The group at the largest table was boisterous. They recited bawdy poems, sang drinking tunes, and took turns commenting on the latest pronouncements from the Prophetess Laura the Silesian. It was apparent that none of them thought much of her counsel.
Twospike's Tavern was the only alehouse in the town, and a stranger who wanted a drink or a meal would be directed there. The crowd at the big table had positioned themselves so that any newcomer must walk right to them, and enter into their conversation. So it was no surprise that they took note of the traveller with the shabby cloak and the blue neck cloth; while they did not greet him, he felt the gang looking him over for weakness. He picked an empty table and awaited the proprieter.
Another man entered Twospike's and shouts rang out around. "Otis! It's been a while!" "Have you brought news?" "More reports, we hope!" The new arrival hung up his cloak and pulled a chair up to the welcoming group at the central table. The stranger watched carefully.
Otis unfurled a scroll and began to read from it.
"This is my report from the speech given a sixnight ago. If you find fault with it, it was probably mine.
"The Messenger went straight to questions that evening. A woman from the Lakes wanted to know about returning a sword to the rightful owner, and something about a curse upon it. She was told not to put faith in pagan practices."
The crowd piped up at this. "Pagan practices!" "Who does she think she is!" "Oh, she's outdone herself again!" "Why, cursed swords are a fine tradition, dating back to Aodh of Northumbria!" "Bwah hah hah hah hah!"
Otis continued. "A midwife from the Forest was cheated out of payment, and wished to advise others to beware. Messenger Laura stated absolutely not, this is gossip."
One man rose and pounded the table with his tankard. "Enough! She knows nothing of the law, and insults the Advocates."
"Tom, don't take her so seriously. It's funny," stated a woman in orange, one of the few females at the table, although others were scattered elsewhere in the dining hall.
"Yes, but others believe she has a divine connection, and that is the trouble. But she is no Advocate, and should not speak as if she were."
"She's a witch! Burn her!" teased another man at the large table, and the others giggled at some shared jest. "She turned me into a newt!" "I got better!"
"We need a sorcerer to deal with her." This from a man in cleric's robes.
The stranger was moved to speak up. "I am a sorcerer." The rowdy group quieted to a man, all eyes on the newcomer. The woman in orange raised her chin and gave him a disdainful look. "I rather doubt that," she stated, in a voice that could freeze fresh milk.
"Beldin the Sorcerer, at your service," the newcomer continued, ignoring the challenge. If he expected any reaction at all, it would have been gratitude. What happened was completely unexpected. The entire party broke up into raucous laughter.
"You, a sorcerer?" sneered the Advocate. "Where is your blue robe showing your guild association? Where is your magical staff? And furthermore, no sorcerer would EVER take the name Beldin."
"I am a sorcerer." Beldin replied flatly. "I wear the blue neckwrap in place of the robes, and use this mixing stick instead of a staff, but they serve the same function."
"What kind of fool are you?" froze the woman in orange. "Tom the Advocate questions you because 'beldin' is Elvish for 'latrine.'" The rest of the group whooped and pounded the table at this pronouncement. Beldin stayed calm. "It is a noble name. What its meaning be in foreign tongue 'tis no concern of mine."
"Elvish a foreign tongue to a sorcerer? You are unfamiliar with the guild you claim clan to." Another speaker this time. "All guild sorcerers must know at minimum eight languages, of which three must be Elvish, Magick, and Ethsharian. And the word 'beldin' means "thick pig" in Ethsharian."
"And it means 'broken wind' in Orcish!" added the cleric.
"Do tell, Father Brien! What else does it mean?"
"Perhaps a simple wager will quiet your idle boasting," challenged the woman again. "The third spell you would have learned would be Rovan's Transformation. Perform it upon my ale, good mage, and I will pay you five coppers. But fail to do so, and I will have your neckwrap."
"I do not strut myself like a cheap tart!" snapped Beldin. "If you do not accept my claim, that is your own mistake. You cannot demonstrate that I am not a sorcerer."
"Ah, but again, you are wrong." This time the speaker wore a hooded robe, and the mellifluous but androgynous voice gave no hint to its owner's sex or origin. "There are several ways to divine whether one has learned the magickal arts."
"Indeed, Hellwig, and we will expose this fraud at once!" added the language expert.
"Do it, Brother Axel." "Disrobe him!" The group buzzed with excitement, until Tom raised his hand.
"Are you aware that it is a violation of not only Guild but also Royal Law to claim Sorcery falsely? And furthermore, as an Officer of the Royal Court, I am required to have you held for questioning since I have witnessed your crime? Perhaps you are new to our kingdom?"
"I am Beldin the Sorcerer."
