A Minute at a Time

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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!

Cursed

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Talce had gray, reflective eyes, devoid of any perceivable irises. Indeed they appeared less like eyes than polished, metal balls that had been inserted into his sockets. Those eyes had been the greatest source of shame to him all his days. They were the sign of the terrible curse and burden which he bore, that of being a life-taker. From his early youth he had learned to walk with his head perpetually bowed downwards, hiding those eyes from those who passed him by. It simply was not pleasant to witness the way people would recoil in revulsion and fear whenever they saw his face.

And there was certainly great fear in them, it was the root that lurked behind all of the hatred the villagers showed to him. That was a hard thing to be responsible for, and yet, he was also greatly indebted to it. For it was only that fear which held the local villagers in check, preventing them from outright cornering and killing him. The definition of a life-taker was, as the name implied, that he could instantly snuff out any creature’s life with no more than a blink of those shining eyes. And so it was with good reason that the people feared him, shunned him, ignored him, and anonymously tormented him… but never would they dare face him in open hostility.

Of course he had never actually done something so horrible as exerting his power on another…. Except once. While in his youth he had been chased down an alley by a massive and furious dog. Though he had not seen where it had come from, it had surely been been set on him by the village boys. No doubt they saw it as an opportunity to enjoy either of two potential outcomes. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they would rid themselves of him once and for all in a tragic “accident.” If not, they would finally be able to catch a glimpse of that terrible power he held. For though they hated what he could do, he knew they were also in awe of it.

Well, whichever dark corner they may have been watching him from, they got their wish. Backed against a wall, with his heart thumping in his chest, he had felt himself what the fear of death was like. Though he had never unleashed his shade he had always known by instinct how to do so. It was a reflex in him as basic as breathing. It had taken less than a moment, a single rush of a dark mist, and the dog moved no more.

There was a common misconception that life-takers’ eyes did not function as those in other people, simply because of how featureless those eyes appeared to be. But they could see, and they could cry. Talce had cried in that moment. Not because of his fear of the dog, but because of the fear of himself.

He was crying again, years later. His head was bowed at this time, too, even though he was in the presence of the one man that had never shunned him.

“Son, look to me” Ekal’s voice croaked from the bed, reaching down to the young man’s chin and turning his face upwards. “Let us see each other this one last time.” Ekal had been about to say something more, but then his face was contorted by another spasm of pain.

A spasm of empathy crossed Talce’s face as well.

“Talce, we do not have long,” Ekal gasped out when the agony had finally subsided. “Give me your hand,” he extended his palm outwards.

Talce did not respond to his father’s request. Instead he looked downwards again. “Who did this?” his voice was barely a whisper, and even so it quavered with seething rage.

Ekal’s face contorted once more, though this time not because of the physical pain. “Talce, do not dwell on this,” he pleaded earnestly. “What is done is done. All that matters now is your liberation.” He thrust his open palm out more urgently to his son.

There was only one way by which a person could be rid of their curse. They could relinquish it to a willing soul, one that was crossing from this life to the next. No ordinary person would offer to carry any sort of curse into the eternities, let alone the burden of a life-taker. Ekal, however, was no ordinary person. And the townspeople knew it. The logic had been simple: mortally wound the old man and let him take the hated curse to his grave.

“Malkil. Tohvy. Harras. Banu.” Talce spat out the names. He had noticed them awkwardly watching from across the street when he had entered the home. Quite likely they were the same men who years earlier had set the dog after him, now emboldened by both age and drink. “Was it them?”

“It was fools!” Ekal shouted back, raising himself on his elbow at great effort. “Worth less than the thoughts you’ve already given them.”

“You think they will spare me once they no longer fear me?! That they will welcome me with open arms after all these years?”

“No,” Ekal sighed. “You will have to run.”

Talce shook his head bitterly. “And leave you unavenged? My own father?”

Ekal tried to keep himself propped upwards, but his arm began to shake and he was about to fall back onto the cot. Talce instinctively threw his hands around his father’s head to lower it down gently. For the cot was thin, and the wood underneath it was hard. Ekal smiled at him, even through his pain.

“Please, son,” he said kindly. “Listen to me. You are a good son and I wish you to always be so. This thing you consider…it simply is not worth the risk.”

“I know they’ll be laying in wait for me,” Talce nodded. “Clearly they meant for tonight to be the end, one way or another. I wouldn’t fall for their trap, though. They’re fools, just as you say.” He nodded again. “This I can do, father.”

“I know it,” Ekal breathed, but there was a tremble of horror in his voice.

Talce felt himself a tremor in himself echoing with his father’s timbre. It was that same fear of self gnawing as it had that day in the alley with the dog. But over that another voice was raging.

“And what of it?!” Talce snapped. “There’s a justice in this. They brought it on themselves!” He blinked back angry tears. “You are my father! It is because of my respect for you that I must–”

“No!” Ekal interrupted firmly. Even angrily. “If you have any respect for me at all you will let this go!” He extended his palm again, reaching to find his son’s hand. But subconsciously Talce had closed his own hands into tight fists. “What kindness do you do me by losing your soul?” Ekal reproved. “If once you are willing to kill to get what you want, then where does that end?”

Talce scowled and looked away. He knew what his father meant. The men’s families and friends, the entire village, they would not tolerate a life-taker willing to unleash his curse. Not even in a cause of “justice.” What would he do when they raised up against him, too? Just let them kill him? Never. If anything, the few men who had beaten his father were only carrying out the will of the entire village, the surface manifestation of all that lied beneath. He could snuff out every life in this town and never once spill a drop of innocent blood.

For as featureless as a life-taker’s eyes were said to be, Ekal had still seen and understood the shadow that had passed across his son’s face with those latest thoughts. For the first time in his life, Talce saw the same horror in his father’s face that the townspeople had always reserved for him.

“Please,” the old man whimpered, his eyes fluttering with the strain of staying open. “They’ve already taken me. Please don’t let them take my son! Please, no.” Unable to extend his hand any longer Ekal merely laid it flat on his side, the fingers quivering for the feel of his child.

The loving plea swayed Talce for a moment. But the more he felt moved by the love of his father the more his corresponding hate for those that would killed the man swelled within him. All his life he had lacked the self-control and depth of character to shoulder this burden on his own. He did not have the mastery in himself to not use this power. He knew it and his father knew it. It was as much as love for his son as fear for him that made Ekal wish to unburden him. He was not ready for that father to leave him, yet leaving he was.

Hot tears rolled down Talce’s cheeks and splashed on the dying man’s covers. “I really wish that I could,” he strained out through gritted teeth. “I really do.” A strange guttural growl echoed from his throat, the strain of his very soul rending in two.

Taking their lives would just be so easy. So effortless. As easy as blinking his eyes.

Ekal’s eyes had closed, but his lips continued to shudder. “Talce, no” he moaned weakly. “No, Talce. Talce…” His hand groped in the dark, reaching but not finding.

Much as he hated himself for it, Talce could not be with his father like this. He could not bear the look of disappointment in his face and the piteous pleading noises. The brokenness. He turned his back and hardened his heart, striding out of the room, to the main entrance, and out into the street. He was already raising that dark mist, the shade that was his only remaining companion. They wouldn’t have a chance.

***

A common source of conflict and disappointment in our lives is nothing more than our expectations not being met. On Monday I discussed the rift we see between parents and their children, and I would argue a great deal of that divide comes from just these sorts of expectations not being met. Children begin life holding their parents in the highest regard, and at some point are disappointed to learn that they are not as perfect as at first believed. Parents disappoint themselves with their own failings, and are disappointed when their children choose something other than what they had intended for them.

Also, sometimes closer to the heart than even family love is personal pride, and when this is the case working out problems together is sidelined for championing one’s own desires. These were the sorts of things I wanted to emulate in today’s story. Talce truly does love his father, but he loves him on his own terms, not on his father’s. Further, he is a disappointment to himself, and has come to believe in his villager’s perspective of him, rather than Ekal’s. As such he is does not feel capable of meeting the loftier expectations, and rather assumes the more base role that he knows he can fill.

