Well Told Lies
Once upon a time… no. This story does not deserve that beginning, for it is not a particularly interesting story. I know I’m a fool for beginning a tale like this but it pays to be honest. The story told within though… now that’s a story for the ages. Especially in Scenceta, a place where magic is so strong it ties people inexorably to three things; their destiny, their promises and their stories. For in this place all stories are eventually true.
Once there was a boy called Kareem and he lived an uneventful life until the age of seven when his brother was born. The brother was called Alrim and when he was born there was a lot of excitement for he was born under the sign of the Storyteller. Storytellers were the most important people in Scencetan communities and young Alrim was watched from the moment he was born for signs of greatness. Kareem was proud of his brother and was a friend to him when all others in the port town of Alrekan treated him with more reverence than friendship.
Seven years later, on Alrims’ birthday, the brothers set out to the crowds cheers as they left on their important mission. Alrim was tasked in finding a great story, told perfectly, by the master Storyteller. His brother was sent along to watch over him. though the boys family didn’t worry for them, for what harm could fall on two children in Scenceta? Did not the Lady protect all those seeking adventure? Especially when Alrim had indeed grown up to be an intelligent and sensible child and Kareem was strong and brave. The boys were glad to go and have an adventure, as young children should, pleased to be allowed out on the road away from school and chores.
For six months they travelled by road and by boat and though they missed their parents fiercely, the journey was all a young boy could ask. Besides from a close encounter with a pair of brigands the two made it to the hermits cliffs with ease.
They rested before travelling into the cliffs themselves. The Scencetan sky seemed especially stunning that night. More stars than could be counted twinkled in a blackness never dimmed by earth bound lights. They thanked the Lady who ruled them all for their journey. The thanks were in no way a prayer as we would recognise them, as they knew for a fact she didn’t hear. It was just something you did.
They awoke to a bright morning, with cool air coming in off the sea. As they ate breakfast they watched the flying fish leap from the sapphire blue open and glide into the Azure blue sky. Gulls dived into the shoals in an attempt to catch the fish and the silver creatures jinked beautifully above the water. Entranced by the sight the boys lay on the carpet grass and watch for long, lazy minutes.
Eventually Kareem turned to Alrim. “Have you decided on what story to ask for my brother?” he asked, fascinated to know which true telling his brother would memorise and take back home.
Alrim, ever thoughtful, answered hesitantly “Yes. I think so.”
The silence after lasted as long as Kareem’s curiosity could allow. “So which one? Please say ‘The Baleful Creasent”. I love that one. Or ‘The Toad Who Grew Too Hungry’ that’s always good for a laugh. Maybe even an older one, I’m sure our story tellers get ‘Trip the Fox’ wrong all the time, as it never seems to make any sense. Especially the ending. If Trip glued all the lords’ feet to the floor, why didn’t they just take their shoes off eh?”
A gust of sea air blew quietly over them as Alrim thought for a moment longer. Seeming to make up his mind he nodded to himself and then he told his brother his choice.
“That one?!” His brother exclaimed. “Isn’t that dangerous? Isn’t that too powerful in telling and too risky if you ever get a bit wrong?”
“It’s one I haven’t heard.” He said, again deep in contemplation, and his brother knew better than to try and talk him out of something when he got like this.
“Well” he said as he got to his feet “let’s get going. The sooner we get there the sooner we can get back.”
The trek was difficult but not too arduous, down the steep path to where the white cliffs met the sea. It took a long time for them to find the cave, hidden as it was among the tide pools. The cave was marked only by a rough application of pale green paint, which for some reason the owner had daubed around the entrance.
As they approached Kareem hesitated, not sure he was up to the challenge inside. Alrim on the other hand strode confidently over the rocks towards the cave, an expression of childish determination on his face. Not to be outdone by a kid half his age Kareem followed him and soon they disappeared into the cliff.
It did not smell as bad as Kareem had feared. He had always thought that hermits must not lead very clean lives but this cave smelled only of old seaweed and that was because it was everywhere.
“Hello” called Alrim. “I’m sorry to intrude but I have come to hear a story. Please don’t turn us away.”
They froze at a noise from down the passageway. It was a grunt just beyond the bend in the cave. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom they realised it wasn’t quite pitch black and that there was light just beyond. Their feet splashed in a small, saltwater stream as they both move together, Alrims hand finding his older brother’s, even though it was he who led the way.