Another spat his ale at Beldin's feet. "You use a name that means unpleasant things in three languages known to us. You dress as a shopkeeper. You wear boots not for travelling but for porting barrels. And your tunic suggests you toil when most Righteous Folk are asleep. Yet you persist in your claim of being a mage."
"Hear hear!" "Tell it, Scholar Charles!" "A shopkeeper!" "Nay, a shopkeeper's apprentice!"
Tom the Advocate eyed Beldin again. "Perform the service requested by the Goddess, or I call the bailiff. I tell you I mean this."
"Good folk, why do you challenge me? Here, I will buy all of you another drink, and we can talk of Laura the Messenger. That is why I journeyed to find your group. I bring further news of her actions."
"News of the Messenger is always appreciated, but I await your compliance. You have made a claim that we find beyond fantastic. Perhaps you would care to taste my blade?" Suddenly, the woman called Goddess drew an epee and pointed it close to Beldin's throat. "You are most annoying. Now, the Transformation. You should be able to do that within a sixth of a taper."
Beldin gave an uneasy laugh. "You draw upon an unarmed man? You are a coward."
The woman snickered. "Unarmed? Why, you are Beldin--" here she snickered on the name, "the SORCERER. Surely you can heat the grapple until I can no longer weild it." The blade began worrying at his blue neckcloth.
"Someone! Stop her! She threatens me!" Beldin backed away, with the woman advancing in step. "I did nothing and she attacks!" Guffaws rang out throughout the tavern. "Who is the proprieter! I demand he stop this!"
"That would be I, stranger." The owner was carrying a tray laden with ale tankards and platters of food. "It seems to me you started something you could not finish."
"No! That is not it at all! She demanded I perform like a traveller's monkey!"
The owner looked dubious. "Tom? Scholar Charles? What say you?"
Beldin exploded. "Don't ask THEM! They're all in it together! They set me up!"
"See here, shopkeeper," replied Gary Twospike. "This is my establishment. I run a friendly place, and I need not problems. Now, it seems to me that you know not the customs, but you tried to play sport, you hit the ball out of bounds, and now you insist you scored."
"I'm not a shopkeeper!" shouted Beldin, but he found himself frog-marched out the door by Gary and his assistant.
"Piece of advice for you, shopkeeper. You want to claim you're a Sorcerer, act as a Sorcerer. You want to come back, dress your proper station." The heavy, oaken door then shut upon Beldin the Sorcerer, leaving him in the heavy rain.
The rain slowed to a trickle, and with cockcrow became but a fine mist.
Hooves pounded on cobblestones, slowed, and stopped. At once the stable door was yanked open. "Boy!" shouted the traveler, but there was no answer. The man led his mount to an empty stall, and proceeded to remove the saddle and bags. One landed upon some horse blankets in a corner, and a groan was heard.
"Boy? Is that you?"
"Who is calling me boy?"
"What are you doing in the stable if you are not the boy?"
Beldin the Sorcerer pushed the heavy traveling bag off his chest and sat up. "I was sleeping, dragon-breath. Who interrupts me?"
"I will ask the questions here. I have ne'er seen you afore. Why are you sleeping in Deeway's stable?"
"Deeway? I thought this was Twospike's place."
"You are new to town, I see. You are?"
"Beldin the Sorcerer, at your service." The memory of last night's laughter still clung to his sleep-addled thoughts, but the traveler looked at him blankly.
"Does Deeway know you use his stall for a bed? I suspect not, or you would have purchased a room from him. Get up. Tezcatlipoca, you're no sorcerer. Look at you. You dress like a common shopkeeper."
"Bah! Wands? Robes? What care I for trappings? As for symbols, they are for fakirs and magicians." he spits the last word in disgust. "The Will and the Word, my children. Truth is truth."
"Beldin the drunkard. Get up. We're going to talk to Deeway." With that, the traveler grabbed Beldin by the tunic and brought him to his feet. "Can you walk upon your own feet or must I carry you like a sack of threshed wheat?"
"Ale is good, regardless as to its container. As am I. I am not lovely. I am not beautiful. I am ugly, and it matters not, for I am as I was born. What I CHOOSE to be is highly different. "
"What you choose to be is trespassing, and I suggest you mind your tongue." With this, Beldin found himself being led, rather brusquely, out of the stable and back to the tavern. Gary was asleep in a small room off the main dining hall, and Beldin's captor woke him roughly. "Look what sleeps with the asses. Know ye him?"
Gary yawned. "He was thrown out last night for causing a ruckus. He made claims of being a mage, but would not perform when demanded. A fraud, but no threat to anyone. Easily cowed, for one."
"Only fools judge by appearances. Appearances are easily changed, if you can say the right Word."
"What is he going on about, Deeway?"
