Saturday, February 11, 2012

“Blue Moon Rising,” a short story by Cathy Hendrix

“Got you now!” a voice hissed in Rory’s ear. “You’re already dead.”

Rory’s eyes bugged out with the force of the arm locked around his neck. His head was wrenched back, cutting off his air and the cold prick of steel touched his throat.

“By the gods, Corin! You’re going to make the poor boy piss himself!” chuckled Jonan softly.

With a sudden jerk, Rory found himself free. But just for a moment. A hand snatched his shoulder-length hair at the back of his neck. He felt a sudden breeze as steel sliced through his hair like it was lamb’s wool.

“And now I’ve got your queue!”

Rory stumbled forward, feeling at the back of his neck where a sudden breath of cool air brought goosebumps to his skin.

“Corin, he’s not a Penkori savage!” continued the young knight, cousin to Prince Corin. “He doesn’t have a flaming queue. Now your servant boy looks a right fool with a chunk of his hair missing.”

Rory rubbed his neck. “Wha’ yer do that for?” He mumbled sullenly.

The young prince shoved him lightly and grinned. Even the semi-darkness did not diminish Prince Corin’s fair-haired good looks and charming smile. “Cease moping, Rory! You’re going on an adventure, just as I promised. Did you bring the supplies?”

“Yes, sire.” His master was right. This was going to be a night to remember. With a flutter of anticipation in his chest, Rory turned and picked up the dark lump at his feet that was the satchel of food. As he straightened, he glanced up at the night sky where a thousand stars stood out, knife sharp. The moon! How could he have forgotten? “Sire, are you sure it be a good idea to go tonight?”

“Going coward on us, boy?” Jonan was a shadow, detaching itself from deeper shadows as he stepped closer.

“I just mean, well, we ain’t s’posed to leave the castle grounds, let alone go beyond the wall. It be right dangerous out there. It be the – the Wilds!” He swallowed and his words dropped to a whisper. “And the blue moon’s rising tonight. It ain’t done that in a hundred years!”

A soft laugh sputtered out of Corin’s lips. “The blue moon!” he scoffed. “’Tis a natural occurrence. You don’t believe that superstitious Penkori hogshite, do you? Evil will rise from the earth to strike the living dead at the rising of the blue moon. Ooooh ooooh!”

Rory stepped back as the prince waggled his fingers in his face. “Th-they say it be true!”

“Who says that?” Corin’s voice hardened. “My father has forbidden such talk.”

“J-just people.”

“You mean the servants and townsfolk.” Corin’s stance relaxed. “A superstitious lot. Don’t you want to be one of my squires, Rory? A squire is above common servant-talk. I thought you were excited about tonight. I brought you a dagger.”

Rory`s eyes lit up as Corin produced the weapon, its blade gleaming softly in the starlight. Rory straightened his shoulders as he took the knife. “Oh, I am, sire. Thank you, sire.” Perhaps the prince was right. He was sixteen now, just like the prince and his cousin. Such foolishness was for children and those too ignorant to know better. Like the Penkori.

When the People of the Wilds, or the Penkori, as they called themselves, had first appeared in the hills on the opposite side of the river six months ago, they had sent emissaries to speak with the company of soldiers stationed at the border castle in Alanar. The Penkori leaders had pleaded with the commander to let their people come through the wall that, for long leagues, protected Alanar from the Wilds and soon, would protect it from far worse. For when the blue moon rose and began its hundred year reign, evil would walk the Wilds. Or so they claimed. But the commander had refused and sent a messenger to the king. When the king had arrived, he too had refused these People of the Wilds entry into their land, not trusting the horde of savages.

The Penkori had spoken of signs that would prove them right: the strong, swift river would dwindle to one tenth of its size; the immense flocks of ducks and geese and other river fowl would depart, and the forests would be infested with rats and carrion crows. King Rodric and his court had scoffed at their warnings. They had turned the savages away. As the time grew short, the Penkori had attacked out of desperation, but the wall had stood firm. Still, they had remained in their camps across the river.

Rory could hear King Rodric’s words echoed through his son. “The Penkori say we need to give them the protection of the wall - that its stone is somehow special and keeps the evil at bay. Phaw! It’s just a ruse to invade Alanar. If ever we let those savages inside our walls, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill us all - slit our throats as we slept!”

“A ruse, sire? But the signs –“

“Rivers change.”

“And the rats?”

“All forests have rats. You sound like an old woman!”

