Friday, January 23, 2015

Part IV: The Merchant's Tale

        The glow of the watches on the small cart suddenly dimmed.  Declan and Balric could barely make each other out while a soft, warm candle light illuminated the bed of red velvet where the pocket watch that Balric now held had previously lain.  “It looks like a small stage,” Balric thought to himself.
Suddenly, three smoky and frail looking shadow figures appeared on the red velvet stage.  In the center, there was a female looking shade defined only by the curves of her form.  Flanking her on either side were two male figures, lacking any curves whatsoever.  They looked like wooden marionettes that great puppeteers would control with strings to delight children.  Yet these were different; dark shapes without features, faceless and voiceless, standing in slouched postures as they waited for the performance to begin.  The stage was set.
“Imagine my lord, for a moment, that you are the Duke of York,” the ghost began.  His voice echoed in the surrounding dark and it took on an air of musicality that struck both Declan and Balric as being very pleasant.
“Easily.  I always knew that if I believed in myself I could achieve great things,” Declan replied as the male shadow puppet to the left of the female suddenly puffed out its chest and put its hands on its hips.  Clearly, this shade would be personifying Declan in the drama.
“Now, as the Duke of York you spend a great deal of time at court, and you are much loved.  Barons invite you to their lavish dinners.  Popes request your company at golf outings.  Princes tell you secrets, usually about the princesses they’ve sullied.  Yet no friend is as close to you in all the world as the Duke of Cornwall,” the merchant said.  As he finished, the second male shadow puppet stood up straight and placed its hand on its heart.  
Balric marveled at the shadowy figures.  Declan too seemed enchanted by the shapes.  He was transfixed as they took up their roles and began coming to life. 
“Shall I continue my lord?”  the merchant asked.
“Please do,” Declan replied quietly.
“As I was saying, you and Cornwall are the best of friends,” the ghost continued.  “Laughing, drinking and growing together.  You are nigh inseparable until you come into manhood.  For it is then that you both meet…Cecilia.”
At the mention of ‘Cecilia,’ the female shadow puppet joined her hands together and raised them to her cheek.  Even though they were featureless shades, Balric was struck by an increasing sense of nostalgia welling up inside him.  “They remind me of my favorite toys as a boy,” he thought as he looked at them in the warm light.
”Cecilia,” Declan repeated.  “Cecilia.”
“Yeeesss,” the merchant hissed.  “She’s the most beautiful woman at court.  Now, you both fall madly in love and do your best to woo her.”  The male shadow puppets, taking their cue from their invisible master, played along by doing all manner of things aimed at getting the Cecilia puppet’s attention.  Declan’s shade presented her with flowers.  In response, the Cornwall puppet pulled a violin out from behind its back and started playing beautiful music.  Declan’s puppet threw the flowers away and pulled Cecilia in for a dance.  As they slow danced, Cornwall smashed his violin on the ground and walked away from them, as though walking offstage.  He returned very quickly with a shadow puppet dog on a leash.  Cecilia stopped dancing and ran to pet the dog lovingly.  Declan’s puppet then slowly approached Cecilia, got to one knee and held out his hands in gesture of proposal.  Cecilia turned to her former dance partner and threw her hands up in dramatic shock.  The ring-bearing Declan rose, put the ring on her finger and the two shadows embraced.  “But in the end, she chooses you.”
“That’s wonderful!  Isn’t that wonderful Balric?”  Declan couldn’t take his eyes off the scene.
“Wonderful for you, maybe, but not for your friend,” the oily merchant’s voice continued.  In response to his baiting, the Cornwall puppet pulled out a knife from behind his back and in a rage stabbed the shadow dog over and over.  The puppets representing Declan and Cecilia did not even acknowledge him.
“Balric?  Is that dog-killer of a puppet supposed to be you?”  Declan asked.  For over the course of the drama the Cornwall shade developed the same stout shape and hunched posture of Balric himself.
“No sir!  I’d never act in such a way…” Balric launched into his own defense, but was immediately interrupted.
“My lord has a perceptive eye.  For the Duke of Cornwall does, inexplicably, resemble your slave,” the ghost said joyously.
“I’m no slave,” Balric shot back to the night sky.  He turned too fast in trying to find his accuser and tripped over himself, falling face-first into the ground.  In embellished mimicry of the living Balric, the shadow Balric also spun around too fast and fell forward in a roll that landed it on its rump.
