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The Bony Warrior: A Fairy Tale


An allegory of Arthur Conan Doyle's efforts to be remembered - and for things of more importance than those silly Sherlock Holmes pulps. Originally published August 2, 2014.

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Chapter 1

Once, there was a wizard of good renown. He crafted wondrously patterned fireworks and ingenious puzzle-boxes, and so made quite the tidy living and was well-loved by the people of his land.

But the wizard had no love for fireworks and puzzle-boxes. They were mere trifles to him.

The wizard's love was all for his land, from the yew-groves to the cool clear reservoir, from its scarce-remembered beginning to the glorious future he saw with every dawn. His true joy was in making crystal windows that let the viewer see an aspect of the land as he did, and he was troubled that few would look through them, and clamored instead for the amusement of a pretty burst of light.

One day, he expressed his concerns to the matron of the tower.

“You wouldn't be thinking of putting the puzzle-boxes to a stop, I hope?” she said sharply.

The wizard quickly lied and said that he meant no such thing.

“Good,” said the matron. “As it's our bread and butter and that. Besides, you'd need to make business arrangements – and if that merchant even considers such an offer, I'll set the dogs on him.”

Thus a year passed, a long year in which he scarcely had time to cobble out an enchanted pane for all the petty demands he had to supply – a ship to remove from a bottle, twin bursts of fiery script, on and on with no end foreseeable. It was a state of affairs that was simply impossible to maintain forever.

And so, that autumn, he went out in secret and left a discreet notice in the square, offering to pay anyone sufficient to enter the tower, and let him speak to the merchant in peace. The notice was garbled, and there were thus few takers, but one leapt effortlessly to the forefront of the applicants.

He was a bony warrior, old but hale, skilled and crafty; a warrior who thought few means beneath him, yet instantly commanded the respect of any he spoke to. And when he walked up to the table at the tavern, where the wizard sat cloaked and veiled, the bony warrior addressed him by name.

“I assure you, the bull mastiffs will be no more trouble than the spaniel,” said he. “But that is not the main difficulty in your aims.”

“I mentioned no spaniel in my notice.”

“Deriving a whole from some part is basic alchemical principle, wizard. I cannot imagine you don't know it.”

“Well,” said the wizard testily, “a bit.”

“Very well. Your main difficulty is in the merchant's acquiescence. He has much to lose and nothing to gain, if you cease to supply him.”

The bony warrior proposed that he forge a notice in the merchant's hand – for forgery was a gift of his – and ensure that the merchant would be reluctant to clear up the confusion.

The wizard sensed that it would be imprudent to inquire further, and, more starkly, that the bony warrior was far and away the best man for the job. So scruples were put aside, and they quickly reached an agreement – that the bony warrior aid him in putting a stop to the trivial obligations posed by the fireworks and puzzle-boxes, that he continue to ward off any who asked after these trifles in the future, and that hereafter, the wizard's true work would be what was remembered.

The merchant was easily dealt with. The mastiffs did not even need to be harmed. And soon, no matter the matron's objections, the wizard was left to the work of his heart.

But the bony warrior's fulfillment of the second duty went much further than the wizard had dreamed. The wizard had imagined he would guard the tower gate against any irate townsfolk. Instead, the bony warrior rode to every house that had bought one of the wizard's trifles, forcing the door, pouring out the powder and throwing the puzzles into the fire, all with a cry of “the wizard sends his regards!”

Soon the town was seething with discontent. There was talk of storming the tower. And while the wizard was at liberty to craft his beloved windows, there was no question that the townsfolk wished to look through them. Before, they had thought his windows irrelevant; now they thought him offensive.

And so he took this up with the bony warrior.

“I don't think you appreciate what I have done for you,” said the bony warrior coldly.

“Done for me! You have destroyed my reputation, and you have not stifled the demand a whit! All I ever wanted was to be left in peace.”

“Then you ought to have specified that in the contract.”

The wizard stormed back into his study. That was what came, then, of employing a man because he posed a threat, and was cleverer than you. He should have expected to be cheated. All he could do was keep his resolve.

So, ignoring the shouts below, he worked at his windows for several years, and found pleasure in them where he could. He thought very highly of a window he'd made to a chief knight of the realm, but he soon learned that the knight flouted all chivalry, and his window was only a pretty lie. In the meantime, the townsfolk put veils on their lintels in protest, and refused to give his old merchant custom, and offered him any price he would name if only he would set things right. And the matron began to echo their demands, unceasingly, and he could not turn her out, for it went against the custom of the land.

At last, there came a day when he could have no more satisfaction in making his windows. He needed a break with his daily life entirely. And so he took his staff from the wall, slipped out of the tower, and set out for the countryside.

There was a chilly drizzle that day. But the air was fresh, and so was the scenery, for he had never come this way before. It was a rocky country, foreboding but not austere, for it was everywhere dotted with lovely green pasture.

