Friday, May 19, 2017

Noblebright

Noblebright
by
Bobby Derie

Flowers opened to greet the dawn, as Rickard rode out the gates of Evilbane. He had spent the night praying and fasting in the chapel, meditating on the object of his quest, and now that the appointed hour had come he set out on it, astride the charger Alfbert.

Three orders of knighthood were there in the land, and the most exclusive were the Chaste, champions of the Queen; for it was not enough to be a doughty knight of good character and skill at arms, but one had to prove themselves of worth by a quest. When Rickard had begged the honor, the white-whiskered grandmaster looked at carefully with those kindly blue eyes of his, and asked if Rickard was prepared for the perils that lay ahead.

"I will sacrifice body and spirit, sir, to honor the queen!"

The kindly old eyes bored deep in his soul, and he light harrumphed. "Yes, perhaps you might. We shall see." Then the elder of the Chaste held up his right hand, and burning there on the fourth finger was a ring, a plain band of steel. "Know you young Rickard, that these rings are the symbol and the virtue of our order; they protect only the pure of heart - and in turn, they help keep our hearts pure, burning with cold fire when we threaten our solemn oaths. So long as we wear them, we are mighty in battle. Yet we are not invincible," and the older main pointed at the scroll of the fallen, chiseled in stone upon the altar.

"Brave Sir Alice fell defending the queen's honor - in which there is not shame - but her ring was never recovered. Return it to us, Rickard, and we will welcome you as our brother-in-arms, as one of the Chaste."

From Evilbane ran a road of the old Empire, still in good repair, the white stones shone in the dawning sun; Rickard could follow that road to the town of Beauville, and beyond that the great city of Isle-of-God, and beyond that the road went along the coast and over mountains to the heart of the old Empire itself. Yet Rickard took not this road, but after some miles he turned off on a path obviously little-used, for the paved stones gave way at last to packed earth, and then creeping grass covered that, and only a pair of rutted tracks gave evidence of the road as he entered the Red Forest.

The Red Forest was a second-growth wood, Rickard knew. The trees were spindly pines, the tallest no more than twelve or thirteen feet tall, the undergrowth still filled with smaller trees, and beneath the layer of red and brown needles would be the black and gray of ashes and charred wood. Once, all this had been cultivated fields, fruit trees, and hedges; four small thorps had sheltered in the valley, and a stream had run through it. Then had come the terrible fire, which burned the trees and buildings and crops to the ground, a flame so intense that the stream had dried in its bed and stones had cracked and turned glassy. In the aftermath of that blaze, a new growth had taken root...

Rickard marked the shadowy mounds which marked the stone foundations of house and barn, now covered with ruddy moss and the creeping thorns of rose vines. Scarlet squirrels chittered and leaped from branch to branch, and once a great cat crossed the path ahead of him, its orange fur untouched by white, pausing warily to look at him with yellow eyes before it dashed once more through the spindly bush.

At noon, he reached the Red Creek, so named because the clear water showed the reddish stains of iron its rock. He stopped to let Alfbert drink his fill, and then drank himself. As a boy, he had heard the water praised, and that its ultimate source was a spring up the mountain; his father had talked of a mine that was to be dug there...but all such talk had gone off years ago.

"Ho, fair knight," a breathy voice called, and Rickard looked up from his knees. A peasant woman stood on the far side of the stream - a face anywhere between thirty and forty, long copper hair tied back in a plait, freckled arms, well-muscled bare to the sun. She wore a leather tabard, cinched at the waist by a thick belt, and pale freckled hip and thigh poked out from the sides, her legs disappearing into high boots. Yet what took his attention was the long messer in her hands.

"Good day," Rickard said, carefully shaking his hands to dry them. "Forgive me, but I find myself unsure how to address you. I am Sir Rickard of Evilbane."

The swordwoman laughed. "A knight in the Red Forest! It has been some time since one of your kind came through here. She was a pretty thing, like you, though not so young I think. You may call me Foxwife. The Red Forest is mine, and I take a toll from all who come through it."

Rickard's brow creased. "By what right do you charge a toll? This is not your land, Foxwife. There are rightful heirs to this fief."

