And here, we have ourselves at Chapter Five — the last written chapter. There is about half of Chapter Six written, and then no more of The Old Ways, at least so far.
Will there be more? I guess that depends on what people think. Let me know what you think of this particular chapter, but also let me know what you think of the series in general. I appreciate it.
On the whole, even if I never pick this back up — and it’s worth noting my father likes The Old Ways, so there’s every chance I will — I’m glad to have written at least this much. This has been a different kind of story for me.
It is worth noting that the ultimate idea would have been less fantasy adventure and more ‘breakdown of civility into the bush a la Heart of Darkness, which is hinted at in this chapter, just slightly.
Sir Roderick’s look was slightly mocking, with an expression between indulgence and superiority. "You look rather like a girl of ten, found splashing in puddles an hour before the Service on a Sunday," he said, and Lady Jessica’s face flushed hot.
Jack was distressed at Sir Roderick’s words. It was fair to say that the wind had swept Lady Jessica’s hair and clothing about, sporting with her as they rode, and some moisture had penetrated the blankets he had given her for the journey, but to call her sopping would be to call a summer’s sprinkle a cloudburst. "I believe you might overstate, sir, which is to say that while the lady has taken a bit of the damp, she’s not–"
"And you," Sir Roderick said, turning on Jack. "You I did charge most specifically with keeping the Lady Jessica, my betrothed and the author of our adventure, both warm and dry as she perched up there, and as far as I can see you have done neither." His tone was reproachful, yes, though that same mocking amusement clung to it. Jack had seen Sir Roderick turn his humor’s edge on others before — always cutting, but with a sly glance to his fellows that said ‘I do not mean what I say, but watch him, pinioned on my words like a butterfly caught.’
Before, however, Jack had been one of the fellows. He had never spent much time as one of the skewered, and the point was sharper than he expected. "Sir," he said, "there was not much rain to be seen, and what there was–"
And Sir Roderick glanced at Lady Jessica, that very glance that Jack had seen so many times when Sir Roderick had been confronting a fool or lackwit, and Jack felt his flush grow, and his need to explain rise. "And, that is, sir, she did not speak of the wet, and it did not seem overly much. That is–"
"Jack," Sir Roderick said gently, "did I not tell you that if it should rain, you should stop so the Lady could join me once again?"
Jack’s flush grew, and he looked down.
"Nay," Lady Jessica said. "You did not." Her voice sounded aggrieved. "You, in fact, rather completely dismissed me. Your half-hearted protest of rain–"
"Indeed, of rain," Sir Roderick said, turning back to her and releasing the spike from Jack’s pride for the moment. "I did tell you the weather would not hold. I said to mark me if it did not rain and behold, my lady," he spread his arms before her. "I stand unmarked, do I not."
"You do, and you are most proud of that," she snapped. "But if you can let me complete one thought without turning the conversation to the magnificences of Roderick Owles for just a moment’s span, you’ll hear that you most certainly did not direct Jack to stop the carriage and return me within should rain come. I met your protests of rain with the suggestion that if the rain were too much for me — and by the by I hardly think the sprinkles we felt counted as rain so much as a late dew that fell instead of appearing — then I would elect to return. First, the wet would have to be worse than your company, which I see now is more poison than even when you first arose upon this morrow."
Sir Roderick took the broadside in stride, and glanced back at Jack, and there Jack saw the familiar quirk of Sir Roderick’s mouth — the very one he had directed to the lady not five minutes gone. "Jess — dear Jess… it matters little who said you should return from the rain. The simple fact is that you should have, and you did not. And now I am dry and you are wet, and you see the folly of avoiding my counsel, yes?"
Lady Jessica’s face set rather into a pout. "I see the folly of conversation with you in any way," she said. "We ride to glorious adventure and no doubt great peril. If a tiny bit of wet discourages you, we should strike the wheels from Beacon this moment, and make it a house. The Northeastern Wall will have dampness aplenty."
Sir Roderick chuckled. "I would and have stood on deck in a gale, smoking with the man on watch — Jack, mark me if I did not, yes?" And Jack nodded, having been there. "You see? Jack has seen my disregard for the damp up close. But it is not my discomfort I worry about, my dear. Not one jot. If you wish me to hurl myself into a pond to prove myself I shall. But you, my dear Jess, my bright Jess… to see you made uncomfortable in the slightest is to inflict torment upon myself greater than any storm."
