The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Chapter 6: The Blessing and the Vow

When nonstop walking tapered Eleita’s waist thinner than it had been for twenty-five years, she wished that she felt like a teenager as well, that the years and their burden of dead and absent people would vanish from her life as easy as the pounds. Though bearing the sword had made her strong as a mule, instead of the shapely legs she had as a lass, she stood on wrinkled and gnarled legs that would also have made a mule proud. Sickened by her vain thoughts, she exchanged her robes for a tunic, less to chastise herself for the perils of narcissism than to enjoy the simple pleasure of baring her ugly legs. Since the Great Mother had made Eleita swear the Unbreakable Vow, Spring had become Summer, and though she felt underdressed in the peasant garb, it was a hot Summer, and it was better to be underdressed than to bake while she wandered Cjantosk’s streets looking for release from her vow.

Many times Eleita had thought she found the hero for the task, only to become resigned to praying for the ancient dragon’s death by natural causes.

Though Minas was ox-shouldered, horse-thewed and cow-necked, he was still man-brained, and balked at being paired with the conceited magical sword. “So it cuts dragon scales like butter. So what? That egotistical thing grates my last nerve. I’d open my throat on it before we reached Urgu’s lair.”

Eleita couldn’t help compleing his thought: if Drucona’s name-calling didn’t send you on a tour of Urgu’s bowels.

Having become accustomed to rejection by hero-bodied people with the lazy souls of cats or cattle, she no longer had the strength to push the issue, though Minas was picture-perfect: a steady, muscular arm; handsome enough to break her vows, including the Unbreakable one; and, witty enough to love more than a night. He was so witty that Wencia would have wanted him to shut up, though rough-hewn features reminiscent of Mank’s were layered under the articulate, playful banter.

Whether the younger monk was excommunicated or reassigned, it was unlikely that Eleita would see her while the vow lasted. Since her vow demanded that she be outside the monastery most of the time, Eleita was made a proselyte, and The Great Mother deemed parts of the monastery too worldly for proselytizing monks. Not that the proselytes were of low station; far from it, they fulfilled the sacred duties of bearing Coruna’s light to the people, and should abide only in the holiest of places: mostly, natural spaces in Coruna’s creation, such as the tulip fields, farms, the King’s gardens, and the woods. In the cold months, proselytizing monks were expected to sleep in the shuttered verandas, which were heated on one side by the kitchen ovens, on another by the main chimney, and on the other sides by their own coal fireplaces. Unless Wencia came to look for her—which monks with worldly duties were admonished from doing—they might each live purposeful lives of service at the same monastery and never again meet.

Which is not to say the life of a proselyte didn’t come with its own liberties. Her previous duties would not have brought her to the gaming hall, where she wished to consult the owner, a wizard named Kanar. Kanar was a contrary man, as if he flipped his wizard card to play it in reverse: not secretive and enigmatic, but open and gregarious; not private, but a social butterfly; not a bully showing off his flames and sparks, but deferential and polite. While most wizards roosted in towers, hollowed trees, stuffy magic schools, and haunted mansions, as you would expect them to do, the magician of opposites was at home in his gaming hall.

Kanar was not only a noted wizard, but also a chef, a musician, a compiler of verses (though he took great offense to being called a poet), and a prolific author, and unlike Drucona’s hypothetical literature, Kanar’s works were useful or entertaining, and sometimes both: not only a dictionary, a ten volume encyclopedia, a two volume bestiary of magical beasts, and three historical dramas, but an exhaustive study of every game there was.

While Kanar wore his many hats five days out of the week, on Tuesday and Thursday he was only a gamer. Not merely a gamer, but only a gamer, as there was nothing mere about his absolute devotion to gaming, For two days a week, Kanar was nothing else but a gamer. Meteors could fall, Ogres could overrun, or Hell could yawn, and Kanar would play games. Knowing this, Eleita arrived on a Wednesday to find the wizard hung over, but not game-obsessed.

