasts with the king of birds in this magical being it was a big deal. Not to be taken lightly. So who gave you this?“
I looked at him levelly then softly, “A blonde princess who appeared at my door and invited me on a quest.”
Eddy smirked, “Okay dude, you don’t want to tell me just say so. Anyway the Gryphon is posed rampant which is a common and the elements are consistent with the crest of a minor house.”
I interrupted, “Why minor?”
Eddy smiled, “The crest is simple, not over ornate. Look at kings and emperors, busy, busy, deer, dragons, fair maidens, shields, swords, et set era, et set era.”
Eddy continued, “There is one oddity. Usually Gryphon is depicted with a lions butt and Eagle front end, and you know, claws. But this one has all four lion paws, wings, and eagle head.”
I shook my head sadly, “So it’s a fake?”
Eddy grinned, “Not necessarily or even likely. The four pawed version is not unknown just rare. If I was going to counterfeit, I’d sure as hell use the more familiar type wouldn’t you?”
He continued pointing at the rubies and diamonds, “And if I was scamming those would be colored glass.”
He hefted the ring in the palm of his hand, “And that is a nice load of gold at 900 bucks per ounce to build a fake. So where is she?”
I looked up innocently, “She, who?”
Eddy laughed, “Nice name, so where is this Princess Dawn of the Morgan?”
“I sent her away.”
Eddy frowned, “Away?”
“Look, She shows up middle of the night, said she came from another world, wanted my help. Too friggin strange, man. I sent her back where she came from.”
Eddy looked angry, “You are an asshole. She and her friends risk life and limb crossing the void and you just blow her off. You think passing through dimensions is like crossing the street? What if she’s stranded here or what if she can’t get back to get your answer which is probably NO anyway. And it was raining too. What a prick!”
“How did you know she had companions?’
Eddy looked incredulous, “It’s a quest! You never go on a quest alone.”
I shook my head, “It’s a swindle Eddy. Seriously. This is just too completely bizarre to be factual.”
Eddy looked at me as he carefully placed the ring in its velvet bag saying, “This don’t feel like a scam but even if it is. You my man are retired and got nothing to lose but time.”
“I’m not retired, I am a consultant.”
Eddy laughed, “Semi-retired consultant meaning even less accountability. But even so, what have you got to lose dude?”
“My time, my money, my dignity, oh yeah not to mention any shred of credibility that I ever had or will have. Plus it’s hunting season Eddy, I wait all damn year for the Fall. Anyway, she’s not stranded. At least not on this side.”
Eddy regarded me while the velvet bag swung from his index finger. “And you Captain Picard can clutch this in your gnarled and liver spotted hands sitting in the old folks home thinking of your blonde princess adrift in the emptiness unable to reach her true love.”
“You do paint a dramatic picture but I dunno. I’m more Captain Kirk.”
Eddy smirked, “Well you are lots older than me that’s for sure but now that you mention it, you’re a dead ringer for the mad cow guy…”
He tossed me the velvet bag saying, “You left out one tiny fact. Why did Princess of the Morgan pick you?”
I shook my head, “I don’t know.”
Eddy nodded calmly as he softly said, “I think you do Sean. I think you know EXACTLY why she walked up to your door but you’re too freaked to even contemplate the topic.”
I frowned saying softly; “Eddy in the cold, grey light of today I find myself more dubious than I was this morning.”
I zipped the ring bag into my pocket. Eddy shrugged as he stood up, “You want to know the truth about your princess babe? She shows up again you take her to see Rob.”
I nodded as Eddy continued, “That dude looks into your very soul. No hiding from Sifu.”
He grinned at me, “Better you be careful, The JuJu Man, he look, he see your secret too.”
Eddy was cackling as I stood at the counter paying for our meal, I waved him off and he headed out the door still laughing at his own wit.
We walked back to the archery shop and as we reached the door, Eddy wheeled suddenly stepped in close staring intently into my eyes. After a longish pause he asked softly, “Are you good Sean? Really?”
I nodded, “Yes I’m fine, Eddy.”
Eddy poked me hard on the breastbone, “No macho horseshit Sean. You need anything. You call.”
Then he looked hangdog, “Sorry about the old folks home crap I forgot.”
I smiled. “Its cool man, she would have laughed.”
Eddy gave me an awkward hug then he opened up the Suburban Galleria and went back to work making bows. I walked down the mall finally stepping out into the rain as I stepped up to the tiny drive up kiosk that was the Coffee Clutch. Amanda always giggled when I walked up to the drive up window to order my coffee.
