Saturday, July 13, 2019

Equalizer

     (From the responses to this piece, I detect a hunger for fantasy among my fiction readers. Well, never let it be said that I refused to assuage a demand. Below is the first of my efforts in that direction. Beware: it will lead you down a path you might fear to tread. -- FWP)



     The little man who called himself Acorn stepped close to Michael and looked up into his face. The candlelight playing on his features gave him the aspect of a supplicant at an altar. "Let me hear you speak in your lowest register, clearly but as quickly as you can."
     "Anything in particular, sir?"
     "No, whatever you choose."
     Michael thought a moment. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our deaths, Amen."
     If he really is a conjurer, that will put him on notice.
     Michael's deep bass echoed from the walls of the cave. Acorn's eyebrows went up. "Nine seconds from start to finish. Christian?"
     Michael nodded.
     "Could you do that, say, two hundred times in succession, keeping your voice that low and maintaining that pace the whole way?"
     The big laborer shrugged. "I don't know."
     Acorn ran a hand over his bald pate. He clasped his hands behind his back, strode to the mouth of his cave, and stared out at the huts and fields of Carach an Lagan.
     "It's important to know. This could be worth a great deal to you. But not the Ave Maria. I have a passage here from an old book, about the same length." He returned to his workbench and laid his hand on a large leatherbound volume. "Would you like to try it?"
     Michael regarded the book uncertainly. "May I have a look at it?"
     Acorn heaved the volume open. Its binding crackled. The pages filled the air with tiny motes of dust as they turned.
     "Here." He pointed to a paragraph inscribed in an unusual script.
     Michael squinted down at the passage. "I can't make it out."
     Acorn grinned. "It's very ornate, but it's the Latin alphabet. You'll pick it up. Watch and listen." He ran a finger underneath the words as he read them off. They sounded harsh, uncouth. The air acquired a hint of tension, as if a storm were gathering outside.
     "What does it mean?"
     The little man shrugged. "To you and me? Nothing at all. To the man who wrote it? No one alive can say. Read it aloud with me, once."
     Acorn had been right. Once he'd heard the passage read, Michael's eyes adapted to the decorative swirls on the letters and filtered them out without thought. They read the passage together, Acorn's light tenor and Michael's weighty bass in strangely perfect unison.
     "Excellent, Michael. How is it that you learned to read so well?"
     Michael looked down at his boots. "I was taught by the priests. They thought I might become one of them, until I married."
     "What do you do to support yourself?"
     "I pull a trashcart, twice daily."
     Acorn nodded. "Not much money in that, is there?"
     "No."
     And Aoife is with child again. Dear God, how am I to feed another?
     Acorn cocked his head. "How long would it take you to learn that passage by heart? As well as you know the Ave Maria?"
     "Well, they aren't words I know, which will make it harder. If I might have a copy, so that I could say it over to myself as I worked --"
     "No copy, Michael. You must learn it here."
     "Ah. I don't know, sir. Perhaps a day or two, but the work --"
     "Two hundred sesterces, Michael."
     Michael gasped. Acorn regarded him steadily.
     "To learn a string of nonsense words? Sir, what can be the use?"
     A corner of the little man's mouth turned up. "I have a use. Let it lie. Two hundred sesterces for you to commit that passage to memory, and to recite it two hundred times perfectly, as low and as rapidly as you did the Ave Maria."
     Two hundred sesterces. I could leave off the hauler's life, buy a plot, learn to farm. Aoife and the babes would never fear hunger again. I might even be able to afford a book of my own. Perhaps two or three!
     "Today, sir?"
     Acorn shook his head. "Today you practice." He put a gold terce into Michael's hand. It was the first gold Michael had ever touched, and he was amazed at the weight of it. "There's something on account."
     Michael tore his eyes from the gleaming disk with difficulty. "I must leave at the ninth hour to pull the cart."
     "Practice till the ninth hour, then." The little man's face shone with undisguised eagerness. "Come, let's go over it again...."

***

     Michael pulled aside the burlap that closed the door to his hut and peered within. Aoife was kneeling with her back to him, sorting through a pile of cut rushes, saving out the broadest for thatch and setting aside the lesser ones to be burned for heat. Her pregnancy had begun to show only a few weeks earlier, but in her kneeling position it made her slender body look unbalanced and vulnerable. Before he could speak, she smiled over her shoulder at him.
     "Where are Eamon and Siobhan?" he said.
     "I sent them to the bog for peat. They should be back soon. What did Acorn want of you?"
     He knelt beside her and took a bundle of reeds to sort. "He wanted me to learn a chant for him. Said my voice was perfect for it."
     Best not to mention the money until it's in my pouch.
     Aoife looked uneasy. "This has nothing to do with the druids, does it?"
     He shrugged. "He said nothing of them. It's just an old chant in a crude old language, but when it's recited at speed it becomes quite musical. I asked him what it meant and he said no one alive could say."
     Aoife paused in her labors and ran a hand down his cheek. "Sweet trusting man that you are, you believed him straight off, didn't you? Father Declan might know."
     Michael considered. "You're right. I hadn't thought of him."
     "Shall we climb the hill and ask him, then?"
     He nodded. "We shall. When the babes have returned."
     "That could be a while, husband."
     "We don't lack for things to do, wife."
     She dropped her bundle of reeds and made to rise. "I only meant to say that -- "
     He pulled her to him and stopped her voice with a kiss. Her lips parted to admit his tongue. Her hands rose and began to undo the laces at the throat of his tunic. His went to the belt of her gown.

