Tales from a Thousand Lands:
Concerning the Distraction of Mages
By Mark James
Part One: THE COTTAGE AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
There was once a beautiful maiden who dwelt in a cottage by the sea in the land of Maerydeyn. For company she had her good hound Powl and her enchanted bird Osche, for distraction she plied her fingers about the embroidery circle, fashioning scenes of the world as she perceived it. Nature was her abiding love. She delighted to compose pictures of beasts and fishes, flowers and trees, and would have been happy to spend all her days thus employed. But sometimes, a strange mood would grip her. Bereft of will, she would bend to the circle and beneath her fingers would grow scenes of lands that no man had ever explored. So detailed were these alien reveries that many men avowed the maiden had suffered visions of those other worlds, which great philosophers claim float in a cavern at the centre of the earth. Her pictures, though composed of naught but silken thread, were reputed to hold manifest within them, a power that made them live as through they were, indeed, the uncorrupted impressions of a human eye.
So a legend rooted and grew within the land of Maerydeyn: The Maiden Traeche was an adept of the first water; her magic bound within the silks and cottons which daily she shaped beneath her nimble fingers. And it was further attested, by men wise enough to be given respectful hearing in any great hall, that any man who found himself growing restless; any man who could not sleep because of the chirruping of his fear-tossed mind, any man wracked by an insidious multiplicity of emasculating doubts and cancerous uncertainties, need do nothing more than hie himself away to the cottage at the Edge Of The World. There, the Sorceress Traeche would bid him enter her most secret room and feast his eyes upon her dream-weavings, there to find peace through contemplation of the mysteries.
There are advantages to be accrued from such notoriety, but the maiden who dwelt in the ottage at the Edge Of The World was, by nature, a solitary creature and the legend of her name was a weight she would have been pleased to shrug from her slender shoulders.
Often, she would stand at the Edge Of The World and speak to the sea: ‘I have my cottage, I have you the sea, I have my good hound Powl and my enchanted bird Osche, I have my threads and fancies, what more should I desire?’ But, as ever, the sea kept its own counsel.
The longer she maintained her innocence of power, the more convinced the world became of her modesty and its veracity. Each new spring saw more men trekking to the cottage at the Edge Of The World and begging the maiden Traeche to allow them access to her private gallery. She would sigh for her fractured peace, then bid them look and be gone. Warriors, merchants, craftsmen, priests, magicians, princes, pederasts, paupers, shamen and mountebanks; all entered the secret chamber to gaze upon the scenes of her skill. Snared by the beauty of her designs, their minds would be swept along strange roads and byways towards destinations that seemed to promise answers. It is true that the answers they found were not always the answers they desired, but no man ever left the cottage at the Edge Of The World claiming that the maiden's magic was weak or spiritless. Thus did her legend grow with every new spring.
‘How can I help it?’ She would ask the sea. ‘My fingers spin and stitch; my pictures grow and breathe and in them men claim to find the solutions to their petty dilemmas. For me this art is naught but my distraction; it has never been my desire to wield power. If I could be rid of it I would and gladly!’
It is said that once upon a time, King Aelwyn of Damaresque made a progress to the cottage at the Edge Of The World and in his train rode a company of warriors who guarded a palanquin that carried a chest of purest beaten gold. The chest contained the combined wealth of three conquered nations: diamonds the size of babies’ fists, rubies the colour of dragon blood, emeralds as green as the eyes of a Goddess. There were spices from mythic Eastern realms, so much carved jade that to examine it was to consider it commonplace, silken threads flecked with gold and silver, hair-thin wires drawn from purest electrum, coins from a thousand nations, pearls from a hundred oceans and the weight of a charger in platinum bars.
King Aelwyn cast this wealth at her feet and then, humbled by her pale beauty, knelt on the ground and spoke: ‘Good Maiden Traeche. Here is such fabulous wealth that even the most jewel-sated princes and merchants would weep to think it might join their treasuries. Here on the sandy ground are jewels which stand as the very paradigm of beauty and metals reserved from thousands of tons of ore to be the very paragon of purity. With these excellent things it is entirely possible that you could buy the world and I swear this treasure will be your dower if you will consent to take my hand and travel in consort with me back to the lands I rule, there to occupy the rosy throne at my right hand as my wife and my queen!’
The Maiden Traeche frowned as if in irritation at the insistent buzzing of a sand fly, she considered the treasure and agreed that it was as marvellous as the king proclaimed then she breathed deeply and replied: ‘Sir, you honour me and your words are gentle. But I have my cottage, I have my good hound Powl and my enchanted bird Osche; I have the sea and I have my art; when I have so much why should I seek for more?’
King Aelwyn of Damaresque, whom tutors elevated as an example to errant princelings and kings in waiting of all that was right and proper in a ruler, knelt at the maiden's feet and cried. The wealth of three conquered nations was forgotten, it might have been naught but gaudy sea shells and wave-washed pebbles, so bitter was his gall. He wept and begged her to accept his proposal, for all the world a ragged pauper begging alms at the gate of a fat and miserly merchant. His men looked on, never daring to believe that they had lived to witness such a shameless exhibition. When the sun had sunk lower than his heart, King Aelwyn climbed to his feet, dried his tears, and mounted his charger to lead his men back to the lands from whence they had come; there to walk the halls of a barren palace where the sound of laughter was a distant memory and the smile of a king naught but rumour.
The Maiden Traeche returned to the cottage at the Edge Of The World; to her good hound Powl, her enchanted bird Osche and her self-possession.