Ordering my coffee with extra sugar Amanda laughed outright when I asked for a to-go cup! I carried my cup through the drizzle to Little Round Lake. It was barely a lake a tiny, weed choked pond with a couple disconsolate ducks just a wide spot on the creek connecting Lake Gervais with Big Round Lake. I sat on the single picnic table under the tin awning as the rain picked up.
She loved this spot, I assume it was because she felt sorry for the little lake knowing that few sat here and she was all about taking care of your feelings even if you were a lake.
As I stared out at the water and weeds I pondered the only magic I ever wanted to perform -- I couldn’t. The irony of my discovering this weird magical power too late for her was too much for me to bear. Called a ‘Great Mage’ NOW!!!
I wondered how SHE would have reacted to last night.
No question, she would have invited them in, fed them and before she was done known their every secret. SHE would have long since decided that would aid them in their quest. She was always quick to decide and even quicker to join the underdog in the impossible task.
As the rain beat down, I decided Stevie Ray was right the sky was crying right along with me
The rain slowed as I became aware of my surroundings.
A British Racing Green Jaguar XJ-S sidled into the tiny parking area. It could not possibly look more out of place
Then the driver exited the Jag.
He was tall with an erect athletic bearing and the ruddy complexion of one who spends much time outdoors. The iron gray hair made me estimate his age in the50-55 range. The tailored clothing looked like it came from Saks.
Ignoring the drizzle he unhurriedly walked up to my picnic table. Stopping just short of the tin cover he stuck out his hand with a open smile, “Sean? May I call you Sean? Allow me to introduce myself. Douglas Carlyle.”
As he grasped my hand he stepped under the awning still serenely smiling into my increasingly incredulous expression. “Do I KNOW you?”
“I’m sorry we’ve never been formally introduced but the situation is fluid.”
“Situation. Fluid.” I was almost sputtering. Okay I was sputtering.
“What the hell are you babbling about?”
Carlyle squared up to me and seemed to come to attention as he looked more serious, “Mage Sean Stenberg, I bring you greetings from The Collective and especially our Prime Mage as we welcome you to the ranks of magical practitioners.”
He continued with more relaxed posture, “I am Douglas Carlyle, Dragon Mage.”
Intrigued in spite of myself, “ Dragon Mage?”
“Leader of the Praetorian Guard charged with protecting the Thirteen while personally carrying out the wishes of Prime Mage.”
He looked at my puzzled frown saying, “That was not as useful as it might have been perhaps but as I said there is really not the time.”
“I repeat: Who are you? Why do you know my name? And WHY is there not the time?”
Lugh looked down from his craggy perch high above the clouds. He balanced on a narrow ledge. So slight was the outcrop even with his back tight to the granite his toes touched only empty air. The biting wind rippled Lugh’s beard but he did not notice lost in thought as he reflexively tapped his massive copper hammer against a calloused palm. This was not a place most dwarves found comfortable out in the open air precariously above great height but Lugh was not ‘most’ unless you could say he was a most singular dwarf.
Looking south through the clouds and crags Lugh saw the lush valley and the walled palisade that was Ten Sleep while to the west The Wall that separated the Wasteland from the civilized Kingdoms.
Today his father Conall would convene a meeting in that great hall of the mountain kings and one hundred of the dwarf clan leaders would sit on the stone seats in the vast underground amphitheatre to listen closely while he read a letter written by Melissa hedge witch to the valley.
Conall knew that a leader had emerged in the ruined places promising to bring the hordes, breach the wall and loot the seven kingdoms.
The dwarves were divided on what to do about this threat. Some few wished to ignore it convinced of their safety in this mountain fastness. Conall led a faction that wished to aid the humans in their defense seeing the war involving the dwarf before it concluded. The largest group was confused and afraid, unable to muster the will to defend this valley that was their home convinced that the hordes were just too numerous to stand against.
Melissa had a bold plan. She had scryed a great mage. The “only” problem was that she had to breach the crystal wall that separated the worlds in order to reach this mage. Well not the only one. The disbelieving mage had dismissed them without hearing their plea.
Lugh laughed, it was never a good sign when the least part of the quest was flouting the boundary between the worlds.
Douglas Carlyle smiled as he gestured to the concrete picnic table. He sat with an erect bearing hands folded together on the table regarding me. I found myself calming in the silence.
