Saturday, June 16, 2018

Euphoria

Note to self, thought Amari, build up your chili tolerance before you eat a curry like that again. Blinking back a couple of sneaky little tears, she took another sip from her glass of cold water. It tickled her already sore tongue and nothing else; it was about as satisfying as the last few broken bits in a packet of chips.

She took a look around. The night was getting late, but the quirky little South Asian food restaurant they were in either didn’t know or didn’t care, judging by how bustling it still was. She could see why; even if the miris maalu she’d tried had spent most of its time assaulting her tongue like a hard-nosed mugger with a spiked bat, it had tasted good while doing it.

And then she took a look at the others.

There is a moment in every gathering of friends, whether they be new or old, meeting weekly or after years, when the invisible signal goes out. And on cue, those friends will immediately whip out their smartphones and take a long ‘peek’ at them, briefly disregarding the presence of the other friends in the vicinity. An uncomfortable silence occasionally develops, which only the unfortunate souls without a smartphone bear witness to. Scientists are yet to determine what factors influence this phenomenon – whenever they get close, they whip out their own phones and promptly forget about the research.

Maybe it was the distraction of her burning mouth, but Amari had missed out on the initial broadcast of the signal. She was about to take a look at her own phone when Ji-hoon spoke up.

“Whoa, guys, check out this video! This guy is doing some insane shit with chocolate!”

Amari inched closer along with the others as Ji-hoon placed his phone in the middle of the cluttered table. One the screen, she could just make out a video of a man making what looked like extremely posh furniture – but wait, he was making it with chocolate bars instead of wood, and using chocolate syrup to bind the pieces together!

She leaned back with a sigh. While she definitely admired the man’s skills, she found these kind of food sculpting videos a little depressing. She couldn’t tell which outcome was more tragic: either those chocolate masterpieces would eventually be eaten, or all that delicious-looking chocolate would be left alone in awe.

“Didn’t you used to do art stuff too, Amari?” asked Andrew, his eyes still glued to the chocolate maestro.

“Nothing like the guy in the video though!” said Amari half-heartedly, “but yeah, I used to sketch and paint a bit.”

“Oh yeah, I remember those pictures you put up on Facebook!” said Kwang with a grin, “They were really pretty! It’s too bad you stopped though!”

“Thanks!” said Amari, “But, well, you know how it is. Work happened. Life happened. The usual.”

“Ahhh, life,” drawled Andrew, as though he were going to launch into a deep philosophical discourse on the topic, before sitting back in his own seat with a sigh. The topic silently cursed him for leaving it hanging.

*

The next evening, it took Amari at least fifteen minutes before she could find what she was looking for. It wasn’t that her room was untidy. Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 was spotless and 10 meant that one footstep required at least five items to be relocated, Amari considered her room to be a 3. Others thought it was a 5, 6 tops.

But when she put something away, she put it away deep, and tended to forget where exactly said thing had been put away. In this case, it had been behind a row of thick books in her closet.

She blew the dust off of it and then gazed at it. Not lovingly, but something milder.

Her old artist’s sketchbook looked a little worn, but mostly it just looked disappointed in her. The once shining cover had been dulled by abandonment issues, and the edges curled a bit here and there. The pages nearly had that odd fragile feel to them that pages from older books tend to have.

It had been a while since she’d done this. What to start with? Hmm… ah, of course! It was the perfect thing to start with!

She immediately began to google reference images, the pencil trembling with anticipation in her hand.

*

The last crumpled ball of paper bounced off the rim, hovered in the air for a painful moment, before landing with a huff on the ground near the bin.

Amari walked away from the sketchbook, picked up the ball of paper and dropped it into the bin, and collapsed on her bed in a frustrated heap. What was she doing! What was she even trying to do! She used to be so much better at this; her drawings actually earned the name ‘art’. Now, she couldn’t even get the details of a bird’s claw down right!

She groaned into her pillow for some time, more out of a need to vent than feelings of physical discomfort. When that was done, she grudgingly returned to her desk, a blank page on her sketchbook awaiting her expectantly beside her pencil.

But as she sat down, she remembered that the next episode of The Expanse was going to air soon! She looked at her laptop screen, then at the sketchbook, then back at the laptop screen. Well, her sketching attempts weren’t going anywhere – maybe she just needed a break. Take her mind away from it for a while. She could always come back to it later. Right?

*

Wrong.

*

Some weeks later, Amari was watching a TED talk. In it, a cheerful lady named Simone Giertz was talking about how she made ‘useless’ things as a hobby, and how it was anything but useless to do so. The useless things in question included a helmet with a toothbrush attached to it in the most ridiculous way possible, and a shirt made of eyeballs.

“Kwang, you watch the weirdest things,” muttered Amari to herself. She didn’t stop watching the video though.

And then Simone began to talk about performance anxiety, and moving past the idea of avoiding failure. At this point, Amari wouldn’t have stopped watching even if her bedroom door spontaneously caught fire.

The talk ended, and a strange feeling began to consume Amari. It was as though Guilt was trying on something else’s clothes, and compensating for the bad fit by just putting on more layers. She looked at the spot where she had stashed the sketchbook this time around.