“The Duke of Cornwall, while openly claiming to be happy for you both, secretly seethes with bitterness,” the ghost said as the Cornwall puppet hopped to its feet and bowed low to the dark counterparts of Declan and Cecilia.  Behind the bowing puppet’s back, however, it gripped tightly the dagger it had used to kill the shadow dog.  “He does not attend your wedding; the first of many insults.”
“My master could marry my own mother and still I’d…” Balric shouted.
“Come now Balric, there’s no need for such bitterness,” Declan said to his living manservant while keeping his eyes fixed on the shade play.  “If you were so upset, why didn’t you say something?”
“What was there to say?”  the merchant jumped in before Balric could reply.  “He was your friend.”
“I AM his friend!”  Balric yelled.
“And he wanted you to be happy,” the ghost concluded.  “Yet in the end, living souls want their own happiness more than anyone else’s.” 
“Lies!  I’d never sacrifice my own happiness for my master’s,” Balric thought about what he had just said and instantly realized his mistake.  “Wait, I mean I’d ALWAYS…”
“By his own words should you judge him,” the ghost said.  “Nevertheless, the Duke of Cornwall grows more isolated in his dukedom.  While you mourn the loss of your friend you also celebrate the birth of your first son.”
The stage was suddenly set with the Declan puppet walking lithely back and forth with a bundle in its arms.  Moving to the music of the ghost’s voice, the puppet seemed to almost dance in its representation of the joy of having a child.  
“I’ve always wanted to have children,” Declan said with a large smile on his face.
“In six months time, your son suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances,” the merchant said as the puppet suddenly stopped dancing and stood motionless, staring down at the bundle.  Then, the shadow Declan fell to its knees, weeping dramatically.  “You curse yourself for it, but in your heart you begin to suspect your old friend.  Enmity grows within you.”
“Master, listen to me…” Balric began pleadingly.
“You run into the Duke of Cornwall at a party at court,” the ghost recounted as the stage was reset with many shadow puppets drinking and laughing.  The Declan puppet walked in and the Cornwall puppet stood up.  The other shades faded to the background allowing the two leads to come face to face in a dramatic confrontation.  “You both drink a bit too much and enter into a heated argument over matters of state.  The fight grows personal, and as a final straw you accuse Cornwall of killing your son.  In that moment, war is declared.”
The stage was reset with various puppets on either side, rushing each other as though they were soldiers in a battle.
“Your troops come to blows.  You have more advanced weaponry but Cornwall has more men.  Battles are won and lost on both sides, and no matter how many victories you claim you get no nearer to destroying Cornwall’s dukedom.  Five years pass, but there is no end in sight.”
“I would see Cornwall hanged,” Declan said in a quiet rage.
“Master, he’s not real,” Balric said.
“Cecilia grows despondent,” the merchant said.
“No, please.  Not Cecilia,” Declan pleaded.
The stage was reset again to feature the puppet Cecilia sitting in a chair and looking off to the left.  On her right, the Declan puppet approached her and kneeled at her feet.  He took her limp hand in both of his and kissed it feverishly.
“She blames you for the death of her son, or at least that’s what the voices in your head tell you.  ‘Can she be trusted,’ you ask yourself.  ‘Of course she can!’ you affirm.  ‘She’s my wife!  She loves me!’”
The stage reset itself again to a bedroom.  Declan’s puppet walked into the scene and headed straight to a shadow armoire at the foot of the bed.  He opened wide both doors and jumped back in horror.
“Two days later, you find Cecilia has hanged herself.  There is no suicide note.”
“Cecilia!  Why?!”  Declan shouted as his puppet counterpart fell to its knees and raised both fists to the heavens.
“You hold a private funeral for your former wife,” the ghost said as the stage showed Declan’s puppet standing over an open grave.  “After the service, your nobles depart leaving only one other person; the Duke of Cornwall.”
“How dare you?!”  Declan spat.
“Which is exactly what you say to him.  The two of you bicker for some time, until the pain of your loss becomes too much to bear,” the ghost said as the puppets on stage enacted his words.  “You both break down crying and two long lost friends are reunited in grief.”
“Cornwall understood after all,” Declan said as a tear fell from his eye.
“You decide that the fighting has gone on long enough,” the merchant told them.  “For the memory of the woman you both loved, you agree that a treaty must be signed.  The document is drawn up and the end of the war is announced.  All are invited to witness the treaty signed.  The night before the ceremony you lie in your bed and breathe a sigh of relief.  It will be the first good night’s sleep you’ve had in years.”
