A Short Story /Nonfiction By brian francis

Even as a gay man of thirty, living the happy carefree life of travel and partying; tragedy can still strike, destroying it all.  After ten years of living in a loving relationship of commitment and devotion we both turned our attentions away from each other and ventured down a scary and fearful path.

I was the one who dared to even consider those first steps.  Friends listened and cautioned me against doing it. Dwayne, my everything, witnessed my struggle, heard all our friends warn against doing it, and still looked me in the eyes and told me to follow my heart — reminding me that there was nothing we could not over come together.  Still just thinking of those days, tears well in my eyes – love is a wonderful thing. 

It all happened as I sat on the ground in my garden fiddling with my peppers and herbs.  A voice behind me said hi.  I turned to find the nine-year-old boy who months before had threatened me with dire consequences because I snatched him up when he attacked another boy.  On that day I snatched him off of the other boy and gave him a scolding on fighting and violence.  When I released him, he ran across the street and turned to inform me that he would bring his parents over.  Of course, I was amenable to talking to his parents about the behavior that I had witnessed and I informed him so.  He then corrected my thinking as an ass beating was in order in his opinion.

And boy did this kid rage.  I responded to each threat he made with a calm assurance that I could handle whatever came my way.  I finally chased him off and he ran home. Never heard another word about it except for the mother of the other child coming to thank me for being the adult. 

I remember smelling my fingers, a mix of mint and oregano, while I watched the little hitman leaning against my palm like he thought he was “The Fonz.” He was tense as he struggled to reach out to me.  Then with tears in his eyes he told me how he was unhappy.  He didn’t know what he could do.  I heard a whirlwind of depression and fear coming from this little kid.  It truly touched my soul and sorrow engulfed me. 

That was the “slippery slope – the event horizon.”  I got involved, I met his mother and worked with her to assist his healing.  I learned about his being removed from the care of his father because of beatings and abuse.  His mother one day, handed me a six by nine envelope.  It contained what was case against her ex-husband and included police reports (the officer must have been a budding writer because he documented with great detail), and glossy photos of a scared scarred lost little boy.  The marks upon his little body covered him from head to toe.  A hand print clearly detailed in the burst blood vessels on his back.  My heart felt such sorrow looking at those photos. 

It wasn’t long before we were considering conceding to his request to rehome himself to our home.  A temporary arrangement was made and all of the people who felt they had the right to interject their opinions were consistently against two gay men taking in a little boy.  To give them credit the social norms of the moment made it a bit dangerous even.  Gays at the time were living out and the breeders (not meant as a derogatory) were coming to realize that we were everywhere doing everything just like them.  But still while gays were becoming gays many still saw faggots and it bothered them. 

Two weeks after he moved in to our home the school called his mom who instructed them to call me with problems as her son was living with me “her brother.”  When the teacher finally called me, she was brimming with pride at Steven’s (the boy) miraculous changes.  She encouraged me to continue with whatever I was doing, because, they have watched him rapidly change to becoming a great student, attentive and helpful. 

I had no idea what I had done to allow him to change.  I still had not discussed his father with him or the photos I had seen.  I had cooked meals for him and encouraged him with his school work, made a schedule for us to follow.  I walked him to school every day for a while, he dismissed me farther and farther away from the school over the school year; until he would ask me in front of the house, which way I was walking the dog, so he could go the other way.  And that was okay, I still had my afternoon walk which put me at the school at the final bell.  That lasted until junior high when I was not willing to walk that far.  I came to miss the recounting of the day while walking home, thankfully, I still got it while I cooked dinner or tried to write.  

Our time together taught me many things, most amazingly it taught me a kind of love I would have never found had I not stepped up.  Many people encouraged us to consider going the foster route.  We were not doing what we did for financial gain.  We acted with our heart as Dwayne had advised me. 

At some point some undefinable point on the scale of life I transitioned from a caregiver and I became a father.  I mean that, with all the sincerity a person could muster.  I swore, I would help him find himself, little did I know how much I would find out about myself.  I am a better person for all of the struggle and grief of being a parent.  I am a better husband (yes, we married in twenty fourteen: thirty-six years of us \ six of a legally acknowledged us).   

He moved back with his mother in the wintera year later.  He was a different boy from the skittish waif who said hi to me in the garden.  He wanted so to move back to being with Mom.  When it finally happened, I actually got depressed I mean really depressed. I wasn’t sad, it was more like I didn’t know what to do I had lost purpose.  Then late one night around midnight I got a call from the boy.  He was at a bar with mom, where “she always takes him” to eat from the happy hour offerings.  He was tired and wanted to know if I would come and take him home. 

My anger raged as I entered the bar to find him half asleep at a table.  I tapped him of the shoulder and told him to head out to the car while a said goodbye to Mom.  He grabbed his backpack and ran out.  I went over to the bar where she stood rubbing all over some other drunk and asked her what the fuck she thought she was doing.  Her drunken friend thought it appropriate to point his finger in my face as he warned me to back off (he thought I was her ex).  His facial expression was funny as I grabbed his fingers in my hand and took him to his knees.  I warned him about messing with me then I plucked him in the eye with my finger.  He curled up into a ball on his stool and whined quietly.  I finished saying my mind, then left with her watching all slack jawed and confused.

I took Steven back to her house to put him to bed.  He refused to get out of the car saying he wanted to go to his home at our house.  I got in touch with an attorney the next day to get the legal documentation to allow me to take proper care of his needs.  We were surprised when she conceded to the signing of the document without argument.  It did not change her rights it merely endowed us with the parental rights and responsibilities needed to be his parent.  He never went back to live with her again.   

 In fact, his older brother bumped into the law for some reason.  I got a call from a juvenile judge in the late evening.  After assurances that I was the person he was seeking he told me of John’s predicament.  He informed me that he wanted me to be at court with his mother in the morning.  He asked me to consider it an order, I was pounding on her door within minutes.  We were there!

I sat and watched as parent after parent were judged for their lack of involvement or ill-considered involvement.  I remember thinking that the sins of the children are a reflection of their raising.

I was sitting in the back of the courtroom alone and she was up front chatting with court people.  Finally, they brought John out.  He was so trying to be stoic, but the quiver in his face spoke of fear.  They announced his name and case and asked if the mother were present; she stood and addressed the court with a self-serving statement implying that John was the problem.

The problem for her was that judge had spent time with John and John had been honest about the people in his life.  While she spoke, the judge was chewing at the proverbial bit.  He started when she ended her diatribe and he opened up with a devastating salvo at her motherhood and went on with a barrage covering  point after point.  I was melting into my seat slithering down to be out of sight, the attack was a withering fifteen minutes speech regarding her lack of parenting skills and her inability to be a parent.  He ended with the caution to sit down and shut up because the court was done with her.    

“Is Brian here?” my stomach quivered as I pulled myself up to stand and receive whatever was coming.  He went on to explain to me how in all of his discussions with John he spoke highly of me and had informed them that I had his little brother.  He then went on to withdraw her parental rights endowing them onto me.   During this hearing he had to ask me questions to make sure I was worthy of being the parent he was asking me to be. 

He asked me if I did this or that and I answered all fine until he asked if used illegal drugs.   I explained how a back injury had left me living with pain and I used marijuana rather than opioids. He pleaded with me not to have any other issues.  When I addressed the household and explained the fact that I was gay and in a devoted relationship of over a decade his head fell into his hands.  He asked John about our relationship and John told him that Dwayne was a great person.  The judge queried me about registering as a foster parent. I informed him that it was a matter between the boys and me and that my sense of twisted honor made me need to stand alone in this as a family, I promised to see to their need as best I could. 

The judge talked to me off the record and had extremely nice observations about the person I was, I assured him that I was just a farm boy from Lancaster, Pa.  and that was just the way I’d been taught. He told me he’d been there and like the people there then and even more now.  I drove home with John and arrived home to an already made family.

Mistakes, missteps, oh god yes.  I was lucky to have had the parents I did.  They taught me many thing like haw to be a devoted parent.  My dad was a belt swinger and a back hander.  He cautioned me about hitting the kids.  I would simply never do that he taught me by doing it to me.  I asked him about the ease with which he’d struck me.  He told me to never do it myself or I would have to live with it forever.  He looked dejected when he said it, and it was the hug and forgiveness offered that took him from that sorrowful look to the teary-eyed relief on his face.

I came to understand my father in the struggles of the boys growing.  It is hard to sit and watch ready to catch, yet, willing to let them fall if they must.  Being a parent is the most frustrating, mind bending experience I have ever endured.  It is also the most rewarding thing I have ever done.  As a gay man it was not in the cards for me.  Dwayne and I could try all our lives and we couldn’t succeed.  Yet, Gaea knows what we need and the flow will always bring it to you, pay attention to the current and watch for opportunities to drift by.  

Copyright ©2020 brian francis

All the King’s Children

SS — By Brian Francis Short Story / Fantasy 2156 — WORDS

The kingdom started the Royal Orphanage Society soon after the great war of Fernrug (also known as the Bloody Field). It is said that when Crystar defeated the army of Banstir, Sire Gadron went to visit the newly conquered areas. As he visited the cities and villages, he noticed that there were a large number of children living on the street. The King felt bad that the war had left so many without husbands, fathers, and brothers. When a newly appointed Lord Overseer ordered all the children gathered up, because of the rising petty crime, the King was furious.

The King summoned the Overseer to the stronghold he had been using as his royal court, where he proceeded to humiliate and degrade the Overseer in a way that was so unlike the King. Lord Antio, the King’s most trusted adviser, was present and soon came to the defense of the young Overseer. When Sire Gadron heard the explanation offered by Lord Antio, that the children were being gathered for their protection, the King relaxed. He then congratulated the young Overseer on the fine job he was doing. The young man was then quickly escorted out of the room by Antio. Antio told him that he was doing the right thing but that he needed to look into the future when making decisions and plan accordingly. They both then went to a room together to make a plan of action. In that small meeting room the two men started what was to become the King’s favorite project.

Over the next few months, orphanages started popping up all over the kingdom and Realm. Antio took it upon himself to unite the many and disparate orphanages, and so was born the Royal Orphanage Society. When the King finally became involved, he made an edict outlining the care the children should receive, including education. He believed that the strength of a person was in the mind not the muscle. He often said he could see the future of Crystar in the minds and hearts of the children of the kingdom.

Soon he started the royal college of City Crystar, to supply the orphanages with knowledgeable masters and mistresses. He visited many of the orphanages and even chose some of the children to come and serve in the castle. Those children selected for this honor were given the finest education the kingdom could offer. The people of the kingdom also did their part. When the people discovered that this was the King’s favorite project it became the fashion to assist the orphanages in every way possible. Business proprietors, nobles, and the families of lesser royalty soon assumed any roles available to them to assist their local royal orphanage, in the hopes that the King would take notice.

When Lord Antio found that he didn’t have enough time to devote to the project, he decided to appoint me as the Lord Commissioner of the Royal Orphanage Society. I will never forget that day. I was just rising as a knock came at the door. When I answered the door, I found two Royal Knights standing outside. They told me to hurry and get dressed — the King was waiting. I ran to my bedroom and tried to dress as fast as I could. The King wanted me, I thought to myself; I couldn’t figure out what I had done. I remember getting halfway dressed when I needed to sit down; the strain of the moment was more than I could bear. I sat there dazed for a while before I heard the knight.

“Excuse me sir, but the King is waiting for us,” the knight said abruptly as he stood in the doorway of my bedroom. “Grab your things, you can get dressed in the carriage.”

On the way to the castle I dressed myself in the clothes and the two right-footed boots I had grabbed. I could see the castle looming larger and larger as we approached. I was feeling sick to my stomach as we passed through the main gate. When the carriage stopped at the foot of the stairs that lead to the main entrance I felt as though I would pass out.

A servant opened the side door to my right and greeted me as I stepped out of the carriage.

“Good morning, Sir,” he said in a cheerful voice while bowing his head.

When he closed the door the carriage moved on and turned into a passage that took it under the castle steps. The two knights dismounted their horses and escorted me into the castle. We walked through the throne room and up a long corridor to a room bearing the inscription “Lord’s Chambers.” The knights swung open the doors and there he was — the King.

I slowly entered the room with my head bowed. I walked toward the King the knights on either side. I felt a hand on my shoulder and stopped, afraid to look up I hesitated before I fell to my knee.

“Rise, my friend, and eat some breakfast with me,” a voice said.

Still afraid to look up, I stayed kneeling with my head bowed. My chest felt so heavy it was hard to breathe, and my heart was racing. I thought I was going to faint, when I felt the knight tap me in the leg with his foot. I glanced over toward the knight and saw him pointing in front of me. I raised my head and there he was, standing there, bending over toward me. I could feel my mouth drop open as I tried to speak. The King reached for me.

“I am your loyal subject, Sire,” I blurted out.

“Of course you are, my friend; that is exactly why I sent for you,” he said taking me by the arm and lifting me. “Now I would like to discuss some little thing with you, while we enjoy our breakfast,” he continued leading me to the far end of the table. “As you are aware Lord Antio is a very busy man. He has so many very important tasks, being the Lord Treasurer, and over seeing the kingdom’s relations with the other kingdoms here and there.”

I sat in the chair he guided me to and he sat nearby. The door behind us swung open and servants carried in two trays with meat, eggs, wine and shortbread cookies. They placed one tray in front of the King, and the other in front of me. He continued his conversation between bites; I just sat there staring at him. I had never been this close to him before.

I had been working for Lord Antio for almost a year, taking care of small insignificant tasks. The only time the King visited our office was when I was riding across town to deliver a message. He had left before I got back, and I missed him by only a few minutes.

“So what do you think about that?” asked the King, as my mind wondered back to days past.

“Ah, ah, I’m sorry Sire, I don’t understand the question,” I responded, realizing I had lost track of the conversation.

“The orphanages, the orphanages,” he said in an annoyed tone.

“Yes, Sire.” I responded. “The orphanages are doing fine.”

He looked at me as though I were crazy, his brow wrinkled, and a questioning look in his eyes.
“Fine then,” he said. “Lord Antio will fill you in on the specifics later today. In the meantime the boy here will see that you’re made ready for the ceremony. I have high hopes for you, Dern Moorly,” he said as he rose and walked away.

I just sat there confused and dumbfounded watching him. As the doors closed behind him I felt a tug on my sleeve and heard a young voice. “Hurry, master, we don’t have much time to get you ready,” he said as he pulled me toward the door I had entered through. As we walked up the long corridor I came to my senses and asked to boy his name. He told me it was Runt, but that it used to be Duane. He seemed proud of his new name his eyes lit up and he took on a cocky demeanor as he informed me that the King had given it to him.

We entered a room behind the throne room that was filled with racks of ceremonial robes. There was a man there, who greeted me saying, “Aren’t you the lucky one today!”

The boy responded for me that I had no idea what was going on. The man walked up an aisle, occasionally turning to me and looking me over. Then he would turn back to the racks, his chubby face showing disapproval. He would move on to another.

The boy continued, “He sat at breakfast with the Sire, and didn’t even touch his food. He just sat there staring at the King with that look on his face.”

“Which look might that be?” asked the man.

“You know the fly trap face and the blank eyes,” said the boy. “I don’t even think he heard a word the King said,” he added with a chuckle.

“Ahh. This one will work fine,” said the chubby man, holding a robe in front of him and sizing me up. “Yes, yes, I think the King will be very pleased with this one. Here, Runt, take him to the court lounge and help him into this.” He handed the robe to the boy and smiled at me. “Now don’t you worry a bit. The King has rarely seriously hurt someone in the ceremony. I’m sure you’ll be just fine,” he added, laughing, as he turned and walked away.

The boy was pulling me along and laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his little reddened face. “Hardly ever hurt someone,” he repeated, stamping his foot and laughing uncontrollably.

The lounge was a small room compared to the other rooms in the castle. It was very comfortable with a number of large couches and a few tables with chairs around them. The boy pointed to a closed door on the opposite side of the room. He handed me the robe and said I should hurry and change my clothes.

I came out of the room after changing and found that Lord Antio was waiting for me in the lounge.
“It’s a big day for you, Dern,” he said reaching for my shoulder. “The King and I are depending on you greatly. I am sure you have it in you or else I would not have recommended you for the position,” he said.

“I – I – I – really don’t understand,” I muttered.

“I know, the boy told me what happened,” he said in quiet voice. “You have to understand that the King is used to such things. The servants aren’t as generous and tend to make fun of those who are affected in this way. But you needn’t worry–you’ll do fine”

He then sat me down and explained that I had been chosen from his staff to take responsibility for the Orphanage Society. He told me that I would remain on his staff, but would have autonomy and could act in the King’s name. He also explained that I was to be knighted that afternoon. He showed me what I was to do and say during the dubbing ceremony.

That evening I moved my belongings to the castle and took my place in the royal apartments in the west wing as Sir Dern Moorly, assistant to the King. Since then, I have had numerous meetings with the King, and many of the lords. Never again was I affected by the condition I suffered at my first meeting with the King. I have seen to it that the Orphanages have been operated responsibly. And I have spent much time traveling throughout the kingdom and realm, inspecting the conditions at each of the orphanages under my care.