I’ve wanted to do a scene that could serve as the origin for a villain and I thought this would be an interesting way to do it. It’s an approach for such a character that feels more honest to me. Perhaps I’ll have to integrate Talce into some larger story at some point.

Now, though, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on these ideas of projected expectations, filling roles, and the nature of father and mother figures in literature. To sum it all up, I want to look at what how we are defined by others, and how that is reflected in literature. Come back next week when we’ll see what we find.

The Last Grasshopper

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Once the fields had been green and lush, covered by tall blades of grass rolling in the wind. Now they were scattered over only by the occasional dry stalks: brown, brittle and crackling under every chilly breeze. These remaining sentinels pointed up to skies that were overcast and perpetually stormy, a curtain of gray broken only by the occasional crack of lightning and thunder.

Across these fields’ shriveled husks there crawled a single warden, an old and weathered grasshopper. Of all the changes that it had experienced, it was this solitude that struck it as the most strange. For though it had been born in a time when the earth was still new, when flowers were in bloom and water was running, it had not witnessed any of this at the first. Instead it had been hatched within the ground, buried among the masses.

There the first life it had known had been dark and churning. The entire universe seemed a rolling, crawling mass. Its brothers and sisters were innumerable, swarming and pressing it, urging it to claw upwards, to chew through pod and earth, to climb until at last it burst out into the air and greeted its first sunrise.

Here at last it had stumbled upon the nature of its reality, to exist suspended between two great infinites. There was that of the never-ending depths beneath, the earth of its birth. There was that of the ongoing expanses above, the sky that it would dissipate into at the other end of life. Between those two extremes it would dwell: crawling, hopping, and flying, ever wavering between the two yet never fully belonging to either.

What it did belong to was the community. Each new day saw another geyser of small white nymphs like itself bubbling out from beneath the earth and crawling up to take their claim of the land. The ocean of greenery seemed endless, yet the appetite of their horde was relentless. They moved as a body from one field to another, ingesting and digesting, eating all that they could in a race to grow. And grow they did, first doubling in size, then tripling, then molting into a new form that could bear still more multiplications.

Perhaps if they had had a mind that could contemplate their nature, they might have considered the effects of eating this perishable food. For if the plant was alive as they had been, and if it could die and be consumed, and if that entity then became a part of their bodies and now defined them, then were they not consigning themselves to the same eventual fate? Perhaps had they found some immortal food that did not die in the eating of it, then they would have lived forever. But it was too late, they had eaten that fruit and now they bore the common curse of all the earth.

And death did, in fact, begin to manifest. Indeed, all that prevented them for overrunning the entire landscape was that now they were large enough to capture the attention of the birds, and the spiders, and the mantises, and all other manner of predatory life. So as they grew in mass, they diminished in numbers, such that an equilibrium was more or less maintained.

They were still legion, but with each following day they were lesser and lesser of a legion. By the time they approached full maturity and began to mate, their only remained enough to replace their initial numbers and thus not make any gains against nature’s balances. Here the grasshoppers found the beginning of their fulfillment, their great purpose to recreate themselves in new forms. Here was how they cheated nature and gained their immortality.

But that victory was momentary, and the world was already signalling a turning of the tides. For even as the grasshoppers planted their eggs in the soil, they were finding that the ground was colder and harder than it had been before. The loose moisture in it was beginning to freeze and the chill of the night seemed to persist longer into each new morning, suggesting soon it would overtake the days entirely in one eternal slumber.

In anticipation of that great sleep one grasshopper after another succumbed to the elements, curled up, and perished. In doing so their last duty to the next generation was being fulfilled: they were leaving a space in the world for their children to fill. Immortality was still the promise, but immortality only through death. Through incarnation.

Some fell when caught out in the cold. Others starved from the sparseness of food remaining. Others were simply too old and frail to support living any longer. Though when born in the spring they had defied numbering, yet they were finite. Numerically and mortally. As they entered late autumn they could be counted as no more than a thousand. A week later they were no more than a hundred. Before another week was spent there remained that only one.

That final grasshopper did not even know that it was the last of its kind, it simply was aware that it no longer encountered any others of its race. Of course every year saw a “last grasshopper,” by the nature of things some creature had to fill that role, and this year it happened to be this one. In some ways that may seem a momentous thing, yet it passed by each year with none to take any note of it. Perhaps that was fitting. Life began in heat and noise, but then tapered out in a long, slow decrescendo. There would be no loud crash to signal the end, only a muting into nothingness.

And yet not quite nothingness. For the seeds were already in the earth, and in time legions would rise again. None of that next generation would know of this, their nearest forebearer. This final grasshopper was a last strand, stretching from its edge of the infinite towards the other until it would break under the strain of that distance. The next year’s generation would not know of that past, yet they would still owe their entire existence to it.

The grasshopper raised its foreleg for another step, but its clawed foot failed to grasp the stalk, and instead it fell to the ground.

***

I really enjoyed writing out this piece. As I mentioned on Monday, the changing seasons has given me a lot of thoughts about the nature of existence, mortality, beginnings and endings, birth and death. It helped me to process and give closure to those sensations by just being able to find words that gave better definition to those ideas. It serves as an important lesson that we need to pause, take in the world, and then channel it through our imagination to create something new from that experience. I hope each one of us can live our days being inspired by all that richness which surrounds us.

Even as I concluded with this piece, though, it was already bringing up new thoughts and ideas that I still want to explore further. Specifically I want to take some time to linger on the idea of the passing of a torch. This is obviously a classic theme in stories, and there are many takes on the ideas of mentors, tradition, and old flame rekindling in a youthful disciple. Sometimes, though, this rite of passage does not occur so smoothly. On Monday we’ll speak some more about this concept, and I hope to see you then. In the meantime, have an excellent weekend!

The Noble: Part Two

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A grave somberness lay heavy on the air, and time itself seemed to freeze until the slaves were drawn out of their reverie by the sound of Lenny riding back to their perch. Rather than dismounting he steered the horse towards the line of slaves, all the more to intimidate them as he spat out his obligatory threats.

“All of you take heed!” he snarled down to their still-bowed heads, the bloodlust lingering in his eyes. “There are never any second chances for escapees here. I will gladly ride into town with an empty rope than be made a fool of!” He reached the end of the line and found the only slave daring to look him in the eye. “You, however,” he pointed his finger to Jules and nodded approvingly. “You will be rewarded when we arrive at town. Not with money, your next master would just take that, but I’ll buy you a proper meal before the auction.”

Jules nodded appreciatively, then lay back down on the ground, determinedly turning his back to the other slaves so as to not meet their gazes. With a final curse Lenny circled his horse round and went back to the fire where Bartholomew and Harry were waiting. The three sat around the low blaze, muttering in dark voices until at last they were calmed enough to return to their sleep.

The next morning when Lenny roused the slaves to their feet he had the good sense to not ask about the fresh corpse at the end of the line. He simply cut Jules’s body free, and stomped back to his horse, anxious to move the party away from that place. Bartholomew had followed behind him with the key to unlock the prisoner’s fetters but Lenny barked at him not to.

“No more kindnesses for this lot!” he ordered, spinning around in his saddle to face the slaves. “You may thank your friend William for that.”

There came the tug on the rope and they all lurched into their march. Though they moved onwards, that spirit of death persisted with them as they went. Of course things would have already been grim for one of their own to be killed, but it was all the more so when that one was William Gray.

It was only now with his loss that they fully realized how deeply they had let him penetrate their broken natures. There had been a sense of hope in their lives again, though in what exactly they could not say. Something better, and strangely enough something internal. Something long dormant within them all had been awakened by William’s fire, and now that he was gone they were afraid to lose that part of them again.