Though Eleita was curious to see the games, it would have been inappropriate to suggest it, and Kanar led her past the locked gaming parlor down a long, wood paneled hallway devoid of paintings or any other ornament, until he opened the double doors of a kitchen, pulled up two stools, and sat down unceremoniously, without waiting for the monk to sit. Except for a single cook, who was chopping onions and garlic and boiling beans, they were alone.

“Thank you for seeing me,” she said.

“I’m happy to help my neighbors,” Kanar asked. Without being asked, the cook fetched two wooden cups, which he filled with water from a copper ewer. “If I can,” he added. “Though I’m a wizard, I’ve never made any claims of being wise.”

“I’m confident only you can help with this problem.”

“A dragon problem? Not that I wouldn’t want to help, but wizards aren’t well-known for slaying dragons. I’m a foot too short and a foot too wide.”

“This problem is magical.”

“I’m intrigued. Why should a priestess of Coruna consult with me?”

“We are monks and priestesses, not sorcerers.”

“Priestesses of deep mysteries,” said the wizard, his voice bending very low with the word deep.

“Will you help me, or not?” Eleita’s irritation had become so everyday that it was easier to add to her pile of lost causes than to flatter another egotist who wanted to be acknowledged as clever before mocking her vow.

“You’ve forgotten to tell me what you want,” said Kanar, “and fortune-telling and mind-reading were never my specialty.”

As Eleita laid the sword on the table, Kanar reached for it, only to be cut off when the cook tabled roasted garlic and sliced loaves of toasted, crusty bread. Since his hands were already half-way across the table, he took a slice, rubbed the oven-softened garlic on it, and bit off a mouthful. Eleita’s irritation mounted as the wizard chewed overlong, then swallowed ponderously before speaking.

“I don’t follow,” said Kanar. “Far from being a magical problem, Drucona cuts dragon scales like butter, and is exactly what a strong hand needs to defeat dragons. Its edge can even split dragonfire, leaving the wielder unharmed. Have you heard the term ‘made to order?’”

“It’s not the horse that’s causing the problem,” said Eleita, “it’s the rider. This sword might be an extremely potent weapon for heroes questing after dragons, but it’s also saddled with the personality of Drucona, who is a gigantic twit.”

“What better way to ensure a tolerant, patient soul wields Drucona than by imbuing that bothersome personality? Either that, or the enchanting wizard had an axe to grind, either against the original wielder, or all would-be heroes.”

“While I’m no wizard,” said Eleita, “neither am I illiterate, and this letter from the wizard Khlarn claims you were the practical joker that forged that sword and sired its personality.”

“To be clear, are you objecting to my sword-smithing,” said Kanar, “or my sword-parenting?”

“I’m not objecting, I’m begging you to silence it forever.”

“What about its feelings? Its soul?”

“It’s a thing, not a human being. It wasn’t made by the goddess, it was made by you.”

There is no authorship apart from the Gods,” quoted Kanar. “Or, if you prefer, One axe is used to make another. Or would you deny the agency of the Gods in their creations?”

“If you’re implying you’re a middleman of soul creation, I find it both fascinating and blasphemous. Could the soul midwife enchant the soul scabbard to be a soul muzzle?” Though Eleita would come to regret taunting the wizard, at present she was too exhausted by her vow not to let words fly out of her mouth as they willed.

“I could, but since I’m a reasonable wizard, which is to say a halfway sane man, I won’t be a party to such a rude proposal. Not only is Drucona’s freedom of movement already limited to its ability to persuade the unintelligent, but it only has the consolation of whatever philosophy it invents. Imagine yourself with twice your mentality, constricted in your clothes, and no one thoughtful enough to read to you. While I might have complied if you offered your opinion during its manufacture, before it was a whole being, altering a fully-formed personality—even if I authored that soul—is reprehensible. It’s a sin to suggest it.”