Now, in those days it was the habit of men to engage in warfare, for it was believed that the worth of a man was measured by his prowess with sword and spear. Kings and Barons would wage war on their rivals given the slightest provocation; if a neighbouring bonded man picked wild fruit from the wrong side of a hedge or some cattle strayed and damaged a fence, for by doing so they won honour for themselves and their sons. Never mind that the night air was often riven by the lamentations of widowed women and fatherless children, men would have it no other way.
In a land far from the Edge Of The World, dwelt a king who had three sons. He was a man of rare wisdom who believed that the honour of his house was best served if he taught the princes to lead long and prosperous lives, to rule wisely and remember the common folk of the land. For many years, he ruled a harmonious kingdom where the crops were lush and abundant in the fields, the trees groaned beneath the burden of apples, the cattle were fat and the rivers thick with fish.
It so happened that King Jole had a neighbour and his name was King Guthrik. Guthrik was a large man with a full beard and limited ambitions: ale and warfare were his pleasures. He was known throughout the western plains of Maerydeyn for a lazy man who ruled a feckless and idle people.
One evening, in the autumn when the sun had died and the fires in his great hall gave little warmth, for he was too mean to provide fuel and his men were too lazy to gather it, King Guthrik gazed at his trencher, which bore naught but a long splinter of bone to which a few scraps of charred and blackened meat clung like a series of random afterthoughts. He hoisted his mug, only necessity gave him the will to swallow the thin and sour ale which his alewives had managed to brew from the weevil infested ingredients they had to work with. He looked at the scrofulous hounds, which lay by his hearth. He looked at his warband sprawled disconsolately around the draughty hall. And finally, he spoke:
‘Why should King Jole enjoy fat venison and rich dark ale when I cower in my great hall with naught but stringy mutton and vinegar to slake my appetite? In King Jole’s land there is food to spare, aye, there are ripe women, ale and honour to be won! I am minded to saddle my horse and seek the good king’s hospitality, and if he should refuse me entrance, then by my oath there will be a reckoning of steel and his head shall be forfeit. Thus do I swear, thus it must be!’
So it was that King Guthrik ordered his men to horse and led them to the hall of King Jole, where the door was quickly barred against them.
Prince Berrenor, eldest of Jole’s sons, stood atop the high palisade with a score of deadly archers at his back. ‘King Guthrik,’ he cried, ‘why do you arrive at my father’s gate arrayed for war? Tell me, what has he done to offend you so?’
‘Your father,’ Guthrik replied, ‘sits by the fire in his great hall eating well-hung venison and supping on strong dark ale. His barns are sick with food and his women are comely. How could I not be offended?’
Prince Berrenor laughed. ‘Your words are true; my father’s people are well provided for, for they labour hard in the fields and thus earn the right to share in the prosperity of this land. Why should my father not enjoy the comforts of his great hall when he rules his people wisely and is known throughout the thousand lands as a just and gentle man?’
King Guthrik could find no answer that pleased him more than a single arrow dispatched from his longbow to pierce the prince’s heart. Thus it was that King Jole lost his first son, and the sounds of lamentation rent the night air for the first time in living memory.
Then war raged, and the king’s people found little honour in the pain, the death, and the misery which festered in the land where once the fields had been rich and the people contented.
One day, the sun rose in the West stained crimson by the blood of the fallen. Prince Camlynn; who was the second of Jole’s sons, rode from his father’s holdings, decked in his golden armour and followed by twenty men of the warband. His intention; to seek a final reckoning of single combat to be conducted in accordance to the rules of honour that every man of royal birth begins to learn at the breast of his wet nurse.
In a valley between two high hills, Prince Calmynn ordered his standard to be raised, and when it was done, he cried out a challenge. ‘King Guthrik, you have slain my brother and laid waste to this bright land. I dare you to meet me here in single combat that I might prosecute your many crimes upon your person. If you fail to answer this summons, then I say you are craven and you must return at once to your great hall to dine on scraps and sup on vinegar!’
The challenge enraged King Guthrik, and he rode out to meet the prince saying: ‘Prince Camlynn you are rash indeed to hie so far from your Dun with these few piss-poor men. True it is I have ravaged your land, and true it is that your mewling brother met his death at my hand. These things do not dishonour me; I have done naught but what any brave man would do. So, my young prince, let us draw our swords and lay on with a will, for I will not have it said by a bitch-spawned, milksop son of the superior King Jole that Guthrik is craven!’
And so they fought, and though Prince Camlynn was a brave and virtuous man, he fell in the end and his blood soaked the valley between two high hills. Thus it was that King Jole lost his second son.
Later that night, King Jole sat alone in his great hall that had once echoed with the sounds of laughter and good fellowship. He buried his head in his hands and sighed with a sadness so overwhelming that tears were but the weakest testament of it. So, it seemed to those who passed that the king did not grieve for his sons, for he could not cry for them. He stared into the bitter dregs of his wine and silently begged the gods to tell him what he had done to so offend them that they brought tragedy to his land and its people. When Lorin, youngest of his sons, approached the throne some hours after midnight, the king did not have the energy to acknowledge his presence.
‘Father, something must be done to end this. Though both my brothers have died by King Guthrik’s evil hand, I will not shirk my duty or my oath. On the morrow, I shall lead the remainder of the warband, and if I cannot return with Guthrik’s head on a pike, I shall not return. Thus do I swear, thus ….’
‘No!’ the king cried before the binding oath could be spoken. ‘Must we sacrifice an entire line on the anvil of Guthrik’s petty appetites? Long have I considered the matter and solemn have been the deliberations. We must seek help, my son. We cannot hope to defeat Guthrik by force of arms, for we have become a peaceful folk with little aptitude for the so-called arts of war. I am of the opinion that we must seek magic, and to that end I am resolved to send you into the wide world to find us a wizard. Let him claim whatever is in our power to give him, only bring him back to us, Lorin. A wizard is our final and only hope!’