The guards felt a weight, too, but for them it was a far more damning sensation. Though William had been only a slave there was a part of them that knew he was more elevated than they, and so it felt out of place to have claimed his life. Perhaps they had possessed his body, but they had never had power over his spirit as with the other slaves. Now that free spirit seemed to stalk them, judging and condemning them for his spilled blood. His memory brought to the surface all that they despised within themselves, and they became, if possible, more harsh and cold to the world. Almost frantically they drove the team onwards, anxious to reach their destination and see if the local tavern couldn’t craft a brew that might lift the spell they were under.

Over one hill and then another they marched, and as they went Robert did not lift his eyes once. Quite possibly he felt the weight of William’s absence most of all. He alone knew that William had intended for him to stand as defender for these poor souls and, fool as it sounded, he really wished that he could. Robert was discovering that a far worse fate than living as nothing was to believe that it could be otherwise. He was drawn out of these thoughts, though, as the line slowed to a stop and a few gasps of shock echoed from their party.

Looking up William saw that the hill they had been climbing was crowned by a small fortress. The layout of the walls and the five towers above them answered exactly to the form William had described of his regal home. There was even the red and yellow banner fluttering above the structure. Robert was so shocked by the manifestation of William’s dreams that it took him a moment to register that something was wrong about the image though.

This place was obviously deserted and uncared for, and clearly had been so for decades. Twenty, maybe thirty years judging by the way the vines had grown across the rock walls and even pulled patches of them down to the earth. Indeed, if William had not planted the idea of a lion holding a flower into Robert’s mind he doubted he would have been able to make out its faint form on the frayed and weathered banner overhead.

Robert did not dwell long on this mystery, though, for he now noticed the anxious way their three cruel masters were leaning into one another and conversing in hushed whispers. That riddle he understood in a moment: they were afraid whether they had, in fact, slain a lord the night before and whether it might become known. The three mercenaries finished their contemplation, and accordingly Harry and Bartholomew spurred their horses down opposite walls of the fortress, no doubt circling the place to make sure it truly was as deserted as it appeared. Meanwhile Lenny swung his leg out of the saddle and dropped to the ground, advancing on the slaves with a grim determination in his face.

“See here, now,” he menaced as he strode down the line, looking each of them in the eyes in turn. “I know that you’re wondering if this structure isn’t the very fulfillment of that fool William’s prophecies.” He spat. “Not a chance. Our dearly departed friend merely saw this place while traveling with his prior master, and in his delusions made up that he belonged here. His mind was as broken and empty as the walls of this place, so he found he felt it a true home to him. Do you understand?

Lenny had made his way to the end of the line, turned behind their backs and strode up the line the other way. He prodded each one of them firmly between the shoulder blades as he continued his speech, his voice becoming more strained with passion.

“I said it before. I am not going to be made a fool of by the likes of you. If any of you so much as breathe the name ‘William’ when we get to town I will haul you out in the public square and murder you with my bare hands!” His voice was screeching now, and rather than prodding he had taken to gripping them from behind and shaking. He reached the end of the line and turned back around, coming along their faces again, his own contorted in pure rage.

“Do you understand me?! I will kill every mongrel of you. Inch. By. INCH!”

Lenny had reached Maggie who squirmed under his glare. He gripped her in his rough hands and slid his fingers around her throat, slowly choking the life out of her. “DO YOU DOUBT ME?!” he frothed, and Robert knew Lenny was debating whether he should kill her to make an example to the rest of them or not. All the other slaves were numb with horror, but Robert’s own heart was racing. He didn’t feel the hopelessness the rest of them did, he had the terrifying and electrifying realization that he could resist this.

William would not have waited this long. The thought, unbidden, flashed across Robert’s mind, and without another pause he turned and bolted towards Lenny and Maggie, bursting his iron fetters off with a sharp snap of the wrists. He wrapped his freed arms around Lenny and tackled him to the ground, all of the other slaves staring in amazement at the miracle he had seemingly just performed.

Lenny roared like an animal, and began pummeling Robert’s sides with his fists. He got his foot up between the two of them and kicked out, sending Robert crashing to the ground a few feet away. Lenny curled up to a crouch, reaching down to his side for the hilt of his sword.

During their struggle one of the other slaves, Bert, had been looking back and forth from Robert’s open shackles to his own around the wrists. A question was in his face, and with a hopeful grin he thrust his arms apart, bursting his iron lock open as well. In a moment he had leapt to Lenny’s side and pinned his arm so that he could not draw his sword.

Robert was as amazed by this development as everyone else, and as he ran forward to help Bert wrestle with Lenny the other nine prisoners tried to burst their bands as well. They all broke free. With a laugh Robert realized William had stuffed all of their locks!

Four more of the slaves rushed forward to help secure their foe, but an angry voice called out, and they turned to see Bartholomew and Harry rushing at them with drawn swords! Casting his eyes around for an escape, Robert spotted a break in the fortress’s wall near to them. He called to his comrades to follow him as he dashed towards it. They thrust Lenny to the ground and rushed across the grass. As they reached the toppled rubble they scrambled into the courtyard on the other side and Robert continued casting his eyes around for their next avenue of escape.

He wasn’t searching for just anything, though, he knew what he was looking for, and at last he found it. “Just keep following me,” he assured the others as he took off towards the door at the base of the tallest tower. The rest of the crew followed him across the courtyard, and as they reached the door they heard the sounds of their three pursuers scrambling through the same hole in the wall that they had come through.

Robert wrenched the heavy door open and waited for his companions to clear the threshold. “Up those stairs!” he commanded, pointing to the steps spiraling upwards. “All the way to the top! Do not stop!” As the last of the slaves cleared the space he slammed the door shut. There were brackets on either side of the door to hold a restraining beam, and looking to the ground he saw the corresponding length of wood. He quickly slid it into place, just as a thump on the other side of the door signaled the arrival of their pursuers. The rotting wood would not hold them for long.

Robert bounded up the steps with an incredible energy, and as he reached the other slaves he quickened his pace still, moving to their front. After all he alone knew what it was he hoped to find at the top of this tower. Beneath them they heard the wrenching sound of the tower door finally breaking inwards.

Looking up Robert saw the trapdoor that signaled the end of their staircase and the entry into the crowning room. He heaved his shoulder against the barrier, but it wasn’t locked, and so he tumbled into a large, open room. He scrambled back to his feet as the other slaves filed into the room behind him, looking around at the majestic bedroom they had just entered.

A few decades ago it would have been ornate and lavish, but now the colors were faded and the perfumes were spoiled. Against the back wall there still stood a massive portrait, and on its faded canvas could still be made out the memory of a noble family. Both the lord and lady were beautiful and dark-haired, a deep contemplation etched into their eyes. In contrast to them was the young lad that sat on his father’s knee. His golden curls wreathed a face shining with pure joy and innocence. He could not have been any older than four or five.

Robert could not dwell on the image, though, he was already dashing to the corner of the room where his hopes were being answered in the form of a suit of armor, standing to attention on its wooden frame. Though it was coated in dust and grime, its fine craftsmanship could not be concealed. Ornate carvings stood sprawled across its perimeters, and its steel was overlaid in places with golden figures. The greatest of these figures was that of the lion with a flower in its mouth, emblazoned across the whole of the breast.

“Help me with this,” Robert ordered, lifting the helmet off and tossing it to one slave. He pulled up the cuirass and handed it to another two. There remained a coat of chainmail on the frame and Robert nodded to another two of the slaves as he held his arms out to receive the armor.

Understanding set in and soon all hands were at work, pulling the chain over his head and around his arms, buckling the cuirass over it, locking the helmet over his head. Meanwhile others were clasping the greaves around his legs and last of all the magnificent sword was placed reverentially into his open palm. The slaves stood back, marveling at the specter that stood before them now, a living embodiment of both rich history and hopeful future.