She’d been approaching it all wrong, and that thought was what struck her the hardest. Her motivation a few weeks ago had been to draw a picture as beautiful as what she’d been capable of back when she was a more prolific artist. But with that attitude, the critic on her shoulder took over the production, and nothing would approach that critic’s inflated standards.

No, before she could enjoy the products of her efforts, she needed to enjoy the process first.

She dug around for the pencil in her desk drawer, then pulled out the sketchbook and opened it to the page she’d stopped at. The faint grooves from when she’d drawn on the previous pages were an unnecessary reminder of what she’d been trying to sketch the last time.

Amari began to sketch. And this time...

...the bird’s claw was just as faulty as it had been before. But she didn’t care.

Time slowed down so it could peek over her shoulder at the sketch she was bringing to life. Her pencil danced across the page, and old feelings began to course through the fingers that were holding it.

Oh, how she’d missed this! The sensation that the world around her could go stuff its head in a washing machine for all she cared. The intensity of the scratches as the pencil added detail after detail. The magic of a wing, and then a plume, emerging from all that lead. The ecstasy, no, the euphoria of it all.

Amari only became aware of her breathing again when the picture was done. Sighing with relief and stretching muscles that had somehow gone numb in the span of a few minutes, she took a look at the drawing.

It was supposed to be a phoenix, rising from the ashes of negligence. It wouldn’t be mistaken for anything else, she thought. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being indistinguishable from the real thing and 1 being a smear left by an excited flock of pigeons on a statue, this was a – no, it didn’t matter. She had finally drawn the damn thing, and more importantly, she was starting to feel it.

And it felt good.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Baskemont Chapter 1 - Arthur

(45 years before the Great Plague)

“You promised, Papa!” pouted little Timothy, his indignation an acceptable level of righteous.

Timothy’s father yawned the kind of half-yawn that ends up resembling a sigh more than a yawn. He felt the long hours of that day weighing down on him, slowly but surely draining him of energy with their sneaky little claws.

“But I am so weary today, my son. Do you not see how I slouch with fatigue so?”

“You can sleep after you tell me the rest of the story!” said Timothy, now almost bouncing with all the pent-up indignation.

This time, Timothy’s father properly sighed.

“Then promise me this, my little Timothy. When I am done, you shall go to sleep at once, and not stay up a minute longer! Will you do this for me?”

Timothy agreed with the kind of impatience that suggested the six-year old hadn’t really given the promise much thought.

Timothy’s father settled himself a little more on the soft straw mattress that rested on Timothy’s bed. He stifled another yawn and stretched his arms, trying to squeeze out some of the tiredness embedded in his muscles. Finally, he asked, “Where did I leave this story last?”

Timothy began to excitedly rattle off some words about a hero named Arthur and a princess named Regina and a great desert to the East and a band of savage Bedou and a lot of other details that were muddled by their rapid-fire delivery. It took some coaxing and prodding by Timothy’s father before the little boy managed to coherently say that Amadeus had just entered the camp in which the Bedou bandits were holding Regina prisoner.

“As Arthur walked along the sand, the tents around him, he muttered a silent prayer to our God, and held tight onto his sword. For although he had swiftly dispatched the bandits patrolling on the edge of the camp, they were but a taste of what lay further within. When he entered the middle of the camp, he saw more savage Bedou than there were fingers on his two hands, all inching towards him, their own crude weapons in hand, their dark faces scowling devilishly. Behind them, tied fast to a thick, sturdy pole inside one of the bigger tents, was the fair maiden Regina, her long and beautiful brown hair flustered in front of her elegant face.”

“’Regina!’ called out Arthur, but she did not reply!”

Timothy gasped.

“…for her fair mouth had been tied shut by the brutish Bedou, so tight that she could barely breath, let alone utter a single word. Arthur despaired at first when she did not reply, but when his eyes caught sight of her bindings, that despair was replaced with anger. Righteous anger!”

Timothy scowled.

“’You ruthless savages!” shouted Arthur sternly, so that all their attention was drawn to his words, “You have shown fair Regina no mercy, and have maltreated her to no end. But I am no primitive barbarian like you. I will show you a kindness and leave you with your lives if you release Regina from her bindings, and let her return to her home!’”

“His words rang with a conviction so strong that some of the Bedou faltered. Arthur thought he could see them hesitate and lower their weapons.”

“They let her go?” jumped in Timothy.

“You will find out if you do not interrupt me, my son!” reprimanded his father. Timothy’s mouth almost audibly slammed itself shut.

“Now, where was I? Ah, yes…”

“But the leader of this dark-hearted band, the tallest one among them, wrapped in dark robes and gripping a spear with a curved point, barked at his men. He spoke malicious words to them, words to spur their most evil of desires, and his men faltered no more. The leader then turned towards Arthur, took a few strides towards him, and sneered.”

“’We no release girl,” the leader said, his speech in Common Tongue as twisted as his soul, “and you die here!’”

“’My God will protect me from your blows, even in these wild and unruly lands you call home!” claimed Arthur, now taking the shield on his back and slipping it onto his left arm. “Do your worst, and see how your false pagan deities falter before the might of God!” As he said this, he drew his gleaming sword Vanglade from its scabbard, and the blade caught the light from the flickering fires inside the fortress and cast it with vehemence at the scowling savages. Some of them had to shield their dark eyes from the brilliance of the sword, such was its power!”