"I know not, Doctor Tim. Tis a pity you missed the festivities last eventide. The Goddess was about to run him through, but he cried for help. I detest the bawling of a baby, so Kelly and I ousted him. You slept in my stable, Beldin? The cost for a horse's care is ten coppers, and I expect no less from you."
"Proprieter, I would gladly pay you twenty, but allow me to reclaim my honor. Where can I find the unschooled pack of wolves who set upon me last night?"
Doctor Tim had picked up a tankard and had begun to sip the ale therein, but at this he spat out half in an attempt to keep from bending over with laughter. "Unschooled pack of wolves? Do ye know of whom ye speak? Are you simply a fool, or some kind of dangerous troll in search of his bridge?"
"My friend, your eyes deceive you. Perhaps your desire to please this overbearing magistrate have clouded your judgement. Still, I like you."
"Look, Beldin. My eyes were injured a score of years ago, in an unfortunate encounter with an enchanted catkin. Yet I see better than most, for I was cured by the good graces of the Goddess, and I will have no more crude comments about her or the fine company she keeps. It is by the miracle of her good works that I can observe you for what you are, a boy dressed as a shopkeeper who slept in a stable but calls himself a Sorcerer. Fine, and I am King William's Personal Physician."
"If you serve Wet William then you are no better than that craven crowd you defend."
"If you slander my King, despite my levity concerning my relationship to him, then you will find yourself in far more trouble than even Theodoric." Doctor Tim was no longer smiling. "Strength is knowing when to use force, not the force itself."
"And sense is knowing when to shut one's mouth, an ability you seem utterly lacking in." Doctor Tim took his tankard and turned his back upon Beldin.
"Pay me my ten coppers, not twenty, Beldin, TEN, and get out. And stay out of the stable, too." Gary was urging Beldin toward the same door through which he was evicted hours ago. "A word, Shopkeeper. If you wish to return, you had best apologize to the Aft Jacks. They hold court here each night, and I prefer they stay happy. Good for business, you understand."
"Yes, business I understand well. Once upon a time, I handled the tax payments for several. Where can I find them during daylight?"
"Try the market. Most of them ply a trade." Gary took the proffered ten coppers and secreted them in his apron.
"Including the Goddess? It is she I have a quarrel with."
"Tezcatlipoca, no! Why, she is her kids' mom!"
* * * *
The one known as Goddess awoke with a stir, seeing her window open. Bloodied bird feathers sat on the sill. Her husband stirred next to her, and the cat purred into the room. "Look what the cat dragged in." she yawned. "I don't want to clean that up."
A loud knocking came from the front door. "Arghggh. What is it, five bells?" Her husband fell back, silent and deeply asleep. "I KNOW you play possum," she sighed, but put on her orange robe and descended the stair. She opened the door to find a tired, bedraggled, and hay-strewn Beldin. "Goddess," he began, "my normal method of dealing with someone is to pull their intestines out with a white-hot hook. Since you remain respected in your little circle of friends, I'll hold that thought for now. But to clarify a few things for you..."
"Let me clarify something for you, Latrine," she snapped. "Primus, I do not accept business calls at cockcrow, or even a candle after cockcrow. Come back when the mist has dispersed. Secundus, I do not recall inviting you to my home at all. I have small children, Divinia and Little Aodh, and do not involve them in any of the Aft Jack affairs. Meet me at the market, at Dun Richard's. And Tertius, you smell as your name. Where did you sleep, a barn?"
"My clothes are my own. Old, tired, comfortable, and me. If trappings mean that much to you, you are as overblown and foolish as I took you for. A true sorcerer, or merchant, or anything, takes pride in who they are, not in how they are perceived.
"I am not much for performing. I don't jump through hoops, I don't give false compliments. And I don't worship false goddesses. Aldur is demanding enough.
"If you really want to fight, we'll go somewhere out of the way where your blood won't disturb the neighbors too badly and try and kill each other. But without your imperialistic grandstanding before your Council of Elders. If THAT'S how you gain power, I pity the town."
Beldin found himself pontificating to a very shut door, and wondered how much of his well-formed speech was delivered to the portal instead of his nemesis.
He raised his voice, hoping the shutters were not treated against sound. "This is my turn. Quick and quiet. This is your town, you'll have plenty of chances to tell everyone how wonderful you are, and how much of a fraud I am." He chuckled softly, "Fraud indeed." "And choose a real weapon before you challange me. That epee, like your speech, is quite flashy and dramatic, but useless in a real fight. No edge, no flat to strike with, just a small point. Like your speech. Choose a sword, or a club, or a staff. Durnik is a terror with an axe. Stop trying to look pretty for the world at large.
There was no response from within. Beldin sensed motion, and turned toward it. The grey cat walked up to him, a blue feather sticking out of her mouth. She glared at Beldin as he headed away from the Goddess' house.
