The latest long overdue installment in an ongoing "thing". Thanks
|The Mid-Hills #7|
“A dragon,” Sebastian snapped testily, “Held captive, and chained in gold?”
“And the cave was filled with treasure,” Charles answered. “I don’t understand, though, how such a huge lizard could get into such a place. The cave is huge, but I didn’t see any passage large enough for the creature to fit through.” Charles looked about the apartment for food and drink, surprised to find only a few scraps of old bread.
“There is some magic left in the world, Charlie.” The old bastard almost grinned. “It doesn’t matter how he got there, just that he is there. Things may still be manageable, as long as old Naug remains where he is.”
Charles knew something was up. Sebastian never grinned, except when he’d had too much cabernet. And he had never in the time they had been friends been called ‘Charlie’. It almost seemed a shame to have to give the rest of his report.
“I have more on the dragon, Sebastian.” Charles said quietly.
“Yes, yes, what?” He answered, pacing back and forth. “I need to get into that cave and search through the treasure. There may be something useful that Naug doesn’t realize he has.” He looked down into the pub through a small hole in the wall, trying to distract himself from the problem at hand. “Avoiding the flames of the foul beast will be interesting, don’t you think Charlie.”
The bell on the front door of the Two Bells Tavern belled, crisp sounding in the wind, and a couple of people found a table easily across from the bar. The cold of the day bit quick through the pub.
“When I was in the chamber of the captive dragon, Naug his name was I think you said, I discovered old Tom has a history with this particular worm. They know each other, and the dragon’s hatred for Tom is equaled by Tom’s contempt for the dragon.”
“Anything else?” Sebastian was annoyed for some reason, and short with his old friend.
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Charles huffed back, “You old grump! Your Naug isn’t there anymore. I passed through the cave with Tom this morning and the chains were broken. No dragon.”
Sebastian’s shoulders drooped. “That would explain a lot.” Sebastian sighed, pulling back from the hole he was listening at. “How long ago did you see him still chained?”
“You know that’s almost impossible to say,” Charles shook his head, “When Tom does his little turns to Elsewhere, you never know where, or when, you might end up. Crow complains about it all the time.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Sebastian agreed, “But think! There must be something that could be a clue.”
“What do you mean, the dragon being gone explains a lot?” Charles asked, puzzled.
“I guess it’s time I explained a few things to you, old friend.” Sebastian made himself comfortable, his furry butt positioned perfectly over his secret observation hole to catch any warm updraft or information from the tavern below.
“I have had to keep a few things from you,” Sebastian told Charles.
“What would those things be, Sir?” Charles spoke in a military tone to his superior in the underground network.
“Please Charles, don’t be upset with me,” Sebastian said, “And stop with that Sir crap. It’s the first and the last time you use that term and tone with me.”
“What do I need to know?” Charles responded, remembering his rank, and his duty.
They talked for hours. The cold deepened during the night, and when the day finally broke, Charles wished he didn’t know what he now knew.
It was war.
They ate a meager meal of stale bread and some stinky cheese Sebastian had cached away. The last of the cabernet they sipped together, before Charles left the safety of headquarters for the front.
Everything was strange these days. Since their last meeting with Crow, winter had fallen, and the City was almost silent. Rats walked the frozen streets in the daylight unafraid, patrolling.
Few people ventured into the Two Bells Tavern, so the visitors below sparked Sebastian’s interest. The gas for the ovens had stopped flowing shortly after the cold took hold. It was only luck that the owner of the place also kept a wood-burning stove. Sebastian, in his home above the kitchen, still managed to mouse out a living. The deliveries of fresh produce had ceased, severely curtailing the variety of meals, though Sebastian figured he could stand to lose perhaps a gram or so.
Sebastian turned his ear to the few tavern patrons below. The usually lively watering hole was empty, the hushed conversations carried well for mouse ears.
Penn was drunk; he had been for almost a week now. Unwilling to look out the window at the reality of the cold, or unable, he was swathed still in the cocoon of his pain, wrapped in the warmth of remembering his lost love. She was gone, his Chloe dancer, gone like a false spring. But no, he remembered, it was autumn.
The last bottle of rum rolled across the green linoleum floor until it came to rest against the south wall, joining its fellow soldiers. The apartment slanted in that direction, toward the Tower. It seemed everything was bent toward or affected by that damn building. At least the shadow of it only crossed here for a short time each day, except in the long days of winter when it tarried for hours.
