A Tale of Blood and Battle
Brandyé woke the next morning to the sun coming gently through his window and the scent of breakfast from below. He heard his grandfather humming a tune, and knew where he was, and was relieved. What an odd thing to happen, he thought to himself. I wonder where that place is. He thought he might ask his grandfather, but hesitated—traveling to another place in the middle of the night, when you were meant to be sleeping? It sounded an awful lot like magic, and his grandfather had said he knew of no magic that did not bring harm.
In the end, Brandyé decided not to speak of his inexplicable nighttime journey. He was frustratingly intrigued, but something stayed his tongue; perhaps it was because he had never heard of people traveling places when they were meant to be sleeping, and he was worried that his grandfather would think him insane. Time passed, and his nights were once again empty and blank, full of fitful sleep until the light of morning awoke him again. Eventually his memory of what had happened gradually faded, and he sometimes wondered if somehow he had merely imagined it all. He would often picture the lands and events of his grandfather’s tales in his waking hours, both sitting at home on dark days and acting out their adventures outdoors on pleasant days, and wondered if it were possible for such a thing to happen while asleep.
Several years came and went, and since he never went anywhere else, he eventually resolved to forget about what had happened and cease his worrying. Yet he could not shake from his mind the image of the seven great statues and their faded visages of tragedy and despair.
Now that Brandyé was older, his grandfather had taken to bringing him along on his trips to the Burrow Wayde, where they minded themselves at a small table in the corner. Most of the time they would be largely ignored by the raucous, laughing, and arguing crowd, but sometimes, usually late in the evening when the fire was dimming and the folk had grown quiet, someone would turn to Reuel and call upon him drunkenly for one of his tales. One evening, two particularly large men sitting in the middle of the inn began talking louder than usual, and the rest of the people quieted, waiting to see if it would come to blows. Instead, one of the men, a blacksmith by the name of Joe Rawley, slammed his mug down on the table and growled, “Enough! Old man! Tolkaï!”
“Yes?” said Reuel calmly, looking over at them.
“Me an’ Thara here, we been talkin’ ’bout what the bloodiest battle were, an’ he says it were the farmer revolt back when Tallaeth were in the Hut. I says he’s a fool, ’cause everyone knows it were the sackin’ of Reisenwell, when they burned the whole village to the ground.”
“Bah,” grumped Thara. “Burnin’ ain’t bloody; all’s left is just ash.”
“Shut it,” retorted Joe. “Anyhow, we thought you might have a thought or two on the matter, and figured you might help settle our differences.”
Reuel drained his ale, stood, and smiled. “A tale of blood and battle, you say?” He moved toward the two men, pulled over a spare stool, and seated himself at their table. His presence commanded a certain stillness around him; the people of the Burrow Wayde quietened and turned toward the table he now sat at. It was as though this were their evening’s entertainment; it was also as though they dared not speak while he did.
“Have you ever heard the tale of the battle of the northern fields,” he said in a low voice, “where the armies of light and dark clashed, many men met their doom, and the evil of battle was washed away in a river of blood?”
Joe grinned and punched Thara fiercely in the arm. “Told you,” he said. Thara made to strike him back, but was refrained by Reuel’s voice, stern and commanding.
“Do you wish this matter settled?” he said. Thara growled lowly, and Joe grinned again at him. “Good. Listen well, and you will hear of the most terrible battle that has ever shaken Erâth. You must start by understanding that men were once not the only great creatures in our lands.”
“Ah, we’ve heard o’ them creatures afore,” called out a voice from near where Brandyé still sat. He was enthralled; his grandfather seemed to put on more of a spectacle here than he ever did with his stories at home. These tales were also, of course, more exciting—filled with battle and death.
“Not like these,” Reuel replied, not looking away from the two men at his table. “There is a great and terrible darkness in the west of the world, and the creatures that roam there are twisted indeed. That darkness exists still to this day; you can see it by the might of the storms that rise from beyond the Perneck.”
There was some general laughter at this; everyone knew that the worst storms came from the north. Reuel waited for their mirth to subside and then continued. “This darkness exists still today. But understand, in those days this was a darkness that was overwhelming; it was inescapable, and the lands of Consolation were yet unknown.