Carlyle did stillness really well.
“I was a cavalry captain under Brigadier General George Stoneman commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker” He began without preamble “It was during the Battle of Chancellorsville.”
Carlyle made eye contact, “It was the summer of 1863, I was 24 years old.”
“I don’t believe you!” I just blurted it. Then I relented saying, “I’m sorry that was rude. But its not possible...”
Carlyle continued calmly ignoring my outburst, “I was recruited into The Collective at the Rapidan River Crossing as I lay gut shot, a Confederate minie ball having ripped my body apart.”
I just stared with my mouth open as he paused, “The shock of being shot had broken down the barrier, opened the door if you will between the magical and non magical parts of my being. Luckily for me, The Collective was seeking military talent for the Praetorian Guard.”
Carlyle regarded me as the silence built around us then he asked, “Your magic, how did it manifest?”
The non sequitur threw me. I held out my hands as if holding the forked stick, “Dowsing, finding metals so far.”
He grinned, “The dwarves will LOVE you.”
He looked over at one of ducks enjoying the rain then in a soft musing almost whisper, “Likely it would not have mattered. Wizards of the earth and metal make poor healers.”
He looked into my startled expression as he continued softly, “It was the shock of losing that opened your door.”
Angrily I yelled, “Fuck you shut UP! What the HELL would you know about that?”
Carlyle smiled ruefully, “The problem with living forever Sean. You attend many funerals and no one is ever left to attend yours...”
I sat in utter consternation as Carlyle once again sat wrapped in his stillness.
“Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss.” Carlyle said quietly. “Know that I would not be disturbing you in your grief except...”
“Except you must because time is short and the situation is fluid..” I interrupted angrily
He nodded calmly, “Time IS short I’m afraid. Soon, perhaps in days...”
I unzipped my jacket taking out the velvet bag. I dumped the signet ring into my palm setting it on the table between us as I looked at Carlyle in silence. He gazed at the Morgan signet ring.
I covered the ring with my palm as I slowly leaned forward, “I call bullshit Captain Carlyle. You need to tell me the truth or I’m not playing.”
Carlyle nodded calmly, “Do you know what ‘war by proxy’ is, Sean?”
I started with the change of subject, “Yes.” then I shrugged, “Well superficially anyway.”
He raised an inquisitive eyebrow. I continued, “Big nuke armed powers like US, Russia, China fight by using little countries as surrogates.”
Carlyle smiled nodding, “Good and more than enough detail for our purposes.”
Carlyle paused, then spoke with his unhurried cadence, “The Collective is not a monolith. In fact it would likely not surprise you to know that the Prime and his Thirteen have rivalries.”
I nodded as he continued, “Intense rivalries...”
Brusquely I asked, “AND?”
Carlyle grinned, “You already know the punch line Sean.”
I uncovered the ring, “Aw Shit”
Carlyle nodded, “Archelaus who styles himself Dark Wizard of the Seaward Kingdoms is their ruler. He is a singularly selfish and cruel man but even more quite a piggishly stupid one.”
I took a deep breath but stayed silent as Carlyle continued, “Archelaus will employ a defence in depth and something resembling ‘scorched earth’ perfectly happy to allow the hordes to lay waste to frontier kingdoms knowing that by the time they cross the vast plains to reach the sea they are weakened and easy meat for his troops.”
I frowned, “That seems plenty cunning to me.”
Carlyle nodded, “Normally it would be enough. This time however there is a ‘man behind the curtain’ building the hordes for the express purpose of deposing our Dark Wizard and taking away a key supporter of my Prime Mage.”
I looked at him incredulously, “This is like some bullshit Korea?” North and South, with a DMZ that you want me to defend so that your asshole stays in power? What a crappy thing to ask me to do.”
Carlyle grinned, “Yes that does quite capture the flavour of what we want. You’ll join a barely medieval society that lacks the institutional memory of monasteries or even any barely remembered Roman and Greek heritage to help them rise from the muck. You will attempt to help them out of their misery, instill a fighting spirit and by some miracle forestall the horde.”
He smiled as he continued, “Thus saving our totally undeserving ally and embarrassing our enemy.”
I stared into his smile and wanted nothing more than to smack him one. I jumped up to stand by the lakeshore until I cooled down.
