Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Been a while

Finally got some things sorted out, work, business, house move, et cetera, so here is the latest finished chapter where ten year old Finn meets Barghest and finally joins up with the Black General.
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BOY AND MAN


The pain was how Finn knew that he was still alive. A dull ache pulsing through his head, sharpening as he pushed through the fog in his mind. Darkness, and pain in his head, his shoulder and elbow. Something was wrong, something about falling, a horse, the hated Arrasti, something that kept him lying still and wondering where he was. He calmed his heart beat, turned his focus to his senses other than sight. A fire cracking. The smell of smoke, food, the acrid odor of men. The coarse wool of a horse blanket scratched his face. His wrists burned, rough rope bound his hands behind his back. Now that something was very wrong. He lay still and listened.

Men talking, soldiers, many of them all talking at once. Finn listened, picked out the separate voices, the separate conversations, and he did not understand their words but he slowly narrowed his attention to two men speaking softly somewhere to his right. He did not understand, but he thought they were talking about him, arguing, and one of those men spoke harshly and stalked away from the camp.

Finn waited, as still and quiet as death.

His face felt cool, but his back was warm. He lay facing away from the fire, counting his heartbeats. The camp slowly fell silent and after five hundred beats of his heart Finn cracked open an eye. A blur, dull and dim, the outline of a log lit by the glow of the fire. Beyond the night was utter blackness.

He closed his eye, and listened. Somewhere to his left the horses stirred, tied to a picked line. One man moved around the camp, a guard. Finn tracked the sound of his footsteps, coming close toward him, the guard passed by his head, the footsteps receded under the crackle of the fire. Finn waited. A limb snapped, leaves rustled, the guard walking away into the trees and faintly Finn heard the man relieving himself against a tree trunk.

Finn rolled to his left, up onto his knees, and now he opened his eyes and looked around. It was a sleeping camp, men rolled in blankets, two tents off to his right. He squirmed back, passing his hands under his body and around his feet. He gnawed at the rope, realized that would get him nowhere and biting his lips twisted and contorted his wrists hand hands. He slipped free of the rope.

Finn sprinted into the darkness. He was far away by the time the guard called out, and he knew the stupid men would never find him in the night.

They never had.



It took two deep gashes on his face, from whipping tree branches, to slow Finn down. He walked, breathing hard, with no idea where he was or which direction he should go. He was hungry, tired, his head on fire, and he only wanted to be safe. Finn looked up at what he guessed was a gap in the trees over his head. No moon. He wandered, wanting only to put distance between him and the odan, and it was a few minutes before he realized that he had stumbled onto a clearing in the trees. Finn barely made out the ghostly outlines of a house, gloomy and hushed, and he crept forward until he saw the door standing ajar as a silent witness to tragedy. He crouched, then sat cross-legged watching the house and listening, and after a while he decided the house was safe. He stood and crossed to the porch and then the door, laying his hand against the wood. There was no one inside, he was certain of that. The door swung open at his touch, he swallowed, and pushed through.

He heard nothing, saw nothing, but there was a strange smell musky and damp like turned soil. Finn shrugged. He stepped inside, taking small steps and waving his hands in front of him. His shin struck a chair, no a couch, he patted down the cushions and sat. He sighed. It was better than most places he had slept recently.

The door swung closed and snicked shut.

He heard an exhalation of breath, almost a hiss, and Finn reached to his belt, for the knife that was not there anymore. He stood, backing away along the couch. He heard . . . something, a faint swishing noise. A light appeared, a green glow that reminded him of the purple worms. The light grew. It was a glass jar, insects of some kind in a glass jar, glowing brighter and brighter as they were shaken. The hand that held the glass looked wrong, deformed, and there was another hand holding a wicked blade. Finn backed against the wall, into a corner, the light grew and Finn saw that the other in the room was a ghul.

The ghul crossed the room toward Finn, breathing softly hissing between sharp teeth. The thing wore a shroud of motley furs and it rattled as it came, jangling bangles and necklaces of bone and stone, beads and feathers. It set the glass on a table, and with its hand now free it shook open a pouch and brought a pinch of something to its lips. The ghul puffed, a mist spread from its fingers, the light brightened until it bathed the room a poisonous green.

“Sssss . . . sit,” the ghul hissed, pointing to the couch.

Finn shook his head. He could not speak.

The hand with the dagger disappeared within the folds of the furs, and came out empty. The ghul shook its long, lank hair away from its face. It came one step closer.

“Ssssit.”

Finn obeyed the command.

The ghul stood in front of the couch, wrinkling its nose, stooping and staring at the boy. Its lips moved, whispering lisping sounds Finn could not really hear. Finally it opened another pouch, tied at its waist by a leather cord, and stepped forward with a gob of something black and oily on its fingers. Finn cringed but the creature placed a hand gently on his head, peering at the cuts on his face. It spread the salve on the cuts, dabbing delicately, its breath came and went in a soft hiss and the smell of turned earth.

“Barghessst.”

Finn looked up at the sound.

“Mine name, Barghesst.”

