True Path to Glory

Resplendent in mail and furs, the hulking warrior pulled his horse’s reins to stop in front of the farm gate.  His eye glittered under the brow of his helm, and he smiled at the farm-hand who had paused in his chores to nervously regard the unexpected visitor.

“Ho, lad!  I ride to join the horde of King Shilmai in his campaign against the northern scourge.  You remind me of myself at your age, strong of thew, unchallenged by a simple life, anxious to do daring deeds.  What is your name?”

The farm-hand looked at up at the warrior, shading his eyes with one broad hand.  “Grat, sir.”

“Follow me, guard my back in the press, use your strength to its best end, and you will earn your share of the rewards that are the due of brave men—the gold of princes, the respect of commoners.  What say you, Grat?”

Grat looked toward the farm-house.  He could not see Ylona, but he heard her singing inside.  He shook his head.

“Your loss, boy.  Fortune favors the bold, and girls love scars.”  He kicked his horse, and galloped away.  Grat, blushing a little, returned to his chores.

Sometime later, a strange man in a purple hat stood by the gate.  Grat had not seen him approaching, but still greeted him civilly.  The man responded with a complicated gesture which caused a window of blue fire to appear between them.  He gazed at Grat through it, and said, “You have potential.  I would have an apprentice, one I could teach to wield the mystical energies which allow us to shape reality to our own liking.”

Over the hum of the blue fire, Grat heard Ylona and her father laughing together, somewhere on the far side of the barn.  He shook his head, and said, “Thank you, but no,” in a voice so quiet it hardly reached his own ears.

The strange man looked at him in silence for a few seconds, then waved to dispel the flames.  “Very well,” he said, amusement in his voice.  “Far be it from me to force you out of folly.”  When he finished speaking, he was no longer there, and Grat returned to his work.

One night, Grat woke from his usually deep slumber, roused by strange scraping and shuffling sounds outside the little lean-to he slept in.  He pulled on his tunic and slipped out into the moonlit night.  He saw a dark figure in a terrible diadem, walking slowly at the head of a line of incomplete human figures, bodies missing arms and even heads, bones showing through desiccated flesh.  This terrible parade bore chests, coffins and other baggage, and the only noise the procession made was that of bare feet on the dusty road.  Thus, Grat heard the whisper of their leader when it addressed him in a hissing voice.

“You see the power of my necromancy, boy?  It can be yours, if you have the nerve.  I will freely teach this art of deriving power from death and decay.  You need only show the will to accept it.”

Grat looked away.  He heard the sibilant laughter of the necromancer, heard the departure of the stinking cortege, and presently heard Ylona singing a lullaby to her baby sister.  He returned to his own bed.

In the morning, Grat noticed a holy man sitting outside the farm gate, cross-legged on a mat the colour of dust, his staff lying to one side and his portable shrine open to the other.  He waved at the holy man, but the man’s eyes were closed and he made no response.  Grat went about his duties for the day, and whenever he chanced to look toward the gate, there sat the holy man, apparently content with his situation.

At last, with the sun near the horizon, the day’s labours were at an end and Grat was given his meal.  He ate only half the bread and stew he had been given and took the remainder out to the farm gate, stopping along the way to draw a bucket of water from the well.  The holy man opened his eyes as Grat approached and smiled.

“Well, I am fortunate indeed, to be given a meal after all the instruction you have provided to me,” the holy man said.  His smile was that of a pleasant child, for all that it was surrounded by white whiskers.

“Instruction?”  Grat set down the food and drink, his face a perfect picture of confusion.

“Oh, yes,” the holy man replied, pulling a piece from the bread and throwing it toward the birds which quested under a nearby shrub.  “Wonders were revealed to me, watching you at your work.”  He pointed toward the dung-heap, reduced in size since Grat had taken barrows-full to the cabbage yard.  “There, you have shown me how a man derives great power—the power to bring about life, no less—through mastery over death and decay.”

Grat’s look of confusion waxed.

“And there,” said the holy man, waving in the direction of the forge where Grat had put right the plowshare not two hours before, “I was shown how a man could shape reality to his liking by wielding energy with practiced gestures.”

Grat crouched down beside the holy man, intent upon his words.

“Oh, and I mustn’t forget, the most astonishing thing, when I saw a man put his strength to its best end, protecting a companion from unexpected injury.”  The holy man pointed at the wagon.  Grat and the farmer had taken the wheels off to grease the axles when one of the blocks had slipped.  Grat had managed to get his arms under the wagon’s bed, to keep its slide from becoming a sudden crash to the ground, until the farmer was able to roll away from the axle which had threatened to pin him to the ground.  Between them, they had wrestled the vehicle back into place, and the worst injury was the set of bruises on Grat’s forearms.

The holy man spoke on other topics as he ate Grat’s offering.  He told Grat of similar wonders he had beheld, in settings every bit as mundane as the farmyard.  By the time the stew and the bread were gone, the confusion had likewise gone from Grat’s face, and he looked about him with a look of near-astonishment at a world freshly illuminated by the holy man’s words.  He looked at the crops which had thrived under his attention.  He looked at the field-stone wall of the farmhouse which would not exist but for the might of his limbs.  He looked at his own hands, feeling the magic of creation which sparked at his fingertips.

The holy man had closed his shrine and rolled his mat.  Grat bid him farewell, then strode through the gate back into the yard.  He headed not for his little shed, but to the farmhouse, where he meant to talk to the farmer about rewards due a strong, brave man.  Then he meant to crown the day with a daring deed.

When Grat told Ylona of his feelings, and she told him of hers, all the world bowed before them.

“True Path to Glory” ©2016 Dirck de Lint