I have been impressed over the years with the kindness demonstrated by the subjects of the King. They are really the ones who make the whole thing work. Sire Gadron has on numerous occasions traveled with me to visit some of the many orphanages in my care. I have learned much about what makes a king a king and in particular what makes our King the most respected King in the whole world.

I have accepted applications to the society from almost every kingdom. In each case they have agreed to submit to the same standards as those found in Crystar. Now with a staff of my own, I enjoy my time at Castle Crystar, surrounded by the many servants who, growing up alone in the world, have found a place to call home. As they are– all the King’s children.

Copyright ©2020 brian francis

Sherm and Bundy: Tomorrow’s Trepidation

Series Story Sherm and Bundy II

A Short Story By brian francis 8700 words

The Village of Hemm, was a nice little place made up of kind and welcoming people.   The tavern was the center of the community and the evening before saw a constant coming and going of people.  The food was passable fair, although, there was an herb or spice that was strange and different in some dishes.  While the map on the tavern wall in Hemm was old and out of date as far as the many no longer existing small kingdoms go, the trails, and lay of the land had not changed. So, this morning found Sherm and Bundy eating breakfast while absorbing the map hanging in front of them.  His father had made him learn maps when he was young, studying them and then being made to redraw them sometimes a week later.  His punishment for mistakes was having to move the wood pile from one side of the lean post to the other side.  He learned fast that mistakes were not good.  The map on the wall in front of him was much larger than any he had studied before, although it really only covered the highlands and the steppes.  After a morning of study and one very long meal Sherm was sure he had it.  It was time to go.

After settling up with Cam, the tavern owner/barman he carried his gear out to the stable.  He brushed Tomorrow’s coat and mane and inspected her shoes while giving her a couple carrots and apples.  He also took the time to braid and bind her tail the way a knight had once showed him.  Tomorrow was turning her neck and stretching to watch what Sherm was doing with an uncomfortable look in her eyes.

“Don’t worry girl” he told her while finishing up, “this will be a good thing if we will be running into brush and find ourselves having to break trail.”  A wink and a gentle smack on the rump signaled the end of the process.  Although, the horse was still staring at her rump and swinging her tail that now more resembled a club. She did not appear convinced.

With her bridle and saddle on, she lost interest in watching her new club, but she did end up whacking Sherm in the head a time or two with it while he checked and cleaned her feet.  Their path was to continue down the road a mile or so more, before finding the trail that leads to Fernrug which sat among the headwaters of the Fernrug river. 

The beauty of the forest of the steppes was amazing, there are trees in some places that act as a lean-to and are called traveler’s trees.  There is often a small fire pit and bedding area beneath those welcoming bows, Sherm always imagined it like a little one finding refuge within the skirts of their mother. Taking the time to gather some wood and cleaning the area under the bows a sign of respect to Gaea and an ode to the lessons of his father.  “Always leave any place better off than you found it” Sherm remembered him saying often.  He had often traveled into the ring with his father, a happy time where he learned that there was a scary truth to the legends and stories of other races – of the magical races.  

Dwarfs were a serious folk who found humans annoying at best and an eternal enemy at worst.  His father had been respected by the neighbors around where Sherm had grown up.  One of the few guides who regularly led travelers into the ring.  But in the ring, he was truly loved and admired it was something about his bluntness that they liked so much.  That bluntness found during service to the crown of South Rim and Fenghorn. Father had rarely spoken about his days of service.  What little information Sherm had gathered growing up was by overhearing stories shared by the fire when all thought he was asleep.    He had heard hero’s stories and funny episodes that friends often remember most vividly.  At times it was hard not to start and jump when listening, or even worse holding back laughter at something his father had experienced. 

Evenings when traveling were a time to think and reminisce.  Bundy had taken up standing on an overhead branch her head tucked over her shoulder, while Sherm was cooking a squirrel over the small fire and reminiscing.  The air was cool but not cold in the night and the fire being so small cast a dim light among the branches. Tomorrow was fed and hobbled just outside the branches with her head poking in enough to see. 

All day he had watched for the forest’s foods and his eye and the forest had not let him down. Fresh onions and garlic as well as a nice chubby squirrel and some berries.  He also had his father’s seasoning pack. A collection of small pouches with herbs and salt and pepper berries. The squirrel was taken with his bow and it was a shot worthy of a witness, but only Bundy saw his arrow take it mid leap between trees.  Hanging by a string and spinning by the fire the seasonings and herbs and the delicious smell of crisping meat made his belly growl as he bent a green stick into a hoop to stretch the skin to preserve it.   

With dinner eaten and his bed laid out sleep overtook him quickly.  He stirred when some wolves began their howling contest.  They were both miles away and sleep drifted upon him once again. The chirping of birds drew him away from the contented comfort of sleep. 

It had been a restful night and the berries made for a tasty breakfast.  After only a few hours he finally came upon the cliffs of Yaredann one thousand feet sheer with unpredictable and strong winds.  The trail led to a path down the escarpment; a ledge carved directly into the cliff face barely five feet wide.

Tomorrow, seemed very concerned about the edge and hugged the wall tightly. While Bundy, bothered by the winds and height burrowed into Sherm’s tunic with only his head sticking out watching their decent into the valley below.  In the distance, Sherm, could see a storm falling into the valley like a water fall making a layer of clouds that hung low as they spread out below them.  The smells were changing too, from a musty deep forest odor to an almost flowery smell like a great meadow of wild flowers in early spring.

The thousand-foot descent took almost forever as the path crossed the face back and forth, there were places where the ledge narrowed due to erosion and collapse.   Also places where repairs had been made in the past. Only once in the descent was Sherm concerned about the way ahead, as half the ledge had fallen leaving a scant two feet or so for passage; for Tomorrow, too scant a passage for sure as the horse stopped and refused to even approach the damaged area.   Worst of all, they were just above the tree tops rising from the valley below. 

Sherm unsaddled Tomorrow and carried the saddle, gear and bags across to safety even Bundy wanted to stay across, to sit and watch the spectacle of Tomorrow’s stubborn refusal from the safety of the far side of the washout. She stood on the saddle horn and watching head bobbing and wings outstretched screaming encouragement and laughing uncontrollably.

When it finally seemed, he’d get the horse across she’d rear and toss herself backwards.  But he finally was able to get her back to the narrow remnant of the ledge, Tomorrow started to drop her haunches, he got ready for her to rear but instead she leapt forward and cleared the opening.  Sherm’s footing slipped away and he slid back over the side, Bundy screaming took to the air following after Sherman

As he looked into the sky, he saw Bundy come flying down screaming like a banshee, he hit an outcropping about halfway down, and tumbled down a crease in the rock to the bottom where he landed on his back with a loud thud. 

Bundy landing near his shoulder called his name and prodded him.  Sherm could hear Bundy, but Bundy seemed so distant and the darkness was swallowing him.  Then he heard her sorrowful cry, and a sadness, and a sense of failure settled on him as the light faded completely.

                                                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Off and on Sherm thought he could hear people around him.  It was like coming awake while someone speaks to you, only he couldn’t seem to wake up.  His mouth had a horrible taste mixed with the taste of blood.  Finally, a feeling of contentment washed over him as he realized Bundy was cleaning his eyes.  The first time she decided to clean the sand from his eyes it had scared him a bit, but she was gentle and even cleaned each of his eye lashes.  He could feel the warmth of her tongue in the corner of his eye dabbing him then she was done and as always, she finished with a long kiss on the lips. 

“Master, Master, his lips moved.” Screamed a young boy.  “The bird was touching his mouth and I think he kissed at it.”

The bird was strutting around on Sherm’s chest, wings extended and crown raised while making a loud cry when the voices returned.  He could see her in his mind celebrating in her uniquely Bundy way. 

Every day he seemed more and more awake and aware.   There were three people around him two men and a boy.  Finally, another voice came into the room.  He was touching Sherm and examining him and chanting in a strange language. Light began to appear in Sherm’s eyes his vision was returning.  It seemed the next few days were filled with chanting and touching until he opened his eyes. 

As a monk entered the room he smiled as his eyes met Sherm’s.  “That friend of yours is a bit of a bully when it comes to people touching you.  He has bitten me three times and I think he is planning on a few more.” Said the monk his gaze locked on Sherm. “Ahh that is it a smile.  That makes me feel good.  I wasn’t sure I’d see you before I left for Fernrug.  Your friend told me your name was Sherm he also had a few choice words — some I hadn’t heard in years.  That bird appears to spend too much time in taverns learning insults.” The monks face was soft and gentle his eyes an almost yellow shade of green with a dark halo, his head seemed to project forward from his shoulders and his smile seemed almost verging on a hardy laugh.

Brother Prem, as Sherm came to know him, stayed and talked to Sherm for an hour or so.  He explained how a local man had witnessed his fall and had transported him to help.  Luck was on his side as he had landed on soft brown dirt rather than rock. Precautions were taken to not disturb his body too much as the man who was named Vin was a logger and charcoal maker who was heading out to his charcoal pile in his wagon when it all happened. 

Vin had loaded Sherm into his wagon even retrieving his horse and gear.  He was surprised by the fact that the bird had climbed up on the horse’s head, one ear in each foot, where his leaning would seem to cause the horse to turn.   And they followed Sherm in the wagon the bird occasionally flying up to Sherm and trying to waken him.  She would also spend time attending his wounds to the point that Brother Prem thought Vin had cleaned some of the wounds and the wound margins.  Sherm also learned that Vin stopped by often, where he would sit with Sherm and Bundy and talk.  He and the bird had developed a nice relationship Bundy had trained him well on the proper way to pet a bird.  She had trained everyone well and had earned the title Chancellor.  Much to the chagrin of the of the temple’s real Chancellor.

At some point he must have fallen asleep because the next time he woke he remembered it being night and Bundy was there this time, standing on his chest sleeping.  He coughed and Bundy woke to see his eyes open and proceeded to make such a racket as she spread her wings and raised her crown feathers to dance on Sherm’s chest.  It hurt, but it also felt so good to see Bundy strut dancing and screaming. It didn’t take long for the Brothers to be awakened and come running.  As the room filled with monks and other temple workers all roused by Bundy’s joyous celebration, he heard Brother Prem’s voice telling everyone to go back to bed and let him do his work. 

Soon it was just Sherm, Brother Prem, Bundy and the boy.  “Rag, come over here and see if you can hold Bundy while I treat Sherm.”  Sherm was surprised when the boy snatched Bundy up like a chicken but, was unable to speak for some reason; no matter how he tried.  Amazingly, Bundy, did not scream or bite the boy but he could tell by sounds Bundy was making that a bite might still come.  The chanting and touching continued even into his dreams.

Rag was there when he woke again sitting on the bed petting Bundy, as he stood on Sherm’s chest.  “Such a pretty bird” Rag said as Sherm came awake.  Sherm could feel the weight of Rag’s hand on Bundy’s back in his chest.  It wasn’t a pain but it almost was and while the pain in his body seemed to be getting better, the discomfort involved in his short times awake, tired him rapidly and he tended to stare at the weird stain on the ceiling of the room a monster looking shadow like stain. 

It seemed like a weird dream, the way his waking and falling away again would occur.  His dreams were still his dreams, so often of big boats and an ocean.  Neither of which he had he ever seen apart from images drawn in books.  It was strange how the shadow monster seemed to be stalking him in his dreams.  He remembered the last time he was haunted in his dreams.  On a trip into the ring with his father, sent to the Orcan town of Jiddow with a message.  While there his father went to a celebration, leaving Sherm in the rooms to wait for him.

A knock on the door and Sherm found himself being told to follow the guards waiting in the hall.  He too was taken to the celebration, where he saw his father sitting on a dais with a very large and boisterous ogre wearing a crown.  He stood in the back of the room and watched as toast after toast were offered to honor the king and Sherm’s father.  It was the first time Sherm really understood how respected his father really was by some people or at least some ogres.   Sherm was around eight and he idolized his father, often just watching him and trying to do all things in imitation of him and his ways.

Even when he was only eight, Sherm, could throw a knife or even a light battle ax and he could handle his short sword respectably, But the swords carried by the guards leading him appeared to weigh more than his whole body and one had a battle ax whose blade was as wide as his leg was long.  Ogres seemed nice enough, yet, their gruff speaking and loudness took some getting used to.  Standing there he was imagining why they had made him come from his room, he stood watching the crowds at the tables, mostly ogres but there were also men and others there too.

He was led around the wall to the foot of the stairs leading onto the dais; where he was told to go to his father.  He ascended the stairs and the boisterous crowd took note with some comments better left unrepeated.  When his father turned to him and motioned him to come to his side. 

“A glass of watered wine for the boy” cried the king in a drunken voice.  People rushed to fulfill his command.  Soon a goblet was set before him.  “To the boy!” Said the king, and all raised their drinks in concurrence.  “Come here boy I want to see you.” Said the king waving his hand and beaconing with his expression.  His father nudged him over, and the king took him by the arm and pulled him close; where he took a great sniff before declaring the boy a delicious smelling morsel. 
Sherm was tempted to look to his father but resisted knowing that no expression would be readable on his face.  That is the way his father always was when surrounded by others. 

“I want a taste Uncle.  Can I have the arm.” An orc stepped from the shadows and approached.

“Stop, he is my guest, besides take note of the placement of his hand now,” said the king.  Where a moment ago Sherm’s arms where at his side he was now standing with his hand on his sword’s hilt and had it in a ready position.   In all honesty, he had not even thought about it, his father’s training was fully engrained in his person.   “Always be at the ready when uncomfortable, listen to your inner self when it speaks.” 

The king’s hand was raised and there were guards looking like mastiffs awaiting command.  “I think they would be more comfortable if you would drop you hand to your side” he stated in a whisper before again addressing the crowd.  “Did you see him he is his father’s son.  Threatened, and he prepares to bite.  Standing here beside a king he dares to take a weapon in hand without fear or concern for the loyal guards.”  He reached over and poured out the goblet of watered wine and had it refilled with mead from his own bottle.  “He is a man in this court’s opinion and he shall be treated with the respect and honor do him.” The king raised his goblet and all followed suit. 

Sherm raised his glass and drank a gulp of the sweet delicious syrupy brew.  His glass never emptied and he drank from it with vigor and zeal. 

His Father woke him in the morning with a smile on his face and a glass in his hand. The glass was a remedy for the tortured remains of his poor body, and the smile was one of rare pride.  He puked his guts out for an hour while his father recounted the evenings adventures. He was ashamed of the way he acted in his father’s rendition of the story.  But strangely his father seemed almost proud.  “the king insisted on carrying you to your bed and even settled you into it” his father said with another beam of pride flashing from him. 

 At some point the darkness surrounding Sherm started to fade the dreams became more distant.  His awake time became longer and longer.  The treatments from Brother Prem had worked wonders and he was soon out of bed and sitting by a window.  He discovered that not only had he been asleep for a long-time, winter was ending and he just woke from last year’s early fall. No pun being intended in the thought.  A smile played on his lips.

From his window he watched the days pass.  Rag was everywhere, and often, he had Bundy on his shoulders proud as he could be, walking the gardens or the wall with Bundy.  Just a whistle and Bundy would fly up to his window and love him up.  Yet, she would return to Rag when he screamed for him to come. 

Within weeks he was roaming the grounds himself making acquaintances.  The kitchen women were wonderful and spoiled him with treats and special requests.  It appeared their mission was to fatten him up.  He was skinny really, really skinny; weight had fallen off of him while he was recovering.  The gardeners seemed to cherish an ear for their songs and entertained Sherm endlessly while they worked, even letting him play, along on his flute after a time. 

There was a blacksmiths shop, barn, and paddock just past the gardens, and when Sherm found his way there, he found more friends with whom he came to share his lunches, and soon after found himself working with them as he built back his strength and stamina. 

Eyeren the blacksmith was a broad stout beast of a man, his arms as large as most strong men’s thighs.  He wielded his hammer tirelessly – five pounds of pure steel striking every two seconds as his assistants maneuvered the work piece on the anvil.  Without words they worked together fluidly and unerringly pausing only to exchange one cooled piece for another fresh from the fire. 

Sherm had learned farrier training from the temple when he was growing, even forging small pieces like hinges and cutting nails.  He and Eyeren ate lunch together every day after Sherm’s daily walk into the woods.   He found his morning walks turning into rides on Tomorrow and hunting to practice his bow work.  The kitchen was always grateful for the fresh meat and it helped Sherm feel like he was pulling his weight to offer it to them.  His afternoons were most often spent at the forge shoveling, pounding, and shoeing.  In short order it was recognized that his farrier work was top notch and the number of shoeing appointments scheduled had doubled quickly. 

The work pushed his endurance and stamina to the limits but he found progress every day; shifting the hammer back and forth between left and right hands.  When Brother Prem, proclaimed him fit as a fiddle and even better, he knew it was almost time to move on.  That was when the reality of the situation hit him square in the face, he owed these people his very life.  He knew that temple fees for some things was steep and as Brother Bean would say — temple compassion can be quite expensive.   It worried him, it haunted his sleep and burdened him and soon others were noticing. 

