Writing Challenge: Week 14

The Festival Incident

by H. M. Snow

 

To say that Eila allowed her son to walk ahead would not be too great a stretch of the truth. Though Dasarre towered over her in height, no one who knew them ever had any doubt which one was in charge. In much the same way, her husband Joss remained beside and slightly behind her. “He’s adapting well,” she said to Joss.

Joss bobbed his head in agreement.

“There’s no fear of losing him in the crowd anyway,” added Eila.

A grin stretched Joss’ closed mouth.

“What has his attention now?” Eila raised herself up on tiptoe but still could not see. “What’s he after? And there he goes,” she commented.

Perhaps it was fortunate for them that Joss bore the cadaverous pallor and slope-shouldered bulk that marked him as half-blood devourer. People had already kept a secure distance from them despite the confines of the narrow lanes. Now that distance enabled the pair to chase after the blaze of shaggy red hair that was their only view of their son above the festival-goers.

He moved quickly enough that they caught up only after he had stopped a young lady and her chaperone. Dasarre gazed down at the girl with unabashed admiration. “I’m Dasarre,” he said to her, “and you are the loveliest girl I have ever seen.”

Eila moved forward immediately. To girl and chaperone alike, she said, “Please excuse my son. He has a habit of saying whatever enters his head. He means no impertinence.”

The chaperone, a stern-faced woman in her prime, seemed unconvinced, but the girl said, “I took no offense, good mother. It is gratifying to be told. I only wondered what he meant by it.”

“I meant only what I said,” Dasarre responded at once. “It would be shame to me if I didn’t praise where praise was due.”

“Yet you keep looking at me.”

“As long as you allow me to look,” he replied with a goodnatured smile. “Loveliness is meant to be seen, is it not?”

“You,” said the chaperone with an edge to her words, “show respect to the young head.”

Several things happened as aftermath to the woman’s announcement. The girl turned to look at her chaperone and said gently, “When will you begin calling me by my name as I asked you, Bryndis?” At the same time, Eila and Joss removed themselves a step backward and bowed their heads in respect. Amid all this, however, Dasarre remained as he had been, except for the astonishment that left his mouth ajar.

“You’re the young head? But you look so young!”

The girl returned her attention to Dasarre. Her lips pressed together. Her right hand grasped at the air and drew from it a heavy wooden staff with an ornate scrollwork knob on top. She lifted the staff and knocked its scrolled knob, not very hard, against Dasarre’s forehead. “I do tire of people saying that,” she explained.

Eila hastened to say, “Please excuse my son again. He is so naturally airheaded that anyone might assume we have taught him nothing. The only excuse for him in this instance is that he met the prior head once when he was a small child, and the encounter left a powerful impression in his mind.”

“Gisle was that sort,” said the young head. Her gray eyes homed in on Eila. “Are you bound any place specific, or are you free to walk with me and tell me your story?”

“We will walk with you, yes, and gladly.”

“I am Mairen.” The girl bowed her head. She released the staff into whatever airy dimension kept it for her. Then she crooked her elbow for Eila to take her arm. Thus linked, girl and matron started down the street.

The chaperone, Bryndis, gripped Dasarre by the arm when he set off after them. “Walk behind with your father.” She released him only to catch up with Mairen, leaving Joss and Dasarre to walk a few strides behind her.

At the head of this procession, Eila had begun her story. “My husband’s father was full-blood devourer of the chameleon type, born of a mother who had developed a taste for her own young. It is thought that Father Ingve survived only because he was clever enough to disguise himself as a stone, so that even with his scent and the blood of birth thick on the ground, his mother could not find him. It was as a stone that friends of my parents discovered him.”

“How did they know him from a stone, if his own mother did not?” asked Mairen.

“By that time, he was groaning with hunger. They fed him porridge from their own table, and he accepted it. Master Reiyo, my father’s friend, had an idea that a devourer might be raised to do good and not attack people. He decided to adopt the infant, and his good wife Onnika consented to be mother to Ingve.”

“So they raised him as their own, as one of guardian race?”

Eila nodded her answer. “They had a daughter, dear Mother Agneta, who was only a year older than Ingve. They grew together, and when they reached adulthood they asked for consent to marry. Joss was their only child. He and I grew up together, as his parents did, and Dasarre is our one and only. We brought him to your halls in hope of finding a place for him in your service. We had no intention of seeking you during the festival– you must be very occupied–”

“Does his early meeting with Gisle have anything to do with your decision?”

