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The Old Ways, Chapter One

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series The Old Ways

I don’t know whether or not this will become a regular updated serial like “Interviewing Leather” or Theftworld or not. Once upon a time I’d thought to make a novel of this, but I’m not sure today whether I will or not. It’s a very different kind of work for me, really.

I guess it depends on how it’s received.

There are five completed chapters of The Old Ways right now. Maybe in five weeks — assuming I post all five — I’ll decide if I want to finish writing chapter six or not. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out how to explain this one. It’s got some Tolkien in it, and some C.S. Lewis, but it also has some Jane Austin and the Brontë sisters in it too. A tragedy of manners, perhaps.

I dunno. Regardless, here it is. Let me know what you think.

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Chapter One

Of course it was raining. That was how ill fated journeys should begin. In the years to come, after the Three Wars of the Sundering had passed and the Eclipse of Progress had settled in for its full course, Old Jack Hewer would stare out at rain from the safety of a glass pane, and remark that it was rain that had opened the journey. Rain that had set the stage. Rain that drove down hard for a morning, soaking the walkways and settling in for a long stay.

He didn’t mention how good the rain had made him feel, all those years before, when his name wasn’t Hewer at all, but Shrewsbury. The Manor had been without water for a long time, and the rain was none too soon to keep the grasses green and the crops growing. Albert, the hedge wizard, had managed to keep things more or less going but elf’s magic was none too predictable. It couldn’t replace a few days of healthy downpour.

And perhaps that’s the way to start the tale, if you want to understand it. It’s not a pretty one, for the most part, but perhaps none of the old stories are pretty. Perhaps if you strip away the rhymes and songs and legends, you find people of limited vision thrust onto the world’s stage without script. Perhaps. But those stories aren’t for us. Not right now. We have another tale to tell. The one we know, about Young Jack Shrewsbury, the Gameskeeper of Owl’s Head.

Jack sipped tea as he watched the rain, and thought about the work he couldn’t very well do in a downpour. If he’d had a plump wife to call his own, as Miss Diggit who did for Sir Roderick would have liked to be, she’d be fussing at him right about now, demanding he take off his wet things and gather more wood for the fire, but he didn’t so there was just him, and he didn’t see much reason to take off wet and put on dry to simply be made wet again.

There was a knock at the door. A firm one. Jack was a hair startled — the Keeper’s House didn’t receive many visitors in good weather, much less rain. He gulped another sip of tea and set the mug on the oak table, then made his way to the door, throwing it open.

“Well, hello Jack,” his visitor said with a slight grin, looking rather bedraggled despite his blue cloak. “Might I share your fire for a few moments?”

“Not at all, Sir Roderick,” Jack said, stepping back and motioning the Manor lord in. “Not at all. You’re out on a damp day, if I might say so. Damp and no denying it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of arguing with you,” Sir Roderick said, and this was indeed the Rod of the later story, and yes it is fair to say that at this time he was Jack’s friend, as well as his lord. I know this might surprise you. That’s the way of things — people always leap later in a story when they hear it. But Old Jack Hewer always spoke well of Sir Roderick Owles, and I think it best we do so when telling their tale.

In those days, of course, the Hewer and the Rod didn’t look like the statues or the paintings. No, Jack was a shorter man — five and nine, perhaps, with blond hair and a thick blond beard, wearing leathers for the hunt. And Sir Roderick was tall and fine of face, with a trimmed beard along his jaw and curls in his reddish black hair, wearing the thin long sword that was popular in that day at his side.

“So what brings you to this corner of Owl’s Head, eh? Out for a ride and the rain caught you, I warrant, and no doubt. You’ll want some tea to warm yourself, and I think I’ve some wine here somewhere.”

“Tea would be fine, and wine I can get back up at the estate I’m sure. No, the rain didn’t drive me here, Jack. I came looking for you.”

“Mm? The trouble with coyotes, no doubt? Well, they’ve taken a few deer and old Younger Will’s been making noise about his sheep, not that coyotes are much for sheep when there’s a dog nearby, and that hound of his–”

“No, Jack, not coyotes either. I find myself… in the position of asking an odd favor. May I sit?”

Jack looked startled. “A favor? I’m not sure what I can do for you but I’m usually up for anything, and you should know that by now, Sir Roderick.”

“I do, I do. It’s been too long since you’ve been along with me, you know it, Jack? Mm — the Drakish War was four years ago. It seems like four weeks, doesn’t it?”

“You didn’t get a knock on the head, Sir. The time’s not been bad, from my mind.” Jack smiled. He and many of the able bodied men of the Manor had gone with Sir Roderick to fight in Drake across the White Bay. It had been moderately profitable, though they hadn’t kept much property. They seemed to only rarely keep much of Drake or Pandor when they went in, and the Pandorans and Drakes didn’t keep much of Fairhaven when they invaded. It all balanced out, somehow. Perhaps that’s the thing to remember about the beginning of the story. Everything was balanced, and even.

“Well, there is that. I learned to duck before you, I think. Still, it’s been too long.”

