Sunday, November 21, 2010

Homeward Bound – Part 5

Suddenly there was a knock at the barn door.

Thum Thum Thum.

No one moved.

Thum. Thum. Thum.

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stood in combat ready positions facing the door. No one spoke. After a pause the barn door slowly creaked open. A beautiful woman stepped into the flickering light cast by the lantern. She was wearing a black leather skullcap from which flowed long red hair in waves over her shoulders and down the back of her black cape. She was armored in jet black chain male, tall black boots, and she carried a long silver sword in her right hand.  Stopped at the entrance, she looked into the barn with a steady gaze. No one moved.

“You’re trespassing,” said Juliette.

“Why didn’t you answer?” she asked.

“You’re trespassing,” repeated Juliette. "You shouldn’t be here anyway."

“I’ve come to negotiate,” said the beautiful woman.

“About what?” asked Juliette.

“I think you know about what,” said the woman with her steady gaze locked on Juliette's eyes.

“About this giant crow-plant growing? You can have it,” said Juliette impulsively. But after a moment’s reflection she changed her mind.

“No, actually,” Juliette continued. “You can’t have it.”

The woman looked rather disappointed, for a moment, but then regained her composure and said, “I will take it off your hands for you.”

“I’m concerned,” said Juliette, “that you may do bad things with it.”

“Why do you think that?” asked the woman.

“Because the last time we met you knocked me out. And pushed me down the stairs. I think you remember. It was at the McFearson barn. I believe we were both trespassing then.”

“It was a confusing situation, I admit,” replied the woman. “But we know each other now.”

“Do we?” asked Juliette with an inflection in her voice that conveyed her disbelief.

“We do,” replied the woman with a serene tone. “I will pay you a fair compensation.”

“What will you do with the plant-man?” asked Juliette.

“I will take it away from here. You won’t have to worry about it,” the woman replied.

“I don’t trust you,” Juliette replied after a short pause.

“I will give you fair compensation,” repeated the woman.

“You already said that, and I don’t care,” replied Juliette.

“Would you like to know what the fair compensation is?” asked the woman.

“You can tell me, if you wish,” said Juliette.

The woman removed from a leather bag a parchment scroll, and said, “This.”

“That doesn’t look very … fair,” said Juliette. “What’s on the parchment?”

“It’s a very old scroll. One that people around here have been looking for,” the woman replied. “I happened to have found it. And I’d be willing to trade it to you in exchange for what is in that jar,” said the woman pointing to the glass jar on the table in which stood the little bark-man, his hands pressed against the glass, his tiny black eyes darting this way and that.

“Is this the scroll that our brother Water Wizard got in trouble for allegedly stealing?” asked Juliette almost to herself. As there was no reply she went on. “Where did you get this?”

“I have my sources,” replied the woman as she pulled aside strands of red hair from her face. She was indeed, very beautiful.  All of the men in the room would have sworn to it.

“Would your source perchance be the dead bodies of my brothers?” asked Juliette sternly. “I haven’t seen them in a while.”

“You haven’t been around for a while,” replied the woman unmoved by the accusation.

Meanwhile outside on the snow crusted beams of the barn roof Storm Wizard watched the three figures who had taken up positions at three points in the snow drifts surrounding the barn. They remained motionless, and so Storm Wizard listened as best he could through the wooden slats of the roof to the conversation occurring below him. The snow shrouded wind through the nearby apple trees, while all around, crows, unseen against the night sky, cawed steadily from the darkness.

“Indeed, they have been around, and no, they are not dead,” said the woman. “Do we have a deal?”

Juliette was wavering. On the one hand she wanted to be rid of the bark-man. She also wanted to be rid of the woman. Sending them off together in exchange for the scroll that had been the source of considerable trouble in their family, and greatly desired by the Guild Lords did seem tempting to her.

“You should say ‘Yes’,” the woman went on after a pause. “I do not think you know how to handle the little man in the jar.”

“You’re probably right,” admitted Juliette. “But what about the other seeds? And why did you give us the seeds in the first place?”

“I didn’t,” said the woman, with a hint of surprise in her voice.