"And you believe me uncomfortable? Not so — the air has freshened me. Indeed, Master Jack — who has taken to his studies most well, I should add, and shows himself of some small potential — did mention how the air and breeze did make my color better and my face lovely to be seen. Did you not, Jack?" And Jack was a bit shocked, for indeed he had said no such thing to her, though he did mention at one point that she looked rather well for one who had not ever ridden in the overcrop of a carriage before. He could not imagine how such fine and flattering words could be inflated from so mild a comment, but then he could not imagine the thoughts and logic of the Lady Jessica. And yet, though he knew he had said no such thing, he nodded agreement with her. He would not disagree with her, certainly, and in a way he wished it was the sort of thing he could have said to her, that would have flowed off his tongue as easily as a sonnet or love scene flowed off Master Palintier’s pen.
"Ah, I see I am caught on both sides," Sir Roderick said with his customary amusement, now expanded to include both Jack and Lady Jessica. Whether he meant for them to share in the joke or to be pierced by it, Jack wasn’t entirely sure. "Very well then. If riding in the wind and wet makes you happy, please accept my permission to ride in any gale you wish. Indeed, having one of us above with Jack will make riding easier for the other two, for the carriage isn’t quite as large as I’d like."
"I did not say I would always ride with Jack," Lady Jessica snapped. "Though I do find his society a pleasant one on the ride."
Sir Roderick arched an eyebrow. "Society," he asked quietly.
Lady Jessica opened her mouth, then closed it. "I meant his presence and conversation, of course," she said. And Jack understood — that they had shared a good amount of time together did not mean they associated. And he flushed yet again, and did not say a word.
"Well, that’s settled," Sir Roderick said. "Come, let’s find this Micah. We’ve given the stableman enough of a laugh already. And then perhaps some lunch before we set out again."
Lady Jessica nodded, and began to stride through Tosunberry. There was not much to the village, certainly. There was a church on one end, unpainted with a spire that had some drooping, so that rather than reach up to God it rather slouched, as though inviting God to go on ahead, and it would be along. A few other mean buildings — a tanner’s, an inn, a cooper’s and the like — lined the streets, which she ignored. But she, and her companions, were not ignored. No, the townsfolk had fairly pushed out, lining the streets to watch as they passed and speak of them quietly. Such a small place so out of the way got few visitors, and fewer still courtiers and ladies-in-waiting of the Court down south in the city of Baden.
Still, Lady Jessica pressed on, not turning to speak or be acknowledged. Indeed, her stride lengthened and grew more purposeful, as she approached what to Jack looked to be the meanest hut along the edge of the village. Timbers haphazardly hammered into place gave it an unsound look, made more so by the roof — a good roof and frame, it seemed, but built perhaps for some other house. This roof did not lie square on the hut but instead hung over the left side rather more than the right, and it looked to be at an odd angle as well. A sign hung from it, with the cut symbol of the Runemark. More Elvish was burned into the top of the door frame — a rather common invocation against evil things.
"That is a sorcerer’s house?" Jack asked, aghast at the tumbledown cottage. "One should think Elf’s Magic could at least secure the same living as a mason or carpenter, and see a decent house for it."
"A mason can build his own walls," Sir Roderick replied as quietly, "and a carpenter can cut even bad wood into good lines. Sorcerers have only words to work with, that sometimes have power and sometimes don’t, so those words are ill-suited to construction." For that was how it was in the days before the Eclipse of Progress. Elf-Magic had been slowly fading, as the Elvish blood in men thinned with the passing of generations, and longer and longer distance was placed between that modern world and the ancient world of the Elves and the Six Swords.
"That’s so," Jack said. He stood and waited, for that was what Sir Roderick did. Lady Jessica, alternately, approached. "Hello," she cried out. "Hello?"
A heap, parked on a chair perched in front of the hovel, which Jack had taken for nothing less than a pile of clothes and rags left to rot in the rain, stirred itself and rose up into an old man with a shock of white hair that rose from his dirty head like a bird’s nest perched on a weathered old log. "Aye," he called back. "Who be there and why?"
"Micah," Lady Jessica called back. "We’re here for Micah!"
"Micah?" the old man said,pulling at his ear slightly, and showing a round face.
