It gives me considerable pleasure to post the finale of The Bard's Apprentice. (Sooner than announced, I know.) My thanks to everyone who followed Fox all the way along his journey. Stories are written to be read and now this one has fufilled its purpose! I hope you like how it finishes up.
They set off within two hours. In that time Grandy had trained one of the smaller frolic bears to carry Fox on his back. Most of the time was spent teaching it to crouch, so that Fox could climb on and off. Only then did Grandy tell him that it was the same bear who had snatched him earlier.
“I put you on him deliberately”, he said. “He’d already made friends with you.”
Fox could still feel the ache in his ribs, from the frolic bear’s friendliness. “How do you tell them apart?”, he asked. “They all look the same to me.”
“I’d probably find it hard to tell people apart by now”, said Grandy, a little sharply.
It was quite comfortable sitting on the frolic bear, once he’d stopped worrying that it was going to throw him off. His legs hung down its shoulders, and its hide was so thick, he almost doubted it could feel him clutching the skin of its neck.
Now the delight of meeting Grandy was fading a little, fear began to gnaw at Fox once more. Even if I survive this, he thought, this is what it’s always going to be like, being a Bard. Or maybe not always. But a lot of the time. He began to wonder whether he really should have been so happy to become a part of Luria. But what was the point of thinking like that? Better concentrate on here and now.
“How do I…steer him?”, asked Fox, as they set off, the two frolic bears carrying him and Grandy in the lead, the rest following behind. There were perhaps three dozen. The smell was almost unbearable at first, but Fox quickly got used to it. He found it harder to stop imagining all those bears stampeding and running over him.
“Don’t worry about steering him”, said Grandy. “They just follow me”. And that’s what seemed to be happening, Fox saw. All the frolic bears were watching Grandy, lurching after him. Grandy had been telling the truth; they did move a lot more quietly than one would expect. He hadn’t noticed it before.
It was pitch dark, but they didn’t want to waste any time. Fox was nervous at first but Grandy assured him that the frolic bears had perfect night vision, and it was true; they moved through the darkness as confidently as they would move through daylight.
While they marched—it was a bumpy ride, as Grandy had warned, but Fox was learning to balance so that he wasn’t jolted quite as much—Grandy told him his plans. They were close enough to talk by only slightly raising their voices.
“I don’t know the country”, said Grandy, “and neither do you, but we don’t really need to. There’s only one sensible choice. These frolic bears are mountain beasts. If we travel along the high ground, we can survey the terrain. The thieves willl probably build campfires. I know there are mountains for hundreds of miles around here.”
“How do you know they won’t just pass us by?”
“Well, they’re going to follow water, that’s the most likely thing. That’s what this Castle chap would have given them as a landmark, I’ll warrant. And of course they can use it for cooking and cleaning and drinking.”
“The Majestic flows for almost two hundred miles”, said Fox, remembering the broad stream that ran a few miles west of the Ezwayna settlement, and that they had folowed through the last stage of their great trek.
“The Majestic. Exactly”, said Grandy, pointing a finger in the air. “I don’t know that there are mountains that follow it, but I know that it flows south-west. If we keep on in this direction, we’ll hit it.”
“I hope we don’t hit them first”, muttered Fox.
“Don’t worry”, said Grandy, cheerfully. “They should be the ones worrying.”
After that, they travelled through the mountainous terrain in silence. From time to time it became so woody they had to make long detours. Grandy looked so irritated by these, he looked like he wanted to burn the trees to the ground.
“Why can’t we just climb over them?”, asked Fox.
“These bears can climb benefactor trees, or decent-sized pines”, said Grandy. “But these…these pygmy trees are different. They’d end up buckling under their weight and cutting into them. They’re built for extremes, the frolic bears. They’re no good with anything else.”
Just like you, thought Fox, torn between fear for Grandy and pleasure at seeing him so excited.
After about five hours steady travel, they rested. The frolic bears formed a circle around them. “They’ve taken to doing that”, said Grandy, in a grumbling voice, but he couldn’t hide that it pleased him. They watched the old man and the boy as they talked; two circle of glowing green eyes in the darkness. It was unsettling.
Grandy was wearing a black canvas backpack, the only thing (he said) that he had taken from the Ezwayna village, beside clothes (which had all worn out) and a pipe (which was useless, with nothing to smoke in it). He produced handfuls of nuts and the thick-skinned, sweet fruit the Ezwayna called the happy-apple.
“Plenty to feed us there”, said Fox, looking at the bulging sack.
“Heroics can’t be performed on an empty stomach”, said Grandy.
They crunched their food in silence, and talked about Jasma and Truevow. Grandy was more grieved about Jasma’s plight than Fox had expected him to be; he had never heard either of them say a good word about the other. When Fox described the vision of Truevow he had seen in the lake of fire, Grandy shook his head angrily.
“That young man had more guts than anyone I’ve seen in a long, long time”, said Grandy. “Even if he did speak enough nonsense for ten. I was hard on him once or twice. I regret it now.”
The same goes for me, thought Fox.
They set off again, and within an hour they had glimpsed the moon and the stars reflected in a valley below, like a piece of sky on the ground. It was the Majestic. They followed it from a distance, hoping that the thieves were still far away, that they would not pass them in the dark.
Dawn was making the sky pale when they stopped. Both of them were exhausted; they had not spoken for miles. The landscape had hardly changed. There was no fear of running out of mountains; everywhere they looked, the rose and fell like a frozen sea-storm.
Grandy made a small fire in a grassy hollow of land, surrounded by a screen of tall pine trees. “They should still be some distance away”, he said, “but we don’t want to take any chances. Sleep for an hour or two, Fox. I’ll watch.”
“What about you?”, asked Fox, who wanted to fall asleep at that very moment.
“Don’t worry about me”, said Grandy. “I stopped sleeping four or five years ago.”
The frolic bears were gathered outside the hollow, beyond the trees. It had been difficult to keep them so far away; they wanted to come into the little hollow, which would hardly hold half of them.
When Fox woke up—it was hardly morning—Grandy was gone. Panicking, he looked in every direction. Eventually he saw him, standing one of the highest branches of a pine tree, watching for the thieves.