"Rightful? What is rightful in sitting by while this place burned, while the forest grew up without them? My right is the right of arms, poorchick. Pay me in silver or pay me in blood, whitemail or redmail, I will have my due." So saying she raised her sword vertically in both hands, the right near the guard, the bottom gripping the pommel, and her pink lips twisted into a smile.

Rickard's hand fell to the hilt of his own blade. The creek at this point was a ford of loose, smooth stones, narrowed to perhaps ten feet across and five or six inches deep. Once, there had been a bridge; but the fire had seen to that.

"Poor footing for a duel," he noted.

"Only for the one who crosses the stream."

"I could be on my horse and away."

"Oh sir knight, I did not think you one to flee a woman's challenge!" She sneered.

"I thought only of avoiding needless violence," he drew his own sword - shorter in the hilt, and in the blade than her own weapon, but doubled-edged - and from his saddle he took off the small buckler tied to Alfbert, gripping it tightly in his left hand.

Holding his blade low, and shield high, he advanced cautiously into the stream.

"I will say this, poorchick." The Foxwife's eyes narrowed. "What you lack in years, you do not lack in courage."

The rocks of the ford were slippery under his feet, and Rickard's brow was creased in concentration. The Foxwife stood on dry ground, and had in addition the longer blade, though she would have to contend with his buckler, her mail, and his helmet; that would mean a thrust - maybe not enough to kill, but enough to injure, or to keep him off the bank, since without armor reach and better footer were her greatest assets. And Rickard knew that he could get half-way, then suddenly jump, but she would expect that...no, better to proceed straight, and trust in his skill with the buckler to fend off the worst of her attacks.

All this the knight thought to himself as he edged nearer the bank, where the Foxwife was waiting expectantly...and when he was almost within a stride and a stab of the far side of the river, Alfbert gave a kind of snort, and Rickard spared a glance behind him...to see another woman with red hair rifling his saddle.

A blade tapped his buckler.

"You are too honest," said the Foxwife, who had come forward in the moment of his distraction, blade held before his unarmored face. "I wish you well on your quest, poorchick. But no-one goes through the Red Forest without paying the toll."

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Brothers in Jotunheim

Brothers in Jotunheim
by
Bobby Derie

Snow fell in Jotunheim. Fat wet flakes came from the west, blowing in off the sea. Somewhere in the darkness grey waves broke on jagged rocks, and sailors prayed as serpents uncoiled from the depths.

"Loki! Come, sit by the fire." One-Eye called.

"The cold does not bother me, brother." Loki said. "My people were born of it."

"We of the Æsir do not mind the cold either," he handed a brimming horn to the little giant, "yet we do not like ice in our mead." That brought a smile to Loki's face.

"It cuts the sweetness." The little giant said, and sipped at the horn.

Standing next to him, One-Eye cast his gaze at the shapes in the darkness - the blinded moon, hidden by cloud and craggy peak, the dark things that fly by night. Hie eye was as a piece of the darkness.

"You see much," Loki noted.

"But not all. What ails you, brother? If there is a burden on your heart, let us share it."

"It is no light weight." The little giant sighed. "I am cast out among my own kind, a bastard child of a bastard race. Welcome neither among gods or jotunn. Can you know what that means, One-Eye?"

"I, too, have been counted an outsider among my people. The hanged man, learned in woman's magic. You are not alone, brother."

"For now," the little giant stared out into the night. "Yet I know my heart, and the joy I get in the suffering of things, and my own cleverness, grows. One day I know my mischief will turn too dark for the Æsir and Vanir. One day I will sleep with the wrong wife, or insult a god past amends; I may slay one of your own sons in a duel over some petty affair. Then what shall be my lot? We have been heroes of many stories together, brother - but what then when I am a villain? Shall I be any less the villain than the hero? And worse, shall I enjoy it more."

One-Eye drank deep of his mead, and he turned that terrible eye on Loki. The little giant felt the weight of his gaze, and sipped from his own horn.

"Many brothers have turned against each other. It is the nature of family to gather together in defense of each other, and yet familiarity and strong wills lead to struggle. Well do I know this, for I have wrestled with my own kin, aye an drawn steel against them in anger. Yet I call you my brother, and when I made that bond with you I did it not as a child does, who knows only his mother's belly grows and then he has a new playmate. I made you my brother knowing how much we are different and alike, that you may heal my heart or break it, that you would ever have my back as I would have yours - and if one day we come to enmity and blows, I will yet always treasure that kinship between us, and hold it as the jewel of my treasured memories. For there is no-one else in this world I would have as my brother. Now come!" He offered his hand. "The mead grows cold - and as I said, we Æsir care not for ice in our mead."

