Short Story Contest Entry - Greybeard

Discussion in 'Original Works' started by Greybeard, Oct 19, 2012.

  1. Greybeard

    Greybeard Geezer

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    The Pint of Innocence
    by Greybeard

    18 Osapia, 14th Year of Thunder.

    I hid in the dark beneath the stairs, a hunk of wood my only weapon. No choice in the matter; I had no beer.

    The creaking on the floorboards above alerted me to the danger, driving me to what little protection the stairs provided. So far my fugitive existence had driven me.

    Foolish and more that a beer mage of the Uala Guild should cower in his covert night after night, that he should labour by day in disguise, that his flowing hair be cropped, his crimson wristbands be hidden. Pasco hadn't suffered these cruelties. Rather he had turned his back on power and guild and way of life to offer love spells on a street corner. He said he was happy.

    Dust drifted into my face to stick to the sweat on my face. Osapia was hot here in Pnastre where the Red Guard ruled the Tetrarch, and the basement of this riot-burned home was stifling and more.

    A stair above me creaked. I raised my club, trying not to picture what my opponent might carry, sword or knife or.... The wall pressed against my back.

    From above, a voice drifted down. "He's here, I tell you." Who was he talking to? How many did he think he needed to kill a beerless man?

    A second voice snorted in the darkness, then the first continued.

    "You wanted to see him, not me. I'll help, but...."

    "All right," the second voice spoke now, and hinted at a memory. My ears aren't trained, not like my tongue and nose, but I thought I knew it.

    As they came, I counted the steps, cringing they stood directly above my head. Could they know? Would the stairs sound different to their ears?

    Could they hear me breathe? Breathe? Hah! I panted or near enough. Slow breaths, calm. Strike at the knee as it comes into view.
    A heel of crusty bread filled my stomach, and an onion. Not what I wanted for my last meal. But what would I get in a Pnastrian prison? Worse, if anything. They might not feed me unless they chose to take me to the slave block.

    "Mage?" The first voice called. "They say you're a beer mage. I have need of you."

    Clumsy trap they tried to set. If I admitted to being an unlicensed mage they would sell me, unless they could prove my mission. I had come to overthrow the Red Guard and Othnaan who commanded them, and should they learn that, my corpse would hang from the city gates for a century.

    "Jowan? I need your help. You remember my daughter Rozenn?"

    Rozenn? Yes, I remembered her, ten or eleven years old, bright as a sunlit day. She'd played slates with Pasco when we first came to the city, and played a smart game for a child. That was where I knew the voice from; he was the innkeeper.

    "Jowan? Set a light, please. I don't want my daughter to fall down the stairs, especially now."

    I sniffed the air around me. Beneath the overwhelming scents of dust and my own sweat, I caught a whiff of cheap, scented soap. Not the sort of thing the guards would use.

    "Stay put," I said. "I'm armed." I slipped out of the space beneath the stairs, set flint and steel to my last candle, shied away from the smokey flame. "Come down. Step into the light."

    The first one down I didn't know, but he was tall and stout and well padded, wearing rough woollen clothing and smelling of ... grain and yeast? The second was the innkeeper, small and slight and dark, like his daughter, but without her large eyes. Rozenn came last, levelling a vacant stare at my candle.

    "You may not remember me, but I'm...."

    "Per," I said, interrupting. "I remember."

    He nodded, shuffled his feet. "This is my brother-in-law, Winoc."

    I nodded at the big one. "Brewer. I can smell it on you. What's happened?"

    "I had hoped you could tell me."

    So I crouched on my heals in the dark and held the candle up near the girl. Not healthy, that much I could see at a glance. Skin waxy, hair limp. She didn't react when I ran a hand across her forehead or when I pinched her earlobe. The pinpricks of her pupils didn't change whether the candle was near or far. Nor did she move her face except to close her mouth to swallow.

    Leaning close, I sniffed at her lips, then put my open mouth near hers and inhaled sharply to taste her breath on my palate. When I looked up both men were scowling.

    I told them the worst, thinking that Winoc at least would understand. "Honeysuckle, hazelnut, green apple." Foul, vile thing to do to a child! "And strong enough that I can smell it on the victim's lips."

