A second excerpt from my fantasy novel, "The Book of Shadows"
A Song of Life and Death
Alunius Panet’s boots crunched on the gravel path: left, right, left, right. His scarlet cloak unfurled around him as he walked, like a cape of feathers. The morning sun sparkled on the silver-gilded symbols of the harp case slung upon his back. His graceful fingers picked a complicated tune on his lute. Alunius closed his eyes and listened to the beautiful strains of the "Amorata”. The music reached its conclusion, a single high note. That note hung in the air, then faded among the sighs of the wind. The close-cropped gray curls gave the player a cap of steel fuzz. A pair of spectacles perched on a narrow nose.
A red robin alighted on his shoulder and startled him from his thoughts as she stroked his cheek in welcome. He laughed and said, “Well, good morning, little Robin. This is a bit early for you, isn’t it? I thought you took your time with the beginning of your day.”
The robin warbled an indignant note. “No insult meant, my dear. What has you up and about so early?” She bobbed her head and twittered so fast that it made his ears ache. “Slow down, little one. I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Take a deep breath and tell me all about it from the beginning.”
The robin chirped in annoyance, but she stopped with an open beak. Then she began again, slowly and deliberately, as if he was a simpleton. He took no offense; instead, he regarded her with a thoughtful look long after she was finished.
“Are you sure, Little One? This isn’t the season for your kind to leave the cities and the countryside. Why are you doing so? Is there a change about which I should know?”
The robin whistled a long mournful note, and pecked at the chain around his neck.“I will tell the others, Little One. Bring back this message to your elders: ‘do what is right for your safety. I hold no judgment against you’.”
The robin chirped agreement, then stroked his cheek with her own. He reached into his pocket for the last tabra seed and held it out in his palm. The robin accepted the gift with the dignity of a queen. He said, “Go on, Little One. Grace of the Gods go with you, my friend.”
The robin disappeared into the gray sky. He watched her go with a sober expression. He drew out his silver medallion, embossed with the shape of a large falcon. A ruby glittered within the falcon’s eye. He passed his thumb over the jewel; it winked back at him.
The Eye of the Falcon is sharp, and sees what others cannot, or will not, see. He reached deep into himself and stared at the ruby with double Vision. He nodded as his Soul agreed, and brought himself Outside. He clasped the falcon medallion in his hand, then released it with a sigh. He picked up his pace, following the path as it sloped upwards.
As he crested the hill, he looked down over the valley. At its floor lay the capital city of Narthu. It resembled the petals of a flower, dirty gray on the edges, fading to cream. Two tall towers jutted out of the center of the flower. Sunlight sparkled on the magnificent stain-glass window set into the side of the Western Tower. The royal purple and blue hues surrounded the Sign of Warding, a bright pentacle of gold and orange. Alunius likened it to "Paradise, in the middle of Hell on Earth, for we must go through Hell to get to Heaven." The description of the trip through the city was, unfortunately, accurate.
A cloud of ravens floated over the Cathedral spires, and as he watched, it swirled into the dawn sky. He shook his head and thought, Even the birds of doom are leaving as quickly as they can. Suddenly, he felt the urge to join them, to turn around and flee over the hills, far away from Narthu. The temptation was so strong that his body trembled in its wake. Then practicality took over: where would he go? His sense of honor overcame his moment of weakness. He continued down the path until he couldn't see the city anymore.
It dipped close to the top of the rushing water, and the cables creaked as he made his way across, hand over hand. Alunius swung along with the flow until he stepped lightly on the other bank. This was the East Road, the back way into Narthu. He joined the swell of foot traffic over the wooden bridge spanning the Baccuret. Traders and nobles, travelers and vagrants alike shuffled towards the entrance gates. A large portcullis hovered over Narthu's eastern entrance, a set of teeth in the mouth of a hungry wolf, ready to devour the souls of the innocent.
“Heyla, stand in line, you’re no better than the rest of us,” an old man at the gate told Alunius. The man was stooped with the weight of his merchandise on his back, all of dubious quality.
“Quite right, friend,” he replied. The trader returned it, proudly displaying missing front teeth.
The line moved swiftly, and Alunius found himself before a pair of guards. They patted the front and back of Alunius’s clothes; every touch betrayed nervous efficiency. They’re more careful today than usual, he thought. I wonder why.
The older guard gave him a brass coin with a number on it. "Don't lose your coin; you'd be thrown into the jail. 'Course-" he waggled his eyebrows at Alunius, "if you've silver or gold, Milord, 'tis a different story."
"I'll keep it in mind, good sir," Alunius replied. He made an elaborate show of producing a silver piece out of his beltpouch. The man’s eyes gleamed as he snatched it with trembling fingers. He traded the brass chit for a silver one.
"Thank ye for your donation, Milord. The Duke will remember your generosity."
Alunius’s mouth tightened as if he'd eaten rotten qualfruit. "There's another hour in the Confessional for me,” he sighed as he crossed another bridge and into the poorest part of the city.