“But the leader stood unflinching, and slammed his spear hard on the ground. “You tricks no scare me!” he snarled, and began to charge at Arthur. But the leader was foolhardy, the raw ferocity of his attack no match for the steely defence that Arthur had at the ready. Arthur swiftly deflected the thrust of the spear with his shield, and tripped the foolhardy Bedoin as his momentum carried him towards Arthur. The leader tumbled to the sandy ground at Arthur’s feet, and in one swift move, Vanglade’s sleek tip was at the leader’s scruffy neck.”

Timothy gasped again.

“’I ask you one last time, Bedou ruffian, to yield!” proclaimed Arthur once again, his fierce words stalling the other Bedou once more, “I will still show you mercy, should you release my dear Regina from her bindings!”

“But the Bedoin at his feet only scowled, those dark eyes burning with an unholy fire, and he snarled as he thrust his spear at Arthur once more!”

Timothy was running out of breath with all his gasping.

“But Arthur, vigilant as ever, saw the blow coming, and neatly stepped aside it. With a lofty swing, he brought down the blade of Vanglade with all his righteous might onto the Bedou’s chest. In one strike, it pierced that wicked heart and delivered upon it a justice well deserved. The Bedou snarled once, twice more before his soul finally left that gruesome shell that was his body, undoubtedly on its way to the depths of Hell!”

Timothy was still trying to recover some air, so his reaction was more stifled than it should have been.

“When the others saw their leader go down so easily, they stared amongst themselves, suddenly filled with doubt as to whether they were in the right, as they should have done long ago. Arthur, sensing their hesitation, spoke to them once more as he sheathed Vanglade, now sporting a sash of red.”

“’Your leader was unworthy of his rule, and he has paid for his wicked ways!” proclaimed Arthur heartily, “but you! You may yet choose the right path, for even those with their feet as deep in evil as you are not yet exempt from redemption! Simply step aside, and let me rescue fair Regina from her torment, and you will be forgiven for your sins!’”

“And they let her go? Just like that?” asked Timothy incredulously.

Timothy’s father was suddenly struck by a wave of fatigue. It was as though all the layers of weariness that had been piling up inside him had all gotten together, conspired for a couple of minutes, then hidden just inside his mind with the lights turned off before all bursting into the rest of his body like an extremely unpleasant and unwanted surprise birthday party gathering.

“Yes, just like that,” he said with an absurd amount of restraint, “and the two of them got onto his trusty steed, they rode back to the shores of that dreary desert, where a ship took them back to Romantiga, where they settled down on a farm and lived happily ever after. The end.”

“Papa!” began Timothy, but his father laid a gentle yet disgruntled hand on Timothy’s arm.

“I am far too tired to give the rest of this story the vigour it deserves, my dear boy,” said his father, “Perhaps, another night, I shall tell you if there was more to their journey home. But remember your promise, my son – I have finished the tale, so you must now go to sleep!”

Timothy was understandably feeling a little cheated, but he too was having his own losing struggle with the allure of sleepiness. He huffed, said ‘Good night, Papa!” and snuggled into his blanket a little more.

Timothy’s father gently brushed the thin hair on Timothy’s head with his hardened hands before kissing it good night.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Baskemont Chapter 2 - Barnaby

(42 years before the Great Plague)

“Come quickly, Timothy, or else we shall be far too late!” yelled Gareth.

“I am coming, I am coming!” came Timothy’s reply.

He checked his bag once more that it had been fastened securely, and then skipped over to join the other two boys who were impatiently waiting for him.

“Finally! I was afraid the sun would set ere you joined us!” said Joseph playfully.

“Psh! As is your wont, you speak of impossible things, Joseph!” came Timothy’s snappy reply, as Gareth snorted in amusement.

“Enough bickering, friends! We must make the most of the sunlit hours this day!” he said as he swept away from the school building, Joseph and Timothy following behind him.

Gareth was the tallest of the three, and only just second in terms of bulk. His slightly freckled face was almost constantly screwed up into an expression that suggested that, should you take your eyes off of him for just a moment, just a few seconds, he would have set a cat on fire or nailed spikes into a cart wheel or some other such mischief in those precious few seconds. Joseph’s long, thin face was at odds with his pudgier body, as though his body fat was been given excessive attention by the pull of gravity; sometimes, other boys their age made the mistake of comparing him to a barrel-sized ball with a rolling pin stuck on top. Joseph was quick-tempered, and even quicker when it came to showing those boys why said comparison was a mistake to make in his vicinity.

Timothy, the thinnest of the bunch but by no means scrawny, rounded out their trouble-prone trio, even if he wasn’t the roundest of the lot. If Gareth was the leader, and Joseph the well-covered muscle, then Timothy was the brains, the idea maker. They could probably use a few more members in their party, but they wouldn’t think so if you asked them. In fact, they might just get offended enough to pick a fight with you.

“How big is it, really?” asked Joseph as they scurried down the well-trodden road, “Surely you jest when you say it is twice the size of a full-grown man!”

