Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fiction - Coincidental Destiny

Carefully, slowly, painstakingly she moved her hand from one support beam to the other. Marina was no acrobat by any means, and she had never been as adept at playing hiding games as some of the other children. She was, however, a very patient little girl; much more so than any of the other children her age. Yet patient as she may be, it was all the ten year old could do to stifle her giggles as she watched the adults gather in the common room below.

Having woken up that morning a bit earlier than usual, Marina had found herself in a very quiet village. Most everyone was asleep, save those whose daily chores involved waking up particularly early, so the only sounds were those that came from the forest surrounding her village. A veritable wall of birdsong seemed to emanate from the trees, and Marina had spent some time delighting in the sound before she even rose from bed. Careful not to wake her two little sisters, she had eventually crept from the house.

Exploring the village was, of course, a favorite pastime of many children, and Marina was certainly no exception. The only difficulty in conducting a proper exploration was in getting past the attention of the adults. Always with their watchful eyes, the adults and those traitorous teenagers (some of them had even once been explorers, too!) kept the children of the village out of all the most interesting places. Marina, on this particular morning, was delighted to discover that not another soul was around.

As she scampered around the various buildings of the village, trying to decide which Forbidden Place to explore this morning, she eventually came to the main road of town. It was from there, with a wider view than was provided by the narrow passages between most buildings of the village, that she caught sight of the keep. Tall and dark at the end of the village’s only paved road, the keep was like a great forbidden adventure all by itself. None of the village children were allowed near it. Marina set a direct course.

Hoping she could make it to the keep before anyone woke up and caught her, Marina hurried along barefoot down the stone-paved street. She was still dressed in her sleeping gown, and she held it close to avoid tripping on it and making too much noise. Once, she had to pause behind the tavern as a man walked by carrying a bag of something or other, but otherwise her trip was uneventful. Out of breath from her jog, rose-cheeked from the brisk morning air, and wide-eyed with excitement, Marina arrived at the main entrance to the keep.

It was just a short distance to the left of the keep’s front entrance where the children had found the crawl space. Actually it was little Eman Gales who had found it, as he never let any of the other explorers forget, but no one really cared to give him much credit. The crawl space was small and difficult to navigate, but not impossible. It was also not difficult to avoid being seen by the gate guards, being that they were on the other side of a hierba bush which was itself hidden in the shadows between the keep wall and the village stables. The problem, at least with this particular Forbidden Place, was that the inside of the keep was always so busy.

Pausing outside the crawl space to listen, Marina confirmed again that the only significant sounds she could here were coming from outside the walls; birds singing merrily, the wind in the trees, and the blessed sound of a silent summer morning. Marina wasted no more time. Gathering up the hem of her sleeping gown, she wedged herself into the crawl space and began to inch forward.

Exactly why there was a giant crack in the wall of the keep was anyone’s guess but no real mystery. It was, after all, more than eighteen centuries since the keep had been constructed. Perhaps it had once been a simple way station between larger destinations, or a guard post on the edge of an empire, no one really knew. Most history except the most important was gone from that period of the world, and everyone was better for it. Since then, the keep had sat empty during the ten centuries of the Age of Purgatory, and only recently been reclaimed just under three hundred years before. Barely refurbished, barely standing, this keep was the remnant of a bygone age now housing the hopes and dreams of a new and broken world.

None of this, of course, was known or of any interest to young Marina. The only thing Marina knew or cared about was that after several minutes of straining to fit through the crack in the wall without tearing her sleeping gown (an effort at which she had been moderately successful) she finally stood within the western stable of the keep. Separated from the primary stables and used only for the horses of the Baron, his retinue, and the village clergy, this place was not often busy.

Marina patted the chestnut mare whose stall she had intruded upon, whispering to the horse to keep her quiet as she walked past. She stopped at the exit from the stables to look out upon the keep’s main yard. Devoid of all movement, save two hens sauntering idly from one side to the other as if they themselves were nobility, it seemed that Marina had been correct in her assumption about being able to explore the keep. Without waiting another instant, the young explorer dashed out into the main yard.

For a moment or two she just danced, twirling around gleefully in defiance of rules and stodgy adults. The other children were going to be so jealous of her! Unfortunately her dance was interrupted when the sounds of voices came from the other side of the keep’s main gate. Mere moments later, the gate began to creek open and Marina scrambled wildly for a place to hide. There was nowhere to go! Desperate, she ran headlong for the keep itself in hopes of finding a place to hide.

