Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sing the Bones Alive

The knock upon Kalensh’s door jarred him out of a contemplative hum that had set the hearth flames dancing. Visitors rarely travelled to Kalensh’s isolated den tucked away in a quiet forest dell, especially after sunset. They avoided the mage out of a grudging respect for his skill and an unwarranted dread of his potential to wreak havoc. Despite occasional bouts of loneliness, Kalensh was content to let them keep their distance as he studied the mystical melodies of the universe and perfected his enchanted songs.

His mind wandered back to younger days spent battling boastful rivals and facing a myriad of magical challenges as he stood to answer the door. He began to prepare a song of protection, but his surprise at finding a young woman standing on his doorstep stifled the spell. He only managed to mutter a mild oath, not an entirely appropriate greeting for such a visitor, but years of near isolation had dulled his sense of etiquette.

“Please help me,” the woman pleaded as tears rolled down her cheeks. Too frightened to meet the wizard’s gaze, she stared down at her feet.

“Come in,” the wizard said in the kindliest tone he could muster. He motioned for the woman to take the seat before the hearth. He poured some wine into an earthen flagon, and then tossed in a few soothing spices and heated the drink with some warming words. He handed the brew to his guest. “Here, drink this. It will help calm you.”

“Babga has taken my only son,” the woman said between sobs.

“The Ogress?” Kalensh himself had almost fallen into one of Babga’s man-traps while walking the woods in deep contemplation. “When did she snatch your son?”

“Just after sunset. She crept into the village, burst through our door, and took our son, just as she has done with others almost every night for the past several nights.”

“Others? And no one thought to tell me of this until now.”

“No one dared bother you, lest they risk being turned into a goat or being cursed with the pox.”

“I should curse them all!” exclaimed Kalensh.

The woman shrank back in the chair. “Forgive me!”

Kalensh took a deep breath and shook his head. He was just as angry with himself as he was with the villagers, blaming his own reclusive ways for creating such an atmosphere of distrust.

“So sorry, my dear,” Kalensh said. “Worry not. You have nothing to fear from me. I just wished someone had come to me sooner. I could have put a stop to Babga’s ravening raids mmediately.”

“So you will help?”

“I will do what I can.”

“It might already be too late.”

“I will do all in my power to return your son to you.” Kalensh placed a hand on her shoulder. “It is probably safest if you wait here until my return. The forest at night can be a dangerous place, especially with an ogress lurking about. If all goes well, I will not be returning alone.”

Kalensh turned toward the door. He wrapped his woollen cloak around his shoulders, grasped his sturdy wooden staff in his hands, and spoke a traveller’s charm of good luck. Lighting the end of his staff with an illuminating verse, he set off into the dark woods.

* * *

A chill night wind whispered through the evergreens. Argent-limned treetops swayed against a starry sky. Their heavy boughs cloaked a winding footpath in deep shadow. A thick carpet of fallen fir needles covered the track. Kalensh followed this path in silence. A series of lupine calls drew his attention toward the deeper wood. A wolf’s mournful howl echoed through the trees to the left of the path. Another answered from the other side. A third sounded so close ahead that Kalensh could feel the power of its voice resonate in his bones.

He came to a fork in the road. One path meandered up a wooded hillside and eventually entered an open heath. The other snaked down a rock-strewn grade before plunging into heavier gloom. Kalensh suspected that Babga’s cave was located at the end of the second, less inviting path.

The wizard pondered for a moment, and then decided to seek help from the forest’s denizens. He sang a night bird song, calling for any nearby owls to come to his aid.

A series of hoots answered the wizard’s call. Moving through the trees like a sooty ghost, a great grey owl emerged from the deeper woods and alit upon a gnarled bough that reached out over the forked path.

He hooted a brief thanks and asked if the owl knew which path led to Babga’s cave. In its own tongue, the bird replied that the ogress did indeed reside at the end of the unpleasantly dark track. The owl then added that the ogress had passed that way earlier in the night, carrying a kicking and screaming man-child over her shoulders.

“Then he may yet be alive!” Kalensh exclaimed. He again thanked his grey-feathered friend and recited a charm of good hunting. The wizard then turned and hurried down the rough and winding road.

* * *

On the downslope of a rather treacherous hill, where tall firs leaned quite close over the contorted path, Kalensh encountered an ancient bole felled across the track. Huffing and puffing, the old wizard climbed over the obstacle. Thinking how easily he defeated Babga’s pathetic attempt to bar the way, he brushed bits of bark from his robe and chuckled. No sooner did he walk two steps from the downed tree then the ground gave way beneath him.

Amidst a flurry of snapping twigs and flying fir needles, Kalensh fell into a sheer-sided pit. His right ankle twisted sharply as he and the camouflaged cover of Babga’s man-trap hit bottom in a crumpled pile.

Kalensh cursed himself for his carelessness, then thanked the gods for the fact that the ogress had not lined the hole with spikes or other deadly contrivances. He then tried to stand. The joint throbbed, but he found he could stand if he did not lean too heavily on the injured ankle.

“Wrenched, but not broken,” Kalensh said, glad of at least one small miracle. He then examined the walls of the trap the best he could in the dark.