“Who knows why there were such terrible creatures in those lost days? Perhaps they simply were evil; perhaps they were tainted by the powers of Darkness and changed from nature. I speak of wolves whose heads stood six feet from the earth; spiders who skulked in the shadows and fed on sheep and cattle. There were monsters, also. You know these creatures from myth; they stood twenty feet high if they stood an inch, and could knock a house down with one blow of their club.
“Most terrifying of all, though, were the skull creatures, swift and silent, who fed on the blood of men. These creatures, though smaller than a man, would strike terror into the hearts of the bravest warriors. You, Joe; you are strong?”
Joe, the blacksmith, grinned broadly at the crowd and flexed his large shoulders. Reuel smiled grimly. “You should count yourself lucky that there are today no skull creatures left; a single one would make a snack from you like that.” He snapped his fingers abruptly, loud in the hushed inn. Joe’s grin was suddenly less broad.
“These creatures dwelled far to the west of our lands,” he continued. “There was no sun in those awful lands; the sky was forever black, and fog obscured the land so that you would not see the creature who designed to make you his supper until it was upon you.
“Mind you—there were also men in those lands. Poor, wretched men they were; they lorded not over the creatures of Darkness, but rather were commanded by them and served as their food as much as their slaves. These men hated the creatures of Darkness bitterly, but had no power to overcome them. They were stupid also, and did not see that their own hatred cast them as much under the spell of Darkness as the beasts they despised.
“But then one day, there was a man who stood above all the others in those terrifying lands, and he called the beasts his own, and they obeyed his will. He had a great tower built for him and became lord of the dark lands. But this was not enough for him, for he was evil and saw that there were yet lands of light to the east and would not suffer them. He called upon the powers of Darkness, and they put all their might into him so that he became more, and less, than a man: he was a demon.
“They said that he could not be killed, and his blade was broad and struck men down without scratching their skin. And so the men of the east saw that the creatures of Darkness intended to destroy them, and knew they must gather an army such as the world had never before seen. As the kings of those ancient days traveled the length and breadth of their kingdoms and called every man and boy to fight, the men and creatures of the west gathered themselves into an army of their own and marched upon the kingdoms of the east.
“The northern border of the lands of the kings of the east was marked by a river that ran from mountains higher than any you have ever seen, and it was here that the armies of east and west—light and dark—first met and gazed at each other. Ten thousand men of the realms of light had mustered, yet threefold that number stood on the north bank and stared them down with hatred. The men of the east were afraid, yet the river still separated them from their enemies and there was not a bridge to cross it. They hoped perhaps that battle might yet be averted if the creatures of Darkness could not cross the flowing waters.”
“That don’t sound so bloody to me, Joe,” said Thara. Joe grunted, but said nothing.
Reuel carried on as if they had not spoken. “It was not to be. From the midst of the men of evil and Darkness came their demon lord, and he touched the river and turned it black, and so he and his army were able to pass unharmed beneath the waves and fall upon the men of the east, who fought valiantly.
“This was to be the greatest battle that had ever been seen in Erâth. For seven days it raged, and the blood of men and beasts ran so thick that it stained the ground and turned the river red. Over miles of field and plain, men did battle with beasts, but it was clear that the men of the east, the men of light, would not win the struggle. Their soldiers knew the art of battle with blade and spear and bow, but were now faced with not just these instruments of death, but claw and tooth and fang also, and could not defend themselves. Too, they were greatly outnumbered, and for every creature or man of Darkness they slew, two more took its place.
“It was certain they would be defeated, their lands of light overrun by the creatures of Darkness, and all the world would be ended. The demon lord marched through the field of battle, stepping heedlessly on the corpses of his enemies, and the kings of the east saw him and knew they had lost.”
Reuel paused; he had been speaking for some time now, and the entire inn was silent, listening intently (for the most part; an old man near the door had laid his head upon the table and was snoring softly). Even Mrs. Heath was following the tale with interest; since Reuel had begun speaking, there had been no further fights, no broken stools, and hardly anyone had called for another ale. For her, Reuel’s tales meant a quiet evening.
Joe was staring at him with small, squinty eyes. “Well?” he said. “What happened?”
Reuel smiled at him, a twinkle in his eye. “I would love to say,” he said, “but my throat is a bit parched.”