“Cor!” interrupted Jonan impatiently. “Are we going or not? I want my trophy. That blow-hard Willard dared us to do this in front of all the other noble boys. I’m not going to back down. No one will ever say that I lacked for courage! We have to find us a Penkori sentry and take his queue. So let’s move or it’ll be sunrise ‘fore we get there, not moonrise.”

It was the dead of night by the time the boys had snuck by the sentries at the wall and clambered down the sharp drop to the flat river basin. As they stepped onto the slightly spongy ground they stopped and looked back up the long hill. But the forest canopy was a blanket of darkness, obscuring the view of the wall as well as the night sky in that direction. Ahead, the mud flats stretched, dim in the light of the stars. A deeper blackness was the only sign of the river, a mere hint of its former strength. Beyond that, the ground rose again. Three pairs of eyes were drawn upward to the far ridge.

“Fire!” whispered Corin. “In amongst the trees. Do you see?”

“You were right,” said Jonan. “It’s the sentry fire.”

“So . . . You mean we needs to sneak up there, find a sentry, and cut off his queue?” asked Rory. “And then what? We say much thanks, Penkori and we`ll just be leaving now?”

“No, you idiot.” Corin laughed quietly.

Jonan sighed. “We have to sneak up and hit the sentry on the head so he’s unconscious, Rory. And so he can’t give the alarm.”

“That’s right,” growled Corin. “We don’t kill him. That way he has to live with the shame of losing his queue. You see? It sends them all a message. Shows them who they’re dealing with. Now, we’re wasting time. Come on.” Corin strode forward, leaving the two to catch him up.

“But won’t the sentry hear us?”

“That’s your job, Rory. Didn’t Corin tell you?”

Rory shook his head.

“You’re the diversion. You will distract the sentry while we sneak up behind.”

Rory sucked his teeth and watched as Jonan followed his cousin. The plan didn’t sound so good to him. Was this adventure really worth it? Rory had to remind himself of why he had agreed in the first place. Yes, he’d been excited at the thought of being a part of such a daring and courageous plan. But it would be the prince and his cousin who would get all the glory. And he knew that despite what the prince might say, he could never be a real squire. That was for the young noble boys as a first step to knighthood. But even as a special servant to the prince, he would gain much status and his stipend would go a long way to supporting his mother and Tuck, his younger brother. A sudden flurry of night wings above his head made him jump and he hurried after the others.

As he came up behind the pair, he heard them whispering, eagerly reciting their Knight’s Creed as he had heard them every day in the training yard for so many months.

“Duty, honour and courage be the Knight’s Creed!

The knight’s duty be to king and country!

Unfailing courage must keep him on the path of honour!

By the gods of heaven and earth, so do we pledge!”

Rory felt only too keenly, the unseen wall that stood between him and the two young knights. How he wished to be a part of that noble brotherhood. But being ‘squire’ to the prince was the best he could ever hope for. And more than most boys like him could even dream of. He’d show the prince that he had courage too! He could be their diversion. He wasn’t sure exactly how, but hopefully something would come to mind.

Soft muck sucked at their boots and oozed water in the tracks they left. But luckily as they reached the old river bottom, the ground turned stony. The water itself only came up to their knees at the deepest point. However, the crossing left them feeling exposed and vulnerable. They hurried forward in a crouch, trying not to splash too loudly.

“We need to be across and under cover before the moon rises,” whispered Corin. “Otherwise we’ll be spotted for sure.”

“Sire, the moon – “

“Shut up, Rory. I don’t want to hear any more idiotic drivel about the moon.”

On the far side, the river had cut deep earthen banks that overhung the riverbed, as tall as eight feet in some spots. Rory looked anxiously behind him, across the river and up the ridge to the wall that now seemed a lifetime away. But his heart tripped in his chest. While they had been intent on crossing undetected, the sly moon had risen silently behind them. He shivered, unable to look away. Like the sightless eye of a cave bat, the silver-blue orb, twice as large as the old yellow moon, hung ominously above the battlements and bathed everything in a sickly, blue sheen. Rory’s mouth went dry. He suddenly realized that the others had left him behind and he hurried to catch up.

He found his companions standing in the ankle-deep water, studying the river bank. Thick, twisted tree roots resembled the pale, bony fingers of long-buried corpses. They plunged out of the soil and into the black muck. The toe of Rory’s boot caught on something and, with a stifled cry, he fell face forward. Under his hand, something ropey and slimy squirmed. A snake? He scrambled, spluttering to his feet.

