Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Bandit's Beard

(A snapshot from a much larger tale.)

Like a flock of their namesake, the Crows descended upon and blackened the countryside. Strange it was for brigands to be making camp so openly, but then it was likewise strange for bandits to move in numbers more closely approximating an army. As the sky darkened to match their raven dress, glimmers of fire began to blink forth throughout the encampment in a scattering as random as the stars and streams above. Crows gathered around the firelight for warmth, and company, and the challenge of bettering their peers in tallness of tale.

"He's queerer than three-ounce doubloon, I tell ya." The declaration came from a man with skin wrinkled and darkened by Lux's rays, and the firelight cast his winding scars and patchy stubble into stark relief. "But Crows wouldn't follow a fairy around. So's he grows a beard."

"Puck's fire!" was the response of one of the man's three companions, a younger lad with lighter, unmarred skin and a darker, unbroken brow. "We all know the stories. He's famous for wenching. All the brothels loved him!"

”So’s he’s grown many a beard. Great stories, they are.”

"Aye, Triv, the legend runs that he pinned all the fancy flowers in his hat," said the oldest brigand there, stocky and white of hair, and wearing dilapidated gentlemen’s clothes, "but also that he never paid for any favors. Peke's claim isn't impossible."

A cheer went up a couple of campfires over, where a veritable bonfire had been raised, its flames licking at the moonstreamed sky. As the random cacophony of voices died down, a steady clapping continued, accompanied by the music of an impromptu band. Figures could be seen dancing in a carousel of shadow and flame.

Triv snorted. "Hear that? He's dancing with her right now. You've seen how he jigs."

"Dancing's different on your feet than in your bed, boy," Peke said. He emphasized his point by poking a long yew pole at the branches crackling in front of him. "It's all just a show for Crows. 'Sides, his skill at prancing about like a city dandy proves my point. Even ol' Mac agrees."

"Not necessarily," the white-haired Mac demurred. "I merely stated that the original proposition wasn't entirely devoid of merit. I can't agree that I find the fast waltz unmanful."

"But he claimed her on sight! And, did you see her? What man wouldn't?"

"Aye, Triv, I saw the stripes on her back. A slave girl ain't much a prize to claim. Better for sharing, 'less there's a reason he thinks taking her for himself would better keep the Crows following."

Mac coughed. "There could be the logistical problem of there not being quite enough to share for so many of us...."

"Them's as wanted her and could still make use, old man."

"See, Peke's just upset because he wanted her." Triv laughed. "And who can blame him? Slave girl or no, that hair, that shape, those eyes! She looked like a dream, like a princess, like... like a...."

"Fay," said the fourth man at the fire. Though he spoke softly, his voice resonated with power, a quiet confidence that instantly commanded the silent attention of the others. The flickering light smoldered in his dark eyes and danced over the ink carved into every inch of his visible skin -- from the knuckles of his hands to the top of his shaved pate. Tendrils of smoke drifted about his nostrils, but not from the fire: he held a hand-carved pipe in one hand. He was a thick-boned man, neither muscular nor fat, but nonetheless heavy and imposing of body. He wore leather garments, soft leathers built for comfort rather than protection, with an apparently random assortment of feathers, jewelry chains, and cut stones sewn into the raiment, so that even as he sat silent and unmoving the eye was drawn to his sparkling presence.

"C'mon, Proff, you don't really mean--"

Peke punched Triv in the arm. "Shaddup and let the Shahman speak if'n ya wanna learn something."

Proff looked up past the others. Everyone turned, following the shaman's eyes to a pair of silhouettes passing in the moonlight, just beyond the fire's radiance, as they made their way from the bonfire. The first was willowy enough to pass as a woman, if not for the clomping boots, the broadness of his shoulders, and the make of his hat. The flamboyant billowing of the tails of his long jacket could be seen even in silhouette, while the fluffy white feather in his hat glowed as it bobbed in the moons’ light. He reached a tent, the largest representative of the few of its kind in the brigands' encampment, and lifted its flap, patiently holding it open for his companion.