They ate and they resumed their journey. Even Grandy was less cheerful now. Both of them felt that this was going to be the day they ran into the attackers; the day that the destiny of the remaining Ezwayna was decided. Not to mention their own fate.
Fox remembered the Blue Stag, the prophecy that the first person to see it would decide the fate of the Ezwayna. Maybe it wasn’t such nonsense after all, he thought. The thought gave him no pleasure.
They kept to the high ground, scanning the valleys and the plains beneath them, and towards dusk they saw a fire, perhaps ten or fifteen miles away.
“Her beauty shone at me across the crowded street”, said Grandy, in a sing-song tone.
“What?”, asked Fox, feeling a little sick with fear.
“Just a stupid romantic song that was popular twenty years ago”, said Grandy.
Twenty years ago, though Fox. Would they be still alive twenty hours from now?
“This is the plan”, said Grandy, his eyes not moving from the tiny light in the distance, his voice grim but exhilarated. “We hide in that woody area there, about a mile away, and we wait for them to pass us. Then we strike”. His long finger pointed out the hiding place.
“Shouldn’t we wait for them to stop for the night?”, asked Fox, shuddering at the thought of meeting them so soon. “When they’re asleep?”
Grandy turned to look at Fox, shock on his face. “When they’re asleep?”, he asked. “You mean, sneak up?”
“They have guns”, said Fox, surprised.
“Guns or no guns”, said Grandy, and his voice almost quivered, “I have no intention of attacking men when they’re lying down. Even men like these.”
Frustration welled up inside Fox like water bubbling in a pot. Years and years of frustration with Grandy was suddenly rising inside him.
“What the hell does that matter?”, he said. The frolic bear beneath him shifted uneasily, wondering if Grandy was under attack. Fox ignored it. “There are maybe three hundred people in the village. Babies, some of them. I don’t care if we’re sneaking. Do you think these people care who they shoot?”
Grandy glared at Fox, and from the fury in his eyes, Fox knew that he was listening to him.
“Life isn’t always a game”, said Fox, calmer now. “And you can’t play with other peoples’ lives.”
The fury in Grandy’s expression became more intense with every second, but then—suddenly—it was gone. He shook his head, sighed heavily, and spoke the words that Fox knew were like a knife in his own flesh: “You’re right.” He looked back out at the little, lonely light and glared at that, furious that he was forced to be so sneaky. His jaws chewed on nothing, restlessly.
Fox felt as if he had thrown a stone to the ground and it had floated into the air instead. He hadn’t expected Grandy to agree. But he hid his astonishment, and began to prepare himself for the night. He had never even heard a gun fired before. He was sure that was going to change soon. He looked at the frolic bears standing behind them—still staring at Grandy, with a look like adoration—and wondered if those thick hides could resist bullets.
Far away, the fire went out. The thieves were resuming their march.
They gave the thieves about two hours to move on, and then they began to follow them. Fox had thought the frolic bears moved like ghosts, but, now that he was so frightened of them being heard, they seemed thunderously loud. Most of the land was well-covered, and uneven enough to allow them to move through little valleys and behind folds in the earth. But from time to time they had to move through more open country, and Fox wondered how a platoon of two dozen eight- or nine-foot bears could possibly be missed, even by the least observant.
Eventually they caught sight of them, moving about half a mile ahead. They seemed tired after their great trek; only now Fox began to appreciate just how valuable coldire stones were, now he saw that these men were willing to cross a vast distance in pursuit of them. Distant as they were, Fox could see how shabbily they were dressed, in a mix of styles and garments; most of them were faded and threadbare with the years. They had five wagons, which could not have been more different from Swan’s shiny vehicle. The paint upon them was cracked, and there were boards missing from the body. Fox was glad that he could not see these mens' faces. He thought that would scare him even more.
All day they followed them. Now that Grandy had accepted the idea of a surprise attack at night, all his enthusiasm had returned. He may have agreed that this was no game, but nobody could have told that from his manner. He looked like a cat stalking a bird; Fox had never seen anybody so focused, so ready for action.
All day Fox longed for the night, and dreaded it. The day seemed to drag on forever, and Fox was expecting bullets to fly at them every moment. He imagined the whish sound that they must make; like arrows, except louder.
The men they were pursuing stopped twice that day, and seemed to rest for hours. Fox and Grandy could hear their singing from here; he had somehow expected their songs to be loud and aggressive, but—though he could not understand the words, which were in a different language—they seemed like gentle, sad songs to him.
The third time they stopped, Fox thought he was going to throw up with nerves. He looked across at Grandy, and envied the look of sheer pleasure on the old man’s face.
“I’m sure they’re going to put somebody on guard duty”, said Grandy, while the thieves were putting up their white tents. “If only to watch for wild beasts.” The irony of that struck him, and he laughed out loud.
“For God’s sake, be quiet”, said Fox. He already thought the breathing of the excited bears, which seemed deafening to him, must alert them soon.
“We’ll give him a few minutes to get bored”, said Grandy, hardly seeming to have heard the boy. “Then I’m going to creep up and jump him. Now, I’ve never been able to train the bears to stay behind when I rush forward. Once I do that, they’re all going to follow, so be ready.”
“I’m ready”, said Fox, and it sounded too much like a whimper for his own liking. But once again, Grandy didn’t seem to notice. His mind was in the camp ahead of them, that was screened from them by nothing more than high bushes and a few trees.
Eventually, the tents had been set up, the singing had died down, and a single sentry stood by the fire, staring into the night sky for the most part. Fox found himself remembering the Dreaming Pool, and he felt grateful for the memory. He was sure that, without the memory of that deep tranquility, he would have been paralysed with fear now. He felt close enough to that already.
“Here goes”, said Grandy. He gave Fox a grin that he would always remember, and spoke a word into the ear of his frolic bear, which was—of course—the largest of them all. The bear hunched forward and began to crawl swiftly through the grass. The other bears shuffled restlessly, and Fox thought they were going to stampede before Grandy even made his move.
Then there was silence for a minute or two, apart from the restless panting of the bears around him. It was a cloudy night without stars, but the moonlight gave the Majestic river, just visible through the tangle of trees and bushes, a pale gleam.
Then there was a scream, and it made Fox’s entire body tense with horror. It made him dig his hands tighter around the frolic bears’ neck, and it was good that he did that, because the frolic bears surged forward at that moment. It was like nothing he had ever felt before; it was like riding a gale-force wind. He almost believed that the ground beneath them was going to give way.