“Well why did your friend with the short furry skin give us the seeds, then?” asked Juliette impatiently.

“He’s not my friend,” the woman said with a raised eyebrow.

“Then why didn’t you knock him out and push him down the stairs?” asked Juliette.

“I was hiding. You people, in fact, interrupted my plans at the time. I would have obtained what I wanted, had you not interfered.”

Juliette considered. She began to see the logic of accepting the trade. Nor did she sense that the woman had malevolent intentions.

“These deals never turn out well,” said Bran from the shadow he was hiding in on the loft.

“That may be true,” said Juliette in response, “but she is probably right that we can’t handle the bark-man.”

“But what makes you think that she can? And why does she want him? She hasn’t explained that yet, either,” said Bran. “She’s giving us a musty old scroll for a little wooden person.”

“It’s a very important scroll,” said Juliette.

“What is the scroll?” asked Bran. “Let me see it,” he said to the woman.

“I’m not making the trade with you, I’m making it with her,” said the woman pulling the scroll back.

“I’m here,” replied Bran. “and I want to see it before we make the trade. That’s common courtesy in trades such as this. After all, how do we know if you’re presenting us with a real scroll, or some chicken scribble on a parchment unless we see it?”

The woman glared at him. Bran then felt a strange feeling as he looked into her penetrating blue eyes. It felt as though some power flew past him, brushing past his mind with the force of a hurled stone or arrow.”

“Did you just … cast something at me?” asked Bran angrily. But the woman just smiled, and turned her gaze back to Juliette. At this point Storm Wizard decided that the negotiations were not going well, and he thought it would be a good idea to begin taking out the opposition surrounding the barn. He thought about casting a stun beam, but realized that she would probably hear him chanting, and so instead he flew along the beam of the roof toward the door of the barn so that he could fly down quickly in case he was needed inside. Meanwhile, Bran was still arguing with the woman, insisting that she show them the scroll before any decision was made.

“It is what I said,” and unrolling the first section of the scroll, she pointed and showed them the strange illegible text that had been written on the parchment by some ancient hand long ago in a language that was no longer known. “You see?”

“This could be recipe for chicken soup for all we know,” said Bran.

However, Juliette found the fact that she did not even recognize the language a persuasive fact, indicating that this indeed most probably was the scroll that the Gravitavius, the Grand Master of the Adventurer’s Guild, had come to all the way to Hamfest to fetch in order to bring back to Glendale. It was well known by the membership that the scrolls that had been found were written in a language that no one knew, and that made them all the more important.

“What are you going to do with the little wooden man?” asked Juliette again.

“I’m going to take him away from here,” said the woman.

“And then?”

“I don’t know yet,” she replied candidly. “I should mention… I’m not the only person who is interested in what you have growing here.”

“Who else?” asked Bran.

“Other people, who happen to be far more … aggressive negotiators than I am,” came the cryptic reply.

“Will you get rid of the crows and the rest of the plant as well, if I agree?” asked Juliette.

“The crows will follow me away from here, but the rest of the plant, I’m afraid I don’t know anything more about it than you do at this point.”

“What is the little wooden man?” asked Bran. “If you want to take him with you so badly, surely you must know what he is, and so you must tell us before we agree.”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she said. “What I know is that he was created by the use of one of the three scrolls. That much I know because I observed it. There were three scrolls. Now there is one. One of the scrolls was used to create the black seeds that made the little plant-man.”

“Who are you?” asked Juliette.

“My name is Mordalia”, said the woman.

Juilette searched her memory for that name, and remembered that there was a folk tale that told of a far off land that was ruled by a line of powerful Queens, the last of whom had three adventurous daughters, all noble princesses. One of these Princesses was named Mordalia. However, Juliette had no way of knowing if that folk tale had anything at all do with the woman standing before her. But it did strike her as a very curious name indeed, and certainly not a common one.

Juliette made up her mind. She decided that it would be best to give the little bark-man to Mordalia in exchange for the scroll. The little bark-man began to bang his little fists on the glass walls of the jar.

“I’m still not sure about this deal,” said Bran. “What if you take the little man, and do something evil with him? Then we would be responsible for having given him to you.”

