Music floated through the air, sweet sound from the bell of a recorder. The tune was recognizable as "The Cooper's Daughter," a cheerful foot-stomper common around country taverns and city bawdy houses whose tricky runs were the ruin of many a minstrel's fingers. Root, however, had those parts of the piece well in hand. In fact, he played them at twice the normal tempo, as if bored, and he worked in far more complex passages of his own at every bend in the melody. After a few repetitions of the chorus and a doubling of the dominant scale, the merriment ended in the rich tone of a holding note.
Root took his precious, hand-made instrument away from his lips and sighed. The moments of freedom he felt in his music were always over far too quickly. He ran his fingers over the recorder, and muffled thumps sounded as he tapped each of its nine holes, one for each of the gods of harmony: Riddarch and Ruarch for rhythm, Pclewyn and Pulykk for purity, Velys and Hurgen and their daughter Gwyn for variation, and the Allfather for inspiration. My thanks for your blessings this day. May I always be worthy of them. The prayer was small and sincere, as was proper. Only priests had the right to speak at length to the gods.
Root slid the recorder into a leather loop on his belt and looked around, enjoying anew the quiet beauty of the little meadow he thought of as his. He'd been coming here for six of his twelve years, had taken lessons from wandering flautists here, but its peacefulness never ceased to fascinate him. Aging aspens and mighty oak trees peered back at him, asking for another tune, but he ignored their mute appeals in favor of the sunset, tilting his brown-maned head back to see the fading might of the Allfather's eye. Purple and red colored the cloudless sky, slowly expanding and deepening in texture and territory. Root stood there for a long time, enjoying the sights. Then he was gone, racing off down paths of pine needles. He was late, and that meant trouble.
* * * * *
The sky was cold and black when Root reached the hut, a ramshackle mess of thatch and mismatched boards that crouched behind a screen of cedars. He bent over, hands on his knees, and caught his breath before he went inside. Kellik hated to see people panting and flushed (he found it made him anxious and unpleasant), and Root wasn't about to give his master a reason for an argument. All the two of them seemed to do lately was bicker like weavers, and that always ended with the stick.
An image of Decider, Kellik's name for the whipping rod, appeared in Root's mind, and an involuntary shudder ran through his body. Every mistake, no matter how small, had earned him some time with that stick. It was an exquisite example of woodworking, five-and-a-half feet of glowing grain, but Root could not appreciate it. After years of feeling the stick strike his back or twist into his stomach, he could only view it as ugly. Kellik's smiling face made the beatings even worse.
Root squared his shoulders and stepped inside. Best to beard the beast as soon as possible. Orange coals feebly snapped in the central fire-pit. Kellik hadn't lit the evening candles, so he wasn't home from town yet. Root relaxed slightly. If he could light the candles and start dinner in time, Kellik might never know he had been a little late tonight. He crossed to his corner of the room, a three-by-three foot section of bare earth where the gnarled roots of one of the cedars slipped under the wall. He took his name from those roots those brown and musky lengths. It was Kellik's idea of humor. Root lay his recorder in a hollow he had carved out of the largest tendril. He bowed his head for a quick prayer to the King of Evening, Eraoch. He'd light the candles next.
"Well, well. Look who's come home."
Root felt his stomach harden into a cold lump. He turned his head to see Kellik standing in the doorway, a small brass lantern clutched in his left hand. He held Decider over his right shoulder like an axe.
"And where else would I go?" Root asked evenly.
"A fair question, and one you'd do well to continue asking yourself."
Kellik padded into the cottage and set the lantern down on the floor. He moved with an admirable fluidity, each part of his body insinuating itself firmly into a space before moving onward. It was as if he made himself anew with every step he took. The motion was unnatural and irritating to the eyes, and most people looked away when exposed to it. That was when they lost their purses.
The stick struck Root between the shoulder blades with a dull thud, nearly knocking him to the ground. The only warning he had received was a twitch of Kellik's hands. Why am I always so blasted slow?