The loamy soil had been excavated with surprising skill. Tamped smooth, the sides of the pit offered little in the way of handholds or footholds. Roughly twice the spread of a man’s arms square and deeper than a man could reach up over his head, the trap proved to be an effective prison.

In his younger days, Kalensh may have been able to clamber out of the hole regardless of the smoothness of its walls. However, his advanced age and sprained ankle meant he would have to find other means of escape. He sat down on the floor of the pit and mulled over his options. While he deliberated, he bemoaned the fact that he had never learned any levitation mantras or shape-shifting verse.

“If I could but move the tree into the hole, I may be able to drag myself out,” Kalensh muttered. A thought crossed his mind. “Perhaps I merely need nature’s strongest creature to do it for me.”

Looking to rouse such a beast from its den, and hoping that the brute would not be too deeply asleep to hear his song, Kalensh sang. He sang of rotting logs filled with juicy grubs, leafy bushes loaded with tangy berries, and buzzing beehives packed with sweet honey. His tune carried visions of grassy glens warmed by the summer sun, stout trees with bark thick enough to sharpen the sturdiest claws, and cool streams teeming with running salmon. Then his words deftly shifted toward the spiritual. They spoke of age-old bonds of worship and respect. They recalled ancient beliefs that bear-kind were dead forefathers returned to earth. In the name of familial ties, they begged for assistance from those ancestral souls.

Kalensh heard a heavy shuffling accompanied by a low grunting approach the edge of Babga’s mantrap. The shaggy head of a huge brown bear peered over the rim. Kalensh rumbled an ursine hello and pleaded with the bear to push the downed tree into the pit so he could free himself. The brute snorted a less-than-happy greeting but grudgingly complied with the wizard’s request. Massive paws pushed against the trunk. Shoving with all his might, the bear tipped the bole into the hole.

Kalensh found climbing out harder than he expected. His sore ankle gave him considerable trouble. He succeeded in getting his arms up over the edge of the pit, but then felt his strength failing. Fearing that it would take too much effort to clamber free all on his own, Kalensh told the bear to grab hold of the back of his hood and pull him the rest of the way out. The bruin’s teeth rent the woollen fabric as he none-too-gently hauled the wizard up and out of the hole.

Glad that the bear had used enough care to keep from tearing flesh, even if the beast’s powerful jaws did shred his favourite hood, Kalensh thanked his temperamental rescuer. The bear gave the wizard a sleepy angry look, grumbled about his rest being disturbed by a clumsy old man, and then shambled back to his lair.

Kalensh limped slowly onward down the winding trail. Even though he worried that too much precious time had already been lost, he wished to avoid any more of Babga’s traps. Kalensh knew that if he did not proceed with caution, the next nasty surprise might be the death of him.

* * *

The earliest signs of daybreak lightened the eastern sky as an achy Kalensh finally reached his destination. The path ended before a long ridge topped with a steep escarpment. An uneven set of
cyclopean stairs led up the rise to the mouth of a cave cut into the cliff face by the patiently persistent waters of a gurgling stream. Kalensh hobbled up the oversized steps and followed the rivulet underground.

Only a few paces in, the wan light of pre-dawn faded into complete blackness. The foul air of the dank tunnel stank of smoke and filth. Its floor was slick with slime. The passage grew even more unpleasant, but less profoundly dark, as it opened out onto a lofty chamber. An iron grate secured with a sturdy lock stood between passage and chamber, barring entry into Babga’s lair.

In the centre of the cavern, a large cauldron simmered over a smouldering fire. In the sanguine glimmer cast by the glowing coals, Kalensh stared in horror at the skeletal remnants of Babga’s past meals strewn all around the steaming pot. If the villagers had not feared him, or if he had made efforts to overcome their fear, the others might have been saved. The wizard’s heart filled with a stony determination to end the ogress’s ravening ways once and for all.

Along the wall opposite the tunnel entrance, Babga lay snoring upon a pile of rushes. A small boy cowered in the shadows of a far corner. The lad looked pale and trembled in cold and fear, but he was still alive.

“Thank goodness for another miracle,” Kalensh breathed. He then began to sing an unlocking refrain, commanding the lock to open. At first he sang in a faint whisper, not wanting to risk awakening the slumbering ogress, but the bolt holding the gate shut refused to budge. In desperation, Kalensh raised his voice.

Babga exhaled sharply through jagged teeth and sprang to her feet. Her long legs carried her across the chamber to confront the intruding wizard. When she realised that Kalensh had tried unsuccessfully to open the gate, she let out a hideous cackle.

“Fool greybeard!” The ogress spat. “Black dwarfs forged these bars and laid a curse upon anyone who tries to open the lock without the key. Your miserable ditties and pathetic rhymes are useless against my lovely door.”

“Hand over the boy, and I will leave you in peace,” Kalensh stated rather unconvincingly. He tried not to let his sense of defeat show, but his voice wavered.

Babga chortled. She held up the large bronze key that hung from her neck on a thick leathern cord and mocked the wizard. “You will not enter!” She declared with a snarl. “You will not return the man-child to his kin. You can do nothing to stop me from feasting on his tender flesh. That boy will be my breakfast!”