Penn finally peered out one eyed bleary from behind the tattered curtains, through the broken window, viewing a world in freeze frame. What had happened? Winter was the only thing the City now knew. In less than a day, week, or a month for all Penn cared, or comprehended, the Emerald City had become a frozen gem.
He pulled himself up with effort, trying to reach for a blanket, suddenly cold. He laughed. Could he feel any colder? She was gone, and nothing could replace her.
She was who he had been searching for, and finding, his entire life, and losing each time also. She would appear; it seemed in his stupor, always when he needed her.
He didn’t think she would appear right now. No, she was gone. Captured. He thought though, that if she could come, she would.
For a blurry moment he saw her across the frozen street, but it was only a hallucination.
The cold of the world was meaningless; his internal pain far outweighed anything nature had to offer. Penn slumped against the counter, wishing he could slam down one last guzzle of rum.
But it was gone; the rum, the whiskey, and the gin, never mind the vodka. Chloe kept a well-stocked liquor cabinet, and Penn had swum through it all.
It was like trying to climb out of quick sand; the good air was up there somewhere, but just beyond reach. The thick taffy of misery pulled him lower, and he passed out trying to remember. But he did remember, in his dreams.
The first time he saw her was at the reading of his grandfathers will.
Piled under the bed and stacked like cord wood in the closets, and strewn in every corner were maps. Maps everywhere. The continents covered the walls, and star maps were tacked and taped to the ceiling above the single bed in the corner of the ample attic. At night, the maps of the stars melted together with the gossamer night outside the window next to the bed and seemed to be connected by tiny threads of light, constellation patterns dancing in the vision of a sleepy boy.
Penn was eight years old and he loved maps. He loved all kinds of maps, and could tell you almost anything you might want to know about the subject. He wasn’t annoying about it, and kept his interest mostly to himself. Penn’s grandfather had gotten him hooked on them; Grampy Seth had been a map maker during the war; “Double-you, double you too”, he would say to his young grandson, “ A right fine war.”
After the funeral Penn moved right into his grandfathers room, changing nothing of the way it was ordered and catalogued. Grampy had his own secret way of storing his maps, and it had little to do with logic or Dewey Decimal systems.
Shortly following the funeral, Penn went with his parents to the reading of the will. His older brother Patrick was away at college, so they told him, in some town far enough away that he didn’t visit often, and his sisters Ruth and Sheila weren’t invited. They went to the city in a long black car sent for them by the legal firm of Darkk, Strong, and Kilmer. The streets were wet, and the sidewalks full of stern-faced business people, when they pulled into the dry garage of a very dark building. It was a tall building among many tall buildings, and overwhelming for Penn’s first visit to the city. Concrete echoed and muffled at the same time, and Penn hid from it all under his mother’s coat, it was safe there, and smelled like Este’ Lauder perfume He felt sick in the elevator and couldn’t decide if they were going up or down and didn’t really care.
They changed elevators twice, and Penn’s ears popped three times on the journey upward. When finally the door opened, Penn saw through a series of huge windows that they were far above the city, the torn clouds racing below them. The walls were paneled dark, and the floors were covered with heavy carpets; tall green plants, dusty and dieing, framed a large set of double doors. They waited only a short time in the lobby before being ushered into another room dominated by a large granite topped desk. Behind the desk was a high arched window.
Others invited to hear the reading of the will were already seated about the office, and with the arrival of Penn and his parent’s, a tall thin man in a black suit said they should get started. The man was Harold Kilmer III, son of the attorney originally contracted for the drawing of Seth’s will.
Only enough chairs for the adults it seemed to Penn, and he was forced to sit on a musty leather couch against a far wall. Penn shared it with a little girl, close to his own age he thought. She was black haired, with curls like tiny tunnels into her head, and her eyes were wide when she looked at him.
“Your name is Penn”, she whispered, “Isn’t it?
“Yeah”, Penn whispered back, trying not to attract any attention from the people seated around the great desk. It was no use. Harold Kilmer III shot a look over Penn’s fathers’ shoulder, bright blue eyes magnified behind his thick spectacles. He sent the little girl quickly across the room with just a stern look, and a short nod. She settled lightly in a huge, upholstered chair, almost lost in the enormity of it.