They leapt over the bushes, though they were eight feet high in places. Fox expected to strike his head against a branch any moment as they went over the trees, but the next moment they were hurtling into the camp of the thieves.
Now there was shouting everywhere; he tried to look around for Grandy, but it was impossible in the chaos. The frolic bears were tearing through the tents like they were paper, and pouncing on the people inside them. Now Fox realised that their mawling of him, no matter how painful, had only ever been in play. He saw now what the frolic bears could do when they were attacking, and he would never forget it, no matter how much he tried.
They went straight for the throats of their victims, and killed with one sweep of their claws. Some of the marauders were simply crushed under their weight. Everywhere he looked, blood was gushing from the necks of the attackers, bodies were lying on the ground, with limbs jutting out at the most horrible, unnatural angles. The air was made of screams. Fox felt terrified himself; later he tried to imagine how frightened their victims must have been, and he always failed. Shrill whinnies mingled with the other sounds, from the horses that had been tethered a little way off from the camp.
There seemed to be hundreds of frolic bears. Most of the thieves seemed to have been slaughtered already. Fox would throw up later, remembering that sight, but now it hardly registered in his mind.
Then the guns started firing. Some of thieves had reached their rifles at last. He heard cries of pain from some of the frolic bears, and if he had once thought the cry of the frolic bear was desolate, it was nothing compared to the howls of anguish that echoed through the countryside now. It was if the land itself was crying with pain, and every howl seemed to increase the fury of the bears’ assault.
Then Fox heard the bear upon which he was sitting give one of those bone-chilling howls—he felt it pass through his flesh—and the beast buckled beneath him. He tumbled from it, and then he was plummeting through the air, and then the ground struck him like a massive fist.
For a few moments he was reeling with the shock of the impact. He had landed on his side, and his arm shrieked with pain. The madness of screams and howls seemed to whirl around him, and he thought he was slipping into unconsciousness, but then he was woken by the feeling of something hard pressing against the back of his skull.
It was a gun, he realised. He could smell the sweat and dirt of the man standing behind him, could hear his terrified breathing. Then a boot stamped down on him, coming down hard on his hip. He cried out with pain. The gun pressed harder against his head, and he forced himself to stop.
Suddenly a roar drowned out all the noise of the tumult, a human roar. Everything froze almost immediately. Fox looked up. Grandy was standing in the middle of the camp, on top of his frolic bear. He had his arms extended, and he his eyes were fixed past Fox, towards the man with his boot on Fox’s hip. For the first time, he saw fear in Grandy’s eyes.
Whenever he thought of Grandy in years to come, this was the picture that would come to him first; Grandy sitting on top a wild beast, his arms spread, holding back the almighty force of the the frolic bears with his sheer force of will.
Fox looked around, while barely moving head. There were only four or five brigands standing now. The carnage in the camp was beyond all description; bodies were lying everywhere, and the stench of blood was nauseating.
Only one other of the brigands held a rifle, which he was pointing at Grandy. The others seemed too dazed and bloodied to even think of looking for their weapons, and one of them had the paws of a frolic bear around his head. He looked about to faint. The only sound now was the whinnying of the horses and the groans of the dying.
Grandy slowly removed the canvas pack from his back, and opened it. Once again, the gun dug harder against Fox's skull, the boot clamped down harder on his hip. The thief beside him shouted something to the man with the rifle, and the man with the rifle—a lanky fellow with long, stringy hair and a long neck—nodded, his eyes wild.
Grandy took something out of the bag, and gently rolled it along the ground. In the darkness, it was invisible until it stoppped a few inches from Fox’s face. He saw what it was now; it gleamed in the low light of the campfire, which had somehow been neither stamped out nor broken out to a blaze. It was a coldfire stone.
He could tell that the thieves recognised it, too. The pressure on his hip relaxed, and the eyes of the man with the rifle were fixed on the stone as if he had been enchanted.
One of the other men roused out of his trance, and walked slowly to the gem, his own gaze held by its glow. He knelt down, picked it up as if it might be a poisonous spider, and examined it. Then wild excitement crossed his features, and he shouted something to the man behind Fox.
Grandy threw another, and another. This time his eyes were upon Fox. He was looking into his eyes, as if he was the only part of the entire scene that he could really see.
The man who had picked up the first one grappled for these, and he became more excited every moment. He was almost manic, holding them up to the meagre light and shouting hoarse cries to his cronies. The man behind Fox barked something back—it sounded like a caution—and the face of the other man became more sober, even wary. The lanky man with the rifle was watching Grandy again, his gun pointed out towards him.
Grandy lifted the sack in the air, enticingly. He mimed throwing it towards the men, and then he pointed it at Fox. He waved his hands towards himself. He was staring at the man behind Fox as if he was trying to stare a hole through him.
After a few moments, Fox felt the awful pressure on his skull disappear, and the foot on his hip drew back. Then it kicked him firmly in the backside, and the man spat out an order at him. He couldn’t understand the words, of course, but he understood the meaning perfectly.
He picked himself up with difficulty, swayed on his feet, and stumbled across the ground, stepping over bodies, towards where his grandfather stood in the pale moonlight.
When he passed the man who had been catching the stones, Fox heard something fly past his head. He heard it land on the ground some feet behind him, with a dull thump. He heard the rattle of coldfire stones spilling along the ground, and the cry of the man he had just passed. But he kept on running. He didn’t want to see what was behind; he didn’t want to see the gun that had just been pressed into his head.
Grandy did not look at him as he ran to his side. He was still glaring at the man who had put the gun to Fox’s head. The look in Grandy’s eyes frightened Fox. It was the sort of look that would make a man pull a trigger.
“Go”, shouted Grandy, sweeping his hand in the direction from which the thieves had come. “Go. Go. Go!”.
Only now did he turn to Fox. His eyes were still cold with fury, but there was anxiety in his voice when he spoke. “Are you alright, boy?”
“Yes”, said Fox, though his body seemed made out of pain.
“Can you get up on a bear?”, asked Grandy, and Fox nodded.