Finally they turned the corner and found a scene much as Kareem had imagined. Brickerbrack was strewn about the cave, junk that may have been rusting there for years laid among piles of fish bones. No bigger bones thankfully. Before them sat a pile of rags, with exposed legs in a murky pool of sea water. The pile of rags shifted as they came in, a guttering lantern sat next to it stretching blue tinted shadows about.
An arm came up from among the rags and an almost skeletal hand came forth. Kareem nudge his brother who was frozen in awe at the thing. Jumping from his revelry Alrim pulled the nap-sack from his back and fished around for the offering they had brought. Hopefully the stories were accurate.
Alrim edged around the pool and, bowing slightly, placed the wooden egg box in the hand. It was pulled towards the rags slowly and then another hand came up, opened the box and plucked a specked egg from inside. With a darting motion a head appeared from the rags and the man put the egg in his mouth gingerly and appeared to swallow it whole. He then smiled up at them as he put the egg box down next to him. The face of the hermit was surprisingly not horrible. It was bald and the smile was far too happy for a man who spent his life alone in a cave. There was a vitality about him, even though his skin was like salt dried beef and the look in his eye was perhaps slightly mad.
“Well boy, what do you want to hear?” The voice was rasping but strong, Kareem assumed it was because the hermit had drank to much salt water for too long.
“If you would not mind sire, I would very much like to hear ‘Where She Began’ if it would not be asking too much.”
The smile disappeared from the face of the hermit. He looked at the children, first Alrim and then Kareem. “Are you sure you want to hear that.” He suddenly seemed to find his lantern very interesting, toying with the handle. “Really it’s not that good. May I suggest “The Snake Who Ate Itself”? Its much better I assure you. With a really good ending.” His voice cut off and Kareem recognised Alrim’s not-going-to-eat-my-vegetables look. The old mans' hopeful expression failed and then he nodded. “Alright then. Sit down, I hope you’ve got a good memory, its quite complex for a child to understand. And you don’t look too bright.”
Alrim sat down on a suit of rusted armour “I’m sure I can keep up” he said, without a hint of the offence Kareem felt on his behalf. Kareem sat down and crossed his legs, trying to get comfortable. He kept away from the pool in the centre of the cave; there was something about the way the shadows moved beneath the surface that made him keep his distance.
“Fine, if you want to waste you’re journey. I shall begin.” He paused one more time, hoping Alrim would change his mind. Then he coughed loudly, and when he spoke next the rasp was gone, replaced by a sort of kindly smoothness in his aged voice.
“Once upon a time this was a land beset by strife, for a great king had died far away, and a lifetime of madness and war had left the great king with no heirs. And so the land languished for a hundred years, leaderless and directionless. The dark places spread and no one was safe from the predations of destiny. And then a girl was born.
She was one like no other, both plain and beautiful, both young and old. And though I am a great story teller, I cannot tell you her name for she is so clever she hid it long ago to stop others from having power over her. Either way, when she was but seven years old she left her home and didn’t look back. She would go on to spin more stories than any other and change the world in every way. But you don’t want to hear about that. You want to hear how she began, and so I shall tell you. But be aware this is the hardest story for me to tell, for she does not want it told.
It started in a forest, where the autumn leaves were long past green, a thousand shades of gold coloured her path to the city and as she walked, her beautiful green velvet cloak trailed behind her. It was a gift from her mother and she had not yet grown into it. Her skin was a white as snowdrops and as black as glazed ebony. Her hair shone like the sun and was as dark as the starless night. And her eyes… they were as dark as the sun and sparkled so brightly…
Ah, I see you doubt me. Maybe you fancy yourself a Storyteller and me a doddering old fool eh? Well not yet I tell you, not yet. For this story is how it was and everything in it is truer than you are. So only a fool would care about logic when confronted with such pure truth. Be content in knowing she was a girl and though she did not yet have the glamour around her, she was already beautiful. No matter her race, or gender, or sex. No matter her hair, or skin or height.
But only one pair of eyes were upon her that day, and those eyes were the eyes of royalty. None other than the king of serpents himself Ysren! Ah but you are so young, you do not remember that snakes once had a king. That they once walked on legs and carried tools and went to war both with and against other war making races. In the dark time between rulers, Ysren had grown strong and his children numerous but even he had a weakness it seems.
Some say he was envious of the girl’s potential, seeing in her future coils to rival and surpass his own. Some say he was hungry and that she was just the right treat for him. Even more say he was simply bored, a trickster in search of someone who could entertain him. What ever it was about the girl he was drawn to her like a snake to sunlight.