"What was that for?"
"I thought I'd help you bend a little more for those gods of yours. You're not groveling low enough."
"They're your gods, too."
"I deny that." Decider thumped the ground.
"That doesn't make them disappear."
"Say a thing enough and it is so."
"Wish a thing enough and you'll die wanting."
Root's breath was knocked out of him as Decider hit and retreated like a blast of winter wind. Kellik was selfish of his wants, and he didn't like them stabbed. Yet he was somewhat within his rights for hating the gods, Root had to admit. He was parlugh, one of those chosen to bear the burden of his evil, white thoughts in his skin, which was the pale of mature mushrooms. The parlugh were considered omens of disaster; they were shunned and mocked wherever they went. That made most of them bitter . . . and mean.
Root pushed himself off of the ground and managed to stand. He didn't feel any extreme pain at the moment, only a dull numbness that would later become an aching hurt. He glared at Kellik, and the albino spread his arms apart in mock fright. Keeping his eyes on Kellik's hands, for all the good it would do, Root grabbed a small stick off of the hut's only table, lit it with the scant heat from the coals, and started lighting candles. He slowly worked his way around the room.
Kellik eased himself into his large, wing-backed chair, the only piece of nice furniture there was. He laid his stick across his knees and grunted with satisfaction. The candle flames played upon his frame and features. He looked more corpse than man by candlelight, his skin shiny and slick against his black robes and his eyes red and sunken.
"I traded in those mugs I lifted for a crown piece." Kellik offered.
"They were worth more."
Red eyes narrowed to scarlet slits. "How much more?"
"Three times the money you got."
"What makes you so sure?"
Root blew out his lighter-stick and threw it on the floor. He walked over to his master. "Lurrich came by at midday to unload some mugs. The same mugs. He was asking three."
"By the Houndmaster's hairy balls!"
"I told him we weren't interested."
"That hound! That dog!"
"You could have gotten three if you'd held on to them longer like I said. Or paid attention to the alley-talk."
Decider smacked Root on his right shin and sent him hopping away. Kellik grabbed the boy before he could get far, though, hard nails digging into skin. Kellik leaned forward, his long hair falling over his shoulders. His eyes suddenly seemed very large to Root. They bored into the boy's face, touching him with crimson fire as they twinkled in the flickering light.
"Get them back for me."
"From Lurrich? You've seen his arms. He'd skin me!"
"Then be sneaky. I've taught you enough to be a shadow if you want."
"I'm not a thief."
"I have ten crowns that say you are. Ten crowns bought me assurance for my old age, and that assurance is going to do what I tell it to do!"
"You filthy parlugh!"
The words bit into the air like vipers, angry and poisonous. Both boy and master were surprised by them. There was a deadly moment of stillness, and then Kellik howled. Years of resentment found their out, and Root was stunned by the suffering in the sound, but there was also malice under it, and insane cruelty from years of being left alone.
Kellik grabbed the boy's head, digging through the chestnut curls, and twisted hard until Root was looking into twin holes of ruby ire. "You will never say that to me! You have no right! Sprite! Brat!" Kellik choked. "Root!"
Kellik heaved with the strength of the enraged, and Root tumbled through the still- open door of the hut. He sprawled in the grass, roughing his hands as he caught himself. A voice like stinging nettles spread over him.
"Get those mugs, boy! Get those mugs, or I will kill you, ten crowns or no!"
Root climbed to his feet, eyes tearing. He reached out to Kellik, who was leaning half-out of the door. An apology surged in Root's throat, incomplete but building. He had gone too far. Kellik paused, took a step forward, and stopped himself. He bared his teeth and spat in Root's face with perfect aim. With a growl, he stormed back into the hut, slamming the door and barring it behind him.
Root wiped the spit from his face with the back of his hands and pressed his lips together to block and kill the words he might have said. Mugs it would be. May the gods have pity on me. He levered himself to his feet, and glared at the forest. Stupid thief! Full of pain and purpose, he strode into the darkness beneath the trees.
