Friday, July 11, 2014

More from "The Farming Dragon"

NOTE: Not yet sure where this one is going. But it keeps coming back to my pointy little head, so that means something, right?

Not far from the village lay a ruin. It might have been a keep or castle of some sort, but most who saw it mistook it for a pile of rocks and rubble. Not even the monsignor at the church in Asheville could tell anyone what the ruin once was.

But from the ruin, from time to time, passersby could see columns of smoke, sometimes thick and black, and other times willowy white. A few of the more foolish boys dared each other to approach the ruins at night, when the vapors were accompanied by strange lights, blue one moment, green-red the next. Those who got close said the rocks were swarmed with frogs who lived in the marsh near the pile. Their eerie croaking filled the night, filled their ears, and they, in turn, filled the ears of the more cowardly with stories of a wizard changing those foolish enough to intrude on his solitude into the croaking beasts.

There was indeed a man living in the ruins. Abbingdon himself had seen him. He seemed strange, yes, hermetic, closed in, unwilling to communicate. But he occasionally came to the farm to buy fresh eggs, betimes with coils of sausage and strings of onion over his other arm. Wizard or not, becharmer of frogs or not, he was mortal enough to be hungry.

“Good morning to you, Richard,” Abbingdon said as the wizard approached the farm gate.

“It’s still raining,” the wizard said.

“Hadn’t noticed,” Abbingdon said, rain dripping off the end of his nose. “Eggs?”

“Yes. Several dozen, if you have them.”

Abbingdon’s eyebrows arched. “That many? You have guests, or a sudden urge for omelettes?”

Richard laughed. “Guests you might say, who like an omelette.”

“I’ll go poke the hens. I have some eggs, perhaps they have more.”

He and Richard walked to the henhouse. They gathered about a dozen eggs, adding them to the basket of five dozen Abbingdon had collected earlier that morning.

“I’ll have some disappointed customers,” Abbingdon said as Richard hoisted the full basket. “But the price is right.” He jingled a heavy handful of coins.

Isaac heard the jingling, from a hideout in the stables. He peered through a thin bit of thatch and saw his father talking to the wizard, who squelched off with his basket of eggs.

He could not steal from his father. He knew the money he jingled would go to buy food for the family and for the animals that fed them when there was no purse to jingle. Stealing from his father would be stealing from himself, taking food from his mouth and clothes off his back. “I have developed ethics, father, despite what you think of me,” he said, grinning.

But the wizard. If the wizard had that kind of money to spend on eggs, he must have more.

Much more. For wizards could turn lead into gold, he knew. Wizards earned fortunes for casting spells, for potions. That they lived in pokey huts or in the ruins of ancient buildings belied their wealth – of that Isaac was sure.

“The best time to go is now, while the fool is preoccupied with his eggs in the daylight, not expecting to be followed,” Isaac said to himself as he slid out of the thatch and into the muddy farmyard.

Though the rain muffled his steps, and though he was quick to stay out of sight, Isaac found following the wizard taxing. The wizard was suspicious, turning suddenly about, muttering, talking to himself, tripping over roots and lurching from side to side as he struggled around the mud and puddles. Once, dismayed at the mire the path had become, he looked quickly about and, spotting no one, snapped his fingers. Instantly he levitated about a foot in the air and, walking as if on invisible stilts, traversed the muck without further staining the bottom of his green robe.

Isaac was forced to run to keep pace. He felt the sting of nettles and thorns as he pushed through the brush and bloodied his nose when an errant branch snapped back and hit him in the face.

“This wizard had better have something worth stealing,” he muttered, blotting at the blood mixing with rainwater on his upper lip and chin.

Isaac sensed he would have to be cautious. Stealing from a wizard – even one as bumbling as this one appeared to be – probably came with risk. Not the ordinary risk of pitchforks or the empty threat of a noose. He had vauge ideas in his head of wizards turning people to stone.


That, right there, is why Isaac had become a thief because, truth be told, there was little the money and trinkets he lifted could buy him. Asheville, full of traders and craftsmen and even a great stone church, was after all only a small village, swelled to a few hundred residents because the dwellers of the miserable villages and farms thereabouts had to have somewhere to go to buy new shoes and to be warned of hellfire.

The things sold in Asheville were too common to entice Isaac to part with his stolen money. He had bigger plans. Once his maggot was large enough, off to Sloughburg he’d go. Or Favisham for a boat, then on to the colonies – the colonies where his stolen bits of gold and silver could purchase land – and land was real. Land kept you, his father always said.

But Isaac had enough for servants. For workers. He would keep the land, he thought to himself.
So caution.

First, to sit and watch. Always to sit and watch. Smash and grab had its place, he knew. But the real secret to robbery was not to slink and mutter and hide in the shadows but to become so common, so ubiquitous, so ordinarily seen where the goods were to be found no one noticed you. Until it was too late and you’d managed to ditch the six-inch stilts and the fake beard and nose you wore while becoming common as wattle and daub in some back alley someplace, shortly after the money was missed and the shouting began.