He walked up to her in his least threatening way, yet she knew him for what his was as soon as she saw him. Being a good child she smiled and asked him to walk with her for a while.
As they walked they spoke as if old friends, she spoke of her parents and her home and other things that have never been repeated since. It may be that she had ached for someone to tell it to, so that she would never have to say it all again. He talked about… well who can say? What do serpents talk about? I fancy it was of the gleam in the eyes of a thousand new born vipers and of the warmth of desert rocks. The taste of the smell of unknown places and the secrets you might hear if you pressed yourself to the ground and kept out of sight.
Before long they had both forgotten why they had started talking and both laughed with each other as they left the forest and crossed the Nascent plains. There they faced challenges both strange and terrible. But what the girl could not think around the serpent could devour and vice a versa. Many a trow or goblin was swallowed by the king of the serpents while many a fox or crone was tricked and outsmarted by the girl.
They ran from giants and hid from twinkle bugs and when they were hungry she would find food in the strangest places and they would talk and laugh until finally they were tired. And then she would fall asleep in his coils, as safe as anyone could ever be.
But such things do not last for ever, and eventually they reached their destination. The home of the long dead king. She had dreamed of seeing the golden palace and wished to live there in its jewelled halls. She wanted this more than anything and had sworn to him that she would find a way to make it happen. As soon as the golden towers the king had built were visible, the girl was so happy it was painful for Ysren to watch. He could not go with her to the city, for powerful as he may be, he was still a serpent and hated by the men of the world. For reasons long forgotten his ancestors had been expelled from that place many generations gone.
But he could not bear to lose her, and such was his longing he raged at the snakes of the world and told them to cease their hissing, so that he could have quiet to think.
In a night made of loneliness he hatched a plan. He would talk to the Bridgrem that he knew to live on the path ahead. They were despicable creatures that lived beneath bridges, long extinct now of course. It would have tried to have stopped the girl anyway but Ysren knew it was not smart enough so he told it the secret to stopping her and then slithered back to their camp site.
The next day the girl awoke and dragged him to the bridge before the city, laughter in her every movement. Destiny sang with her as they approached and the tiny dark figure that moved to block her path was almost missed in her excitement.
Spear raised it confronted her, its bulbous form not even as tall as her.
“Halt, this be my bridge and I’ll decide the crossing.” it snarled, its whiskers ruffling.
She almost laughed as Ysren pulled back from it. Were they not the pair who had defeated trolls and talked dragons into sleep? What threat be this diminutive thing, born to be mere punctuation in her story?
“What challenge do you mean for me?” she asked, knowing the stories. “What riddle do you ask, that could keep me from my dreams?"
“Oooh, a smart one eh?” It mocked back “I’ll take no answer from yorn childs’ brow. What use to me an answer, from one too smart to think? If so smart you be I ask a riddle from you, for I am a mighty guard and reckon I know a thin or two, about the world at large.”
“Fine it is decided then, I’ll ask you a riddle true…”
It raised a long nailed hand to cut her off “But though you be smart, I see in you now, your mind be not your strongest trait. The dreams you speak of entrances me, for surly stopping that is more of a reward for the likes of I than a thousand bridges blocked. Nothing hurts harder than a destiny denied.”
Ysren hissed in warning and though the girl took it as directed at her, I am sure it was meant for the bridgrem.
“But that is quite a cost to pay” she said placing her hand on her chin and pretending to consider.
“Then make your riddle as hard as keystone. Make it just a question if you think it will stump me more. Make it a question with an answer no one knows and no one ever could. For I be as smart as the world, I be the cleverest ‘grem who ever saw a river chained and yelled ‘No More!’. C’mon, tax me, or turn around and cry back to your mammy, my little, dreaming, girl.”
Ysren pounced, willing to go against the laws of the world itself and kill the Bridgrem where he stood, probably killing himself in the process from the rage the world would throw back at him. (To kill a guardian in a riddle contest was an unforgivable offence even before the Lady made her laws). But the girl locked eyes with him, warning him not to interfere with this and he slunk back, wishing that he had not been so smart. Wishing that he had borne the pain of losing her so that she would leave him the memory of her smiling face, instead of what was to come. Wishing he had been born a million years away from her, in a place where no sun shone.
The truth is she straightened up and accepted it challenge and with all the cunning innocence in the world she asked him a question. A question she would bet her dreams on she had to be sure that it was nothing anyone could work out. She had the perfect one.
“What is my name?”
