Chapter 9: Hero's First Day
Drucona’s vow of silence had a down side. Though Eleita was free of the sword’s constant bragging and snippy commentary, potential heroes now must believe a tale of talking swords without a talking sword as witness. Whereas before, the evidence of their own ears compelled listeners to believe—no matter that it was invariably heard by the unsuitable or the disinterested—now many laughed in her face, and the few that believed opened their mouths and destroyed the illusion of that faith by airing foolish notions, imaginary conspiracies, demons’ voices, their own heroes’ journeys, or the more mundane paranoia of neighbors.
When her resentment of the vow made her as withdrawn as her silent partner, the questions her faith had buried came unbidden: Did the Goddess care about killing dragons? If not, who heard her vow? The Great Mother? If the Great Mother forgot her vow, or worse, her name—was her vow in vain?
Not only had this vow stolen her holy calling, and deprived the needy of her ministrations, but her chattering doubt replaced the sword’s constant backtalk. Perhaps Drucona had only ever voiced her doubts, flaring up like a burning bush to provoke in her a righteous response. One moment she regretted silencing the blade, and the next moment her resentment boiled over again, and she wanted to be rid of the burden.
Despair filled her prayers with smoke, like wishing she let Drucona moulder in excrement, or asking that Urgu die in its sleep, Vain hopes infected the needs of the day, so that she often missed a meal while combing the city for a hero. Accustomed to the restive recharge of meditation, Eleita’s constant speculation squandered her mental energy; moreover, the worries the speculation begot were an inexhaustible resource, so that in expending them, the anxieties accumulated. Though the life of a wandering monk had kept her lean and healthy, the non-stop thinking and fretting enervated her so much that she felt her age at last, and collapsed at mid-day in the shaded alley behind a carpet store. The first time her rest was disturbed was when the owner, Jibani, an outlander who often had made time for her street sermons, blanketed her with a thick wool rug. Though the wool was coarse, she had used worse blankets, and it kept her warm and seemed suited to her mood.
The next time she was roused, her head bobbed up groggily at the sound of Drucona shivering at its highest pitch, its steel shimmering and screaming as it held the note longer than any mortal voice. A young man, little more than a child, let go of the weapon, backpedaled, and spilled onto the grass.
“Thief!” shrieked Drucona.
“What are you doing, boy” said Eleita, aiming at a reasonable tone, but rasping a sigh of vexation.
“You have no use for it,” said the boy. “Everyone says so. That makes it mine.”
“You can have it,” said Eleita, rolling over. “That sword has a long memory. If it screams for a century, it will serve you right.”
“Give him a good smack!” shouted the sword.
Jibani and his patrons had stepped into the alley to watch, and the back doors of the wheelwright’s and the cheese seller opened.
“No,” she said, shaking off the wool carpet and standing up.
“I’m not a thief,” said the boy. Though he had her height, it didn’t seem right to think of this snip as a man.
“Weren’t you making off with my sword?”
“I want to use it, not sell it. I’m going to kill Urgu.”
Since speculation and desperation are kissing cousins, Eleita gave the ungainly boy the once over. Though not puny, he not yet come into his full growth. His cheeks were slightly sunken, and beneath large chest muscles, ribs showed. Though she reasoned it natural that crime would come from the marriage of hunger and muscles, she doubted that was this boy’s regular calling. At his age—fifteen at best—only craftsmen’s apprentices filled out like that.“Who’s your master, boy?”
“My father apprenticed me. I’m a printer.”
“You’re big for your age. Is printing heavy work?”
“What’s it to you?”
“How about I tell your father how we became acquainted. He’ll be happy to answer my questions, but maybe less happy that you stole from a monk.”
“Why should I care?” said the boy, then added “of course printing is heavy work. Printing one sheet is easy, but when you print thousands or more, the press gets heavy and your arms get sore. Then you lift, stack, and collate the sheets. And where do you think we get the paper? It’s hot, grueling, stinking work turning wood pulp into paper.”
Though he had muscles and attitude, and was accustomed to heat, Eleita felt her standards sink abominably low as she considered taking the overgrown child into a dragon’s lair. Though he had the cast of a helper sent by the goddess—apt suited for the quest, met by happenstance, and infected by wanderlust—the more she measured him, the more she thought it was ridiculous. He was a boy, with unexamined thoughts, and couldn’t know what he wanted.
“What would you do with a magic sword?” she asked. “Do you even know how to use a sword? You don’t become a swordsman by trial and error. You’ll get carved like a festival boar.” When the door to the carpet store closed, the last of their audience had dispersed.