Though honour would have him seek vengeance, Prince Lorin recognised the wisdom of his father’s words. He sought counsel from his tutor, Jeeret.
‘Wizards, Prince Lorin, they are hard to find. Whom would you seek? Furiens of Bright Marsh, Devern Firewielder, Caradoc the Unreliable, Gruthin Many Fingered, Arlais Dragonmaster?’
‘I do not think, good Jeeret, that it is necessary to specify a particular mage. Any wizard will do.’
‘Though you think you are past the time for lessons, you must sit by me again and listen well. Wizards are self-possessed and much given to the practice of politics. The rules of wizardly politics are obscure; it would be safer to bed with a nest of vipers than seek to understand the labyrinthine complexities of necromantic wrangling. In short, dearest of my pupils, they do not take kindly to being found. You might search a hundred years without scenting so much as the memory of one on the air. Better you should seek to tame a dragon and fly to beg audience of the sun. But, if you are resolved on this path, then I have some knowledge which could prove useful.
‘In a cottage at the Edge Of The World dwells a maiden, Traeche is her name, and she spends her long days weaving and broidering. It is said that certain wizards are in the habit of visiting her, for her skills are so precise that they can easily be turned to the fashioning of such delicate and mazey artefacts as wizards deem necessary to their spells. Seek out the cottage at the Edge Of The World and hide you thereabouts. If you are patient a wizard should, eventually, come a-calling.’
‘Thank you, Jeeret, this is valuable advice indeed!’
‘The lesson is not yet over, Prince of my heart. Keep your wits about you when you strike the bargain. Be wary of making promises, for wizards will readily accept them and grant your desires whether you like it or not. In short, bravest boy, be precise in your language, strive to be unequivocal!’
That same evening, the maiden Traeche was sitting by her hearth tending to her work. At her feet lay her good hound Powl. On a high lintel, her enchanted bird Osche groomed his feathers. Of a sudden came a rapping at the door. The enchanted bird Osche opened one bright eye and spoke. ‘Good maiden Traeche, tis the wizard Ulvin Many Shaped come a-calling. Wary ye be, for he does not promise friendship.’
The maiden Traeche opened the door to find a golden youth upon her step. Bright he was and handsome as the dawn.
‘Greeting, fairest of maidens,’ spoke the youth with a honeyed tongue. ‘Might a poor traveller beg the meanest of crusts at your door?’
The maiden’s heart was hard. ‘Do not dissemble here, wizard. My enchanted bird Osche says you are Ulvin Many Shaped, and I think he is right.’
The wizard laughed and waved a hand dramatically before his face. The air rippled for a moment, before the maiden Traeche found herself face to face with the nondescript little man that might have been the wizard’s true form.
‘Do not blame me if I seem to play games; it is my nature to appear to be what I am not.’ So saying, he entered the cottage at the Edge Of The World and made himself comfortable on a stool by the fire. ‘You will have heard of events in the wide world.’
‘I do not concern myself with the wide world, Ulvin Many Shaped. I have my good hound Powl. I have my enchanted bird Osche. I have my cottage and I have my distraction. I find these things sufficient to my needs.’
‘Nevertheless,’ the wizard snapped, ‘will you or nil you, the world turns. It so happens that at this time I am engaged in a wizardly feud with the self-confessed scoundrel and notorious mountebank Hesprijn Soreheart. Believe me, good maiden, the world will be a sweeter place for the lack of him! To effect this most desirable of circumstances, I would have you broider me a scene that will contain his death. I shall leave instructions so that your stitching and threading might proceed as I wish. When ‘tis done, he will need only to look upon it once for it to canker his feeble mind to thoughts of most delicious suicide. Now, Maiden Traeche, will you do the work?’
Though she had no desire to be the instrument of another’s death, she knew the extent of the wizard’s powers. It was sensible to fear him, so she could do nothing but nod her head.
‘And what will be your price?’
‘My wish is only for peace, an end to the world following the path to my door. I would be undisturbed, Ulvin Many Shaped.’
‘You are intent on this?’
‘Then I swear it shall be as you ask, but not until you have broidered my desire, and see you stitch it well! I will return a year from now. On that date, assuming the work proves satisfactory, your wish shall be paid in full. Until that time, farewell.’ Ulvin Many Shaped left the cottage at the Edge Of The World, stood for a moment in the clear moonlight, then changed into a giant bat and flapped away to the south.
The maiden Traeche sat to her work once more, preferring, for the moment, to ignore the parchment the wizard had left behind. On his high lintel, the enchanted bird Osche opened his other bright eye and said: ‘Beware, my mistress, beware the wish of your heart, for it is said that when a wizard strikes a bargain, he will give you what you desire whether you like it or not.’
The maiden Traeche ignored the enchanted bird Osche and bent her head to the embroidery circle. Losing herself in distraction, sighing at the felicities of the world.
Autumn was a month old when Prince Lorin entered Seredoc Forest. His journey had not been uneventful, but each trial had been overcome, and he felt he had acquitted himself as befitted his gentle birth.
‘Good, my master, water I beg. If ye can spare a drop, give me water.’
The prince raised his eyes to look in some awe at the curious creature that had disturbed his thoughts. It bore the face of a crocodilian, the body of an ape and the legs of a mountain goat. High it was, pinioned sound to the trunk of a great tree, staked and tied in place, bound secure to wither and die there.
‘Morrow, friend.’ The prince replied as he reigned in his horse and detached the leather water bottle from the horn of his saddle. ‘You are indeed a strange individual and, in truth, most ugly to look upon. But I would not see a fellow creature in such distress. If you promise that no harm will come to me by your hand, I will gladly give you water and bring you down from that tree.’