“And do I take this to mean there’s another war a-coming, and I should be finding a boy or wife to keep the grounds while we’re off?” Jack half-smiled. He knew the drill by now. To be healthy was to be a soldier, when soldiering came.

“Oh, no no. Nothing of the sort. That Drakish Prince has been courting the Queen for eight months, and Drake and Pandor are the ones currently fighting. The Pandoran ambassador and that bloody Bishop have been rather conciliatory of late, as well. So there isn’t a good fight in the offing if that’s what you mean.”

“Ah. Well then — what sort of favor are we looking at then?”

Sir Roderick sat back, and took out his pipe, filling it with tobacco. “Have you some fire?” he asked, and Jack saw to his needs quietly, setting the kettle back on as he did so. “It’s… almost embarrassing, really.”

“Oh really? Must have to do with a woman, then. A woman who’s not Lady Jessica and you need some assistance.” Jack half-smirked.

Sir Roderick flushed slightly as he puffed. “No, actually. Well, yes and no. It is a woman, but it’s also Lady Jessica.”

“Well then, this gets more interesting all the while. I don’t see what favor you can ask of me. I’ve never even met the woman, Sir, and that’s truth.”

“Oh? You’re well informed about her.”

“Just what Miss Diggit and Bets and Corman up at the Estate tell me, Sir, and they tell a lot — probably most of which isn’t my place to repeat.”

Sir Roderick laughed. “As though Bets weren’t willing to tell it to my face, Jack. No, I’ve heard all of it. And it’s mostly true, I suppose — Lady Jessica is vain, and learned without being particularly bright, which isn’t the best combination. But you’ll see — there’s something about her that invigorates and inspires, as well as infuriates.”

“If I’ve the chance to meet her, I suppose, Sir. And here, your water’s hot. Tell me this favor while I brew the tea up.”

“Well… would you be willing to… go on something of a journey with me?”

“A journey? Of what sort?”

Sir Roderick looked down. “Well… sort of a Quest, I guess you’d call it.”

The way Old Jack told me the story, he says he practically dropped the mug of tea at that, managing to slop half of it all over the table. But I don’t see Jack doing that — he was always too careful and precise, it seemed, and the change couldn’t have made that big a difference. But when I protested, he always looked me in the eye, his eye squinted, and said “you just don’t know, son. You just don’t know. Nothing at all stayed the same. Nothing. I could have been four feet tall with gorilla’s hands before and ended up this way. You just don’t know.” So, since this is Jack’s story and not mine, I’ll tell it Jack’s way, which left him sopping up the tea with a cloth and staring at Sir Roderick. “A Quest? Virgin’s Blood and Tears, Sir — should we wear silver armor and ride white horses and look for dragons while we’re at it? Are we back six hundred years before the Elves left and the Six Swords were in the land? Can you hand me that dry cloth — this one’s soaked.”

Sir Roderick handed the dirty kitchen cloth over. “I know, I know,” he said. “It doesn’t seem particularly sound an idea, but Lady Jessica’s always lived more in the Age of Chivalry and great deeds than the age the rest of us reached. It seems she wants a Quest.”

“There is much to be said for denying women, Sir. Especially when they’re being ridiculous.”

“You’ve never loved, Jack. She is such a rare creature.”

“So it sounds. Tell me of this deed of derring do you must do to win her favor. Pardon my laughter as you say it.”

“It’s not just me — she wants to come too.”

Jack started again, and shook his head. “So she wants to go back to the old ways and days but she wants to come along and slay dragons too? She can’t seem to get it right. Anyone else? A handmaid, perhaps?”

“A Wizard, actually. An Elf-Mage in her shire, called Micah.”

“Oh, wondrous good. How’d we end up with a sorcerer, and more importantly, why?”

“He’s the one who gave her the idea, actually. He found an old prophecy regarding Leincastershire that’s got her in a flurry.”

Jack rolled his eyes and sipped tea. “So what is this favor you want of me — to come along? Where?”

“The Northwestern Wall.”

Jack didn’t drop his tea this time. He just stared. “You want to run off to the mountains — the bloody well tall mountains — because of a prophecy a hedge wizard from Leincaster managed to talk this Lady Jessica into, while toting the two of them along with?”

“He’s from Leincastershire, but not the village. He’s actually from Tosunberry.”

“Oh, even better. The Elf’s blood is strong in the middle of nowhere, I’m told.”

“Oh, come now, Jack. It would be good fun to get out and away for a bit, wouldn’t it? Besides, there’s lots to see up there, and do — that would be worth it, don’t you think?”

“That’s a leading question, and I don’t mind admitting it. What would I be then? A footman?”

“Of a sort, and we’d have you drive the carriage–”

“Carriage? On a quest? Oh, the Knights of Old and the Warriors of the Six Swords were well known for riding in carriages and carts. Absolutely. This only gets better. Shall we pack picnic lunch while we’re at it?”

Sir Roderick laughed. “Perhaps we should. Anyhow, you’d drive the carriage… and to be frank, if there are problems with brigands in the woods, I should like a good man with a sword and a good shot with a wheellock along with, you know? And that you are, both.”