"Is that Micah," Jack asked, suddenly afraid, envisioning trying to cart the man in Beacon hither and yon, depending on him for directions.
"Mm? No no — that’s old Hesh," Sir Roderick said. "Or so I assume. He tutors Micah. Gives him his devoirs."
"I feel less secure in his sorcery then," Jack murmured.
Old Hesh had indeed roused himself by then, and shaking his head slightly and pressing into the cottage, he seemed to be having a conversation with himself. "Aye," he said. "Fetch Micah forth for the lady. Indeed I will. Should I then? Oh, aye. Micah said, did he not. Adventure, he said. And Baden. Micah said Baden and the college, and that’s no lie…" Hesh disappeared then, his words unabated.
"Baden?" Jack asked. "Isn’t that entirely the wrong direction to get to the Northeastern Wall?"
"The last time I looked on a map, aye," Sir Roderick said quietly.
Lady Jessica returned. "It’s unfair," she said. "That so learned a man should be reduced to such poverty."
"What, that sack of cloth and flesh?" Jack asked, stunned. Knowing the Lady’s dislike of even his own attire and state as a Gamekeeper, Jack couldn’t imagine she would be charitable of the flabby old spellsmith.
"Oh, no no," she said, half-laughing. "Not old Hesh, though Micah tells me he was once a skilled man of the Craft. I mean Micah, of course. He tells me that once the talented were brought from around the entire world — savages from Bhent or Kier, Drakish chevaliers and wizards of Reardon alike — to the Towers of Knowledge, where the Arts were taught and the old ways kept. But the Towers have fallen with age and decay…."
"If they ever existed," Sir Roderick said.
"They did, I am certain," Lady Jessica said, her chin high. "Why, their scholarship has been proven conclusively, in journal and letter. John Night, the Queen’s Astrologer and Royal Sorcerer, has shown me in his books and tomes–"
"Enough," Sir Roderick said. "Lady Jessica Berwick’s sorcerer approaches."
They turned and looked. Micah of Tosunberry was moderately tall, with black hair that was a bit overlong, and no beard on his chin. His eyes reminded Jack somewhat of ravens’ eyes, and his cloak was a deep red, held with a good pin. A gift, he learned later, of Lady Jessica.
Most distinctive, however, were Micah’s hands. The Elf’s Blood generally manifested itself in its children by a trait or two — beyond their ability to use some fragments of the Elvish Magic, of course. A point to the ears, or silvery eyebrows, or perhaps a cat’s eye. In Micah’s case, his Elvish heritage reflected themselves completely in his hands, which he had folded in front of himself almost as though he wore them like badges of honor. They were much thinner of palm than most mens’ hands, and their fingers were slightly wrinkled, and much longer than would be expected. One half thought that if Micah placed his hands on the trim waist of Lady Jessica on either side, his fingertips might touch. The nails on his hands were lightly golden in color, and the nails on his index fingers looked almost hooked.
"Micah," Lady Jessica said, smiling. "Well met. Well met indeed!"
"Well?" Micah asked, in a voice used to being mysterious. "What is well and ill within this world, that could not be said to be its opposite elsewhere?"
"Oh, of course," Lady Jessica said, digesting this phrase for its wisdom and nodding with a slightly knit brow, affecting a serious demeanor though she could not keep back her enthusiastic smile. "Still, I say it’s well, and indeed, you should as well. We are prepared, Micah, and within our carriage Beacon we ride to destiny."
"Beacon?" Sir Roderick asked, then broke into a knowing smile. "Ah, of course, the great Carriage Christening."
"My things are gathered," Micah said. "Send your man to stow them, and we shall discuss our journey at some length in the Grey Pony before we set forth. I must say, you are swifter than I anticipated." Micah did not make it clear if he thought their speed was a good or bad thing.
"Yes, yes of course," Lady Jessica said excitedly. "We will of course. Quickly, Jack — gather Master Micah’s things and bring them to the carriage. We will secure lunch within and you may join us, and then you shall hear of the Prophecy and of the great task we undertake. Yes, that is the way of it."
Jack glanced at Sir Roderick, who nodded slightly. He turned and looked at Micah, who was regarding him silently, his dark raven’s eyes flickering from Jack’s hat to his boots in practiced strokes, like a boatman’s quiet sculling to pull himself along a lake.