But Penn could see her, across the great, carpeted expanse, and he could see that the little girl was scared. He didn’t know why, but he was scared also. She stared at him the entire time, how long Penn couldn’t remember, only that it felt like forever, but when in the future he thought about that little girl, the time was too short.
She was scared, he saw, but he could also see her urgent need to talk to him.
While they watched each other from across the room, Kilmer III continued to watch them, occasionally peering over his glasses, as he took breaks from the reading. Now he stared only at Penn, as did all the others present.
“He,” Kilmer began, raising his voice, “left it all to you.” The painful silence had been broken.
Kilmer once again silenced the few murmurs from the crowd.
“It’s yours, but not until you are twenty seven. Seems the old coot wants you to prove yourself first.” Kilmer’s mouth spread in an attempt at a smile, but Penn saw only sharp teeth and saliva.
“He will prove himself, uncle!” the curly haired little girl shouted across the dead silent room.
Kilmer’s face turned white and his eyes narrowed to black slits, his shoulders hunched, and his skull shuddered. No others saw this as they were looking at the children.
“Go to the other room,” Kilmer growled at the girl.
She looked through sudden tears at her uncle, defiant.
“Now!” Kilmer shouted.
She went to the door of Kilmer’s private office, but turned and stared long at Penn before she closed the door behind her. She had haunted him since, appearing at fateful moments, or dull ones, disappearing before he could ever talk to her. She was a dream he was having throughout his life, a waking one. And she knew his name, but he didn’t know hers.
“You remember,” Penn said to the cupboard in front of him, “Right, Chloe?” He shook his head, trying to shake off the drunk.
Nobody answered him, and his head slid down the face of the frosty cupboard, plopping onto the equally frosty linoleum. Tears froze as they fell from him.
Tap. Tap, tap, tap.
Penn stirred at the sound.
Tap. Tap. Tap!
Penn grabbed an empty bottle and threw it in the general direction of the nuisance. His aim was true, and it crashed through the thin window, landing on the sidewalk below. The tapping stopped, but now the bitter cold was no longer held at bay. He curled up into his knees.
A crow stepped through the broken window and dropped onto the floor. It looked long at the comatose human, its head cocked to one side. It poked at the empty bottle a few times, and then bit Penn on one finger.
Penn stirred only slightly, and the crow muttered, “Damn nuisance. This cold and he’s had all the rum.”
“You found her?” Lindy said, almost not believing herself. Penn had been looking for her she knew, and she knew it was important, but didn’t know why.
“Yeah,” Penn replied, “Then lost her.”
“Who is she? Did she know?” Lindy asked Penn, not really knowing what she was asking, and wondering if he had found her in the bottom of a bottle. He reeked of alcohol and sweat. He looked like he hadn’t bathed in at least a weak, probably longer. “Lost her how?”
“In a dream,” He muttered, “Like I found her.”
“Ok, then. Where did you find her?” Lindy was cold, the only fire in the tavern burned in the kitchen, and she had little patience for Penn’s riddles.
“She found me, like she always has. She was waiting for me on the sidewalk below my fire escape. I knew it was her, even from the third floor.” His apartment on the hill overlooked the City and the sea, the fire escape he used as a balcony.
“By the time I climbed down, she was gone. She left a note, though.” Penn absently pulled a foiled matchbook from his coat of many pockets and tossed it on the table.
Inside the flap Lindy found a message “Green Onion at 3:00”, written in flowing script.
“Did you go?”
“I went, and we met, and she was who I always thought she was.” Penn was looking out the window at the uniform gray, “No different from all the other times. No Different.”
“What do you mean, no different? What other times?”
Penn sat silently staring. Lindy’s questions were left unanswered, so she quit asking.
“Sary is missing. We need to find her.”
Again Penn was silent.
She finished her mineral water, leaving a small tip for the absent waitress who was warming herself at the woodstove in the kitchen. She popped Penn in the back of the head.
“So. What now?” She asked him as she headed for the door, not expecting an answer.
Penn turned slowly from the window. Tears rolled down his filthy face leaving clean streaks in the dirt. He wiped them with his coat.
“We do what we’re supposed to do, I guess.” He said it with half a heart and no energy.
“Do you have any idea what that might be?”