The wizard was alone.

Alone with eggs. He could see at the hearth a small frying pan crusted with egg, and over the banked fire a pot boiled in a gentle roll, a pot filled with eggs and water. But on the makeshift settee, the tables, the floors and benches and nooks in the rocks, wrapped in gunny and linens and other oddmetns of cloth, were eggs. Rather largish eggs. Some nearly round, glistening of mother-of-pearl, others elongated, shiny, like leather loaves of bread.

The room, despite the banked fire, was stiflingly hot. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw in other corners the glow of embers. The reek of coal met his nostrils. As the wizard dozed in a snumbling rumble, smoke and heat, invisible in the twilight except for the waves of distortion they put out, seeped from nearly every crack in the rocks. Yet the wizard was wrapped tightly in robe and blanket, from which seeped hints of a cool blue glow. Enchantment, perhaps.

Quietly, Isaac thrust an arm through the crack. The heat within enveloped his arm as a clap of thunder. Beastly, worse than any summer mugginess, and wet as a sow’s mouth.

It had to be enchantment that kept the wizard cool. Inside the ruin, an oven.

Isaac crept around the dwelling, probing here and there, until he found a slab of rock, cleverly mounted on a pivot, which swung outward as he pulled on it. He quickly darted inside and shut the door, then cowered in the darkness behind a pile of baskets and sacks.

“Who’s there?”

The wizard.

Isaac was right to think the opening and closing of the door would be noted – those who enjoyed baking in such heat felt every draft of cool air.

The cool blue glow from beneath the wizard’s robe was brighter. The wizard walked, flapping folds of the rope so strobes of blue flashed amid the prickly heat.

Behind the baskets, Isaac began to sweat. He gulped silently at the stifling air and sweat coruscated off his brow. The wizard would have to settle quickly, or he’d have to leave, the heat was so oppressive.

“Chickadees,” the wizard muttered.

Instantly the dull red of the fire and the scattered coals burst forth new light – but, mercifully, no extra heat. The wizard, far from resembling the bedraggled soul who bought eggs off his father, looked menacing, probing the darker corners of the rubble pile with the end of his evil-looking walking-stick. He struck the pile of baskets with his stick, and the pile began to whirl and dance, buffeting Isaac with hot blasts of searching air. But because he was a skinny lad, able to clamber into a cleft in the rocks, and because the wizard was still dozy and the baskets whirling in his vision, he went unseen.

“Must be the chinking,” the wizard muttered as the baskets settled once again into their disorderly pile. “Or the damn squirrels sneaking in again. Nothing frightens the brainless things!”

As Isaac’s heart skipped a beat or two, the wizard, mollified, went back to his chair, wrapped his robe more tightly around him, sighed, and settled back to sleep.

Isaac remained in the crack where he hid, listening.

The wizard’s dwelling was quietly noisy, noisy enough for careful sneaking, he decided. He identified the sounds, one by one:

Crackling of the fire.

Boiling of the egg-filled water.

The quiet, easy breathing of the wizard.

Here and there, a gust of wind from outside which, mysteriously, never seemed to work in through the cracks, no matter what the wizard said about chinking.

And something else.

A few something elses.

Teacups rattling on the shelf as if a heavy cart pulled by a pair of oxen were trundling outside.
The sqirmy flap of soggy leather.

And beyond the bubbling at the hearth, another, deeper bubbling, as of a dog slumbering soundly underwater, its breath passing through a vast cauldron of hot, hot water.

He noted different timbres, as his ears got more attuned to the sounds. Many squirmings. Many rattlings.

One squirming close at hand.

Nestled in a basket, wrapped in rough sacking, an egg. But what an egg – an egg the size of a hen. A bald, leathery hen.

As he watched it, the egg squirmed.

Isaac was repulsed. The egg resembled not an egg, but a weevil, a weevil like the ones he discovered once in his oatmeal when he complained to his mother that the currants she put in were putrid.

“No currants to put in, love,” he recalled her saying. “Just oatmeal and a bit of milk.”

The wizard shifted in his seat, snorted.

Isaac saw the basket had handles on it.

He grasped them.

“No use getting caught looking for treasures,” he thought to himself as he backed towards the slab-door. “I’ll come back for a better poke-about when the wizard’s not here, and find his treasure. In the meantime, I’ll see what we’ve got here.” He pulled the slab open, darted out, and swiftly shut it. As he darted into the cover of the brambles alongside the road, he fancied, over his shoulder, he felt a blue glow diffuse the white of the stars above.

Isaac had to keep shifting the basket from one hand to the other, as the heat of the wizard’s dwelling seemed to have accompanied the baggage he carried.

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