“Heroes learn from heroes. You said that, in the tale of Kimara the Sainted Hero. You’re a good storyteller, but you’re no hero.”
Eleita laughed. “A natural scholar—schooling his teacher. I’m sorry I didn’t know you, boy. I see so many faces. I’m glad my teachings inspired you, but not so glad they drove you to steal from me.”
“I arrived at that part myself.”
“It can’t be helped, then. We have to tell your father.”
“What? You said you wouldn’t tell him.”
“You inferred that. If I am to allow you to wield Drucona against Urgu, do you have another story to rehearse for how we met? How am I to convince him that Coruna sent you?”
“What?” asked the boy, with a look of stunned surprise. “Do you mean it? Not that it matters. He’ll say no.”
“If that is her will, Coruna tests us all.”
When the boy led the monk along a circuitous path, had she not been a long veteran of Cjantosk’s streets, she might not have detected it. “You’re taking us back to the alley, boy.”
The boy looked away. “My father is severe. I do mean to take us there eventually.”
There was a long silence when Eleita did not ask what he wanted her to ask. It was unwise to contribute to the self-consciousness of a sacrifice. After a suitable pause, she asked “what’s your name?”
“Your real name. Don’t take the roundabout way this time.”
“You don’t sound sure of yourself. I could go to every printer in the city. How many could there be?”
“Janyn Dawes. I’m not lying. We’re almost there. You can smell it now.”
The stench needed no introduction. It was such a shock to her nose that for a moment she feared to breathe. When she finally exhaled, she felt her gorge rise when she tasted the noxious odor. “As one who knows—that smells worse than dragon dung.”
“You don’t get used to it. Our neighbors keep petitioning for our relocation.”
“I don’t blame them.”
“The monastery is our biggest customer--six hundred sheaves of white paper a year.”
“The stink is the sulfites that soften and whiten the paper. The king’s paper, the prince’s paper, the merchants’ paper, the monks’ paper. Your paper. You’d buy it elsewhere if it was coarse and had a natural color, like the wood pulp that it comes from, and not the supple, white sheets we sell.”
“I’d dream of adventure too,” said Eleita, “if this unrelenting flatulence was my reality.”
They walked in under a red-lettered sign that read Letters and Post. The counter was staffed by a smaller boy, who by his brown hair and the pattern of his freckles Eleita presumed to be Janyn’s younger brother. Janyn passed the younger boy without a word to lead Eleita into the back room, past reams of loose sheets and rolls of paper tied into tubes, then through the back door.
The stink was strongest in the back yard, where five rusting vats sat on grass bleached white from sloshed sulfates. An older man bent over one of the vats, but when he saw them, he stopped stirring, smiled, and waved; then, as if remembering himself, he scowled. “Janyn! Where have you been!”
“‘Not far,’ he says,” said Mr. Dawes. “Take over, boy,” he added, pushing the stir stick towards Janyn.
Janyn’s eyes smiled and his mouth set in a hard line when he stood there, petulant and defiant. “The monk says I’ll swing a magic sword.” To hear it put so childishly nearly made her forswear her dubious decision. But were heroes not born out of desperation, desire, and ignorance of one’s limits? Check, check, and check. She may have crossed the fine line from holiness to foolishness, but she was exhausted by this quest of inaction.
“The truth is,” she started, “I haven’t decided. But the goddess seems to speak through this boy.”
“Saying what,” he snorted. “Give me candy? Praise Coruna.”
Mr. Dawes’ jaw dropped, and he stood aghast until booming laughter piped from his wiry, frame. “Are the pickings that bad?” he asked, his laughter abating, “Don’t take this to heart, boy, but no father believes his half-grown son the best hope of the city.”
“Even a boy ten inches taller and two hundred pounds heavier wouldn’t tip the scales against a five ton dragon. But the bravest—or the foolhardiest—boy in Cjantosk might brave the beast’s fires. Having been unable to match a magic sword to its hero for over a year, none know better than I that courage is a rare commodity.”
“Cjantosk has its share of warmongers and killers,” said Mr. Dawes. “Ask them.”
“I have. It was only duty, bloodlust, or madness that drove them, and none took the blade.” said Eleita. “Does he have a steady hand and good eyes?”
“I would not lie to a monk,” he said. “My boy is steady, and his eyes are keen.”
“The better to find gaps in dragon scale, and to exploit them, if he learns timing. In the end, what matters is that Janyn wants to do right. He can be prepared for the rest.”
“I have not heard that old monks have skill at arms.”
“There is much we don’t know, but many owe the Goddess a favor.”
The older Dawes’s sour expression seemed to taste her, then spit her out. “It’s that easy, is it? Janyn’s not of age, and I have say in the matter.”