“I didn’t leave on purpose.” Tom offered, “But on Purpose.” He hoped she knew what he was trying to say. The windows of his eyes were open to the old witch and she knew.
“Let me look at you.” Ruthy told Tom, taking in the long years lost on the old mans face. She pulled off his woolen cap, revealing the spotted dome of his baldhead.
She smiled quickly at him, “I told you your wonderful mane would wither one day.”
“I think you also said bald men were more virile.” Tom winked.
“That was never a problem of yours, Thomas.” Ruthy winked back.
Tom peered out the front window onto the bloodied pasture, and turned quiet.
“What is going on out there?” Ruthy asked, remembering suddenly their peril.
“I think time has caught up with us,” Thomas said, “Things that could have or should have happened haven’t, and now the river man is looking for silver.”
Ruthy checked again both doors, knowing they were really of no use now, anyway.
“I think we’ll be alright here for awhile,” Tom said, “The hunters are tracking something else.
Tom paused, “Ruthy? Were you expecting anyone tonight?”
“Yes,” She started, “I think. The dice said as much, but you know my luck with the arts.”
“Who was coming?” Tom wondered aloud. “I had no idea this is where I would land tonight.”
Ruthy remained silent. She was either thinking, or deciding.
“I thought maybe it was you, hoped. And thinking it was you, I found this.” Ruthy grabbed a dusty bottle from the table and handed it to Tom.
He took it with a grin and unscrewed the cap. He offered it to Ruthy. She declined with a grimace.
“This is the same bottle?” Tom asked her, “From then?”
“The same,” she nodded at him, “That night you wouldn’t eat the worm.”
“Sure enough,” he answered. The worm was in the same condition it had been decades ago, untouched by time and cold; tequila was a great preservative.
The label peeled and yellowed enough until it was a shadow of its former self, a ghost image of the original. Tom pulled long from the bottle and stepped into his Otherworld forgotten.
Ruthy turned toward her liquor cabinet, “I found this also,” she said, holding out a bottle of sake, “In case it was someone else.”
Tom didn’t hear her. He was rushing from the slug of ancient mezcal, remembering the Search.
“What about Puff?” Tom whispered to himself.
Old Woo was not at all happy. He looked out on his small garden of raked gravel and carefully pruned bonsai, now dusted in white. In the swirling snows he saw the clash of icy serpents bent upon the others destruction, sparring about the frozen garden.
Hours had passed like minutes for the old man, watching for the sign. The snows falling were the first indication of change, and Old Woo found his place in the shelter of leaning, black bamboo. Across the miles the message had been sent. It spoke of promises broken, and truths denied.
They had been, of course, he thought. We are after all human, and weak, but forgiving, and kind. But he couldn’t understand how all of the careful planning more than sixty years before could have led to this.
He recognized something familiar in the pattern of the battle of the white pointillism dragons.
He’d thought the sender long dead, and was happy to learn otherwise. A brief encounter, more than half a century earlier, linked them.
She had taught him irreverence, and he had taught her patience. His disciplines were long followed, while hers were whimsical, fleeting, and ethereal. They were mere superstition and magic.
Woo, holding his cup of tea in his still warm hands, tossed the remains out into the snow.
They spelled out Ru. Old Woo laughed into the storm, but it died in the wail of a new winter.
In the garden the snow thickened and the delicate bonsai disappeared beneath the endless white. Old Woo knew if he didn’t do something soon, nothing could be done.
His bones ached with the thought of it all. He was old and didn’t quite feel up to doing battle for something that didn’t really concern him. It did though. Woo had family before him to take care of, as they took care of him. And he had family behind him to tend to; honoring the memory of those that had gone before him was always part of his life.
Woo turned from the cold and white, hoping it would be a quick war, feeling in his gut the same foreboding Ruthy-Ru endured far away in the Mid-Hills.
He gathered his thoughts while he gathered his essentials, a heavy robe, a woolen hat, and a flask of whiskey. He grabbed his sword from its place beside his bed. It had been decades since Woo had done battle in any form, except for his endless fight with weeds in his garden. Though the tools were entirely different, they both had the same purpose, getting rid of bad things that grew with wild abandon.
Out into the storm Woo went, bent against the weight of heavy burdens only added to by the snow.
He had fought a storm like this once before, and knew the coming tempest would test him, and could best him.