A Story of the Old Days
It was a hot day in the City as I trudged back towards the coolth of the cloister in my black woolen robe. I envied the way other folks could wear a light wrap and sandals on days like this. But at least the crowds in the Street of the Four Fountains made way for me with a bow here or a “sister, pray” there. At last the hot square cobbles told my tired bare feet they would soon find a bit of respite!
It was then I heard a commotion coming out of the Old Stables alley. Curious, I turned my quarrelsome feet down the alley to investigate. The noise and commotion came from an open courtyard on my right. Men and women and children of many kindreds were gathered in there, undoubtedly expecting some kind of entertainment. That was one thing this great city, the center and heart of the ancient Empire, was known for: street theatre. I slipped in and took a place near the back where I could see the show, too, and also observe the people. If the people of Hoopelle loved street theatre, I reserved for myself the private love of people watching. Really, it was just another kind of street performance!
I turned towards the stage and, when the great oliphant drawn waggon was driven away, found that this was not going to be any ordinary dramatic performance. Upon the east wall of the courtyard was a wide wooden wall, its thick boards secured to broad wooden beams set into the ground. Men were at work securing something to the wooden boards with a rope. As the moved about, I could see that something was a Daine boy, tall and beautiful, his wrists and ankles bound. His midnight black hair was done up in an intricate braidwork and his black feathers served as stark contrast for his pure white skin. They cleaned him up nicely for the show. Upon a low table before the crowd were an assortment of sturdy wooden tools and bronze devices, deep brown with age. The coroner read out the charge: an aggravated theft and the killing of Woman while committing a crime. The sentence was a forgone conclusion: death. The only question remaining would be the manner.
Let the people decide, and therein, I could now see, was the opening act of the drama. The coroner pointed out various devices. As his thick, black-nailed hands passed over the table, people cried out in competing waves: “the nails, gov, the nails!” or “the collar, aye, the collar!” But when the hands passed over two simple shapes of bronze, like two R runes of thick metal, the crowd went wild: “the staples, the staples!” they all cried, maddened with eagerness. Eager for punishment!
The coroner sniffed indifferently and nodded to two assistants, who grabbed up a mattock and the great bronze staples. The crowd settled down, sure they would see a good theatre this afternoon. The men took some time to position the boy’s right wing in just the right position; then the fellow with the staple and mattock felt for the spot on the wing, placed the staple. And with a deft blow, drove the staple into the flesh. The boy yipped with the pain but controlled himself well. Another blow sent the staple through. The yipped again. Sounds of scraping from behind the wall indicated that the big metal staple had been drawn through the holes in the wood and was being secured. Turning to the left wing, the man drove the staple so hard that wood, metal and bone together resounded with a thunderous crash upon the planks. The boy groaned quietly, and whimpered. Tears formed in the corners of his brilliant green eyes.
“Oh, go on! Make him squeal!” This was shouted out by a large burly Man, one of the Maned Folk from up in the northern woodlands. He wore heavy leather boots and woolen britches and a leather apron. Probably a woodwright or bronzesmith. The mair of his mane was pale and his skin was as dark as the bronze of the torture instruments.
“Hear! Why don’t you make him squeal Landar! You’re good at that!” This should came from a tall thin fellow in front of me. A tradesman of some kind.
The great Maned Man roared with laughter, slapping his great round belly. “Ya. Him first, then you!”
The cornoner and his men, ignoring the jovial crowd, undid the thongs tying the boy’s ankles and wrists. They took away the torn wrap he was wearing And gathering up their tools, they went away. There would be no need to leave a guard. There would be no escape for the poor boy.
After a while, it became clear that, unlike many Daine prisoners, this one wasn’t going to provide the expected entertainment. People drifted away from the courtyard in ones and twos, muttering that he’d be crying a differing song on the morrow. A few folks stood by, though, just in case.
One man asked him: “So what did you really do, prag? Who did you kill and what did you steal?”