***

     Father Declan rubbed at his tonsure. "Are you certain those are the exact sounds?"
     Michael nodded. "I could write them out as letters for you, Father. I read them off a page in a great book, and the image is still fresh in my memory."
     The stooped old priest mused uncertainly for a moment, then pulled a quill and a sheet of parchment from a crevice in his worktable and passed them to Michael. "Do it, my boy." Michael released his wife's hand and took the quill.
     Michael's hand was not as smooth nor as steady as it had been when the priests schooled him. A trash hauler had little opportunity to write, and scant coin for parchment or ink. Yet it was not entirely discreditable. When he had finished, the priest peered down at the writing and read it off slowly but surely, reproducing the chant exactly as Michael had learned it.
     "I do not know it, my boy. It is not Latin. Nor is it Gaelic as we speak it. Perhaps it comes from the Orkneys, where the Gaelic is not spoken true. But it has a rough sound to it, like a challenge or an insult." The priest pondered a moment. "It could be Saxon, I suppose. Michael," the priest said, laying a frail, age-gnarled hand on Michael's huge, heavily calloused one, "when you recited this... chant, did you feel any different? Did anything unusual happen?"
     Yes, Acorn laid a gold terce in my hand and promised me two hundred more like it.
     "Nothing, Father. Oh, the walls of Acorn's cave echoed it for a moment, but no more."
     Declan nodded. "Acorn has a certain reputation among us, my boy. Not a bad one, mind, but he's done much traveling, and inquired deeply of things the Church considers dangerous. I will not tell you to shun him, but I caution you: he may have purposes of which he does not speak. He would not be the first."
     "I understand, Father."
     The old priest sat back and stared at his folded hands. "I should tell the abbot of this, you know."
     Michael started. Aoife drew close to him. Her arm snaked around his waist. "Even though nothing has yet come of it, Father?"
     Declan's inky black eyes rose and probed at Michael's. "Perhaps not. But will you come to me if something does?"
     Michael's mouth became dry. "I will, Father."

***

     News of the Balogh campaign filtered into Carach an Lagan with the carts of the spring's traders. Evan Balogh and his horde had overrun half of Ireland to date. His most recent conquest was only four leagues to the east. He'd not moved through the winter, nor yet since the thaw, but the portents were poor.
     Town by town, Balogh's spears had humbled the defenses that rose to meet them. In each he'd sworn the tuathan to fealty as his vassal, left a garrison of hard men, and commanded the conscription of half the lads of military age. Surely the training those boys were receiving was not in how to farm.
     Michael pondered the tidings despite his inclinations. Were Balogh's legion to assail Carach an Lagan, there would be little his town could do about it. Aoife's father said that their tuathan Bryndan had not taken his sword in hand since Michael was weaned. Bryndan's people might fight, but against the large, well armed, and ferocious Balogh army, they would have little hope.
     Balogh had not proclaimed his goal publicly, but it was clear. He intended to be the first King of all Kings Ireland had seen in seven centuries. He appeared to have the means. Barring a coalition of the remaining free towns in opposition to him, he would be master of all Ireland within a year. Even such a coalition would face long odds.
     Michael could not hope to affect the matter. Though he was the largest and strongest man of the village, he lacked all training for war. Yet he thought about it as he hauled, and tended his homestead, and practiced the odd chant under Acorn's eye. He said nothing to Aoife.