Kalensh sighed. For a moment, he considered bringing the rocky ceiling down upon Babga’s head, buthe knew that such an act would likely spell the boy’s doom as sure as if the ogress cooked him in her pot. He could not rescue the child without that key.

The wizard’s eyes were once more drawn to the bones of Babga’s previous victims. An idea born of dire necessity and the memory of forbidden melodies formed in his mind. As the terrible thought took shape, he began to sing the darkest song he ever sang.

In a grim archaic chant, Kalensh intoned words of dust and shadow. Lines that spoke of dim lands shrouded in timeless gloom rolled off his tongue in a rhythmic drone. His voice ventured through a roiling haze and crossed a river as black and smooth as polished jet. He called to those dusky spectres whose young lives had been cut tragically short, drawing them forth from dreary hill and murky shore. Like a blazing beacon his living light led them across the water and through the fog, guiding them through the swirling mist.

Wrathful wraiths reanimated their fleshless mortal remains. Scattered bones rattled across the cavern floor and reeled around Babga, all the while reassembling into complete skeletons. Separated ribs tumbled back together. Leg bones reconnected to hip bones. Shoulders popped back into their sockets. Bony hands grasped empty skulls and placed them atop reformed spines.
The skeletons of the dead children danced around their murderer. Some kicked and scratched her, while others pelted her with loose stones. Babga tried to swat her way free of the macabre mob, but skeletons disjointed by her blows quickly rejoined.

“The key!” Kalensh cried. “Bring me the key!”

While its brethren continued to torment the ogress, one skeletal child darted in, ripped the key from its cord, and dashed for the gate. Babga shrieked and lunged after the thief.

Several skeletons raced over to the mammoth cauldron. Displaying a preternatural strength, they lifted up the pot and flung it at the ogress’s head. Babga wailed in pain as the steaming contents scalded her scalp and face.

“To me, lad, quickly!” Kalensh shouted to the living boy as soon as the skeletal child unlocked the gate.

Through eyes half swollen shut, Babga saw her breakfast escaping. She bellowed and tried to chase after the fleeing child. The reanimated remains of her past meals piled on top of her. The ogress swayed, stumbled, and fell to the stony ground.

Once the boy was safe beside him, Kalensh drew on the last of his waning strength to sing of raging torrents, grinding ice, and quaking earth. The chamber shook. Great cracks spread across the ceiling. Massive stalactites broke free and rained down upon Babga and her tormenters. Then the entire cavern roof caved in, entombing the ogress and the bones of her young victims.

Kalensh murmured a prayer for the dead. Then, utterly exhausted, he slid down the tunnel wall and sat upon the damp floor. The child grabbed for Kalensh and held him in a clinging embrace. He buried his face in the wizard’s bushy beard.

“Are you not afraid of me?” Kalensh asked.

“Not anymore,” the boy answered.

“Good,” Kalensh said with a smile as he patted the boy’s pate. “I am glad.”

Kalensh sat there for a time in total darkness while he waited for strength to return to his tired limbs. As the waves of weariness slowly subsided, the wizard noticed that the other end of the tunnel began to shine with a golden glow. Gleaming faintly at first, the illumination gradually grew stronger and stronger.

“We are in luck,” Kalensh said as removed the child’s arms from about his neck and stood up. “The rising sun has gilded the threshold. Dawn has broken, and its welcome light will lead us out of this place.”

With the boy’s hand clasped to his begrimed cloak, Kalensh limped toward the light. As child and wizard neared the entrance, they heard a commotion coming from outside. Once they emerged from the tunnel, they saw villagers armed with axes, billhooks, and pitchforks climbing the cyclopean stairs. The boy’s own mother led the pack.

As soon as the rustics caught sight of the wizard, almost all ceased their ascent and stared with a
mixture of trepidation and awe. Only the boy’s mother rushed forward. With a gleeful cry she scooped up her child in her arms and hugged him tightly. Tears of joy and relief ran down her fair face.

“Babga will not trouble you again!” Kalensh announced as he stood before the assembled rabble. “The ogress is dead.”

The villagers cheered. The young mother kissed the wizard’s bewhiskered cheek. Kalensh blushed. The child’s father then approached. He thanked the wizard for rescuing his firstborn, but hung his head in shame. He felt embarrassed that his wife had shown courage when he had not. A reassuring look and kind word from Kalensh showed the man that all was forgiven.

When Kalensh tried to hobble down the huge stairs, a couple of lads offered to let him lean on their shoulders. They said they would walk thusly to the ends of the world if the wizard asked it of them. An old woodsman renowned for his woodcarving skills promised that he would carve a fine new staff as a gift for the valiant wizard. The village bard vowed that Kalensh’s deeds would live on in song forever. Farmer’s wives said they would cook up a fine feast in his honour, one that would fill his belly and warm his heart. The fear that the people had once felt toward the old wizard had been replaced with admiration and respect.

(Originally published in
Bards and Sages Quarterly, Volume V,Issue I, January 2013; also published in Bardic Tales and Sage Advice, Vol.VI, August 2014.)

Copyright © 2013 Richard H. Fay

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