Just beside a small extension away from the main entrance, Marina found a place to hide. There was another crack, this one in the wall of the keep’s main building itself, and she ducked in not a moment too soon. The main wall of the keep was apparently much thicker, for instead of finding herself inside the keep, she found herself inside the wall itself! Two normal stone walls separated by what looked to be wood supports and mortar, and it appeared as if much of the mortar was gone.

Glancing behind her, Marina could see whoever it was that the gate guards had let inside the keep. The person was headed this way! Probably going to the keep’s main entrance, and along the way they would have an easy view of Marina. Her white sleeping gown certainly did nothing to hide her against the dark stone of the keep wall. With no time to lose and no other options, Marina started climbing up the inside of the wall. She braced her legs against the two stone walls and used the remnants of wood and mortar to pull herself up.

Finding the going easier than she had anticipated, Marina climbed quickly and soon found herself in a crawl space over the keep’s main entrance. To her surprise and delight, she even found a tiny grate that looked down into the foyer! Too excited to wonder why or how this was here, she kept very still and watched as the keep’s front door opened from the outside. The figure entered, and in the dim light of the single torch that lit the foyer during the night hours Marina could see that the person was a woman with dark red hair.

Intrigued, since most of the people from this area had very dark brown or black hair, Marina strained to get a better view. The woman wore fine leather armor that, though obviously well used, was in excellent condition. The woman was obviously wealthy; her boots were well made, she carried multiple fine daggers on her belt, and on the back of her waist hung a sword that was so beautiful Marina was just sure it was a magical blade. A magic sword! The other children would never top this.

The woman did not stay long in the foyer, only long enough to close the door behind her. She then headed directly for a door that had strange writing near the handle. Speaking a set of strange words, she pushed on the handle and the writing glowed briefly as the door opened, the woman entered, and the door closed. Marina gasped and only grew more excited. That was magic! She did not care what the priests said about magic being dangerous or not to trust wizards; Marina found the idea of magic absolutely fascinating. When she and the other children played their games, she almost invariably picked up a stick and pretended it was a wand.

Frantically she made her way forward, desperate to try and find out where the woman with the sword had gone. Fortunately she found that there were other grates in her little crawl space, and she was able to keep an eye on her quarry. The woman seemed in no hurry; she walked at a leisurely pace through one small room and then to a set of spiral stairs. This proved Marina’s toughest challenge, as she had to find a route through the mortar and wood that lead up along the keep’s only tower. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest, and not just from the exertion of her adventure. Though no one had seen him in several years, it was said that the Baron’s wizard lived in that tower.

Grunting to herself occasionally, sweating profusely, and now having gotten her sleeping gown ripped and dirtied past the point of any rational explanation to her parents, Marina made her way up the tower. She no longer cared about the consequences of this adventure; she only knew that she desperately wanted to see what went on in this tower. Who was the woman with the magic sword? What did a scary old wizard look like anyway? She wondered if he had a great long beard that he tripped on.

Finally, blessedly as she was beginning to grow truly exhausted, Marina found herself at the top of the tower. Three flights of stairs were tremendously more difficult when one was inside a wall. Shaking and panting from her journey, the young girl pulled herself up onto a shelf just at the base of a dome of support beams. She allowed herself a few moments to catch her breath, resting her cheek on the cool stone. Inside the room at the top of the tower, she could hear muffled conversation between two people but couldn’t make out any words.

Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Marina carefully rose from her position and began to climb the rafters that formed the ceiling of the tower’s highest room. The rafters formed a moderately steep cone structure, and the actual roof was mere inches above Marina’s back, so the climbing was not much easier than it had been inside the wall. Still, at least this was not a straight vertical climb. After several moments, she was at the top of the room where the ceiling gave way to only rafters, and she had an unobstructed view of the room below.

With great patience, moving slowly so that she would not attract attention or make any noise, Marina steadied herself on the rafters. Her excitement was monumental; great enough that her exhaustion fled and the minor pains from her climb were completely forgotten. The woman was sitting on a stool near the room’s only door leading to the stairwell, leaning back as she toyed with a small object. Near a large table in the center of the room, a man who certainly did not look like a crotchety old man was reading through a giant book and organizing several pouches.