Another scoffed, saying: “Prags always rape our women before they kills em. That’s what I hear he done.”
The boy just shrugged, lowered his eyes. “I..I don’t know. Nothing really. They just coshed me and said I was in for it. They never said wh...”
“PSSHH! You’re a liar! Prags is always lying.” And with that the two Men left the courtyard. I was sure they’d be back, though. Watching a Daine die was always considered a good show.
The boy just stood there in the beating sun, perhaps uncertain as to what was expected of him now. Every now and then he’d rub his left leg with his right foot, or look to the left or right, inspecting the staples that bound his wings to the wall.
Once he tried to reach the staple with his fingers, but the coroner was too clever for that! He was pinned at a place just out of reach of his long, slender fingers. The boy sighed. As the Sun rode down the long hours of afternoon, the sweat rolled down his naked body, watering the tufts of grass where he stood. Eventually, no one else was left, and I slipped along the portico of the western wall, a shadow among shadows. As I left the courtyard I heard a quiet, sweet voice calling out, “good bye...”
I hurried away towards the coolth of the cloister, the Daine boy’s voice singing in my head.
* * *
If yesterday was hot, today was even hotter! And I sure felt the weight of my robe as I made my rounds in the City. The Sun was climbing towards the pinnacle of her journey when I finished and began roaming along the turnings and meanderings of the City’s streets.
The voices of many people came to me through the hood of my robe: “sister, pray”, “blessed sister!”, “a rune, sister, a rune!” But only one voice I heard, and it spoke or sang a song without words. I had not meant to, but I found that my feet had found their way along the blazing cobbles to the Street of the Four Fountains and the corner of Old Stables.
I hesitated. Should I go up there again? To that courtyard? Of course. The boy had me enthralled, mesmerised. They say Daine have that power, to control the minds of others. My heart pounded: I knew this one had me in his control! As I walked, I shook my hooded head. Of course he didn’t! He couldn’t! If he could control minds, why was he stapled to the wall, doomed to die, and here I was walking the streets of the burning City in freedom? I turned into the courtyard. He stood there, naked and proud before the jeering crowd. They had apparently decided to bring their own entertainment today.
I don’t know how he could have known! Just as I crossed the threshhold of the courtyard, he turned his head towards me, tears in his eyes, but his mouth was set and determined not to yield. I turned away and dove for the shadows of the portico, hiding behind one of the stone pillars. Silly girl! You don’t need to hide!
I went back to the place I was yesterday. The children had gathered up pebbles and were slinging them at the boy with great precision, each strike thumping on bone or bare flesh. High whoops of delight came from their young throats, and proud fathers and elder brothers ruffled their hair and mothers reminded their children not to use stone that were too large. Smaller stones will prolong the agaony, after all, and that’s all this nasty prag deserves, the longest torture imaginable.
Any invading army should turn and run from this legion of brats: their aim was impeccable. While the boy was bruised and bloodied all over, most of their strikes were against his fingers, his knuckes, his toes, his knees and elbows. Spots sure to cause deep and lasting pain. But they put up their slings and pebbles as a great roaring could be heard from the alley outside.
In strode a contingent of Maned Folk. The same Landar from yesterday. With him was another Man very like him in stature, but rather less in belly. A great bellied Maned Woman was with him, her big round breasts resting on her belly like the ancient icons in the Temple of the Mothers. Her hair was bound up with long bones and she roared like her mate, though I couldn’t understand what she was saying. A wave of urgent whispering rolled through the mob. Ah! This was the family of the slain Woman! Oh dear, looks like everyone was in for some theatre this hot afternoon!
Landar strode right up to the Daine boy, shouting and roaring the whole way. His big meaty hands shoved the poor boy right into the wooden wall, and he kept shouting and poking him in the chest and shoulders. The boy winced with each poke, but could make no sense of the great Man’s diatribe.
“Landar!” the great Woman called out; “Talk Ozmandish! Prag can’t undrstand our tongue!”