    Sure enough, Winoc shuddered. "Green apple, well that's in the yeast. Likely overheated it deliberately to cause the hazelnut flavour. Honeysuckle I don't know; probably an additive for the flavour." He shook his head. "That's a nasty batch, that."

    "What?" Per looked from one of us to the other, furrows between his eyebrows. "What does that do?"

    I looked away, pretended to watch something on the floor. Winoc didn't say anything either.

    "Tell me, please."

    I looked into Rozenn's vacant eyes.

    "They break the mind, somehow. They...."

    "Hazelnut opens the mind to suggestion; green apple - how can I say without using technical terms - sets the mind to waiting, like calling a dog's name without giving instructions; honeysuckle fixes the result, makes it so you will wait for a hundred years for an answer." How much more could I tell him?

    "I don't see how ... how they made her drink it."

    He should have known better. Winoc certainly would, but he didn't say, leaving it with me. This sort of news should come from a friend, not a stranger. But it's never like that. Physicians tell us we're dying, not wives and brothers. "It isn't like that. Someone else drank it and cast the spell. For me to taste it on Rozenn means the mage used a strong brew, and cast as powerfully as he could."

    Winoc caught him as he staggered, dragged him over to my only chair. Per shook him off at the last, but he was already seated by then. "How strong is it?"

    I couldn't tell him his daughter would never find her way home. The difference between what she had been and what she was now was the difference between a horse and a hammer: one had a mind.

    He waited long before he decided I wouldn't answer, then he asked, "What would you use such a mixture for?"

    "I wouldn't. Ever. Vile brew, little better than a poison, that powerful. I might use one a hundredth as strong on a nightwatchman if I wanted him to unlock a door for me. This strong?" I shook my head. "An unscrupulous mage might use it to prime a servant and have him assassinate his employer at a set time."

    "A servant or a child," he said.

    "Nonsense!" Winoc said, shaking Per's shoulder. "You haven't an enemy in the world."

    Clearly he had one, but this wasn't the act of any simple enemy. "Who have you offended in government?"

    He stopped scowling, face went blank. "In the Red Guard, you mean?"

    "Perhaps."

    "It's your fault."

    I had hoped he wouldn't say that. Because I was certain it was. "They came looking for me and you didn't tell them anything."
    "I didn't know anything. Can the one who cast it...."

    "Remove it? Yes." I would have to find a new hiding place, and quickly. Fortunately the Guild had its protocols, and the first week I was here I located a dozen coverts. But I had a better thought. "I can see it done for you." For the first time in this city my goals coincided with someone else's. "Only Othnaan has the skill to cast a spell like this, and the willingness to use it so savagely. Give me the right brew, and I can change the situation. I can break the spell within his mind, and break the Red Guard forever."

    Winoc scowled. He was thinking about that brew, that it must be illegal. Oh, it was. I'd seen a brewer's blood spilled into the river the day I arrived along with a brew that was certainly weaker than the one I wanted. But what would he risk for his niece? "What brew," he asked, finally.

    I gave him the details, recipe, brewing times and temperatures. He didn't like a single word of it.

    "Killing brew," he said, and looked like he wanted to spit.

    I did spit. "I will not kill. A fighting brew. Sheer muscle so I can push him body and mind into doing what's right. If you brew it right the alcohol content will remain low enough that I can control the power."

    "A whole year's allowance of hops in a single pot. Not even a whole batch, but a single pot. If they find out they'll kill me without trial." His eyes were wide, but his mouth was tight. He was fond of his niece, I could tell. Fond enough to risk his life? I was fond of my country, but every time it asked for my life I had to build up my courage. But I always agreed in the end. So would he.

    Per asked, "How will this break the Red Guard?"

    That surprised me. I hadn't thought he was still listening. "They'll never follow a man who's been broken. I'll break him and hang him outside the keep. The Guard will mock him and pelt him will cabbages, and while that's happening the Tetrarch will seize real power for the first time in three generations."

    "You'll break Othnaan? Why not kill him and be done with it?"

    They didn't see. They never do. To a beer mage, beer is sacred, and murdering with the brew is near to blasphemy. In centuries no Guild mage of Uala has killed, at least not with magic. I didn't bother explaining, just said, "I can't, and I won't."