***

     After a fortnight of practice, Michael wanted only to have done with the old chant. Acorn had told him nothing more about it, had merely sat and listened as Michael repeated it endlessly, straining to keep his voice low and to speak as quickly as he could nonetheless.
     On the fourteenth day, after thirteen days of three hours' practice each day, Acorn listened to Michael recite the old phrase two hundred times without pause or error, and announced that the practices were finished.
     "What then, sir?"
     "Bide. You will see." The little scholar went to the back of his cave and dragged forth a device that looked much like a potter's wheel. The drive mechanism was sturdier than on a typical wheel, a pair of stout gears with thick teeth. The platter was thinner than most, as if it had been shaved down. Mounted to the stem of the contraption was a heavy wooden strut that supported a large horn, too large to have come from a local beast. Wrapped tightly around the narrow end of the horn was one end of a gleaming wire. The other end trailed lightly along the upper edge of a clay drum. Michael leaned close and saw that the wire end actually rested in a shallow groove that spiraled along the length of the cylinder.
     Acorn saw the question in his eyes and smiled. "Time for your labors to bear fruit, Michael. You must run through the chant as before, as low and as fast as you can. Don't bother to count the repetitions. Speak into the horn, and start when I say."
     The little man dragged a stool up to the wheel, sat upon it, and placed his feet upon the pedals. He rocked them back and forth a bit, and the wheel spun to his touch. He closed his eyes, muttered something unintelligible, and then stared straight at Michael.
     "Begin."
     As Michael launched into the chant, Acorn pedaled the wheel carefully and deliberately, maintaining a steady pace of one revolution per heartbeat. The end of the wire inched along the groove toward the bottom of the cylinder. Michael tried to ignore it and concentrate on his chant.
     Twenty minutes later, the wire end had reached the bottom of the cylinder, where it scraped against the platter.
     Acorn bade him stop, ceased to pedal and slipped off his stool. He staggered, brushed a bit of clay dust from his jerkin, and nodded.
     "That was very well done, Michael."
     "Thank you, sir." But what is it that I did? "May I be paid now?"
     The scholar smiled. "Presently. But will you assist me with a test first?"
     "What must I do?"
     Instead of answering, the little man went to the mouth of his cave, scratched about on the ground, and returned with a fist-sized rock. He handed it to Michael.
     "I shall remount the wheel in a moment. Stand back by the mouth of the cave. When I have the platter spinning, take this and cast it at me, as hard as you can."
     "But sir --"
     Acorn held up a hand. "Aim below my neck, please. Just in case."
     He returned to the wheel, fiddled with the horn and the wire for a few moments, and seated himself once again with his feet on the pedals. In two seconds the wheel was spinning swiftly, and the chant was squawking from the horn in a faint but clear voice. It was Michael's voice, raised above the range of the human and accelerated to extraordinary speed.
     "Now, Michael!" Acorn was puffing and pedaling furiously.
     Michael hurled the rock at Acorn's belly with all his force. It did not reach its target. About three feet from the scholar's flesh, the rock burst in a shower of sparks, leaving only a cloud of dust.
     Acorn ceased to pedal, dismounted the stool, and beamed at his device with paternal pride.
     "It works."

***

     Though Abbot Ciaran was three hands shorter than Michael, still the laborer felt the priest to be looking down at him.
     "What you have described is plainly sorcery. Though you were an unknowing accomplice to it, yet you were an accomplice, and therefore excommunicate until you have been cleansed. This proscription," Ciaran said, one hand raised against Michael's imminent cry of protest, "does not apply to your wife or your children."
     Michael turned to Father Declan. The old priest's face was twisted with pity. He held Michael's gaze only a moment, then bowed his head over his folded hands.
     "Of what will this cleansing consist, Abbot?"
     Ciaran pursed his lips, then clasped his hands behind his back and began to amble about his study. His considerable girth jiggled with each step.
     "You must make a full confession of your part in the affair, omitting no detail or condition. You will be absolved, of course. However, you will do penance. It will include the surrender of all your profit from your deed, for God will not countenance a man to retain the gains from such a thing, yet admit him back into grace."
     Michael had feared as much. He'd pondered it for an hour before ascending the hill to tell Father Declan of what Acorn had done. He'd come to no conclusion. He hadn't dared to tell Aoife about any of it.
     He allowed his eyes to travel the breadth of the abbot's office. It was a large space, the largest within the abbey. The stones of the walls had been scraped clean of all moss and dirt, and the spaces between them carefully chinked with river clay that was then rubbed smooth. The floor was covered with thick furs, so soft that when Michael entered, he'd thought for a moment that he'd stepped onto a cloud. A large desk and an adjoining work table stood beneath a large window framed by heavy blue drapes. Several large wooden cabinets, their doors closed to his inspection, lined the other walls. In the man-high hearth, a merry fire consumed half a hundredweight of good oak logs. Despite the open window, the fire warmed the room to the edge of Michael's ability to endure it.
     Bryndan lives in a hut no grander than mine. Father Declan's cell is smaller, and is cold even in full summer.
     "And the abbey shall have my two hundred sesterces, then?"
     The abbot frowned. "They are not yours. They are the fruits of a transaction with a conjurer and a demonolater. They shall be put to God's work."
     "What work does God have that requires my two hundred sesterces, Abbot? You receive a tenth of all the product of Carach an Lagan, and from the looks of this room you don't stint yourself the use of it. Why can't I retain my pay for labor honestly done? Why can't I use it to buy a plot and a few animals, and raise my family out of the trash-hauler's life? Why must it go to your comfort instead?"
     Declan gasped. The abbot's eyes flared wide and his face turned purple.
     "Would you prefer that your whole family be under the ban, young man? Would you want to see your wife and children denied the rites, the Eucharist, and the face of Christ? Take care that your concern for their bodies does not cost their souls an eternity in hell."
     The words sent a chill down Michael's back, yet there was something else there as well, something that stiffened him against the gale that raged from the mouth of the portly abbot. He stared briefly into the blazing fire as his thoughts congealed.
     "Each Sunday dawn since I was five I have climbed the hill," he said, "to hear Father Declan say the Mass. I have heard his sermons, and learned the faith at his hand, and accepted all that he taught me. I have given the tithe with my own hands, even when it left me and mine with so little that Aoife and I had to choose between feeding the babes and feeding ourselves. I have brought Eamon up the hill for a year, and I was soon to bring Siobhan beside him. I have never once complained.
     "Father Declan told us ever that our salvation lies in our own hands, that each of us comes to Christ by his own faith and will and labor, that no man can damn me but myself. I took his words and I laid them alongside those of the druids, and I knew that this was how the world was meant to be, not the bloody sacrifices and grim woodland gods and chanting at the dark of the moon.
     "But now you, Reverend Abbot, tell me that what I've believed all these years is a lie, that my wife and my babes are hostages to my decision. That by your word, they can be denied the hope of heaven, though they had no part of what I did. And I take your words, and I lay them alongside those of Father Declan, and I know that either you are no true priest of Christ, or he is not. And I will keep my two hundred sesterces."
     He turned and departed before the astonished priests could respond. As the door closed behind him, he heard the abbot scream "You are no Christian, Michael!" in a voice shrill with frustration and fury.