After a few moments Carlyle stood next to me in the drizzle holding the Morgan signet ring. He held up the ring saying, “ All reports are the Duke of House Morgan is a humane ruler. Doing his best for his subjects with what scraps the Dark Wizard leaves his frontier duchies.”
I frowned hard looking at him, “I just feel like I’m being played.”
Carlyle nodded, “Yes I wish there was time...”
“I’m not going ashore in a rubber raft with a knife between my teeth.” I said sharply “Proxy means that the big guys help out the little guys who are doing their bidding.”
Carlyle frowned as I continued, “You know military aid, humanitarian aid, foreign aid, farm aid.”
Carlyle laughed, “I’m pretty sure that last one was a concert.”
I waved it off, “You know what I mean Captain. You and your little band of magicians are going to supply those expensive and difficult to procure items that civilians aren’t allowed.”
I stared hard concluding, “By so doing you will go a long way to convince me that you’re not a total bullshit artist hanging me out to dry.”
Carlyle handed me the signet with a calm measuring look then turned leading the way back under the shelter. He stood with that erect posture as I sat at the table opposite him. I smiled grimly, “So how long have I got to prepare? Days, hours or what?”
He looked off into the rain clouds saying, “The seasons track approximately. It is Fall in Ten Sleep as here. No campaign by Hordes can begin before spring or perhaps even into early summer.”
He glanced down, “I’d suggest you use the winter to prepare.”
I asked, “Do you know what pre-positioning is?”
I continued without pause, “The Army places equipment and supplies before time where it ‘guesses’ troops might be sent. The useful stuff is there waiting when the troops arrive.”
Carlyle nodded as I continued, “I want supplies pre- positioned for my excursion.”
I looked up as I raised a hand to forestall his protests, “No guns, just classic humanitarian shit you can sell your more reluctant allies on contributing: nails, bolts, dimension lumber, and hardware. All the mundane crap we take so for granted that is pure gold in that time and place.”
He was silent considering as I went on, “Pick out a meadow near the village and line up a bunch of shipping containers and 40 fort trailers. We’ll find them as we make our move.”
I smiled, “And think fondly of our good, good friend the Prime Mage.”
Carlyle suddenly smiled, “That seems do-able.”
I nodded, “Good now lets talk make or break.”
Carlyle frowned looking angry, “What do you mean?”
I shrugged dramatically asking softly, “Ever hear the story about the pig and chicken and breakfast?”
He looked confused shaking his head as I went on, “When it comes to your eggs and bacon, the chicken is involved but the pig is fully committed.”
Carlyle smiled as I went on, “I need some things to succeed with this task and supplying them will also act as benchmarks of your commitedness.”
With an exaggerated flourish, Carlyle took out a notebook and pen. He cocked an eyebrow at me as he poised the pen over paper. I slowly began to talk watching a slow swimming duck, “ We need a staging area, someplace with a rune tree that communicates to a rune tree in a good sized meadow near Ten Sleep. Staging must be within hour travel and suspicious neighbors can’t notice our activity ”
I looked up he nodded as he stopped writing I continued, “Fake ID. The Morgan party going to be hanging around, it’s a hyper connected world out there someone going to notice. Birth Certificate, Social Security Card, and Drivers License at least.”
I grinned into his started expression, “Don’t have to last forever. Six months tops before we’re gone.”
Carlyle snarked, “Don’t ask for much.”
I laughed, “Yeah said the chicken to the bacon”
“Next” I said, “There are things you can buy that just can’t be messed with. Chemistry supplies get me busted as a meth dealer. Too much ammo buys is just huge flag. Medical supplies are a pain. I need a liaison someone who can buy stuff with your money and who can pass on my ‘must haves’ that I just can’t GET.”
Carlyle nodded calmly,” Makes sense I’ll see what can be done.”
I paused and looked him in the eye in silence then said softly, “Last but not at all least, I need a teacher. Someone to train me in the way of the wizard.”
Carlyle shook his head, “Flat out impossible.”
I frowned staring at him in silence.
Suddenly I stood up saying calmly, “You decide Captain. If we are a go, stop by the house with a suitcase crammed with cash to begin my purchases. I’m guessing a little bigger than carry-on would be a good start.”
I stuck out my hand, “Either way it was good to meet you Captain.”
With that I picked up my coffee and headed back toward the shopped center never looking back to see how the good Captain Carlyle was reacting to my exit.