Wooden tenements stretched towards the sky, five or six levels in some places. Laundry lines wove between the buildings. Street peddlers cried out their wares at every street corner. Women shouted to each other from their windows. The streets twisted and turned into corners and blind alleyways. Tucked into those niches were the unfortunate, the unhappy, the unloved. The walls provided some basic shelter from the elements, but it was not nearly enough.
Buskers set up their instruments and their coin boxes. They eyed Alunius with suspicion as he went past, but he only smiled at them and waggled his nose in good-natured humor. Then he sent a warm wave of reassurance between himself and the buskers, and the envious faces melted into ones of rueful understanding.
I’ll not steal their livelihood, he thought. I used to be in their place, once upon a time, and competition meant less money for bread.
He gracefully sidestepped a crowd of shrieking children, but they linked hands and danced around them, surrounding them with laughter. The Bard laughed with them, one hand on his lute and the other on his beltpouch.
“Sing us a song, sing us a song!” they chanted. “Sing us a song.”
Alunius strummed his lute with a flourish. “Very well, then. One song. What would you like to hear?”
“The Jester and the Fool,” they chorused.
“Your wish is my command.” He strummed the first chords, then broke out into the song. The street urchins swung themselves around in a mock round dance. Other children clapped their hands in time to the music. Passers-by spared a quick glance at the merrymaking, then hurried to their business. Their eyes shifted from side to side with the usual suspicion, but he read a new emotion within them.
Fear for more than their lives, but their very souls. These people were hardened by their desperation and poverty. It took more than intimidation to frighten them. So what had happened in the two weeks he had been away from Narthu?
He reached out with his senses, using his song as a carrier. The music spread from him in waves and touched every soul within reach. That was Panet’s ability, to calm and to soothe. As he opened his Inner Vision, he saw dark shadows hovering over the streets, faceless and nameless, not attacking or harming, but watching as the people went about their lives.
Watching, and waiting.
For what? The shadows ignored his scrutiny, as if he didn’t exist to them. Perhaps he didn’t; they seemed intent on the other men and women of the city. Watching. And the people couldn’t see the watchers, but could feel their gaze. Little wonder they skulked around like guilty thieves in the night.
By the Gods, what are these beings? Alunius thought. He wanted to study them further, and to find out from where they came. He took a step towards the nearest spot of darkness...
Wild applause jerked him out of his trance. Alunius bowed to his impromptu audience, and gave each child a copper coin. They ran off as soon as the metal touched their hands. As soon as the last urchin disappeared, he headed in the opposite direction, towards the towers of the Narthu Cathedral.
He turned the corner and nearly ran into a solid line of people. “What in the name of the Gods—?”
A washerwoman glanced over her shoulder at his hushed exclamation. “Haven’t you heard of the entertainment today, Milord?”
He shook his head, gave her a slight smile and slipped into a courtly formal tone. “I have not, Milady. I have just arrived from abroad ; will you please enlighten me?”
The washerwoman dimpled at his calling her “Milady” and swung her basket to her opposite hip with all the grace of a princess smoothing down her skirts. “The Duke clears the scum from the jails and offers them what they deserve, here at Raven Square. If you’d like a better view, Milord, there’s room over there, at the other side.”
“Aye, I shall take your advice. My thanks, Milady.”
She dipped into a curtsey with a giggle. “You are quite welcome, Milord.”
He returned an elegant bow, then slipped into the crowd. Although his voice was pleasant as he exchanged greetings, he wanted to escape from here as fast as he could. A crowd had gathered around three sides of Raven Square with the enthusiasm of a Festival. The smooth black granite flowed like a pool of shiny tar, and at its middle stood a scaffold of sturdy oak.
Alunius saw a well-muscled form high above the crowd. A giant of a man stood at relaxed attention, a few steps from the chopping block. His arms bulged under the peasant shirt as he shifted his axe in his hands. The black breeches and boots were of dark cotton, plain but comfortable. A hood covered the executioner's head and hid his features from public view, all but his eyes and mouth.
Those marvelous eyes, he thought. Gray-green, the color of a stormy sea, hiding emotion deep within, for none to see. Alunius made a mental reminder to include it in his next ballad. The two men stared at each other in silence.
A strident voice shattered the connection. "You there, Bard! Play something else for us while we wait!"
A deeper silence fell as the crowd turned towards the speaker. Instead of rough homespun, this man wore black velvet, with scarlet piping at sleeves and hem. A circlet of silver held back a fall of dark curls. His dark eyes flashed a challenge to Alunius.
Alunius immediately dropped to one knee and schooled his face into eager attention. "And what would his Grace wish to hear? Say, and I will play.”
Duke Horan de Borchaux-Dumas smiled, perfect lips showing perfect teeth. The Monarch’s favored advisor pretended to ponder the question, then he asked, "How about “The Dark Angel's Lament”, to set the tone for this sobering event?" Horan gestured with a careless air. "The lesson in that story applies to us all, does it not?"
"Certainly, Your Grace." Alunius unslung his harp from his back and tuned it to a minor mode. "Obedience or death, quite a lesson, indeed."