***

     There were no immediate consequences. The other residents of the village showed no change in attitude toward Michael or his family. At the market, Acorn's gold spent as readily as the coppers Michael earned for hauling the trashcart. Once Bryndan saw the color of Michael's money, the tuathan agreed to introduce him to some minor nobles who might divide their lands with him at an acceptable price.
     Michael left a terce on account with the blacksmith, that a sword might be forged for him. Word was passing that the Balogh horde would soon be on the move again. With all that lay to the east already under his sway, Balogh would surely be looking in the direction of Carach an Lagan.
     At dawn on the Sunday after the confrontation with the abbot, Michael led his family up the hill to the chapel as always. The townsfolk parading along before and behind him said nothing. At the chapel doors, Artyr and Padraig, ploughmen nearly as large as he, stepped before him and gestured that he halt. Their townsfolk flowed around and past them.
     "You and yours may not enter here, Michael," Padraig said.
     Aoife gasped.
     Michael frowned. "Is it for you to say so, Padraig? You, whose drinking and wenching are the shame of Carach an Lagan? Or you, Artyr, who pray that you'll die on a Sunday, after Mass and before noon, so that you'll not descend straight to hell?"
     "We have been instructed by the abbot," Artyr said in a monotone.
     Aoife's hand closed painfully tight upon Michael's. Their children drew close around them. A last trickle of villagers flowed past them, leaving them alone outside the church.
     Michael made a show of peering into the chapel. "I don't see that particular fellow anywhere about. Has he ever shown you his study, Artyr? Did he call you there to...instruct you, or did he come outside to do it, so the dung on your boots wouldn't offend his fine fur rugs?"
     Artyr's broad face convulsed in a snarl. He looked as if he might hurl himself at Michael, until Padraig laid a monitory hand on his shoulder.
     "There is no point to this, Michael," Padraig said. "You and yours are excommunicate, and have no place in a gathering of Christians, here or anywhere. Make haste to your sorcerer in the cave, for his is the only instruction you'll receive in Carach an Lagan."
     The two retreated into the chapel and shut the doors in Michael's face.

***

     "Is it true, Michael?"
     Aoife sat on the ground, knees drawn up and head thrown back. Her eyes were sheened over with tears. She'd said no word since they descended the hill, except to send Eamon and Siobhan to the bog for peat they didn't need.
     "I don't know, wife. He had me do a service for him that I didn't understand, and he did a thing with it I can't explain. So far no harm has come of it, and he paid me well. I don't know what to expect."
     "What was the thing you did?"
     Michael told her.
     "No demons?"
     He sauntered to the door of their hut and peered out at the spring morning. All was quiet. The rest of Carach an Lagan was still atop the hill, celebrating the Mass that had been denied to them.
     "None that I saw. But what should we expect I would see? Would I know a demon if I stared one in the face?"
     "Who made the voice you heard, if not a demon?"
     Michael moved to sit beside her, looped his arms over his knees. "It was my voice, love. As shrill as if I were a mouse not a man, but mine nonetheless. Acorn's device spoke with my voice, but faster and higher than I could ever do, even if you were to take a blacksmith's tongs and crush my --"
     "Enough, Michael." She turned away from him, and he saw the rapid quivering of her shoulders.
     "We will never know want again, wife."
     She would not look at him. "We will never see God's face, husband."
     "Dung of an ass!" Her head jerked around at his sudden roar. "Have we not kept the Commandments with full respect? Have we not taught our children as we ourselves were taught? We are no less Christians than we were before. Abbot Ciaran and his lust for the gold I've earned cannot make us less. Aoife," he said, allowing entreaty to pour into his voice, "it was God made me what I am. It was God gave me this chest and this throat, and the voice they produce. It was God made the laws of the world, not Abbot Ciaran. If this voice and Acorn's skills can produce something wondrous, something that might shield a man from a thrown rock, or a spear, or..."
     As if they'd been churning behind a gate just unlatched, implications and possibilities poured through his brain. Aoife leaned toward him and peered into his face.
     "Michael?"
     The Balogh hordes.
     "Michael!" Her hands clutched at his shoulders.
     He clambered to his feet and brushed the soil from his clothes. "I must see Acorn." He reached down to his wife. "Will you come with me this time?"
     She took his hand and rose.