“For the gods’ sake, be quiet!” hissed Corin as he hauled Rory up by his collar and heaved him towards the bank. “The Penkori may be savages, but they’re not deaf!”

“Corin!” From the dark shadows ahead came Jonan’s choked cry. Leaves danced and whispered secretively in a sudden gust of wind and the moon’s rays broke through the shadows, lighting up the bank and Jonan’s pale face. Rory and Corin froze, unable to believe what they saw.

Pale knobby tree roots were slowly but relentlessly writhing around Jonan’s ankles and shins and creeping up his thighs. One had wound itself around his throat, pulling him up tightly against the bank. The boy had a knife in his hand and was madly slashing at the roots while trying to wriggle free. But as the one around his throat tightened, Jonan dropped the knife and tugged desperately at the sinewy root with his fingers, tearing and scratching in vain.

“Help me!” Jonan wheezed.

“Tis the moon!” Rory gasped, frozen to the spot.

With a yell, Corin unsheathed his sword and attacked the villainous gray ropes. “I’m here, cousin!” he said, between gritted teeth. “I’ll get you out of this.”

Forcing himself to act, Rory pulled out his knife and began sawing at the root that threatened to crush Jonan’s windpipe. But like a whip out of nowhere, a root flicked, stinging Rory’s hand and making him drop the knife. In half a heartbeat it had disappeared into the water. What was that? A sudden movement around his leg had caught his eye. Silently, unobtrusively, a root was twining itself around his own ankle. He cried out and frantically jerked his leg. Oddly, the root suddenly loosened and Rory lost his footing, landing on his back with a splash, in the deep shadow of an overhanging tree limb.

In the next instant, a dark form brandishing a glowing stick landed in their midst. Rory watched, speechless as Corin was shoved unceremoniously out of the way. The shadow began poking at the roots that now covered so much of Jonan that he looked like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Where the glowing end of the stick touched the roots, they writhed angrily, emitting a shrill hissing sound and the air was filled with an acrid reek of burning.

“Get up onto the bank, unless you want to end up like this!” barked the stranger.

But Rory was unable to make his feet move as he watched the roots suddenly constrict around Jonan. There was a horrible snapping sound and Jonan’s head, now almost completely entwined, was viciously jerked to the side. Like a milkweed pod on a broken stem, his head lolled forward, bobbing once before stilling. Rory swallowed, fighting his belly’s reaction to heave everything up. Amidst the roaring in his ears, he heard Corin shouting and the low growl of the man.

There was a flurry of splashing and scrabbling, and Rory watched, dumbstruck, as Corin was hauled up the bank, his arm clenched tightly in the man’s fist. In the pale blue light of the moon, the pair disappeared into the darkness of the forest. Something wriggled under Rory and he jumped up with a yell and leaped for the bank.

Having no recollection of climbing up the roots, Rory found himself standing on firm ground, the river below him. Owl-eyed and with pounding heart, Rory cast around in every direction. He cocked his head, listening. That way! His feet raced up the hill in pursuit, light and shadow flying around him as he tried to keep the dark figures in sight, unwilling to stay one moment longer at the river’s edge. Alone. Save for Jonan. And the roots.

Rory had followed Corin and the man upwards to the top of the wooded ridge till finally they had stopped at this place – a sentry post that, in daylight would command a good view of the riverbed and the wall. Fire, warm and welcoming, crackled in the clearing – the same fire that the three of them had seen from the other side of the river. Around the perimeter, smoke climbed into the air from more of the glowing sticks that protruded from the ground, leaving the same sharp, bitter stench in Rory’s nostrils as before. On his stomach, Rory now watched and listened from under the low branches of a fir tree, trying to keep his pounding heart from giving his hiding place away.

Corin sat shivering in his sodden clothes, hands trussed behind him, looking miserable and, Rory thought not a little scared. The Penkori had relieved the prince of his sword and it gleamed in the firelight as the sentry admired the fine workmanship before stowing it in his satchel. Rory’s hand went to his belt and he suddenly remembered losing his own knife at the river.

The sentry turned back and studied his captive. “If you would stop trying to escape, foolish boy, you wouldn`t need to be bound. The evil will pass now that the moon has set.”

To Rory’s ears, the man’s speech had an odd inflection. He was extremely tall and broad, clad in leather and fur. High cheekbones and the black queue that snaked down his back left no doubt that he was Penkori. He looked every bit a savage and dangerous man.

“I am sorry for your friend.” His breath misted as he spoke in the dampness of the pre-dawn air. “But there was nothing I could have done. Even with the Halla fire. It was too late.”