As Alunius began the introduction on his harp, he matched his thoughts with the cadence of the song. Only he could hear the unspoken words: You don't see me, you will not remember me...as he hummed the tune under his breath.
The executioner gave him a slight nod, as if in complete understanding and approval. Alunius could feel the eyes of the Watchers and fear coiled around his spine. An icy skin settled over him and chilled his soul, but he took a deep breath and sang the first verse of “The Dark Angel’s Lament.”
A black wagon rumbled through the streets, its wheels creaking on their final journey. It groaned as it bounced on the cobblestones. Tendrils of fog wrapped themselves around the cart and soaked the velvet lining. Drops of water fell from the rickety bed and streamed behind it. They fell like muddy puddles of blood.
Alunius saw the wagon and cut short the musical interlude. Instead, he sang the final chorus:
Sing ye now, on your way to the bottom,
Where the sirens sing and dine
Upon your bones and on your heart
Your soul's no longer thine.
The condemned man sat next to the driver, back straight and eyes unflinching. Months of dark imprisonment had shriveled the once-portly frame and leached all color from his hair. The knuckles of his clenched fingers glowed against pasty skin. Cold sweat soaked through his velvet shirt.
Alunius allowed the final dark chords to hang in the air, then disappear into nothingness. The crowd remained silent as the wagon approached. There were no shouts, no tears, no screams of panic, only an air of expectation. Crimes were punished; that was the end of it. Alunius shivered at that hostile calm; he would have welcomed a tear or two for the condemned.
Horan laced his fingers together in his lap and leaned forward in anticipation with a gleam of delight in his handsome face. Alunius felt the inhuman pleasure at another person’s suffering and it turned his stomach. How can he sleep at night with such a black soul? Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer: He enjoys the Darkness; it is his strength.
Alunius started to slip away among the onlookers when a quiet voice stopped him. "He enjoys these things, overly so. I wonder when the hunter will become the hunted."
The executioner bowed his head in acknowledgment, then spoke again. "Good morning, Friar Alunius."
Interesting. How does he know me? Alunius wondered. He made his tone pleasant as he replied, "Blessed Sunrise to you as well, my son."
The headsman did not smile, but dry humor resonated through his voice. "Seems to be a busy day today, Friar."
"Indeed. The Gods have made their judgments. We are only instruments for their justice."
The scaffold creaked as the headsman shifted his weight. The bloody beams of sunrise gleamed on the polished steel of the axe. "Justice." The word sounded as sweet as a lover's name. Alunius turned at the unexpected sound and gazed up again at that hidden face.
"Is that an honorable word among your people as well?" He wondered just from where the headsman came.
"Yes," the big man rumbled, but he did not elaborate. He knelt in front of Alunius. "I ask your blessing and forgiveness, Friar."
Alunius hid his surprise at the unexpected request. A headsman with a conscience? He took a vial of water from his Bard’s robes. He hummed his cloaking song as he sprinkled some of the water on the headsman, the axe, and the chopping block itself.
"May the Gods we both serve bless you, my son, and wash your hands clean of the necessary evil you must do. The Gods know our hearts; they forgive."
"I thank you," the headsman murmured. He smoothly rose to his feet and assumed his guard stance. He hesitated for the first time, then he made a decision. "If we never see each other again, Friar, may I leave you a remembrance?"
Alunius shook his head at the strange request. "I need no token to remember you," he protested.
"Please, I insist. A remembrance if you will." Then the headsman stared directly at him. They looked at each other for a long moment, challenge in his eyes, questions in Alunius's.
If only I can see whose face lies under the hood! Alunius thought. Aloud, he replied, "Very well, but if it is to be a remembrance, I must know the giver's name."
A ghost of a smile appeared on the headman's lips. ""You cannot pronounce it in your language, but 'Justice' is acceptable, Friar. As you noted, it is appropriate."
"Indeed it is. Clever of you."
Justice pressed something smooth into his palm. "Keep me in your prayers, Friar, and I will keep you in mine."
Then Justice bent and half-whispered, half-sang a verse in his native language. Alunius's mouth dropped open; it sounded as if he had taken a random assortment of guttural consonants, and somehow sweetened it with flowing vowels. A message formed in his mind: If harm threatens you, Friar, remember me, and I will come. Alunius was too stunned to react.
Justice only smiled like a benevolent father to his only child. "Go with the Gods, Friar Alunius," he said.
The crowd rumbled as the black wagon ground to a halt in front of the scaffold. Ever the showman, Alunius bowed to the audience, and then to Horan. The duke only gave him a distracted nod, for all of the attention was focused on the condemned. Alunius went back to his "You don't see me" hum as he fled towards the Cathedral. A hum of metal, a heavy thunk of flesh hitting wood, and Alunius knew Justice was already hard at work.
Then he looked into his open palm. A silver charm shone under the bright morning light. The image of a stringed instrument had been carved into it with exquisite detail. Along the edge of it were strange symbols.
Funny that the taker of lives should bless mine, he thought. A genuine grin stretched the corners of his cracked lips. "The same to you, Justice," he whispered.
All original writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2011