* * * * *
Branches snagged at Root's clothes. Cruelly pointed rocks tripped and ripped his feet. The woods were alive and unhappy with intruders. Root had been walking for hours, seeking the split boulder that marked the turn-off toward Lurrich's cottage, but landmarks didn't look the same by moonlight. Shadows twisted pathways in new directions, and Root began to question his normally sound sense of direction.
As he tramped through half-lit hollows, his mind began to wander to the old tunes that sang of older monsters. A lightning-blasted aspen was a warty-knuckled night gaunt for an instant. A mulberry bush became a troll's head. Vampire eyes glowed golden-red inside logs and behind creepers. A piercing screech exploded near Root's head, and he jumped. He'd moved too close to an aging magpie's territory, and the bird, fluffed and frightened, gave him a solid scolding. Shaken and short of breath, Root made a small bow to the chittering terror and then moved on at a brisker pace.
Wooden columns whipped by, blurring at the edges of Root's sight, and he began to fear that the forest wouldn't let him leave. Bark and branches spread out before him forever, drawing in on him like a constricting net, choking him. Root laughed at the thought, giddy with nervousness and a sudden bout of lightheadedness. His feet felt wobbly, and he reached out to a tree for support. He misjudged the distance, fell forward, and stepped out into a flat field spotted with mounds of tall grass. Moonbeams colored the scene a silvery blue, outlining each blade of grass in the evening air.
Root felt an unnatural peace settle over him. He found he was tired. So terribly tired. There was lilac in the air, and a faint brush of wind that whispered in his ears like a mother's lullaby. Sleep, child, sleep. The ground felt very soft under his feet, the stuff of eiderdown or fresh-combed wool. It gave slightly beneath his weight. What? Root kneeled down to test the cushiony ground with his hands, but he slid onto his stomach when he bent over. His palms hadn't supported him. He heard a steady, soothing grumble in the earth where his ear pressed against the grass. He closed his eyes. He would only take a quick nap.
* * * * *
It was the howling that woke Root up. He jumped to his feet immediately, fear banishing drowsiness in a sharp tingling. The moon was directly overhead now. For a moment, Root was disoriented, but then he heard the howl again, coming from the east. He looked in that direction, trying to find the source of the noise. What he saw left him frozen.
The land, scorched a greasy black, was bathed in flame. Great pillars of fire spewed out of the ground at random, shooting yellow embers that filled the air with a grainy texture and the stench of sulphur. In the midst of the blasted landscape was a pit that spread across the ground like a lanced sore, glowing with a sickly green light. Out of its depths came the Hounds.
A tune of warning, its chilly notes eerie and ancient, began to play in Root's mind. His fingers moved along in time on a phantom recorder. He was hearing "Dog Song," the lay of the Houndmaster.
The Hounds of Hell have eyes of coal.
They'll crunch your bones and eat your soul.
Their master rules the realm of Hell
And they will drag you there as well.
The Hounds are damned and tortured men
Made as monsters by their sins.
They hunt in dark and burn by day.
Stay home at night, my friend, and pray.
The Hounds sniffed the air. They were huge, at least as tall as a Shire horse, with claws and fangs that shone wickedly by starlight. They had no fur, only charred, black skin, and when they moved Root could see their bones shining through their hides with a fierce red light. One Hound began to howl. Another took it up, and then another, until the night was filled with unearthly wailing.
The howling ripped into Root's ears, burning and biting into his skull. He fell to the ground, hands clapped to the sides of his head, desperately trying to block out the noise. He fought to hold back his screams. He dared not attract the Hounds! Just when Root felt he might go mad from the pain in his head, the keening ceased. Peering through tortured, watery eyes, he tried to see what had made the Hounds stop.