“Yes, Lady Mairen. Our people are refuge wanderers, with all that that entails.” Eila glanced at the young head to see that she understood. Assured of this, she continued, “It was the year Dasarre turned five that the party we guarded was ambushed at Vil Crossing. In the fight, Father Ingve… he accidentally tasted blood for the first time. He was never easy in his mind afterward, especially because Master Reiyo was killed during the fight. My father always said that honoring Reiyo gave Father Ingve purpose for his life. It was difficult for us all in the days afterward. Decades of instinct that Father Ingve had bound beneath love for his family awoke in him. His mind… some days he was the Father Ingve we had known. Other days he disappeared, and we all knew he was feeling the pull of his blood. It came to the point where he would gnaw his own fingers so that he would not harm anyone else. He stopped eating altogether after a while rather than risk…” Eila sighed helplessly.

“You sought Gisle’s help?” Mairen prompted her.

This returned Eila’s composure to her. She smiled. “Not us, Lady Mairen. We are wanderers. We never would have thought to inconvenience the head with our private troubles. We sought to do all we could do, and I suppose one of us must have dropped a remark in Dasarre’s hearing, something about only the strength of the head’s authority being enough for Father Ingve. He ran away, the unruly boy, thinking to fetch this strength for his grandfather. As one might expect, he got lost, since he hadn’t the first idea where to look.” She glanced fondly over her shoulder at her beloved Dasarre. “I understand that, in the dark of night, alone and frightened half to death, he sat down and started to cry out for the prior head.”

“And Gisle never overlooked such a thing,” Mairen added. “Never once. No matter how distant or how faint the cry, he would answer.”

“He did, yes. He brought Dasarre home to us. We were terribly shocked. That night was one of Father Ingve’s hardest. He was in his right mind, living alongside the instinct and horrified by it. When he saw the prior head, carrying Dasarre against his chest, Father Ingve begged him for a boon. He begged to die.”

No words passed between the two for the remaining length of the street. Mairen said, “What then? What did Gisle say?”

Eila dashed a tear from her eye with her free hand. “He was very kind. He stood for the longest time, just looking at Father Ingve. I never would have expected such kindness in the eyes of anyone looking at a… at a devourer,” she faltered. “Most fail to look beyond the blood.”

This time it was Mairen who looked back, sweeping her attendant Bryndis with a glance. “I know. It’s a pity and a disgrace in such cases, but understandable.”

“Yes, Lady. The prior head, as I was saying, was so kind. He took his staff, just as you did before us back there, and he laid it across Father Ingve’s body. He promised Father Ingve a place in the celestial halls. That meant so much to Mother Agneta and to us. We’re just wanderers, so there was no way possible for us to express what it meant to us, but Dasarre came up with the answer in his own time. He told us he wanted to serve the head, so here we came when he was ready. It need not be an important post, but it would help ease the fulness of the feelings that words can’t touch,” she ended.

“I am gratified,” the young head Mairen began to say. She was interrupted by two syllables from Joss at the back of their short procession: “Eila.” As it was the first time he had spoken since their meeting, Mairen stopped and turned toward him.

Eila’s reaction was more abrupt. She drew the young head close to herself. “What is it, Joss? Where is it?”

Bryndis bounded across the suddenly empty lane, switchblade out and open, with Joss close after her. Dasarre herded his mother and Mairen to the scant shelter of the nearest shop’s wall. There, Eila kept her arms around Mairen while Dasarre sheltered them behind his body. A faint rosy glow surrounded Mairen.

The young head whispered, “Refuge barrier in two layers?”

Eila shushed her as if Mairen were her own child.

In the middle of the lane, some paces beyond them, Bryndis and Joss had flushed out the danger: a large chameleon-type devourer that had been lying on the roof of a shop, colored to blend in with the clay roof tiles. It was bigger even than Joss, but Bryndis attacked unafraid. Her switchblade she drove straight and hard at its head, but the wily devourer blocked with one hand. The sight of its own blood pouring from the puncture only made it grin.

“Capture-type half-blood?” Joss demanded of Bryndis. “What guardian ability?”

“Healing,” Bryndis snapped back.

“Heal it, then. Blood frenzy is the last thing we need.” He took advantage of the devourer’s distraction to slip behind and restrain it in a headlock. “Capture!” he yelled at Bryndis.