She, arrayed in a white blouse and skirt, not only passed as a woman but could not be mistaken for anything else, except perhaps a spirit. The length of her hair -- no slave's crop, this -- floated behind her like dark, wispy clouds chasing the full moon of her face. The actual light of the moonstream bounced off her clothes and pale skin with such intensity that she seemed almost otherworldly, an angel of light in this reality of darkness. No, it was the opposite: she was more real, and the light of her reality caused the rest of the landscape to dim in comparison.

She hesitated a moment at the tent's entrance, long enough that the gentleman rolled a hand in insistent but pleasant invitation for her to enter. After she disappeared into the tent, he followed, letting the flap drop after him.

"Understand," Proff rumbled, "the truth runs in the middle. It is all a show, but he also claimed her because he loved her on sight. He's not queer, but queerly bent. Broken, some might say."

Triv's eyes grew round and wide, enhancing his nonplussed blink. "Broken?"

"His heart's like a pot with a crack in it. It'll hold meal, but leaks water."

Peke scowled. "You're speaking in riddles again, Shahman."

"Long ago, before there were Crows, he cracked himself upon a Fay."

"Right. Fairies. And if it was before the Crows, how would you know?" Triv asked.

Mac cleared his throat. "Proff here goes back further than the Crows. He knew him when he was a lone thief."

"I did." Proff nodded. "And I witnessed him court the pixie."

"Ha ha, even I do not believe the pixie story!" Triv shook his head, smiling. "The Fay are just fodder for campfires and old wives."

"Just so. And we sit now at such a campfire."

"I mean they're not real!"

"Just so. Fay are creatures of fantasy. And that is why he cracked."

Proff leaned back and puffed on the long stem of his pipe. He exhaled a cloud of tobacco smoke, but did not speak again. His companions exchanged looks.

"Er, um, Proff, good sir," Mac said, "Perhaps you could explain better how you think an unreal being of fantasy could break a real, flesh-and-blood man."

Proff sat in silence for a few moments more. The embers in the fire snapped and popped, their color matched by the bowl of the shaman's pipe, the orange light of both appearing as twin sparkles in his dark eyes as he stared at nothing. The smoke of his pipe hung in a haze about his head.

"Well--" Triv began, before Peke rapped his shins with the stick. "Ow!"

Triv rubbed at his legs, frowning at Peke. For his part, Peke remained focused on Proff with an uncharacteristic air of respect. Mac's eyes were also on the shaman. Triv leaned back and sighed, then also turned his eyes to the fourth man. The fire snapped and popped again.

Finally, Proff spoke. "It is the nature of Fay to fool men to fall in love with them, but the pixie also fell in love with the fantasies he created for her, because such things were real to her. Together, they created a fantasy whereby he could win her hand, but to claim his prize would be to make the fantasy real. She would be undone. The pixie would not become mortal for a mortal, and so the game ended.

"But it was too late for him, and so he did the only thing that he could to be able to stay with his beloved: he, too, became a fantasy, a legend among men, a Fay who moved among humans and received their hearts but knew them not. Since his reality had shattered, he simply slipped through the cracks and left reality behind." Proff tapped the contents of his pipe out onto one of the stones ringing the fire. The others looked back and forth from the shaman to each other.

"So's I'm right," Peke said. "He is a fairy. And she's his beard."

Proff chuckled. "Yes. And no. For she is more than that; in his eyes, she is his beloved."

"So he lives his pixie fantasy out with the slave girl." Mac tutted to himself.

Triv glanced at the tent. "The slave girl alone is enough of a fantasy for me." Peke loosed a lewd snort and nodded agreement.

Proff, however, shook his head, and slipped his pipe through a loop on his shirt so that it joined his dangling assortment of ornaments. "He performs the role required of his fantasy, and loves the girl on sight as his beloved, but he won't become real for her. Nothing is as it seems with the Fay."