***

     "Was it sorcery?"
     Acorn's eyebrows rose. "So I am 'sir' to you no longer, Michael?"
     Michael's jaw clenched. "What you are to me is of no moment beside what you are to the world."
     "Which is?"
     "A conjurer. A demonolater. And the agent of my corruption."
     Acorn said nothing. Aoife's hand squeezed Michael's to counsel calm. He looked down at her, then jerked his chin toward the contraption that had spoken with his voice. It sat in the back of the cave, surrounded by other oddments of unclear import.
     "There it is, wife. First I spoke to it, and then it spoke to me. But its voice was far stronger than mine. Strong enough to shatter a thrown rock to dust. Strong enough to shield the man who rode it from a swordstroke or the flight of a spear. Strong enough to cast us out of the Church, deny us the rites, make us shunned of Carach an Lagan and wherever else word of our banishment might travel. Acorn," he said, turning to the little man once more, "would it protect you from the village in arms, should Abbot Ciaran persuade them that you've leagued with a demon? Would it protect you from me?"
     The color drained from Acorn's face. "You have had nothing but good of me, Michael. Why do you turn against me now?"
     "By your hand I was cast out from my people!"
     Acorn's eyes narrowed. He raised one small hand, made a show of inspecting it, and turned it palm up toward Michael.
     "Are you sure, Michael? By my hand? Why doesn't this hand remember that? Was it I who pronounced you excommunicate? Was it I who called anathema upon you before the village? Was it I who told you that your entire family would fall under the ban unless you surrendered your wages to the abbot? And when that threat had been spoken, did I compel your answer?" Acorn's lips pulled back from his teeth. "Truly, I have been many places this past week. I am a man of power indeed!"
     Michael's mouth fell open. "The abbot said --"
     "That I made a pact with a demon? Did you see a demon, Michael? Did you hear a demon's voice?"
     It was my own voice I heard.
     "Acorn, what did we do together? If it wasn't sorcery, then what was it?"
     The fire dimmed in the little man's face. His face worked as if he were tasting the words he was about to speak.
     "We made an experiment, lad. I'd been told a strange tale about that chant, involving a man in a village to the south. He didn't know what it meant, no more than you or I. He recited it to his children as a nonsense rhyme, and they learned it and recited it back to him. One day when they were bandying it back and forth, faster and faster, his wife became irritated with them and hurled a potshard in their direction, and it exploded as it flew. The event terrified them. They scarcely dared to whisper of it.
     "I tried it for myself, but the results were erratic. It occurred to me that speed -- sheer rapid repetition -- might be the key, but as fast as I could speak the words, still I could not make the effect reliable. So I contrived a device that would record the sounds spoken to it, and play them back at need, at a speed far higher than any human throat could manage. And I called you to me.
     "Now that we can make it happen at will, we can study it. We can try to determine why it happens. We will learn more of the marvels of this marvelous world. And from those steps, who knows what other learning might come? We might learn how to rend the earth with sound, that we may have its coal, or cut a path through a mountain, to make way for a road. All because you learned an odd chant in a forgotten language and sang it into my device."
     Michael nodded. He released Aoife's hand and moved to Acorn's worktable, where oddments were piled in no particular order. The hilt of a dagger protruded out one side of the pile. He pulled it free, tested its point and its edge, and turned back to the little man.
     "Mount your wheel, Acorn. We're going to have another experiment, right now."
     Acorn licked his lips. "That's a very valuable blade, lad. I'd prefer that --"
     "Mount your wheel."
     Acorn complied.
     Within a few seconds, the little man had the wheel spinning furiously. Michael's recorded voice once more squawked fast and shrill from the horn. Michael raised the knife high above his head and whipped it down at Acorn's bare scalp.
     It exploded in his hand. The concussion threw him backwards into the cave wall, knocked the breath out of him and sent him to the floor.
     Acorn leaped off his mount. He and Aoife squatted over Michael, their faces filled with fright. Behind them, the spinning cylinder coasted to a halt, Michael's recorded voice dropping through the octaves until it ran out in a subterranean grumble.
     Michael shook his head and blinked away the sparks of impact. "It works." His voice was thick.
     "What was the point of that, Michael?" Acorn said.
     "My redemption. And yours. And the deliverance of Carach an Lagan. Can you make your device to speak at a distance? To protect someone not mounted on the wheel?"
     The question seemed to confuse Acorn. "I don't know, lad. Why?"
     Michael picked himself up off the floor of the cave, straightened his tunic and folded Aoife's hand in his own.
     "Armor for a champion." He looked into his wife's eyes. "Go home and tend to the babes, love. I'll be back by nightfall."