Joe frowned; he had imbibed at least eight pints of ale tonight, and he felt Reuel was trying to trick him, but could not quite fathom how. Reuel leaned closer to him. “I could do with a drink,” he added.
Joe’s eyes widened. “Mrs. Heath!” he bellowed. “Two ales, over ’ere!”
“You will pay, of course,” Reuel went on. “As it is you who is so keen to hear the ending of this tale.”
Joe glared at him. “O’ course I’ll pay,” he growled. He slapped two large silver coins on the table as Mrs. Heath brought their ales. Joe grabbed his and took a deep draught without looking at her. Reuel, though, looked up at her and said, “Thank you, dear.”
Mrs. Heath smiled at Reuel and swiped the coins off the table. Both she and Reuel knew Joe had paid far too much, but neither made any comment. Reuel took a slow, leisurely sip at his mug before putting it carefully back. A moment later, Joe slammed his own down. “Well,” he rumbled, “I’m waitin’.”
“I thank you for your patience,” Reuel said. “Where was I?”
“That demon whatsit were about to cut down all them kings,” said Joe.
“Thank you also for reminding me,” smiled Reuel. “So the demon lord towered over the kings of old, drew forth his terrible black blade, and held it high above them. All around, the beasts and warriors of the west were slaying their soldiers, many of whom had abandoned the battle and fled to the hills. They were cut down as they ran, for the armies of Darkness saw no shame in sending arrows into the backs of their enemies.
“You must understand the scene of horror the kings of the east faced as they drew their final breaths under the shadow of the demon lord. Their very feet were bathed in the blood of their soldiers; piled thick so the grass of the fields was hidden were the bodies of both man and beast, all hacked and rent terribly so the insides of some spilled out onto the battlefield. This alone would suffice to bring a strong man to insanity, but their eyes could see only the pitch-black armor of the one who would slay them all. They threw up their shields in one last show of futile resistance, and the demon lord brought his evil sword crashing down toward them. And then …”
Reuel stopped. It was as though not a person in the Burrow Wayde drew breath, so complete was the silence. All were waiting for the final moments of the tale, but Reuel did not speak further. He stared intently at Joe, peering unblinking into his small back eyes; Joe gazed blearily back at him. The silence drew on and on until Thara, who had also been staring at Reuel, finally said, “And then? What happened?”
Reuel turned his gaze on Thara, who turned away his own eyes. “Can you imagine?” he said. “A beast, unseen in these lands for a thousand years, appeared on the field of battle. Twenty feet long, great talons as sharp as Joe’s very own knives, crushing jaws and wings that would span the River Burrow, it descended from the gray and clouded skies above—a dragon.” Reuel paused once more. This was a new beast; few in the Burrow Wayde that evening had ever heard of such a creature. Even Brandyé, who knew most of his grandfather’s tales by heart, had not heard of this.
“What did this drago do?” asked Mrs. Heath breathlessly.
“Dragon, dear,” said Reuel. “Down it came from on high and covered what was left of the sun, and all were smothered in its shadow … and then …”
The people in the Burrow Wayde were now becoming anxious. Reuel was dragging this story out too long, and they were feeling uncomfortable. Finally Farmer Tar broke the silence from the bar: “Get on with it!” he called.
Reuel cast his gaze over at him. “That’s it,” he said.
“What d’you mean, that’s it?” cried Tar.
“That’s it. That is all there is.”
“It can’t be!” bellowed Joe. “It’s a foul endin’ if ever I heard one! Somethin’ happened after that!”
Reuel shrugged. “Indeed,” he replied. “But it has been lost to time.” He smiled slyly. “But there is one thing we know. The demon lord was not allowed to finish his blow upon the kings of the east that day, or we would not be here today. For we are the descendants of those kings—all of us.”
Joe stared at Reuel for a long, long moment—and then let out a great, roaring laugh. “Arh!” he slurred. “You’ve pulled our leg! We ain’t descended from no kings!” And he collapsed, face-first, onto the table and heaved a loud snore.
For a moment, no one spoke; and then, slowly, the people began to move about, talking quietly among themselves. They were unsettled; this was far from Reuel’s usual tales. They did not like to hear of such evil and demented beasts, as though speaking of such might bring them down from the mountains upon the villagers. Finally Mrs. Heath called out, “All right, boys! Leavin’ time! Out you go!”