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Kinder Guardian

Kinder Guardian
by
Bobby Derie

Not every child was curious. One stood apart from her fellows, very quiet. She would stand at the edge of the playground, watching the trees. Once, I asked her why.

"Because they come from the trees. The shadows. The other kids don't know. It's better that way. They wouldn't know how to fight them anyway." She had wrapped an old silver necklace around her small fist, the links pressing into the flesh, like knuckles. "And you have to fight them. I won't let anyone else be taken."

She stared into the trees and raised her voice. "Never again."

Her name, I later found out, was Violet. But the children called her Vengeance. She was the only child I knew that was never curious...because she already knew.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Testing of the Sword

The Testing of the Sword
by
Bobby Derie

The sun was a long time dying. The bloated red giant dominated the sky above the city, wherever cloud cover and the dilapidated dome permitted a glance at the unfiltered heavens. Few looked up. The earthgazers below went about their business. Doom pending too long is shoved into the background of life, ignored in favor of more immediate concerns.

I still looked at the sky. The rooftop biergarten of the Tezcatzontecatl's Rest was shielded against the worst of the rain by a long, clear plastic screen, but let in enough of the breeze to permit those of us who still smoked to do so. Among the scattered tables with their scarred tops and hard, immobile cement benches we few would gather to look out at the sky and city below, sometimes into the wee hours, watching the launch of the long, slow evacuation.

This night, we admired one great vessel shaped like a sword of old. I had pointed out the distinction to the others, and they agreed - all except for one. She said nothing for a while, and then finishing her beer, she signaled for another.

"It reminds me of a sword I knew once." was all she said, and I knew we were in for one of her stories.

Cerveza is what we called her, and that was what she drank; she never answered to anything else, though sometimes she would drink mescal, sotol, or pulque, as the mood took her. Yet most of the time it was cerveza, the kind brewed in Gaujona by descendants of German immigrants. It was what she was drinking tonight, telling the story between sips.

"We had been commissioned to make a certain kind of sword - well, to investigate the possibility of such a forging. The client had been particular in what they wanted, but was not clear whether the skills or materials were available, or what it would cost if both were available. Typical freelancer stuff, I was involved in a number of such ventures in my younger days. I had been doing metalwork at the time - 'sword art' as I called it - putting an old apprenticeship of mine to good use; that was how I got the job. Simone was our researcher, she knew more about the lore of such things than was good for anyone, and Drax was our face, who held the purse strings and arranged whatever was needed arranging."

She flexed the great muscles in her arms, and we could easily imagine her in soot-stained apron and goggles at the forge.

"What kind of sword did the client want?" someone asked. Perhaps it was me; I was drinking tequila that night.

"A magic sword." Cerveza said, without blinking. "That was the problem, of course. What makes a sword magic? Simone had to crunch a bunch of data on that one. She shifted through hundreds of accounts and legends - some said it was the material that the sword was made of, meteoric or thunderbolt iron, church bells melted down, that kind of thing. Others said it had to do with who forged it - dwarfs, giants, demons, gods, fairies. Or how it was was forged, the conditions and ritual of the thing - many old grimoires on ceremonial magic specify the day and hour for such operations - or the decorations, the runes and spells that have to be carved and whispered over the blade." She took a swig. "All rubbish, of course."

One or two of us must have raised our eyebrows at this, because she scowled like she had just reached for an orange and bitten into a lime.

"The problem with legends and stories, is that they are all written down - and not by the smiths. No, I said to Drax and Simone, if we were going to investigate the possibility of making a magic sword, we'd first have to find one and test it out. None of you are smiths, or you would know that a lot of the old smithing traditions about forging have nothing to do with quenching in unicorn blood or sharpening it under a full moon just for the sake of being magic, they were working trial-and-error with their materials, learning by experience what worked. You try measuring the temperature of metal back in medieval Europe or ancient Japan, or the salinity of the brine you're using to quench the metal - they just didn't have the technology back then. So if we were going to do this scientifically, there was nothing to do but to find an actual magic sword and test it."

