Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An Epic Tale - 9. The Edge of the World

"The world is smaller than you might imagine," Belinda told me. She seemed apologetic, at least.

I had tried to run away - somehow, the thought that I might actually die had triggered a panic in me. So I ran, as hard and as fast as I could.

It wasn't fast enough. Belinda had made a sound, like the faraway ringing of a thousand tiny bells, and I had fallen.

Now I was trudging through the snow, bound to the goblin by a rope of light. Belinda had begun to tell me stories as we walked. I appreciated the gesture, even as I partly blamed her for my current predicament.

It was my own fault, really. Everyone I had ever met had used me to their own ends. Why should this goblin be any different? I should have set out to find the Hermit on my own. To get my answers on my own.

"From here on Earth, it looks like the world is flat, but if you could fly high enough, up as high as the stars, you would see that it's actually curved upward, like a bowl."

"More like a saddle," the goblin said. "I hear tell that in the North and South, it curves downward, and rush off the edge into the underworld."

"I wouldn't know," Belinda said wistfully. "I was a child when you captured me. I have never been outside the Western Woods."

"So you're a slave of this fire goblin?" I said.

"She was willing enough when I captured her," the goblin laughed.

"You promised me adventure! You said if I only joined your service, I would see all four corners of the earth. I would dance with dragons and feel the heat of the Eastern winds. All this and more, you promised me."

The goblin smiled. "All this and more you shall have, my sweet one, as soon as the War in the Woods is ended."

"This war has lasted for three hundred years!"

"And now at last it may end," the goblin said.

I felt a chill run deep into my bones.

"This boy has a piece of the river spirit inside him. We kill him, and we destroy that piece, drying up the river."

"Would that end the war?" Belinda asked.

"Not quite," the goblin admitted, "but it would certainly make things very, very interesting."

Friday, November 28, 2008

An Epic Tale - 8.The Fire Goblin And His Fairy

"I don't know what you were expecting," the half-man said. "This is a forest. Not much around to live in but trees.

"Yes, but - " I swallowed. "Did you have to make it so high?"

"Fire goblins have enemies. There's a lot more going on in the world than your kind has the courage to face."

I looked up. The oak tree was certainly tall, and the grass hut at the top would be hard to reach and easy to defend. I didn't even know if I could make it up.

"Is there a ladder, or something?"

"Not a climber?" the goblin smirked. "Don't worry. These trees would fling you from their branches the moment you tried. You won't be coming in. We're just here to get something."

The half-man rummaged in his backpack as I stood there, wondering what such a person could possibly have to get.

My life was now utterly outside my control, I reflected. I had intended to end it all this morning. Now I was wrapped up in something I barely even understood. Did my parents know there was a world like this, so close to the village? All they ever did was tend to the cows.

"A ha!" the half-man held up a small golden whistle and gave it two sharp notes.

"Belinda!" he shouted. "I've come home!"

At first, I thought nothing had happened. Then I saw it - a tiny flash of light, flickering and fluttering around the edges of the treetop canopy. It was no bigger than a mosquito.

The light swooped down to join us, and up close it was a pinpoint, so bright I had to avert my eyes. I heard it laughing at me, a tinkle of tiny bells in the wind.

"It's so precious!" the pinpoint said. It swooped and darted around me until my head spun. "Where did you get it?"

"Pack up your things," the half-man said. "The old wars have begun again, and this one's right at the center of it."

"Pack up?" It was just a ball of light, but somehow it still looked worried. "Where are we going?"

The half-man smiled grimly. "We're going to take this boy, and throw him off the edge of the world."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Not an Update, but Something

This is me, Josh. I've been taking a break on the Tale because I have to work on something important. Nione demands it. I'm sorry.

Instead I offer this: My own inane, stream-of-consciousness babble. I hope it pleases you.

The Overture

In opera and symphony, the overture is a well-understood part of the narrative formula. It's an encapsulation of the piece as a whole, a way to set the tone, a way to establish the major themes, and a way to foreshadow. The overture does what I like story elements to do - accomplishes many things at once.

So let's think about the overture in cinema. Unlike in music, the overture is rarely explicitly branded as such. But a quick search of my mental archives suggest that there are few, if any, great movies without one. Star Wars has its opening crawl, Raiders has its first mini-treasure. Jaws has one of the simplest and coolest overtures ever. Even The Saddest Music in the World, a crazy-man movie by crazy-man Guy Maddin, has an extensive overture in the form of a strange medicine man that the main character visits.

I think it's this beat that makes circular-structure movies so popular - No idea how to start your movie? Why not give away the end! Almost by default, then, most of the functions of the overture are fulfilled - the tone is set, plot events are (heavy-handedly) foreshadowed. The only thing we lose is the innate tension of wondering what will happen next - which, unfortunately, for many is the whole point of watching a movie in the first place.

