Travelers’ Guide to Mythical Beasts: a Preview
A sampling of the upcoming sequel to the novella Faerie Tales For Travelers:
Travelers’ Guide to Mythical Beasts
By the time I hit the floor, I hardly knew who I was. The pain of falling on my face was the least of it. The entirety of my skin stung as though it were raw. My mouth brimmed with agony. I was screaming, but the voice sounded like a stranger’s.
Beyond the screams, I heard another voice as if from a distance, shouting, “Guard! Come! This instant!”
The solid tramp of boots shook the floorboards under me. “Yes, Highness?”
“How did this old gypsy sneak in here? He tried to kill my father, and where were you? Must I tell you your duties? Seize him!”
Painfully I raised myself onto one elbow to see who was speaking. In another moment, hands seized me by the arms and dragged me upright. The young prince Philip stared at me. His eyes held fear and fascination equally mixed, with a flicker of triumph already overcoming his fright. Beyond his shoulder was a face that horrified me. So that is the face of the emperor of Vidor, I thought, as if I had the leisure for such observations.
“Why are you waiting?” said the prince. “Take him out and make an example of him at once!” He turned to the emperor. “Isn’t that right?”
The emperor was in a daze, but he nodded in response to the prompt.
At once, as the prince had commanded, the guards dragged me from the room. I just narrowly kept on my feet. Each step burned my soles. Somehow I knew that I must not leave that room, but my protesting cries came out as gabble. I had been hauled down a series of corridors and stairs before I realized that I could not speak because I had no tongue. It was gone, as if it had never been. Second came the discovery that, with my tongue, my teeth also had gone. My panic felt so heavy and strong that I choked on it. What had happened to me? What would happen to me now?
I was dragged out into the city, not through the official gateway of the imperial palace but through a service entrance at the side. From there, I saw the hill of public execution, where the gallows stood stark against the night glow of the city below. The guards were in no haste. It had been in their orders to make an example of me, I remembered. They bore me along the straight avenue, as I was in no condition to walk in my own strength. Passers-by stopped to stare at me.
One youth hailed the guards. He was hardly more than a boy yet, with long fair hair and a gleaming earring in the curve of one ear. With the assurance of nobility, he said, “What has the poor old fellow done?”
“Tried to assassinate the emperor, didn’t he, young sir,” said one guard.
“Did he, now? Is he a citizen?”
Though they meant to be respectful to one so clearly well-off, the guards scoffed as if they couldn’t help it. “A citizen? No, not this one. Don’t you know a raggedy old gypsy when you see one, young sir?”
“Apparently not. So he went after the emperor.” The boy pushed back his long linen jacket and hooked his thumbs in his pockets. He stood as the very image of carefree privilege. “And what have the rest of us done to be so punished?”
“Sir?” said the other guard.
“He may have done what he’s been accused of doing, but as far as I know, none of the rest of us have done anything to deserve being exposed to his wrinkled old body. Have some decency and cover him.” His lip curled ever so delicately. “If you have nothing at hand,” he continued during the guards’ hesitation, “then I will gladly contribute to such a worthy cause.” He shrugged out of his elegant jacket.
The guards released my arms. I nearly collapsed, but the young man seized me by the shoulders. His touch felt like fire. “Here, old one, slip into this.” He helped guide my arms into the linen sleeves.
A sharp crack shattered the nearest streetlamp like a miniature explosion. The arm that supported me gave me a shove toward the nearest alley as a stocky fellow tackled one of the guards. When I came to a halt against one wall of the alley, I saw that the elegant youth had fled the brawl now taking place. Only one attacker harried the guards, not a very large man but strong like a bull. He threw one of them to the ground as easily as a child throws a doll. I saw his face between collisions, and it reinforced in me the impression of a child at play. These dolls were determined, however. This strapping boy had interfered with a public execution, and so he must be subdued.
When the clatter of reinforcements made itself heard from the palace end of the street, I became aware that I was not alone in the alley. A soft grunt preceded a fist-sized white projectile soaring over my head. The moment it hit one guard in the face, it exploded in a cloud of suffocating white powder. A second projectile, and a third quickly after it, soon filled the street with these billowing clouds. A hand touched my elbow. “Put these on,” said yet another boy. He helped me into a pair of trousers and a shirt. Then he took the linen jacket from me, rolled it up, and hid it in a sack on the cart that waited farther back in the alley. As a finishing touch, he set his own soft-brimmed hat on my head. “Come, Grandfather. It sounds like trouble ahead. You had better follow behind me until we know what’s happening.” He led me behind the cart. Then he steered it toward the street from which I had just fled.
The reinforcements had come. I saw no sign of the young man who had fought the two guards who now knelt, choking, on the pavement. “Sir,” said the boy, “what happened here?” He had a peculiar soft way of speaking, I had begun to notice, as indolent in cadence as if he had just awakened.
“None of your business, boy,” said one of the newly-arrived guards. “Stay out of the way, and no trouble will come of you. No passage through here. Get back,” he called, raising his voice for the whole crowd to hear. “No passage until the escaped prisoner has been retaken. Go on your way.” Other guards around him were questioning the onlookers, who pointed down the street to indicate which way the offenders had run.