“What is wrong with you Sherm?” It seemed was the mantra heard all day in the kitchen at the forge and in the gardens.  Finally, when he was asked that question by Rag, he all but broke down letting it all out, as Bundy and Rag listened to his explanation about his indebtedness to everyone.  His burden seemed a weight too heavy upon him.   Listlessly, he passed through a few days more.  Rag kept telling Bundy to stay, and in truth Bundy always seemed to know when Sherm needed that extra attention. But it was nice to have Rag choose to leave Bundy with him.  Rag was a good boy, his devotion to Bundy had grown and become important for both of them.  He was the ever-present attendant for Bundy, he had been trained by Bundy in the proper method of petting.  He doted on Bundy and had cared for Bundy when Sherm was incapacitated and could not. 

Finally, it dawned on him that he was able to get a set of clothes for Rag and at least help him in some small way.  He remembered his father saying “break it down and kill it by chunks — every journey is nothing more than a set of steps.”   

“Rag, is there a seamstress nearby?” He asked

Mrs. Crowner makes the robes for the temple.”

“Well, how can I find her?  Where is her home? Asked Sherm.

“It is up the road toward the village, on the right side, she has an Orcan totem in front of her house.  It looks like the hilt of that dagger on your belt, but it is really big.” Rag told Sherm his excitement in discussing the totem was apparent.

Sherm asked Rag to lead the way.  As they walked, they talked, and Rag told him his story.  It seemed a sad story losing his parents when still a baby.  Delivered to the Temple by a passerby who discovered his parents murdered laying on the ground by their wagon.  Rag was on the ground sitting by his mother and trying to wake her.  The kitchen women took possession of him and he became the pauper prince of the temple.  Growing up in a temple home, raised by so many brothers who all became honorary Uncles, loved by the kitchen women who all perceived themselves as adoptive mothers. Rag was an amazing gentle soul. 

Rag was telling the truth, the totem at her house was exactly like the hilt of his dagger.  He remembered seeing them often in the ring with his father.   His father and he, would always stop and stand before them their arms out-stretched and quote the druidic prayer of submission to nature as was the tradition within the ring. 

Rag’s eyes were wide with surprise as Sherm honored his father by continuing the traditions he had taught.  A smirk of a smile flashed across his lips as he finished and studied Rag who stood in his periphery looking amazed if not a bit confused.  Sherm stepped forward and bowed, touching his forehead to the totem for a moment before stepping around the totem and heading for the house.

Awed and dumfounded Rag slowly following, he moved toward the door and found it opening as he approached.   “Greetings my friend,” said an older man standing to the front of a woman smiling as broad a smile as Sherm had ever seen.  “You honor the old ways.” She said, a squeal of excitement apparent in her voice.

“Yes, I do, still I also honor the new ways.  My name is Sherm and I have been told that a fair seamstress lived here. Would you, be she?”   Asked Sherm with a wink.

“Well, we all follow the new ways, but some choose to remember the old.” Her smile grew even wider as she confirmed being the seamstress and invited Sherm in for a warm drink and conversation.  Where they sat and chatted sipping a brew of forest herbs. 

She agreed to make a nice set of clothes for Rag, and he had a hilarious ten minutes watching her fondle Rag to gather his measurements.  She didn’t have a knot string or anything she just touched him all over and he squirmed the whole time. “Take a bath before you come to gather the clothes or I will scrub you clean myself. And if I ever again see you being a dirty waif wearing my clothes, I promise you, Ragamuffin that you will regret that day until you pass the veil.”  She said to Rag, her eyes unnaturally bulging at him as she held her face just inches from his.

Rag’s eyes wide with attention, he slowly stepped backwards an inch a time.  “Yes Ma’am, I will scrub good I promise.”  His eyes lowered to the ground as he cleared the door and ran away. 

“I think he will be spending most of his time warry that you are lurking around every corner. He seemed almost scared.” Said Sherm, as Bundy went flying after the boy.

She sat back down and made some notes in her book and sipped tea for a little bit longer as they became friends.  He found her to be an amazing font of druidic knowledge.  She found him, to be curious, and she predicted a promising future for him.  Giving her an extra four silvers for the clothes for Rag was a generous amount, and a boon for her and her husband.

A goodbye hug became a clandestine measuring session. She tried to conceal her touching of Sherm, yet, she found reason to lay her hands on him, though far less aggressively.  He knew what was going on, she was going to make him something too.  Her kindness warmed Sherm and solidified his devotion to their newly found friendship.

When Sherm left he found Bundy and Rag waiting up the road behind a tree, “Can ya tell she is a witch!  She scares me silly.  I swear, I’ll never again go there.” Rag stated in a matter of fact tone.

“Really,” inquired Sherm.  “How do you figure on retrieving your new clothes?” Sherm’s eye brows raised in the querying way of Brother Bean.  “Hmmm.” He almost broke out laughing at himself as he realized his imitation and saw himself through his younger self’s eyes. 

“Awe Sherm, you could do it for…” he stopped his plea as soon as he looked and saw the raised eyebrows.  Sherm understood him better in that moment.  Rag like him was roving through life as he did at that age, like he still was and would be until the veil was parted. 

“You’ll go with me, won’t you?  I’m gonna scrub myself pink and barrow an acolyte’s robe to wear on that day. But I won’t go inside again, oh no I ain’t gonna go there again — ever again, after anyways.”  A sternness etching his face with resolve.  He started back out for the temple walking hard on the ground.

Sherm followed remembering being that age and the fun and challenges he faced.  In many ways he was very much seeing himself in Rag.  Both were community raised and the temple played a huge part in his becoming the person he was becoming.  Sure, he had a father, and a home, but his father was drawn away from home for many months at a time.  The temple and the community around Schism were his family and so many lessons were learned from those neighbors.  He had watched as Rag seemed always ready to lend a hand in accomplishing temple tasks.  Whether the garden, or kitchen, helping the acolytes, or any of the tasks at hand in the community, Rag was always in attendance and helping.   He remembered that feeling left after finishing a task.  Pride, yeah, he thought; pride, now that is a powerful gift.

When the day came to retrieve Rag’s new clothes, he was waiting outside Sherm’s room at the crack of dawn.  Barley able to grab a couple of apples for breakfast; Sherm was all but herded up the road.  With Rag hiding behind the totem and peering like a cornered and scared racoon, Sherm approached the door after showing his respects to the old ways, it opened without a knock and the smiling face of his favorite seamstress greeted him with an embrace of warmth.  As she welcomed him into the house, she stepped again to the door and stated that no clothes will be leaving the house until tried on and approved.  Turning back to Sherm she motioned him to a table set with a plate of cookies and a kettle. 

By the time they made the temple it was around noon meal and the forge was banked and the billows were quiet.  Eyeren, and the men were gathered at the makeshift table out under the awning in the front of the forge area, Retch and Deworont the forge boys had brought a couple loaves of bread from home, with Eyeren’s sliced, wide sausage, a spicy almost sweet delicacy, he had shared with Sherm on many occasions, there were wonderful sandwiches waiting. 

“Come on Sherm, I made ya three sandwiches.  Retch stated, both he and Deworont, beaming with pride.  “It’s Eyeren’s birthday and Grandma sent some wonderful loaves.  The sandwiches were wonderful although two would have been more than enough for him alone.  

Sherm whistled for Bundy while gathering a sample of the offerings onto the dining cloth waiting for him.  When Bundy showed up, he wrote a note and letting Bundy take it in his beak, Sherm, told the bird to go to Rag.  Then he turned and sitting on a log he shared in the meal at the table.  The olives and apple slices created a wonderful contrast to each other; the sandwich was delicious. Not only the sausage but a sharp cheese was also giving its flavor, but it was the mustard and horseradish and herbs that cleared the ears and tightened the scalp making the sandwich a masterpiece. 

As Sherm finished his first sandwich Rag showed up with a large sack.  “Ah, so there you have it the finest Great Circle honey to finish the loaves with and savor our wonderful lives.” Said Sherm, smiling at the expressions evident on all the eager faces.   Happily, Rag was hungry as always and agreed to share in the bounty and eat Sherm’s final sandwich.  The honey bread went over well as it always does.  After all, who doesn’t like honey?  And the idea that the honey came from inside the ring seemed as exciting a thing for them all. 

Yet, this all emphasized Sherm’s problem.  He offered his honey and it was devoured with great pleasure and excitement.  He had nothing else of any value.  Eyeren announced that he had engaged a contract to supply hinges for some new Realm offices, being constructed in Fernrug, about forty miles away.  Eight sizes of hinges would be required and the three hundred door rings. Eyeren had taken the contract because he had watched Sherm working the smaller forge and making hinges rather quickly.

Eyeren decided, with all of them working at it, they could finish making them within a month. 

Sherm knew he had to stay for at least one more month. Eyeren deserved the profit from the order and his excitement was evident in his joyous hug filled celebration.  The bear hug Sherm received finally broke the knot in his back that had bothered him all week.  With a loud crack and Sherm’s guttural groan Eye’ gently settled Sherm to the ground.  “Oh, thank you Eye’ my back has been needing to be cracked.”  Eyeren looked at Sherm and asked him if he’d hurt him. 

“I’m sorry Sherm, I forget how badly your body was hurt, I truly did not mean to do so.” Eyeren said sorrow drenching his voice.  

“I am fine Eyeren — it actually feels better now than it did while we ate.” 

    The next twenty-six days were tiring and yet there was a buzz of excitement.  The men were looking forward to the extra monies they were earning.  Them getting that money was important to Sherm as he saw it as a sort of payback for their kindnesses.  “Another step Pops, just as you taught me.”  Said Sherm to no one.  

Sherm announced his intentions to be leaving for Fernrug at the forge during noon meal.  They all seemed saddened by the news and expressed their wish that he should stay; each in their own way.

He went hunting one last time for the kitchen and dropped a bull elk one hundred yards from the forge. He called for help and hung and broke it down into easily carried pieces which the boys carried to the kitchen.  He gave the hide to the gardener who had requested some skin to make leather out of to cover the handles of his tools.  This large hide would last him years for covering his tools with the wetted woven leather straps as he liked so much.   The offal was placed into a cloth bag and given to Eyeren for sausage. 

In the evening Brother Prem came to visit him in is room.  He had been talking to Rag about Sherm’s perceived problem of indebtedness.  Sherm was surprised as a man could be when Brother Prem turned the tables on him.  Tossing a bag of coins on the window table he told Sherm that the temple was sorry that this was all they could offer him for all of his efforts to assist the temple. 

“What do you mean Brother, I owe the temple,” after all he learned young that temple compassion was pricey.   “I was cared for while I was unable to even talk for months.” Sherm’s face showed his confusion and discomfort.  Tears filled his eyes as he continued, “They fed me and they cleaned my messes. How can I accept this sack? How can I hold my head up and be a proud man with this debt hanging over it?”

“Sherm, I know that you are a proud man and I understand how you view your debt to all of those who have helped you.  But you seem to forget, all – you – have done to help all of those you have helped.  We all have been eating like kings from your bow.  The kitchen has sharp knives and then there is Rag he is dressing like a young noble and trying to imitate you – yes you.  He sees a man that is honorable and one who easily earns the respect and love of others.  No Sherm you have touched every soul here with your kindness and I consider your time here a blessing for us all.

  Brother Prem cocked his head to the side and asked if he thought the coin was too much.  He offered a second sack instead, a smaller one that did seem more appropriate to Sherm and they exchanged sacks.   The smaller sack contained some larger coins and dumping them onto the table he realized that the smaller sack was filled with gold coins and too ruby gems.  “What is this?”

“I suspected you would refuse to take the copper and silver coins, so I made that sack to out play you.  Yes, it is the higher value, but it is still fair to all.” Brother Prem announced and smiled wide. “The Chancellor insisted you receive fair payment. The kitchen, the repairs, your help in the aviary have all made this place a better home.  Your care during the time of injury is a blessing and it was offered free of charge at the time, even though you think that is not fair.” He said cocking and tilting his head forward, he smiled a strange little devious smile and continued “Chancellor Vernew, absolutely insisted that the amount be exactly what was in the smaller sack.  So that is now settled.  I would like to personally thank you for all of your help to me.  I have never delved so deep into repairing the human body as I did for you.  I have submitted my request for testing in Flowers, and I hope to be able to teach soon after.   You see, I was unsure of my vocation before you first came here.  I now know what the path will be.” He smiled a teary smile, his eyes flooded with tears.  “Thank you”

There are times to fight and times to sit down and shut up.  Sherm recognized this as one of the latter and lowered his eyes and opened his ears.  “Perspective”, he thought, one of the lessons of his childhood.   Everyone has one and they are often different.  He let the situation sink in and realized the kind thing to do was to just say thank you. 

It is a strange thing to be regretful of a windfall, yet he was and it stung a bit.  He spent the rest of the evening packing his few belongings and getting ready for the last day. His visits to the kitchen staff and the gardeners and caretakers were teary and mournful yet again he found himself leaving friends and heading out to the world.  The last stop at the temple was with Eyeren and the boys.  They had made him a dagger and they were very proud of it.  They explained that they folded in carbon and continued folding for fifty-two folds before forming the blade.  It was polished and you could see the lines of the folded metal. Its sound spoke of a well-tempered piece and its weight and balance were perfect.  They had spoken of knives and leg sheathes like his father wore during noon meal on occasion. This knife came with a wonderful sheath in the style of a warden of the forest.  And on the sheath were the words “FRIENDS FOREVER” carved in silver inlay.

Eyeren had told Sherm that they had some things to settle before he could leave.  There were finances to be discussed.  That meeting was as bad as the first with Brother Prem.  Eyeren had a pile of coin set on a table that he insisted was fair pay for the many hours spent at the forge.  Sherm relented, yet again.  Adding these new coins to his sac he shared an embrace and a good slap on the back. 

“Damn Eyeren are you trying to brake me again so I have to stay or what?” Asked Sherm with a playful lilt in his voice.

“I hadn’t thought of that.  Come on over here I want one more hug.” Eyeren announced spreading his arms wide and advancing on Sherm.  

Sherm quickly drew his new knife and said “Back off big boy before I geld ya with my fine new knife,” his smile broke into a full laugh and Eyeren joined in as they came together once again for an embrace. 

Finding Tomorrow enjoying a bag of oats and a brushing by Rag, Sherm went to his saddle and slid five gold coins into the secret places built into it.  There were already silver coins there but gold ones were a better save. 

Rag had suffered a spell of crying and sorrow on that final evening and had disappeared first with Bundy which caused some concern among the brothers.  But by dark Bundy was back in the room in which, Sherm, had been staying.  Rag on the other hand was still missing the following morning.  So, finding Rag brushing Tomorrow was a blessing, because Sherm would not have been able to leave otherwise.

“Boy but it has been a busy morning. I sure appreciate your being here to help me get ready.” Sherm said cautiously, not wanting to trigger another scene like last night. 

“I am going with you or after you it is your choice.  I can help care for the animals and you.  I will not stay here, though I fear being alone in the world, I will follow you alone if I must.”  Rag stated in an as-a-matter-of-fact way as anyone could, he must have practiced that speech all night.  It left little wiggle room and Sherm felt cornered; but in a good way.  Brother Bean had on many occasions uttered the wisdom of always being open to helping others.  In this way we can find ourselves.  Besides he’d been expecting this situation and considering it for a week.  Rag had been tossing around clues for the last month.

“Okay Rag.” Sherm replied, resignation apparent in his tone and demeanor. Going about preparing his gear, he watched out of the corner of his eye and noticed with satisfaction, an air of confusion in his little ruffian. 

“But, but really Sherm? Really?  I can come with you.”  Stammered Rag his excitement tempered by disbelief. 

“Yes Rag, I agree with your assessment and accept you as a companion for the trail. The only thing we need to work out is the danger out there.” Sherm said raising his arm and pointing into the wilderness.  “I need you to accept that I am in charge. I also need you to agree to obey my decisions, and do as you’re instructed. “

“Of course, I will, you are the boss!” Stated Rag his excitement building like a runaway water mill.   “I have everything ready in the hay loft, I’ll toss it down.”  Squealing he scurried up the ladder and tossed everything he owned in the world down.  Two sacks one the sack with his new clothes and a smaller one with his treasures.  Almost nothing and one of the happiest people Sherm had ever met.

“Rag, I want you to protect and care for Bundy.  I’ll teach you other responsibilities as we learn together.  My father was one of the best woodsmen and trailblazers in the ring I will teach you everything I know, everything he taught me as long as you remain a man of integrity; I swear to be your loyal companion.” It was a fumbling speech but it served the purpose he’d intended.

“Oh, Sherm I do, to… I’ll…” he stuttered tears running down his freckled cheeks –“I promise to be worthy of your trust and friendship.  I do. I really do.” He said looking into Sherm’s eyes with a tear-filled look of determined resolve. 

Sherm stepped forward and dropped to one knee before Rag and embraced him. “Of course, you do. Now what more do we need to fit you out. Hmmm.” Said Sherm thinking. 

The next few hours were a series of gifts for Rag and a generous sharing of resources drawn from the recesses of storage.  Rags two bags, became a highlander’s back pack and a fine leather over coat in the style of the forest people. The brothers tried to all give him something useful but at some point Sherm needed to put a stop to the process as Rags new possessions were outweighing Rag.  

Sherm decided to visit Vin on the way out of town.  It was Vin who rescued him and transported him to the brothers and the possibility of life again.  He had thanked Vin a thousand time and always “it was nothing” with that damn wave of the had to dismiss him. 