The devourer stiffened in Joss’ grip. When Joss released it, the creature fell like a log onto the pavement, immobilized by Bryndis’ ability. Bryndis did not miss a beat. Driving her switchblade through the devourer’s skull, she demanded, “What do you mean, ‘blood frenzy’? A devourer doesn’t go mad over the sight of its own blood.”

“That,” Joss nudged the devourer with his foot, “isn’t alone.” He turned in place, scrutinizing his surroundings.

Another devourer, bigger than the first, lost patience with being disguised as a shop sign on the roof above the door and hurled its mass down upon Joss and Bryndis. As their two-against-one struggle roared in the street, Eila and Mairen remained motionless behind Dasarre’s sheltering back. A few grains of brick dust trickled down on them, sliding off the dual refuge barrier. Slowly Mairen raised her face. Nothing showed against the brick front of the shop, but a gouge in the bricks deepened without visible means. Dasarre leaned back, fairly crushing his mother and the young head against the wall. Another gouge appeared in the brick, and another. A tiny chunk of mortar was dislodged from between two bricks. Something was digging its claws into the surface as it made a steady descent toward them.

When the trail of gouges stopped just above Dasarre’s head, the young quarter-blood grabbed something above him. He strained all his muscles to drag the intruder from the wall and, like a wrestler, threw his enemy to the ground. His enemy was visible then for a moment, brick-colored against the gray pavement, as a sinuous devourer. Then it adapted to the changed backdrop and disappeared from sight, but Dasarre would not release it. He began adopting a variety of forms to confuse his enemy as he used his bulk to his advantage, pushing his enemy back. From time to time, parts of the enemy flashed into sight: sharpened nails at the end of grasping rawboned fingers, corpse face with gaping mouth, teeth filed to points and tipped with iron.

Dasarre fought open-handed, slapping the devourer whenever he wasn’t throwing it against the nearest immovable surface. He caught it once by the wrist. A grisly snap followed, and from that point the devourer used only its other hand. It knocked Dasarre sprawling once and made a dash at Mairen, but Dasarre caught it by the ankle, resulting in another snap.

Joss and Bryndis were getting the better of their enemy. Watching from inside the refuge barrier, Eila said, “It’s so hard to get those with devourer blood to cooperate with one another.”

Mairen answered as calmly as if watching a play. “I wondered if it was just a trait Bryndis developed. I’m somewhat glad to know that it’s something more than that.” She had already recalled her staff. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear to reveal a column of glowing earrings from upper curve to lobe. Calm though she appeared, she watched not her attendant but Dasarre in his battle. Then she turned her head, alert to the presence of another. “Lusal! Help him first.”

The new arrival to the battleground, called “Lusal” by the young head, was clearly descended from sun elfkind. She had the impossibly slender torso and smoothly-muscled limbs, as well as the bronze skin and white hair, of her people. This fierce, unnatural beauty dropped from a rooftop to land on her feet behind Dasarre just as he caught his enemy with one arm around its neck and the other pinioning its arms to its body. Lusal’s long hands closed around the devourer’s head and, without effort, wrenched it free of its neck.

Blood shot high in the air like a shower. Eila abandoned the safety of the barrier to run to her husband, while Dasarre flung the remains of his enemy away from him and fled the gory fountain. His mother stretched out an arm to her son. “Come!” she urged.

Mairen spoke sharply. “Lusal! Call the rain!”

With just as little emotion, Lusal took a vial from her belt and pitched it deep into the sky. She called out a few syllables. The sapphire earring in her earlobe shone, and a corresponding sapphire in Mairen’s earlobe burned. Black clouds rolled across the sky, billowing out of nothing. For several surreal minutes, while shafts of evening sunlight shot across the sky, a cloudburst soaked everything for blocks around the battleground and washed the blood down the gutters. By the time the downpour ceased, the street and the rooftops were lined with the young head’s guardians, a mismatched assortment of individuals united only by the pinpoint of light coming from each one’s earring.

“You called us a little late, Mairen,” said one man, swinging his feet from the rooftop.

Eila paid them no mind. She had ne hand on her husband and one on her son, wiping the last traces of blood from their faces. “Are you all right?” she asked them again and again.

Beyond them, Bryndis was wiping her switchblade on the tatters of her shirt. When she dragged off the ruined blouse, everyone could see the bandages wrapping her from bosom to waist. She had no blush to spare for her own exposure. “You!” she said to Joss. “How did you know there were three?”

