Sunday, 13 October 2013

In Which Saeed and Avan Find Vasky Jantnor

"I don't deal with criminals," Avan said flatly.

"Too bad for you," Vasky Jantnor replied. "What are your options? I'm already under threat of execution, you can't harm me without becoming a criminal yourself."

"I can force you to share what you know," Avan growled, he pushed his face closer to the bars. Vasky Jantnor met Avan's glare steadily, his yellow eye glittering in the light from the torches on the walls.

"You won't," Jantnor said coolly. "You don't believe in using that kind of magic."

"I can deal with criminals," Saeed cut in. Since he had met Avan he had been happy to allow the prince to lead. After all Avan Weatherstrong was a legend and Saeed was just a thief who had made some poor decisions. Over time, however, Saeed had come to realise that there were disadvantages to being Avan Weatherstrong and advantages to being Saeed. An example was the fact that Saeed did not feel compelled to indulge in a circuitous political pantomime to associate with street trash.

"Look at you, Prince Weatherstrong," Jantnor said, a white toothed grin spreading across his face, "fraternising with the enemy."

"What do you want me to do?" Saeed asked before Avan could become defensive. "Ask and, if I am able, it shall be done."

"You could take a leaf out of your servant's book," Jantnor said standing and coming towards the bars of the cell, looking Saeed up and down. The draco was very tall, his movement lithe and sinuous. Saeed would not have liked to face Jantnor in unarmed combat, even half-blind as he was, thankfully the mercenary was caged. "This boy is very polite. I like it when people are polite, makes me cooperative."

Jantnor delivered his statement without removing his gaze from Saeed.

"I just want some comfort in here, son," Jantnor said to Saeed, "in my last days, something to bring a little light into this dark cell. I'm sure you'll find this a hoot. I keep a pet, a small white mouse, the type my more backward cousins regard as a snack but I call him Snowdrop and I keep him at my home. I left him two days ago with fresh food and water. If I don't have him returned to my care he will die. Probably he will anyway when I am executed. Until then I would appreciate it if you would bring Snowdrop to me, so I can tend to him as long as I am able."

"That's what you want?" Avan said. "Your pet?"

Jantnor still hadn't looked away from Saeed. He held a hand up, dismissing Avan.

"This ain't your deal, Prince," Jantnor said. "This is on the boy now. What do you say, junior? You bring a man his only comfort and joy in exchange for the information you seek?"

Saeed opened his mouth to do the deal and Jantnor moved his hand waving at Saeed to be quiet.

"Be careful, son," Jantnor said. "If you agree to this you have to enter the White Woods alone to go fetch. I won't take kindly to you sharing the burden. So only accept if you're up for the journey."

"If this is what must be done to find Miranda Felix," Saeed said. "And it is I who must do it, then that is how it shall be."

"Excellent news," Jantnor said, his tone quietly satisfied. "The prince and I shall eagerly await your return. You will know my house by the wooden training dummy in the front yard. I painted the symbol of my old troop on the wall, so that friends would know a welcome and enemies would be warned."

Jantnor displayed a brand burned onto the inside of his left forearm before turning his back on them and crossing his cell to lie out on his bed.

"If you want me," he said, "I will be napping here, be advised Prince Weatherstrong, I will hear you leave, and if you do I will never tell anyone where Felix is, whatever they bring to me for aid and comfort."

Saeed looked over to Avan. The prince did not appear to be in the best of moods. He turned to Saeed.

"I suppose you'd better be about your business," Avan said although his eyes betrayed another conversation lurking in his mind.

"I suppose I better had," Saeed agreed. Saeed did not know what objection Avan would have to this enterprise but, at this stage, he did not really care. "I will be back as soon as I am able."

With that Saeed left the dungeon, on his way to the White Woods.

Saeed was not so much of a fool that he had believed that acting as a companion to the greatest hero who had ever lived would be a position free of problems. However he had been badly mistaken as to the nature of those problems. The dangerous situations and fighting were inevitable, of course. However, Saeed had believed that the problems between himself and the noble prince would mostly be ethical, or differences in approach to a particular problem.

Actually, that's exactly what most of the issues were. However the final resolution of such issues was usually an urgent requirement. The sooner objectives could be completed the better for everyone. What was left behind, however, was a vast ocean of problems unresolved and conversations that there simply wasn't time to have.

Saeed was surprised that he felt some hurt that Prince Weatherstrong actually didn't appear to really like him. Of course, their initial meeting had not been optimal in this regard. Saeed was a thief and had engaged in an act of mercenary thieving when Avan interceded. Add to this the fact that Saeed proved himself a dupe, fooled into actions whose consequences were far in excess of what he had expected and he could fully understand the disapproval of wiser minds.