Did he mean the glowing sticks? Rory wondered.

Corin said nothing. After a short pause, the man continued. “What were you trying to do? Two boys from across the river. And the blue moon risen. Did someone put you up to this foolishness?”

Rory sucked in his breath. Two? Did the sentry not know about him?

The man shook his head and snorted. “You made enough noise, even in the middle of the river, to wake a bear in winter. Do they not teach young warriors these things in your country?”

Corin’s head snapped up. His eyes narrowed. “Do not insult me, savage. The Knights of Alaran have no equal! And I am the - . . . a knight!”

The man’s lips twitched. “Well, then, knight, I had better make sure you are properly bound, for my own safety.” He squatted beside Corin and shoved him onto his side. From his belt, the Penkori drew some rope and began to tie Corin’s ankles.

“Y-you savages would mur-murder us all, given the chance!” Corin’s quivering voice no longer held his usual bravado, with his face pressed into the dirt.

“Is that what you think?” The sentry sat back on his heels, his countenance darkening. “That we are murderers and savages?” He paused, then spat in the dirt beside Corin’s face. “You know nothing. We are herders and hunters. We respect the land and its bounty that the Good Mother has bestowed upon us. We kill if we need - to eat, to survive, but we do not murder. That goes against our sacred laws. All we have asked of your king is that he give us the protection of the wall.”

Rory thought hard. Could he believe this man? Everything he had ever heard about the Penkori spoke of their barbaric savagery. Could they have been wrong? Still, he had to do something. Rescue the prince. But how? He’d lost his only weapon. Then his fingers closed around the smooth, cold surface of a rock and Jonan’s words echoed in his mind. We have to sneak up and hit the sentry on the head so he’s unconscious, Rory.

A grunt exploded from the Penkori’s lips as the rock smashed down. Blood! Dark. Shiny. It dribbled down the side of the sentry’s face and turned the edge of the rock black as the man slumped into the dirt. Rory stared at the unconscious body at his feet, surprised at how easy it had been.

“Quick! Untie me!” hissed Corin.

Rory pulled the knife from the man’s belt and quickly slit the ropes.

“Give me that!” The prince snatched the knife from Rory’s hand. He stood and looked down at the sentry, his eyes narrowed. “Foolish boy, eh? Who’s the fool now? You pigpiss!”

The knife glinted in the light of the fire as Corin thrust it into the man’s back. Once. Twice. Rory gasped and stepped back. He watched, stunned, as Corin grabbed the queue at the base of the man’s neck and pulled. With a quick swish of the blade, the queue was in Corin’s hand and the man’s head flopped into the dirt for the second time.

“What – why –?”

Corin’s eyes were shards of steel. “He’s the enemy. He deserved to die. And besides, I needed to avenge Jonan’s death.”

“But he saved your life,” croaked Rory. “He tried to save Jonan. I thought we was just going to hit him over the head!”

Corin’s chest heaved in and out, his nostrils flared. “Idiot! You didn’t believe anything he said, did you? He was going to take me to his camp! Torture me too, most likely! They say those savages torture their prisoners for days, until they beg for death.” Corin’s voice quivered and he pointed an accusatory finger at the dead man. “Besides. That - that savage killed Jonan!”

Rory shook his head. “It were the roots! The roots killed Lord Jonan – and the moon. Not him! He didn’t act like no savage.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Corin took a menacing step toward Rory. “He took us by surprise and killed my lord cousin. I killed the brute and this is my proof!” He shook the queue at Rory. It wriggled like a snake in Corin’s hand. Like one of the roots, thought Rory, with a mental shudder. “Say it! Say that he killed Jonan! By all the gods, swear it!”

Rory stared at Corin for several heartbeats, then whispered, “All right. H – He killed Jonan.”

“Swear it on your soul!”

“I – I swear.”

“Remember that. On your soul! Now come on. Someone might come. And the sun will be up soon.” Corin quickly retrieved his sword from the sentry’s pack, then grabbed Rory by the upper arm and pulled him into the woods. By the time they reached the river bank, dawn had turned the eastern sky above the battlements a pearl gray. The boys looked along the river’s edge. But there was no sign of Jonan, although the roots seemed to be thicker, protrude further, in one particular spot. Rory did not want to look too closely.

They made the crossing without incident and stopped briefly on the far side. They turned back to stare at the far bank, now fully visible as the first rays of the sun peeked over the battlements and turned the mist that clung to the trees’ topmost branches to gold. And the forest slumbered, still and silent, keeping her secrets.