"Wait. I think I understand now," Mac said. He leaned forward, his eyes glowing in the firelight. "He seeks from her not the writhing and rolling of reality, but the twisting and turning of his fantasy. In other words, to him, she's not so much a fleshly beauty as an essential plot device to his tale. And so he gravitates toward her because she spins within his universe; he's as fixed upon her as Terminus in his moonstream above. He loves her as himself, as part of his fantasy that he weaves. He doesn't need her to serve as a marker for his manliness, no, for that's already been established in the previous pages. Instead, he acts the chivalrous knight and saves her from his very own band of thieving cutthroats. That means she's not his beard, a ploy to keep the Crows following, as much as she's his -- oh my. Oh dear."

The white-haired old man stared at Proff.

“It can’t be. Can it?”

The shaman cocked an eyebrow at Mac.

“He didn’t. Did he?”

Proff gave a slight nod that served both as a confirmation and a compliment. He stood.

Mac stood with him.

"Wait," Peke said. "What?”

"You shaman and your arrogant mysteriousness! How long,” Mac said, “were you going to just sit there while you knew such changes were afoot?”

The shaman shrugged. “Long enough to leave my friend’s fantasy unbroken.”

Triv looked around at everyone, baffled.

“There’s no more time for dilly-dallying.” Mac raised a hand to his chest. “I'll back you, Proff. You can keep the Crows from becoming a scourge upon the folk, and you have power and seniority."

"Thank you, old friend,” Proff said. “And you are right: There is little time left for wonderment and the ceremony of surprise. We must act now. Marlbough must be caught off guard. Only by our foresight can we outflank that sly fox and stack the odds against him."

Peke stood up, squinting. "I didn't tag along to polish Marlbough's boots. What do ya need from me?"

"Tork will be a problem," Mac said. "Same for Derril and his men. Round up men that you trust, then buzz those factions out. Quietly."

In response, Peke rapped his heavy yew pole against the ground. "Sure, I can do that," he said. "But I didn't quite understand the point of all yer five-ducat words before. Why are we acting as if our fairy god-bandit leader will be buggering off?"

"Because," Proff replied, "he already has."

"WHAT?" Triv said. He didn't jump to his feet as much as stumble backwards from the fire.

Peke hissed at the boy. "Fool boy, never shout. Not in this line o' work."

"But we just-- he's in his tent. With the girl! We all saw them go inside. Everybody did! He can't be-- can he?"

Triv looked at the faces of the older men. Peke rolled his eyes. Mac lowered his. But Proff met his gaze for a few moments, then closed his eyes and shook his head. "I am sorry, son."

The boy took a few halting steps backwards. Then he turned, mindless of Peke's quiet curses grasping at his back, and sprinted over ground as invisible and infinite as the night above, racing toward the tent belonging to the leader of the Crows. He did not slow, but burst through the entrance with a loud slap of body against leather, plunging into the even greater darkness within.

He immediately froze. What if it had all been a prank? An elaborate setup to embarrass him into bursting in on his commander like this?

Nothing but a void, black wall met his eyes. He stilled his shuddering breath and listened, but heard no sound other than an occasional, erratic flapping of fabric. He sucked in a deep gulp of air. "Sir? Uh, the men were, uh, worried about you and sent me in to check on, uh, things." His voice came out as a whisper. He swallowed, and spoke louder. "Sir?"

Nothing. Triv edged around the tent, keeping one hand on the fabric of the wall to orient himself until he bumped into a wooden obstacle. He fumbled blindly on the surface of the table, then found what he was looking for. He struck a match and lit the lamp. An oversized cot dominated the center of the tent, its pillows and covering unruffled. Beyond this, a thin vertical slit had been cut into the back of the tent, its loose edge rasping in the night breeze. Triv fell to his knees.

The bandit and the slave girl were gone.