“I think the real question is,” replied Mordalia, “What evil might the little man do if you leave him to grow up here, and don’t allow me to take him away with me?”

“Perhaps, but it might do something evil period…. Now, we don’t know you. I think it would be better if we took the little man to the township of Glendale and bring him to the one of the Arch Mages of the Guild for study,” concluded Bran. “After all, we don’t know you. And what if he grows up into a wood-monster and starts rampaging through the land?”

“I strongly suspect that you can’t handle this,” said Mordalia.

“I am willing to make the exchange with you, Mordalia,” said Juliette, the idea of a wood-monster coming out of her barn some day persuading her that it was the best thing to do.

Mordalia held out the scroll, and held out her other hand. Juliette put the jar with the little bark-man in it (he seemed none too pleased at this turn of events, but was ignored entirely by those making the arrangement regarding his future) in Mordalia’s hand, and took the bag with the scrolls in it.

Mordalia then backed out of the barn door, signaled her men-at-arms, and they vanished off through the snow into the dark blizzarding night. The crows, still cawing, lit into the air, and in a great raucous cloud followed her away.

Juliettte wanted very much at that point to go visit her parents, having discovered, and somewhat resolved the mystery of what, exactly, had grown from the black seed in the Bellowick barn.

Bran offered to take the scrolls back to town with Ben and Morgana, and at Juliette’s suggestion Laraby was asked to accompany them. Daniel and Brian, being Bellowicks, of course, wished to see their parents as well, and so it was decided that the Bellowicks would enjoy their reunion together, and everyone else would head into Hamfeset with the scrolls.

“Yeah, Laramy, you should come with us,” said Bran with a big grin. Laraby gave him a disinterested gaze, but agreed to go with them. Morgana, he thought, though hearty and hail, deserved to have someone along who could help to ward off the dangers of the night road, whatever they might be.

As a last matter, Juliette went to the plant that was laying in a mound of dirt on the table below the shelf from which the pot had fallen when she had called upon Minvar to destroy it. From the dirt a long green strand of vine descended to the floor and disappeared between the floorboards. Juliette found that trying to cut the vine with her dagger was much more difficult than she expected. She could not cut it. She also found that where she touched the vine her hand began to sting, and she saw little red welts growing on her skin. And so she  decided it might be a good idea to go back to the Monastery and see if the good Abbess of Minvar might know of some way to kill the vine.  Brian, who was as mystified by the plant as everyone else, decided to pry up the floorboards to see where the plant went. He took a crowbar to it, and found that the vine vanished into a crack between two large rocks on it's way past the wooden planks of the barn wall.

Meanwhile Storm Wizard had flewn off after Mordalia. As soon as he did a large arm of the crow cloud began to fly toward him. He flew high up into the air to evade them and the crows attempted to follow him, but at that height it became bitter cold, and they were all hampered because of the wind and snow. Flying was very difficult in those conditions. After a while, having tried a number of evasive circling maneuvers, Storm Wizard lost track of where Mordalia had gone. The snow became thicker and visibility at night was quite low, and so after a final failed attempt to regain her trail, and having met once again with a cloud of crows, he gave up and flew back to the Bellowick’s barn, and rejoined his friends and family. The crows did not follow him once he turned to head back home.

“Where’ve you been?” asked Bran as Storm Wizard came in through a window covered with snow and frost.

“Oh just out on a little fly about,” he said as Morgana threw a blanket over him.

“You folks go and see your family,” said Bran. “Go. We’ll take care of getting the scrolls to the Guild. Don’t worry. Go, see your mom and dad. Go!”

“Well, so much for having bothered to get all our chores done ahead of time,” said Storm Wizard to Juliette thinking back to the day that they began their adventures as they headed up the path toward the house. She chuckled at this, and they all began to laugh out loud. Brian and Daniel carried logs for the fire from the barn, and in a few moments they were at their old front door, safe and sound, finally. Without knocking Juliette opened the door and they stepped into the warm comfortable light of home.

When old man Bellowick saw his children enter the house after such a long absence he stood up ran toward them, hugging them all in his great wide arms.