Robert took his first awkward steps, getting a feel for the great weight. He had no experience and no training, but the burden truly rested on his shoulders now and there was no time for second thoughts. Even now they could hear the footfalls of the slavers nearing their perch. Robert turned towards the trapdoor and raised his sword.

“All of you behind me,” his voice echoed from within his helmet, and the slaves did not hesitate to obey. He had no training or experience, but he knew he needed to calm his racing heart. He settled his frantic breaths into something long and controlled. He tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt and closed his eyes, listening to the footfalls growing louder. He discerned that there were three sets of them, and in his mind’s eye he measured the time before they would be spilling into their room. He counted. One. Two. Three. Four.

Eyes flashing open Robert charged. He barreled to the lip of the trapdoor and down the steps just as Bartholomew appeared at the top of them. Bartholomew’s wide expression of shock was visible for only a moment before Robert had collided into him and sent him flailing backwards down the stairs. Behind Bartholomew, Harry and Lenny awkwardly leapt over the body, leaving it to bounce violently down the stone until it came to a permanent rest some two dozen steps below.

Harry was next, and in desperation he swung his sword at Robert, but the blade clattered uselessly off the armor as Robert cut him down with a single, controlled motion. Lenny took a step backwards to assess the situation, and Robert could see that Lenny’s eyes roved over every gap in Robert’s metal. Beneath the helmet Robert ground his teeth together in determination, raising his sword to chest height as Lenny did the same.

At the same moment Lenny charged up the steps as Robert bounded down them. Lenny turned the point of his sword forward and jabbed it up, while Robert swung his in a wide arc. The two blades collided and Lenny’s brittle metal shattered into a hundred pieces. Unopposed Robert’s sword continued in its swing, passing into Lenny and cutting the cord of his life in a flash.

Robert stood panting, watching Lenny’s lifeless form fall away. His chest heaved and he reached his hand to the wall for support. He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you.” He let a few more moments pass, then turned and stepped back up into the bedroom, all the other slaves encircling him in awe.

Maggie came forward with a old rag she had found and reverently cleaned the bloodied blade. His hands free, Robert unclasped the helmet and viewed his fellow slaves. No, his fellow freemen and freewomen.

“We are The House of Gray” he declared.

“The House of Gray” ten voices echoed.

***

As I said in my previous post, my intention with this story was to give an examination of a character discovering his true self. Specifically I wished to examine the notion of a person discovering their true calling within another, such as Robert being given his duty and example from William. While William calls Robert to the work, though, it is Robert who actually does that work and therefore earns the noble identity he possesses by the end of the story.

Personally I am glad that I took the time to do this piece in two halves, and as I said on Monday I feel that that truly does a greater justice to the work than if I had to rushed it in half the time. In either case we have now concluded this series of stories, and next week we’ll return with an entirely new category. Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then.

The Noble: Part One

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Robert remembered the moment he first met Lord William Gray distinctly. Lenny had just finished shoving the man into the mud and then stomped away, ordering Robert to lift him back out. William had fallen in face first, and with his hands bound behind his back he started to kick wildly for fear of drowning in the filth. Robert gripped him around the shoulders, pulled him up to a kneeling position, then helped support him as he rose to a stand.

After spitting enough mud to the side that he could speak again William gurgled out a “Thank you, sir.”

“You ought not talk back to the guards like that,” Robert gruffly reprimanded as he brushed the mud from William’s eyes and nose. He gave a glance to the guards in question, but for the time being the three of them were huddled around a map a few dozen feet distant. No doubt they were trying to determine which district of Cotswolds their party was lost in now.

“Thank you, again,” William repeated as at last his face was clear enough that he could open his eyes. He was tall, with golden locks that fell to his shoulders. He held himself in an upright and dignified manner, one that did not fit with his dirty station. “It was a matter of principle, you see. They don’t have the right to speak to me that way.”

“You’re a slave,” Robert shrugged. “You don’t have any rights.”

“Well, in the first case, even a slave has the common rights of all men, and in the second case, I’m not properly a slave either, you see I am–“

“Lord William Gray, I know. I heard. You were being quite emphatic on that point when they brought you in.”

“Hm,” William pursed his lips. “And what about your name, sir?”

“Please don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore, I don’t want them thinking I need a shove in the mud as well. I’m simply Robert.”

“And what is your surname?”

“I’m simply Robert.”

“Well, Robert, I am indebted to you. I won’t forget this, and I will repay.”

“I’m sure you will,” Robert said dryly. Then stepped back as the guards came back from their huddle to the line. They were called Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew, and each of them bore the scowling mark of a man that maintained a constant hatred. This hatred was as necessary to sustaining them in their work as food and drink, for without it they would never be able to keep their consciences at bay.

“Now you listen,” Lenny spat as he grabbed William by the shoulder and cut the rope off of his wrists with a rusted knife. “I’ll have no more of your backtalk. You’re in a rough bind, I know, but I’ve bought you fair and square.” He pulled William’s hands round to the front where he tied them again, and then fastened the cord to a long rope. This rope ran the full length of thirteen slaves and held them in their line. “You see that I spare you the irons, at least until night? I make things as nice for you as I reasonably can. So don’t give me your guff. Save it for the master I sell you to!” He gave the knot he was tying one more tug, then turned and mounted his nearby horse, the one to whom the line of slaves was secured.

Robert was fastened to the rope directly behind William, and could see from the way his shoulders were rolling back that he was inhaling deeply, no doubt preparing to call a reply to Lenny.

“Don’t say it!” Robert hissed and William froze. “You’re part of the line now, and that means all the rest of us are liable to pay for whatever trouble you stir. I hate Lenny, but what he says is true. If you must fight back, wait until you’re sold off on your own and none of us will be harmed for it.”

William was still for a moment, clearly giving Robert’s words sincere consideration. “I understand,” he finally replied, keeping his voice low so they would not be overheard. “I do not intend to subject myself to these injustices, but you’re right that I have to consider all of you. You’re my brethren now, and I mustn’t do anything until I’ve convinced each of you to fight alongside me.”

Robert was spared coming up with a response to this strange declaration as Lenny urged the horse into a trot and the whole line of sorry souls lurched forward into their march. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, passing over one rolling hill after another. As far as the eye could see in each direction was nothing but long, green grass with the occasional sprinkling of bare, gray rocks to break up the pattern. Above them the sky was overcast by a multitude of thin, wispy clouds, diffusing the sunlight into a universal ambience. It might have been an lovely scene, were it being viewed by less dismal souls.

When Robert had first joined Lenny’s party there had only been three others, wretches  whose masters had sold them off to cover debts, just as Robert’s had done. As they took a winding course through the hill-lands, their numbers had increased one-by-one until they now marched thirteen long. They were destined for the auction houses in one of the main cities, where Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew would sell them at a decent profit.

Until this William fellow, all the slaves in their party had come in quietly. Years of servitude had long conditioned them to the rough manner in which they were treated, and the prospect of leaving one master for another was a familiar passage. But William was different. From the first moment Lenny brought him he had shown the signs of an unbroken spirit. He had proudly explained that he was in actuality a royal lord, waylaid on the road by a band of highwaymen, mistaken by them for a rich servant, and then sold into slavery at their hand.

Everyone in the party, slave and slaver alike, dismissed his story out of hand. The general consensus was that the poor man was insane, and likely it was for this condition that his prior master had chosen to sell him away. Where many of their band considered this a great source of fun and teased William for his sincerity of delusion, Robert could only shake his head in pity. He knew there must come a time where this dreamer would be forced back to his cruel realities, and Robert could not wish that crushing on anyone.

If Robert was honest with himself, though, it was not pity alone that he felt for the man. He could not help having a wonder and a fascination for him, too. At the close of each day, as they sat around their evening fire, one of their crew would invariably ask William for stories of his home and prior life. At first they had done this to mock him, but he spoke with such a fervor and richness of detail that it was impossible to not be captivated by the visions he spun. Night-by-night, the slaves’ faces became less cynical and mean, changing into something softer and longing. For a blissful hour they would forget their pitiful lives and saw the world of William as if in a trance.