Repeat after me: Secrets must be kept. If your audience knows everything that happens before, after, and during the time the story takes place, why would they keep watching? Even at the end, when everything is resolved into a tidy package, there has to be an open question: What will happen next?

That's why those painfully obvious "setting up the sequel" moments are so annoying to me. If I don't see Freddy come back, it's an open question whether they really killed him. If I see him, and he's okay, then there's no reason to consider the movie any further. No reason to watch it again.

Anyway. Overtures. Raising a question without implying an easy answer. They're important, and scary, and hard, and I think I just found mine while I was typing.

Thank you for listening.

I'll try to reward your patience soon.


Monday, September 22, 2008

An Announcement

From now on, An Epic Tale shall be updated weekly, on Sundays. This way, my life and yours can better achieve some semblance of order, and perhaps over time I can even build up an audience.

Plus, this way I can spend the time that others spend in church doing something that actually benefits my soul.

So tell your friends - An Epic Tale, updated weekly. Same Epic-time, same Epic-channel.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Epic Tale - 7. The Half-Man

About a mile further on from the stream, it began to snow - soft, gentle flurries that caressed my cheeks like frozen kisses. I moved on, inconsiderate of the present in my newfound obsession with the past.

It seemed to me that I was dreaming - or that everything up to that moment had been a dream. Once-cherished memories had begun to squirm and shift away from my mind's eye, the details as vague as my future. The streets of Riverbend disappeared from my mental catalogue - and not just the cartography. I strained to recall what simple sensations I could - the smell of fresh bread, the chirping of crickets, the splash of water buckets emptied onto cobblestone streets.

With a shock I realized I had forgotten my mother's face.

I was Jerek no more. The farm boy was well and truly dead. Who I was now - that was an open question.

The old man had remade me. But in whose image? I had no idea, and even less idea if I could kill this Hermit, whoever he was. Wherever he was. To my chagrin I realized there was no way to tell which way I should be going - or even, in the darkness, which way I should be going.

I stopped moving. The hopelessness of my situation had just begun to dawn on me. I was alone, miles from anywhere. I had no food, no money, no possessions of any kind. Even if I found the other side of this forest, there was nowhere I could go. I had started this trip intending to kill myself, and it looked as though I would fully and finally succeed.

The snow was falling harder.

I sat down at the base of an old oak tree and leaned against it. I was exhausted. My failures had been building for years now, I realized. I hadn't understood Amanda, or saved her when she needed me most. I hadn't brought the butcher to justice. I hadn't even killed myself right. It would be easier, I realized, as I settled deeper into the old oak's rooty embrace, never to try anything at all.

I closed my eyes. The snow fell hard all around me, big, fat, yawning flakes. Each one made a tiny puff in the still air as it landed around me. It was soothing. Still. Quiet. The way I liked my winter nights.

I yawned. There would be no going back if I closed my eyes. By the time I woke up, the snow would have buried me alive.

I closed my eyes.

In my dream, I was floating on a bed of feathers. The feathers carried me up, high, into the clouds. Then it turned cold. I froze, and the feathers became snow. I fell, as a snowflake, and in every other snowflake I could see the face of someone I had disappointed. Chilled and hungry, I reached the ground. My clothes melted away and the snow became laughter - vicious, taunting, jeering, mocking laughter that burned at me like acid.

And I woke up, and I was still burning.

The laughter hadn't stopped either, but now it was of a more piercing, high-pitched, maniacal variety. I opened my eyes to the most terrifying sight I had ever beheld.

It was a man - or something like a man. He was angular, short and scaly - what I could see of him, that is. My view was obscured by his thick fur coat and the massive fireball heading straight for me.

I yelped. The strange half-man took no notice. The flames, I realized, were part of a stream being blasted out of his coat by some infernal mechanism.

"Hold still!" he shouted as I cringed from the blast. "You've still got some on you!"

"Some what?" I yelled back, taking a big gulp of hot air that scorched my chest in the process.

"Snow!" barked the half-man, and he proceeded to hose me down with flaming gases.

I was too busy on my knees coughing to point out to him that I knew the snow was there, and I preferred it to a crazed demonic midget with a penchant for burning things.

"You're attracting the most Worry Snow I've ever seen in one place," the half-man said. "We've got to get you inside. Come with me."

"But I don't -"

"You're coming," he said, so authoritatively that I was up and walking before I knew it.

"Where are we going?" I asked, when it occurred to me.

"That's the question, isn't it?" the half-man mused. "Can we ever really know where we're going? Arguably, random chance plays a greater role in our destinies than any action we ourselves might take."

"I meant, where are you taking me?"

"Ah! I misunderstood."