‘Ah, dear prince, for prince I name you for the gold in your aura, it would be a delight to gambol through Seredoc again. I fear it must not be, for it is my nature to rend and slay all living flesh that comes within my orbit. Even now, I desire to sink my good sharp fangs into your throat and drink your sweet blood. I know it would be wrong but, alas, we are all slaves to our natures. I, Karkavieschk, affirm this a truth, for did I not allow myself to be pinioned sound that I might never kill again? I ask only that, in return for their lives, those who venture through Seredoc stop awhile by my tree to give me water and news. Alas, there have been few travellers this year and I find that I am often thirsty.’
The prince carried the water bottle over to the tree. ‘Karkavieschk, I think, despite your ill nature which is indeed a cruel one, that you are good at heart, so you are welcome to drink your fill. But we have a problem; you are very high and I cannot see any handholds in the wood. How will you drink?’
Karkavieschk extended his long blue and red mottled tongue. It flapped in the air for a moment like a confused snake, before reaching out for the neck of the bottle, wrapping itself around the stopper, removing it and plunging into the water. It curled into a living pipe and drained the bottle to the very last drop. 'You will observe, good prince, that the gods have blessed me with a means by which I might snare such rabbits and squirrels that cross my path. Thus, I do not starve, but you must not fear; I am not strong enough to subdue anything much larger than a suckling pig.’
Since it was close to midday, the prince made camp and proceeded to break his fast on the last of the dried meat he had carried from his father’s great hall. He offered a good portion of the rations to Karkavieschk, but the creature declared that he could manage naught but fresh meat. After eating his fill, the prince made a pillow from his blanket and lay back beneath the watery sun. ‘Tell me, if you do not consider it an impertinence, what do you do all day, splayed and pinioned as you are?’
‘I think, my prince. I philosophise.’
‘And have you reached any conclusions?’
‘Only one, my friend. I have proven, with most puissant logic and faultless reasoning, that death is the answer to all problems. Since I deal in naught but death it might be said that I embody a pure truth. This conclusion is not pleasing to me. Will you, in turn, tell me your name and explain why you travel through Seredoc alone?’
‘I am prince Lorin, once the third, now the only son of King Jole. I travel through Seredoc because I follow the path that leads to the Edge Of The World. By the cottage at the Edge Of The World it is my intention to observe such toings and froings as occur in the hope that I will find a wizard who will return to my father’s land to end the foolish war that now rages there.’
‘A noble ambition, a brave quest! And one which would seem to coincide with my own dearest wish. I too would meet a wizard and strike the bargain that will forever alter my nature so that the creatures of the world might, thereafter, enter Seredoc and fear naught but their own foolishness, which in men, saving present company, has always been a commodity in rich abundance.’
‘If you are suggesting that we travel together there are a number of problems to solve. You are pinioned high in your tree and, by your own admission, best left there. In order to travel you must be mobile, and were you so I fear my blood would be spilled in Seredoc before the passing of another day.’
‘Tis true, Prince Lorin, ‘tis true indeed. But we must not be downcast, for by my lights I declare that we are both intelligent and resourceful. Such creatures as you and I will not be defeated by piffling practicalities. We shall bend our minds to the problem and, in due time, find the solution!’
It was Autumn in Seredoc and such men and other creatures who had no stomach for the season of war had set themselves a-travelling. So it was that as night fell with the prince and the monster no nearer to their vaunted solution, Evrien the Empirical stumbled across their camp. He was small and weakly built, not a hair grew on his head, but he wore a fine beard that was thick and dark and so long that he was forced to tuck it into his belt for fear that it would tangle his feet as he walked. Slung across his shoulders was a large pack that wilted and sagged like a dispirited child, for it was almost empty. Drawn by the light, unmindful of danger and unaware of Karkavieschk, Evrien walked boldly towards the fire with his hands held palms outward in the universal sign of peace.
Lorin bolted awake and stood with his sword drawn to confront the stranger.
‘Belay, sir, belay. If you’ve eyes in your head, and I reckon you have, then you’ll see that I don’t carry so much as a filleting blade or lady’s dirk. Moreover, it’s an unvarying law of existence that a large, powerful and, one might say, young fellow like yourself will always rise the victor should he essay to scrap with a mean, thin and older fellow such as stands before you now with his belly grumbling and his head light from lack of what we might call nourishment.’
‘Who are you man? Why do you travel through Seredoc without the means to defend yourself?’
‘I am Evrien the Empirical and I make such sense of the world as the world allows. Seredoc is a place of legends, but legends do not interest Evrien. He sees trees, he sees grass and birds, in short he sees a forest, and your forests are not dangerous places.'’
‘You claim there is no danger in Seredoc? I fear you are wrong and to prove my point I refer you to yonder tree. There is Karkavieschk and he would rip out your throat as soon as look at your swollen head!’
‘I see naught but an exceedingly ugly creature staked high there. Should I fear his fangs when his bonds are unbreakable? I am Evrien the Empirical, sir, and I make such sense of the world as the world allows.’ And so saying, the little man turned his back on Karkavieschk and squatted by the fire to feast on the half-cooked carcass of a rabbit that the prince had been saving for his breakfast.
‘Master Evrien!’ Kafrkaviesch called, amazed by the fellow’s presumption. ‘You stroll into our camp without invitation and consume Prince Lorin’s breakfast? Why, this is nothing more than common theft! In the wide world, one must needs pay reparations for one’s thievery, whether it be with one’s life, one’s goods or one’s liberty. Pray, inform us how you will repay the prince?’