His grandfather called to a bear who was standing a little behind Fox—most of the bears were now huddled around Grandy—in that tone that he seemed to reserve for communicating with his wild friends. The frolic bear lurched forward, and crouched for Fox to climb up. It hurt to do so, but he managed it, and he clung tightly to the beast.
Now he looked up, and saw that four or five of the creatures were lying on the ground of the camp, motionless. He still did not look at the man who had held him hostage.
“Go!, Grandy shouted to the thieves again, waving his hand one more time, and then he shouted something to the frolic bears. They entire troop turned as one, and then they were moving back through the thin screen of trees. Every moment Fox expected a shot to ring out, but none did. The frolic bears climbed over the high wall of shrubbery, and hurtled through the countryside, away from the bodies of their fallen. Still no shots rang out, and within a few minutes Fox began to breathe more easily. The thieves—those who had survived—had got what they’d come for.
They moved through the night for about three hours. The sleeping countryside was so peaceful, Fox found it difficult to believe they had just witnessed such slaughter. Every mile they put between them and the place where it had happened made him feel better. But he was still shivering when they stopped by a small stream.
They cupped water from it with their hands, and slurped it down in silence. Grandy produced some fruit from his pockets, and they chewed on it, while the frolic bears leaned over and drank noisily from the stream. They looked so gentle now.
Eventually, Grandy spoke. “I would have liked to settle that swine who put the gun to your head”, he said. His eyes blazed.
“It doesn’t matter”, said Fox. He couldn’t feel angry at the man; he didn’t think of him as a man at all, but a natural force, the embodiment of all malice. I didn’t see his face because he doesn’t have one, he thought. No face would be evil enough.
To stop thinking about him he said: “I didn’t even know you had the stones”.
Grandy shrugged. “They’re hardly worth mentioning”, he said. “What madness makes people put such ridiculous value on such useless things?”. Then he gave a grim smile, a smile that seemed even more sinister under the moonlight. “One consolation is that those stones will be nothing but a curse to them. Like the stones they tie around rogues’ necks when they throw them in the river. I’d be surprised if any of them see another year. If they make it home in the first place, that is.”
“What are you going to do now?”, asked Fox, looking at Grandy.
Grandy stood a little straighter, pleased to be asked his plans. “I could go back to the mountains, with my bears”, he said, glancing with affection at the creatures who were still sucking up water, thirsty from their exertions. “That would suit me just fine. But I think I’m needed elsewhere. The story will reach the Anarchy now that the Ezwayna have an enormous store of wealth. They’re going to need protection. In the form of my hairy army.” The old man smiled. There was more than a little self-satisfaction in the smile. “It will nice to be useful again. Instead of the embarrassing old has-been smoking in the corner.”
Fox was going to say, you were never that, but he thought Grandy would scowl at being contradicted. It was so damned hard to know the right thing to say to Grandy. He had spent so many years trying, and he nearly always failed.
Instead, he said: “Can you tell Armala something?”
Grandy’s face fell a little. “The storyteller?” He nodded briskly. “I suppose I can do that.”
“Tell her she was right about everything”, said Fox, thinking of the hours he had spent looking into storyteller’s fire, that seemed to him now like a not-so-distant relation to the Lake of Fire in Luria.
Grandy frowned, but he nodded again, rather reluctantly. “I’ll tell her you said she was right about everything”, he said. “And now, Fox, it’s time to go, if you can. The Ezwayna are safe. Truevow and Jasma need your help.”
Fox nodded, and looked down. Grandy was right. But when he left—and somehow, he knew that Luria would let him go, now he’d done what he’d been sent here for—how could he know he’d ever see his grandfather again? He didn’t want to go without saying what was in his heart. He might regret that to the end of his days. But how could he be sentimental with Grandy? It was impossible.
But it was Grandy who saved him. He felt the old man’s hand on his shoulder, and he looked up. Grandy was smiling at him, all his wrinkles shadowed in the moonlight, his eyes glinting.
“You’ll grow to be a better man than I ever was, Fox”, he said, and Fox could hear the sincerity in his voice.
Fox looked down again. This was hard. He had been hiding his emotions from Grandy for so long, how could he reveal them now, in a moment?
But then he looked up, and the words came of their own accord.
“I’ll try my best to be as good a man”, he said, and in the pleasure on his Grandy’s face, he could see that—for once—he had found just the right words.
And then, more quickly than before, the scene before his eyes disappeared in a purple glow, and Grandy’s hand was no longer on his shoulder. Later on, Fox would realise that Luria had taken him away at just the right moment; that no other goodbye could have been better than that one.
And then the purple glow was disappearing, like steam in a kitchen when a window has been opened. Behind it, he saw darkness flecked with spots of bright light. Within a few moments, he realised where he was; standing in a city street, in what could only be Arganth.
It looked to Fox like a rough street. He was standing outside a tavern, and there were several very drunk men hovering outside, noisily conducting one of the endless and pointless arguments that drunkards love so much. The houses in the area were low. Some of them had thatched roofs. Most of them had raggedy-looking washing hanging out their windows to dry. Children were playing on the street, long past any time respectable children should be in bed.
There was a little crowd outside the tavern, most of them relatively sober. He could not read the name above the door, of course, but a hanging sign showed a picture of three bottles being juggled by what looked like a ghost, glowing green. It had three floors, and a slate roof. Wooden shutters were closed across the windows of the first floor, but he could see orange light from between the chinks.
The door was open, but a huge man with long hair and a frown was standing guard by it.
Fox was standing across from the tavern, and the small crowd stood between him and the door. So when he saw Truevow walking towards the tavern— he made out his face, unmistakeable in a beam of light escaping from the windows—it took him a moment to get past the huddle of figures. By that time Truevow was inside.
Fox tried to follow him, but he wasn’t surprised when the doorman stopped him with one lazily outstretched arm. He muttered something to Fox, in whatever language they spoke here, and then his eyes were already back scanning the figures around him. Fox backed away, nervously edging towards a shadowy spot where he hoped nobody would see him. Some of the people in the crowd looked like they could be dangerous. They looked too much like the men that had been on their way to pillage the Ezwayna.
He wondered about Truevow. He had looked pinched, miserable. He was wearing a heavy coat that looked far too big for him, and his hair was ruffled and longer than usual. Fox remembered the image of Truevow after a pounding, that he had seen in the Lake of Fire, and felt astonished that he was haunting a place like this, of all places. Well,at least he had survived the beating of the brute who had dragged him away, that time.