They seemed to feel the summer wind blowing, fluttering out the red and yellow banner of his ancestors above their heads. They saw its emblem, that of a lion holding a long flower in its mouth. They lowered their eyes from its billowing form and found themselves on the parapet of a strong and imposing fortress. With William they passed the attendants and soldiers on either side, each bowing or saluting in turn. They followed him up the spiral staircase to the lord’s chambers at the peak of the tallest tower. They heard the din of workers below and the singing of the birds above. They smelled the perfumes and the salts from the bath, the starch and the dye from the laundry. They saw the wardrobe filled with rich and colorful garments, the complexity of design stitched into the thick rugs covering the floor. They felt the soft warmth of the feather pillows, the cold hardness of the his fine suit of armor’s steel.

Only one of the slaves remained immune to William’s magic. Jules had enjoyed listening to the stories at first, but after a time said it made him frustrated to hear dreams that could never be real. Fantasy made his reality unbearable, and so he would always excuse himself from the rest of the party when the tales began and brood elsewhere on his own.

It wasn’t as though William only offered intangibles to his fellow slaves, though. He was just as gracious with his daily food portions as he was with his words. He explained that the other slaves had not been properly nourished through life as he had, and so they needed the food more. Each time he would look them firmly in the eye and assure them that they would make it out alright. No one doubted that he truly believed it, and that he truly intended to share his better life with them all. Perhaps they were still not ready to believe William’s tales, but they did come to believe in him.

Though the three slave-traders heard bits and pieces of William’s lordly stories, they didn’t harass him any further than to occasionally make fun of his madness. William had kept his word and refrained from giving them any more trouble. That proud defiance never dimmed in his eye, but he held his tongue at their jeering. In fact he seemed to be saddened that they chose to be his enemies rather than his friends.

William’s intended rebellion never came to fruition either. Although William had gained the slaves’ appreciation, he was not any closer to winning their fighting spirit. A failing he admitted to Robert one night after all the others had fallen asleep. At night the line lay on the bare ground in their marching order,  still tethered to the line though now with iron fetters. As William and Robert were neighbors in the line they would often hold whispered conversations as the others drifted out of consciousness.

“I know I have to take this next step alone,” William was saying. “For a while there I had an ambition of us all raising up together and overpowering our captors. We outnumber them by ten, after all, but I have come to see that this isn’t in your nature to do.”

“Well of course not!” Robert shook his head. “We may outnumber them, but they’re still armed and we are not. Even if we were to overpower them, some of us would die in the effort.”

“Yes,” William nodded solemnly, “and I would be the first. But I would do it.”

Robert scoffed. “Then your escape attempt wouldn’t do you any good, would it?”

“Would I not be free then?” William smiled. “And my people would be free, too.”

“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”

“Of course. As I said before, you are my brethren. You are all of you of the House of Gray now.”

Robert just smiled and shook his head. “I must admit that being of the House of Gray still feels pretty drab right now.”

“You joke tonight, but soon you will see. The time of our liberation is soon upon us.”

“Oh?” Robert asked in amusement. “How soon?”

William grinned, raised his iron shackles up to where Robert could see them, gave a tug and the lock sprang open! Robert started, and snapped his gaze over to the fire around which the slave traders spent their nights. All three were still asleep. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“I had a moment alone with the fetters the other day and stuffed mine full of grass. The lock can’t catch properly.”

Robert stared at this revelation. “But what are you doing?”

“As fortune would have it, I know these lands. These brutes have been leading us straight towards my very home, the one I’ve told you all about. It isn’t even a full day’s journey ahead. If our overlords see it as I have described and realize that I have been telling the truth I’m sure they will be very moved, though probably not towards doing me any kindness! My only chance is to get away tonight.”

Robert grimaced. “William, please don’t do this. You’re just going to die out there on your own.”

“I know you don’t believe me, Robert. I forgive you for that. But I’ll be restored to power within twenty-four hours and come back for you all! I’ve been gone long enough that the servants have likely abandoned the homestead, but there are enough hidden treasures in the place that I can immediately hire mercenaries and free you. Then all of us will live in my halls and we’ll build the House of Gray anew!” There was a joyful fire in William’s eyes, an excitement to at least be at his moment of action.

But Robert could not match his enthusiasm. “William, in spite of my better senses I really do like you. And honestly I do want to believe in your tales. Even without the promise of being a part of your court, I just like to imagine that such a place as you describe is really out there somewhere…. But dreams only have a place in us when we don’t get lost in them.”

William smiled in pity. “So you assume I am mad and off to my doom. What of it? Let me go, then. It is my choice.”

Robert nodded. “I suppose you have that right.”

William grinned broadly. “A slave has ‘rights’ do you say? Perhaps I’ve made a change in you yet! And that’s why I trust you with what I must ask next Robert. Listen to me close. I make a new man of you, I have that right as well. No longer are you to be ‘simply Robert,’ I pronounce you Robert Gray.” William lightly touched each of Robert’s shoulders. It would have been comical were his face not so sincere. “And I am entrusting you with these people until I return. Take care of them and follow the example I’ve set for you. You are my steward until I return.”

In spite of his doubts, Robert’s eyes grew tearful. Whether it was madness or not, something long too still in his heart stirred at the calling.

“Now see to this, I have born your shackles and I have broken them,” William proceeded. He reached down and pulled Robert’s wrists up to eye level. “By which I mean: I stuffed grass into your fetters as well.”

“You what?!”

“Just in case. Don’t worry, they won’t notice, you can’t even tell there’s anything different until you give them a sharp tug.”

Robert turned the lock towards him and saw a few telling blades of dead grass poking out from the metal.

“But listen,” William continued. “I must leave now. Will you take this charge to care of the others?”

“Alright, William, that much I can manage.” He nodded. “And who knows? You’re a crazy fool, perhaps, but you also also seem to have luck on your side. You may survive yet!”

“I intend to.” With that William gave him a wink, then began crawling away from the line. He moved as stealthily as he could muster, making for the declining slope at the edge of the plateau where the party currently slept. Robert watched the retreating form, and for a brief moment a part of him entertained the idea that maybe the man really was a lord. Whether crazy or honest, one thing was certain. William simply didn’t belong with a crew as wretched as the rest of them.

“MAN ESCAPING!” A shrill voice split the silent dark. Down at the end of the line Jules had risen to his feet and pointed accusingly at William’s retreating shadow.

“No!” Robert roared, but the damage was already done.

Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew were on their feet in an instant, and had fully apprised the situation after another. Lenny barked at the other two to remain with the line as he sprinted towards the nearest of their horses.

William didn’t even glance backwards, but upon hearing the cry rose to his feet and sprinted full speed, now disappearing down the edge of the plateau.

Lenny threw his leg over the horse, and reached down to its side, pulling out a sword that flashed in the moonlight. He dug his heels deep into the horse’s sides, eliciting a whinny of protest, but then the beast obediently charged forward.

By now all of the slaves were on their feet, motionless as they watched horse and rider drive past them and down the same slope William had gone over. After a moment William returned to their view, a dark form streaking across the large valley that extended ahead. It was a field, open and bare, with nowhere to hide. Though his situation was hopeless, William continued to run, leading further and further away from the camp as now the horse came into view and quickly closed the distance.

As Lenny charged past the fugitive his arm could be made out swinging, catching the form of William with the shining sword and felling him to the ground. William’s body lay still on the ground for a moment as Lenny hauled back on the reins, drawing the horse to a stop. As Lenny dismounted, the prone figure began to lift and fall, haltingly trying and failing to push itself back upright. Lenny advanced purposefully, raised the sword, plunged it down, and stilled the body forever. There was no cry, no flash of lightning to herald the moment, yet all the slaves felt a tremor within and bowed their heads mournfully. All but the traitor at their end.