“Hold your whisht, Raddam!” Turning back to the boy, he continued shouting, though in Ozmandish now, about how his family was now torn apart by the death of Raddam’s sister. Though the big Man only stood as tall as the Daine boy’s throat, that didn’t stop him from yanking his braids and pinching his ears and pounding his chest with his mighty fists. At last, he thrust both fists into the boy’s belly and left him breathless and staggering.
And now it was Raddam’s turn. The boy managed to stand upright again and regain his breath a little, but Raddam bore in her right fish a short sjambok of oliphant hide. She slapped it into her left palm with a smart whack! She started with his shoulders and his chest, putting all her considerable weight and strength into each carefully chosen blow. Every now and then, the smack of the weapon was accompanied by the muffled groan of bones grinding together. The boy cried out on those occasions, and tried to defend himself as best he could from her terrible onslaught. But in her rage, she was far too strong!
If he tried to grasp the sjambok, she would jerk it back; if he tried to block her blows, she powered through until she found her mark. Sweat and blood mingled on his white skin, and she spat on him. His breath came in ragged gasps and he held his bruised hands up to ward off another blow. But Raddam only grunted and smiled. She stuffed the weapon into her leather belt and got up close. Her voice was low, now but clearly audible for the crowd’s cheering and jeering subsided so they could hear too.
“You rape my sister, Prag! You lie and you kill!” I heard a wet slap and the boys eyes opened wide in terror. A sickening crunch could be heard followed by a bestial scream of pure pain. Landar roared with laughter, his big belly rolling; and Raddam laughed too, her whole body shaking with laughter as her fist crushed and tore at the boy’s body.
Somewhere in the crowd, a familiar voice rose above the excited chatter: “Huy Landar! Your Raddam sure made the Prag squeal!!”
The boy collapsed to the blood stained grass, gasping and sobbing. The great Woman stood up straight and thrust out her chest and spat on the boy’s bowed head. Before she turned away, she landed a solid kick into his belly. People laughed, well pleased with today’s show, and filed out in their ones and twos.
As the Sun beat down on the tortured boy, only a few folks were left to watch. He pushed the mass of deep black hair behind him and began pressing here and there. Satisfied that not very many bones were broken, he drew his crossed legs up under him, straightened himself up and calmed his breathing. Someone had dropped a rag of cloth nearby and the boy reached out for it and began to clean the dried blood from his body.
The boy sighed, folded the cloth and set it to the side. As the Sun rode down the last hour of evening, the last of the people left the courtyard. Eventually, no one else was left, and I slipped along the portico of the western wall, a shadow among shadows. As I left the courtyard I waited a moment. I heard the quiet, sweet voice calling out, “good bye...”
I hurried away towards the coolth of the cloister, the Daine boy’s voice singing in my head.
* * *
If the second day was raging hot, the third day was a bronzesmith’s furnace inside a baker’s oven! I made my rounds, deliberately quicker than before. I knew I would be drawn, sooner or later, to the Street of the Four Fountains and then up the hill along the Old Stables and to the courtyard, to the theatre where an everyday drama was being played out.
My bare feet scurried along the well known course of cobbles, my hooded ears barely hearing the supplicants in the streets. “Sister, a prayer”; “blessed sister”; “a rune, sister, a rune!” Strange thoughts swam in the seas of my mind as I walked along. Sister, a prayer. How could these people pray for peace and plenty and blessings when in every quarter of the City one could witness the cruelty of our gods’ justice being played out? Blessed sister. How blessed can I be, a sister of Matay, the earthbound Wolf-woman who hunts and devours the skyfree Raven-man?
My feet found at last the burning hot squares of the cobbles of the Street of the Four Fountains. On their own, it seemed, they turned into the alley of the Old Stables. A rune, sister, a rune...
All was quiet in the alley. My heart skipped a beat and my throat caught for moment. Could the raven winged Daine boy have died?