Fox stood outside the tavern for several minutes, wondering what to do next, when he saw another face he recognised, crossing the street, moving towards the tavern at a brisk pace. It took him a moment to realise it was Jasma.
She had always been thin, but now she looked gaunt, almost sickly. She was wearing a greatcoat, too, although this one fitted better than Truevow’s, and looked several times more expensive. A hood covered her blonde hair, the hair that had caused such a sensation amongs the Ezwanya men. He had not seen any fair-headed women in Arganth, either.
He rushed towards her, and reached her when she was edging past a young man who was sprawled on the rough paving stones. He was singing a song about death or glory to himself.
When Jasma saw Fox, she flinched, and started to say something in the language of this place. It sounded like she had only a crude mastery of it.
“Jasma!”, said Fox, lifting his arms in the air. “It’s me! Fox.”
She had been hurrying past him, but she stopped now, and stared in his direction. When she realised who it was—Fox guessed she had hardly even heard his words, she seemed so anxious—a mixture of emotions passed across her face. Fox could read them easily; she had always been easy to read. There was joy to see somebody she knew, someone familiar. But there was something like horror, too. Now somebody would know that her marriage had been a disaster.
But, after a few moments of staring, she stepped forward and gave Fox a tight hug. It lasted for perhaps ten seconds, and Fox heard her sob.
But when she drew back, she had wiped all gratitude from her expression. Instead, she stared at him suspiciously, and asked—in the voice she had always used when he was naughty—“Have you been doing your vanishing trick again, Fox?”
Fox, despite everything, felt like laughing. But he stopped himself, and instead he replied, “I can’t help it, Jasma. It just happens. What are you doing out here, now?”
Jasma’s face tightened, and he was expecting her to give him a lecture—to remind him that her actions were none of her business, that she was older and wiser—but the very next moment she burst into tears, and threw her hands over his face. She sobbed violently, and—Fox could hear—angrily. Her shoulders shook.
Fox looked around nervously, to see if they had drawn the attention of the little assembly. But nobody was watching them; they were too wrapped up in their own discussions and arguments. A woman weeping on a city street was hardly worth a look to them. He turned back, and waited for Jasma’s tears to stop.
“You’re too young to understand these things, Fox”, she said, lowering her hands from her face slowly. Her eyes looked to be swollen and round from more than one bout of tears. “But Greatcastle turned out to be even worse than most men. He turned out to be a complete swine. In fact—“ she looked at the young man sprawled on the ground feet away, and then at the little crowd by the tavern door, and she dropped her voice—“I’m just after turning him in to the police.”
“What?”, asked Fox, stepping back in surprise.
“He did something…terrible”, said Jasma, and now Fox could see a flicker of guilt in her eyes. It was gone in a moment, but it had been as sharp as a cat’s claws. “I heard him discussing it with his…his bitch of a servant”, she said, and in that instant she looked so furious that Fox wondered if she had murdered the two of them.
“The Anarchy has police?”, asked Fox, feeling that the entire world was in a frenzy tonight.
“The Legislatrix is putting order on this godless place”, said Fox, managing to look indignant, as if Fox had criticised the ruler of the Seven Nations. “And for once, women get as good a hearing as men. I went to the Scarlets—that’s the name for the police in this city—and I gave them proof. Proof of what he’d done.”
“Proof?” What proof?”
Jasma looked down. Fox could see that she didn’t want to admit what Greatcastle had done, what she had made possible by a repeated word.
“He…gave some information to criminals”, she said, speaking slowly, as if Fox was an idiot. “When I heard him talking about it”—and the murderous look came over her again—“I went about looking for proof, so I could turn him in. That’s what good citizens do, Fox. And I found it. In a drawer, that he always kept locked. But I knew where he kept the key.
“It was a letter to another…criminal”. She made a face, as if the word made her want to be sick. “I’m not fluent in this language of theirs’ yet—its rules don’t make any sense—but I knew enough to read it. It was looking for a loan of money, which he’d pay back when he got the money for…for the information he gave. It was all I needed. I’ve just handed it in.”
Fox could understand why she was so scared. But he knew the time had come for plain-speaking.
“Jasma”, he said, managing with difficulty not to flinch from that ever-critical gaze. “I know what the information was. I know about the coldfire stones. I know what happened.”
Jasma’s stare worked its way through a whole series of emotions in a few seconds; shock, indignation, rage and shame were just some of them. But before she could speak, Fox had grabbed her shoulders. She looked down at this hands, and that back at Fox, as if wondering if he had gone insane. For Fox to grab her…?
“But Jasma”, said Fox, determined not to be frightened by her. “It’s alright. Grandy and I stopped it. The criminals are never going to reach the Ezwayna. The village is safe. It’s alright.”
Jasma kept staring at him, more emotions passing through across her face; confusion, hope, relief, gratitude. She abandoned her act of icy dignity, and pressed Fox with questions. He only half-answered them—he did not want to stand in the open, explaining the turns of his recent life to Jasma, who would not believe most of it, anyway—but eventually, he could see that she was convinced. He could almost see her becoming lighter, the crushing weight of guilt falling away from her.
But then she shook her head, as if dismissing the entire business from her mind, and she was almost the old Jasma again. “But Fox, I have more to worry about. I have nowhere to stay now. I don’t know anybody in this city, except for you, and…”
She trailed off, obviously reluctant to even speak the name of the man she had despised for so long. Fox said it for her. “Truevow. I just saw him going into the taven, a few minutes ago. I tried to get in but the man at the door stopped me.”
Hope and alarm flared up in Jasma’s eyes. She looked at the tavern, and said, softly: “I’ve seen him there, sometimes….passing him in my carriage…”
He could see that pride was fighting a war with desperation in her heart. He remembered the Pool of Dreams, his memories of Jasma, of the tales she told of her childhood. He realised that, for most of her life, nothing but pride had kept Jasma’s spirit alive. It was not so surprising that pride still ruled her now.
“Bring me in”, he said, taking Jasma’s hand. “Tell the man on the door I’m your brother or something. I’ll speak to Truevow. I’ll tell him everything that happened.”