"Well, it took a bit of talking but they came around to my way of thinking, and Simone found us a list of magic swords, and Drax tried to make arrangements to test them. That was a difficulty; not many people that had magic swords wanted you to look at them too close once they found out why you wanted to do it. Maybe they were afraid that the swords weren't so magic after all, or maybe they didn't want to see them mass-produced...I don't pretend to know which. Finally, I told Drax to ask the client about it."

Cerveza set the empty bottle down on the bar, and looked at it unhappily.

"The client?" I asked, and signaled the bartender, who arrived with two new bottles, beaded with cold sweat.

"Well of course. The only reason you want a magic sword is if you have something specific in mind for it. Nobody makes a magic sword just to have it, or else they'd be a hell of a lot more common. Every hero down the ages would have a sword and pass it down to their kids, and before you know it, we'd be ass-deep in the things. So it stood to reason that the client had a good idea of what they wanted, and as it turned out, they did."

"I have to say, it wasn't what I was expecting - because the sword was broken. That was the crux of the issue of course, their magic sword was broken and they needed a new one. Simple enough, so we went in to see the broken sword. I don't know what I was expecting - Simone was almost breathless, and Drax never stopped playing on her phone, she just didn't care - but what we got was something out of the La Tène culture. Very Iron Age. Originally it was long and straight, but most of the blade had broken off at some point - it was curled up at the edges, so I think maybe at some point it was deliberately bent, possibly for burial. The guard was cast bronze - a little strange in and of itself - and had the most curious humanoid figure on the pommel, a little like a Sheela-na-gig, but with curling goat horns on the head. Most of the blade was corroded, but we could see the curling serpents pattern-welded into the sword."

"Well, after that there was nothing to do but drag it to the neutron source at the university - I knew some of the grad students, and they let us take a few images; we got a good look at the tang, and the metallurgical makeup of the thing. Simone cross-referenced everything, by the time we were done she could tell you with good certainty which mine in Scandinavia the iron for the blade had come from, and the way the rune on the tang was carved, and just about all you'd need to forge a new sword just like it."

Cerveza idly sketched the sword on the bar counter; it did look remarkable like the ship we were talking about earlier, though with a smaller guard, and the blade straighter and somewhat stub-nosed.

"That was the problem, actually. Simone realized it first, when we had it all laid out. She cried on my shoulder for almost an hour, and Drax had to report our failure to the client." She grimaced and chugged what was left of the beer, then stared past us, up at the sky. The clouds had parted a little, revealing a long pale sliver of red sun. "Once you explained it all like that, it wasn't magic anymore. We'd analyzed it to death."

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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Deer Woman

The Deer Woman
by
Bobby Derie

"You must do more than want it," the old woman drew aside the cobwebbed curtain. The tall cabinet was built directly into the wall. It reminded Ashe of a coffin. Her heart fluttered as the grey-brown arm moved out of her view.

The cabinet had no back. Nestled against the bare wall of the cave was a corpse. Dark flesh like leather was drawn tight against the bones. The overall shape was human, arms crossed over its chest, the wide pelvis decorated by a string of bronze coins suggesting a woman. Yet the skull had vast empty sockets separated by a long bony snout; hints of white teeth on the jaw that was mostly hidden by the angle of the head, and on top... they looked like twigs, but Ashe knew better.

"Antlers." she breathed.

"Her last set. She never shed them." the old woman was watching her, the piercing brown eyes set in that wide face. "This is what you sought. This is what you think you want. But seeking and wanting is not enough. If you truly want this, there must be action. Are you ready to do what it takes?"

"What is the price? There's always a price."

The lips stretched in a gaping, toothless smile.