Where the hurt came in was that this first impression never appeared to be replaced in the Prince's eyes with anything closer to the person that Saeed was trying to put forward during his tenure as Avan's companion. Saeed wanted to show a greater consideration of ethical concerns, a deeper wisdom with its roots in the humility and shame of ill-advised actions that could not easily be undone.

Saeed had committed to this atonement and that commitment had not changed. However, he couldn't help but feel that Avan was, in a rather mean-spirited way, not giving Saeed any credit for these decisions.

It was this array of points: how Saeed's reform was not acknowledged in any way by his travelling companion, why the fact of this bothered him, and what he could do to reverse the situation, that occupied Saeed's mind as he rode his horse into the White Woods.

So distracted was Saeed that he quickly found himself at the end of the trail near to an abandoned hunting lodge. It didn't take Saeed long to see that this was not Jantnor's home so he turned his steed around and picked his way back to the last fork he had taken.

The White Wood was a quiet, cold place and Saeed had not encountered another living soul since he had arrived. Trying out a few more paths lead to more dead ends. Abandoned paths, paths that had been overgrown or turned into swamp, circular paths to abandoned mines or clearings that may once have furnished herbs but were now no more than barren scrub.

The day was almost over as Saeed realised that Jantnor had not been honest and straightforward in his request. The White Woods were a larger space than he had implied and Saeed, even given his excellent sense of direction, realised that he had no way of telling where Jantnor's home might be. There were hundreds of paths criss-crossing the wood, if the home were off the path in a secret corner of the forest then Saeed had no hope of retrieving the prize.

Saeed had never experienced such frustration, he felt foolish, but beyond that there were unpleasant currents of anger and humiliation. The prospect of failure in such an apparently simple task filled Saeed with a cold dread. What made it worse was that it wasn't the mockery of Jantnor that upset him so much as the quiet disdain that was almost inevitably going to come from Avan's direction.

Here was the issue with projecting new wisdom and humble acceptance of one's own past failings: once you realised that you still had failings after that acceptance things got complicated. You could easily begin to understand that your new wisdom wasn't as deep as you might have hoped; present humiliation had even more burn to it when stacked on the embers of past humiliation.

"Sad boy! Sad boy!" a voice rang out from up above.

Saeed looked up to see a small bird, a sparrow, sitting in a tree.

"Sad boy! Sad boy!" the sparrow chirped.

"Are you talking to me?" Saeed asked the sparrow.

"Technically," the sparrow replied, "I was talking about you. Now I'm talking to you."

"You have an impudent mouth for one so small."

"Small birds are always impudent," the sparrow replied. "We have to tease the bigger birds to maintain our territory."

"I see," Saeed said. "I had always heard of talking animals, but I have never met one properly. Oh, I once encountered a talking mouse but I understand he used to be a man. I don't know how that changes things."

"Is this why you are sad?" the sparrow asked. "Because you have never met a talking beast. Maybe you have and you just weren't ready to hear what they had to say."

"I can imagine that being the case," Saeed said. "I think... It makes some kind of sense. But no, that is not why I am sad. I am sad because I promised to do something and now I find I cannot do it."

"Well, that was a stupid thing to do," the sparrow said. "I never understand the actions of folk. You appear, at least to me, to be entirely contrary creatures. I have never promised to do something I could not do, nor would I."

"I didn't know I couldn't do it," Saeed said. "At the time I imagined it would be a simple matter to find a house with a wooden dummy in the yard and a strange symbol painted on its wall. I had no idea how big the White Woods were."

"I see," the sparrow said. "If that house had bread or seeds in it would you give them to me?"

"If you could show it to me and if it has any kind of bread or seeds inside its walls then you could happily have as much as you could eat," Saeed replied.

"Then I hope for my sake that you can keep this promise," the sparrow replied. "Follow closely, I have no time for laggards"

The bird hopped off its perch in the tree and flew into the forest. Saeed followed the bird closely, never losing sight of the fluttering black punctuation mark of its body. Sure enough the house was found within the hour, Jantnor's pet was retrieved within its home (a large skull that may once have belonged to a beast man or similar large animal). Using his thieves senses Saeed found his way out of the woods and returned triumphant to the jail.

Upon being presented with his pet Jantnor's expression became shifty and awkward.

"I am much obliged, son," the draco said to Saeed. "Now I must admit that I cannot tell you exactly where Felix hides herself away, but I do know a step along the route."

"I knew this would all be a big waste of time," Avan said.

"Hold on there," Jantnor said. "I'm a mercenary, that makes me a business man, I don't believe in short changing folk. What I've got may not be everything but I think it's close. You probably know that in our line of work there are people you can deal with that you may not exactly trust one hundred per cent. Felix, well I'm not sure I trust her even ten per cent. So when I took that job from her, the one that ended with me in here, I tailed her after the meet."