“Ha!” laughed Gareth, a hearty laugh that the boys their age thought was deep, but anyone past their teens would know was only pretending to be, “I understand your disbelief, which makes this sojourn of ours all the more sweeter!”

Gareth’s father, a wealthy trader, had a somewhat peculiar hobby of capturing and rearing wild animals in the enormous garden that surrounded their home. The house that Gareth lived in would have been an impressive sight in the city centre, a brawny, well-dressed establishment squished among the other runts, but it somehow appeared much like a runty little hut itself when compared to the expanse of green and greener it was plum in the middle of. And such a garden had plenty of space for the exotic fauna-inclined whims of Gareth’s father.

Timothy and Joseph loved the garden to bits; it was the ideal stage for their various plays and games, a wilderness within their reach. It was the kind of adventure-rich landscape that other children would have to solely use their imaginations to conjure up. The various caged animals were unwillingly thrust into the role of bloodthirsty and flesh-hungry monsters, peering curiously from inside their cages as the boys danced around them, taunts flying with gusto.

“Is it as deadly and monstrous as the books say?” asked Timothy excitedly, skipping over a big stone that had somehow found itself on a dirt path it wasn’t supposed to be on.

“I did not spend enough time with it to find out,” said Gareth, and Joseph drew his breath at the reply, “but that shall be one of the purposes of this day! I do know that it feeds on meat the most, for my father saw to a delivery of a whole cartful ere I left for school this day!”

Timothy whistled – at least, he tried to. He was too self-conscious to admit to himself that what had come out of his lips instead was some wheedling ghost of a puff of air.

The way to Gareth’s home compound was long, given how it was located on the outskirts of the city of Baskemont, nestled among the great farmlands that fed the city with their produce. The path took them from the noisy centre of Baskemont, people milling about and exchanging words that had little meaning for the three boys, through the roads that snaked in-between the poorest district in the city and the third-poorest one. If the boys had been older and more world-weary, they would have looked at the contrast in the buildings on either side of the road and reflected on whichever aspects of life were relevant to said contrast. But they were too young for all that adult nonsense, and instead simply made sure to always stick to the relatively richer side of the road.

The houses along the side of the road soon began to thin, the gardens and yards that contained them growing fatter and more fertile as the road pattered away into the more agricultural part of the city’s outskirts. Even though Timothy loved walking among the fields here, especially when the magical gardens at Gareth’s house was the destination, he wouldn’t want to live here. It was too rural to his liking – he needed to be surrounded by far more brick and stone walls before he felt secure. Plus, there was something about the buzz of the city, even at night, which gave him comfort. It was like he was closer to the beating heart of Baskemont, closer to its soul.

Standing at the gates to Gareth’s compound was Neville, a guard whose better years had passed him a while ago. His armour was polished well, but it couldn’t completely conceal the less polished form inside it. He scratched his strangely hairy ear vigorously before waving at the boys.

“Ah, Master Gareth my lad! And young Masters Joseph and Timothy beside you, as always! How has the day treated you yet?”

“Not terribly, Neville,” said Gareth, smiling; he generally didn’t mind Neville too much. “Joseph and Timothy are eager to visit our new arrival!”

“Now now! What tales have you been telling your friends, Master Gareth?” said Neville with a grin as he opened the side gate behind him, “But yes, you lads will not be disappointed, believe you me!”

“Good day, Neville!” blurted Timothy and Joseph before they darted through the gate and into the carefully maintained wilds of the garden.

Gareth led them past an assortment of animals, including a camel from the sweltering Rubah’ra desert far off to the east and a couple of snow wolves from some forests in the frigid Nordlands past the northernmost shores of Faeritalum; the camel had the disinterested expression and settled posture of a person who’d watched too much TV but was too lazy to consider looking at anything else, and the wolves paced restlessly up and down their own cage.

And finally, the three of them stood outside the reason for their presence here this day; the cage with the bear. And as the great furry beast yawned at them, their own jaws hung in awe.

The bear’s coat was a little shabby from its long journey to this cage, and its eyelids were having a hard time staying away from each other, but the bear was still an impressive sight. Its massive forelimbs and its somehow more massive hind legs looked as thick as tree trunks. Its hulking mass of a body resembled a gently quivering boulder that a great thick blanket of brown fur had decided to settle on. Its currently sleepy face bore an undercurrent of suppressed rage; while Gareth was in home territory and was therefore less hesitant to approach the cage, the other two felt that a couple of feet worth of distance between them and the cage was still not enough distance.

“It is… enormous!” stammered Joseph, experiencing the rare sensation of feeling thin.

“Look at those claws! Those great big claws!” said Timothy in awe, the finger he was pointing too shaky to stay on target.

“His name is Barnaby,” said Gareth, touching the bars of the cage to the immense jealousy and respect of his friends, “and Papa says he is gentle most of the time, so long as he is not provoked. But when he is angry, no man can survive his rage!... so says Papa.”

He then quickly jumped back as Barnaby lazily lifted one of his great claws, as if to shoo the little thing away from its cage. Joseph stifled a giggle.

“Hush, you!” said Gareth heatedly, “It may have been annoyed at my presence just then!”