Jasma paused for a long moment, the struggle still going on inside her. Then she nodded, and said: “Alright. Yes. Very good, Fox. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Fox thought it would be difficult to get past the man at the door, even with Jasma. As it happened, it was no trouble at all. Jasma and the guard exchanged a few words in the language of this country, Jasma obviously finding it difficult to put a sentence together. The guard was grinning at Jasma in the same way the young Ezwayna men grinned at her. Fox decided there were some mysteries he would never understand.
The night air had been cool, though not cold. The air in the taven was sweltering, and heavy with a confusion of smells; sweat, beer, food. It was a busy night. The tavern was not full, but it was three-quarters of the way there. Jasma moved closer to Fox, grasping him by the arm. She looked around the long room in pure disgust. Fox had listened to many long lectures from her about the evils of taverns.
He looked around, too. It was a very simple tavern. There was a huge fire in the centre of the room, opposite to the entrance. Over the fire, there was a smoky, faded painting showing a man drowning in a river of beer. He didn’t look too upset about it, though his face was almost impossible to make out after so many years of soot.
There were fires at either end, too. There was a hatch to the right of the fire, through which a sour-faced old man was passing drinks in stout glasses. Most people were standing up, but some were sitting on long benches, more than a few doubled over, their heads resting on their knees.
There was straw on the floor, and a fat, one-eyed cat sleeping in front of the great fire. A man laughed hysterically in one corner. “One thing I would have put past Truevow”, whispered Jasma into Fox’s ear. “Coming into this sort of place”.
“I see him!”, said Fox, who had glimpsed Truevow’s face to the left, at the very end of the room.
There was a huddle of people there, hiding the fire from view. All Fox could see of it was its glow lapping the faces and the walls around it. There were perhaps fifty people standing around. Perhaps more. Some of them were sitting at more of the long benches. Truevow had been sitting down.
“I’ll go and talk to him”, said Fox, seeing the proud reluctance written across Jasma’s features.
“Be careful, Fox”, said Jasma, and her voice was tight with worry.
“I will”, he said, making his way across the room. Passing the huge fireplace made his skin tingle with heat. But feeling that made him realise that the pain of his fall from the frolic bear seemed to have disappeared. That purple glow must have healing properties, he thought.
And then he saw what Truevow was doing.
He was playing Spiral, and the whole crowd was watching him. A board had been set up on a small table between two benches. It was the brown board, the earliest level of the game. The pieces were simple spheres, squares and diamonds; the correct pieces for this stage. At least Hardcastle got that right, Fox thought.
He walked around the little crowd watching the game, making his way towards Truevow, wondering what he was going to say.
When he could see the other player, he was surprised at the elegance of his clothes, the clean-shaven face, the neatly arranged hair. He looked out of place in this bad-smelling den, but he didn’t look like a man anybody would bother. He was almost as brawny as the man at the door, and right now his face was red with anger. He didn’t seem pleased at the way the game was going. But everybody else did.
Now Fox was standing only feet away from Truevow. He saw that Truevow still had the hard, cold look that had come upon him after Jasma left the village. His face was still bruised and cut, and he looked almost as skinny as Jasma did. But where she looked thin with sorrow, he looked thin with hunger.
He was entirely absorbed in the game, and Fox stood watching him for five or ten minutes. Eventually, he moved a square piece, ran his hand over his forehead with relief, and looked around. He saw Fox, and his face went blank for a moment.
“Fox?”, he asked, and the eyes of the whole crowd turned towards the boy.
Fox shrunk from their gaze, but he said: “It’s me, Truevow. I’ve…I’ve just got here. Jasma is here, too.”
Fox had expected a powerful reaction from Truevow, but he was still was surprised by what happened next. Truevow rose to his feet immediately, searching over the heads of the crowd with feverish eyes. He saw her. He brushed past the person sitting to his right on the bench, and knocked over their glass. Brown-coloured liquid spilled over the board, and swept the pieces from their places.
The man who had been playing him rose too, and now his face was red with anger. He reached across the table to grab Truevow, but somebody grabbed him from behind at that moment. Truevow just kept going, stepping past the rest of the people on the bench, rushing around the crowd and disappearing from view.
Fox looked back at the fight that was going on at the table. With a shock he saw the man who had grabbed Truevow’s opponent.
He had dark, shoulder-length hair, a pock-marked face, and he stood well over six foot. He was wearing a grimy shirt and overalls, the same clothes he had been wearing when Fox saw him in the Lake of Fire, dragging Truevow away.
The two men struggled for a few moments. The benches were empty in an instant, and the crowd drew back. The face of the well-dressed man grew redder and redder every moment, but he couldn’t overcome the man with the pock-marked face, and eventually he stopped struggling. The man with the pock-marked face reachd into his overalls pocket, slapped some coins down on the table, and glared at the well-dressed man. The coins were pocketed, the board and the pieces were gathered up and put away in a leather box, and the well-dressed man was striding away with it under his arm. When he was a safe distance away, the crowd began to boo him.
But the other man had crossed to where Fox was standing, and he had reached out his huge, brown hand, and he said: “You must be Fox. It’s an honour to meet you. I’m Sab Dauntless, Truevow’s friend. And bodyguard.”
When Fox looked past the pockmarks, he saw that Sab Dauntless had a sensitive, open face. There was an intelligent light in his brown eyes, and he seemed shy. It was in the slump of his shoulders and the way he held his head. His smile was uneasy, with his lips held slightly apart. Fox took the big, brown hand in his own and Sab shook it. He expected the handshake to be crushing, but it was very gentle.
“How do you know the Ezwayna’s language?”, asked Fox, feeling the warmth of the fire against his back, the eyes of all the people around turned upon them.
“Because I am Ezwayna”, said Sab, and his entire face creased in a smile. When he smiled, he suddenly looked handsome. “My mother was, anyway. She didn’t go with the rest, on the Great Trek.” The smile faded just a little. “She stayed behind to marry a butcher. He died when I was just a baby, and she died when I was just sixteen. It’s just been me, since then”
“I’m…sorry to hear that”, said Fox. The people around the table, unable to understand the language they were speaking in, were looking away. The excitement was already forgotten. Fox guessed a fight was nothing unusual, in a place like this. “How come you’re Truevow’s…bodyguard?”