*

It was certainly not my intention to publish half of a short story this week, after all on Monday I already examined the series as a whole and meant for today to wrap it all up with a nice bow. The more I tried to cram the full tale of The Noble into a single post, though, the more it became apparent that it needed more space to breathe.

However I see in this an opportunity. I think this idea of feeling out the needs of a story, whether it needs to move along at a snappy pace or whether it needs to simmer, is something we ought to look at in greater detail. As such, I will examine this idea in greater detail on Monday, and then a week from now provide the second half of The Noble and really conclude this series.

 

Revenger of Blood

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In ancient Jewish society there existed a unique law to deal with the accidental killing of another. The man that was guilty of the manslaughter was permitted to flee to a City of Refuge, an asylum where none was permitted to do him any harm. If that man ever strayed from his City of Refuge, though, he would be at the mercy of the Revenger of Blood. This Revenger of Blood was a man that had been given the right and duty to slay the killer should he encounter him abroad.

In the last year of the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, there lived a man of Hebron named Elkanah, a wealthy and powerful man, known abroad as honorable and pious. To this man came Omri, a servant of Elkanah’s uncle…

“Did he say for what purpose he came?” Elkanah asked his attendant, Hoshea. Hoshea shuffled behind his master as he moved about his court, attending to all matters of business before the end of day.

“No,” Hoshea replied. “But he did suggest that his matters were urgent, and there was a graveness about him.”

Elkanah nodded as he stepped up to a pedestal where one of the local merchants stood. The merchant pulled up a ledger and laid it on the pedestal. As Elkanah reviewed the record, he motioned to another nearby servant to bring him his own record as well, and the two were laid side-by-side for comparison.

“I am nearly finished here, go and fetch him. Also, invite him to stay with us for the Sabbath afterwards.”

Hoshea made to leave but Elkanah held up a hand to stop him. “And then fetch the money purse and buy for sacrifices before sundown.”

Elkanah turned back to the records, gave them one last analysis, then turned to the merchant and asked “Are we satisfied?” The merchant nodded, and now laid their contract on the pedestal instead. Elkanah motioned to another servant who brought them a reed pen and in turn they signed the bottom of the paper.

Elkanah nodded to the merchant and his associates, who made their way out of the room, passing by Hoshea as he returned with a short and rotund man in tow. The man appeared nervous and pulled his cap into fidgety hands as he entered the room.

“Peace be unto thee,” the man saluted as he approached Elkanah. “Thine greatness and goodness are known for miles, Rabbi, I am thine servant, Omri.” Then he bowed himself to the ground.

Elkanah lifted the man up and clapped his shoulders. “I am glad to see thee, Omri. Will you stay with us for dinner that we may discuss your matters in comfort?”

“I am honored,” Omri inclined his head in another slight bow. “But if thou wilt be gracious, I am weighed by a somber business and would be relieved of my duty.”

“Very well.”

“As thou knowest, I am the servant of Hiram, thine father’s brother. Ever since that tragic accident with thine father, Hiram has sent servants from time to time to discover the movements of thy father’s killer. He does this tirelessly as his duty to thine father.”

Elkanah nodded. “Hiram is an honorable man, by all accounts that I have heard.” His gaze strayed slightly to the side where Hoshea was now drawing a measure of gold and silver from the money chest and placing it into his bag.

Elkanah motioned a pause to Omri, then turned and called “Hoshea, come here.” When the man drew near Elkanah reached into the money bag and pulled out a coin that was faded and pockmarked. “We do not use this coin for purchasing sacrifice, Hoshea.”

Hoshea shrugged. “The markings are still legible. It is permitted.”

Elkanah smiled, but his voice was firm. “There is that which is permitted, and that which is sublime. Go and replace the coin.” Then he turned back to Omri.

Omri gave another slight bow, and then continued. “At all times thine father’s killer, a youth named Talmai, has remained in his asylum in the city of Shechem, never once abandoning his refuge. Yet three nights past, my master received word that Talmai’s father, an elder in Jerusalem named Anah, lies dying on his bed and calling for his son. It is known that messengers are bearing this news to Talmai, and there are those that say Talmai loves his father dearly and will not fail to answer the call.”

Elkanah somberly turned his back to Omri, bowing his head in deep contemplation. “And your master calls on me to fulfill my duty as the Revenger of Blood upon this young man’s head.” He face grew paler by the moment and the tips of his fingers quivered slightly. “Though I have never harmed any man at any time.”

“If you will permit me…” Omri began tentatively. Elkanah made no effort to suppress him so he continued. “There is no joy in this work before you, and there are none that envy thine station. But the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience. Such was the lot you chose when thou accepted the station of Revenger.”

“Never did I expect this youth to abandon the safety of his refuge.” Elkanah turned his head upwards, but closed his eyes against the light. “But truly, it was my duty to accept the station… I will do that which I have pledged,” he finally determined. “Go and tell thine master. I will take my journey to the northern entrance of Jerusalem; there I and my servants will lay in wait for the man, and take him while he is yet on the road.”

Omri bowed. “I thank thee, my lord. God be with thee.”

“In this?” Elkanah whispered to himself, after Omri had left the room.

*

Elkanah stood atop a rocky outcropping, one that overlooked the road to Jerusalem eight cubits below. Ahead of him the road emerged from a distant crevice and passed through a wide plain before turning beneath his feet. The moon was only half full, and this portion of the path was the only stretch that was well illuminated in all the region, though his position was further lightened by two torches on either side.

From his perch, Elkanah and the small group of men with him saw his servant Hoshea running down that dusty road towards them. He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing that such speed could only foretell that he had been successful in discovering the man Talmai. Hoshea reached the bend in the road and made his way around to the back of the rocky outcropping, where its sloping side led him up to where Elkanah stood.

“Master—” Hoshea panted as he stepped into the light of the torches. Elkanah held up a hand, silencing his servant until he had had a chance to regain his breath. Hoshea paused to take a few, long and deliberate breaths, then nodded. “Master, I have been and seen, and the report of Hiram’s servants is true. The four men come and one of them is tall with ruddy cheeks and dark, curly hair, the same as how Talmai is described to be. They will be at this place within the hour.”

“Are they armed?”

“No, they are not.”

That surprised Elkanah, but he nodded and turned to one of the men standing at his side. “Now Uzziel, take thine men and conceal them among the trees both before and after this bend in the road. Then thou and two that thou choosest wait in the road, without weapons that thou may appear peaceful. When the four men are drawn near to thee, hail them and say ‘Art thou Talmai?’ and they will say ‘Nay, we know not of whom thou speak.’ Then say thee ‘But we know thou art Talmai, and we are messengers from thy father, come to bear news that he has died this very day.’ Then the man will not be able to compose himself and will begin weeping. Thus we will have confirmation of his identity, and then call to thine men and they shall catch the man and bring him here to me.”

“It is well said,” Uzziel approved, then he turned to his men and they all departed with him until Hoshea and Elkanah were alone on their perch. Elkanah motioned to Hoshea and they doused both of the torches, then turned to face the road and began their wait.

Elkanah could feel his heart pounding in his chest, its every beat protesting the moment coming. He ran his hand along the hilt of the ceremonial sword at his side, a weapon that had only been ornamental in his house. For a moment he looked heavenward and silently prayed for strength, though partway through that request changed to a petition for understanding why these events had come to him.

The minutes slid by slowly, and the initial tension slowly relaxed. One-by-one Uzziel’s guards down below settled into seated positions, and then Hoshea did the same. It was just as Elkanah himself began to bend his knees that four dark figures came into view, travelers emerging from the shadow of the crevice in the distance. A muted call from Uzziel and the guards in the trees crouched deeper into their grass, while Uzziel and the two men he had chosen rose to their feet and stood conspicuously on the side of the road. Up above, Elkanah and Hoshea lay on their stomachs so that their silhouettes would not be visible to their quarry, and watched to see what transpired.