“From what land did your father fetch him, Gareth?” asked Timothy, inching as close to the cage as his frantic heart would allow.

“From Terra Magellar,” said Gareth proudly, as the bear now began to scratch its great glistening nose, “He just returned from a trading voyage there! Papa said that the lands there are filled with wonders beyond the strangest of dreams!”

“Terra Magellar? Is that not where the Indians are?” asked Joseph.

“So you do pay attention in the Peoples of the World class!” teased Timothy.

Joseph snorted. Barnaby snorted almost immediately after, an echo that somehow rumbled louder than the original. The three boys jerked away from the cage once again.

“Those lessons put me to sleep faster than bedtime stories! No, my Papa and Mama told me all I need to know about the Indians in Terra Magellar and their primitive ways.”

“Have not all our Papas and Mamas done the same?” said Gareth, eyeing a stick on the ground nearby and contemplating how impressive it would look if he poked Barnaby with it and managed to get away unscathed.

“Indeed,” said Timothy, following Gareth’s gaze, “Papa says that the sooner those savages accept our ways and worship our God instead of their false ones, the better it will – you cannot be serious, Gareth!”

“Why?” asked Joseph, who had missed out on the presence of the stick completely, “what foolishness does Gareth wish to accomplish now?”

“The cage is stronger than you give it credit for, Timothy,” said Gareth, trying to display bravado but not quite nailing it.

“And the bear is probably stronger than you give it credit for, Gareth!” said Timothy, “You are mad to even consider it!”

Joseph finally caught on.

“You want to poke the bear!” he said, with an odd hint of awe in his voice, “I would gladly pay you money if you actually had the courage to make good on your promise, Gareth!”

“And what exactly do you mean by that, Joseph?” said Gareth a little too haughtily for his own good, “I have courage enough to spare!”

“Then surely big old Barnaby over there should not give you cause for fear!” taunted Joseph.

“Do not encourage him, Joseph you fruitcake!” said Timothy, “That bear’s claws are almost twice as big as your face!”

“It is not my face that will be the target of those claws,” smirked Joseph.

“Nor will it be mine,” said Gareth as he walked over to the stick, “You have seen me do this with plenty of the other animals in the garden. Barnaby will be no different.”

“It will be your funeral that we visit next,” cautioned Timothy as Gareth picked up the stick.

“Oh, stop spraying us with your gloomy notions, Timothy!” jeered Joseph.
As sticks went, this one wasn’t particularly impressive. More dead than alive, it would have splintered if thrown at a wall with a moderate amount of force. It was long though, which boosted Gareth’s confidence just that little bit more.

As he neared the cage with the stick gripped firmly in his hand, a new voice called out to him.

“No! It danger to hit Shaach! Shaach be angry to Master!”

It was a strangely…earthy voice, thought Timothy, the kind of voice a plant might adopt if it learned how to speak. He turned around to find a boy who was probably around their age staring back at them.

The boy was… all wrong. He was still clearly human, but his skin was a weird muddy colour, his nose was the wrong shape, his eyes were too dark – Timothy wasn’t sure he could stop listing all the different ways in which the boy was too different.

“What is that, Gareth?” asked Timothy in a mild level of shock.

“I would like to know this as well,” said Joseph, eyeing the stranger coldly.

“Another trophy from Papa’s voyage,” said Gareth off-handedly; the strange boy was not going to receive the more flowery introduction that the caged animals normally did, “he is apparently an Indian boy. Or perhaps a girl; I cannot say with certainty with that hair. He has been tasked with taking care of the gardens. You!” This last bark was directed at the Indian, “What are you doing here? Have you no other work to keep you busy?”

“I work in Dá’kehs, as Big Master say do,” said the boy, adopting the unsteady stance of someone who is pretty sure that they’ve just landed into hot water of the getting-mugged-in-a-dark-alley variety, but not sure enough to know how to run away from it, “no hit Shaach, Master. Ple-please!”

“I am very sure that Papa gave you all the instructions and rules of our home,” said Gareth coldly, now walking towards the boy, “and chief among them must have been to never question his orders, yes? Did my Papa yet tell you that you must not do anything against our wishes?”

He didn’t realise that he was waving the stick very threateningly at the Indian boy. The Indian boy did though, and reacted by shying away worriedly.

“Big Master say to obey all his wantings, yes. Big Master say to look after big Dá’kehs and to look a-after Master and Big Mistress also – “

“That is right, you must obey all his orders,” said Gareth menacingly, “and as his favoured son, you must obey my wishes as well! Understand?”

“That’s right, Gareth, show this earthworm his place in the order of things!” jeered Joseph from Gareth’s side.

“Yes, I obey, but Master, please – “

“And especially, that means I tell you what to do. You do not tell me what to do! Understand? Tell me you understand this!” said Gareth, whacking the ground with the stick and nearly breaking it in the process.

The dull thwack from the stick caused the boy to shudder. But several different fears were competing for control of his motor functions, and the end result was a very twitchy little wreck that wobbled around the same spot like a faulty top.

“I – yes, Master, I under-understand,” said the boy helplessly.

“Good! Now leave me and my friends me to our entertainment, and go back to your work!” commanded Gareth with the kindness of a lion snarling at a wounded deer.