They left the stable walking Tomorrow up the road toward willow rise where the lane to Vin’s homestead was located.  Upon arriving at Vin’s, they found him black as night from the charcoal he was shoveling. 

“Beware a Nightshadow!” screamed Sherm drawing his new dagger and comedically holding it in front of him.   

“I had heard you were leaving and had hoped not to miss saying good life to you.” Vin said through a big smile of white teeth.  “I will miss our talks. I will cast remembrances into the wind to honor you. I will truly, truly miss your presence and face.” Said Vin sincerely. Feigning a tear and wiping it away on his forearm, only to get the black powder in his eyes.  Screaming for water and groping the air he laughed and cried. 

Rag jumped into action and led Vin toward the water bucket.  While he cleared his eyes, Rag mimicked his blind groping and Bundy strutted on the top rail of a fence, crown raised and wings half extended. “What in the fairy laced world is going on here Vin screamed.  You let the sapling there mock me and the damn bird too.  What I have and call friends.”     He said stepping out of his cover-alls and throwing his arms around Sherm who shared the embrace.   

“Come to the house and share a tea with me.  Boy, take Tomorrow, remove his bridle and give him some hay and water from the barn over there.” Vin told Rag before turning to walk away.

“Yes Sir, Vin.” Said in an official tone that Sherm was not totally convinced was sincere.

“I wanted to be rid of him for a while – because – well because, Sherm, the boy is as naïve as they come.  And it is a big responsibility that you need to be sure you are ready for, he is not like you and me, he’s always just roosted in the temple and they all catered to him even worse than they catered to you.” The look of sincere concern was evident in his almost clean face.  It stirred Sherm’s heart to hear the concern for both he and Rag emanating from Vin.

“Vin, I know what I’m doing, and I recognize the dilemmas that could arise.  But, remember, I was a temple rat too.  I know him, he is the splitting image of my best friend, growing up, in heart and soul.  I know him, I have known others just like him.  And I promise to do my part to help him become himself. Besides he did not leave me much wiggle room; it was either with me or following me.” Sherm said shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands palms up.

“Well, I could sit on him a week to let you get away.” Vin said signaling to Sherm to check the door.

No sooner than the words were out Rag stomped into the room glaring. “Oh no you won’t Vin I’ll stick ya if I have to, I WILL!” Rags look of defiance could have been a study for a great statue of some hero somewhere.

Vin almost busted his gut laughing.  “Boy I knowed you was there, that is why I said it.  I give you both my blessing.”  He chuckled “You deserve each other.”  He said crossing over and drawing both into an embrace.   You both always have a home here – food, warmth and welcome.” The biscuits and tea were delicious.  

“So, I take it you would like to purchase a horse for Shorty here.” Vin said as they walked into one of the many horse paddocks.  Large work horses displayed their discomfort by circling the paddock, all of them eighteen hands if a finger tall.

Rags eyes looked about to pop out as he took in the monstrosities circling the paddock.  In the small area between the larger paddocks was an area with a large pony in it.  The pony was reddish brown with a shaggy black mane and a curly shock of black hair on the top of its head.

“Now that is just perfect for you, Rag!” Sherm stated excitedly, pointing at the pony.  Rag looked like he had fallen in love instantly. His expression a cross between excitement and concern.

“it looks wonderful, Sherm.  I’ve never had a horse before.   I don’t even know if I can ride it.  But it is beautiful.  Can I name it, huh, can I?”  Rag asked, his excitement winning out over his initial trepidation.

“Well, we should probably buy it first. Don’t you think?” said Sherm turning to Vin and Rag and raising his eye brows in askance.  

“I will not be able to sell it though Sherm.  I purchased him a few weeks back.  I foresaw the probability that you would be stealing our boy from us.  I wanted to give him a gift that would remind him of his home. And those of us who love him.” With those last words Vin turned to Rag and formed a smile drenched in tears.  “He is all yours Ragamuffin.  Care for him well, he is a beaut’ of a highlands pony, the largest I’ve ever seen.” His tears filled his eyes and so to did mine and Rag’s. 

Stepping up to Vin, Rag embraced him with as much love as any son could muster.  “I’ll always remember you Vin; you will always have a place in my heart.  How could it be otherwise?” Rag asked in a voice that echoed Brother Prem.  “In fact, I am going to name her Muffin, just so I am always reminded of you when I call to him.” Rag’s tears staunched with his decision of a name, but Vin’s let loose and his cheeks became streams.  They came together for a one final hug after Vin taught Rag how to saddle Muffin with all of the gear, he had bought him.  Saddle, blanket, bridle, Bags, a coil of rope a halter, bed roll and oiled coat for rain.  Rag was ready, sitting proudly on Muffin. 

As Sherm and Vin came together to say goodbye – “Vin, I will never be able to repay the debt I owe you.” Said Sherm tears again in his eyes.

“there is no debt owed me by you, I did what Gaia would have wanted.  Actually, I owe you for the opportunity you gave me to earn Gaia’s respect.  You just take care of our boy there and remember both of you have a home here, always.”   As Sherm started off, Vin stepped up and squeezed Rag’s leg, making a face that was twisted up stifling his emotions, he kissed Rag’s knee, before turning away and going to the water barrel to splash some water on his face and watch them fade into the forest.

Readers: Thank you for taking the time to read my story sincerely -bf

Sherm and Bundy: Setting Out

SS/ Fantasy 3367 – WORDS By brian francis

The water in the stream flowed with a purpose which has always interested Sherman.  By just watching it drift by, it seemed to help him think. Like thoughts that he had never once felt the need for a hand on his back in congratulations for a job well done, that was something that his father had never offered. He had a certain drive all his own. He had tried his hardest to excel in everything he took to task; he’d taught himself to read, to write, to fish and hunt and even make furniture – even furniture, people were willing to buy with money.  Now, he’d learned how to care for wounds and administer medicines, and even how to allow a person the time needed to accept their fate and move on.

He had been caring for his father for the past six months; the doctor had visited their small home numerous times every week since David Taylor had laid down on the bed and would not, could not get back out.  Sherm had cared for him as best he could since then, with the help of some of the neighbors, and some people from the nearby monastery.  Mostly it had fallen to Sherm to clean his father’s messes, to feed and support the household.  Now with his father finally laid to rest in the field down in the stream’s bend he had nothing but time.

“Sherm, are you down there?” came the voice of the Doctor. It wasn’t until the second or third time that Sherm stood up from the tall grass and acknowledged the call.  The doctor, calling, waved him up to the house and they sat down for a fine talk about living and dying.  It wasn’t like he hadn’t come across death before; something always dies when it’s time for dinner.  That is just the way of it.  But the doctor went on talking about letting go and moving on and such until Sherm was about to fall asleep. “So what are ya going to do now Sherm?” that simple question ask by the doctor had been swimming in Sherm’s mind for week.  As the end came for David Taylor, he was spared the pain and suffering by fading into a deep sleep.  As he lay there in the bed and made no requests or demands Sherm was left to wander the thoughts and confusions of his mind.  He would sit for hours petting Bundy the white parrot given to him by a passing carnival master. 

Bundy was too young to perform and would never have survived on the move–and the show must constantly move.   So for some repairs to a wagon’s hitch Sherm earned some money and a bird not expected to live.  That was three years ago.  Sherm’s attention to the bird’s care was heroic and an important lesson for him.  His devotion to the bird was all consuming in those first months.  Now he was rarely seen without the bird perched on him somewhere. He still sees to the feeding of the Bundy before himself and it is obvious to all around that there is something special in that rather weird relationship.

“Sherm …yo there… you Ok… Sherm” prodded the doctor.

“Yeah, I’m doing just fine.  Other than not knowing what to do now and fearing being on my own and not being able to do it.”

The Doctor laughed a long and low chuckle. “Well, I imagine it might seem a bit scary to think about; but if you really think about it you’ve already proven your mettle boy. “ Reaching out and cupping Sherm’s cheeks in his palms the Doctor went on,  “There is not a person within miles who does not admire you for the devotion and care you’ve show to all things, all of your life. There is not a father who does not pray his son would show the same strength of character.  You are not alone …you are not alone.   Do you understand? “

As Sherm listened to the doctor’s words his heart seemed to stop and at that moment, overcome with emotion, he fell into the embrace of the doctor and sobbed.  It had seemed like he would never be free of the duty and burden that his father had become.  Now all of that was behind him and his purpose in life seemed to have disappeared along with it. He was a stranger even to himself

After a while, having regained his composure and able to speak without stumbling over sobs, he and the doctor finished their talk.   He was prepared to make the decisions required of him; he just needed some time to figure it all out. 

There were still chores and the Widow Jengk’s chairs for her sitting room at her boarding house.  She made the most wonderful lace cookies, a cross between a candy and a cookie, which make mouths water all over the township at the mere mention.   He decided to buckle down and just get on with living.  Maybe stay here for a while finish up with his undone tasks and then set out to discover the world. 

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Getting his responsibilities completed became a chore as the good people here about discovered tasks that only he could resolve. It was nice to realize that those neighbors cared enough to do all they’d done.  He had been working hard for three months and had put on weight for all the pies and custards brought to him.  He was finally ready to step away.  His home would be lived in by a friend whom he trusted.  He had built a shed so the collections of the family furniture could be moved out of house and allow the new residents to move their stuff in.  When Sherm started to empty his bedroom, he was stopped by the friend who told him that this house was his home and his room will always be waiting for him. 

That evening friends and neighbors gathered on that plot of land that would always be his home.  It was a very emotional night for him, Bundy was jumping from person to person trying for a bite of this or that, A joyous scream announced the arrival of Bundy’s favorite monk, Brother Bean, Bundy’s head feathers rose as he bobbed his head in excitement. 

Sherm was actually thinking he might be a fool to leave so many loving supportive friends.  But then the happy announcements from Bundy “go bye byes, hurrah.”  He knew he had to keep his word, second thoughts be damned.  His pack was ready to go when he laid down to wait for morning.  He had sold the farm horses to pay for the doctor’s visits so it was going to be a walking tour of the world for a while. He did have a healthy pouch of coins.  At least it seemed healthy to him.  

Neighbors were still hanging out when the sun came up.  Sherm wanted to get an early start so his intention was to wake and being to wander.  But that was not to be, he was made to endure another meal of delicious fresh berry breakfast cakes and some coffee that had been made into a special treat by the addition of chocolate.

The good byes where endearing and each person present wanted a hug that often came with a whisper in the ear of loving support.  Rebekah, whispered in his ear that she would wait his return.  Just as he was ready to turn and walk away he heard the sound of a wagon racing up the road.  It was Brother Bean probably coming for the other brothers who were mostly passed out lying about the porch.  As he approached he cried “Sherm not without a hug. My Friend!” He slowed and stopped nearby and jumped down with a huge bear hug that forced the wind from Sherm in a gush.  “You my friend have set an example worthy of study and devotion.  The many animals that you have cared for when injured.  The many people who have had you touch their lives with your loving attention.  During all of your struggles you never demanded help like some people do and still you found the time to help that eagle and the bear cub.” Brother Bean had told the bear cub story many times.  He was amazed at the way the mother allowed this boy to go into the water and release the cub from the tangle of vines it had created.  She allowed him to inspect the cub and then even seemed to say thank you by nudging him with her nose and knocking him down before walking away. 

Well with all that said, Brother Bean, walked to the back of the wagon and released the rope tying a beautiful painted pony unlike any, Sherm, had ever seen.  It had a beautiful rosy coat with black blotches. Its eyes were wide with excitement and it was not winded at all from the ride.  In the back of the wagon there was a fine saddle that had silver work and in the bed roll Brother Bean explained that there is a special blanket of warmth made with magic.  After readying the horse and finally looking at her from a distance he realized how smart she looked and imagined how smart he would look riding her. Sherm gave an apple and carrot to his new friend Bundy jumped onto the snout of the mare and while she did shudder she had no problem allowing it to climb up to the fore head and grabbing two bunches of main while screaming “Go bye byes hurrah, hurrah.” and with that Sherm mounted and began his new life of adventure.  It was surely a sight never before seen of a man riding a horse with a parrot atop its head. 

Even after a full day’s ride he was still among his friends.  He found a barn where he could sleep and rest.  He opened the doors leading to the outside so the horse could come and go he gave some hay to a stall and crawled into his travel bed and was joined by Bundy who nosed her way under the blanket and slept in the crook of his arm.

A pile of hay made for a good bed and his blanket of warmth lived up to its promise.  Sleep came quickly and dreams of what lie ahead teased his rest with excitement and even dread.  When in the morning he was awakened by the mare eating him out of a bed.  He rose to make a hard tack, dried meat and hard cheese breakfast.  While he ate, Bundy found his pocket of seeds and dried fruit and joined in to this their first breakfast away from home. Taking the bucket and getting fresh water for the horse and taking the time to brush her and inspect her condition. She was in wonderful shape and ready to go again.  Periodically Bundy would climb down from his shoulder or jump onto his lap from the horse to find her pocket and eat some food and ask for drink.  More than able to drink from a bottle the canteen was no problem in fact, all was well.  Life was good.

Bundy chose to ride on Sherm’s Quarter staff and fly into the trees to scream and do her crazy bird act.  She would cling to a branch and spread her wings and screaming as she would fall over backwards and continue her screaming gyrations.  She was happy and her joy lifted his spirits and made him laugh. 

Half way through the day with storm clouds threatening they came upon a small farm with the whole family harvesting wheat as fast as they could.  Sherm understood the imperative – the storm would destroy the harvest left in the field.  When he noticed that the family consisted of three boys all young and a woman presumably the mother with no man to be seen he found himself approaching the woman and offering to assist.  Asking only the opportunity to shelter in the barn through the storm.  The children were all dreary and looked exhausted at least until Bundy came flying up and saying hi and introducing himself.

With terms agreed, Sherm took charge, instead of the kids carrying their every bundle to the barn he had the woman lay out the largest tarp she could find in the barn and having them gather onto it.  He cut the remainder of the field like a pro and the family worked to gather as the storm approached.  Using the horse to drag the loaded tarp to the barn was much faster and far less work than the alternative. In the end the harvest was a success and exhaustion was the result. 

Quickly, Sherm, found himself the unwilling victim to unrelenting questions as he made his bed and prepared for rest.  The boys each wanted to have Bundy ride their shoulder.  And boy did they puff up and get prideful being a perch.  After brushing his horse and fielding questions about its name that he could not answer.  He asked the boys to allow him to get some rest. They obliged and Sherm and Bundy settled into their night. 

Though rest was soon interrupted by a most wonderful smell.  Root stew and fresh bread brought to him by the nice mother to the little ogres.  She told him of the loss of her husband in an accident last year.  In the morning she was sure that the storm would be the final straw, not seeing any way for the children and her alone to accomplish the task need.  She had had their wagon and field team stole the previous month and she just so appreciated his help, with tears on her cheeks.  He encouraged her to get back into the house before the storm which had developed some gusty winds and was threatening to really set in.  He closed up the barn after watching her get safely inside.  And it was back to sleep.  Though a full belly, sleep was restless due to the raging storm, yet,  even the great cries of the thunder could not raise his eye lids.  And still excitement and dread haunted his sleeping hours. 

Waking early to a wet but storm free world Sherm grabbed his bow and quiver knowing that this would be a wonderful time to find some game for the family.  And after a few hours he’d trussed a good number of birds and when he finally scored a wild pig he regretted not bringing his horse, “Spot.”  No that didn’t sound right he’d just have to keep thinking.  After field dressing the boar, he dragged it up a nearby tree to secure it while he went for the horse.

She was all teary and grateful again when he asked if she could dress the birds.  As she set about prepping the hearth for the process, he set off to retrieve the boar.  The rest of the day was spent in butchering and smoking, a sack of salt found in the smoke shed sure helped.  

As evening fell and the meal was smelling delicious, he found himself pondering how lucky he was to have had such and easy life.  The lean-too on the side of the barn facing the smoke shed was a perfect spot to rest during his days toils.  While lost in thought he seem to fade to a daze.

“Sherm can I speak with you for a moment,” came her voice in the sweetest of tones, dragging him from his reflections.

“Eh, Sure Misty, I was just trying to slough off the day and catch my breath. It’s been a roundy – round all day,” he said while rubbing his eyes and leaning up.

“I just wanted to say” she started, but then exclaimed, “Oh my, but your eyes are red! But I guess mine are too,” revealing a shy coyness in her expression. 

“Well, I’ve been playing with smoke most of the day” he teased her “What is your excuse?”

“I have been crying tears of joy for the first time in over a year. My heart has been lifted by your kindness.” She said staring into his eyes. “Thank you Sherm for coming into our lives.”

Now was the time for Sherm to be uncomfortable, now was the time to remember that expressions of gratitude are the right of all people and receiving them graciously and without expectation is the will of the gods with respect to a worthy soul.  And with that mantra in his head he explained that it was his blessing to meet such a strong family.  As he now had friends here where he’d never been before. She also let him know that diner was ready and the family wanted him to share their table.