With the scent of dust filling his nose, Elkanah peered at the dark figures as they drew nearer and nearer. The more he tried to stifle his breath the more ragged it wheezed out of him. After a moment he reminded himself the men below would not be able to hear his breath and he let it out, long and heavy. He found himself wondering which of the four approaching men was Talmai. Which was the one that did not know he was now taking his final walk and breathing his final breaths?

The men passed by the first set of trees where Uzziel’s guards were hid, and passed on without perceiving the threat behind them. As they started towards the bend in the road and caught sight of Uzziel and his companions there was a noticeable slowing of their steps. Even so they came forward, no doubt not wanting to betray their anxieties.

From up above Elkanah could not hear the words spoken between Uzziel and the four travelers, but after a few exchanges between them he saw the third of them draw his hands up to his face and begin wailing so loudly that Elkanah could hear it clearly. Uzziel cried out and at the same moment seized on the weeping man, dragging him down to the ground. Talmai’s associates leapt upon the two strugglers, trying to pry them apart, and Uzziel’s associates leapt upon them in turn. There was a moment of complete confusion, but then the armed guards had rushed in from the trees and at sword point took each of the travelers by their arms and held them still.

Elkanah could not hear the words that Uzziel threatened to Talmai’s three companions, but they must have been compelling for at his word they were released and ran off into the night without a single glance back. With only Talmai remaining in their grip, Uzziel and his men made the march towards the sloping side of the overlooking rock and Elkanah and Hoshea rose to their feet and rekindled the torches. At first Elkanah faced towards the approaching men, but as they drew towards the light he found he could not face his captive and so he turned his back to them.

He listened as at Uzziel’s command the guards moved into an enclosing circle around the crown of the rock, preventing any escape for their captive. Then there was the thud of the young man being dropped to the ground behind Elkanah, from which point a faint sobbing arose.

“He is here, Master,” Uzziel’s voice announced unnecessarily, Elkanah nodded but still did not turn.

“Talmai,” Elkanah breathed out. “Thou knowest who I am?”

The sobbing continued for a moment longer, then was gulped down and replaced with a quavering timbre. “I was told that the man I slew had a son. And that he had taken upon himself the role of the Revenger of Blood.”

Elkanah nodded bitterly. “Why, then, wouldst thou leave thine City of Refuge?”

“If thou knew where to find me, thou knowest why I came. No matter the risk, I had my duty to perform.”

“Indeed, a father is worth a man’s life,” Elkanah agreed, finally turning round to see his prey. Talmai was young, not yet thirty, with a gentle, open face. As much pause as Elkanah had already felt, it only deepened now.

Talmai looked despondently into Elkanah’s eyes, but his expression softened as he saw the hesitation in him. “Thou art the master here I perceive,” he spoke up. “There is none to force thine hand in this thing.”

“There is the law.”

“The law allows thee to take mine life, but it does not require it.”

“It is written an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It was wrong for my father to die, even by an accident. This offense deserves a balance.”

“I do not deny what is deserved, yet still thou hast a choice. Why dost thy choose so?”

Elkanah called on his determination and hardened his face. “I am an honorable man, and I ever do my duty, whether it is my pleasure or not.” He gripped the handle of his sword and at last drew out its full length.

“It is also written thou shalt not kill.”

“In this case…it is permitted.”

Elkanah was in the act of stepping forward, but his own echo gave him pause. He looked over to Hoshea who grimaced at him meaningfully. Closing his eyes he tried to find his center within. He whispered so silently that none other could hear: “Is it blasphemy to want more than the law?”

He looked down to his hand, to the sword in it. He looked to his other hand, to its open palm. “Perhaps you are right, Talmai,” he finally said. “Perhaps within rightfulness itself there yet remains a choice to make.” He dropped the sword to the ground with a ringing clatter.

“Let him go,” Elkanah heard himself speak.

“Master?” Uzziel asked.

“Let the prisoner go,” Elkanah said forcefully and looked Uzziel in the eye. “He is free of the law today.”

Talmai’s face dropped into the earth and he sobbed the loudest yet. Though the guards stood apart from him he remained unable to move as his whole body convulsed with emotion. With Hoshea’s help, Elkanah also sunk to the ground, faint and weak from the release of so much tension.

“What are we to say to Hiram?” Hoshea asked him.

Elkanah thought, then finally replied. “We will say we found another law, a new star to follow.”

***

I mentioned on Monday that I was a bit uncertain about coming up with some good examples of multilayered dialogue in today’s story. Ultimately there was more I had wanted to accomplish in that respect than I was able to, but still there are a few instances of it here, hopefully enough to illustrate the idea sufficiently.

Beginning with the most subtle, there is symbolism and imagery, such as Elkanah being elevated above the men traveling their journey and then standing in judgment of and ultimately setting Talmai free. All of this is meant to be a parallel to the hope that there is a God above, one who is watching us travel through life, judging us, and offering mercy that we do not deserve.

Then, of course, there are a couple hints meant for the audience alone. For example, in the introduction we are told the story takes place mere years before the birth of Jesus Christ. That, and the mentioning of following a new star are obviously meant to be indicators of the approaching “new law” that Elkanah ultimately chooses to follow.

Omri’s line “but the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience” is also meant to carry a deeper meaning. On its surface it might sound noble and self-sacrificing, but the more we think about it the more it doesn’t sit right with us. Eventually it becomes clear that his definition is, in fact, exactly wrong.

The most obvious use of a dual meaning, though, is of course the echoing of the phrase “it is permitted.” Elkanah pronouncing this as justification for killing Talmai is a callback to the earlier conversation between himself and Hoshea, where he taught that there is a permitted way, but also a more sublime way, and we ought to follow the latter.

What I particularly like about this is that in the end it is Elkanah’s owns words that convince him of what he ought to do, and his words alone. When it comes down to it, every decision that we make is only done by our own inner persuasion. We must find all our answers inside, and indeed there is a theme in stories of conflict being resolved only when the hero is able to identify his or her true self to guide them. There is a lot of wisdom in that theme when done properly. Come back on Monday where we will look at this concept in greater detail, as well as how the theme has been utilized in each of the short stories of my current short story series. I’ll see you then.

The Basketball in the Water

body of water under blue and white skies
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Fidgety Frank. Denise always came up with nicknames to help her remember new patients, and alliteration was one of her favorite methods. Of course, “fidgety” would be a fitting description for many of the assorted lot that made their way through her office, but Frank managed to carry it to a degree that put the rest to shame.

He had not yet told her that their meetings were a waste of time and he would be moving on, but the speech was coming soon, she was sure of it. Maybe he would actually leave, maybe he wouldn’t, she wasn’t about to lose any sleep over the matter either way. As she said to all of her patients that threatened to leave therapy early, there was no shortage of potential clients waiting to take their place. The quitters were the only ones that had anything to lose, not her.

And if Frank left it would be his loss. His need was desperate, that much was clear. She didn’t know what exactly unresolved baggage he was carrying inside, but she could see in his eyes how desperately a part of him wanted to share them. There was just that other part that kept getting in the way. The loud part. The part that would shortly be telling her there wasn’t any purpose in continuing their work. For Frank’s sake she truly hoped that the wounded part of him would win out and get the help that it so desperately needed.

“So what are we talking about today?” Frank squirmed in his seat, seeking a position of comfort that ever eluded him.

“What would you like to talk about?” Denise countered.

He sighed deeply and shrugged. “I’d rather talk about something real this time, this chitchat that goes nowhere doesn’t do me any good.”