Joseph and Timothy laughed cruelly as the boy struggled to do just that though, torn by a desire to not get into trouble and a desire to not let a terrible accident run its course.

“Leave him, Gareth, he appears harmless,” said Timothy, patting Gareth on the shoulder, “if not physically capable of actually doing anything useful.”

“I am taken by surprise that your father entrusts the well-being of this magnificent garden to a runt like that!” snarked Joseph, still eyeing the Indian boy coldly.

“Papa hopes he will learn to be more capable of such an undertaking in due time,” said Gareth, now turning back to the bear, “for Indians are said to be talented at matters of agriculture. I have no real issue with him though, so long as he does not give me cause for one!” With this last comment, he too stole a cold glance at the boy, still wobbling around the same spot.

Barnaby had, with all the commotion, decided to temporarily pause his nap and was now glancing curiously at the three boys. Having lumbered up onto his massive limbs, his fur-topped boulder of a frame looked even more impressive, bordering on absolutely terrifying.

“By the grace of our God, he has somehow become even more magnificent!” exclaimed Timothy.

Gareth gleamed as his two friends looked on with more than double the awe they had the last time around. He eyed the left claw of the bear, since it was closest to the side of the cage they were facing. Gripping his stick harder, he began to walk towards the cage…

…and then his stick apparently began to have second thoughts. It was tugging itself away from his hand with a feeble sort of determination.

Somewhat taken aback, Gareth whipped his face around to find the Indian boy trying, with an admirable level of desperation, to grab the stick from Gareth. He flung out his hand in an adamant rage, and the boy was flung onto the grass.

“WHAT DID I TELL YOU!” yelled Gareth at the boy, who was trying to scramble to his feet, “Do not disobey me!”

The Indian boy, almost whimpering, was about to stand back up again when the first strike from the stick lashed across his scrawny body. With a startled yell, he fell back down onto the grass again.

“In our house,” snapped Gareth, his words punctuated by swings of the stick, “When you.” Thwack. “Disobey orders.” Snap. “You must.” Twang. “Be punished!” Thwack.

Joseph and Timothy were at first content to stand aside; it looked like Gareth had this one well in hand, his strong strokes having long ago broken the feeble branch into a shadow of its former self. But as he began to move closer to the Indian boy in order to compensate for the gradually reducing length of the stick, the boy began to swing back at him with what must have been some self-preservation instinct kicking in.

One of his kicks caught Gareth on the jaw, and for a moment, a very short moment stuffed to the brim with tension, Gareth was taken aback. But then he growled, “You did not just do that, you Indian piece of filth!” and began to attack the boy more savagely.

Joseph and Timothy glanced at one another, and then joined in the assault. They weren’t about to let their friend have all the fun.

A small part of Timothy’s mind wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do. After all, the Indian boy hadn’t done anything to him personally, had he? And now here was Timothy kicking and punching away the last few hints of rebellion the boy had left in him. This small part of Timothy’s mind then tentatively raised his hand so that the other parts of Timothy’s mind at this particular meeting all stopped their extremely vigorous conversation so that they could hear what he had to say.

But when the small part of Timothy’s mind began to explain his issue, he was immediately shot down by the head of the table, the biggest and most primal part of Timothy’s mind in that committee, who explained in very clear and not very eloquent terms that the Indian boy was beneath such considerations and deserved every strike to that wrongly coloured body he was getting. The other parts of Timothy’s mind at the meeting all then proceeded to shush the small part of Timothy’s mind into silence before picking up the excited conversation they had been a part of before.

Barnaby the bear looked on with a very conservative kind of curiosity as the three boys continued to beat on that other boy. He thought that their extremely skinny limbs couldn’t possibly hurt that much. But then he considered that the boy who was on the receiving end of all the blows was also extremely skinny. All these skinny little things fighting each other, like agitated mantises. He thought back to the cubs in his sloth back home – home must be so far away from this strange place! – and how they sometimes tried to pick a fight with him. And they were not much smaller than these boys, but their blows were puny! So puny!

The bear realized that the three fairer boys had stopped beating the other boy, and were now beginning to walk away. He looked at the fourth boy, trembling weakly on the ground. He sniffed, and he thought he could smell blood. Hmm, blood. But no, the frail little thing on the ground there was not his kind of food. Besides, he had already been heartily fed some meat by a bunch of bigger men before this, and that meat had been satisfying, although a little strange compared to his usual fare.

He looked at the boy, who continued to tremble and moan on the grass. This was boring, he thought, and then rolled himself up into a foetal position before beginning to nap. The smell of blood was a little disruptive at first, but he quickly adapted to it. It was such a weak smell anyway.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Baskemont Chapter 3 - Wingatoo

(17 years before the Great Plague)

The sun was setting late on this summer day, and it seemed that even then it wasn’t quite ready to set without a fight. It cast brilliant streaks of pink and red all over the darkening blue canvas that was the sky, like a gleeful child with a paint bucket and a license to spill. A few clouds were bravely withstanding the onslaught, while the rest of them had probably decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and shuffled off to someplace else.