Evrien hardly paused in his scrunchings and snifflings. ‘I will pay no reparations, misshapen one. Consider this fine coney on which I feast. It was, until recently, a free citizen of the forest. In killing it this prince has committed a most heinous crime, to whit, in short, and very much to the point, cold blooded murder! Surely only his family could hope to claim the corpse. Therefore, whether you skin, spit, herb, baste and broil the carcass is of no matter. This prince has no right to it nor, indeed, do I. My theft, if theft it be, is from the scions of the rabbit’s noble house, to whom I will gladly make obeisance of freshly dug root vegetables, succulent tubers and fresh greens at the earliest opportunity.’
Incandescent with fury, Prince Lorin strode to the fire, selected a stout cudgel of fallen wood and rapped it soundly across Evrien’s bald pate, rendering him immediately unconscious and guaranteeing a peaceful night’s sleep for them all.
When the prince opened his eyes early the next morning, it was in the profound hope that Evrien the Empirical - a name ill suited to the fellow, surely he was the irritation or the impossible - had accepted his knock on the head as representative of such gifts as he might expect, should he further decide to burden them with his company. Unfortunately, the little man was squatting on his haunches by the fire, gnawing the last of the rabbit bones and waiting for the water to boil.
‘So, you are still here!’ The prince cried as he stood to rub the knots and kinks from his body.
‘And why should I leave? If there is danger in Seredoc, I’m safer in your company than me own. I am Evrien the Empirical, and I make such sense of the world as the world allows.’
‘Bravo, good Evrien, bravo indeed!’ Karkavieschk had evidently spent a comfortable night in his tree. ‘If your conclusions are as practical as you would have us believe then I vow you will be well-used by this company. Guarded, protected and, not to put too fine a point on it, honoured, sir!’
They were the most foolish words Prince Lorin had heard spoken in many a long year. Although he liked Karkavieschk, and considered him a most sensible fellow, he decided to ignore them both and concentrate on the provision of breakfast. His own breakfast.
‘Consider, Master Evrien,’ Karkavieschk went on. ‘Here I am pinioned sound to the trunk of this fine old oak, and pinioned here is the best place for me! But I would gambol through Seredoc again. I would join my friend Prince Lorin on his quest to find the Edge Of The World. However, if he did accept me into his company I guarantee his royal blood would soak the forest floor before the day was done. His sweet flesh would lie heavily in my ravenous belly. Therefore the problem stands to this account; how are we to accomplish the proposed journey and arrive safely at our destination with all expedition members breathing and content that they have been well used?’
Evrien did not appear to be listening; he was apparently distracted by the sight of Prince Lorin spooning the last of his honey from a small stone jar into a bowl of barley porridge. The little man gave out a moan of pleasure and, never taking his eyes from the increasingly self-conscious prince, proceeded to give Karkavieschk his answer. ‘For a creature who claims high intelligence, ye’ve the knack of appearing mighty stupid. The accomplishment of your desires could not be simpler. If ye would use me well in the matter of victuals, specifically, the immediate provision of yonder porridge, Evrien the Empirical will be happy to enlighten ye both.’
Cursing the road that had led him to Seredoc, the prince divided the porridge, and urged on by the unreasonably cheerful monster of the forest, handed the smaller portion to Evrien.. The conceited dwarf licked the bowl clean, then sank two long draughts of water before finally explaining his plan.
‘I am Evrien the Empirical, and I make such sense of the world as the world allows. Three weeks ago I chanced upon a man feeling trees at the northern edge of the forest. Since the fellow as kind enough to spare me a draught of ale, I decided to keep him company while he laboured. I was thus able to make the following observation; a tree always falls to the side ye make the cut. If the prince here, a well muscled man suited to the task, should heft his axe and chop down your tree, I say it shall fall into yonder thicket and cushion the impact. You will suffer no serious injuries, misshapen one, though a few scrapes and bruises are only to be expected.’
The prince was not given the leisure to frame his objection, for after taking another draught of water, Evrien continued. ‘Once the tree is down, our repulsive companion should, nay, will be staring at the sky, still pinioned to the trunk, but the trunk no longer rooted in the ground. At this point, having rested and, no doubt, eaten to replenish his spent strength, the prince will set to with his axe again, cut through the trunk above your dreadful head and below your outlandish feet, shape wheels from the lumber, attach them to the log, harness the log behind the horse and be away before the day is through!’
Prince Lorin was not convinced and, after spending three hours chopping at the tree with a hand axe designed for no more strenuous tasks than the preparation of kindling, he was ready to abandon both of his new companions and be on his way.
By nightfall, though the tree was on the ground and Karkavieschk only a little battered by the experience, the work of cutting him away from the trunk was still to come. Lorin stamped away to the stream to bathe, all the way cursing Evrien’s laziness. The little man insisted that, as the author of the plan, his only responsibility was to supervise the labour. He was disabused of that notion early the following morning when the prince awoke too stiff and sore to work. He compensated for his infirmity by drawing his sword and threatening to remove Evrien’s head with it if he did not accept his share of the task.
By twilight, Evrien was so weary that prince Lorin had to cradle him in his arms and spoon him a share of the broth he had made from game supplied by Karkavieschk. The following morning, four full days after the prince had found Karkavieschk, the wheels were attached to the log, the log harnessed to the horse and the horse urged into a gentle walk.
In those days, Seredoc stretched a thousand leagues from the plains of Gestrien to The Sea of Paradoxes (that the Edge Of The World was not the Edge Of The World stood as the first paradox). The forest was home to many fantastic creatures and countless more mundane things. But the forest covered so vast an area that a traveller who encountered nothing but the occasional squirrel or carrion crow would not have considered his journey remarkable for its lack of incident.