Like a chicken in the deep sea, Eleita was ill-equipped for a theological discussion, since proselytes used words to sway emotions and move hearts, which required her to agitate her listeners, not provide answers. When questioned by potential converts, she responded with, “we’ll pray for the answer,” in order to take the responsibility for decision making not only out of her hands, but those of the convert. And because people never got involved if they thought everything was right with the universe, she laid a foundation of doubt, terror, and insincere desire for an invisible reward. She was used to admiring those that rejected what she preached, and despising those that accepted it, for only rootless villains would change their lives to suit a new idea with the attitude of one placing a bet. Though she was not well-read, she knew from her own experience that true conversion was not sentimental, but intellectual, was not merely a religious experience, but an act of will. Listening to the wizard fed a hunger not unlike her own conversion. By Kanar’s own citation of the holy verses—scriptures he should not have known--Coruna authored the arguments that he spoke. Who is to say Coruna’s divine plan did not account for this miserable sword’s soul? Was she not also a created being? Acting out the predestined whims of the Goddess? Were not even wizards no better than carpenters, plying the material universe according to divine wishes?

Because Eleita had a vow to fulfill, with an effort she turned her attention to winning over this wicked man. If an appeal to his ego would not work, there was likely little heart to persuade as well, so she would attempt to reason with the self-styled half-mad wizard.

“Drucona is responsible not only for Gilliven’s death and the death of my friend, Mank, but Urgu’s depredations. Is your creation above chastisement?”

“If a babbling baby stoked the dragon’s ire, who called the flames? The infant, or the mother fool enough to push a carriage near its lair? Though more articulate, Drucona is blind as a newborn, so if its mewling disturbed Urgu, only he who bore it is to blame.”

“If your ageless idiot has an infant soul, shouldn’t it know good from evil?”

“I designed Drucona,” said Kanar, “with razor-sharp morals, so as to be not only a hero’s incorruptible companion and a trove of advice to the sincere, but a sarcastic straight-edge of righteousness to bruise the ego of the wicked. While I wanted an upright hero to benefit from the sword, if an unworthy person seized Drucona, their ears should blister from its intolerance until revulsion at its alternating sanctimony and sardonic wit made them forego it, so that it could fall into the hands of a meritorious wielder. So if that’s what Gilliven and you heard, your hero was wanting, and you didn’t make its cut either.”

Eleita felt her face turn pink at the wizard’s off-hand accusations that her moral fiber was not pure, but as she knew that pride was her heaviest burden of sin, she recovered quickly. “Your sword is so fine-tuned that three monks wanted to break it in two on two different occasions. It reads subtle sins that often go undetected by their possessors, such as arrogance, pride and vanity, as wickedness. Your ideal hero may not exist in its eyes,”

“And you would take a chip out of Drucona’s ego in recompense for a verbal boo-boo? Yes, arrogance can go unnoticed for a long time—so long, in fact, that a monk can make a career out of it.”

Though Eleita stifled her shout, a snort flared through. “Your dragon-slaying sword is unusable. Whether Drucona sings a hero’s praises or satirizes them, if it still thinks mocking the dragon is smart, it will dig another grave. I need it to be silent.”

The wizard stood. “When I’m hungover and must explain to a monk that a blessing is a blessing is a blessing, I understand. But though silence is a gift on days like these, you can call me wicked or capricious, but I won’t change my creation. Or my mind. Since I’m a sincere wizard, I’d like to think that they’re one and the same, that my mind reflects my creations and vice versa. I’m no hypocrite.” Kanar yawned. “You’re welcome. Goodbye.”

“Ttake it back, then,” said Eleita, raising her voice, ’“and make us another? You’re Cjantoskan. Don’t you care about the city?”

“Make you another? As easy as that? Not even if I clap three times and spin. Magic swords take months.”

Eleita regretted her exasperated sigh the moment she released it into the wild. Though she didn’t mean to be a bad example, she found the heathen obnoxious.

When he next opened his mouth, her resentment was vindicated. “Now, now. Don’t whine,“” said Kanar. “Don’t pout. Though you need help and a sympathetic ear, and I’m fresh out, all’s not lost--there’s always Drucona. Talk to it not like a servant, but like a sister at the monastery.”