The Houndmaster stepped up and out of the pit. He wore a black cloak that stretched to His boots, leaving it open to reveal a shirt and leggings so white they outshone the moon. He moved among His creatures, scratching their muzzles with black-gloved hands. After He had greeted each of His pets, He pulled a fiery whip out of the sky and struck it to the ground. The land shook and the Hounds began to howl anew. He struck the ground again and the Hounds began to circle around Him, jumping and snapping as He sliced among them with the whip. He stepped forward and they fell at His heels, waiting for His command to begin the hunt.
He turned in a slow circle, from north to east to south to west . . . to Root. His eyes blazed yellow-white, visible for miles, and He spoke a single word that welled up out of the ground itself to fill Root's entire body: "Run!"
Root did! The earth shook beneath his feet and flashes of primal light sheeted around him. Close behind, he could hear the howls of the Hounds and the sound of laughter, taunting and mocking. He ran for the safety of the trees, but they pulled away, as if some force were stretching the land to make the hunt longer. His feet beat the ground in a desperate cadence, doing their best to match the rapid beating of his heart. He saw his shadow etched on the ground in front of him, a black void surrounded by growing, growling shapes. He refused to think about what he saw. He tried to block out what he heard. Root's world became one in which all that mattered was placing one foot in front of the other.
The laughter was everywhere now, and Root could barely breathe the flaming air that surrounded him. At last, driven beyond his hope and with no end in sight, he fell to the ground, gasping in agony, and began to pray. Allfather help me. Allfather hold me. Allfather hide me.
The Hounds circled him, rumbling in puzzlement at his odd behavior, but Root was lost in repeating his prayer, his eyes downcast. A pair of boots made of a steaming black skin stepped before his sight. Root looked up into eyes that were more evil than Kellik's ever could be. They were white-on-white, burning with the shifting color of too-hot iron.
The voice erupted out of the ground once more, thrilling and horrifying Root with its power: "The boy prays? Even now he prays? How delightful!"
The eyes flared, and laughter boomed at Root both inside and out. From every pore on his body, he burned. He burned and he screamed until blackness came and took away the pain.
* * * * *
Something warm was heating the skin of Root's neck where he lay. It was soothing; a gentle touch of warmth that felt good after being touched by a harsher fire. He carefully opened his eyes, and the wonderful, buttery light of sunrise filled them. He sat up. He was sitting in the middle of the field, but nothing was burning or smoking. Instead, a cool breeze moved through the grass mounds, causing them to ripple around Root as thin fingers of green danced in the morning wind.
He took a deep breath of the sweet air and smiled. He was alive. Praise the Allfather.
Root wondered if Kellik would believe what had happened. Kellik? The mugs! His smile fell into ruins. From one devil to another. Root rose and took his bearings. He was well to the east, judging from the sun. It would be a long trudge to Lurrich's place.
Root stepped forward and almost tripped over something in the grass. It was a long leather whip with spikes along its length and a stone handle. There were scorch marks where it had lain. He picked it up before he had time to consider what that meant. Heat cocooned the handle, which seemed made for his hand, and invisible flames ran up his arm and into his heart. He reeled.
A vision of Kellik, tinged in red, surged into Root's mind. The albino was seated in his chair, where he must have spent the night. Decider leaned against his right side, and his long, tapered fingers were caressing a slip of something brown. The scene expanded, and Root saw that Kellik was fondling a recorder. Root growled low. Chalky hands moved to bell and mouthpiece, grabbed, and pulled down. The snap was hollow and soft, but it echoed in Root's ears with the ring of a beaten anvil. Sneering, Kellik tossed the pieces of the instrument into the fire-pit. The cruel vision of destruction melted away swiftly as the instrument burned.
Root's growl grew louder, and his hands curled into hard fists. He had no voice for his grief, but he gave the whip a crack, frightening birds out of the nearby trees. It was easier to snap a whip than he had thought. Very easy.
Forget Lurrich and his stupid mugs. Root broke into a loping run. He was going home. Roots might look harmless, but they could choke.