“We’ll have to take the long way home, Grandfather,” said the boy as he wheeled the cart around in the mouth of the alley. “I know you’re tired. Lean on me if you like. We’ll take it slow.”
I let my weight fall on the boy’s right shoulder.
“You, boy!” Another guard, this one an officer, grabbed the boy by his other shoulder. “Did you meet anyone coming from this direction as you came?”
The boy didn’t flinch. He shook his head in all simplicity. “No one passed us, sir. I thought I might try a shortcut. Then I heard the noise and wanted to see what the matter was. Please don’t let me get in trouble just for that,” he pled with innocent worry. “I really need to get Grandfather home. My mother will have the hide off me if she knew—”
“Go home to your mother,” said the officer with a dismissive laugh. “As long as no one passed you.”
“They couldn’t have done,” the boy pointed out. “It’s such a narrow way.”
“True,” noted the officer as he peered down the alley. “Get your grandfather home, then. There are rogues in the streets tonight who have no respect for the emperor’s person or laws.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks.” The boy dipped his head in an untutored bow toward the officer. Then he put his weight behind the cart and started to push. His voice strained just a little as he said, “There, now, Grandfather. We’ll be home in no time. You’ll see.”
We emerged into the next street down, where all the shops were closing for the night and the last patrons were carting away their purchases. No one took any notice of us, just one cart among many. The boy was struggling a little with the weight of his load. He made no complaint. It made me a little ashamed of my own weakness, so I took my hand from his shoulder and limped onward at his side.
We were among private houses when he asked me a breathless question: “Have you anywhere to go, Grandfather?” His head was bent low between the cart shafts as he pushed, but he turned his eyes toward me in the darkness of evening.
I could only shake my head. Where could I go?
“I thought not.”
Hours it took us to reach the westernmost edge of the city. The boy toiled manfully to push the cart alone. He veered aside, his feet scraping on the pavement as the cart fought against the change of direction. The boy came out victorious, however, and brought the cart to a standstill in yet another alley. He began to rummage through the goods. “That should do it,” he said eventually. Dusting his hands off, he said, “Climb up, Grandfather.”
I was so bleary-eyed that I merely stared at him.
“We’re near the highway,” the boy explained gently. “They’ll want to check everyone who passes, even at this hour. You should hide.”
He had made a hollow in amongst the sacks of flour and bolts of cloth. He even had a large sack, open and empty. “In here, they won’t pay attention to you.” He closed it over my head, binding the cord around the sack loosely to let the air inside.
From inside the coarse sack, I listened. The cart lurched and rumbled into motion. Then it stopped. As the boy had anticipated, a light shone over the cart’s contents. One of the emperor’s officers questioned the boy, “Where are you going at this hour of the night, boy?”
The boy replied, “The cart is heavier than I thought, so I’m later than I meant to be.”
“You should wait out the night and start again at dawn.”
“I’d like to, sir, but there’s a merchant camp just down the road. My brothers are expecting to meet me there, and if I don’t come before morning, they’ll go home and leave me to push the cart all the rest of the way home myself.”
“I have a pair of those myself. Sergeant, help the boy get his cart over the bridge and on his way to the crest of the hill. It’ll be easier going downhill,” he said kindly.
“Thank you, sir.”
The cart lurched again, but this time at a strong pace that continued up a rather steep slope. A goodnatured voice, doubtless that of the sergeant, said to the boy, “You can manage from here?”
“Yes, sergeant. Thanks for helping me.”
“I was a boy and a little brother once myself. Take care. Don’t let the werewolves get you.”
The cart yielded to a push and soon was rattling downhill at nearly breakneck speed. I wondered if the boy was running along behind it, but I couldn’t hear any footsteps for the rumble of the cart wheels. He must have had some control over our progress, because the cart swerved twice before it lost momentum. Once it had come to a halt, I heard the thump of feet on turf.
“What took you so long?” said a gruff, deep voice.
“We thought we were going to have to go back for you.”
“Well, here I am.”
The cart began forward again at a strong, restrained pace. Another voice said, “All in all, it was an interesting trip, don’t you think?” I recognized it as the voice of the elegant young man. “Pity I lost my new coat. I liked that one.”
“It isn’t lost,” said the dreamy voice of the boy.
“You mean to say it’ll come chasing after me?” the elegant youth laughed. “All the same, I do wonder about the old one. What had he done?”
“Killing the emperor is nonsense,” agreed the deep voice. “He was too weak to stand on his own feet. We all know how the common blood folk think. Kill a gypsy once in a while to keep the citizens in mind of how terrible we are.”
“The poor fellow probably just offended the eyes of some rich man,” the elegant youth said. “He was unsightly.”
“That isn’t very kind of you.”
“Go on with you, dreamer. I suppose you’ve divined everything about the whole matter. Tell us, then. Tell us the whole story. Who was he, and what had he done?”
The cart creaked as weight was added to one side. “I don’t know yet,” said the boy. “We’ll have to ask him directly.” He pulled the cord from the sack that hid me. Looking me directly in the eyes, he asked, “What was it you’d done?”