“Experience,” said Joss. “Chameleon-types hunt in threes.” He too stripped off his soaked shirt to reveal a similar wrapping around his torso. He wrung out his shirt, snapped it in the air, and donned it again. To his wife he said, “All right.”

Then she turned all her attention on Dasarre. “Did you swallow any?”

Her son laughed. “No, Mums, I’m all right. I should ask… are you all right?” He turned his sunny smile toward Mairen. “That’s the real question.”

“Yes,” Mairen answered, “I was never in any danger, thanks to your family. I had no idea it was possible to raise a dual refuge barrier.”

“I can only do it with Dasarre’s help, Lady Mairen,” said Eila. “The second layer is his barrier.”

“But how can that be, when he was fighting so fiercely ten feet away?”

“We’ve taught him barriers since he was old enough to understand, Lady. He ought to know his craft that well by now.” She ruffled Dasarre’s wet tangle of hair into a semblance of order.

Mairen swept her own hair back from her face as well. “Good work,” she told Dasarre.

He uttered an involuntary, bereft yelp. In one long stride he had planted himself in front of the young head and had taken her face between his hands as he turned her face side to side. “So many!” His long face suddenly took on an expression as if he were a child and someone had snatched away his favorite toy.

Eila was almost as quick as her son. She brought her heel down hard on his toes. “What has possessed you? Release the young head at once! I’m so embarrassed, I hardly know where to turn.”

But Mairen had learned already how to take Dasarre’s personality in her stride. “What do you mean, ‘so many’?” she asked with a tiny smile.

“The earrings,” he confessed. “I know I’m not much now, but… to own up to the truth, I did dream of working my way as high as to be one of your chosen guardians one day. But you’ve got so many already…” His dark calf eyes turned toward the ground between his feet.

This brought a chuckle from several of the head’s guardians gathered around them, but even they were startled by the peal of laughter Dasarre’s statement drew from Mairen. “Bend forward,” she said, “and open your mouth.” When Dasarre obeyed, Mairen touched his tongue with one fingertip. “I disagree with you– you have no reason to say you are not much now.”

Dasarre yelped again, this time in startled pain. He grabbed the tip of his tongue with the fingers of both hands and pulled it, as if it were long enough for him to see. For a few more seconds he persisted in trying to see what he could feel: a diamond stud piercing through his tongue. Then, laughing, he ran to show his mother and father.

Eila brushed tears from her eyes. She gazed past Dasarre to the young head. “Thank you.”

“On the contrary– I owe you thanks,” Mairen answered her. Diamond glinted in the shadow of her mouth as she spoke. “You protected me, and you offered up your son to serve me though he is clearly precious to you both. He will do well, I think.” She beckoned to a shadowy form standing well back from the scene. “Would you see him settled into his new place, Omar? You can tell him all he needs to know.”

A marionette puppet lurched out of the shadows on its own. It stopped at Dasarre’s feet and beckoned to him with a jointed forefinger. Once it had his attention, it led him to the mysterious form that awaited him in the mouth of the alley.

Dasarre turned back to call out to his parents, “Goodbye! I’ll send you word when I can–” He was yanked backward into the alley before he could finish.

“Omar,” said Mairen, “is a little shy of strangers. Your son will be looked after very well.”

Eila and Joss exchanged a glance. “If you say so, Lady Mairen,” said Eila. “May we write?”

“Of course you may. When he has finished his training, you may visit him whenever you choose.”

Joss took Eila by the hand. After another long look, Eila said aloud, “It will be quiet without him. He won’t be lonely?”

Bryndis answered from where she knelt. “I can’t see that boy ever slowing down long enough to check if he’s lonely.”

“I suspect it is his parents who will feel lonely,” said Mairen. “You’re welcome to stay.”

But Eila shook her head as she blotted the last of her tears. “Our company depends on us, on Joss especially. We may only be wanderers, but we serve a purpose where we are. I thank you for the offer, though, Lady Mairen.” She tightened her grip on her husband’s hand. “Let’s go back.”

Mairen and her assembled guardians watched the couple leave. “An odd family,” said someone.

“Refuge wanderers,” said another. “A tough breed, the sort that gives up a permanent home and ofttimes their lives to care for wayfaring strangers. The wilds wouldn’t be travelable without their clan.”

“We must take equally good care of their son,” Mairen declared.

Her hand-picked guardians murmured their agreement.

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hmsnow1

Fantasy novelist and essayist H.M. Snow, author of the Last Book of the Kings series and the novella Faerie Tales for Travelers.

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