The ghul stepped back, the tips of her fingers pressing up under his chin as she inspected her work. She arched an eyebrow.

“Thine?”

“What?”

“Thy name?”

“Umm, Finn.”

Barghest stepped back, squatted down before the child. “Why here, Finn?”

“I, I was running from some men. I found this house.”

“Why run?”

“They wanted to hurt me.”

The ghul nodded, hissed softly, “yess . . . men hurt.”

Finn stared back at her.

The ghul contorted her face, baring her teeth, a smile that made Finn crawl inside. “Ghul hurt men back.”

“But you’re not going to hurt me?”

She shrugged, turned her head sniffing the air. “Alone thee came?”

Finn did not like this game of questions.

“Alone?” Barghest leaned in closer to him, her bangles and charms rattling with the sudden movement.

“Here?”

“Yess.”

Finn nodded. “Yes, alone.”

“Ssss . . . Thee stay here, he comess ssoon.”

“Who?”

“Me,” a deep voice said.

Finn looked up, shocked, a shadow loomed across the room by the door. Barghest whirled up, spinning around and her clawed hand plunging into her furs, but she relaxed suddenly, and she lowered her head. “Thee and thine black one,” she mumbled.

“Thee and thine Barghest.” Anatheme threw the hood back from his face, came forward into the light. “Hello Finn.”

With the ghul’s back turned to him the boy leapt to his feet, dodged around her and was halfway to the windows on the far side of the room when an iron grip seized his arm. He punched blindly, screaming words that his mind did not form, flailing against the man until he was lifted in the air and deposited in a heap on the couch.

“Enough!” Anatheme turned to the ghul. “What is he doing here?”

Barghest shrugged. “Barghest wait for thee, boy comes instead.”

“That’s it?”

She shrugged again, shaking her head. “Ask the boy.”

Anatheme glanced down at Finn. The boy stared hatred back at him. “I intend to,” he said, “but first we have business.”

The man and the ghul stood away from whispering in words that Finn could not hear no matter how he concentrated. They watched him. He waited. His would take his chance when it came.



Anatheme kept a firm grip on Finn as they left the house, until the boy was in the saddle of the horse, tied outside. He said a few quiet words to the ghul, and then took up the reins and walked beside the horse. At first neither of them spoke. Finn held his feelings inside, he did not want to let the black man win, he wanted silence to speak for him, but a rage grew until it snarled out.

“Why did you do it?”

Anatheme laughed, short and bitter. “You cut right to it.” He shook his head. “Some questions have no answers, boy, some questions shouldn’t be answered.”

“You killed her,” Finn shouted, “you killed everyone, you killed everyone.”

Anatheme looked up at him, his hood was slung back, and in the darkness he could have been any man that Finn once loved. “What could I tell you Finn that you would understand? That there is a cancer on the world, a sickness? Can I give you that sense of wrongness, make you feel it with certainty like steel in the center of your body?”

Finn said nothing.

“No?”

“No.”

“Then do not ask questions if you aren’t prepared for the answers. That’s what I did.”

“What questions?”

Anatheme sighed. They walked for a while before he answered. “It started by asking what was wrong with me, why wasn’t I good enough, and then it was what’s wrong with them . . . and finally what’s wrong with us.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

The man glanced up, eyes narrowed, “no, right now to you I suppose it doesn’t, but when you get into the habit of asking questions like that sooner or later you start wanting answers.”

“So?”

“So what happens if you don’t like the answers?”

Finn snorted and looked away, shaking his head.

“What about you Finn, you found the body in the river, did you ask it any questions?”

Finn looked away.

“No? Not curious? Well I have a question about that, it just occurred to me, about the message pouch, the seal was broken . . .”

“So?”

“If the enemy had opened the pouch, why would they put the message back in it, and why would the messenger open it after he had been shot but before he died, so . . .”

“So?”

“So who opened the pouch Finn?”

Finn said nothing. He looked away.

Anatheme stopped, took a deep breath. “Well, it doesn’t matter now, except . . .”

Finn looked at him.

“Except if someone had opened the pouch, and read the message, then all of this might not have happened. Right?”

Finn looked away.

“I remember your father, and I think he said something about another son, but what about your mother?”

Finn spun back, his eyes flashing, “my mother?”

“Where was she?”

“She died . . . a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Anatheme looked up into the boy’s face. “Here.” He handed Finn the reins. “You can ride, any direction you want.”

“What?”

“I’m sure that you can survive on your own. Look at what you did in the cave.”

Finn said nothing, but he stared at the man.

“A boy like that is strong. A boy like that can do almost anything . . . be almost anything. A boy like that can dare almost anything.”

“You, you won’t make me come with you?”

Anatheme laughed again, but this time he smiled. “Make you? I have many things to do, and none of them include being your jailer. Finn, there is much I would teach you. How to use the strength inside of you,” he placed his hand over Finn’s heart, “how to make the world a place for you instead of just surviving.”

Finn looked down at the reins in his hand. He did not think about it, but he knew how the man made him feel, powerful, strong.

Finn gave the reins back to Anatheme.

“I want to go with you.”

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