“A good night’s sleep.  It’s been so long,” Declan mused.
“Yes.  Until you’re awoken by a sharp pain in your leg and the sound of your own screams.  You look down and see a knife buried hilt-deep into your thigh.  You look up, and through your tears you see a figure standing above you,” the ghost said, and as he spoke so the puppets obeyed.  
“The stranger reveals himself to be one of your nobles.  It turns out he’s made a fortune selling your weapons to Cornwall’s men and has no desire to see the war end.  He plans to murder you to keep you from signing the treaty.  Cornwall would take your absence as the gravest of all insults and the war would continue indefinitely.”
“Cur!”  Declan rallied.  “We shall have peace.  I will hang him out his own window for this!”
“Lucky for you, my young lord, you keep a naked sword in your bed,” the ghost said.  As he spoke the words the shadow Declan pulled a blade out from underneath the blanket.  “As the noble waxes on about his rationale for killing you, you hobble out of bed and sneak up behind him.  Then, with one powerful stroke…” the shadow Declan beheaded the villainous noble shade.  
“For Cecilia,” Declan whispered.
“Indeed,” the ghost said; a self-satisfied tone in his musical voice.  “But you still have a knife in your leg and the sun is rising.  The treaty signing is fast approaching.  What normally would have taken you an hour to ready yourself and get to the church…”
“The church?”  Declan interrupted, bewildered.
“Of course my lord,” the ghost replied with a hint of insecurity in what had always been a confident delivery.  “Where else could you sign a peace treaty?”
“Where else indeed?”  Declan mused.
“As I was saying,” the ghost resumed.  “God only knows how long it would take you to prepare now.  Well, God, and this watch,” and as the merchant said it the shadow Declan snapped its fingers together in epiphany.  It hobbled to the armoire at the foot of the bed and opened both doors wide.  Shadow clothes were strewn about the room as the shade pulled something out in triumph.  “Lucky for you, Cecilia gave you this watch as a birthday present.  You remember the magic she claimed resided in it, and as you examine it closely you breathe a sigh of relief; it’s still running.”
“Of course it is!”  Declan exclaimed as he quickly grabbed the watch out of Balric’s open hand.
“As you inspect the face of it, its beauty momentarily stuns you,” the voice of the merchant rang out, oily and reverberating around the living Declan and Balric.  “But only for an instant.  The watch confirms the treaty signing is imminent.  You are out of time.”
“is there ever, truly, enough time?”  Declan pondered.
“What if there was?”  the merchant said with a new depth to his voice that shook the ground beneath the heroic pair.  “And what if you could create it?”
Suddenly, the hands on the watch stopped.  Declan’s eyes grew wide, but held fast to the watch in his hand.  The shadows around them grew darker and deeper.  There was a breeze with no wind and everything around them held still for a moment.  
Wondering if time really had stopped, Balric grabbed another pocket watch from atop the cart and examined it closely.  But just as he did so, the shadows lightened and things seemed to move forward again.  He looked to his master and heard the gentle tick, tock, tick, tock of the watch in Declan’s hands as the artifact seemed to come back to life.
“Master!  Did you see…” Balric managed to say before confusion overtook him and he fell silent.
“The beauty?  Yes Balric, it’s all I can see,” Declan said.  “Look at this.  Beyond the craftsmanship and finish.  Beyond the contours and detail.  Is this not the most stunning watch you have ever seen?”
Declan held the watch up for Balric to see.  The face gleamed in what little light there was.  The piece Balric held in his own hand now seemed an eyesore in comparison.  He looked back to his hand, intending to throw such trash away where it belonged.  
“Hang on a tick,” he thought as he stared at the watch he held.  Balric looked up at Declan’s watch again.  Then back down.  Then up…
“Balric…my friend.  I need your help.  We’ve so little time.  Would you consider…given our dire straits…giving up your…”
“Wait master!”  Balric said commandingly.  He wore a confident smile on his face.  “This merchant’s lyin to us.”
“What?  How dare you?!”  the disembodied voice echoed all around them.
“Master, tell me, what time do you have on that watch?”  Balric asked.
“Declan turned the watch back to face him.  “It says eight fifteen in the evening.”
“Right.  Now, take a look at this one,” Balric said as he handed Declan the second watch.
“Eight o’clock sharp,” Declan said confusedly.
“Exactly.  There’s no magic at work here.  No gift of time.  This huckster just set it fifteen minutes fast,” Balric exclaimed.