***

     Bryndan saw the two of them approach. The big silver-haired tuathan dropped his hoe and looked ready to flee when he recognized them. Michael hailed him in a low voice.
     "Shall we go inside, Bryndan?"
     The tuathan turned silently and led them into his hut. He indicated with a gesture that they should sit, then descended to his haunches in the far corner of the hovel. He sat silently, eyes darting from Acorn to Michael and back.
     "Balogh is coming, Bryndan."
     The tuathan nodded.
     "Have we the means to beat him back?"
     Bryndan snorted. "We are ten score men, as many women, and a clutch of useless priests. His legion numbers six thousand. He could leave three quarters of it behind and still slay us all."
     It's worse than I thought.
     "Will you take up sword against him, or do you mean to let him have us without a struggle?"
     The color drained from the tuathan's face. "Have you no sense, man? If we submit, we live. If we resist, we die, down to the youngest babe in arms. He had Cullaire put to the torch for resisting after its tuathan gave token of surrender!"
     Michael nodded. "But if we win?"
     "Madness! He has thirty times our numbers, all hard men blooded in battle!"
     "The rule, Bryndan," Michael said in his gravest bass, "is that if the defenders' chieftain offers combat of champions, the attacker must accept. Father Declan says that not once in seven centuries has an attacker refused the challenge."
     Bryndan peered at him as if he'd been babbling in tongues. "If you mean to suggest that I face Evan Balogh man to man with broadswords, you've gone simple. He's killed every man who's ever faced him. He keeps count by notching a cherry staff. There are three score grooves in it. I do not care to be numbered among them."
     "He would not kill you."
     "Why not?"
     Michael closed his eyes briefly. "Acorn can prevent it."
     The tuathan's gaze shot toward the little scholar, who was as startled as Bryndan at having been introduced to the exchange. "How?"
     "I, ah, have a device --"
     "A talisman? A relic? Balogh slew a chieftain who carried a fragment of the Cross!"
     "Not that kind of device, Bryndan." Michael tried to put authority in his tone. "Acorn has a machine that can swaddle you in safety. While he works it, no blade can touch you."
     The tuathan's face writhed between wonder and terror. "How?"
     "I don't know," Acorn said. "But it works. Michael helped me build it."
     The words hung leaden in the air as Bryndan studied Acorn's face. Michael dared not speak.
     "You are what they say you are," the tuathan whispered. "For eleven years I have rebuffed the folk who called you sorcerer. He's done naught to you or to any of us, I'd say. He is courteous and free with his coin, and he calls no man his foe. He keeps his nose to his own affairs and speaks ill of no one. Get you home and do as well. And now," he grated, "I learn that I was a fool."
     Acorn's face spasmed with pain. "I am no sorcerer and you are no fool, Bryndan. You could work my machine as easily as I. There are no earth powers involved. No rituals, no sacrifices, none of the dark and deadly things of the druids. It will not endanger your soul in any way. It will ward you from the blows of Balogh's sword."
     Bryndan stood. Though the tuathan was aflame with anger, Michael could see no trace in him of the warrior who'd led Carach an Lagan to victory in a score of battles.
     "Get you gone, sorcerers. Evan Balogh will be the King of Ireland by Midsummer's Day. I will not stand against a man who wears fate's mantle, no matter what your infernal device might do. I will bend the knee, and submit, and pray that my people do not cost me my life by resisting the inevitable."

***

     Only a fortnight more had passed when Balogh's outriders appeared atop the eastern ridge. Though they wore no obvious livery, it was plain that they had come to survey the village for the impending attack. They moved slowly along the rock, studied the roads, the passes, and the village's paltry defenses, then wheeled and rode off without a word.
     Michael had the news of Acorn. The little scholar was flushed with excitement, as if the contest to come were but one more of his absurd experiments. The news put flutters of doom into Michael's stomach. He accelerated his practice with his new-bought sword.
     Aoife took to keeping aside a day's food for the four of them. Their few movable possessions she bundled in a burlap rag, that they not be left behind when the family took flight.
     Each day, Michael went to the market and asked after horses or carts that might be for sale, at any price. There were none.