It was close to sunset on a crisp late-autumn day, when the strange caravan finally breached the eastern edge of the forest to confront The Sea of Paradoxes. ‘Let us make camp here,’ the prince said. ‘It’s almost dark and I, for one, will be glad to spend the night beyond the tyranny of trees!’
A routine had developed during the weeks they had been travelling together. When they made camp, the prince would picket the horse then collect fresh water, while Evrien gathered firewood and prepared a hearth for cooking. That evening, Evrien made no move. He stood as though rooted in the sand, gazing at the boundless ocean and moving his lips in silent wonder.
‘On with you, man!’ The prince shouted. ‘The shore is littered with driftwood to make a fine blaze. On with you, man!’ Evrien would not or, could not, respond. The prince gripped him by the shoulders and shook him, but he could not dislodge the look of vapid stupidity that had overcome the little man’s features. ‘By the exalted balls of every god in the pantheon, what is wrong with you?’
‘Prince Lorin,’ he whispered at last. ‘Surely this cannot be, surely this is not possible?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The water, there cannot be so much water in the world!’
‘It’s only the ocean. You must have heard tell of the ocean in fables and suchlike?’
‘I am Evrien the Empirical, and I make such sense of the world as the world allows. This makes no sense to me. Where are its bounds? Why does it not flood the thousand lands? How can anything be so vast?’
Evrien fell silent and stood, swaying like a fellow made stupid by drink or Theris root. The following morning he was no better. Nothing Karkavieschk or the prince said could persuade him to complete the journey.
Karkavieschk shook his scaly head. ‘A creature of limited intelligence, who knows how long we might wait for his brain to catch up with his eyes? We have little choice but to make provision of such food and water as we can spare, and agree to help him when we pass this way again.’
Though he considered it something of a stain upon his royal honour to leave the stupefied man to the mercy of whoever, or, whatever might chance upon him, the weight of the prince’s mission weighed him down. He nodded at last, and did what the monster of Seredoc suggested.
It was slow going. The wheels of the carriage cum litter tended to slug and bed in the fluid sand so that the prince began to fear for the health of the charger that had carried him, with such fortitude, to the Edge Of The World. The long beach was eerily peaceful. Hardly a breath of wind ruffled Lorin’s hair. Only the screeching seabirds wheeling effortlessly in the cloudless sky, served to remind them that they were not the only creatures in the world.
Towards late afternoon, a faint grey smudge in the distance began to resolve itself into a long spit of land that thrust outwards from the beach like an accusing finger. At its furthest point, surrounded on three sides by the calm green sea, stood a neat little cottage. On the landward side of the building was a garden richly blessed with fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. The plants surely owed their health and vigour to magic, for no true gardener would allow that natural seeds could flourish in such thin and sandy soil.
‘Karkavieschk, me dear friend, we have found the cottage at the Edge Of The World!’
Through the application of main might, the prince succeeded in lifting the log to a standing position, thus ensuring that Karkavieschk could enjoy his first sight of something other than the sky for days.
‘A fine view, my prince, but how to proceed? How to find a resolution to our travails?’
Lacking any further inspiration, they resolved to hie them up into the dunes where they made camp and settled down to observe the comings and goings at the Edge Of The World. It so happened that the bank on which they rested was riddled with the burrows of a prolific rabbit nation. Through the remarkable efforts of the monster’s tongue, they were guaranteed a plentiful, if rather tedious, diet.
Returning from his toilet the following morning, the prince heard a distant, sweet voice singing an air in a language so ancient that only a few mouldering obscurants could have named its provenance and meaning. The song was one of unrequited love. Had she known the matter, the maiden Traeche would have avoided the song, as she avoided such feelings in herself, but the melody was familiar from her dreams and she did not expect to be overheard.
The prince dropped the water bottles and scrambled to the top of the dune behind which they had made camp. The maiden was hanging a basket of washing, pausing often to laugh at the antics of her good hound Powl who skipped and gambolled around her feet. The prince had never been the kind of man who lost his reason to a pretty face. He had seldom tumbled the generous serving maids in the great hall or joined his brothers on their frequent trips to inns of ill repute, yet he would gladly have embraced stupidity to hold the maiden’s hand.
‘Beware, my friend, beware the owner of that voice.’ Karkavieschk was sombre where he was usually enthusiastic. ‘Did I not once hear a woman sing so? And was I once a man?’
Lorin turned on his friend, suddenly, and unreasonably, angry. ‘Were you once a man, lord of destruction? Will you pass judgement from your lofty position? Is this maiden one to rend and tear the flesh of her fellows, will she lead us all a merry dance to ruin?’
‘Forgive me, prince, I am a bitter creature. Once I loved a woman who often sang such plangent airs. I devoted my life to her and Karkavieschk is my reward.’
Later that evening, an owl of unnatural size flapped silently from the forest and perched on the capstone of the gate that the maiden kept permanently closed. The prince could imagine nothing but that the great raptor meant to harm the maiden, and he resolved to take up his weapons and engage the bird in mortal combat. Then, a blurring of reality, a faint smudge in the decaying light and the bird was gone, replaced by a nondescript man.
‘Karkavieschk,’ the prince said, forgetting the anger of the morning. ‘I think our journey nears its resolution!’
The sour air that had festered between them was gone. There was nothing left to do but hie them down to the cottage and confront the wizard. The prince took the straps of the carriage cum litter across his shoulders and careered down the slope with Karkavieshk to the front so that the log would not sweep him from his feet.