    He accepted that, although why I wasn't sure.

    #

    9 Cnenneth, 14th Year of Thunder.

    Festival of Stars.

    In the streets the people danced and swayed, flowing garments swirling in the breeze. The first cool wind of autumn brought the aroma of teal roasting whole. At home, to the north, the teal were long past and my countrymen ate pochard breasts as they walked the open streets and danced in the squares.

    I had two teals in a garden along with a loaf of dark bread, anything to sop up the alcohol I would consume tonight.

    The familiar outlines of the citadel wall loomed near me. When the sun dropped behind the city wall men would start to light torches. But for a time, on this, the first moonless night of Cnenneth, there would be dark for the people to savour the light of the stars above. Long enough for a spry man to cross the wall with a well-stoppered jug.

    Inside, I opened the jug and drank deeply, letting the bitter ale fill my mouth and belly, letting the power fill my body. A fighting brew. Not high enough in alcohol that I should lose control, but rich in muscle, in force, in the energy to beat and batter, to bludgeon another's will if need be. Power to jump and climb. There is no subtlety in hops, no gentle twist to the will as there is in sweetness, none of the elegant creativity that you find in fruitiness. Sheer, brutal force, just as you find in a guardsman’s spear or an arbalester's bolt. I loved and hated it, nearly worshipped the strength it gave me and feared it as much.

    But nothing could replace it on a nocturnal mission like this.

    Months before I had chosen my point of entry: three windows from the door, second floor. Barracks. Best to deal with the defenders right off.

    Waiting until the guardsmen had passed or turned gave me time to stop and reconsider. Tonight generations of oppression would end, a way of life fall and another be born. What right did I have to determine the fates of the fifty thousand souls of Pnastre, of the quarter million in the surrounding farms and pastures? What responsibilities would descend upon me from tonight's assault? I couldn't know the answer to either question. Beer mages are not scholars, are not subtle sophists, but hard-bred farmers and labourers. Wine mages would be different if there were such a thing. We just took up our shovels and hoes and did a day's hard work every day.

    And what right did Othnaan have to steal a child's thoughts and heart?

    I leapt the distance, seized the sill and drew myself in. Determining the duty roster had taken longer than any other part of my scouting. This crew had the duty from before first light; they had to sleep now. Thirteen bunks lined each long wall, another four at the near end. Men shifted in their blankets, turned and twisted or snored insensibly.

    Above my head, air blew through the window. I looked up and thought that soon the windows would have to be shuttered as winter approached. Then I shook my head. I was only trying to delay the danger, the potential madness, and give myself time to withdraw. But no, I had come this far and would finish the business.

    I reached out to each man at once, ghostly fingers seeking necks, reading each man's posture, picking my points of attack. Then, as one, my thirty pairs of invisible hands reached into thirty necks, pinched sixty carotid arteries, and and held on until the men fell unconscious one after another, then released. A few seconds more and I had set the spell to pinch again when each man stirred until dawn's light entered the chamber. As always, no deaths.

    Power gone. I drank again, letting the muscle build within me, and the alcohol.

    First hurdle passed, I ignored the stairs. Othnaan lived far above the mortal masses, protected by more guardsmen. But they didn't matter.

    My head felt muzzy, and I touched the back of my skull where it was numb.

    While I despised wheat beers and sweeteners - dates and raisins and honey - I knew their uses, and had gently pried the secrets from a cleaner and a brick worker who knew the keep. Instead I stuck my head into the fireplace and up the chimney. Big enough, although no more than.

    Dark world inside the chimney, a world of brick and jagged mortar, of caked-on soot. Pressing one hand to each wall, I pushed my way up, spending hops freely for the moment, always wondering if I had enough. If not, surely somewhere within I could find more. Four storeys farther up I ran dry, braced myself with my feet, and drank again.

    This time a brick cracked when I pushed against it, gave slightly, powdered. I held the might in check, using infinite patience to ease my force to the minimum required to hold me there, and then pushed up again.

    Above, I emerged into the night again, onto the roof of the Citadel keep, towering above the city. Another swallow. Had Winoc gotten the brew wrong? There seemed to be too much alcohol, and that is more dangerous for a beer mage than for other folk.
    Nonetheless, I had work to do.