The table was lined with similar pouches, as well as glass vials, boxes of various materials and sizes, and a space cleared off where the man had drawn several interesting symbols. Along the walls were bookshelves lined with books, some giant and some very small. There were vials of things, boxes of things; everywhere Marina looked was something more interesting than before. This place was not horrifying, it was not evil, nor was it despicable like the priests said. It was…well, it was interesting!

“…then I don’t owe you one dead coin, Pavlina,” the man was saying absently, as he flipped through pages of his book.

The woman put on a pouting expression and smiled. “Come now Esteban,” she said in a mock whining tone, “is not my fault your little birdie wasn’t there. I still did my job.” The woman had a very thick accent, which was utterly fascinating to Marina.

Sighing to himself, whether from annoyance or agreement Marina couldn’t decide, the man (Esteban, apparently) reached to one pouch and tossed it almost off-handedly to the woman (Pavlina, what a pretty name!).

“Next time, I will pay for nothing less than results,” Esteban said. He moved from his book to stand in front of the clear space on his table, sprinkling some sort of powder over the symbols.

Pavlina shrugged and smiled, jingling the bag which apparently had coins in it before placing it somewhere on her belt. “What of that other matter, then?” Her tone seemed just as playful as before, but less mocking.

“That depends on how it has progressed, I suppose.” Esteban looked up from his work. “What do you think?”

“I think is good time to move, now.” As she spoke, Pavlina stood and moved closer to the table.

Up above, Marina was excited. She had caught them in the middle of the first conversation, but now she would get to see the entirety of whatever was about to happen next! Leaning forward, she was careful to be sure she had a good grip on the rafters—

Marina’s thoughts and preparations were interrupted when she thought she saw Esteban wave his hand and say something. A flash of bright lights popped and sparkled in front of her face, and the girl screamed in surprise. All in the same moment she reared back, smacked her head on the roof, and lost her grip on the rafters. Seconds later she was tumbling down through the air to land, not with a splat on the room’s hard wood floor, but with a squeal of surprise in someone’s arms.

Looking around frantically, both to take stock of what happened and to find a way to flee, Marina was stunned to still silence when she realized that no one was actually holding her. Certainly she could feel arms supporting her underneath her back and her knees, but there was no one there! Her eyes went wide, and all words left the girl’s brain as she realized that some magical spell must be holding her.

Pavlina laughed. “Make it put her down; the poor thing is terrified, look at her!”

Clearly not amused, Esteban gave a sharp command in another language and Marina felt the nothingness that was holding her move again as if it were arms and place her gently on her feet. She did not move, but stood staring in hopes of seeing something, anything, of what had caught her. Long moments later, she turned and looked at the two adults. Esteban watched her with undisguised annoyance, while Pavlina was smiling from ear to ear.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Pavlina walked over and ruffled Marina’s hair. “She doesn’t have skill, but she doesn’t give up. I saw her first sneaking into the keep from outside, then heard her follow me all the way.”

“You do have a point,” Esteban said after a long moment of silence. Now that she was down in the room with them, Marina could see that Esteban was actually older than her father, but he seemed to be in much better shape somehow. Pavlina looked like she was barely older than Marina’s eldest sister.

Taking a deep breath, Esteban finally nodded to Pavlina (who seemed to silently squeal with glee) then turned back to what he had been doing in the first place. Pavlina turned to Marina, putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders.

“You can sleep in the base of tower, I will find you blankets. For now,” she pointed to the room’s door, “go downstairs and find broom. Today you learn about cleaning chores.”

“Wh…but…I,” Marina attempted several times to speak. She had no idea what was going on, what would happen to her, or what Pavlina was talking about. Pavlina simply shooed the young girl toward the door, speaking the whole while. In the woman’s thick accent and Marina’s confusion the poor child didn’t have the slightest idea what Pavlina was even saying. She finally caught up when Pavlina said 'teach.'

“Wait!” She cried, stopping several steps down the circular flight of stairs. “Teach?” She looked up at Pavlina incredulously.

Pavlina gave a wide grin, her green eyes sparkling, and nodded. “I will teach you to sneak so that you don’t sound like herd of cattle. Esteban will teach you magic.”

Marina’s jaw hit the floor. This simply did not happen! Children were simply not spontaneously taught magic and other things out of nowhere, for no reason. This could not be happening! Pavlina saw all this make its way across Marina’s features, and gave a delighted laugh.

“Calm down little one, I’ll explain one day.” She patted Marina’s back. “But first, clean.”

Too stunned to speak, too confused to argue, Marina followed the steps down toward her chores.