“You mention those who seek favor with the goddess. Does that work both ways? Quid pro quo?”
“So you’re selling him,” Eleita stifled a laugh, her smile broad and flusged. “Will I get a bill of sale? On second thought, send the Great Mother the invoice, and she’ll be quick to pay in kind.”
“You’re very flippant for one who thinks light of taking my son. Not only my first born, but my biggest help running the shop.”
Though Mr. Dawes’ drawl was understated, the practiced spiritual counselor heard the wound; in scoring a point, she may have forfeited the game. “What do you want?”
“Come with me.” She followed him out of the back yard. “Janin,” he said, “We’ll be discussing matters. Tell your mother I’ve out on business.”
When the printer led Eleita roundabout, through various half-charred residential thoroughfares, until arriving at the riverside, she reflected on the many times she had selected this semi-secluded route, which passed desolate ruins, derelict edifices, and ancient estates, for though these regions possessed a menacing tranquility, one silent moment, even pregnant with apprehension, was half way to serenity for the practiced monk.
“No one’s following,” she said.
“You can’t be sure,” he said.
On a muddy street by the docks, green paint peeled from the whitened, old wood of a shabby house. He led her up rickety outside steps to the second floor, where a faded brown door was cracked a few inches on red candlelight and the strong scent of cinnamon. As scented candles meant wealth that outstripped this hovel, she had an inkling of what she was walking into.
“Quietly,” he whispered. “Don’t wake her.” The printer pushed the door open gradually, as if it yielded each inch with a rusty groan.
Though the apartment was smaller than the house under it, it was sumptuously furnished, and seemed twice the size. While its lavish trappings seemed out of place under the cracked plaster roof and the scratched wooden floor, the most striking contrast was the coal furnace installed against the central wall. Not only was it the most modern convenience that money could buy, it was only made at the capitol, and imported at great cost for the tenant of this room, who was making limited use of it. Though the coal bin was full of hot, white fragments, and the room was torrid, the furnace was also accoutered with a small oven of bright, shining, and unused metal.
Despite the heat, sheets and blankets wrapped the woman in the bed. Her teeth chattered, and her belly was vast. Sick, pregnant, and barely conscious, the woman obviously suffered.
“Can you save her?” asked the printer.
“There is no saving grace in me,” said Eleita. “but the Goddess might choose me as her agent. Who is this that beseeches Coruna for her benediction?”
“Is that really important?”
“While the gods don’t care if she’s your mistress, whore, or second wife by bigamy, hubris would mean death for all three of you.”
“We met last year,” the printer said. “She was buying so much paper that I became curious. When we talked, I learned that she was a playwright, and when we talked all afternoon, I learned that I no longer knew myself. One moment I was satisfied with my lot, and the next I was a wit and a raconteur, and she was laughing at my stories and begging to borrow them; once I was a happy husband and father, and now I have a mulish wife and oinking children, and a mistress ready to burst.” Here he whispered, “I know now my fortune was only luck, that I struck up a conversation when she was spurned by the Baron of Viteli, and that any who showed her kindness and attentiveness might have won her admiration. But it was her admiration is give, and my luck to win.”
“You tell me too much. Coruna willing, I am not here for your confession, but your miracle. And miracles,” Eleita said, “are not quid pro quo, they flow unearned. Though you can bargain for miracles, the gods value not your gold, your labors, your obedience, your penance, or your chastity, and care not if you honor your promises after tasting the divine sweetness. Make no mistake: your bargain is with me, because you have not the faith to believe you deserve the gods’ beneficence.”
“We have an accord, monk. Make her well and Janyn is yours.”
“What of the child?”
“Do what you can, but if you must...” he left the words unsaid.
“You would be without two children in one day?” asked Eleita. “It isn’t love that moves you. No, don’t say another word. Though all are worthy of the gods’ benedictions, I would prefer if you received yours with your mouth closed.”
When Eleita knelt, bowed her head, and intoned the first verse slowly, her anger at the printer spilled forth, fusing a ranting rhythm with the spouting invocations, so that though she asked for Coruna’s healing right hand and a blessing on the offspring of the union, the room was hammered with the monk’s iron-hard tone. When she reached the end of the prayer, a chill wind snuffed the candles and smacked the front door into its jamb. After incanting the verses a second time, the woman sat up, looking for a moment like she had woken from a long night’s sleep, when an invisible hand wrested her from the bed. After her third intonation, the darkness was magnified by shadowy wings folded over a stooped being more than nine feet tall. In her fourth recital, a roseate glow radiated when its wings spread, revealing three spiral red horns crowning a beautiful mien marred by feline eyes and a fanged smile best described as cruelly bountiful. When a smoky gray wing caressed the woman, she moaned as her thighs soaked from breaking water.