People hurriedly drained the last drops of their ale, and then gradually shuffled toward the door into the cold winter air. Mrs. Heath began gathering up the empty and knocked-over mugs, shooing the last few stragglers toward the door. Several of Joe’s friends were attempting to lift him off his stool, but he stubbornly refused to raise even his head, or indeed show any signs of life at all, apart from the occasional blubbering snore and the pool of spittle that slobbered from the corner of his mouth.
“Leave ’im, lads!” Mrs. Heath called to them. “He can sleep it off here; he’ll regret it sure enough in the mornin’.” Grumbling, they moved off toward the door until finally only Mrs. Heath, Reuel, and Brandyé remained in the Burrow Wayde.
The fire was growing low, but Brandyé was not tired. This had been by far the best story he had ever heard his grandfather tell. He knew he would be thinking about this terrible battle for days, playing it through over and over in his head.
“That were some tale,” Mrs. Heath commented to Reuel as she cleared the table he still sat at. “Really got ’em all worked up. Weren’t really true, though, were it?”
Reuel raised his eyebrows at her. “Stranger things have been known to happen,” he replied.
“Well, not ’round here, anyways,” she said. “Burrowdown’s as quiet as ever it were.” She stood and sighed. “Gar knows, I wouldn’ mind a bit of excitement now an’ then.” She moved back toward the bar, carrying an armload of empty, sticky mugs. “You’ll be leavin’ now too, won’t you? It’s late.”
Reuel finally pushed back his stool and stood. He nodded at her and said, “Of course, dear. I wish you a pleasant evening.” He turned to Brandyé. “Come, son.”
Brandyé stepped outside into the cold night air with Reuel, and together they set off up the hill toward their home, their breath frosting as they walked. Brandyé shivered; he had not brought his cloak, and his undercoat was poor defense against the cold. He rubbed his arms and looked up. The sky was moonless and there were no stars, and he thought it might snow.
To take his mind from the cold, he spoke to his grandfather. “I’ve been thinking about what Mrs. Heath said.”
“What did she say?” replied Reuel.
“About your story not being real. I’ve been thinking since then; you’re so sure when you speak, and I never questioned before that your tales were true. I think they’re true. But that doesn’t mean they are—only that it’s what I want to believe.”
Reuel smiled in the dark. “You are perceptive, son,” he said. “If you must know, I embellished that tale to some extent; it’s important to make a story interesting, especially to a drunken crowd that can’t sit still for more than five minutes.”
Brandyé thought this an odd remark; the people in the Burrow Wayde had sat still for over an hour as Reuel told his tale. “What is embellish?” he asked.
“I made some of it up,” Reuel said simply.
“Which bits?” Brandyé asked.
Reuel shrugged. “The details, mainly. I do not truthfully know how many men there were from the east, nor what beasts made the armies of the west. I do not know that the lord of the west was a demon, or even that he was clad in black armor.”
Brandyé was shocked. This was the first time his grandfather had ever admitted to inventing parts of his stories; Brandyé had always thought they were true. For a while he was silent as he thought about this. He wasn’t sure, but it felt to him much like lying, and he grew uncomfortable as he thought about what other things Reuel had said that might have been embellished. As they began to climb the hill path and their home came into view above them, he finally asked, “What about all the other stories? How much of those were made up?”
Reuel sighed, his years seeming to weigh upon him momentarily. “The honest truth, Brandyé, is that I don’t know any of these tales for certain. No one does. There is no true certainty on things that took place so many thousands of years ago. They are passed down from generation to generation, and with each new telling, they become changed, added to … embellished. You may not realize it, but that was not the first time I have told that tale at the Burrow Wayde. The people there, most have a short recollection, and the ale does not improve their memory. But were I to tell the same story the same way twice, they would become angry. I am cheating them, they would say. So I must add new details—fresh blood.” He glanced behind him at the village below. “They love the blood.”
“So then, how do you know any of it is true?” pressed Brandyé.
Reuel smiled at his grandson. “I like to believe there is some truth in every tale, son. Even the most fanciful fable is drawn from the teller’s own life, and thus has truth in it.”
They walked the rest of the way home in silence. Though he still enjoyed his grandfather’s stories, from that day on he could not see in them the same magic that he did before.