The half-man was silent. I did not ask again.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

An Epic Tale - 6. The Journey

I stood for a moment, in front of the raging coldness of the river, all of nature frozen and still around me.

I could go back, I thought. Slip into my warm bed, pretend nothing had changed. The cows would still be there in the morning.

Jerek's parents would say nothing to me; they had said nothing to Jerek for a long time. I could go for a long time with no one the wiser. Perhaps my whole life.

But I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to assume someone else's life, take it over as though it were still my own. And I somehow hated the idea of townsfolk looking at me and seeing the same old farm boy.

No, I decided; I would press on.

And a good thing too, as I realized I was stuck on the opposite end of the stream from my footprints leading home. Any return journey would require miles of trudging upstream until I found a safe place to cross.

That settled it; there was no going back. Not now, not ever.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

An Epic Tale - 5. The Old Man's Quest

I was pulled out of that river with a yank. My lungs burned. My face felt like it had melted away from my bones and was lying, solid, caught on somme driftwod at the bottom of the river while I lay above it.

Why was I lying? Why was I coughing? My body was fighting to live. Didn't I want just the opposite? I might just as well stop fighting..

"None of that," the old man said. "You've changed now. The old ways no longer apply. The moment you stop changing, that's the moment you die."

So I coughed, and let him wrap a blanket around me. It was soft, downy, and impossibly warm.

"That was a very near thing," the old man said. "You were lucky I was there."

"Who are you?" I asked.

The old man shook his head. "No names," he said. "Too dangerous. I don't want to leave parts of you behind."

I had no idea what he was talking about, but since the man had, apparently, just saved my life, I decided it would be best to be polite.

"My name is -"

"Ah!" The old man smacked me across the face with surprising force. "What did I just say? The last thing you need is a name, and the last thing I need is another lie!"

I was confused. "When have I ever lied to you?"

"When you told me you were mine. I mean to say, look at you! You're piecemeal! One part belongs to your mother, another to a dead teenager, some third part to invisible sky spirits. What's left for me? The worst part, if history is a guide."

I was feeling a little stronger now. I drew myself up, letting the blanket fall from my shoulders.

"Sir," I said, "I may be only a cow-farming son of cow farmers, and I thank you for saving my life, but I know you are mistaken. I have given myself to no man."

The old man watched me for a moment, appraisingly.

"Well done," he said. "Perhaps there is some strength to you after all. Very well. I shall send you on a quest."

"I don't think you understand."

"The feeling is mutual. Bt what quest shall it be? Ah! I have it." The old man snapped his fingers, and for a moment, I thought I saw him change - the face of a much younger man replaced the craggy contours I saw before me. But I shook my head, and the feeling vanished.

"You will kill the Hermit," the old man said. "So it is, and so it shall be."

"Kill?" I was taken aback. Enough was enough. He couldn't possibly expect -

"Yes. Kill. A fellow human, Just as frail and fragile as yourself. He'll die by your hand, I swear it by my beard. How and when - I leave those to you. A test of character."

"You can't make me."

"Nile's blood, you ignorant, foolish, pathetic child!" As the old man spoke, cracks began to form in the icy surface of the stream, revealing the frigid turmoil beneath. "I am trying to do you a favor! I pulled you out of that miserable, monotonous waste of regret you called a life! I put the whisper in your heart, that these woods would be the time and place to die! I plucked you out of death, and claimed you as my own, all so you would have at least a chance to claim the one true - "

Abruptly, the old man ceased his ranting. This was just as well as far as I was concerned. Against my better judgment, and although I had no idea what he was getting at, I was beginning to grow afraid of him.

"What I'm trying to say is," said the old man, once he had regained his composure, "cooperation is in your own best interests. Though, if you like, I could always return you to death.

The thought seemed to please him. I noticed the water was frozen over once more.

"Yes, now we have it. Here is your Quest. The hermit will die by your hand, or you will die by mine."

And the old man vanished without a trace.

Monday, July 21, 2008

An Epic Tale - 4. The Old Man

When he was seventeen, Jerek decided it was time to kill himself.

He had had enough - enough of his so-called parents and their constant, lazy bickering; enough of the small-town gossip at Riverbend; enough of spending every day with the cows, who never changed. Most of all he was tired of the butcher, whose leering, guilty face made Jerek confused, and then angry.

That was all there was in Jerek's life, and so he had had enough of life.

It was winter when Jerek decided to kill himself. That made planning easy. He would simply walk into the forest, and never come back. People did it all the time, lured by fairies, or strange lights, or, Jerek supposed, the very same impulse that drove him.

The One God would be unhappy, Jerek thought as he trudged through the snow. But then, if the stories were true, the One God spent most of his time unhappy - wasn't that why he was always striking down enemies of His people? Jerek supposed that the One God would just have to deal with it.