I was deeply unsettled as I walked away from Captain Carlyle. All this talk of magic, princesses, and proxy wars on top of discovery of my ability to dowse metal was just too, too much or as my nieces and nephews would say, “TMI Dude!”
This dithering was also new and unwelcome. I am a decisive person. At least I used to be...
On one hand I wanted a quiet place to think. Somewhere to calmly sort out my conflicting emotions and unsettling information, dealing with this brand new situation.
On the other hand I wanted a person to talk to. A cooler head. Someone who would patiently allow me to ‘spill my guts’ then offer some calming words of wisdom.
Since I was that “patient” guy for most of my acquaintances “gut spilling” I wasn’t sure who I was going to turn to. Plus of course who “exactly” do you tell some wild ass story about magic being real and not end up in a rubber room?
By this time I was pressing through the wet branches of the Lilac bushes that bordered my property. I disarmed the alarm and headed for my safe. Gathering up my baton, dowsingrod, and music case with the ring, message and spell book I put everything in the Morgan messenger bag.
I re-read the warning note from Melissa in light of my recent conversation with the Dragon Mage and felt a distinct chill. “You are in grave danger.” is a dead bang attention getter in my book. The ease with which Carlyle found me was not exactly comforting either. The unnamed mage “behind the curtain” fomenting the proxy rebellion against the Prime Mage could also find me just as easily, leading to a very simple fatal solution to any obstacle I would pose to his breaching that wall.
It was time to go see the The JuJu Man.
I thought about driving but Sifu Rob’s Kwoon was within walking distance and my distracted state really did not lend itself to safe driving. The mild exertion should hopefully allow me time to center myself.
I keyed the alarm fob stepping out on my porch with the messenger bag over my shoulder to peer at the dismal weather. The rain was mostly over with only a few dispirited drizzles to harass us. I flipped up the collar on my jacket and headed out with a brisk pace trying the walk between the raindrops.
This time I walked past the BP station to the corner of County Road 42 and Highway 61. Crossing the divided highway on this busy corner with its left and right turning lanes was always an exercise in risk taking even with the stop light with the rain making it more so
After nimbly getting across unscathed I started up the hill past Target, Rainbow and the gaggle of stores that hang out with them like pilot fish following the great white shark. My destination was further up the hill, an abandoned “big box” store that Sifu Rob had converted into his kwoon and living quarters.
I didn’t know much of Rob’s story before he opened his martial arts studio. He had taken his army discharge in the East Asia where he studied martial arts, meditation, massage and acupuncture. He returned here to begin teaching, moving into his present quarters only 3 years before.
Rob taught a particularly effective not to say brutal form of mixed martial arts for self defense. To a smaller, more select group Rob taught more traditional Wushu with emphasis on “internal” the Qi thus Tai Chi, Qigong, meditation and contemplation with more traditional kata forms.
I credit Rob, his acupuncture and meditation regime with my keeping my head together in my black days after her death.
Walking across the big parking lot dodging the puddles I came to the door not much changed from its retail days. I keyed in the access code and the door buzzed letting me in. Hanging up my coat and taking off shoes I lit one candle then tapped the chimes with my hand.
I entered the main exercise room as the the chimes began to sound their liquid notes. They look like wind chimes on steroids with one over twenty feet tall. So finely balanced that lightly touching one leads to 5 minutes of chiming.
I knelt next to the exercise floor. Rob told me this wooden floor was built with no nails, no metal of any kind. Just beautifully grained hardwood. Settling back on my thighs I laid the messenger bag in front of me, then I waited.
In a few moments the shoji screen across the floor moved as Sifu Rob walked in. He was tall, bald, with broad shoulders and the build of gymnast dressed in white linen slacks, white silk shirt and soft leather moccasins.
Rob was smiling in welcome as he approached. He stopped about 3 feet from me, bowed saying, “Sean.”
I bowed from my kneeling position, “Sifu”
Sifu folded bonelessly into a kneeling stance mirroring mine as he studied me with a neutral expression on his face.
He leaned forward slightly as he picked up the messenger bag and emptied its contents arranging them between us on the wooden floor. He placed the bag next to him and turned his questioning gaze back to me.
It was like somebody opened a big valve unleashing Niagara Falls.
Starting with arriving home to find the package until I left Douglas Carlyle, I told Sifu Rob EVERYTHING! I’m pretty sure I didn’t draw a breath until the end.