But alas no! I crossed the threshhold for the third time, only to find the crowd silently watching. waiting for their victim to succumb at last. As I watched him suffer, I saw that most of his feathers were missing. Sometime during the morning, people had plucked him so that now he looked entirely bedraggled.
The boy stood there, now bent over and panting deeply, but still defiant. His arms and hands hung at the sides of his battered body. A strange urge seized me then. I pushed through the expectant crowd and slowly made my way towards the boy. I had never been so near a Daine before and had not realised how very tall he was, even though he was now weak and bent. I stopped a short distance away and pulled my bowl and water bag from within my robe. I poured some water into the bowl and held it before the boy. His matted hair I pushed aside, revealing his beautiful face, the green eyes, now raised to look into my own eyes. He panted deeply, but made no other sign.
“Drink this water,” I said in a whisper. “You must be parched!”
Folks in the crowd chuckled and murmured among themselves.
The boy’s eyes bore into mine and I looked away. How could I look into eyes that had suffered so, and yet seemed to bear no malice towards me?
I knelt before him and placed the bowl on the grass. I stood, turned away quickly, drawing my hood down further and went back to my place. “Bless you sister!” one old woman called out. “Now that’s a torture for a dying body and no mistake!” a man muttered, laughing as he said it.
The old woman approached me, her face sun kissed and wrinkled. The tattooed lines on her cheeks and neck and chest told me much of the story of her long life. Her white hair was cropped short. She turned and watched the boy for a while, her merciless blue eyes approving of my gesture. I had no idea why I thought to give the poor boy water to drink. He was just a worthless Prag, after all, wasn’t he?
“One of them bastards raped my daughter before slitting her throat. So the Guard told me when they fetched me down to the Guard House to make sure it were her. It were. The naked body of my beautiful child, lying cold and still on a cold stone. Her throat slit clean open, dried blood everywhere.” She sniffed and turned those hard blue eyes on me. “What you done there was a blessing, child. Sister you may be, but I’m old and know things in my heart the mothers don’t teach you. That water, he’ll drink that soon enough, you mark my words. No body can go long without a drop to drink. With that, he’ll live another two, three days. More folks will come. Mothers and children bereft of their beautiful daughters; men shorn of their brides. This Prag’ll stand in for those as don’t get justice as well as he stood for the Northmen who were lucky to get their justice on him.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to tell her no! I just wanted to relieve his suffering a little. But her words were too powerful and I bowed my head.
As the Sun rose in might towards the pinnacle of her journey, the Daine boy at last sat down on the hot grass. With an effort, he brought his crossed legs up under him and he rested his hands upon the soles of his feet. He bowed his head and the dark raven hair veiled his beautiful face from the crowd.
People left, laughing. It was the hour for honest citizens to take their noon meal. Even the old woman left, satisfied that the boy would drink and still be there for tomorrow’s trial. But he had not drunk, and I watched him for a long time. Throughout the afternoon I watched, and wondered. And then, I stood. I made a hesitant step fowards into the bright sunlight, then went more boldly, crossing the sizzling flagstones until at last my feet found the relative cool of the grass a welcome change. I stood there, standing over the suffering boy. Even sitting down, he came up to my chest or higher. I leaned over and again brought the matted hair behind his head, revealing the beautiful face, his deep green eyes, the graceful lines of lips and brows. He lifted his head and looked into my eyes, and I couldn’t look away. My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t know what to do, so I knelt before the seated figure.
It’s no wonder the Kristians make their icons after the fashion of these Prags, these Daine. Like their god, on the hand so capricious and on the other so beautiful and graceful. His white skin shone like alabaster and his black hair and feathers shone in the sunlight, contrasting the fair. He smiled faintly, his parched lips cracked. He slowly lifted his left hand and pushed aside my hood. I didn’t stop him. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. He cupped my face tenderly. The deep blue of it such a contrast to the white of this palm. I felt a thrill run through my whole body and my heart and mind blazed. At last, I summoned up the courage: “Will you not drink? Relieve your suffering — and mine — for a moment?”