At the first evening, he set to lie on the green grass. But no sooner than he set his foot there, the green grass writhed up to swallow it. He threw himself from the greenery with all his strength, but it held fast to his boot, and he had to cast it off to save himself. And now, with the last of sunset, unearthly sounds began to rise up all about him. Birds, he was sure. But the thought gave him no cause to like the sound any better.

He needed light, he knew, but the idea worried him. He thought, somehow, he would not like to be found. So he fumbled in the increasing dark, stepping gingerly, until he at last stumbled into an overhang. There, at least, was some respite from the rain, though not from the cold and the wind and the damp, for his was a magic of sight, not of fire or air or earth. He slept uneasily, and woke so stiff, it was as though he were bound hand-and-foot. If he tried crawling back to the tower, he felt he would be devoured by the green-grass.

But by the next nightfall, he took his staff from the rock wall and let it give off a light. The murmurs and shrieks in the distance were unquieted, and the rock was no more comfortable, and he was no less hungry, but it all seemed more tolerable somehow. Until he realized that, not only were the sounds not subsiding, there were footsteps approaching his enclave. He staggered to his feet, woefully unprepared for anything but to face what came standing.

But in his staff's light, all he saw was the matron's spaniel, and the matron right beside him.

“There you are,” she said. “If you knew how worried I'd been...”

“How can I repay you for finding me?” he croaked.

“It would be nice,” said she with a small smile, “if you gave me a puzzle-box.”

And as soon as he had recovered from his outing, that is what he did. It was an ashwood box with a sickly green glow, as disconcerting as he could make it, but he admitted to himself pride in his own craftsmanship. And in a flash, as soon as it was in the matron's grasp, she bolted out the gate (the bony warrior affecting no notice of her passing), and ran down to the marketplace. And the instant the townfolk were convinced it was truly another puzzle-box, they raised a great cheer, and reveled through the night – for it was the custom of their land to forgive when restitution was made.

The wizard had forgotten how much he missed the applause.

“You know you've got no choice but to put it all right now,” said the matron.

And he could not even resent her trickery. He knew she was right.

So the bony warrior was dismissed from his duties, and he set about restoring his old work. He spent another year devoted to fireworks and puzzle-boxes. It was much easier than before, for, without even knowing it, he had stolen many moments in the intervening years idly considering what the spectacle of another firework might look like. And once the year was done, he and the merchant settled to a peaceful accomodation, where he would make his trifles only when he could be assured of their craftsmanship. And it did, in fact, render craftsmanship as well as respite.

But there now arose a great blighting wind that assaulted the land. The yew-groves were blasted, the reservoir began to silt up, and the wizard's passion was no longer an academic concern. He had to do something, he knew, but he had no wind-magic.

Knowing no other option, he called once again upon the bony warrior.

The bony warrior, older and wiser, knew that there was nothing the wizard's magic, or his cunning, could do, but seeing the state of the wizard, he declined to say it in so many terms. So he stayed for a fortnight, and for that time kept the wizard so preoccupied with intrigues he had procured from distant lands that he quite forgot his purpose until he saw the back of him, bowed against the wind; and then he found he had an elaborate puzzle-box itching at the back of his mind.

It did not, of course, keep the wizard's resolve in check forever. “I may not have wind-magic,” he told himself, “and I may not attack the wind at its source, but I can, at least, inspire those that may. And if they will not look through my crystal windows, I must give the people what they want. A firework, I think. I must make it such a firework that, were there no more, I would still be celebrated as its maker to the end of my days.”

He labored long and carefully, and when the labor was done, he released from his tower a firework that leant against the wind without appearing to strain, a firework that was a rain of crystal in all the colors of the realm. There were tears of joy at the sight.

But it was, in the end, mere spectacle. The wind did soon subside, but not by the wizard's efforts but by those of the true wind-sorcerers, who heeded his entertainments scarcely a whit. And by the time it did subside, it was too late. The fields and yew-groves – they would grow again in time. But the heart of the land was the reservoir, that gave those who drank from it cold, clear courage. And it was choked with silt. There was enough of the enchanted water still to last perhaps a generation, but it must inevitably run dry, and the land dwindle with it.

Knowing this, the wizard's heart was broken, and from then unto his death, no artifact he crafted was ever so fine again.

But the bony warrior had done his work better than the wizard ever gave him credit.

He had, by stirring up all the trouble he had, ensured that the wizard's work would always be remembered. The crystal windows, to begin with, would be remembered as long as the wizard was. But it was the trifles that were his true work in the first place, for it was they that caught the eye of the people. To this day, when a man sees the craftsmanship of his puzzles, or the brilliance of his fireworks, he sees the images they saw in that land, and for a moment, he thinks as they did. And the land is thereby remembered more clearly than the wizard himself ever remembered it.

As for the bony warrior, he still amuses himself playing the part of the villain. Now, he takes the guise of a tyrant. Now, he is a slanderer. Always, to those who will bend him an ear, he embodies the spirit of the age, making his private tribute to the wizard, the man who first recognized his talents.

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