When I finally wound down Rob wordlessly stood, walking over to a water cooler he filled a big glass with cold water. He handed me the glass and watched calmly as I gulped it down. Returning the glass to a nearby table, Rob resumed his kneeling stance regarding me calmly. Sifu Rob does stillness really well too.
After I began to center and my breathing calmed Rob cocked his head and smiled, “Let’s assume for a moment magic is real, the princess is real, and you’ve met the Dragon Mage and he really is no shit 175 years old. What do you want to do about it?”
I began to protest loudly waving my arms like I was about to take flight as Rob picked up the Morgan ring and letter. He looked over the top of the letter as he quietly said, “That was badly phrased. First you need to decide if magic is real. Then you need to decide what you want to do about it.”
As I sank back wordlessly, Rob set aside the Morgan ring and letter picking up my forked dowsing stick saying, “We’ll need to test your abilities, find out what metals you can find under different conditions.”
He continued, “We’ll make a list from the metallic elements of the periodic table. If we use all of them, that would be 70 or 80 different elements. Then we’ll know the limits of your finding powers.”
He continued calmly, “After all, Bronze is Copper and Tin. Brass is Copper and Zinc. Gunmetal is Copper, Tin and Zinc. Iron and carbon make steel.”
He grinned into my chagrined expression, “Did your Dragon Mage actually say that Dwarves were blacksmiths?”
I shook my head, “Intimated at best, Sifu. Something like ‘Dwarves would love my metal finding’”
Rob shook his head as he commented ruefully, “Just as well you don’t believe. You’d be pretty much fucked in Ten Sleep anyway.”
I started, “What!”
Rob asked, “What kind of weapons were the princesses companions carrying?”
The rapid change of topic confused me but I focused on the question answering slowly, “The biggest guy had a mace, and a big sword on his back. His buddy had an axe. The black haired girl had a couple short swords.”
Then I asked, “Sifu, How did you know that the princesses party was armed?”
Rob looked serious, “Contacting a battle wizard was an important mission undertaken at grave risk by their Princess. They assigned their very best soldiers with their best weapons to ensure her safety.”
Rob smiled grimly, “And that my man is what you have to work with clubs, swords and axes. Braveheart! That didn’t work so damn good for Mel Gibson either.”
“And don’t tell me you’re going to bring a bunch of modern military equipment to the party.” Rob said, “Teaching primitives to use modern technology is just too much weight to carry.”
I shook my head saying, “If what Carlyle says is true, those people in Ten Sleep die when the horde reaches them.”
Frowning I asked, “You want me to just leave them to their fate?”
“Then what do you want, Sifu?” I asked.
Rob asked softly, “What do you want, Sean?”
I shook my head, “I’m not sure.”
“I’m not sure I believe in magic. I’m not sure I believe the princess. I’m not sure I believe the Dragon Mage. I’m pretty sure I want to help.”
“But I’m confused” I continued peevishly “Why did Carlyle reject training me so vehemently if he wants my help?”
Rob frowned thoughtfully saying, “Well you are an outlier to the magical, you have no family connection, You’re no ones apprentice, You might say you are a rogue wizard.”
I smiled, “Yeah, a rogue wizard that can’t do any magic.”
“Yet!” Rob grinned “Can’t do any magic yet.”
Rob continued quietly, “You have no military training but you are smart, organized and even inventive. This is such an odd situation perhaps open minded intellect is the answer.”
“Okay” Rob Said, “ I leave you with a thought: The secret to England winning and holding an empire was Sergeants, their non-commissioned officers”
He smiled as he was putting things back into the messenger bag saying as he handed it to me, “Now Sean go home and wait for your princess.”
Then he bowed. “Sean”
I bowed “Sifu”
I was thoughtful walking down the hill from Rob’s Kwoon. It wasn’t raining but the sky was dark, and foreboding. Which closely matched my mood.
Ten Sleep probably was “Braveheart”with a side of “Holy Grail” ‘everybody covered in shit’. Remembering the battle scenes, if it was “Braveheart” Ten Sleep was going be overwhelmed, disappear like a beach sand castle being hit by a hurricane.
Rob was right. I had thought the solution was to just give everybody an assault rifle. His rather emphatic negative response was causing me to gut check some of my assumptions about technology transfers. And the Sergeant thing threw me. So all in all Sifu Rob had given me much to chew on.
But oddly, even though my problem had become much more complex, my thoughts were far less oppressive.
To Be Continued
Last edited by WarLord (2012-05-28 19:31:14)