"She must have known you were following her," Avan said. "She's like that."

"Normally I would agree," Jantnor said. "It was one of those things that I figured wouldn't pan out, but in the back of my head I thought 'what if it does', so I did it anyway. I followed her to an abandoned tollhouse, used to stand to the side of the bridge connecting the Twenty Kingdoms to the Okulan Empire. Obviously Okulas didn't take too kindly to having the forces of order so close at hand, his men destroyed the bridge."

"So how did she get across?" Saeed asked.

"She didn't," Vantnor replied. "From behind a rock I watched her pay a ghost with silver and he opened up a different kind of bridge, a rainbow bridge, up to the moon over the Empire."

"You expect us to believe that?" Avan asked, his face impassive.

"Believe whatever you wish," Jantnor shrugged. "I traded my mouse for what I know, that's what I know."

"I know the bridge he's talking about, it is some distance away," Avan said to Saeed. "We shall have to use magic to get there."

Having no other option Avan prepared a magic portal that brought them within half a day's walk from the tollhouse. Vast mountains stretched upwards around a broad valley path in which were visible the remains of an old brick road. Many of the stones from the road were missing, weeds and grasses grew up in between those that remained. Avan and Saeed walked with silent purpose along the road towards their destination.

At the end of their journey the companions cautiously approached the ruined tollhouse that stood at the lip of the great chasm.

"I have travelled extensively for one so young," Saeed said. "But this is the first time I have ever trafficked with a ghost."

"They're really just a form of sprite," Avan said. "They are a sort of elemental, filled with the powers of death."

"That's not reassuring," Saeed said.

"It is not intended to be," Avan replied. "The dead can see the forces of the weave and the wheel with a clarity that the living seldom achieve. They have knowledge because they are almost totally unable to use their powers of insight. They know all the consequences of telling you about things that are to come, as a result they tend to keep their own counsel. It is almost impossible to coerce them, so they are often aloof."

"A fine grasp of the academics Prince Weatherstrong," said a voice from the shell of the tollhouse. The ghost emerged through a wide crack in the wall, a gentleman in a formal tunic, he had the appearance of wearing a wig and carrying a lantern. His face was thin, deeply lined and grave.

All Saeed could think of were questions about this apparition. One found its way out of his mouth before he could think better of it:

"I always thought," he said, "that ghosts could walk through walls."

"One day, no doubt, you shall learn better, Saeed ibn Abihi," the ghost replied. "Today, however, you are here on a business other than metaphysics."

"We seek access to the rainbow bridge," Avan said in the formal tone of voice the prince used whenever rehearsing a matter of protocol.

"Then it is best that you furnish me with the toll," the ghost said.

Avan pulled a silver piece from his money pouch.

"Will this suffice, tollkeeper?" he asked.

"Only honest hands have touched that metal, Prince Weatherstrong," the ghost answered. "I cannot take it in payment."

"Give it to me," Saeed said. "I am a thief. If it's dishonest hands he wants well, mine are as bad as anyone else's."

"Noble humility," the ghost addressed Saeed, "but you misunderstand, great sage. The silver itself must be dirty; stolen, to employ the vernacular."

"The toll to cross the rainbow bridge is a piece of stolen silver?" Avan asked, more in the spirit of confirmation than actual enquiry.

"Just so," the ghost confirmed.

Saeed reached into his own belt pouch, even as he did so he felt his cheeks begin to burn. The topic of the silver key that he had placed within the pouch had never appeared relevant to the current situation. As long as no one asked about it directly he was not compelled to talk about it. Paying the toll with it was going to raise questions, but if their journey was to continue without delay there was nothing to be done about it.

"Will this suffice?" Saeed asked the ghost, holding out the small silver key.

"Indeed it will Saeed ibn Abihi," the ghost said, a humourless grin lighting upon his face. "Then, you already knew that it would."

The ghost held out his right hand and Saeed dropped the key onto it, curious as to what would happen. As the silver hit the palm of the ghost's hand it sparked bright white for a second, a flat chime appeared to sound and the key disappeared.

"I shall open the way," the ghost said and raised his lantern up. The light within the housing intensified, starting to shift within the glass like a thing alive. The liquid glow spilled forth from one side of the lantern in a spray of unexpectedly intense colour stretching up over the chasm, piercing the clouds above and continuing on to the flat silver orb of the moon in the sky.

"Step forth, travellers," the ghost said. "The continuation of your journey is at hand."

Avan and Saeed stepped into the rainbow light and were transported along its length towards the Okulas Moon. What they found on the moon and what they did when they got there are stories for another time.

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