* * * * *
The door shuddered. Its wood bowed inward, sprouting small holes and dripping splinters onto the floor. Kellik eyed the bend that was developing in the ill-made hinges. Perspiration streaked his face and matted his hair. His hands gripped his stick so tightly that his knuckles threatened to break free of their confining skin. This had been going on for the last hour. What was outside? What wanted inside? What was Kellik going to do about it? His mind raced over and discounted possibility after possibility. Thieves weren't made for frontal assaults.
More splinters. Larger splits in the wood.
The door's bar was starting to give. The iron bar.
The door exploded, showering Kellik with dead, brown chunks. The metal bar landed near his feet, bent like a horseshoe. Sunlight burst into the room, followed by a very angry boy.
Root snarled and raised his right arm above his head, a heavy whip clutched in his hand. Kellik realized that the boy actually intended to strike him only when the whip began to move downward. He barely raised Decider in time to block the blow.
Leather met wood and kept going. The stick split into two useless halves as if it had been rotted through, and Kellik felt the whip bite into his left shoulder. His entire arm went numb.
Root laughed nastily. "How does it feel, thief? How does it feel?"
The whip lashed Kellik's right arm, his legs, his chest. His black robes hung upon him in tatters. Red, oozing stripes laced his pale flesh. A pathetic whimper pushed past his lips, and he flung himself onto the floor to escape the blows. One of his hands slapped into a cedar root, and a recorder fell out.
Root's hideous laughter ceased. He gazed from the instrument to Kellik, his face uncertain. The whip rose again, but Root flung his arm out and the leather snapped into the wall, flaying off an inch of smoke-dark grain. There was a hiss and the stink of burning meat, and Root dropped the whip with a yelp. He nursed his hand, confused.
With the last of his strength, Kellik threw himself at the weapon. He heard Root give a startled cry. He'd scream more than that in a moment. He'd soon remember who was master here.
* * * * *
Root stepped back when he saw the shaking fingers grip stone . . . and the whip burst into red-orange life. Howling seeped out of the ground. The whip jerked free of Kellik's grasp and began to fly around him, moving through the air in lazy circles. Faster and faster it moved, until an unbroken ring of fire bound the parlugh's body. Frightened, he tried to duck under the blazing ring, but it burst into a column of flame. The howling grew louder, drowning out any cries the thief might have made. The burning column began to spin, its bottom half quickly tapering into a pinpoint.
Two white eyes opened in the middle of the flames and stared at Root. Words thundered: "A fine beast, boy. My thanks."
The eyes closed, and the fiery funnel was sucked into the earth, leaving a blackened patch upon the floor. The howling ceased.
Kellik was gone.
* * * * *
The old minstrel was a common busker in appearance, but the music he made went far beyond the usual. His melodies, coaxed from a wooden recorder, were of a pulse and tone that sang the divine. His audience was a group of slack-jawed village children, but he was playing for a fair-faced girl in blue homespun in particular. From the way she cocked her head to listen, as if she couldn't bear to let a phrase escape her, he could tell that she appreciated music.
He switched from his pastoral tune to "Dog Song" and was gratified when he saw bodies shiver in delightful fear at the haunting strains. Shrill trills and barking staccato notes soon had small feet pawing the ground nervously, and when he suddenly blew his final, furious note, the urchins fled in terror. All but the girl. She walked up to the minstrel and peered at him shrewdly.
"You play that song like one possessed."
"You heard the howls?"
"I felt them." She tapped her chest. "In here. Deep."
"Then spread the feeling as far as you can. It is true."
"True as the gods?"
"True as a story from long ago."
"And far away?"
She was teasing, but the look he gave her was one so distant and cold that she might have been turned into a block of mountain-ice.
"Far away," he said, "but never far enough."
x x x
A new mythology and some nasty pooches--all part of an interesting tale. Looks like Kellik should have spared the root. What do you think? -GM