The answer came quickly, too quickly. For only one being had she ever told her name and hearing it from the bridgrems mouth nearly knocked her backwards.
She didn’t here him capering as whatever rewards ‘grems got for blocking peoples paths were heaped upon him. She was deafened by the sound of destiny hitting reality; they ground together like miss matched cogs. You could almost hear it, grinding.
Contest over, in despair Ysren sprang forth and opened his mouth wide, a momentary exclamation was all the bridgrem had time for before he was swallowed whole.
Ysren stood there, with his back to her for a long time, not bearing to look at her. It is said the sun dimmed rather than light that scene, that the clouds drew back to the horizon and the water beneath them froze in fear. Whether that is true or not, it was for them as if all colour drained from the world.
He turned and as he did her face came up and their eyes met. Tears, which somehow seemed both hot and angry, both cool and despairing, stained her face. Serpents do not cry but such was his horror he knew he would not fight against any punishment that was to follow.
“I only told you.” She said, he voice barely carrying. “I only told you!” she yelled and the wind seemed to push him away from her as she did. Thunder may have rolled.
He did not try to reply. What would be the point? And he was almost deafened by the silence.
She ran to him and hit him with her fists and he wished she had been strong enough to hurt him. “Leave me! Go! May you crawl into a dark corner of the world and be forgotten you stupid snake! May you and all your children grovel in the dirt for forgiveness and may the shame of what you’ve done make you hide in the darkest oceans! May your tongue split in two and the truth never pass from your lipless mouths! I hate you, I hate you serpent, for you have taken everything I ever dreamed of from me and though I may live a thousand years I can never forgive you this.”
She spoke and the world agreed. With strength born of his weakness she pushed the snake king from the bridge and he sank into the river and then was washed out to sea.”
"And that is why the snakes of the world swim beneath the sea and hiss lies from their forked tongues." the hermit finished.
“And that’s the story. It would take her many years and no few trials to eventually take her rightful place and rule this land. One of those trials was toppling the golden towers, a place she never set foot in. She knocked them down without ever walking the palaces' golden halls. For She was bound by magic stronger than even She. Though She is the best of us all.”
The hermit looked up, and saw Alrim locked in thought and tears falling from Kareem’s eyes. After a moment of silence Alrim spoke.
“And that’s the same Lady who rules Scenceta now after a thousand years? The one who all the other stories are about? The one who is never harmed in battle or hurt by words?”
“That’s correct. We all start out on our journeys different than when we arrive.”
“I can never tell this story again can I?” Alrim said, almost more saddened by that than the story itself.
“That’s correct, she hates that story. She thinks it makes her look the fool for trusting others. Or perhaps that it makes her look weak. Or maybe it reminds her of her failure?. Why do you think I live in a cave? But she cannot kill the story, it is perhaps the only thing with any power over her. She may control the sky and she may have grown a palace from an oyster shell but she will always have that moment, when she was a frightened little girl and her world fell apart. Tell that story anywhere people can hear and you will bring her full wrath upon you.”
Alrim stood up, pulling Kareem to his feet. “I want you to know that I do not think that I wasted my choice. I am more thankful than anything that I know that story. I shall think of it often, as i make stories of my own.”
“As you say. Goodbye, young one. I know you will be a great Storyteller, even if you will have to find your tales elsewhere.”
They bowed and left, Kareem already coming up with theories and ideas about what they had heard. Diluting the memory of the tale. As he left Alrim looked back, understanding in his young eyes.
When they were gone, the hermit reached into his pool and a tiny blue-black viper wound itself around his wrist. He pulled her out and stroked her snout gently. It would not be wrong to say that she was his favourite.
“He was a clever one that one. Still, they never ask all the right questions, no one who comes here does. Though I do think he guessed my name.” said the hermit.
“Was any of that story true?” The snake hissed back, as he handed her an egg which she began to devour instantly.
“Almost every word of that story was true but it was entirely wrong. Every story is a truth made out of lies just as every real experience is made of misunderstandings and confusion.”
The viper gulped down the egg and asked “So what’s the point then?”
“The point is, little one, that I loved her. Once upon a time. And I don’t speak of it now because I fear the lies I might tell. I shall wait here until a Storyteller strong enough to tell that story for all to hear comes along. If that was not him already.
And though She will be angry when She hears it She will come to me again. I will ask her to forgive me and let, if not me, then at least my children see the sunlight again. And then I will know if She still loves me.”
And he sat there in silence and ate the eggs whole, as beneath his feet, the snakes of the world writhed in the darkness.