"Master," Jack nodded, and stepped around the sorcerer. He had met more than a few in his time, and for the most part he had a low opinion of them. Sorcerers had the Elf’s Magic, it was sure, but that meant little. Tricks and flares and stories of the days when Sorcery fueled the very turning of the world. But it was rather like wishing for one of the Six Swords, it seemed to Jack. Of course, it would be nice to call down a storm or raise a mountain with a word. But it was long in the past when such things were done, and many believed they were never done at all. Micah seemed typical of that breed. Jack walked away from the group, who themselves were heading for the Inn.
He approached the hut rather quickly, wanting to get there and get Micah’s things swiftly. In part this was his dislike of the ramshackle building and the ramshackle old man who lived there. In part this was his desire to hear this Prophecy once and for all. And in largest part of them all it was the desire to eat a healthy lunch and get some hot ale or mulled wine into himself.
Micah’s baggage seemed to be contained in a single sack,tied with a bit of rope that itself had a flat stone affixed to it, and painted Elvish characters upon it. A ward against snooping, Jack supposed, though it seemed silly to him. Why one couldn’t just cut the rope or bag to get in was beyond him. And more, who would want to rob a sorcerer? Even a beggar would likely have a good bowl and a few half-groats to his name. A sorcerer had no such assurance.
He scooped it up and turned to leave, when the old Hesh’s voice rasped out. "You," he said, an accusatory sound.
Jack turned, a bit startled. Had the old man gotten so fuddled he thought Jack was stealing the sack? "Aye," he asked of the man, whose round, pitted face seemed to hang out the doorway, with his body behind.
"You. You’re with that woman, be you not?"
Jack narrowed his eyes. "You’ll not be referring to the Lady Jessica such," he said.
The old Hesh rasped a laugh. "Answer enough, answer enough," he said. "So it is you, and you think old Hesh as worthless as the others believe. Aye? Aye, that you do." He laughed again, a rough thing. "But old Hesh is not mad, is he? Nay, not a bit, I should say. Should old Hesh tell him then? Ask — ask and you’ll know what you must, eh, Hesh?"
Jack took a deep breath. "I’ve no time for this. My lunch awaits. God ye good den, master."
Hesh fixed a stare suddenly that seemed for a moment to freeze Jack in place, startled at the old man’s sudden intensity. "Tell me," he half-whispered. "Do ye know the manner of doing great deeds?"
Jack blinked. "What," he asked.
"Ye heard me. Know ye the manner one goes about to do great deeds?"
Jack tried to look away from that terrible stare, that old fat man’s stare that seemed to pierce more surely than Sir Roderick’s mockery or even an arrow’s shot. "I… it… it is not for me to know such things. The Lady, perhaps, or Sir Roderick, but I do not know these things. Do not ask, for I have no answer," he stammered out, trying to force his hand to the sword he wore at his side, but even that would not obey him now.
The old Hesh weighed this answer for a long moment, and laughed again. A quiet laugh, this time. "You do not know the way," he said, "and so you know the way. The woman and her man, and even my pupil — they think they know. Oh yes, old Hesh, they do indeed think they know the way of great deeds. But in their surety they lose their path. So while Micah will be called guide and one other — the Hawk, or the Black — will be called upon to lead… it is the Hewer’s movements that will guide them to what they think they seek. Oh yes, the Hewer, called Jack."
Jack shivered at the old man’s words, not knowing what they meant but suspecting the man was truly mad. And so, feeling a flush of fear, he did not quite run as he left. And as he ran, the old Hesh’s voice followed him, crying out and cackling. "The Hewer should remember old Hesh when he comes into his own! Yes indeed, the Hewer should remember old Hesh, and accord him courtesy, for the Hewer did name him first, did he not? Aye, he did indeed! He did indeed!"
Old Jack used to pause here, drinking a mug of beer and thinking as he did so. "That was what always strikes my memory," he would say. "We had all the signs before us. I have to admit that. I don’t shy away from it." And then he would look at me, and point at me with his mug. "Remember that," he would say. "We were warned. Before we had ever even left Leincastershire, we were warned. So whatever came after was ours at fault, in the end. Remember that."
And I do remember it, and as I am telling old Jack’s story, and not my own, I now tell it to you as well.