“Wheellock? Hm — takes all the sport out of dragonhunting, doesn’t it? I mean, if you’re going to simply put shot between the eyes of the lizard, you might as well stay at home and slaughter pigs. They at least you can eat.”

“Dragons I promise we’ll kill the old fashioned way. Brigands we’ll shoot. Come — say you’ll come along. It will be fun.”

“Perhaps. I’ll assume she has her reasons to want to go — what exactly are my reasons? And please don’t say anything about the spirit of adventure. The spirit of adventure keeps to her own home in the rain, and she and I aren’t on more than causal speaking terms anyhow.”

Sir Roderick sighed a put upon sigh. “I don’t suppose you’d accept that I’m the Manor Lord and do it out of sheer loyalty?”

“My loyalty to you is complete, Sir, and no denying. And it and tuppance will buy a mug of the small at the West Wind Tavern.”

“All right. Eight guineas and four packets of that South Islands Tobacco you like so much.”

“One packet before we go, and one guinea too. I’ll want to smoke it as we tramp up those dreary mountains, and dream of warmth and civilized, modern company.”

“Done and done. The tobacco will wait — we’ll leave on the morrow, I think.”

“That storm won’t have let up then. Three days, or not an hour by me, I should think.”

“Just so — we want to get underway. Rain doesn’t bother us.”

“You, you mean. One of us will be outside driving the carriage. I should have asked for more tobacco.”

“Of course.” He pulled a guinea out of his pouch and tossed it onto the table, where it rolled and landed, the Swords up. “That will keep you until tomorrow?”

“It would have to, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose so.” Sir Roderick smiled. “Come now — this won’t be bad, Jack. You’ll see.”

“Perhaps I will, Sir, perhaps I will.” And Jack saw Sir Roderick out, and watching him go from the dry warmth of his doorway, he thought a long while about what Sir Roderick had proposed.

Here and now, today, you don’t seem to understand how strange all of this sounded to Jack. Knights and quests and legends and dragons belonged to earlier eras, when true Elves walked the land and magic fell from the heavens and men strove to change the world with blade and will. An earlier time, one even then falling into disrepute. Elf’s magic was at best faltering in those modern days, and the magic of man is quiet. A rational man did not believe more than a quarter of what he heard of the days of the Six Swords of Elvish Lore, and even that quarter he assumed had its troubles with accuracy.

I know it sounds strange to you. It did to me as well, when Old Jack told me. He bought me a pint of bitters and tried to explain his rational world in terms I could understand. But then I live in the world after the Eclipse, and all of this was so long ago.

In any case, Jack spent most of that night packing for a journey. He didn’t have much to prepare, but one always wants to be sure he avoids wanting something he could have easily had. So he collected rope and tinder and a few sticks of dry wood and pots and pans and the like. The late hours he spent sharpening his knife and his sword.

The sword was serviceable — exceptional only because his upkeep of it had made it so. He was not a professional warrior or mercenary of course. Those who spend their lives moving from Drake’s armies to Pandor’s armies to the Bhentish army if they’d pay enough — those for whom war is simply an occupation. Jack Shrewsbury was a soldier of convenience — he followed Sir Roderick when needed. But he was also a groundskeeper and gamekeeper. One who follows such duties gets rather good at ensuring his tools are well kept. And to Jack, the sword was a tool, and nothing more. He sharpened it and polished it, adding the right oils to ‘ware rust and soaking its sheath well. A serviceable blade — that was all Jack wanted.

The same time he spent on his wheellock rifle, and he made sure the powder and shot were in their right packets and pouches, and checked the wax and oil as well. The powder was worth Jack’s life wet, and his enemy’s life dry. He polished the brass of the weapon, and cleaned the barrel and stock, and wrapped it well in oilcloth.

And he took his token of Saint Christopher, and put it about his neck, and his broad Kierish Cross — the Kiers were Catholic, of course, and Jack belonged to the Church of Fairhaven, but the cross was a prize of war taken, with the ancient circle behind the cross, and Kierish scrolling and what old Albert said were Elvish runes cut into it, and placed it with his good dry travel cloak and wrap. He oiled his hat and the cloak’s hood as well, the better to keep his hair dry.

And early in the morning, Jack took his mare across Owl’s Head to Mark Kiln’s, and spoke to Mark about the coming trip, and told him about the coyotes, and about the sheepherders, and also told him what trees would be wanting work where, and mentioned the gardens in passing. Mrs. Kiln — for she was always called such, and never Betsy, to keep herself distinct from Bets at the Estate — gave the two men breakfast as they spoke. Finally, Jack took the mare back along the path and then up to the Estate, to meet the others.

Have you ever heard Owl’s Head described? I’ve seen it, and even today, it’s very nice indeed. And the Estate is marvelous. Broad lawns on the inside of a gate of brownish marble, with the image of an owl staring out from the top gates. The main house itself is long, and two stories well painted, with windows on both floors. Jack gave the reins of the mare to Corman, who told him Sir Roderick was waiting for him in the study. Jack went up to join him, and there met Lady Jessica Berwick, and Micah of Tosunberry for the first time.

It was, on the whole, a happier life he led before that moment.

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