“Somebody has to be”, said Sab, looking past Fox anxiously. He must have seen Truevow, because he seemed satisfied, and he turned his eyes back to Fox. “He’s as brave as a bulll, and as tough as a…well, he’s tough”. Sab smiled awkwardly, embarrassed at not being able to think of anything better. “But he doesn’t keep his eyes open. He doesn’t realise when somebody’s hopping mad.”
“Why doesn’t he just stay out of places like these?”, asked Fox, looking around the tavern. He guessed there were a hundred fights a day in a place like this. Another argument was beginning just a few feet away from them.
“Why?”, asked Sab. “Money, that’s why. Nobody lives for free in Arganth.”
“Money?”, echoed Fox. “Playing Spiral?”
“Well, it’s not much”, said Sab, once again looking embarrassed. “So far, it’s not much.” Then he grinned again, and he looked as excited as a boy waking up to find a heavy snowfall. “But not for long, Fox. I’ve spent a lot of time in taverns—not by choice, but because this is where a big lumbering fool like me will make money, stopping fights and throwing people out—and I’ve seen plenty of crazes come and go. I have a nose for it now. And this Spiral…it’s just starting now, but it’s going to be enormous. I can feel it. And Truevow is the best player there is, by a mile.”
Fox thought of Grandy, and he felt a surge of pleasure. “So Truevow is going to be…rich?”
“Well, not rich”, said Sab, frowning a little. “I didn’t mean that. But if he stays the best—or even one of the best—he’ll do comfortably enough. We’ll do comfortably enough. Even getting him to play is difficult, though. I think he only plays to please me.” He peered over Fox’s head again, and smiled, as if reassured about something. “That’s Jasma? That’s the girl he talks about all the time?”
“Yes”, said Fox, remembering the image of Sab looming over Truevow in the Lake, dragging him away. He hadn’t been beating Truevow up, Fox realised now. He had been protecting him.
“Well, well”, said Sab, and his smile grew broader, “I think dear old Truevow’s sorrows are over.” He laughed.
Fox twisted around, looking at Truevow and Jasma through the haze of smoke and the tangle of people. He saw them standing a little across from the great fire, being watched lazily by the one-eyed cat. Truevow’s back was turned to them, but he could see Jasma. She had her arms crossed, and she was staring angrily at Truevow. Fox turned back to Sab.
“She looks just as angry as ever”, he said.
Sab did not take his eyes from Truevow and Jasma. The sight seem to please him immensely. “Well, I’m no ladies’ man”, he said. “But I’ve knocked about in the world long enough to recognise the signs. She might seem like a snow-lady right now, but she’s melting. She’s melting.” And he laughed again, a delighted laugh. Then he turned his eyes back to Fox.
“You’ve been there, right? The home of the Ezwayna?”
“Yes”, said Fox. He realised that he had known Sab about five minutes and he already trusted him completely.
Sab looked more shy than ever now. He looked around the room, as if he was trying to work up courage to say something. As if worrying that someone would overhear, though nobody could understand a word of what they were saying. Then his eyes met Fox’s again. They were embarrassed and hesitant.
“You know, I always had this idea”, he said, smiling as if to say Can you believe how ridiculous this is?“This idea that I didn’t belong in the Seven Nations. Or…the Anarchy.” He spoke the word a little low, as if not sure he was entitled to use it. “I always felt…”
“Yes?”, after Fox, after a few moments of Sab saying nothing.
Sab cleared his throat. “I always felt that I should have been with—well—my people. Isn’t that stupid? I never even knew them, apart from my mother. And I love Arganth, despite all the thugs and thieves and tomfoolery. But I just never felt…at home here.”
Home. Fox had spent a lot of time thinking about that word.
“My mother always regretted not leaving with them”, said Sab, less shy now, encouraged by the fact that Fox was not laughing at him. “She used to tell me all about the ceremonies and the festivals…the Day of Casting Off, and the firstfather statues, and the Fool’s Festival. She taught me the language. She taught me all the stories, the Great Pledge and the Race of the Purple and Green.”
He glanced up towards Truevow and Jasma, seemed satisfied once more, and returned his attention to Fox. Once again he seemed bashful, running his finger through a puddle of beer on the table, smiling at his own silliness. “I have this image of the Ezwayna”, he said. “I imagine them…I imagine everybody looking out for each other, nobody ever having to look over his shoulder, nobody ever feeling alone. It’s probably not like that at all, is it?” And he shook his head at his own innocence.
Fox thought of the village of the Ezwayna. He remembered the happy anarchy of Fools’ Feast, young people peting each other with fruit and doughballs. He remembered the solemn speeches on The Day of Casting Off. He remembered the hush of Armala’s tamzan. “It pretty much is like that”, he said, and he saw Sab’s pockmarked face light up with pleasure.
“Well, there’ll be more Ezwayna coming here soon, if Truevow is right”, began Sab, but then he looked up, over Fox’s shoulder, and a huge grin split his face. “Well, my friend, are you happy?”
“I’m happy”, came Truevow’s voice. Fox spun around again. Truevow was standing over him.
Truevow was bruised, worn down, ragged and exhausted-looking. But Fox didn’t think he had ever seen a man look so happy. His eyes were brighter than any coldfire stones had ever been.
He was carrying two glasses of milk, and he looked down at Fox. “I think my old friend could do with a drink”, he said. “Would you mind buying one for Jasma, Sab? Nothing alcoholic.”
“I can do that”, said Sab, rising from the bench. He winked at Fox, gave him an apologetic smile for winking, and then he was gone.
Truevow returned to where he had been sitting. He sat looking at Fox, his eyes still shining, his face without expression.
They sat in silence for a long time, and then Truevow said: “Tell me everything, Fox. Jasma told me something about you and Grandy saving the village. You look…different. Tell me what happened. Tell me what you’ve seen.” He leaned forward, eagerly.
And Fox told him.
Everything, this time. Not just the facts, as he had told Grandy, but the way it had felt; the thoughts that had passed through his head; the fear, and the wonder.
Truevow didn’t interrupt once. He listened to it as closely as any child listening to a bed-time tale. But when he had finished, he said, softly: “A Bard, Fox! To see all those worlds! What a wonderful destiny!”
“Kandorian said there are wonders everywhere”, said Fox.
Truevow nodded. Now it was his turn to look awkward. “Speaking of Bards…” he said, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve started…well, I’ve started writing poetry again.”