“My children! Where have you been for so long?! I am overwhelmed with joy that you have come home at last! We have been worried to death for you!” he said, emotion choking his words, as tears streamed down his strong, weathered face.

“Hi Daddy!” cried Juliette hugging him madly. All of the other children in the house surged down stairs and out of the kitchen and up from the cellar to meet the four siblings who had returned. Out from the library stepped Water Wizard, and from the den stepped Fire Wizard. They looked approvingly on their young brothers and sister, and came and hugged each of them.

“There’s many adventures to tell of, I imagine,” said Water Wizard, the eldest brother of the household.

“Of course, my brother,” interjected Fire Wizard, “but now is not the time. First everyone should be fed, and warmed by the fire, and given time to rest and enjoy home after their long journey!”

Juliette, seeing her two brothers who were such rivals when they left actually getting along, was warmed at heart by this, and so, being reminded, she said, “Oh, we found the scrolls.”

“The scrolls?” the two young men asked incredulously.

“Yes. In the barn.”

“You found THE Scrolls… in … the barn?”, they asked almost as one person.

“Yup,” said Storm Wizard. “We found the scrolls in the barn. Yup.”

The two young men looked at each other, then at their younger siblings, and then back at one another again. They rolled their eyes, and were it not for the fact that they were so delighted to see them after such a long absence, they would have been quite a bit more peeved than they were. After all, they’d gone through quite a bit of trouble over those scrolls, and to think that their younger siblings simply found them in the barn, well, it was a bit much for the two of them to bare. And then the entire family burst out with laughter, and sounds of joy.

“Children, children,” said old man Bellowick. “Please! Quiet down! You know, you must keep quiet. Your mother,” he said turning to four returned siblings, “fell ill, you see, soon after you left at the beginning of winter. She’s been bed resting since then, so everyone, remember your manners and please be quiet.”  And so everyone except the youngest hushed and looked up the stairs toward the master bedroom.

When they heard this, the four prodigal siblings were alarmed and aggrieved.

“Ill?!”, said the four together. “What happened?”

“It is hard to say, but it was late in the autumn, after the had crows come, and she tripped on a root in the garden, and banged her head on an old stone, and when I found her she was laying unconscious on the ground. I don’t know for how long exactly. Her recovery, such as it is, has been slow, and fitful. She has had dreams, of a sort, and sometimes we don’t know of what she is speaking, or sometimes if she can see us at all.”

This greatly alarmed the children, and they went immediately up to their mother’s room to see her. She was laying in bed under the covers, a warm fire glowing in the hearth, and a candle by her on the night table. She was sleeping when they came in, and Juliette gently took her hand, and so she awoke a little from her dreams, and looked at Juliette and smiled warmly. “My dear daughter,” she said. “You’ve come home from the dark river at last, and brought my dear stalwart warriors home with you. I’m so glad,” she said softly. And then she looked at Storm Wizard, and said, “Many things are due to change, now that a pig has flown, and such a brave one, too.” And then she fell back to sleep. She seemed quite at peace, smiling in her sleep, and murmuring to herself from within her dreams.

And so it was that the Adventures of the Black Seed came full circle, and the Bellowick Family was reunited, and the matter of the disappearing scrolls was resolved. And all seemed well with the world, at that moment. And everyone went downstairs for a huge feast of ham, and biscuits, and pork chops, and cheese, and bacon, and broccoli, and warm cider, and Juliette and Storm Wizard recounted their adventures as best they could, leaving out much that they deemed would probably have sounded highly improbable to some of their family members, including especially their dear old father, who didn’t believe much in magic, or superstition, or tiny insect-men, or flying pigs after all.

After the feast and the stories, Storm Wizard flew off into the night to pay a visit to old Biddy Mable, to see if he might not be able to obtain from her a bowl of her most wonderful healing soup. And Juliette sat by her mother’s side, and held her hand as she slept, dreaming dreams.

Previous Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 4

The End of the 2009-2010 Play Test Campaign.
The Beginning of the 2011-2012 Play Test Campaign.

Next Episode: The Mystery of the Yellow Robed Man

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