After washing up and checking the smolder he knocked on the door. Their dinner was awesome roast bird and root stew with bird stewed right in.  There were comments of cannibalism when Bundy asked for a piece, but Sherm assured them that Bundy was more than a bird, a sentiment all agreed was true.  He heard about the boy’s father and shared with them how he too lost his father.  They spoke of dreams and his travels.

The rest of the week allowed him to finish up the smoke curing of the meat and the curing of the hide with the ashes of the smoking fire.  He made some repairs around the farm and tried to teach the boys all he could in such a short time.  They absorbed his attentions eagerly and proved their worth in short order.   The youngest, Danny, taking up the chore of the watcher of the smolder.   While Rye and Trip took on the repairs to the leather hinges of the front door.  By days end he was prepared to leave and had gathered and packed his belongings.  Rest was comfortable all night and in the morning his goodbyes were brief aside from the meeting with the children in the morning when he awoke with them kneeling around him waiting.  He gave each a handful of coins their earning for helping him.  They assured him at his coaxing the they would wait until he was gone to reveal their windfall.

Misty cried and Sherm announced that he’d dubbed her forever in his mind as his friend  “Misty Cries” After a brief hug he set out once again on a path to tomorrow, Oh ,but maybe that is it “Tomorrow.”  Hmm, thought Sherm still looking back and waving.  “Tomorrow!”  I think we’ve found a name for you.

A day and a half up the road he found a small hamlet called Hemm.  Not much beyond a couple warehouses and about twenty residences and of course a traveler’s inn and tavern. 

Asking permission to enter with Bundy on his shoulder had never led to anything but a warm welcome and this was no exception.  Some grog is said to help the traveler stay fit.  While the taste was often bitter, this inn’s private brewing was almost sweet in its bitterness.  So the grog flowed and the conversation flowed until a man with a green feather in his cap approached him and let him know about a team of horses found abandoned on the road three or four weeks before in response to his discussing Misty’s predicament.  The locals all seemed unaware that she had stayed working the farm.  Those present agreed with Sherm’s proposal that she was a part of their community.  The wagon would be returned to the family by these good people in the morning.  And they would reach out to her and her family. 

It was easier to continue down the road knowing that Misty and the boys would have a community helping her.  Having studied a map on the wall in the tavern he realized that the transport road would take weeks longer than following the old trails down through the steppes to the low lands and the great caravan roads.   Although that would leave him little contact with people it would save him time in getting to a real city. 

One more night then setting out in the morning early after a nice breakfast and one final study of the map.

The Devil’s Good Deeds

A contemporary short story    By brian francis


“Stay down stupid,” said Charlie as he pushed down on my shoulder.

I laid my head to the side, my ear on the ground.  I was looking at Charlie’s nose and I still remember counting the freckles.  Just over the rise in the meadow below, were two city folk wrestling and smooshin’ their faces together while they giggled and moaned.

“He’s done took his drawers off now” Charlie exclaimed excitedly at one point. “Look at his skinny white legs Billy.  Ya ever seen anything septin’ a chicken with legs like that.

And boy did he have white legs – bright red hair and pearly white legs. Three weekends in a row these two had appeared at the same secret spot in the Marsh Woods Hallow.  There was only two ways into the hidden meadow and Charlie and I knew them both, most other folks could barely find the obvious one.  But that didn’t matter much as no one ever came out looking for it anyway.

These two went to the same spot under the same tree and spent hours together every Sunday, during church morning.  Charlie and I didn’t have to go to Church anymore since Grandpa told the minister that God should look elsewhere for assistance.  He told the preacher that he should tell God that he would take care of the Hess Family and that the church and God could worry about everyone else.  After that Grandpa held daily bible readings and prayer circles. And everybody had to be there.

On this particular morning Charlie and I had spent the early morning hours spreading leaves down under the tree where our friends always settled.  We had collected the leaves one by one using long pliers we’d found in the tool shed.  Poison ivy, oak, and sumac all gathered and laid out very carefully.  As country boys we knew something about plants; good and bad.  In fact, one of the first lessons I remember is how to recognize and avoid Poison Ivy.  Of course it is much harder to identify if the leaves are all separated and strewn about.

Once the clothes came off it got real fun for us.  We were laughing and watchin’ as they rolled around in the leaves.  They even got up and ran around a bit with our leaves stuck all over them. But after about twenty minutes of fun and frolicking it seemed that their attentions turned to scratching and rubbing.  It was the funniest thing I had seen in my twelve years as a living, breathing boy.

The next day we rode our bikes into town and hung around the gas station and diner watching as the fuel attendant and one of the waitresses tried to make it through the day.   We just hung out always out of direct sight and laughed all morning at the spectacle.  When we heard about the waitress being taking to the hospital we rode home as fast as we could; fear riding on our backs the whole way.

After lunch grandpa called both of us out onto the side porch by the carriage house.  He stood us both by the stairs and staring us up and down he told us he could sense the devil’s presence.  Oh, I’ll never forget the feeling of those creepy crawlies when he said the word D-E-V-I-L all drawn out and slow.

Well, either repentance is good for the soul or maybe it was the whippin’ we got, but either way we learned an important lesson that day.  We learned about doing the devil’s work being fun.  We also learned about how wrestling is even worse and how God can turn the devil’s evil deeds to good.

I was always thankful that God took my evil deed and used it to help teach others to abide his word.  In the six months since, I have tried my derndest to avoid the temptations to do bad things, and I have been pretty successful too.  I finally figured out that Charlie seems to invite temptation in some way.  I guess he must keep God busy making the Devil’ s deeds into good ones.



Copyright ©2020 brian francis

Between the Strands

SS/Fantasy                                                A Crystar based story


                           By brian francis


Sitting in his balcony garden planning a new voyage with his small fleet, surrounded by his assistants, he perused the plans and expenses laid before him.  Welixs, Hawkes’ first mate and lead adviser recited the information from the reports with ease and accuracy.  He knew the names of each member of the fifteen crews of the fleet, he knew their skills, their strengths, their weaknesses. 

As a servant approached carrying a silver message plate, Welixs broke from his recitation and read the message.  “Bring them,” he said.  Turning to Hawke and retrieving his Captain’s hat.  Welixs said “the wizards have sent an envoy. Do you wish to meet them as a wizard or Admiral my lord?”  A smile formed as Hawke reached out for the hat. “Admiral it shall be.”

The four-man envoy approached having been forced to leave their guard escorts behind at the front door.  The four men each wore a cape of purple which bore a yellow slash and a ranking mark in the color of their orders over the right shoulder. Each of them was from the highest rankings, one of them held a rod of authority. 

“I announce a party sent from the Mordan.  Four magic users of various names.”  Welixs announced in an official tone.  Hawke lowered his head trying not to laugh out loud.  Welixs’ ability to casually insult was extraordinary.   

The one, of the four who carried the rod, stepped forward and announced somewhat arrogantly “We speak for the Mordan of Flowers.  We summon your devotion to the cause and direct you to meet the challenge of the Council in its order to subdue the heretic, Gadron Findellian. The council has declared him feral as he has no order.”

“Is that all?  The sum and total of your message?” Queried Hawke sharply.

“Why yes Master Hawke.  The council requests that you act on its behalf” stated the holder of the rod.

On its behalf. So, you say.  Because they know whoever attends this task will most likely perish.” Sternness was heard in his voice and seen in his demeanor.  “Let me tell you what I would want, were I to act on their behalf.  I do not intend to do anything but gently prod him in a direction of thinking.  You see, I know the wizard that you fear, and I do not fear him.  Not because I think I could defeat him.  But because I know him to be a man of high integrity.  I have knowledge of what happened in the Well of the Mordan.”  He stopped his pacing and turned to directly face the men of the council.  “I will only act as an arbiter.  I would therefor require absolute power of resolution.  I do not intend to be like one of your knights smacked around while you play your games of domination.” He turned and walked away to the table across the room where he picked up a document and began to study it. 

The council members turned toward each other and standing closely held a brief and quite discussion. “It is settled then.  Your instructions are to find a way out of this confrontation which allows us the opportunity to study this knew magic which is now only known to him.  Bring him into the fold if you can, he can head his own house and teach these new and amazing powers.” The rod changed hands and another began to speak. “There is a common concern that if he joins into an existing house, he will shift the balance of power.  This could endanger all of us.  If there is no option but to stand against him, we need to understand that you could do what needs to be done.” All four turned to face Hawke. Silent in their stare.

A chuckle betrayed Hawkes mood.  He too turned to face the three men. “I will promise you this – I will not tell him of your casual threat or the misguided thinking of your last utterance.  I will do this because his wrath could destroy Flowers completely.  He has tapped into some amazing source of power.  I do not understand it yet.  But I am sure I can approach him safely and in doing so learn some more of exactly what he can do and maybe even how.  His father, Fin was a benefactor of his studies and yet, he claimed he could only understand a rudimentary level of Gadron’s skill.”  Hawke turned at his desk chair and sat with a plop.

Again, the rod passed to another. “We can accept your proposition, but you should know that there are others also seeking a ‘resolution’.  We represent the High Mordan council, the others are acting on behalf of their order houses and power groups.  We can offer you no assistance with the others but we will also not interfere with your choice of dealing with them.” With that the speaker pulled out a pouch and offered it to Hawke.  “There is enough here to form and provide for a company for four months.   Should you succeed in your endeavors a doubling of this amount would be forwarded to your Flowers home.”

Hawke wore a sly smile as he shook his head in disagreement. “Firstly, if there is a challenge, I mean a serious challenge, there will not be enough left of those who partake; any assault on Gadron will find he is not shy with his power.  Neither will he be found alone – but surrounded by friends who will stand before him to gratefully fall to death.  His reactions will be quick and would undoubtedly offer absolute devastation.”  Now, he smiled broadly shaking his head in an affirmative motion.  “If they attack him there, he will destroy them and come to the valley of Flowers to dish out his personal revenge.  And make no mistake there is no member of the Mordan able to challenge Gadron.  If his anger becomes a rage, he could devastate the whole of the community, he would not even try to determine friend or enemy.  I have watched as your fellow High councilors have played your petty games with others; be clear, your actions will change the world, he will ride a dragon from the skies and burn the world of yesterday to build tomorrow.”  That last bit right out of the prophesies of Ligor the Great.  “In light of all of this, I will require a tripling again of this amount which you are offering.”  The four wizard’s faces melted, the confident façade fading as they considered the words of prophesy. 

They each approached presented a bag of equal value to him — laying them at his feet before returning to their formation and bidding farewell. Then one chuckled and said – “A dragon!” before they appeared to attempt casting a journey spell. They looked confused when their magic failed them.  Hawke smiled, as a thought of appreciation rose to his friend Gadron for that particular affect.  “Okay guys we will see you later” he said a final slap in the face.

As the doors closed behind them Hawke called to Welixs and started preparing to travel to Fin’s Keep.  In the valley of the caretakers there is a raised platform baring the design, called a grace, which is the focus for travel to the keep.  Only the most trusted friends of the Findellians were allowed to study the design. It is by memorizing the design or grace, which, allows people to travel to that grace’s location.  The complexity of the grace represents the difficulty of magical travel to the location, as the wizard must be absolutely accurate or risk being lost to the world.

The complexity of the valley’s rune grace is intense.  There are for gems in unique locations and the design is unlike the grace styles taught in Flowers.  In fact, graces of this type of design are pointedly avoided because of the dangers of complication. 

Hawke unfolded his silk grace mat and began drawing the grace in salted sand.  The actual drawing was not as complex as it appeared.  It was four ruins drawn in the primary directions.  The position of the gems was the intersecting points of the runes.  Unlike the designs taught in Flowers where the designs are rooted in geometry and the simple use of reflective imitation guided the design, where the caster stays to the bottom while drawing and casting, in the designs used by Gadron, the caster draws four runes from each of the primary positions moving four times the final move returning the caster to the bottom of the grace to place the stones and say the words.   

“Always I doubt myself.  The grace is correct, yet, I doubt.” Said Hawke, checking to make sure he has everything he might need before once again reviewing the grace he’d drawn.  With a “see ya in a bit.” He placed the stones and cast the spell before disappearing in a pop.

Welixs scratched the head of the dire wolf standing beside him. “Don’t worry boy he’ll be back soon enough.” Before turning and walking in from the balcony.  “Just being here when he makes those infernal marks and casts the magic it just feels weird inside.  We will never “pop” with him I can assure you of that Finerous.  No there is no worry of that happening my gruff friend.”

                                              *  *  *  *  * 

Instead of the nice field of herbs surrounding the platform of the grace, a small army was encamped in nice orderly rows.  At first Hawke believed that he had appeared among the enemy until he saw the banners.  They were elfin warriors only about thirty in number yet worth many regular soldiers each.  It wasn’t until he looked at those standing nearby that he realized he was the focus of numerous notched arrows.  “I am Hawke a friend to this place.” He said holding his hands in front of him palms out. 

“Speak to the truth stone.”  Came the reply from a human fighter who also pointed at a glowing stone.  “But I warn you it is a death stone so don’t even shade your answers.” He said questioningly raising his brows and tilting his head. 

“I understand”

“Then state your business”

Hawke turned to face the stone and spoke his truth.  “I am a friend of the wizard.  I am here to protect and defend him.  I am Hawke.  I am a wizard and I know what a death stone is and this isn’t one.” Hawke held his hand before him as though holding a ball.  He tested the air, there were no restrictions on his power, the human rose up off of the ground as Hawke’s anger flared.  “What is this game,” his voice unnaturally boomed. 

“Woe, woe, woe, woe,” came a voice Hawke recognized — it was Degar’s and he was approaching the platform and calling Hawke to calm down.  “Come on down big guy no one meant any insult I was just playing with you.  Come on put him down. He was just following instructions. 

Hawke lowered the man and turned his attention to Degar. “He told me you were coming. Sent me to greet you and carry if needed.”

Degar was a rough and tumble fighter whose skill was top notch though he liked to out strength his opponents so he tended to mercilessly pound and laugh and pound them into defeat.  Degar smiled wide his cockiness reminding Hawke just in time that Gadron had made him immune to magic.   

“Well, it is good to see you Degar. I assume all is under control.” Said Hawke brushing some imagined dust off of his lapels. 

“Well, wiz is pissed and he is prepared to destroy any comers.  We already have four companies down in the river valley by the temple.  We have been told even more are coming.  They were in the caretaker’s valley last week when Gadron went away The Elves came and we drove them out.  There were only around fifteen of them, in camp at the grace, ten made it down out of the canyon, five were lost to fighting.” Degar explained as they walked toward the keep.

Opening the door to the keep, Degar, stepped aside and allowed Hawke to enter. Gadron was resting at the table sipping tea and perusing a book. “Gadron. you unskilled, Flowerinian welp.  What have you done now?” Hawke’s smile was as wide as it could be, as Gadron was the only person who Hawke truly liked, who wasn’t in his service at least.  He considered each of these crazy loyalists who surround and protect Gadron to be family.  Almost as close to him as his own crew.  And Gadron was a brother as true as an arrows flight.

Gadron rose and the two embraced, a hug of relief for Gadron and a welcome home to Hawke.  “I have really screwed up here, I think.  I can handle most challengers but the whole of Flowers I don’t think it is possible without loosing myself in the violence.”  Gadron pulled away and Hawke saw tear filled eyes.

“Wait a minute.  Who are you?  I am not sure I know you. And when has Flowers ever agreed on anything.  You have far more supporters than detractors in Flowers, really, you are whispered about like a hero around the tables of the taverns and admired for setting them in their place by all those who feel the foot on their necks.  No Gadron, you are misreading the situation.  Sure, there are some who would kill you if the opportunity arose.  They are just the jealous and vengeful.  The stories have filtered down to the masses.  There is a version of the truth where you are portrayed as the wronged who struck back righteously, and it is to this truth, that the non-magical citizens of Flowers cling.” A big smile.  “You are their hero Wiz.”

“Don’t you dare call me that – I hate it.  I earned the WHOLE title fair and square.” Gadron raged.

“I was just kidding.  Look, Gadron, I know they treated you badly.  But you showed them, you did nothing but defend yourself.  No, they fear your power and they lust after it too.  They are fighting among themselves to attain you while they deny you to the others.  If you joined a house it would become the most powerful house.  If you fought a house in fair combat you would decimate it in short order.  They came to me, they asked me to come to you to seek a fair resolution that would align within the rules of Flowers.  I am technically representing the Mordan in this matter.  I have full authority to negotiate them into a corner.” Hawke smiled again, a more wizened smile than a cocky one, it was a smile born of conspiracy.  Gadron smiled too. 

At dinner that evening, plans were discussed regarding how to deal with the companies that were preparing to assault the keep.  The temple in the river valley had been hosting the numerous companies, though not so willingly.  Degar had spent time among them and had been prodding them and their competitive nature. In the past week eight men had been lost to fighting with six more wounded and out of service.  Always a danger with multiple competing companies seeking the same goal.  Just one of the many methods of disruption causing discontent and diminishing the overall morale of the venture.

During tea and cookies around the fire, Hawke laughed and told Gadron about the quote from the prophesy of Ligor — he will ride a dragon from the skies and burn the world of yesterday to build tomorrow.

“No, the quote is actually ‘to forge a better tomorrow’ Gadron mused aloud.  “Riding a dragon, he will swoop from the skies flame leading the way for the world to forge a better tomorrow” but that is from the original dwarvish and in a dialect that has not been spoken for generations.  It was the mountain people of the western. . .