He looked at Fox uneasily, perhaps expecting more ridicule from him, like the ridicule that Fox had heaped upon him that day in the mountains. That day that had gnawed in Fox’s memory, almost like a murder. He seized the chance to make up for it now.
“That’s wonderful, Truevow!”, he said, reaching forward and gripping the young man’s arm in his own. “That’s the best thing I could have hoped to hear!”.
Truevow’s delicate features were brightened by a sudden smile, and he pulled a folded, dirty page from his pocket. “Well, it’s just a start”, he said. “It’s called The Dream of the Ezwayna.”
“Let me hear it”, said Fox, a little less pleased at the thought of hearing Truevow’s poetry than he was at hearing that Truevow had started writing again.
Truevow unfolded the page and started to read, in a slow, solemn voice. His eyes hardly followed the words; it was plain that he knew the verses by heart. He read:
“We fled the hounds of scorn and greed
And chased a dream in savage lands.
We died at cold and hungers’ hands
And fed upon our stubborn creed.
No paradise of fertile soil
Was waiting in the place we found;
We built our dreams on stony ground
And paid the earth its price of toil.
And when the tribute had been paid
And we had time to dream again
We dreamed the little dreams of men
Our fathers’ nobler dream betrayed;
They turned their eyes to us in prayer
And asked, What did we fail to do?
Did we not give our lives for you
And guide you up the noble stair?
We left them with their faded dreams
And sought the land they led us from.
But one day, in dim years to come
We will unite our separate streams;
And all our broken bonds will mend;
And hearts that beat too far apart
Will beat in time as one great heart
And we shall rest at journey’s end.”
He looked up at Fox, as if he had just come out of a trance and remembered his listener’s existence. He looked anxious for a moment, and said—in the tones of all poets apologising for their poems—“I know that the images are a bit old-fashioned—the phrasing is a bit awkward—there’s too much repetition—“
All of that was true, thought Fox, but he wasn’t lying when he said: “I think it’s perfect.”
Truevow beamed, carefully folded the precious page, and thrust it back in his pocket. Silence fell between them again; this time a full, affectionate, easy silence.
After a minute or so Fox said: “You have the best destiny, Truevow. You have everything you want now. Whether you stay here, or whether you go back to the Ezwayna. You’ve found what you’ve been looking for all along.”
“You have Luria”, said Truevow. (Fox had made Truevow swear to never mention the name to anyone else.)
“Yes”, said Fox, looking into the flames of the fire, a little glumly. “But I can’t stay there. And that’s all I’ve ever really wanted. Somewhere I can stay, without being whisked off to some other place. Into some other danger. I’m not a hero. You’re the hero. You should be the one in Luria.”
Truevow took a long draft of his milk, watching Fox over the top of his glass. He placed it back on the table, and said: “Maybe that’s why Luria chose you, Fox. Because you don’t want to be a hero. Because you’re not always greedy for new sights and new sensations, like Swan was. Because you could live in a little village, and see enough for an entire life in that.”
“Maybe”, said Fox, a little bitterly, still gazing into the flames. My life is that fire, he thought. Nothing but change, nothing but flickering, never the hope of a journey’s end…
Truevow reached forward and grasped Fox’s arm, echoing Fox’s gesture of a few moment before. “Fox”.
Fox took his eyes from the flames, and turned them to the dark fire of Truevow’s eyes. “You’re making me think of something Grevyn said. He was a poetic and a mystic, the greatest poet of the Genn-Ran. He lived ten centuries ago. And what he said was: Home is the place we always come back to. We leave it only to know it better when we return.”
“Maybe we do”, said Fox, giving Truevow a smile that tried to be cheerful, but that he knew was weak.
“And besides”, said Truevow, squeezing his arm. “Luria isn’t your only home. You have another. With me and Jasma. That’s your home, too.”
Fox couldn’t help it. Tears filled his eyes, and he looked down. He took a deep draft from his milk, to hide his emotion, and only lowered in when the glass was was empty. When he felt ready, he met Truevow’s dark eyes and said: “Thank you”.
Truevow nodded. “So are you going back to Luria now?”
“I suppose so”, said Fox, without enthusiasm. He didn’t want to leave this place. Not yet.
“Do you have to go right now? Can’t you stay, even an hour or two?” Truevow didn’t smile; he seemed as eager as Fox that he should stay.
Fox smiled, his eyes still hot from his tears. “I suppose an hour or two wouldn’t hurt.”, he said.
“Then let’s make the most of them”, said Truevow, and he motioned across the room for Jasma and Sab to join them.
For those golden hours—and they stretched beyond one or two—even Jasma was good-humoured. In fact, her eyes shone almost as much Truevow’s. Sab seemed happier than either of them. Anyone who might have bothered the slightly odd-looking foursome took one look at the giant sitting to Fox’s left, and slunk back to the shadows.
They talked about the Ezwayna, about their past and present and future. They talked about Spiral. They talked about the Legislatrix and the Seven Nations. They talked about men and women, and poetry, and Grandy, and many more things beside.
At one point, when the others were debating the best way to raise children, Fox found himself gazing back into the flames of the fire behind Truevow and Jasma. Instead of a symbol of endless change, he saw something else in it now.
He saw the fire in Armala’s tamzan, the fire in which all her tales seemed to come alive and dance before his eyes.
He saw the glow of Grandy’s pipe, as he told some tale of his youthful daring.
He saw the fire in Jasma’s kitchen, and remembered how he would stare into it, imagining the monsters of her stories.
And he saw the purple gleam of the Lake of Fire, that looked like liquid dreams.
It seemed to him, now, that all those fires were really one fire; that all those places were really one place.
He felt Luria within him, waiting for him to return. And beyond that, the Hundred Thousand Worlds.
Suddenly he felt excited. Death might be waiting for him on any of those worlds, that was true. But stories were waiting there, too. Life was waiting there. Life, in all its glory, in all its never-ending variety.
And, wherever he went, he would always be a part of Luria, and Luria would always be a part of him.
Home isn’t just the place we always come back to, he thought, looking at Truevow. Truevow was gazing at Jasma, who was telling one of her ghost stories to Sab, who was beaming with childlike pleasure. Home is the place we never really leave behind.