“So what if I did?”  the sonorous tones of the merchant’s voice flowed into their ears with more music than before.  “the magic is in the idea.  Not surprising a slave can’t see that.”
“He’s no slave!”  Declan roared.  The strength of his old self seemed to be restored and his anger was now unleashed.  “Besides, if you KNOW the watch is ahead that defeats the purpose!”
“Oh it does, eh?  Well that may be so, but you’ve wasted an hour and a half on my tale and without a watch you won’t know how much time you have left here.  So give me my wares, for I’ll see you gentlemen soon enough…as permanent residents of Saltana,” the ghost raged.
The watches that Declan held flew up into the night sky, followed closely by the cart itself.  The shadows around them lengthened and darkened once more.  Blackness flowed over them and they were blind.  Then, just as suddenly as the darkness came it went.  The starkness of the bazaar was clear again, and the watches and cart were gone.
Declan looked deeper into the bazaar.  He gripped his sword and, without a word, began walking further into this nightmare realm.  Balric stood back for a moment, watching his master move on.  
“The ghost is right.  We have no way of tellin time.  And if we come across another merchant like that, we’re done for,” Balric thought.  “Is this hopeless?”  

He took one step forward.  Then another.  Before he knew it, Balric was right behind his master.  Both of them were walking the road deeper into Hell.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Part III: The Bazaar of the Dead

        The docks of Saltana stood in a thick and viscous-like fog that reminded Declan and Balric of a brook or stream back in the world of the living.  The fog was thick enough, but moved slowly all around them, so much so that they couldn’t see their feet below it.
Beyond the dock the ocean of fog rose higher, clouding everything in their sight save one flickering light.  In the enveloping gloom, it seemed faint and far away.
“That must be the light of the bazaar,” Declan said assuredly.
“Must it?”  Balric asked with trepidation.
“Come Balric.  We have twenty four hours to find the map and return to this dock.  There’s no time to lose,” Declan said as he began walking forward.  His steps echoed loudly on the dock, as though the wood it was made of was hollow.
Balric slowly began following his master.  He heard the excitement in Declan’s voice and, not for the last time, wondered at how the man he served could be so stalwart in the face of danger.  “Some people are just born that way, I s’pose,”  Balric thought.  He kept following, though, keeping up a brisk pace to stay close to his master.  Slowly, the exertion was taking its toll, and after some time all Balric could focus on was how fast they were moving toward the faint light in the fog.
“Keep yer mind on the adventure, Balric.  Just like Declan always says,” Balric thought to himself.  And he did.  Being solely focused on his exhaustion kept out all the logistical questions that would have normally overwhelmed him.  But now, by indirectly taking Declan’s advice, he discovered he was calm; that this underworld, for now at least, held no terror for him.  
It was then, in this calm of his mind amidst the agony of his body, that one question occurred to Balric.  The question he felt needed the most immediate answer: “Sir!  How will we know when our twenty four hours are up?”
“Can’t you tell time by the moon and the stars?”  Declan asked.
“Aye, I could sir.  But there are no moon and stars.  Not even reflections of’em.  Just shadows where they should be,” Balric said.
“Indeed, you’re right Balric,” Declan said as he stopped moving forward.  “Would it make sense for you to head back to the dock and wait?”  Declan asked.  “Signal me, when the ferryman returns?  Though I don’t suppose you have anything to signal with.”
“Yer right about that, master.  I didn’t bring no flares or torches in my little satchel.  Just parchment,” Balric replied.  “Sides, no way I’d leave you anyhow.”
“Well, I suppose this is just a problem we’ll have to ponder as we move forward,” Declan said as he started walking toward the faint light again.  “We’ve precious little time as it is.”
“Aye sir,” Balric said as he trotted along behind.  “Who would have ever thought we’d need something so simple as a pocket watch this desperately?”
Like a stage magician presenting his gloved white hands for all to see, the thick fog immediately around them dispersed.  “As though the land was listenin,” Balric thought.  As the fog rolled to opposite directions light poured out from behind.  The very light that Declan and Balric had been heading towards.  At last, they had reached the Saltana bazaar.
It was enormous; carts, stalls and stands of all shapes and sizes ranging as far as the eye could see.  But everything was dilapidated, run-down, and most striking of all, completely abandoned.  It looked as though this field of commerce had been deserted years ago, and the remnants of it were left here to rot.  Declan and Balric moved forward, both of them silent as the grave.  Their eyes scanned the devastation around them while their ears were perked for even the slightest sound.  But all they saw was wreckage, and all they heard were the sounds of their own breathing. 