“Remember, Rory,” Corin said softly, his gaze fixed on the far riverbank. “You swore on your soul.”

***
“Don’t I just wish I could be a noble knight!” sighed the sandy haired Tuck as he stood by the stable door. Tearing his eyes away from the scene in the training ground where the young knights were finishing their sword practice for the day, he turned to eye Rory who was grooming the prince’s dapple gray stallion. Rory looked up briefly. He followed his younger brother’s gaze, outside to where the youths stood at attention, the tips of their swords planted in the dirt as they recited the Knight’s Creed. The weapons-master’s bark reached every corner of the yard, even into the stable.

And the youths continued their recitation, “Unfailing courage must keep him on the path of honour!” came their unified voices.

“And look at you in your fine tunic, Rory,” continued Tuck. “Right kingly! You - a squire to the prince! Who’d’ve thought such a thing possible!”

Rory raised an eyebrow. “Work is work and yours ain’t getting done, mooning over being a knight and such nonsense. Them boots won’t polish themselves, Tuck.”

“Perchance I will go on an adventure one day and do something grand and noble like you.” Tuck returned to the bale of hay where his chore awaited him.

Rory grimaced. Grand and noble? Like the Knight’s Creed? Rory had stood beside Corin and faced the king and Jonan’s father, the king’s brother. He had kept his vow and corroborated Corin’s story. Predictably, after the week of mourning for the Lord Jonan, the prince had been punished for disobeying the king’s law by going beyond the wall, and made to wear battle mail over a horse-hair shirt waking and sleeping for three days.

But even so, Corin had kept his promise to Rory, albeit with a warning glint in his eye. He had been very generous, making Rory an unofficial squire and presenting him with handsome clothes. One tunic in particular was richly embroidered with silk, to be worn when he served his prince at banquets. Even more, Corin had given him a magnificent dagger that held a small, but flawless red carnelian in its silver pommel, to replace the one he had lost. Its worth was beyond anything Rory had ever imagined having. So why did Rory feel so unhappy? No, that wasn’t the word, he realized. Shame. That’s what ate at his heart.

Rory’s hand paused in its brushing of the stallion’s flank and he sighed. Across his vision sped flashes of a young man, shrouded in ghostly tendrils; deep shadows and sickly blue moonlight; firelight reflecting in the glazed eyes of a dead warrior.

He shook himself out of his disturbing thoughts when he realized Tuck was saying something more.

“. . . Penkori will be taken by surprise. The army leaves at dawn on the morrow. And Prince Corin will ride beside his father.” Tuck gestured excitedly with his polishing cloth. “Did ye hear? The king be havin’ the queue gilded, right after him and the army get back from havin’ their own sort of vengeance for the Lord Jonan. There won’t be a Penkori left alive for a hundred leagues! Gods! I’d give my very soul to be a knight - be there when they kill those blood-thirsty savages.”

Your soul? thought Rory, staring with unseeing eyes at the brush in his hand. Is anything worth that? And what of a man’s life? What of thousands? Women and children as well. Taken by surprise, they would all die, with no one to help them. No one to warn them. And then, as if he had been plunged into a mountain lake, the thought came to him with icy clarity and he knew what he had to do.

***
There was no moon that night. Gray clouds hung ponderously low and a wet drizzle had already soaked through Rory’s wool cape. He stood on the spongy ground, looking across the river and upwards to the ridge where a fire winked between darkly swaying branches. What if the Penkori didn’t believe him? What if they were just as savage as he’d always been told? No, he told himself. He didn’t believe that. Not anymore.

Rory tried to swallow but could get no spit in his dry mouth. No one had told him that courage felt a lot like being sick to your stomach. Behind him was everything he held dear in the world and with the next step, there would be no turning back. His mother had cried when he’d explained and given her the dagger. The money from selling it would keep her and Tuck fed for a year. Possibly two.

Rory took a deep breath and, without looking back, stepped into the river.
*
Cathy Hendrix is a recently retired elementary French teacher. She's relatively new to story writing, although she has had much oral practice telling bedtime stories to her children over the years.  It was her daughter’s continuous requests for “Princess Stephanie stories” that finally pushed her into the writing process. That and being hugely inspired by fantasy novelists such as Tolkien and CS Lewis, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan and more recently, George RR Martin.  In December, Cathy gave a reading of “Blue Moon Rising” at CJ's Cafe.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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