“Gadron we really don’t care.  I mean we are glad you know the words and all, but the point was they shit themselves when I said it.  Really, we should glamor the image of a dragon and fly it over the Mordan.  They would die on the spot.” Hawke said his excitement showing in his voice. 

“I do think I might me able to do a bit better than a glamor image though.”  said Gadron, a glimmer of his inner demon alight in his eyes.  “Oh yeah we can do it like only a hero could.”  Gadron shook his head as the others sitting around looked at him quizzically.

Gadron smiled wide and a laugh shook his torso as he rose.  “Now, it is off to sleep, there will be time enough for playing hero tomorrow.” Bowing his head, he turned and climbed the stairs.

Gadron looked deceptively young for a wizard, but that was because he was elvish, another distasteful issue for the Mordan, Hawke suddenly realized.  An elf able to out cast and over power anybody in the Mordan, though realistically he could probably handle quite a few more simultaneously.  That had to cut deep.  His escapade into the underworld was now becoming known.  If true, and it was true, he was the only person to steal a soul from the underworld and return them to the living. Actually, one of the rare persons to go and return too.  The rest of the evening was ale and wine with Breg, a dwarf as loyal as a dog to Gadron, as well as Degar and Antio the miracle boy.  That was the thing about everyone at the keep.  Gadron possessed a power that causes people to root for him.  It has something to do with his ability to see into a person and give the exact advice and support that is needed.  He is forever helping, just as Fin, his adopted father had done.  Fin was proud of Gadron and would be proud of him today.  His focus was all about magic it was something he could manipulate like no one else something with which he could do wonderous things.  Things that would drain a powerful wizard dry, he is able to do over and over and over with little apparent diminishing of his power or ability.

The amazing thing about the keep is it is absolutely comfortable.  Many wizard’s live away from the world and they live very austere lives.  While there is a certain frugality that goes with living away from the world, here at the wizard’s keep and the caretakers valley, everything of comfort can be found fresh grown food and herbs, lamb, goat, milk and cheese. There is even a small linen manufactory in the lower valley.  Hemp grown by the temple is pounded and woven year-round.

Last evenings small gathering was a thing of beauty.  Breg broke out with his recent brew and it was amazing – Blackberry ale.  Antio supplied a garlic dill goat’s cheese, spread on a nice sliced round of long loafed hard bread, drizzled with a hint of honey and black pepper.  Antio, kept the plate filled with the rounds, olives and peppers, and boy was he busy.   Breg’s stories of his travels with Gadron kept Degar and Hawke in stitches all night.  Gadron takes a special delight in messing with people and Breg and Degar are his constant companions and toys of torment.  They are both happy for the attention and both are good sports when it comes to Gadron’s torments.    

The morning rose with a chill, and a walk around the upper valley was just the thing that was needed.  Besides Hawke had noticed a complex of brick buildings that he’d not before observed prior to yesterday.  As he passed the Elvin encampment, he could start to smell bread cooking. Now elves in general don’t eat yeast bread as the fungus bread they prefer is nature grown and just nasty too.  The complex came in to view; five buildings three stories tall, arrayed around a courtyard like area.  Smoke was rising from the chimney of the nearest building. 

Inside the air was warm and the odor was exquisite.  There was enough bread in baskets stacked around the walls to feed the Keep for a year.

“Sweet roll.” A lady offered a breakfast roll glazed in lilac honey.  The bread had a citrus flavor and a sweet delicious flowery finish of lilac.  With a cup of tea and a seat by the ovens; heaven was found if only for a few minutes while he listened to the valley’s specific form of gossip.   

Thanking Ms. Nilck for the fine breakfast he learned that the complex was a sort of business center for the valley.  The bakery and the wood working building and the school room are the only areas in use currently.          

Roaming the area he found the school room.  Gadron stood at the front of the class and every eye and ear was open and attentive.  There were only eight or ten kids but, it was a school room were these lucky kids had no idea that the teacher before them one of the smartest people they would ever meet, or maybe they did. 

Gadron was dressed in a tunic of grey green linen a bright red belt and an open grey monk’s robe, simple with none of the ostentatiousness of most Wizard’s.  Hawke was satisfied with the idea that he’d influenced Gadron’s eclectic tastes.  Though Gadron had taken it to a new level of casual living.  The wagons, that had been waiting empty by the bakery, started moving as Gadron came out of the School room and greeted him and the wagoneers who were turning into the dead end of the courtyard.  They rode toward one building which had a false archway where Gadron cast a travel spell and opened a portal for the wagons to pass into.  The wagons seemed to have different places to go as he would let one or two pass and then cast a new passage.  The first three wagons were empty, but the remainder carried herbs, vegetables, bread and craftworks.   

As the last wagon approached Gadron motioned to the passage way and said “Flowers?”

“No, I am okay.  Degar spoke to me about this business venture of yours.  How much can you clear?” Hawke asked an expression of being impressed worn with a smile.

“The three shipments to Flatfield, Freeport and Temarna should garner a hundred silver each or so and the shipment to Flowers contained a number of rare herbs collected by the sheepherders and shipped out weekly which should bring in around four thousand gold.” Gadron stated in a matter of tone.

“Gadron did you just say four thousand gold?  How often can you do that kind of a number?” Hawke asked as impressed with Gadron as he’d ever been.

“Twice a month, always between two thousand and eight thousand. But a quarter of everything made from Flowers goes to support the Orphant Society.” An organization Gadron and Fin had clandestinely started in Flowers twenty years before, after the Mage wars; which had turned into the many schools for children found spread across the Flowers valley.

Hawke’s jaw almost hit the floor. “Gadron, those numbers would make you the wealthiest man in most communities.  Damn boy I could triple my fleet with income like that being earned.  How big of a pile do you have and where?” His tone was incredulous, yet he knew better than to doubt Gadron’s word.  What really made him wonder was Gadron’s tendency to understate his own successes. 

Turning to face Hawke, Gadron said “This is something I wanted to talk to you about since your revelation about prophecy and its affect on those fine friends of ours.” A smile and a chuckle slipped out as Gadron asked if he could jump somewhere. Consenting, Hawke placed his hand on Gadron’s shoulder.

And this was the perfect example of the difference between the ostentatious wizards of Flowers and this self-realized wizard that was his friend.  Instead of a grace mat and careful meticulous design, Gadron drew a circle on the ground with his staff, opened a pouch and extracted a three fingered pinch before casting it and incanting a glowing grace on the ground which attracted the sparkling dust to it. A moment later they were on the top of a mountain, it was like a barren plateau about two- or three-square miles. 

“Come on, I got someplace to show ya.” Gadron said, before taking off at a good clip. 

“Whoa there, Mr. fit and fast, I ain’t quite got my land legs yet.” Said Hawke, hurrying after him knowing Gadron would continue at his pace.

Not far later a cleft in a lone low ridge opened into a narrow passage.  Light emanated from the top of Gadron’s staff lighting the way. After about ten minutes working down and though the narrowing passageways Gadron paused and said this is the place and asked if Hawke could see them.

Hawke all but spun like a top seeking the thing that Gadron wanted him to see.  Nothing but stone and rock. “Well, there is no guano” said Hawke

“Too high, but seriously look over my right shoulder can you see the strands of magic – vertical strands?  ??NOTHING??  Come here let me see your eyes.

Gadron grabbed Hawkes head and chanted as he pressed his thumbs into the eyes.

“Ou, Ou, ouch that shit hurts stop it. What the hell did you do to me.” Demanded Hawke scrunching forward head in hands.  “It hurts bad inside.”

“Give it a minute it should be okay soon.” Gadron said to sooth the moment.

“A minute.  SHOULD.  SHOULD. I SHOULD hate you.”   Hawke fumed.    

“I should have explained better I am sorry.”  Gadron said bowing his head in contrition.

“Ya think?” Cried Hawke as he raised his head up in challenge.  “I swear to the gods I should kick… Hnnnn, look at that, I can see them now.  What did you do?  That was amazing!  Will it pass?”  Said Hawke passing from his angry voice to a coyish playful voice. 

“Now remember do not even get close to the strands, for if they touch you — well let’s just say don’t touch them.” Cautioned Gadron.  Before beginning to work his way along the now very narrow rough hewn passageway.  Hawke followed close behind ever cautious of the approaching strands.  The first ones were easy enough.  But stopping before the last two Gadron explained that to pass the last ones you must press against the opposite wall and cross over to pass the next. 

You could feel them as they inched past like a feather tickling the spine.  When finally, past all of the obstacles, Gadron, sitting on a rock cautioned against even thinking about casting any magic.  Hawke had already confirmed his magic was stifled after the first strand. He was a bit jealous that Gadron’s staff still cast its light for Gadron.  Yet, another example of the difference in magics. 

“Hawke I am about to reveal something that will floor you.   I know there is nobody else in the world aware of what you are about to see.  Don’t speak, don’t pass me and don’t stare.  Okay?”

Hawke conceded his agreement.  Now, the passageway was a smooth hewn arch-topped hallway, leading to a set of heavy oak doors that opened as they approached, revealing a dimly lit, large chamber covered in gold colored flooring. 

Stepping into the chamber a few feet Gadron held up his hand and stopped.  “I have brought a friend with me.” He said in a calm tone.  “He is someone we can trust completely.”    

“Well then bring him forward and I will judge for myself.” Came a voice that was sweet and low with a kind tone.   Hawke was not convinced that this wasn’t simply a prank.  Gadron had the ability to really pull them off and often did at the expense of his close friends.  But he stepped forward and into the view of what appeared to be a large black and red dragon.  If it was a glamor spell it was amazing in detail and movement.  Hawke found himself squatting and falling on his ass.

“Yeah, sort of flabbergasting isn’t it.  He has been here for five thousand years trapped and alone.” Then turning to the dragon, Gadron said “Don’t test him his magic will not work for him here.  I brought him to you because he will be able to be your friend should I fail in my task and am lost.”

“Do you think that you will fail in this task?  Maybe you should flee and save yourself from the threat.”  The dragon said quizzically studying Gadron as he spoke. His nose flared and relaxed over and over as he seemed to muster sulfur fire as the odor increased dramatically. 

“Maybe I should!” Gadron responded, anger flaring in his voice.  “I can understand why they locked you in here sometimes.  You piss and moan, threaten and intimidate, but you need me to accomplish your release. It is at no small danger to my life, to overcome the work of such ancient Wizard’s and Druids.  I don’t do this because I am indebted to you, neither am I bound by any oath to your service. I do this because you and I are friends.  You have promised to reserve your diet to mostly wild animals.  At no time will you attack the civilized peoples.”

“Yes, yes, I have agreed and I will promise to refrain as best I can from eating your kind.  Although, I can smell the ocean on our new friend, it has been so long, and I am so tempted to snatch a bite and taste the ocean’s seasoning. But I refrain.”  Dragon responded sniffing the air while pointedly staring at Hawke. 

Hawke was still somewhat dazed listening to Gadron scold the dragon like he does any of his friends.  He had never seen a dragon, only heard the stories told to children about being snatched if caught in the darkness, and the ancient books and prophesies. 

“Dragon.” Spoke Gadron. “I forgot to tell you that I know your name.  I have found your story in the journals of the Priests of Fire at Star Point.”

‘Don’t name them in my presence.  I shall destroy them.  I shall eat every one of them.  They are my bane.”  roared the dragon, his anger shaking the very walls. 

“No, no, no you won’t.  We have an agreement between us.  If you cannot keep your word, then I  -should- just go away.” Gadron said calmly his voice almost a whisper.

“You would betray me?”  Boomed the dragon. “You would dare to betray me.” He repeated rising up and peering down on Gadron menacingly.

“Well, I would never betray my word to anyone.  But your leaving this place is based on my ability to trust you, as well as yours to trust me.  By your very words you announce your intention to start by doing the one thing you have agreed not to do. Kill people.” Gadron was shaking his head and looking down to avoid offering a challenge.  He had almost missed casting a protection spell in the beginning when dragon was distrustful and was holding a five-thousand-year grudge against magic users.

“Star point was destroyed by magical catastrophe, everyone in the Keep and its attendant village was killed, all monks and brothers were lost the harbor destroyed. And from what I can tell it must have happened around the time you were locked away.” Hawke announced looking satisfied with his knowledge and help.

The dragon raged; his fire spewed from his great maul.  Gadron had cast a protection around both of them, and pushed Hawke toward escape.

“Five thousand years I have waited to be denied my righteous revenge.  I will destroy them all, I will destroy all of you.”  And the fire raged.

Gadron changed the protection from a sphere to a bulkhead inside the passageway.  Still, flames licked at the barrier of magic unrelentingly. Heat still passed through the protection but thankfully most all of it was stopped from radiating through the barrier.  They retreated back to the opening being careful passing between the strands. Gadron was quiet, and Hawke was becoming more and more excited as the shock of the dragon’s revelation wore away or sunk in.

Outside on the top of the mountain, Hawke was dancing around like a kid awaiting presents.  Gadron sat on the ground exhausted and spent.  “I asked you to say nothing.  He was not ready to discover that information.   His anger is still being fed by his need for revenge. Well actually, his life is all about that revenge.” Said Gadron the right side of his face red from the heat.  Hawke also noticed his right-hand palm was burned the skin torn and curling away. Still they heard the muffled rage of the dragon rising from the cleft in the rock.

“Gadron, I can try to heal it for you, but I am not so good at it; I can do what we learned together what you taught me.  I can at least try.  It looks awfully painful.” Hawke said to his friend.  “I am sorry Gadron, I should have remembered about your caution, but I was just. . . Hell!  I still am quite flustered.  It is a dragon down there.  I really thought they were just stories or exaggerations.”  Hawke jumped and spun in the air throwing his arms over his head, his excitement remained unrestrained. “We could rule the world.  Who could stand before us and not flee, seeing that great wonderful beast?”

“Ah, now stop and think.  You are reflecting the dragon’s soul.  It is a real danger, just being around a dragon, their magical nature influences our very hearts and minds, and all without him making any effort. So, your desires to conquer the world are simply a reflection of his desires manifest in your mind.” Gadron spoke calmly though with the expression of pain washing over his face, even making him shake.   

“Oh shit!  I never even considered that possibility!  A protection spell then, before I go down again.  I was ready to declare war on the world a few minutes ago.  I really was influenced.  Now that is amazing.  I’m little more than a puppet to him, aren’t I?”  Hawke’s words drifted off as he considered what he’d just said.

Gadron glad to hear the waning of the dragon’s influence, was really hurting, blood was now dripping off of his hand from the cracks in the burn.  Worn, Gadron rose, and turning away from Hawke, Gadron, raised his staff, in his left hand, over his head.  Offering a mumbled incantation, he slammed the staff onto the ground.  A small one-story building appeared before him. He slumped to the ground.

“Damn boy, the shit you can do.”  Hawke declared as he gently lifted Gadron from the ground.  Carrying him into the building he found a nice pallet for sleeping and a fire burning with stew in the fireplace.  Laying Gadron onto the pallet he explored the little cottage before enjoying a bowl of the most delicious blueberry and venison stew and reading a book retrieved from his bag of holding. After a while he found himself waking, Gadron also stirring rolled over smiling — a forced expression.

“The house, how did you do it? Everything you need. Everything! Even food on the fire. I’ve never heard about such a thing.  I’ve never read of such a thing.  And I am a greater mage.  How?”  Hawke asked exasperation drenching his words while he stared at Gadron.

“I modified a duplicate spell with some twists woven into the mix.”  Gadron said looking at his hand which was healing rapidly, his strength also returned, so he rose and walked over to his chair.  “The rocker is mine. “ 

“Oh.  Sure sorry.  I’ll take a chair from the table.” Hawke rose and drew a chair.  “Gadron?” he waited until Gadron looked at him. “A dragon? How long have you kept that secret?” His eyebrows raised in question. 

“Fifteen years. Fin and I first approached him when the shepherds informed us of the accidental loss of the young man. I mean he was our charge he served the community.  Both Fin and I, investigated and discovered the beast. No one is allowed up here anymore.  I come most weeks at least once.  I stay as long as he is decent and does not actively try to manipulate me.  It is better, or at least has been better since Fin passed.  He and Fin were close.  I was better able to talk of magic with a modicum of understanding.  But Fin had studied the very times of the dragon’s reign.  They spoke like old friends over a draught.  Both acting like pushy old men at a party.  In fact, that is why I created the absent servant spell you like so much.  They treated me like a slave while they talked.  I just wanted to explore the cavern and treasure.  Instead of telling me what to get, Fin, would tell the servant.   Funny thing was the servant was faster at the tasks then ever I was, as the dragon knows the general location of everything, and could easily offer direction; everything in the cavern, in each pile in fact.”  Gadron’s explanation of the events answered some questions, about the past fifteen years that Hawke had wondered about.  As Gadron finished he noticed a tear in his robe. Drawing it up across his lap he shifted the tear and prepared to repair it.

