Friday, October 24, 2008

The Storyteller: Adrian's Walk

I have this idea for a novel. One day, I'll even write it - probably in a mad marathon of writing, since that's what seems to work for me. It will be called The Storyteller, and it will be a frame story of love, loss, and loyalty surrounding numerous fairy-tale like short stories. One of the characters, Quinn, has 'the trick of speaking to things,' which lets him talk to anything. As a result, he knows a lot of stories. He survives by trading these stories for services to the various things and people he meets. He also fights two storytelling duels, where he and another storyteller square off, telling tales back and forth until one of them tells a story the other knows he or she can't top.

Here is one of Quinn's stories.

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Adrian's Walk

Once there was a boy named Adrian. Adrian lived in a village on the plains. The skies above Adrian’s home were as wide as they were blue and the plains beneath them rolled with gentle hills, as though a patch of sea had chosen to give up on water and curdle into mile upon mile of frozen waves.

Adrian was like most boys his age. He had a boyish face and a boyish charm, a boyish laugh that was sometimes embarrassingly high and at other times, gratifyingly low. His head was full of thoughts he only barely understood himself, for he had given up being a child but had not yet decided what he was going to be next. Only two things set him apart from the other boys – a secret strength, one even he wasn’t aware of, and a secret pain, that, of course, everyone knew about. In short, he was exactly the sort of person that stories happened to.

What was Adrian’s pain? It was simple: Adrian couldn’t run. Oh, he could move fast when he had to, but it hurt him, and he couldn’t keep it up for long. Even ordinary walking was sometimes difficult for him. Something in his legs was wrong, and had been for his entire life. This made Adrian something of a pariah amongst his fellow boys – for if you have never been a little boy, trust me when I tell you that a lot of their games involve a great deal of running about – and, not understanding why he was the way he was, and fearing it, they mocked him.

‘Adrian the Slow’ they called him, ‘Adrian the Lame.’ ‘Walking Adrian,’ ‘Limping Adrian,’ and ‘Sore-Foot Adrian.’ Of course, they never let him play with them.

Adrian grew up different from the other boys. Having to move more slowly all the time gave him depth and thoughtfulness before his time. Instead of being fast, Adrian was strong. He had shoulders when all his peers were still slim, and those shoulders had muscles on them. Adrian had few friends. Though he was loyal to the friends he had, he believed, in the way that some boys do, that he had no friends, and was sad all the time.

Even in his terrible boyish sadness, Adrian loved. Adrian’s sorry, schoolboy infatuation had settled on none other than the town beauty, a young woman named Isabella, only a little older than Adrian himself. Isabella had married already – breaking in one afternoon the hearts of every boy in town – and was, by the time this story begins, already heavy with child.

All Isabella’s other admirers had abandoned her. To them, she was spoiled, despoiled by her husband and ruined by her great belly. They set their sights elsewhere. Adrian, however, was not so inconstant. He loved her even more, and used many hours that could have otherwise been spent productively dreaming her the Queen and he her loyal knight, protecting her against all dangers with his love, forever unrequited, hidden in his heart, giving him strength, only to die in agony, in her arms, whispering his long-frustrated passion from between cracked and bleeding lips as he passed beyond all pain.

As I may have said, Adrian was a sensitive sort of boy.

Life was all set to progress in the usual way; Adrian would fall in love with someone else, become a man, and decide what he wanted to do with himself, perhaps several times each, in no particular order. Everything was set, but it was not to be. Heaven had ordained a more dramatic fate for Adrian.

One day, the riders came to town. They were soldiers dressed in black iron, with the sea carved onto their breastplates and great serpents on their shields. They were from a kingdom across the western oceans. They were marauders and ravagers.

Before long, they had Adrian’s village subdued, many of the men dead and most of the buildings burning. Isabella was one of those who lost her home and husband that day, and Adrian lost both his parents and too many of his few friends. Adrian and Isabella the rest of the survivors were herded into a huddle in the center of town, where they wept and wondered what would happen next.

The ravagers from across the sea held a brief council and decided what was to be done next. Those whose horses had survived the battle – most, but not all, of them – would continue on to the next town, and those who had lost their horses would gather up the survivors and take them west, towards the sea for transport back to the fatherland where they would be enslaved.

They said this in full hearing of the gathered townsfolk, who began to wail in misery, for those who were taken across the sea never returned.