Back home in Anglos, the sun would have set over houses and inns with smoke gently wafting from their chimneys, or serene meadows dotted with the occasional clump of trees outside the city walls. Here, there was far more tree than meadow on the horizon, and the ground was a lot hillier and broken up than the flatter, smoother plains outside the city. And the trees – such odd trees they were! Long and pointy and prickly, these trees were.

Captain Timothy Mossridge sighed. They weren’t bad looking trees though, lush and thick with dark green leaves. He had always been a city boy at heart, so woodlands were not really his go-to habitat to begin with, but he could still see himself living in a city with these surroundings. Maybe that was something that could yet happen in future. The Anglish, the people of Anglos, had made a decent several decade’s worth of progress in occupying the lands here in Terra Magellar. And these lands were just as fertile as the ones back home, even if the crops and creatures that grew on them were not as familiar.

He looked at the camp his men were setting up. The tents were almost all set up, shyly flapping in the gentle breeze. A low fire was finding it difficult to understand just why it had to be lit up at this time of day, and the two soldiers who were busy trying to set it up had the look of harried parents trying to convince their child that the green mushy stuff was really good for the child and would it please, please eat it without fussing so much.

On the nights before this one, the men would have brought out a few mugs of ale and begun singing or joking among themselves. But, and Captain Mossridge was happy to see no exceptions to this rule, they were quiet and quickly about their business this evening. According to the scouts who’d just returned, the village they were marching towards was only some hour’s march away. They would probably reach it before noon tomorrow if they set out at the usual time in the morning.

And the thick clumps of forest that surrounded their current clearing could easily hide a sneaky ambush intent on prematurely ending their march if they announced themselves too loudly.

“Captain?”

Timothy turned around. Two soldiers were saluting him.

“At ease, Privates Sandler and Durmont. What news do you report?”

“Very little of it to report, Captain,” said Sandler, a slightly hunched and slightly lopsided yet otherwise athletically built young man, “The perimeter looks clear, but we found some traces of Indians that were in the area a day or so ago.”

“They were mostly traps set for animals, we think,” added Durmont, a chubby-faced and otherwise lean soldier with the kind of cherubic features that made him look dangerously teen-aged if he shaved off his moustache and stubble, “Nooses and the like. Nothing terribly dangerous.”

“That is good news indeed, but we must keep our guards up all the same,” said Timothy, turning again to gaze into the spot in the distance his eyes had rested on before the visit from the patrol, “The village they call Wingatoo is less than a day’s march from here. We are very likely to be surrounded by Indian savages should we make any false moves.”

“Agreed, Captain!” said Sandler and Durmont in unison.

“Good! Fetch Sergeant Dallyworth and Private Marshall and tell them to report to me, would you? You may go.”

“Yes, Sir!” Again in unison.

As the two soldiers walked away in that military manner that almost resembled a march, Timothy watched the tip of the big fiery ball that was the Sun finally give in and slink down past the horizon. The colours it had thrown up into the sky during its last bursts were somehow even more gaudy and wild than the streaks that preceded them. A last cry of rebellion against the dying of the day, a throe of sound made into light.

He liked this outfit of Anglish soldiers, thought Timothy. He hadn’t commanded them for a long time, but he could see that they were above average for their experience level. Given that they were only capturing a single village, he had expected a second rate army with more stragglers than soldiers, so the mostly well-ordered squadron he had been given instead was a nice surprise.

He turned his eyes away from the horizon and began walking towards the two figures Dallyworth and Marshall who were now approaching him.

*

The village of Wingatoo lay before them in the striking heat of a sun just approaching its peak. It was oddly situated at the border of a forest, so that half the village was obscured by outcrops of trees while the other half sent the smoke from its huts waft into uncluttered air. Timothy, even at this somewhat large distance, could see a sense of muted urgency in the movements of the villagers.

The Indians knew they were coming.

But it didn’t matter.

Timothy surveyed his troops once more, a solid, unflinching formation of thickly armoured soldiers stretching several yards to his left and right. They most certainly outnumbered the villagers he could make out; they probably outnumbered those hidden in the trees as well.

He directed his troops to an elevated position a little to the left, which also placed them within archery range of the village.

“Archers, ready!”

A line of soldiers behind him nocked their bows with arrows, some of which were flaming. They took aim, the tips of the sharper arrows glinting in the summer sun.

“Fire!”

And then that bright blue sky was fractured by a flock of spindly arrows, some with fiery hair and the rest with flinty noses, all bearing down on the village of Wingatoo. They struck with fierce precision, and several huts began to catch fire even as Timothy led the charge of his infantry down the slope.

They had covered less than half the distance when they saw the Indian warriors come charging from among the huts. Like the savages they were, their charge lacked the grace and order of Timothy’s men. It simmered with a raw fury though, like a wild beast that had just been slashed in the face.

“Shields!”

As one, his troops swung their shields in front of them as the wailing war cry of the Indians assailed them. As they drew closer, some of them flung crude axes at the front line. Their shields withstood the whizzing heads of the axes. Timothy’s men had been prepared for these.

But it was not just tomahawks that were thrown. Some of the Indians slung balls from which thick acrid smoke bellowed out. These balls did no damage when they landed, but their smoke snuck into the eyes of the soldiers and proceeded to sting and burn at will. Timothy’s men had not been prepared for this.