Inside the cottage at the Edge Of The World, Ulvin Many Shaped was gloating over the maiden Traeche’s work. ‘Splendid, ‘tis broidering of the first water and I see that you have followed my instructions to the exact mark and letter. For this you shall be richly rewarded, good maiden; you shall have the wish of your heart which, as I recall, is naught but peace and quiet?’
‘Yes, that is all I would have; to live in peace with my good hound Powl and my enchanted bird Osche, to prosper alone without the constant interruptions that always ruin spring. That was your promise, Ulvin Many Shaped. That is why I laboured for so long on this evil working, though it drained me and often I was sick.’
‘A bargain we made,’ said the wizard, ‘and a bargain we sealed. Here is your reward!’
Lorin and Karkavieschk would have been better advised to swallow their understandable eagerness and approach the final leg of their journey more warily. The prince was discovering that he did not possess the strength to control the passage of the log down the slope. Such momentum had built up that he was struggling to concentrate on anything but the terrible problem of how to remain on his feet. His shoulders were burning with pain, his legs were on the edge of buckle and collapse. To cap it all, Karkavieschk could not control his laughter. The whole mad flight was accompanied by the creature’s elemental delight in the face of impending disaster. The prince opened his eyes for long enough to see that the stone wall that surrounded the cottage was rushing towards them at such an impossible pace, that they could not avoid a mortal impact!
He was prepared for violence and crushing pain, instead, he suffered the splash and freezing shock of water! The prince opened his eyes to find that he was kneeling in three feet of water with Karkavieschk bobbing on the waves not two yards away and still attached to the log. The wall, not to mention the garden, the cottage and the maiden Traeche, were nowhere to be seen. He climbed to his feet and shrugged the straps from his tortured shoulders.
Grating laughter filled the air and shook the prince to his senses. He turned towards the beach to see that the wizard was standing on the sand, clutching a bundle in one hand and wiping tears of laughter from his eyes with the other.
‘I have travelled the thousand lands and even beyond their borders. I have seen many remarkable things, but few to compare to this. A prince and a monster splashing about in the ocean at the Edge Of The World. A prince and a monster who, one would think, have no business being in each other’s company.’
The prince waded ashore, tugging the log behind. ‘Sir wizard, please tell us what happened to the cottage and the maiden who dwells there?’
‘Gone, Prince Lorin of Meadomsley; gone far away where you and all other men, saving the brilliant Ulvin, cannot hope to find her again. I have done nothing wrong, for the maiden desired peace and I have granted her wish by causing the Edge Of The World to relocate to …. To the Edge Of The World!’
‘Bravo, Lord Necromancer, bravo indeed!’ Karkavieschk seemed none the worse for his recent experience. ‘You are clearly a mage of the first rank and I congratulate you on this most remarkable achievement.’
‘Thank you, Kaaren of Wiede. Thank you kindly.’
‘Please do not use that name, sir.’
The prince believed Karkavieschk to be the most cheerful soul he had ever met. Now, to hear his friend’s voice thick with emotion at the sound of a mere name was something of a shock.’
‘But,’ the wizard continued, ‘the name belongs to you.’
‘Once, perhaps, but that was another life. That fellow was a good man, he did not taste blood and rend flesh. I would beg you, if you have the power, to free me from this evil nature!’
Ulvin smiled, for all the world a cat toying with a dying mouse. ‘And you, Lorin of Meadomsley, what would you beg from Ulvin Many Shaped? What is the wish of your heart, young prince?’
‘I would see an end to the war that ravages my homeland, though it is many months since I started this journey and I do not know if there is anything left to save.’
‘The land remains unconquered, your people are brave. All you desire is an end to this?’
‘If it please you.’
‘It is done; the war is over. Perhaps you would care to celebrate?’
‘I say the war is over, do not presume to doubt me!’
‘I do not doubt you, sir. It is just that I expected you to return with me.’
‘Quite out of the question.’
‘Then you have my thanks. Please tell me what you would have in return?’
‘Naught but your friendship.’
‘Master Ulvin, if the war is truly over you will enjoy the friendship and patronage of my house until the end of days! If you could help my friend, I swear no treasure will be too rich a reward.’
‘What might I do for him?’ The wizard asked so intently that Lorin suddenly felt he was playing dice bones with Karkavieschk’s soul.
‘Change my nature, wizard. Leave me this body if you will, but let me not desire to kill.’
‘It cannot be done, as you well know. This is the work of Chylla the Witch. I will not interfere with her amusements, for I would not make her my enemy. I have quite enough enemies to be getting on with.’
‘Lord Ulvin, I beg of you,’ the prince cried, ‘please liberate my friend!’
‘You would see him free?’
‘Then he is free!’
The straps that pinioned Karkavieschk to the log snapped. The wizard changed into a Gryphon and took to the sky leaving naught behind but his hateful, self-satisfied laughter.
‘Nooooooo!’ The monster of Seredoc leapt to his feet and faced the prince. He was shaking his head violently, screaming in agony as the primal force that quickened in his veins and swelled in his mind returned to slaughter his reason, as he would slaughter the prince. For a moment, he managed to gain a small measure of control. ‘Prince Lorin, if you value your life and my love, I beg you to run.’
‘But, my friend …’
‘I would not have your blood on my lips, begone!’
Karkavieschk was visibly weakening. There was but the merest flicker of sense in his cold eyes and the prince knew that in a few moments he would need to kill. Lorin took to his heels, forcing his exhausted muscles to power him back to camp. His lungs burning, his legs close to collapse, the prince flung himself the last few yards, then turned to see that the monster of Serredoc was loping off in the opposite direction; back to the familiar depths of the forest.