"The price for what you want is becoming what you want."
#
"The last one" the old woman said, as she gently ran the razor over Ashe's scalp, "she ate the remains of her predecessor. Stripped the flesh from her bones, ground bones and horns to paste."
The knife bit into the flesh of her temples, hot liquid running over the sides of her head. She felt the edge scrape against bone.
"The one before that, drank her blood. Offered herself up to the Horned God. Ran with the Hunt." The old woman's hands were strong, and held Ashe's head firmly at the terrible pressure now pressing on her temples.
"Thrice-removed was a man in body, a woman in spirit. Outcast, sought out by the lonely, she lived alone amid the skins and trappings. Her spirit partook of the spirit of animals he hunted; she honored them, and they fed and clothed him. Until she found something more."
Fire burned at Ashe's temples, and her head felt heavy.
"The syntax changes. The way of becoming. You may do all of these things, or none of them. You are them, and yet you are - you must be - must become - yourself. Look."
The old woman held up a greasy mirror. Ashe marveled at her own reflection.
"The horns become you, my dear."

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Friday, April 14, 2017

The Circle Must Break

The Circle Must Break
by
Bobby Derie


Turlough fell before the walls of Urzurum,
A broad bronze spear through his stomach,
He lay trampled by his fellows as the moon rose,
And a tiny pink girl-child with a bronze knife kindly cut his throat.


Murdoc, son of Turlough, died guarding the tents of the clan,
With hunter's skill the thief waited for his prey in the shadows,
Her iron dagger coal-black to not reflect the moonlight,
And she watched as he bled out, shaking at her first kill.


Dubh was the widow's child, given as thrall to pay a debt,
His mother looked not on him again;
Captured in chains when the horse-men came,
And died in chains one long night many winters since.


Fianna was daughter of slaves, and knew not her people,
Dwelt forever among cast-down eyes and broken tusks,
Bled upon the floor where-ever and whenever her master took her,
And at sight of her stunted son, fought not for life.


Orin rose outcast, the unacknowledged bastard,
No favor, no friends, only a worn iron knife whet to a fine edge,
Freedom came in the moonless night as a chain of bleeding throats,
And in the dark swamp, he became a legend would-be masters feared.


Talin, orc-child, conceived in pain one dark night,
Born in pain, his mother knew him,
When of age, his father knew him,
And yet, will he know himself?


The orcs break upon the walls,
The orcs slave and are enslaved,
The orcs rape and are raped,
The circle must break.


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Friday, April 7, 2017

Picnic Amid the Ruins

Picnic Amid the Ruins
by
Bobby Derie

Starfire burned down on us from the firmament, pale and bright on the moonless moor, as we tramped down to the ruins. Ludmilla ran ahead, freckles speckling her bare shoulders, fangs flashing like the little predator she was as she chased after the small furry prey that moved at night. Her sister-in-blood, Lashauna, was the new moon to Ludmilla's full moon, chocolate skin gone grey in the starlight save for a patch of vitiligo over one eye, slipping through the tall grass light as an owl. Their eyes and smiles were the same, and I smiled to watch them run, now apart, now hand in hand.

The old stones stood on a bit of a hill, and I reckoned that there was more than foundations buried beneath the soil, the deposition of centuries, covered with grass and stunted, windswept oak. Stone doorways led to half-filled chambers, and the girls liked to clamber and slither through the "caves," making friends with bat and serpent. Lashauna spoke of the worms of the earth, and Ludmilla spoke of hidden treasures, or wondered if not some unspoken cousin might sleep in some antechamber yet undiscovered, waiting to be awakened.

Our picnic-spot was "the altar stone" - though in truth I thought it more likely to be the base of a ciderpress, a roughly pentagonal block of smooth stone into which a groove had been carefully ground around the edges, coming together in the front to let the juices flow into the waiting receptacle. It served as a suitable table for the offerings I had brought this night, and laid out with care, the small forms squirming against their bonds and flinching at my every caress, the worn gold cups and knives, and of course the book. The girls shrieked their ultrasonic "Marco Polos" - the bat's equivalent of the game, where the victim stayed silent, and the blind pursuer found them by echolocation.

When all was in preparation, I called out softly, yet they stopped and stared at me like lionesses caught at feasting, eyes wide, blood dripping from their chins. Some poor rabbit, most likely; always children spoil their appetite. I called them again, and the wind turned, bringing their scent to me as they half-clambered and half-flew on the breeze. They nestled at my feet, one on either side, and on impulse I knelt down and kissed each on her forehead in turn. Then I reached over and retrieved the book.

"Before we eat, darlings," and the fat squirming things struggled, pudgy fingers flailing, "let us have a story and a lesson..."

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