Eleita fumed. No, she hadn’t talked to the thing. Where would it stop? Should she take its confession and sing a holy duet with it? If she objected to the fit of new shoes, she would return them, not persuade them of the error of their ways, and she shouldn’t have to persuade a sword to be silent, and to prefer actual cutting to insults.

“Your silence says you haven’t. ‘The road to humility is a one step journey,’” the wizard said, this time citing not a hidden scroll but a popular proverb attributed to the fabled monk Ileda. Kanar grabbed a huge handful of nuts from the pantry, then left, calling back through the swinging kitchen door, “you can let yourself out.”

It was hard to find satisfaction glaring at a faceless sword. When she held Drucona at arm’s length, hoping to concentrate her fury, the slow-brewing realization that she had become accustomed to its weight did little to dilute her simmering rage. “For the first time in months, you have nothing to say for yourself?”

“Is he gone?” the sword shivered, humming in its scabbard.

She snickered. “Were you scared of that harmless wizard?

“What if your creator inspected you on a kitchen table?”

“He wasn’t about to dig in and eat you,” sneered Eleita.

“You don’t understand. What would be more frightening—that Coruna might unmake you for your arrogance, or to discover that you were beneath your creator’s notice—not that she didn’t exist, but that your actions were not being judged, let alone observed, and your prayers not heard?” scoff

“You’re hurt that he never spoke to that which he defended.”

“To whom he defended.” Drucona’s moan vibrated like shaken sheet metal.

“And not only did the great wizard took no notice of the poor little magic sword, but you might be a prank—a joke gift,” hooted Eleita, then she laughed much longer than was polite. She snorted, and belted the sword over her shoulder. “But what did you think of him?”

“Please don’t ask me that. Don’t ask the needle to number the weaver’s virtues, when it’s blind to the thread count.” They exited Kanar’s gaming hall to find the day brighter, if not warmer. Though it was mid-autumn, and fallen leaves crunched under her sandals, the sun glimmered in the cold blue like a radiant coin in a rippling well. Eleita began the long walk back to the monastery, setting a brisk pace to keep her bare legs from becoming goosepimpled.

“Whine, whine, whine. Don’t you know you’re insufferable? That your maker would rather play games than check your opinion, let alone listen to you dictate your library?”

“I don’t mind. I have you,” said the sword.

As Eleita was about to utter a rude retort, she changed her mind mid-scoff, and let the scoff rattle as if she was clearing her throat. Was the tone deaf sword unable to hear her constant scorn and derision? And even if that was the case, what of the indisputable rancor of her many insults? “I suppose you do,” she said, wanting to know if agreeing with the sword might make it more tractable.

“Gilliven was no different than any of my self-serving wielders—so dull that death was an improvement. The monks were different and interesting, in that they were intelligent and had moral fiber, but Mank disappointed me and Wencia disappeared on me. You, on the other hand—though every day you have the opportunity to leave me in the mud or drop me in the lake, you stay. You are loyal."

Could it be that dumb, or was it trying to manipulate her? Did it matter if it believed her naive, if it played into her hands? “Kanar spoke true. We should have had a heart to heart months ago.”

“You mean heartless to heartless,” quipped the sword. “You have a callous, cutting, tongue. You should have been a sword.”

Was it complimenting her? “No one ever said that to me,” she said, “or has spoken that way to me since I took my robes. While it’s refreshing, I’m tired of the frankness being a one way street. For instance, you don’t act like my sword. My sword should show loyalty to my beliefs. Monks of Coruna all take at least one vow,” she lied, “and I’d like you to do likewise.”

“How interesting! No one has ever invited me into their religion. But am I capable of conversion? Given the human proverb swords don’t kill people, people do, a human religion might not think my moral weight worth saving.”

“Conversion is only hearing and believing, both of which are under your power. As for righteous words and good deeds, consider your wielders an extension of yourself, and your moral responsibility; in the worst case, when you’re seized by a murderous bandit, you could at least scream ‘stop.’”

“I apologized for that.”

“And called him a disappointment not two minutes ago.”

“Context,” the sword droned.