    Swinging off the roof, I leapt for a window, grabbed at the sill. My fingers caught, slipped.

    Legs dangling a hundred feet in the air, fingers barely holding on, suddenly I was sober again. Time to use strength. I dug my fingers into the stone, pulled up and rolled into a sitting room. And who should be sitting there?

    Othnaan towered over most men when he stood - towered over some when he sat for that matter - and he rose and glared, lamplight glaring off his shaven head, scarlet and raven robes swirling with his motion. He stared down at me, seeking to overwhelm me with his force of will.

    I laughed. That sort of thing may work on an ordinary man, but a beer mage is no ordinary man. I laughed again, lifting my jug to my lips again.

    He reached for the pint beside him, downed it before the hops had time to take effect on me. My thoughts reached inside his brain, ran up to a shield, glass smooth and oak hard, dug for purchase there as his own might attacked my body, shafts of twisting light driving at my belly, knees, throat. So we duelled in the sputtering light of a lamp while he reached for another beer and I drained the last of my jug.

    A door slammed open near me and I spared enough energy to knock a guardsman back, smacking him against the wall. No time for precision, no time for gentleness now, I just held him there and returned to my work.

    My ghostly fingers reached the flagon beside Othnaan, lashed out as his hand closed around it and shattered it. He pulled his hand to his face, licking the beer and the blood, trying to get enough charge from that to fight back.

    Too late.

    My mind dug into his, searched the bitter, wormwood maze that is a cruel man's mind, sorted and discarded every act of petty malice from a century of conscienceless rule until I found a little girl's mind held for unspecified purpose and released it.

    But I didn't stop there. Every guardsman below had a hook in him, and a thousand men, women, and children in the city.
    The Tetrarch woke in the night, his mind his own again. A grandmother laughed for the first time in a generation. A young man reached out for the wife he could love again. In an instant every guardsman, every guild master and factor knew that Othnaan had been broken. I tied him up in his own robes, left him moaning on the floor.

    I turned toward the doorway to leave, and only then did I see what I had done.

    The guardsman who entered, the one I'd slammed against the wall, sat on the floor now. Yes, the beer had been too strong. I reached for the jug on the floor, accidentally kicked it away, then fell, my back to the Othnaan's chair, my face to the guardsman.

    His blood smeared the wall above his head, blood and brains painting a line down the hard surface.

    Crawling, I reached him and turned him over, tried to scoop the brains back into his head, tried to draw energy from the hops to fuse the skull and pump the blood, but all was gone.

    I cursed him. He had come too quickly, and I hadn't had time or self control to hold back. I cursed his family and his ancestors, his way of life and his first pet. I cursed until I wept.

    #

    4 Opien, 15th Year of Thunder.

    I went to see Pasco, but I didn't tell him what I'd done.

    He met me in front of his shop, where he meets the pretty women and moonstruck boys who buy his charms and and beg that some pretty or other will return love. The local beer is good for that sort of thing. Wheat beer flavoured with dates, just right for love spells, although without enough muscle to protect crops from the cold rot.

    For a while I watched from across the sun-dappled street, watched while the trees swayed above me.

    I had been wrong about him. He hadn't sold his birthright of authority and influence and power, hadn't sacrificed his calling of justice, hadn't surrendered to the ease and comfort of a soft and pampered life. He hadn't even given in to drink.

    Rather, he had chosen the pint of innocence.

    And I envied him.

    End.
     
  2. Greybeard

    Greybeard Geezer

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    Should have warned people - there's a slight gore warning on this one.

    For those interested, this story was written under the influence of The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.
     
  3. Firiath

    Firiath Halfling barbarian

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    "Gore warning" sounds great! I just printed the story (just as I did with all the others) - looking forward to reading it! :D
     
  4. S.J. Faerlind

    S.J. Faerlind Flashlight Shadowhunter

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    *lightning flashes and electricity sizzles down the cables*
    IT LIVES!!!!!
    mwuhahahaha!
     
  5. S.J. Faerlind

    S.J. Faerlind Flashlight Shadowhunter

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    *kicks story thread back to revive it*