She smiled, but suppressed the eye-roll. “I appreciate your honesty. Why don’t we talk about your father? You mentioned in your bio that he—”

“No, there’s nothing to talk about there,” Frank quickly interjected. “Look, maybe this isn’t going to work out, maybe…”

Oh, here it is, she thought, but then he didn’t finish the sentence.

“May I be honest with you, Frank,” she leaned forward meaningfully.

“I suppose so.”

“Right now you’re blocking me. And the only reason you have to block me is because there is something to talk about there. That being said, I want you to know that I respect this role of you.”

His brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean this role of me?”

“The part of you whose job it is to protect yourself from being hurt. For better or worse, it’s just trying to keep you safe right now, and I think that is very admirable of it.”

A long pause, and then “Well…maybe he’s right to.”

“What is he afraid would happen if he let down his guard?”

Frank wasn’t fidgeting anymore, but he looked uncomfortable with the introspection. Clearly he wasn’t accustomed to much soul-searching.

“That I would not like what I learned of you?” she prodded.

He shook his head.

“That you would not like what you learned of you?”

One corner of his mouth pulled back in a pained expression.

“Maybe—maybe I’m better off not knowing myself too well,” he offered slowly.

Denise closed her eyes and nodded while breathing deeply, simulating the emotion that must be behind such a statement. “That sounds very hard,” she sympathized, then opened her eyes. “But in your heart do you believe that to be the truth?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

She paused, deliberating how to move forward. She wouldn’t ask about his father again, not yet, anyway. It was in the forefront of his mind now and his subconscious would find a way to bring the subject back to light if it decided he ought to.

“I want to pause for a moment and get a sense of where your emotions are coming from in this moment, alright? You told me you had that conference to attend earlier this week, the one with that special speaker you were anxious to hear. How did that go for you?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “Maybe I assumed too much. He wasn’t very interesting, actually.”

“No? Did you try to have that conversation you wanted with him about your company’s new sector? The electrical contracts?”

“No, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I mean, now that I’ve seen the guy I can’t believe I never recognized how conceited he was before.”

“He talked a lot about himself?”

“No, not that,” he paused to think. “More to do with how he said it. You know what I mean? Like with everything he had this air of authority, like his opinions were the gospel truth.”

“Opinions that you don’t think are right? Opinions related to your branch of engineering?”

“More just opinions on life,” he clarified. “He seemed so confident about having all the right answers.”

“Opinions on life that you don’t agree with, then? Such as?”

Frank put on a face like he was trying to remember a specific example. She was quite sure he already had that example in mind, though.

“Yeah, there was one, I suppose,” he said casually. “Like he started the whole thing off with this humorous electrical story, something to break the ice with the audience, y’know? And he talks about how great his dad was, and how he could always depend on him. Said when he was a kid he blew out all the fuses in his house with a school project, and his dad had to call in sick and spend the whole morning to fix his mistake and make it all right.” Frank was rambling on at a pretty good rate, anxious to get his thoughts out. “And he kept flashing this grin, y’know, a long-suffering ‘how could my father have ever put up with me’ sort of look. He even said something at the end about ‘that’s just how it is for dads, right?’ Like their role is to always fix up after their kids problems.”

She squinted. “Remind me…you don’t have any children of your own?”

“No, but I know well enough that kids need to be able to handle their own issues. You can’t just solve it all for them.”

“Sure,” she nodded. “Sounds like something you’ve put quite some thought into.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I just never want to treat my kids like how I was raised.”

There it was. He had brought it back up on his own. “How were you raised?” she asked offhandedly.

This time Frank spared the act of pretending to not have a story already in mind. “So I remember these times where my dad told me to wash our dog. Now I was real little, like maybe five or six, and we had a big dog and he hated getting those baths. He would growl at me and I was scared of him biting my hand off or something like that, so I’d just pull out the hose and spray him from a distance and let him shake himself off. I even poured out some of the soap from the bottle so it would look a little emptier. Course my dad could tell right away what I’d done. He just shook his head and took me back to show how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. He’d grab the dog tight and scrub him down, said I just had to show the mutt who was boss, like he did. Every time he knew I wasn’t going to wash the dog right, yet we kept on playing this charade where I’d get scared, and pretend to do it how he wanted, then he’d pretend to be surprised that I’d messed up and get frustrated about it.”

Denise grimaced sympathetically. “I see. Correction wasn’t really about empowering you to be better, just about making you feel worse already?”

“Yeah,” he said grimly.

“It was often that way?”

He nodded.

“What’s the earliest memory you have of him correcting you like that?”

“Oh…probably that same one. The times with the dog.”

“So around five or six you said?” she made a quick note on her clipboard. “When is one of the last times you can remember an example of that?”

Frank fidgeted again. “Oh—um, well I’m not sure exactly.”

“You don’t have to know exactly. Just what’s the latest example that comes readily to mind?”

Frank continued to fidget. She was sure that once again he already had a memory in mind, he just hadn’t decided if he was going to share it yet. She waited, giving him time to process, but gradually his eyes glazed over and became lost in the world of his own thoughts.

“Frank?” she prodded.

He shook himself back to the present. “I guess…” he said slowly. “I told you when we first met that my dad died in a boat accident. You remember? Well I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. We were on this big yacht that my father’s boss had rented out for his daughter’s wedding. Everyone was in their best clothes and I was playing in the back with my brother and the son of one of his work friends.”

He paused, so Denise nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“Well there was a little pool with a basketball hoop on the back, and we had taken one of the balls from that and were just goofing around with it. Just playing around like kids.”

He paused again, this time with a pained and divided expression, as though torn about continuing. Denise could also see the two halves of him as distinct beings, one trying desperately to reach through the passionless mask that the other tried just as desperately to hold on his face.

“So what happened?” she finally asked.

“The basketball we were playing with fell into the water… In our roughhousing it somehow went over the edge and bobbed on the surface farther and farther behind the boat. And then I heard someone running behind me and it was my dad, still dressed in his tuxdeo, complete with his jacket still on and everything. He just, looked at me…sadly…and then dove into the water to go and get that ball.”

“Your father—went into the water to retrieve a basketball?” Denise asked incredulously. She paused, drumming the end of her pen against the clipboard as she thought. “And he didn’t come back?”

Frank cast his eyes down bitterly. At first he was still as a statue, but slowly his whole body trembled and silent tears started to drip into his lap. “Those clothes just soaked in the water like a sponge. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off.” Frank gave a shuddering gasp and the tears came harder. “I—I feel so confused. I hate him so much for doing that, but I know I shouldn’t.”

“Because he left you to feel all the guilt of it?”

Frank considered this, head still bowed, then slowly nodded. “Why would he do that? I can still see his face as he ran by me. He looked so—determined. So condemned because it was like he had to dive in and he knew it was going to be dangerous. It’s not fair for him to put that shame on me, he shouldn’t have felt so obligated to fix my mistake that he would risk himself like that. I didn’t even mean to knock it in. It really was an accident.” He looked to her with a need, as if waning her to absolve him.

“I believe you,” she said, but she was still thoughtfully tapping her pen against the clipboard. “It wasn’t really a basketball that fell into the water, was it?”

***

As I said in my post on Monday, every story is combined of elements both authentic and fabricated. At the time I was referring to how the actual structuring of a story will need to ground itself in realism to be relatable to the reader, but also incorporate fantasy to fill in a meaningful narrative. However, as I wrote about that topic I was reminded that there is also a power to stories that allow their characters to stray between the lines of authenticity and fantasy as well.

In this story Frank has more than one part to him and more than one truth to express. By concealing the details of the event for which he feels most guilty, he is also revealing just how deeply his emotional trauma runs and signaling to the therapist that he needs her to dig there. A masterful writer will imbue characters with dialogue that accomplishes more than one purpose with every line. Dialogue can will always exist on the obvious surface layer, but it can also speak to deeper layers as well. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, though, and it would be well worth taking some time to examine this tool in greater detail next week. Come back on Monday when we’ll look closer at multilayered communication in a story.