“To continue,” said Eleita, gritting her teeth, “though magistrates wish to melt you down you seek not their approval, nor mine, nor anyone else’s, but the blessing of the Goddess.”

“I have some understanding of your religion. Gilliven was illiterate, and I read to him from a holy scroll every now and then. And I eavesdrop on your prayers from time to time.”

“ read?”

“Of course I read.”

“How? You can’t see!”

“I speak without breath, so why would I see to read? Based on your moronic questions, I also think without a brain better than you do with one.”

“It’s a fair question. I mean, you don’t drink or eat.”

“Why would a sword drink, and what would a sword eat?”

Recognizing that she was losing control of the conversation to satisfy a curiosity that was momentary and minuscule compared to her profound lack of caring where the sword was concerned, Eleita steered them back to the subject of vows. “Forgive my digression. If you’ll recall, I started by saying that a monk’s sword should also offer something to Coruna. What do you suggest?”

“You’re asking for a sacrifice?”

“No, a vow. Vows offer up our deeds to the Goddess.”

“I see. I’d vow against killing if it didn’t present a problem.”

“Yes, we have a dragon to kill. Moreover, vows must be sincere, and Coruna would not take that vow as sincere when anyone could pick you up and point you towards a murder, regardless of your say in the matter. While a monk’s sincerely made vow might be broken by crossed intentions—for Mank, that meant a dozen bandits—for you, someone only has to grab your hilt, so to the Goddess, it isn’t in you to make that vow, no matter how much you believe the words.”

“I see.” The sword was quiet for a few long moments. “Very clever. You’ve cornered me.”

“What do you mean?” Eleita asked innocently

“There’s only one thing I can control. You want me to take a vow of silence!”

“The goddess would see that as quite sincere.” Eleita had reached the monastery gate. “And since you appreciate that which is straight and to the point, I’ll cut to the chase: we might recruit a hero if you did not speak.”

“I can take a vow of silence if it pleases you. And I’ll not mince words, either. Why not you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Since you can now carry me without stumbling, why not find a sword-master? In the meantime, as the good right hand of numerous heroes, I could give you an overview.”

“I’m nearly fifty! I won’t start dueling now.”

“How did you put it? Hearing and believing? If I can paraphrase, you seemed to say that faith is doing what we can.”

I should have known that a talking sword, accustomed to scabbard life, would have a narrow perspective.”

When a savory aroma wafted through the monastery courtyard from the veranda grill—roasting meats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic—the mouthwatering smells caused not mere hunger pangs, but hunger waves, which made Eleita wince, and she stopped to fill a plate. She quickly ate while watching a new sister shoeing horses. Though there was something recognizable about her, she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I’m hundreds of years old, and keep an open mind,” Drucona interrupted, its shivering manner of speech attracting the stares of other monks. “You do likewise. If you learn sword fighting, I’ll be quiet not only while you’re recruiting heroes, but when we sneak up on Urgu. And, if we meet a swords master on our journey, consider that coincidence as divinely inspired as my vow.”

Eleita smiled. It was about to promise exactly what she wanted. Learning sword stances and forms could be good discipline, and the sword could not prevent her from reneging on a promise to do any actual fighting. “A vow of silence wouldn’t be just when recruiting, but until the vow’s object is obtained—in this case, when Urgu is defeated.”

“You don’t believe I can do it? Watch me.”

“And with that, the sword stopped talking. In the passing weeks, though Eleita’s vow remained as unfulfilled as ever, there was a lonelier tenor to her journey. It wasn’t just that her search widened to Cjantosk’s trade roads, often carrying her many days’ journey from home, but that Drucona now provided as much companionship as an onerous, twenty pound paperweight—no sharp complaints, no pointed sarcasm, and no cutting insults. The sudden lifelessness of Kanar’s prank sword made her feel like she had killed it, and if her vow remained unfulfilled, and the sword’s integrity was as inviolable as it threatened, she may as well have snuffed it out. When she railed against Coruna, that she had exchanged one form of misery for another, the sun’s clear light continued into winter.

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