He smiled again, pushing away the proffered bowl of by now Sun warmed water. His sweet voice was cracked a little by the dryness of his throat: “No. I will not drink.”
He rested his his palms again on the soles of his feet. “You bless me with your offering of refreshment in this place of fire. But though you offer it without malice, I will not drink. Here will I die, not at the hands of Men or the peltings slings of howling children or the torments of weapons. Men came to me and bound me. They said I looked good for the crime.”
I opened my mouth to ask, but he lifted a finger to my lips and I fell silent. He smiled, knowing: “I asked them. What crime? They said, Prag, any crime will do, as you well know. I knew from that time, I would soon die for their justice. Men have do idea what justice is or how to find her. They know little of mercy and nothing of wisdom. I knew from that moment that I would be a sacrifice, a downed bird gnawed by gleeful wolf pup.”
As he spoke, his voice strengthening, weaving its song in my heart and in my mind, tears flowed down my cheeks from my closed eyes and into the grass before his feet. The grass watered by the sweat of the Maned Woman. The grass watered by the tears and the blood of this innocent Daine boy. He lifted his hand again, caressing my chin and lifting up my face to his. I opened my eyes and blinked away the tears. “Do not cry for me, little sister. My part here is played out and I leave now.”
He spoke no more words, but wiped the tears from my eyes with his thumb and rested his hands now in his lap. I sat back on my heels, watching the boy as his breathing slowed. His eyes stared off into the unlit sky of the West. A hot breeze whirled through the courtyard, drawing my long white hair from the hood. I stopped sobbing and looked up. Before me, the Daine boy still sat tall and proud. His unseeing eyes still stared into the West. My white hair mingled on the grass with his black. I didn’t know when, but I knew he had left this place of sorrow on that hot breeze under the blazing Sun.
I don’t know how long I sat there and watched over him, but I could tell the Sun was sinking in majesty towards her setting. I heard the rumble of a waggon enter the courtyard, but I did not turn to watch the men. Scraping sounds from behind the wall announced the immanent freedom of the boy’s imprisoned body. Someone yanked the great bronze staples from the wood and his lifeless wings slid to earth.
“Hup ye go laddy!!” I was startled from my reverie as two of the coroner’s men grabbed the boy by ankles and wrists and casually tossed the body onto the waggon. His head thudded against the side and one of the men sniffed. “Heh! You hurt your poor noggin lad?” He grasped the boy’s hair and shoved him the rest of the way in, like a butcher loading a slaughtered lamb onto his cart.
And it was done in a fleeting moment. Cart and men and boy were gone.
But wait! A thing came floating down from the waggon as it turned into the alley. The hot breeze picked it up and blew it towards me. A feather. Almost as long as my forearm. I rose from where I’d been sitting and picked it up. Midnight black it was; but as I lifted it to the setting rays of the Sun as she bagan to sink beneath the walls of the building across the alley, the feather burst with an array of beautiful deep greens and blues and golds and reds! I had never looked on anything so beautiful before, and the tears wet my cheeks again. I pressed the soft smooth feather to my face, and then I knew.
Almost with an anger I’d never felt before, I tode the black woolen robe from my body and flung it from me with a force I did not know I posessed. In the light of dusk, I looked down at my body, now free from the robe. I collected my bowl from the grass and drank the bitter water in memory. Tucking the boy’s feather into the ties of my loincloth, I crossed the threshhold of the courtyard. I did not understand then what brought the harsh words to my lips: “A rune, sister, a rune! I will give you a rune: it will not be long, but the Raven-man will rise up and claw the eyes and feast upon the heart of the Wolf-woman!” And with that, I never served the Wolf-woman again.
I paused at the threshhold a moment longer, turned back to the now empty wooden wall, a dark shape among dark shapes.
I said: “Good bye...”
If we stuff the whole chicken back into the egg, will all our problems go away?
--- Wandalf of Angera