Though he was impatient to begin the journey home, the prince was wary enough to wait for two days, trusting that it would give Karkavieschk enough time to disappear in the forest. As he waited, he grieved for the soul of his friend; the prince of destruction. Once he had been a man like any other, Kaaren of Wiede. He had loved the wrong woman and she had cursed him, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Two mornings after the terrible events at the Edge Of The World, the prince saddled his charger and set off for home. Reluctant to enter Serredoc, he kept to the beach for as long as he could. It was a cold day, the sky was blackening and the sea was beginning to cut up rough, he would have to seek shelter before the storm broke. He was turning towards the trees when his eyes caught something in the distance, a smear of darkness on the sand. It turned out to be a mean pile of rags and bones. Lorin’s stomach heaved itself into his throat as he realised that he had found all that remained of Evrien the Empirical. The little man who could not comprehend the ocean had been liberated from his ennui by the teeth and claws of the prince of destruction.
He gathered the remains in his cloak and carried them to the edge of the forest where he scraped a hole in the ground and laid them down. He spent the remainder of the morning fetching stones from the beach to pile into a cairn, determined that no scavengers from the forest would disturb the little fellow’s rest.
When the work was done, he bowed his head over the grave and spoke a few gentle words. ‘Evrien, the gods know you tried my patience, but I say that no man deserves to meet the fate you found at the Edge Of The World. I do not know which god you worshipped, for you were Evrien the Empirical and doubtless you considered worship foolish. Nevertheless, I commend your soul to Gallith Dreamweaver, may she grant you peace at last.’
Following a safe passage through Seredoc, Prince Lorin crossed the border to his homeland early the following spring. It was not the land he expected or remembered, Meadomsley was sick. Everywhere he went, he found smouldering ashes and the twisted shells of buildings that had once been flower-decked and pretty. It was certainly spring, but the fields did not quicken with the green of new life; they were scorched and blackened, ill aspected memories of prosperity.
The streams, that had once carried the life of the land, were choked by grey weeds and polluted by the rotting corpses of men and animals. The villages were abandoned, their buildings rent and scorched, the streets were broken and overgrown. For a day, he saw no living thing saving a starveling cur that yelped and bolted when he called to it. He grew deranged, convinced that he slept and the landscape through which he rode was naught but the cruel jest of a tricksy mind. But there was to be no glad awakening.
When he finally struck the path that led to his father’s hall, he realised it had fared no better than the rest of the country. The palisades had been cast down, the halls and barns, which had once held the wealth of the nation, had been pillaged and fired. The gate was gone, and in its place stood a sparse thicket of tall stakes, each topped with the decomposing head of one of the brave men and women who had defended the great hall. In the centre of them, raised higher than the rest as befitted his station, was the once proud head of his father.
‘A fine greeting wouldn’t you say, prince Lorin?’
His sense of reality had fled. It did not strike him as odd that a young maiden should have been walking in the ruins with a basket on her arm. ‘He promised me!’
‘Who precisely promised you what?’
‘Ulvin Many Shaped promised me an end to this war.’
She laughed. The sound was familiar and dragged him back to his senses, for it contained within it that same tone of grating self-satisfaction that had spewed from the wizard’s throat. He looked at her, realising that the dark princess of the ruins was dangerous. She was no maiden, but an ageless woman possessed of a damaged soul. Beautiful, only a pedant would have denied her that. Hair of lustrous black, violet eyes, lips full and too inviting. Her form was rich beyond imagining, the fruits she offered the unwary over-ripe, so that any man who consented to gorge on them must find himself eventually sickened.
‘Well, my prince, surely you cannot fault Ulvin Many Shaped? The war ended some months ago when the gate suddenly fell. Guthrik had his victory an hour later. Did no one ever tell you not to bargain with a wizard lest he grant your desires?’
‘Aye, mistress, the man who told me stares with dead eyes from yonder pole. Who are you, and why do you promenade these ruins?’
‘I am mostly known as Chylla the Witch and I walk here because such places of death are sympathetic to the propagation of certain fungi and poisonous plants that are useful to my work.’
‘Begone, mistress carrion crow, leave me to bury my father in peace!’
She laughed once more. ‘I think we will meet again, prince without a land, look for me on the long road.’
He did not watch her go or worry about meeting her again. His only concern was to honour his fallen people. He wrapped the head of the king in his one clean shirt and carried it through the ruins to the broken shell of the great hall. There, he found the place where his father had sat to hear the petitions of his people, and he broke the ground to bury the king’s remains deep in the land he had loved and protected. Then, he gathered the rest of the stakes from the gateway and built a pyre of what dry wood remained, lit it and consigned the souls of his people to the gods.
When the grim task was done it was almost midnight. The prince hugged an old blanket to his shoulders and mounted his horse. At some point during the long day he had decided to live, but the decision was not comforting, for he did not know how he would occupy the remainder of his days, the years in which he would have married and learned how to be a good king.
He raised his eyes to the sky and there beheld the full moon that bathed the dead land in a brittle, silver light. His blood quickened, his mind raced, and he vowed that the years would not be wasted.
‘May the gods hear me! I swear on the souls of my fallen people that I shall not rest until the head of Ulvin Many Shaped is raised on the point of my lance. I care nothing for his vaunted power, for I know he is a man and a man can bleed and die. Thus do I swear, thus it must be!’
So was born the legend of Lorin the Heartless.
To Be Continued…(in another part of the world)
© 2002-2003 by Mark James. I'm in my early forties, married and living in the North West of England. I began my writing career scripting television drama which I gave up in the late eighties in order to earn something like a proper living. I now work as a technical writer for a software development company. I'm the guy who writes the manuals that no one reads! Perhaps this explains my recent return to writing fantasy - my first love - which really couldn't be very much different.