With the lifting of the fog also came the end of the road they were taking to get to the bazaar.  Now that they had reached the place there was no ordered way to proceed, and so Declan and Balric made their way around and over the never-ending debris of the bazaar.  They had been walking and climbing for some time when they came to a wall of rubbish that must have taken hundreds of years to accumulate.  They traveled along its perimeter for some time when they came to a small and unassuming cart.  Unassuming at first, but as the pair got closer the cart seemed to reveal more of itself to them, like a flower blooming in spring.  First, little trinkets and pieces laid out as if for sale appeared on it.  Second, those pieces began to glow.  Faintly at first, but with each step toward the cart everything seemed to grow brighter.  When Declan and Balric finally approached near enough to see what was on it they marveled - for they gazed upon the most beautiful pocket watches either of them had ever seen.
They approached slowly, and as they did the light of the cart only brightened, allowing the craftsmanship and detail of the watches to shine.  What glowed with an ethereal beauty only a few paces back now seemed to them so much more tangible.
Balric was especially taken with them.  He was actually quite surprised to find that he reached the watch cart before his master.  He didn’t notice speeding up and passing Declan by, but it did not matter since Declan was right behind him.  Slowly, Balric lowered his hands intending to pick up the first watch immediately in front of him, but right before his fingers could graze the gold he paused.
“Go ahead Balric,” Declan said.  “Pick it up.”
With a reverence Balric didn’t know he possessed (as he was not a very religious man) he picked up the watch and handled it.  The finish, the contours, the sheen of the chain; the manservant was transfixed.
“Hello gentlemen,” a high-pitched voice said from the darkness around them.
  Declan immediately drew his sword and looked all around for the source of the voice.  Balric’s head shot up and he too looked around for whoever was speaking, even while his fist closed tighter around the watch he held.
“You won’t need swords with me, young lord,” the voice said addressing Declan.  “I’m only interested in supplying you with what you so clearly already want.”
Declan kept circling the watch stand, looking for where the voice was coming from.  Balric, however, looked back at the watch in his hand.  It was not the most intricately crafted watch in front of him; in fact, it was a rather plain, golden watch.  But it stood out to Balric as the loveliest piece of the lot.  Even holding it empowered Balric, making him feel he was in the presence of great value; value that lay far deeper than what was on the outside.
“Your slave has a keen eye my lord,” the disembodied voice said.
“He’s not my slave stranger.  But if you wish to talk to me why not step out into the light?”  Declan asked.
“That’s funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing,” the voice replied with a chilly mirth.  “Well, whatever this fellow is to you, he knows his timepieces.  That’s the finest watch I own.  It was crafted here in Saltana a millennium ago, and hasn’t stopped working since.  Sort of an enchantment, as you living folk would say.  It tells its owner exactly what time they need to believe it is so that they’re never late.”
“Late for what?”  Declan asked instantly.
“Important appointments, late-night rendezvous…or maybe, life-saving skiff rides?”  the voice retorted.
“He heard us alright,” Balric said as he got close to whisper in Declan’s ear, all the while still holding the pocket watch.  “He knows how desperately we need this.”
“It doesn’t matter Balric,” Declan replied just as quietly while scanning the darkness all around them for any sign of the merchant.  “We can’t buy this watch, the cost is too high.”
“But master, we’ve no other way of tellin time here,” Balric said.
“Your friend is right, my lord.  You’re in a place with different rules than where you’re from, and you’ll need help navigating it,” the ghost said.  “But I see that you’re a man who puts off the smaller questions of ‘how’ focusing on the larger goals before you.  Yes, always pushing to complete the task, but leaving the details to others.  Allow me then, to give you a grander scenario.  By the end I’m sure you’ll agree - there is no way for you to proceed on your quest without this watch.”
It was then that Balric turned fully to face his master.  The manservant did not intend to; it was as though a force outside his body spun him around like he was some sort of puppet.  His hand was open, and laying in that open hand, fully exposed, sat the watch.  Declan caught sight of it and it held his gaze.
“Alright ghost.  Tell your tale.  But it must be quick.  We have precious little time,” Declan said, trying to sound commanding.

“Ah, but that is precisely what I am offering my lord,” the spirit said assuredly.  “Time.”