***

     Three days later Balogh's legion poured through the eastern pass, score after score like a human river, banners flying and voices singing challenge. Michael had never seen so many men in one place. He hadn't imagined that many in all of Ireland.
     Evan Balogh rode at their head on a great roan whose shoulder was as high as Michael was tall. A broadsword in a dark leather scabbard was strapped to the horse's flank.
     Apparently Balogh had expected to meet either a band of defenders or no one at all. When his eye lit upon Michael, he pulled up short and raised his hand. When the legion had come to a stop behind him, he leaped nimbly down from his horse and swept the area from north to south and back. Once satisfied that no ambush was afoot, he buckled on his swordbelt and strode toward Michael, who stood before the market gate with his new-forged sword sheathed at his side.
     With only a pace between them, Michael found that he had to look a little downward to meet the warlord's eyes. It brought no comfort. Balogh was built like a mountain scoured by an eon of storms. He was easily as broad as Michael, and the flesh of his face and forearms bore a multitude of scars. His dark eyes were hard. His manner was that of a man who took the submission of others as his birthright.
     "I am Evan Balogh."
     Michael nodded, conscious of the press of eyes upon his back from where his family and townsfolk huddled. "My name is Michael."
     The warlord cocked an eyebrow at the lack of a surname. "Are ye the tuathan of this place?" His expression said you have not the look.
     Michael swallowed. "I am here in his place."
     "To treat with me?" Balogh's voice betrayed his amusement. His legend said he never gave quarter, nor accepted anything short of absolute surrender.
     "To fight you."
     Balogh and his men brayed laughter as one. Michael fought not to cringe before the blast of contempt.
     "Ye are no more than a boy. A strapping lad, to be sure, but no man of arms. And ye think to try your youngling's strength against the King of Ireland?"
     "You are not king here."
     The laughter from the ranks ceased at once. Balogh's mirth disappeared and his eyes narrowed.
     "One swing of my blade and I shall be, lad. Ye have no more than twenty summers, ye smell of the bog, and that sword ye wear has never been blooded. Ye are no proper chieftain to oppose me, and there can be no more than fifteen score of ye to meet my spears. Have done with your foolishness, bend your knee to me here and now, and I'll not slay ye and all your kindred for your cheek." The scarred face produced a vicious snarl.
     Yet the bluster rang false. A note of uncertainty vibrated in the warlord's voice. He'd expected none of this, and was unsure of what he really faced, either from Michael or behind the walls of Carach an Lagan.
     He doesn't want to fight me!
     "Our chieftain," Michael said in a tone of casual contempt, "toyed with the notion of meeting you himself, but at the last he deemed it beneath his dignity. So he summoned his retainers and bade us arrange ourselves by height, and he selected the smallest of us to go forth as his champion, that you might have some trifling chance to prevail against the might of Carach an Lagan. He wanted there to be contest enough for a song or two. He would not have it said that the great Evan Balogh was crushed like an insect and his legion swatted away without a care."
     Balogh's face turned dark with fury. The gasp from his men rushed through the air like the blast of wind that opens a summer squall.
     "If ye set life at so little," Balogh hissed, stepping back and drawing his sword, "I'll not deny ye a death at the hand of a king."
     Michael pulled his sword from its sheath and stood at the ready. From behind him, faint but definite, came the rumble of his recorded voice, rapidly accelerated by Acorn's furious pedaling.
     Lord God of hosts, I have been Your faithful servant all my life. If I am to die by this man's hand, let it be in Your arms. Let it be as a man, not a wretch who grovels and pleads for his life. Let my family and my neighbors remember me to my credit. And take Aoife and the babes under Your special care.
     Balogh raised his sword high overhead, stepped forward and swung it whistling down at Michael's neck. Michael did not attempt to ward the blow.
     A bare inch from his flesh, the sword clanged against something unyielding. It did not explode nor fragment. It bounced off as if Michael's neck had been sheathed in a slab of the finest steel. The reaction threw the warlord backward as if he'd been struck an equal blow. As his legion cried out in amazement, Balogh staggered and fell onto his rump.
     The protective whine faltered and ceased. Michael suppressed a shudder and smiled. "Perhaps you see now, sir, why we don't need a great many warriors to deal with you."
     Balogh picked himself up, glared his hatred at Michael, and charged again. Michael's ears strained after the protective chant as the warlord swept his blade at Michael's midsection.
     Perhaps the chant faltered at a crucial instant. Or perhaps it had not established its shield around him quite in time. Balogh's blade sliced through Michael's leather jerkin and scored his flesh from one hip to the other, opening a long wound that bled copiously. Though the cut was too shallow to threaten Michael's life, and looked far worse than it was, the surprise and pain staggered him, almost sending him to his knees. Yet once again, Balogh took a far heavier blow. He flew backward to the earth, stretched out supine and witless from the reflected force of his stroke.
     It's time.
     Michael stepped forward easily, blade loose in his hand, ignoring the burning gouge across his belly. He stood over the fallen war chief and smiled down at him.
     "Two of your best blows to none of mine, sir, yet here I stand over you. Will you have the least of mine to remember us by?" And he raised his virgin sword and struck.
     Balogh gave a great and despairing cry as Michael severed his sword arm at the shoulder. His blood flowed out to water the soil of Carach an Lagan's market square as his hand clutched spastically at the hilt of his useless sword. Within a minute, his life was spent.
     Michael wiped his sword on Balogh's jerkin, returned it to its sheath, and straightened to address the leaderless horde.
     "Your chieftain has shown us his best. Is there any among you thinks to better him?"
     In three minutes, all had departed as they had come, leaving Michael to stand alone over the lifeless body of Evan Balogh, he who would have been King of Ireland.