“And be sure all the pretty young women make it to the shore unharmed,” the leader of the sea-folk said, thinking of the price that womanflesh demands in the markets of bondage. “And also that one,” he pointed to Adrian and laughed. “He’s built like an ox. We’ll make more than five hundred drachans selling him for hard labor.” After all, the only kind of slaves more in demand than playthings for the rich are the kind used to do the sort of work that no one wants to do.

Quickly and efficiently, the surviving townsfolk – perhaps three score of them – were chained together. Adrian was chained near the center of the line, with Isabella in front of him. His hands curled into fists when he heard the things the sea-folk said about her, the plans they had for her and her child when they reached the western lands, but there was nothing he could do. The sea folk had swords and axes and great, cruel lances, and Adrian had nothing. Then the townsfolk were set to jogging across the plain, towards the west, as the sea-folk goaded them along, jeering at their stumbling feet and pitiful tears

Before long, of course, Adrian’s feet began to ache. Only a short while after that, his legs began to ache, too. Then the shooting pain began, driving up from the soles of his feet to the bottom of his knees. He stumbled and fell, regained his feet before he was trampled, then stumbled again.

The only person to suffer worse than Adrian was Isabella. Her belly was so heavy she could barely walk, and Adrian could see from how she moved how her back and legs ached and shook. Her weakness gave him strength, but only for a little while. Eventually, Adrian fell a final time, and when he dragged himself to his feet, he knew he would not be running anymore any time soon. Instead, he began to walk.

As I have said, Adrian was strong. The whole line had to move at his pace. It did not take the sea-folk long to figure out who was slowing down the march. They began to shout at Adrian and threaten him. They told him they would cut the skin off the bottom of his feet and make him walk over coals if he did not start running. They told him they would cut off his hands and maim his face and leave him rotting and bleeding in a ditch. They threatened to do terrible things to him, but Adrian could not run another step, and when he saw Isabella’s face, turned over her shoulder to look at him, for what seemed like the first time, tears of gratitude running from her eyes, he did not want to.

The sea-folk began to whip Adrian. Their master had told them not to kill him, but surely a taste of the lash would do no harm to a man who would soon be a slave. Their whips flayed the flesh from his shoulders, but still, Adrian walked.

The sea-folk began to beat Adrian with the butts of their long spears. He felt his ribs and arms and shoulders crack beneath the onslaught, but still, Adrian walked. He looked at Isabella, and he walked.

Soon townsfolk other than Isabella had noticed what Adrian was doing. All the mockeries of the boys and the sad shaking heads of the grown-ups were forgotten. Now, they cheered for him, calling his name. They saw that Adrian could save their lives, but Adrian saw only Isabella.

Then one of the sea-folk lifted up his head. He thought he heard a sound in the distance. He turned to one of his fellows, who took off his helmet and picked the wax out his ear to listen better. That man struck another, who listened as well, and by now the sound was unmistakable; it was riders, not far away. One of the sea-folk peered into the distance, and saw a white banner flashing in the sunset, and another heard a hunting horn crying out over the plain. The sea-folk knew that the High King of the kingdom on the plain had come, that their companions who had continued inland were dead, and that if they did not reach the shore soon, they would join them shortly.

The sea-folk cursed and began to drive the townsfolk even harder, but Adrian was past caring, for he had heard the sounds as well.

So the sea-folk killed him. One of them took his sword and drove it through Adrian’s belly. The boy – the young man – fell to his knees for the last time, but he caught the sword and held it fast in his hands, knowing that every second counted. That raider wasted precious moments trying to take the sword back while Adrian sat on his feet, keeping the sea-folk from getting to the shackles around his ankles. He was dead weight on the line. So long as he was there, the sea-folk had to choose between their prize and staying alive.

In the end, they ran, but it was too late. The High King’s men were upon them, their terrible swift swords cutting through black armor and the flesh beneath.

Adrian collapsed at last, into the waiting arms of Isabella, who cradled his head against her swollen belly. His lips were cracked and bleeding, and he whispered, “Isabella, I have always thought you were the most beautiful woman in the world, ever since I first laid eyes on you. I have always loved you.”

And Isabella said, only, “Adrian,” and kissed him on the forehead. And Adrian died.

Isabella named her son Adrian when he was born and taught him the story of the man he was named after, so that the name and the story would never pass from the world. She was not the only one to remember him. The High King’s soldiers heard the story from the villagers, and they told the High King. To this day, by order of the King, the plains between the village of White Hill and the Western Shore are known as Adrian’s Walk.

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