It wasn't long before Jerek came to a stream - a small tributary of the mighty Thiago River, for which the town of Riverbend was named. It was frozen over, being the dead of winter, but the ice looked thin enough in the center that Jerek could simply step through it, crash through into frigid water, and die more or less instantly. He decided it was worth a try.

With his first step, Jerek slipped on the ice and fell flat on his face.

For a moment he simply lay there.

He felt the coldness of the ice.

He felt the wildness of the waters beneath.

He felt the strength and living power of the woods all around him.

For a moment, he considered returning to his home, where it was warm, and safe.

Then he remembered Amanda.

"Take me," whispered Jerek, a prayer, not to the One God, the God who never listened, but to the stream itself, directly. "Take me," Jerek prayed, "I am yours."

And he got up, and he took a step, and he plunged into the icy water.

Just before he fell, he thought perhaps he caught a glimpse of a man - or was it an animal? If it was real, it was running toward him.

Yes, Jerek thought, in the last few moments before he died. It was an old man. His long white beard made him look like a wolf.

I wonder what he wanted.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

An Epic Tale - 3. Caesura

A year went by.

Jerek never tried to run away again. He felt that he had missed his chance. And besides, where would he go? The whole adventure began to seem like a silly, childish dream.

Not to say that he was satisfied. The strains of boredom and responsibility wore at him. Occasionally he would lash out at his mother or his father. He was swiftly punished on each occasion. Jerek's father, the war hero, old and wounded though he was, could still kick Jerek's ass.

Amanda had drowned in the river. What she had been doing there no one could say. What was certain was how costly her passing had been to the butcher. He could barely conduct business without a mention of his poor girl, so like a daughter to him, and so tragically passed before her time.

Her body was left in an unmarked grave. Two weeks later the snows came, and the wolves dragged her out of the ground and away into the woods, piece by piece.

Jerek was left alone with the cows. Someone had to watch them, after all.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Epic Tale - 2. The Girl

Amanda was the butcher's daughter. She didn't want to be, but she had very little choice. The butcher had paid good money for her.

She saw Jerek occasionally, but more often than not she was sent to the back when he came to sell a cow. The butcher was wary of his merchandise, and would never part with it for any less than top dollar. The best Amanda could hope for was a glimpse of the boy's sandy hair through the slits in the back room door.

How she loved him!

In her mind, they were already betrothed; very soon he would find her, and whisper, Come with me, and they would be off, the two of them, to a world of adventure. Never to look back.

Once she even defended Jerek against the butcher's most vigorous tirade. The butcher was taken by surprise. He had never been stopped in mid-tirade before, and it made him uncomfortable. He locked Amanda in her box for the next month, and dropped food to her only once a day.

Jerek, for his part, knew nothing of Amanda's life, or her plans for adventure. He only knew her as the butcher's daughter: beautiful - or at the very least, attractive - but retiring, shy, and unknowable.

He was happy, however, to see her after a month's absence. She looked bruised, and thinner than before, but somehow that did nothing to diminish her beauty - or at the very least, her attractiveness.

At that moment Amanda decided to run away. So she said to Jerek, "I've decided to run away."

"Oh," said Jerek.

"You can come with me if you'd like," said Amanda.

Jerek thought about it. "I would," he said.

"I'm glad," said Amanda.

Amanda wanted Jerek to kiss her at that moment, but he was too confused.

They were to meet by moonlight. Jerek didn't have much, so instead of preparing he spent the day talking to the cows. They didn't understand what was happening, any more than he did.

Moonlight found Jerek at the appointed meeting place - the well at the crossroads, two miles out of town. He had a few crusts of bread in his pockets, as well as the knife his brother had given him. That was all.

He waited for a long time. Eventually he became tired, and fell asleep at the well.

Morning came.

Jerek became very angry at Amanda - who was she to fill his head with ideas, and leave him waiting? And then he became confused - had he misunderstood? Surely there must be some explanation.

It was not until that afternoon that he got one - Amanda had not come because by moonlight, she had been killed.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

An Epic Tale - 1. The Hero

Jerek was in charge of the cows. He did not want to be in charge of the cows - in fact, it was his contention that cow-chargery was the single dullest occupation in the whole of existence. Yet Jerek's father had a bad leg; it was injured during the war, as he told everyone who would listen. And Jerek's mother had to be home at all times so that she could pray for Jerek's older brother Joseph, who had run away from home some two years before.

So it fell to Jerek to watch the cows. The cows stood, and chewed the grass. Sometimes they stared at other cows.

Characters for an Epic Tale

Have you seen this?

I'm going to go for it. Starting now, once a day, this blog shall contain a little story featuring one of those characters, in sequential order. I shall start with The Hero.

I wiped all of my old posts and now I kind of regret it

So it goes.