***

     None of the townsfolk would speak to him, or to Aoife. They stayed as rigidly away as if he'd ridden into battle on a demon's back. Three days after the confrontation, he and Aoife decided to go.
     They didn't need to do much preparing. Their few movable possessions, of which Aoife's knives and her two earthen bowls were the greater part, made a pack that even Eamon could carry. After a last dawnlight look at the village that had been home to uncounted generations of their kin, they made for Acorn's cave in the eastern cliffs.
     The little scholar stood smiling at the cave mouth to greet them. He didn't appear surprised at their arrival. He beckoned them in, bade them sit.
     "I will miss you, Michael."
     Michael nodded.
     "It was inevitable, you know. Whether for the abbot's accusations or the defeat of Balogh, it was impossible that they accept you again. For all that you saved them, they are no longer sure what you are."
     "I know, sir." I knew before I went to challenge Balogh. "I can't fault them."
     "Does your wound pain you much?"
     Michael grinned and pulled up his tunic. Acorn approached, peered close, and gaped. Only a thin, perfectly horizontal scar traced across his flesh. It was as neatly closed as the finest surgeon could have done.
     Acorn's eyes darted from the scar to Aoife. "Lady, did you...?"
     She shook her head. "Not a bit of it, sir. It closed of its own. It had stopped bleeding before Michael got home."
     The little scholar's face went slack. He sat heavily upon his stool and clapped his hands against his thighs.
     "When he struck that blow, I thought he'd cleave you in two. When I opened my eyes and saw you standing and him in the dirt, I thought I'd lost my reason."
     Michael's brow furrowed. "But why, sir? His first stroke did me no harm. Why should his second?"
     Acorn didn't answer. Instead he rose, went to the back of his cave and plucked two items from a pile of detritus. He brought them to Michael and laid them in his hands like tokens of payment.
     Michael stared dumbly at the fractured halves of the cylinder upon which Acorn had inscribed his voice.
     "How?" he whispered.
     "It shattered at Balogh's first blow," Acorn said. "You stood naked before his second stroke, with no protection but your jerkin."
     "Then why -- why -- "
     "I don't know, lad." Acorn looked acutely embarrassed by his ignorance. "I'd give a year of my life to know. You had a stroke of luck to equal Balogh's stroke of his sword. That's my only conjecture."
     Michael closed his eyes and sat perfectly still for a long moment.
     Luck never hardened flesh against a sword swung in fury.
     "Acorn," he said, "in a day or two, when we are well away from here, I want you to climb the hill and tell Father Declan of this. He needs to know. And perhaps he will have an answer for you. Will you do that, simply because I ask it?"
     Tension mounted in Acorn's face. "I would not be welcome there, Michael. What would be the use?"
     Michael caught the little scholar's eyes and held them. "Acorn," he said in his lowest register, "it could be worth a great deal to you."
     Acorn swallowed and nodded. Michael rose and put out his hand, and the scholar took it.
     "Go with God, Acorn."
     Michael took Aoife's hand and led his family out of the cave. They set out to the west, along the track of the Lagan, their backs warmed by the rising sun. In two days' walk, they would come to a village where Michael could make a new hut of reeds and stones and river clay, learn to till and sow and coax grain from the earth, teach his children of their forebears and raise them to their strength, and nevermore be taken for a sorcerer, or a king.

==<O>==

     Copyright (C) 1998 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

5 comments:

JWM said...

I stopped by early in the morning, just after achieving consciousness.Checked the story...

I was almost late for my monthly bike club.
Thanks.
(didn't get a speeding ticket on the way down to the beach either.:D )

JWM

Brian E. said...

That was very good.
I don’t know how hard (or satisfying) this was to craft compared to your other writings, but I liked it enough to pay for more.
Thanks for whetting my appetite - I look forward to more, as the muse allows.

Micro said...

Fran, you are a gifted storyteller. I have purchased ^most^ of your books and enjoyed all of them. The Realm of Essences series is my favorite. With this short story as an example, I can just imagine what you could do with a full fansasy series.

Dystopic said...

Excellent read. Just what I needed today.

IlĂ­on said...

Excellent