“Well, I guess that is why you both became so reclusive after the bell tower escapades in Fernrug.”  Gadron’s face brightened up as he remembered the time.  He smiled and shook his head in affirmation before Hawke continued.  “and the books we stole from the College library in Flowers?  They were about the Priests of Fire.  You’ve been using me all along and keeping me away from the prize the whole time.  I am damn proud of ya boy, I never would have figured it out either.” Hawke shook his head.  “A damn dragon!” As Gadron began casting Hawke sat bolt upright staring at Gadron’s working. “I understand now.  I always thought your weird hand motions were just a peculiarity, but no, you are weaving the strands and I can see them. I can see them!” As he watched Gadron manipulate the strands of magic deftly, the magic reconnecting the torn threads of his robe, Hawke dropped his head and said; “I am no wizard! I am barely a carnival performer.”   

Gadron laughed his little annoying chuckle that had now taken on a new meaning, it wasn’t ignorance as he once thought many years ago, nor the arrogance that he has recently attributed to it, but it now seemed a patience; it was warming to Hawke just thinking. And Gadron said “They are the carnival performers.”

Then as their heads both snapped to, they smiled to each other. 

It was like they both thought it at the same time; Riding a dragon, he will swoop from the skies flame leading the way for the world to forge a better tomorrow.  Laughing, Gadron recited it aloud and they both laughed.  It was a conspiratorial laugh — it was the very moment the world changed.

The Little Thief

SS/Fantasy                      A Crystar based story


             By brian francis

In the darkness, you can easily become lost in the vastness of City Crystar. The main thoroughfares are well lighted but most of the side areas are dark and shadowy. The evening fog flows in after sundown and stays thick until after sunrise every day. The royal castle’s moat of fire causes the fog, much to the liking of the professional guilds of the pouch.

It was on one of the side streets, near the noble district, that I met a man who called himself Boggs Umbish. He was a fat little man, who was being roughed up by some of the local gentry when I stumbled on the scene. I guess they didn’t like the odds or maybe I just surprised them, but they started running and disappeared into the fog. The little fat man fell to his knees and wrapped his fat clammy arms around my waist.

“Thank you, kind sir. You’ve surely saved my life,” he whimpered. It was truly a disgusting scene. Seeing a man grovel and whimper like that was embarrassing.

After I pushed him away and got him to stop groveling, he invited me to his home to take a meal with him. I accepted, being hungry and not really having anything to do but deliver a small message scroll for my Guild Master. So I decided to delay the delivery for an hour or so and have myself a meal. He told me that his house was just up the street a little way.

As we walked toward the lighted area of the noble district just east of the castle’s main entrance, I was made to endure his life story. It was the kind of self-worshiping manure most often heard coming from braggarts who’d had too much drink. How pitiful it must be to feel you must impress everyone you meet. I really didn’t hear much of what he said, just enough to know when to grunt or make some other sign pretending interest. When we arrived at his house, he asked me to wait outside while he took care of some private business. Impatiently, I stood at the foot of the steps leading to the front door, leaning on the rail post.

I saw a window brighten, as a lamp was lighted in a room off to my right. Then I heard the scattering of coins on the floor. I couldn’t resist. I went over to the window and pulled myself up to peek into the room. I couldn’t see much; the draperies allowed me only a narrow view of the room. I could see my new friend crawling around on the floor gathering numerous coins and gems into his greedy little hands. He looked like a fat little rat, scurrying around in a garbage pile.

Soon the front door opened and he invited me in as he wiped his brow with a cloth. There was one other person in the house, a servant who was preparing our dinner in the kitchen as she sang a melody that reminded me of home. The little fat man seemed nervous; he constantly wiped his brow with his sleeve.

“I’m sorry my friend, I just realized, I don’t even know your name,” he said, wiping his brow yet again.

“Merak,” I replied as he turned toward the door leading to the kitchen.

“Hurry up with that food,” he screamed. “And stop making that gnawing sound,” he added, slamming the door.

Turning back toward me he smiled and directed me to the table. I took the seat opposite the head and glanced at the fine silverware on display in the windowed cabinets that surrounded the room. He did seem to have good taste, even though he was the vulgar sort.

Again he screamed, “Where is my pipe! How many times do I have to tell you; I need to have my pipe before dinner!”

The young lady came into the room. “I’m sorry sir,” she said. “I placed it on your desk for you. I didn’t expect you to be in the dining room so soon.”

“Well hurry up and get it then,” he berated her. “It’s so hard to find good help nowadays,” he added turning his attention back to me.

He said he had been at a meeting with the city guard and some other proprietors, regarding just the sort of hooligans from whom I had saved him earlier. He told me that his carriage was being repaired to explain why he’d been walking home at such a late hour.

The girl brought him his pipe and a lighting stick on a silver tray, which she placed at his side on the table. Then she returned to the kitchen to finish preparing our meal.

“You see what I mean,” he said, picking up his pipe and the stick while shaking his head in amazement. “Now how am I supposed to light the pipe with an unlit smoking stick. You would think she would be smart enough figure that much out,” he said raising his voice so she could hear him.

He rose from the table and lit the stick in a lamp that hung on the wall by the door. Still shaking his head, he held the burning stick up to the pipe and started puffing smoke in ever increasing billows. “As you can see–I live alone here–and have since the wife died. Then, I married off my daughter, last year,” he said, pausing every few words to puff on his pipe. “I have gone through eight maids in the past year. Not one of them worth her salt.”

“She seems nice enough to me,” I replied.

He drew the pipe from his mouth and paused. “Sure, she’s nice, but it takes more than being nice to run a household. She doesn’t even compare to my sweet Lizzy,” he said looking up at the ceiling. “She would have never been stupid enough to make the mistakes that this one does.”

“Who is Lizzy?” I questioned.

“My wife, my beautiful wife,” he said in a sad and wistful tone. He shook his head and puffed on his pipe a couple of times and said, “But she is gone now, and I will just have to accept that….” He sat quietly with his head bowed.

The meal was wonderful, even though the company left something to be desired. After we finished eating, I bid him goodnight and went on my way. The person I was to deliver the message to could be found only a short distance up the street. The man who received the message told me to return the following morning for the reply. So I decided to go back to King’s Way road and find a room for the night.

Along the way, I saw Boggs’ maid leaving his house and walking up the road ahead of me. I could tell when she served the meal that she had been crying. I hurried my pace and caught her just as she was crossing King’s Way. I told her how wonderful the meal was, and invited her to have a drink with me at one of the many inns along the road. She gracefully declined and continued her trek home. I offered to accompany her and escorted her to the door of her mother’s house about a mile away. She was the most beautiful flower in the whole garden. She was gentle and kind and even defended Boggs’ rudeness as the pain of a lonely widower. She also said that he did pay her well. She also told me that he wasn’t usually as rude to her as he was this evening. She said it was the anniversary of his wife’s death that made him so moody.

During our stroll, I discovered that she would be walking back to Boggs’ at sunrise. I measured the time it took me to get to the nearest inn. Then I checked into a room and tried to sleep. I left orders with the innkeeper to be awakened half an hour before sunrise. The night passed so slowly I thought the sun would never rise.

I awoke to the innkeeper pounding at my door. I jumped out of bed and dressed as quickly as I could. The man working the counter at the foot of the steps in the bar, must have thought I was up to no good, the way I came running down the stairs. He screamed for me to stop, but by then I was already out the door and making my way up the street. It seemed that every step I took I had to dodge someone; there were people all over who just seemed to be there to slow me down.

When I arrived at her mother’s house, I waited across the street for what seemed like an eternity. When I saw the door open, my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. It was only a young boy who was carrying a milking pail. He walked up the street and out of sight. I finally calmed myself down and waited for her to appear.

The second time the door opened, an older lady stuck her head out and screamed, “Jerral! Jerral, where are you! You had better hurry up or I’ll skin you alive!” She pulled her head back inside and the door closed again.

As I watched the boy returning, awkwardly carrying the pail, I wanted to approach him and inquire about my beautiful flower. But, I realized, I didn’t even know her name. I couldn’t get her image out of my head, but I had no name to attach to it.

An hour later, deciding to give up my siege of her mother’s house, I started back to the inn. Then, as I turned to walk away, I saw the door open one more time. Out came the youngster again. This time he was devouring a piece of bread; with the older lady right behind him, she was screaming and hitting him over the shoulders with the bristles of a broom.

“And don’t come back until you’ve learned some manners, you little weasel,” she screamed before returning inside and slamming the door.

The kid crossed the street and walked right past me, laughing and eating his bread. I approached him and struck up a conversation. He seemed like a nice kid, talkative and willing to let me tag along. Soon we were walking side by side, discussing the finer points of etiquette; like the safest place to relieve oneself, to avoid the watchful eye of the city guards, or how he could steal an apple from under the nose of any shopkeeper in the whole city.

I had decided that he was the best way to get to his sister. He was a little monster, but I could tell it was mostly a facade. I offered to buy him some breakfast. I could tell I’d said the right thing, by the way, his face lit up.

When he started to suggest places like Royals Tavern and The Noblemen’s Club, I knew I was in for an experience. He was about eleven or twelve going on fifty. He was still young enough to believe the bull he was dishing out, but not yet old enough to know when the pile was getting too high.
Finally, we agreed to dine at the inn where I’d spent the night. As we walked to the inn, I learned that she wasn’t his sister but his cousin, and her name was Rosey. How perfect I thought. She was even named after a beautiful flower. He said she was ugly and didn’t have the sense to quit working for the low-paying employer who had engaged her. He thought Boggs was a greedy tyrant and told me how someday when he gets bigger he would show Boggs a thing or two. He pointed out that nobody should mess with his family–he wouldn’t stand for it. He said that even though his cousin was stupid for sticking with that greedy idiot he had no right to treat her the way he did. I couldn’t have agreed more.

When we arrived at the inn he jumped right up onto a stool at the bar.

“Get out of here you little waif, before I call on the guard,” warned the barman.

“Go ahead and call the guard. If you want to lose two paying customers, that’s your business,” the boy shot back in a conceited tone. “It’s not a problem for us if you want to turn away a couple paying customers,” he continued, as he slid off the stool and started toward the door.

“Now n-now wait a minute. Why didn’t you say you was with the gentleman in the first place. I just thought you were one of those little hoodlums that’s always bothering my customers,” the man responded in a gentler voice.

The boy stopped and slowly turned back toward the barman and said, “Fine, I guess I won’t hold it against you this time. But in the future, you had better watch your tongue, or it might get it fed to you on a knuckle sandwich.” Then as he climbed back into his chair he added, “Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” the barman said turning to me and again apologizing.

“What might I be able to serve you, fine gentlemen, this morning?” he asked as he polished the counter in front of us.

We ordered our breakfast and continued our conversation about his cousin Rosey. It seems she started working for Boggs two years before Mrs. Umbish passed on. The other servants were all discharged soon after her death when some money disappeared from Boggs study. Rosey had gone on a trip with his daughter and in that way had avoided suspicion and termination. Mr. Umbish’s daughter soon married and moved away with her new husband to an estate house in the North of the kingdom. This left Rosey alone in the house most of the day while Boggs was out tending his businesses. He also confided in me that he was the one who had stolen the money in question.

I immediately checked my pouches only to discover one was missing. He must have noticed me checking, or he could have seen me looking at him out of the corner of my eye. Either way, I soon heard my pouch drop to the floor between us as he went about hurriedly finishing off his breakfast.

Having arrived in town by carriage; I suddenly felt the need, to buy a horse, for transportation. Jarrel offered to show me where to get the best deal. And I soon found myself perusing the stock of a nearby stable. After I selected and paid for a fine riding horse I noticed Jarrel disappear into the stable office. Fearing the little thief was about to get himself into some trouble. I stopped saddling my horse and peeked through the window and saw the owner of the stable handing the brat his commission. Now it was my turn!

As I finished saddling the horse, Jarrel came out and assured me that I had gotten the best deal in the whole city. He walked around the horse and patted it and told me how he envied my owning the gelding. I mounted the horse and offered him a ride back home.

On the way, I held the reins tight so the horse would falter and hesitate. Jarrel fell for it and started to give me advice on how to ride. I acted offended and told him if he could do better he should just take the reins and let me ride behind him. He couldn’t turn down the offer. On the way to his aunt’s house, I used my dagger to fray the seam in his pouch. I also kept nudging the horse’s belly with my feet. He was so busy trying to control the horse, and convince me that the horse just wasn’t used to the city, he didn’t even notice his pouch getting lighter. Two silver and eight copper pieces fell into my hands as we rounded the corner by the inn. I suggested that it might be nice to stop and get something to drink. So we did.

I stepped up to the counter and requested ale. After I paid I walked to the door and leaned against the wall and enjoyed the expression on the little devil’s face as he realized all his coins were gone. He started searching the ground frantically making his way back to the stables. I followed on the horse after I finished my ale.

When I caught up to him he was sitting on the ground near the stables, dejected and pouting with his hands covering his face.

“What’s wrong,” I questioned. He didn’t respond. “Whatever it is, it can’t be all that bad,” I said barely able to keep a straight face.

He looked up at me and told me I wouldn’t understand. What would I know, about being hungry? I swear I almost fell off the horse–I started laughing so hard. He got up and screamed something with tears running down his face, then took off running, disappearing like a rabbit with a hound on its tail. He went through fences barely wide enough to see through, between buildings, and over walls. I was truly amazed that the little brat could move so quickly.

It reminded me of someone else I used to know. He was a little thief too. He could out-brag the best of them and he knew all the secret passages through his town. He had learned to duck the guards to avoid being caught and had stolen his fair share of apples. All of a sudden it seemed not so long ago.

I went to his aunt’s house to wait for him. I suddenly remembered the return message I was supposed to pick up this morning. I rode over to the house where I had made the delivery. They had the return message ready to go. They told me that there was no time for delay. They informed me that it was important that the message is delivered within two days. Which allowed me barely enough time to make it back home.

On my way back up the road, as I passed by Mr. Umbish’s house, I heard a young man screaming. I could see Boggs standing on his porch, pipe in hand.

“I won’t have my fiancé working for the likes of you,” the young man screamed as he climbed into an open carriage.

“Well, I’ll see she doesn’t get a job anywhere! How’s that,” the little fat man yelled his voice cracking with anger.

As I rode by I could see Rosey, her arms were wrapped around the young man’s neck, and she was smiling and still as pretty as a flower. I waved down the driver and handed Rosey a pouch of coins. I asked her to give them to Jarrel. She looked puzzled for a second, then she nodded her head before laying it on the shoulder of her young man.

I sat there and watched the carriage disappear up the road into the busyness of City Crystar. Even as she disappeared from view, I knew I’d never forget Crystar’s most beautiful flower, or her cousin, the little thief.

By Royal Mandate

SS/Fantasy                                          A Crystar based story


                                    By brian francis


Orfus stood in the doorway of the master’s wagon, watching the soldiers tie their horses.  He so dreaded these visits from the local lord’s men.  It never failed; it was, as it always will be.  When a successful run of shows occurs, taxes are tallied and collected, by the local lord’s appointed ruffians.  Why do they always go to the tinker’s wagons, he wondered as he ran his hands through his long black hair.

“This way gentlemen.” He said stepping out of the doorway and allowing the light from within to spill out.  “I am always glad to have a few of the loyal around. Is there anything particular I can do for you gentlemen?”

It was a blonde soldier, a Lieutenant of the Guard, by the insignia he wore, that spoke up, “We are here to collect the taxa, and inspect this menagerie.”  Looking Orfus up and down he extended his right arm and smiled as he waited for what should have been a common courtesy.

Yet, Orfus just watch him, hands planted firmly on his hips.  “I have inspection papers not two months old.  Signed by the Lord-Regent Trefant of Kingshold-Milborn.  I also don’t believe that you have the authority to inspect my menagerie.  You don’t even have a healer with you, how do you intend to determine the condition of the animals.”  The timidness of his earlier demeanor had vanished, replaced by the firm conviction of the master of arms he once was. No stranger to heavy work Orfus was built broad and solid.  He had seen real soldiers die when he served in the army of the realm and these were not what he considered real soldiers. 

Taken aback by the instant transformation of the man now before him, the soldier slowly let his arm drop to his side.  But quickly he remembered his position, and met the challenge head on.  Throwing his chest out and letting his sword hand fall onto the hilt of the long sword at his side. “I am acting on the instruction, and within the authority of Shield-Lord Thames, I also have the authority to arrest you and seize your whole show.  So if you would like to interfere, rather than assist us, I could prove that point to you” he said, his voice low and intense – his eyes burning with scorn.

None of the men facing Orfus noticed yet another horse slowly approaching from out of the darkness.  Silently, more silently than any horse should be able to step, the large black strode into the lighted area behind the soldiers.  On the back of that horse sat an armored knight in the colors of purple and gold. Orfus recognized a Royal Knight of Crystar when he saw one. His tone immediately softened and he fell to one knee in the custom of the field officer that still haunted his very bearing. He was kneeling as though before his commander in the field making the sign of respectful submission. 

“That is more like what I expect from a lowborn troubadour.  I think you have finally realized your place in life knave” said the blonde guard, a self-satisfied smirk rising on his face. “I was just about to increase the taxa for your little show here, but now I can be reasonable, since you have realized your error. 