When Eleita’s blood ran cold at what form Coruna’s help had taken, she pushed the printer toward the door. “Leave. Now!” she said, “This mystery is not for you.” But it was too late.
The Passion seized Dawes in its nailed white hand, and said in dulcet maiden tones, “you who have never known love, open your heart.” When he pushed and twisted at the Passion’s giant fingers, it swept its arm higher. Though he braced his hands against the ceiling, and pushed with all his might, the Passion’s strength forced him inch by inch until his shoulders and neck were being crushed. “Open your heart,” it insisted, then pushed its long nail into his chest until blood leaked over his robes, his shoes, and the floor.
“The way is open,” it said. “and she takes them unto Herself. She and your sons will live, and you will know the pain of loving them. Let every day be a death to you, mortal.” The Passion’s beauteous face writhed with scorn as it pronounced its judgment, then dropped him to the floor.
He twisted, groaned, held his palm against the wound, and darted his eyes left and right, not like one bleeding to death and looking for mercy, but like a paranoid miser looking for thieves.
When the Passion raised its wings aloft until they covered the ceiling, then vanished in an obscuring, fiery fog, the playwright cried from the pain of her contractions. Though a monk’s ministrations to the sick take many forms, including the midwifing of babies, Eleita’s rustic pilgrimages had made her more expert at foaling than at soothing and speeding human labor. After the Passion induced the birth, however, the playwright did all the work; all Eleita offered was a hand for the nameless new mother to crush, and a flow of shopworn encouragements: “you were dreaming,” “your baby is fine,” “I can see the top of his head,” “the father is fine,” and “it isn’t long now,” always interspersing admonitions to “don’t stop,” and “push.” To the father, she said, “heat this knife,” and seeing his stupor, hissed, “hold it over the coals, old fool.”
When the baby came fast, and with much blood, and Eleita wiped the boy’s mouth and nose, he bellowed with transcendental force, as if he had been suppressing a scream in the womb, in terrorof the delivery’s supernal agent. For a moment, the monk thought the house was going to shiver to ashes. When she handed the boy to the relieved but startled mother, he suckled at her breast. Then, as the father was still trembling from his divine encounter, Eleita cut the cord with the heated blade herself.
When the monk turned to staunch the mother’s bleeding womb, it had not only already stopped, but healed so rapidly Eleita could see the skin knitting. Since the father was too weak to look upon his birth-worn mistress, this miracle was witnessed only by the unloved playwright and the monk. Did habit or doubt move the monk to salve and bandage this womb that had no need of such ministration? When the woman was wrapped and the child swaddled, Eleita brought water, then heated food from her pack over the fire; when both mother and child were fast asleep, she turned to the father.
“You can care for her needs now, though I would pick one of your servants or sons to trust, so as not to leave her by herself. Though I won’t add commentary to the thoughts of the ones I serve, you should think on what it said. Not only will I take Janyn, per our agreement, but you may have a limited hold on this son, as well.” The printer leaned in his chair, held his side, and said nothing.
The monk continued, “we will not speak again. While a manifestation of a Passion should be referred to The Great Mother, I see no need to involve her in your affairs. However, if your heart reneges on the promise of either son, I might be called to fill in a true and honest account of this day.”
Though Dawes had anger and fear in his eyes, he said nothing.
She was halfway down the street before the apartment’s hellish heat ebbed in the gentle breeze that chilled the sweat beading her forehead.
Janyn sat on the doorstep of Letters and Post. “Did you do what your father told you to do?”
“Why?” he exclaimed, “am I not allowed to go with you?”
“You are,” she said. “Though I’m feeling some buyer’s remorse, now that I see the value of my purchase.” She smiled wryly.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Never mind, Janyn. Come with me.”
“I should say goodbye,” he said.
“No,” she said. “Your father will explain. A goodbye to all your sisters and brothers, not to mention your mother, will set one or more blubbering, and we must present you to The Great Mother before nightfall.”
“That’s cruel,” he said. “I’ll miss them.”
“We’ll visit—after The Great Mother consecrates your commitment. According to the scrolls, your mother could have a say, but only before your consecration. Do you want to be a hero, Janyn?”
“Yes,” he said. “Above all else.”
She didn’t answer, and took the quickest route to the monastery. She did not look back, as she knew Janyn was behind her. Long accustomed to walking the city, Eleita set a vigorous pace, and the boy struggled to walk beside her.