They still outnumbered the Indians though, and were on average better fighters. As the two armies clashed, even with their tearing eyes, Timothy’s men crushed and sliced their way through the opposition.

“Right flank!”

The thick grove of trees to their right had been a bit of a giveaway, so the Indian ambush that charged in from the right wasn’t as much of a deadly surprise as they would have liked to be. They met a similar fate as their fellow warriors had only moments before. As Timothy and his infantry smashed their foes, another flock of assorted arrows swooped into the village, with many daring to fly into the half of the village obscured by trees.

Perhaps it was the sight of that splintery shower of flame, raining havoc on the village of Wingatoo; perhaps it was the despairing cries and screams of the Indian villagers scrambling for safety. Whatever it was, for a moment, Timothy gazed at the burning rooftops of the forlorn-looking huts. And in that moment, he did not see the axe.

The one that was twirling, soaring through the smoky air towards him.

The one with the very recently sharpened head.

The one that struck him in the gap in his armor between his torso and his right arm.

The one that wedged itself deep into his shoulder, almost slicing his arm off and continuing its dance through the air.

He didn’t see it, but he felt it.

With an anguished yell, he tore the axe out of his arm, which wasn’t the smartest move to make. Blood began to pour out of the wound. He would have attended to it immediately, if not for the fact that the owner of the axe was now bearing down on him, fiery eyes hungry for a scalp.

The Indian was forced to swerve to avoid Timothy’s shield bash though, and before he could recover, another soldier slashed his hide-covered back open with a broadsword. The Indian was violently taken care of, and Timothy used the respite to try to stem the bleeding. When it was down to a manageable level, Timothy cried out in agony.

“Archers, on me!”

The archers were interrupted by another ambush from the other side though, one with a lot more venom and a little more success against their target. Timothy quickly directed some of his men to assist the archers, while he manoeuvred the rest of them into the half-aflame village.

There was far less opposition here; a few souls, courageous to the point of stupidity, attempted to snatch a few kills by surprise, but were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. Women and children screamed in terror and flaming villagers cried in pain as Timothy’s men poured into the heart of the village.

He grinned with grim satisfaction as he struck an enraged woman with the back of his armoured fist. He wondered what she had expected to achieve with a mad dash like that, flimsily clad and scrawny as she was; he may have been gravely injured, but not to the extent that she could add anything of note to that injury.

He held his men in the more open half of the village until the remainder of his troops re-joined them. So far, there had been some injuries such as his, but only a few casualties among his men, as he had expected. He would have liked there to be none, but even a one-sided battle such as this one was bound by the rules of reality; no army in the history of Faeritalum had ever entered a battle and come out completely unscathed.

When all his men had gathered together once again, they swept into the forested half of the village, a swarm of iron-clad men laying waste to everything that was not already broken down or burnt to a cinder. Another ambush, a final fleeting gasp of valour by the Injun villagers, was swatted away with the ease of a bear smacking a rat away with its claws.

When the final dregs of opposition had been cut down with force, their war cries no longer containing the gusto they had had at the beginning of the battle, Timothy’s men proceeded to pillage the huts that weren’t completely destroyed, and round up the women, children and other villagers that hadn’t put up a fight or been killed in their feeble attempts to do so.

And Timothy grimly smiled once again.

He waited for all the prisoners to be lined up and kicked roughly to the ground in front of him before he pulled out the scroll. The words had been translated to the gibberish language that these Indians spoke, or so he had been told. He winced as his arm stung him once more, like the bite of a whip, and gritted his teeth to chase the pain away faster. They would learn the Common Tongue soon enough, he thought to himself, as well they should.

His first words demanded gratitude, for their lives had been mercifully spared. They were now about to join the most important, if not the greatest, civilization in all of Entropea, and they were to become inhabitants of Faeritalum, the crowning masterpiece of Entropea’s great creator. They were to accept that there was only one God, and that he, in his infinite greatness, had created the Men of Anglos, the greatest of the kingdoms of Faeritalum, and the Men of Romantiga, and the Men of Lativiéne, and the Men of Düschland, and even the Men of Zyltravania, all as his favoured people on his favoured continent of Faeritalum, and the other lesser races of Entropea were meant to serve them.

In return, Timothy read fervently from the scroll, they would be introduced to a society and culture far superior to their own, and be granted great knowledge and understanding of the ways of the world of Entropea, and in doing so learn their true place in said world. This was their chance to repent for their ignorance, for their primitive pasts, and in doing so possibly earn a place among God’s favoured people in Heaven after their time among the living had come to an end.

In the gibberish language of the Indians, it became more of a mouthful than Timothy would have liked, even though it wasn’t his first time reading the words. He couldn’t help but feel like he was trying to chew a strange cut of meat as he spoke. He also wondered if the children among the prisoners could even understand the words being told to them. He immediately concluded that it didn’t matter – they had plenty of time to figure it out later.

There was more to read on the scroll, but his arm started acting up again, a worryingly nagging pain that refused to be put to bed and ignored. Timothy decided to wrap things up prematurely, and ordered his men to begin the march back to base.

Their work here was done. More or less.