“I don’t believe you understand –your- position Lieutenant,” came a booming voice from behind the guards. “In fact, I am amazed that you have even attained that position talking to people like that.  Now, I think it is time for you to go.  Oh, and don’t forget to tell your little lord that I’ll be collecting the taxa from this troupe.  If he has a problem with that you can bring him to castle Rillian in the morning when you report to me for reassignment.  Am I being clear Lieutenant?  Now take your charges out of here, before I get off of this horse and teach you proper respect.” The guards wasted little time, as they uttered their apologies, saluted, and mounted their horses, riding away quickly – without looking back.

“You served in the war I take it.  The gesture was not missed.” The Knight said as he swung down from his mount.  His movement was fluid and even graceful.  The body Armour he wore made hardly a sound as he strode toward Orfus.  “Rise up and greet me as a warrior.” He said, removing his helm and extending his arm. 

Orfus stood and received the hardy greeting always extended between true brothers in arms. Clasping each other’s forearms, they embraced with their other arms while they both said in unison “Honor or death,” before releasing their brief holds on each other.

The night air was heavy with dampness as the two men sat, the knight on the wagon steps and Orfus on his stool.  After some brief pleasantries and the obligatory discourse regarding Orfus’ years in service the truth of this visit came. 

Knight Commander Jergins explained that he was escorting a royal party from the coast to the temple in Forsmores, a number of the party being children. Having spent the past few weeks on a ship and now in a slow-moving caravan the kids were getting stir crazy and needed something to divert their attention, and relieve the tensions of the past month.  The children were about twenty-five minutes behind the commander and would be expecting a show from those now prepareing there dismantling of the .   




The troupe had just begun to tear down the equipment in preparation for their departure the following day when Orfus announced the added show.  After some grumbling and complaining the troupe rallied and the riggings were going back together. After they had prepared the equipment and were waiting for the arrival of their audience, they tried to imagine who would be coming.  Bets were placed among the performers as they watched with mounting anticipation for the arrival of the honored guest. 

When the knights then led in four children wearing the emblem of the Royal house.  The show went on.  The magic did not seem to impress the children, and the animals were not quite up to yet another show after doing so many throughout the day.  But when the clowns came on the children’s faces lit up.  It was one of the best performances that the clowns had ever done.  It was as though the children sparked something with their rolling laughter.  The clowns played up to the children, making them laugh harder and harder, until there were tears rolling done their faces. 

After the show a knight handed Orfus a pouch of gems.  Inside the pouch was more than the combined receipts of the previous month.  The children all expressed their appreciation for the performance and especially thanked the clowns. 

The following morning, as the equipment was being readied for the move to the next stop on their tour, the knights appeared again.  This time the Overlord was with them.  His clothes immediately betrayed identity.  He was wearing the Royal colors, and his chest carried the Royal Seal.  His tunic and boots were fringed with fur, as had become his personal style.  As he approached, his honor guard, consisting of four Royal Knights and twenty High Knights, surrounded him.  In the front of the procession rode a squire, who announced to all, “Make way for Overlord Degar.”

It was just as the Overlord rode up to the main wagon that a couple of the clowns started to mimic the procession.  The clowns acted as if they were riding horses and started to push their way in and out of the crowd of performers that had gathered around the wagon.  Orfus was getting nervous until the Overlord started laughing as he pointed at the clowns.  “I heard about those clowns of yours”

Degar talked with Orfus in the wagon before they both announced his invitation to City Crystar.  The carnival people all broke into cheers, and started to dance with each other, around the Knights — who all smiled graciously, although they seemed somewhat nervous.  Degar told Orfus to make the trip as fast as he could.  The carnival was at least thirty-five days away from the Kingdom’s outer wall.  Once they got that far, they would still have eight days ahead of them.  A high knight stayed with them to ensure their passage was uneventful.  As the caravan came upon toll roads or toll bridges, the knight ordered that the gates be opened — without charge. 

The taxes for passage into the kingdom were another matter.  Each of the wagons was taxed for the value of its contents.  The animals were taxed and inspected for any signs of disease.  It had taken fifteen hours to get the caravan through the gates of the kingdom.  The High Knight that had been accompanying the caravan was out ranked by the Royal Knight Commander who was in charge of the gate. 

The caravan had stopped for the night just inside the kingdom’s northern gate.  The animals were restless due to the long inspection endured during entry into the kingdom.  The guards did not try to upset the animals, but they have never liked strangers poking around their cages.  Moving a menagerie from one place to the next was trying at best, but entering the outer wall of the Kingdom of Crystar had proved to be a truly harrowing ordeal.

They’d pushed the animals and themselves hard for over a month to get this far.  Yet, they still would not arrive until after the start of festival, and they wouldn’t be prepared to perform until a day after they arrived. 

Orfus, the carnival manager, realized the opportunity that Overlord Degar had handed him.  It is only by invitation that any show can perform in the kingdom.  The carnival had petitioned the kingdom on many occasions for permission to tour, but the kingdom Representatives he had approached could not seem to get the authorizations together.  It was the luck of chance that the Overlord had been in town with his family while the carnival was playing at Devenshite. 

Finally, through the gate and out of Northgate, the caravan stopped for the night.  The excitement of the caravan’s arrival into Kingdom Crystar kept the carnival crews up most of the night.  Orfus was the only one who had ever been in the kingdom.  And that was only in the city of Eastgate when he applied for the permits to tour the kingdom. 

The following morning, as they readied for the day’s journey, an elf approached one of the clowns asking to ride along with the caravan.  Orfus said it would be all right with him as long as the elf pulled his own weight. Which was, as all knew, the only real rule the applied to membership in the troupe.  The elf rode part of the day with the clowns, the worn browns and grays of his tunic and robes made him stand out among the clowns and their multicolored garb.  After lunch he rode with Orfus in the lead wagon.  They had talked during the noon meal and the elf had sparked intrigue, Orfus had a nose for ability and he new he’d found some in this elf.  He just wasn’t sure what it was yet. 

“From where to you come, Dern?” Orfus said to the elf.

“I have been all over, from the forests of the Sapphire Sea coast to the jungles of the southern continent.  Now I am returning to the forest of my birth near City Crystar,” the elf responded.

“We are also going to City Crystar, a command performance during the Festival of Warriors.  We have received an invitation from Overlord Degar.”

“I understand that the festival has been delayed due to the absence of the King,” said the elf.

“Surely you jest.”

“No.  I overheard some knights discussing the disappearance of the King just this morning.”

“Are you sure that they said the festival was canceled?” questioned Orfus as beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

“I did not say canceled, I merely said delayed,” the elf responded laughing.  “The knights spoke as though this occurs regularly.  They seemed concerned, but not overly so.”

“Perfect! Just perfect,” Orfus exclaimed.  “Our first chance to play to the King and he decides to play hide and seek with his knights instead.  I had such hopes for all of us — it simply isn’t fair.”

“Now, now, there isn’t any reason to be upset about something you can’t change.  If you have come this far to perform for the King then you will perform for the King.  Don’t let this small problem drown the excitement of the moment,” the elf said while placing his hand on the back of his new friend.

“You’re right!  The Overlord is a man of honor.  I am sure that he would not let us down after having us travel this far.  You must promise not to tell anyone else of this conversation you’ve overheard.  The others are so excited about finally getting a chance to perform in the kingdom.”

Orfus decided to keep the elf close by to make sure he didn’t reveal his secret.  As they made camp that night the clowns broke into their act for some of the kingdom’s residents who had gathered around the camp.  Soon the whole group joined in the impromptu show.  An atmosphere of exuberance rose as the group performed.  There were fire-eaters roaming around the camp followed by children from the nearby villages.  One of the performers cast some illusions in the air making evil-looking demoniac forms appear in the swirling smoke of the cooking fire.  A juggler tossed his swords one at a time high into the air and kept five of them spinning as they rose and fell.  The fat lady became the troupe master, introducing the acts as the other performers took turns in the center of camp performing their feats. 

Orfus noticed that the elf’s eyes filled with tears as he watched the performance from the edge of the circle nearby. 

“What’s wrong my friend?” Orfus asked, kneeling beside the elf. 

“I am just enjoying the show.  The people’s warmth makes me feel so good.  You must be very proud of your friends; they are truly wonderful people,” the elf said, clearing his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic. 

“I’ve seen many reactions from the audience during our shows, but this is the first time I’ve seen a person cry.”

After a while some kingdom guards rode up on their horses and cleared the people away so the group could eat their meal and get some rest.  They informed Orfus that they were set by Lord Bregg to escort them to Lordstown about a day south of their present position.  They also informed him that due to unfortunate circumstances the festival in City Crystar would be delayed one week.  Lord Bregg, through his guards, requested the carnival set up in Lordstown to perform for him and the children of his district.  Now that they had extra time on their hands Orfus thought it would be a good to use the time to practice the show for a couple of days.

 As the sun rose the next morning, the carnival moved out with their escorts in the lead.  The elf was still riding in the front wagon with Orfus.  Soon yelling could be heard coming from the middle area of the caravan.  The wagons slowed and spread out as they all came to a stop.  Orfus thought one of the wagons had lost a wheel so he stopped and started to walk back. 

When he got back to the others, they were crowded around a young boy who had been hiding under one of the wagons.  He had fallen from his perch and the wheels of the wagon rolled over his legs. 

Orfus sent one of the clowns to get the guards as he tried to stop the bleeding.  The troupe gathered around him and did what they could to help.  The injuries were rather severe.  One of the boy’s legs was crushed so badly that it appeared to be almost completely amputated.  There were also numerous other injuries to his head and right arm.  

As the clown passed the head wagon, the elf called to him inquiring what had occurred.  Ignoring his inquiry, the clown continued up the road to where the guards had gathered beneath a wide oak tree.  After only a few seconds the guards came riding quickly back toward the caravan and the group of people gathered in the middle.  When the clown passed again, he stopped at Orfus’ wagon for a drink from the water barrel. 

“What’s going on back there?  Did one of the wagons lose a wheel?” the elf asked.

“No, it is much worse than that,” the clown said gasping.  “A boy was run over by one of the wagons.”

No sooner had the words left the mouth of the clown that Dern leapt from the wagon and ran to the scene.

When Dern arrived.  The guards were doing what they could but the injuries were far too severe for the simple abilities of those present.  The boy was losing consciousness when the elf pushed his way through the crowd. 

“Get out of my way.  NOW!” the elf said pushing a guard and Orfus to the side as he knelt beside the boy.

“Boy! – Boy! — Can you hear me boy, answer me!” he screamed, almost sobbing.  “Open your eyes and look at me.”

The boy obeyed and his eyelids slowly rose as the elf bent over him and looked into his eyes.  Then as the elf’s hands began to glow with a strange blue light he screamed as though he wanted the gods to hear him.  The crowd slowly backed away, as the energy in the elf’s hands started to engulf both himself and the boy.  They watched in awe as the twisted ruin of the boy started to heal, the twisted form of his legs becoming normal again.  As the boy’s wounds healed, the elf started to show the signs of injuries.  His pant legs slowly turned scarlet red and a wound opened on his forehead.  Soon the elf collapsed onto the boy who was much improved. 

The troupe told the guards that the elf was a member of their caravan and they carefully lifted him into a wagon with the boy.  The speed of the caravan’s movement was increased dramatically as they tried to get their elfin friend to Lordstown and help before he died.  Almost all the members of the troupe were sad.  Yet, they felt a sense of pride as they thought about what their new friend had done. 

At the end of the day they were within sight of the city; the guards had sent ahead for a cleric to take care of the elf and the boy.  He was in the wagon with them pushing Orfus to hurry.  When they made it to Lordstown, the two were taken into the temple.  As the members of the troupe gathered around the temple some prayed for the elf; others made offerings, or promised the gods that they would do anything – if only…. 

When one of the monks came out of the temple and ran up the street, they grew more concerned.  They asked to see their friend, but were turned away.  They were told that the situation was too dangerous right now.  Soon a dwarf appeared surrounded by an honor guard.  One of the members of the troupe overheard a cleric greet him as Lord Bregg.  Guards approached the troupe and instructed them to move their wagons to the parade field, just south of the city. 

Orfus directed the troupe to move out and take all the wagons and animals to the parade field as the guards had ordered.  Two of the members stayed at the temple awaiting news of their friend.  As they passed through the city the residents came out to cheer and watch the procession.  The troupe was so sad that even the clowns didn’t make any effort to draw the crowd with them as was normal when arriving in a city.  They all just sat on the wagons looking glum and not seeming to care about the children who were running along behind them.

 When they arrived at the parade field, they began to set up their tents and make camp ready.  All worked silently at their tasks.  When a guard appeared on the road, they called to him for information, but he knew nothing about the situation.  He continued on his way into the town.  About an hour after they started to set up camp, one of wagon masters called out pointing to the sky.  Orfus, who was inside his wagon, came out and looked at what was causing the commotion.  In the sky to the Southeast he saw a sight he could barely believe.  There were two horsemen riding across the sky toward them.  The hooves of their mounts left a trail of fire behind them.  It appeared they were about to land among them. 

“They’re riding night mares,” a magician yelled.  “I thought they were just legend.  Look at them fly– aren’t they beautiful.”

As the night mares got closer to the parade field they also got closer to the ground.  When they were about a quarter of a mile away they touched down in a field of green wheat.  The fire from the hooves of the horses ignited the field and it tried to burn behind them as they continued on toward the city gates.  When they rode past the carnival caravan Orfus recognized them, they were Royal Knights of the kingdom. 

That night passed slowly as the troupe found themselves sitting around camp talking of the day’s events.  They all had thought the elf was a little strange at first, his tendency to be all quiet and watching everything made him appear devious.  Yet, his selfless sacrifice for the boy had proved his worth.  They all wished that they could have gotten to know him better.  Orfus thought badly of himself for not really trusting the elf to keep his mouth shut about the disappearance of the King.  Soon the two who remained behind at the temple were brought to the camp by some of the city guards. 

They were questioned thoroughly by the other members of the troupe.  They revealed little other than the arrival of the Royal Knights at the temple. 

The next morning, Lord Bregg appeared at the caravan’s camp with the boy who had been injured the previous day.  Lord Bregg seemed tired and worried.  He told the troupe that they should prepare for a show that evening.  Many of the troupe members didn’t want to do a show and Orfus had to convince them that they had a responsibility to prepare for the show in City Crystar.  They had now been traveling for over a month. Their only practice had been the occasional impromptu shows for the people who gathered around them in the evenings.  This was their one chance to really practice before they played the most important show of their lives. 

After hearing Orfus’ argument, they all agreed and started to prepare for that evening’s event.  After the tents were readied, the clowns and the wagons that held the wild animals, went through the city streets to draw the crowd out to the parade field.  The people followed and gathered for the show.  The event went as planned; they were, after all, professionals.  Orfus could see that their hearts weren’t really into the show.  They were tired and still worried about their friend.  The crowd didn’t seem to notice the troupe’s few mistakes.  The applause and cheers seemed to bring out the best in the troupe and as always, the children sparked the magic. 

After the show was over, they decided to stay for a couple of days more practice before continuing on their way.  This decision was made to allow them to be near the newest member of their family — the elf.  The next two days gave them the time they needed to put their troubles behind them.  They practiced and perfected their acts.  They made final adjustments to the new outfits designed and made during their trek across the realm.  The troupe was ready to head to City Crystar.  They had found out that the elf had been transported to the city so that he could receive better care.  The boy had stayed with them and was doing odd jobs while he received training from a number of the troupe members. 

They still had six day’s travel to get to the capital city.  Their spirits were still down but there was daily improvement.  Orfus constantly tried to get their minds off the troubles that they had come through in getting this far.  Around camp in the evenings he would start singing and getting everybody involved in a, spirit raising, round of song.  He was a bard and knew many of the legends of Crystar.  It seemed to be working.

When they arrived in City Crystar, children gathered around them in the streets, slowing their progress to a crawl.  Every one of the wagon drivers was so concerned about the children getting hurt that it took them over an hour to travel only a few hundred feet.  Soon guards surrounded the caravan and kept the children away from the wagons.  Progress was still slow but eventually they did get to the large park in the center of the city that was where they were supposed to set up.  Guards were posted around the park to keep the people away while the tents were made ready, and they prepared for the show of their lives. 

When the time came for the big show all were nervous.  The trumpets sounded when the Overlord arrived.  Overlord Degar informed them that the King would be a little late.  He also instructed them to start the show before the King arrived.  The crowd was enormous; they had to turn away what seemed like thousands.  The people in the crowd of this, their first show, were mostly royals and orphans from the Royal Orphanage Society.  After the show started, during the act with the trained stallions, the trumpets sounded, marking the arrival of the King.  As he walked into the tent, dressed in his royal purple robes, they all realized that the King was their elfin friend.  It never even occurred them that Sire Gadron (the Grand Elfin Wizard) had been that compassionate friend they all felt such sorrow over.  As the acts continued that night all of the performers put their hearts into it.  The happiness that they felt made the shows that followed the finest example of a traveling carnival. 

The troupe stayed for two months, playing three shows a day to a packed tent.  They were even invited to Castle Crystar to dine with the King.  There he awarded them the royal starburst, which made their carnival the official carnival of Crystar.  They learned that Sire Gadron occasionally sneaks out of the castle, alone, the better to understand his people and the trials of their everyday lives.  It was during one of those expeditions that they came to know him as Dern, their elfin friend.