Beldin took shank's mare back to town. It was simplicity itself to find the market, as the wagons and caravans were all headed to one place. His appointment was at Dun Richard's, but the woman called Goddess did not specify when to meet there. It seemed a good use of his time to study the market, find the others who caused him grief the previous night, and learn what he could from disinterested parties.
He found a treasure trove at once. A lively group was discussing none other than Laura the Silesian, and they were clearly her disciples. It is other lands from which the evil may come, he concluded, and, of course, from within the hearts of good people who lose sight of their true enemies. And the enemy of mine enemy is my friend. If the Aft Jacks dislike The Messenger, then these who follow her, ergo, needs must aid my quarrel with the Goddess.
Beldin was correct. A few careful remarks, remaining objective and rational as he always did, and the information flowed. Her disciples were a varied lot, but they were almost as adamant in their disgust with the Aft Jacks as their support of The Messenger. Tee was taciturn, Barbaria Fabulosa expressive, and the Seller of Ice insistant. All warned him that tangling with the Goddess would be painful, and suggested he consider that path carefully before treading. Barbaria reminded him of the treatment he had received at Twospike's Tavern.
Beldin rolled in laughter. "By Aldur, she's a farmer's daughter! Surely can spread that fertilizer around. I walked into the tavern and she and her friends demanded I jump through hoops for her."
"What happened then? I eschew ale and would never visit a Tavern. Laura's advice, of course."
"She drew an epee on me," Beldin replied, his eyes filled with mirth at the disciple's earnestness.
"Ah, one of her two weapons..." mused the Ice Seller.
"She was showing off. I knocked it aside a few times. By the time I got up the next morning, she had convinced everyone she had run me off."
"Is that how you saw it?" asked Tamara. "I was at Deeway's myself, as our cookfire had gone out and we needed noursihment. It seemed to me that she did run you off."
Beldin demurred. "That was not true at all. You must be inhaling the poppies."
The group murmured, and not kindly. "The Messenger is quite opposed to herbs of any kind. None of us would take them, and I suggest you not make such an accusation."
"It was a figure of speech! Have ye not heard of them? What kind of unlettered fools be ye in this jerkwater mud-pit?"
"I see the tale of Beldin the Magic Braggert is Laura's own Truth," stated the Housekeeper. "All the children sing it this morn. I thought it more of the Goddesses' conceit, but now I suppose there be a few ears in that cornfield."
"You listen to the rhymes of youngsters to judge a man's character? Why do ye not take your counsel from trusted sources? Ye canst call that reseach!"
"There is much to learn from our children." insisted Jilljane. "I know not whether she has unfairly tarnished ye, but she has done it afore. I accept your version because of this. But know ye of the Tale, for all will hum it upon meeting ye."
"I cannot fathom what you describe. The Goddess penned a song of last evening's events?" Beldin's forehead broke into a light sweat.
"Why of course," replied the Ice Seller. "THAT is her other weapon."
Beldin left the Disciples and was hailed at once by a man with a long, grey beard. He sat upon a stout fence, enjoying his ale. "Beldin the Sorcerer! Come sit ye down and share an ale!"
Eager to share both drink and human companionship, indeed the first friendly voice he had heard since entering this town, Beldin sat to his right. "Ye know of me, but I have no knowledge of your good self. Do tell."
"Newton Rodine, my joyful noise."
"Pardon? What is this about joyful noise?" puzzled Beldin.
"Ah, not a follower of Christ Jesus, I see. No matter, I wouldst not expect it of one who calls himself a Sorcerer. Your name. Beldin. Joyful Noise. From the Psalms. Many times." Newton concentrated a moment, and recited: "Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands: Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King."
"Ye be a Christ-follower? But the ale, and ye not be at work though the market is busy with toilers."
"Well, Joyful Noise, there are Christ-followers, and then there are Christ-followers ye would want as your neighbor! Come, have some ale. I have more than enough. I need not work, for as you can see, I have but one leg. And sufficient ale does help ease the pain of mine stump."
"Thank you, good sir. But I am called Beldin the Sorcerer. What is this Joyful Noise you name me?"
"Beldin! Bel. Good. Din. Noise. You are a Sorcerer who knowst not Frankish or even his own language. No wonder the Tale of Beldin the Magic--"
"More lies from the Goddess, again." Beldin spat at the name.
"Quite clever, though. Lighten ye up. Many of us are enshrined in song."
"If it be anything like her claim she ran me off, then it is a lie told by a weasel. I was right to declare her an enemy."
"Rabbit buttons. New to our town, ye need no enemies. Sing it yourself, louder than the rest, and the morrow a new tune will take all's fancy. But show your anger, then all will call ye Beldin the Magic Braggert as long as ye stay."
"You threaten me?"
"I do no such thing. Unlike The Messenger, I admit to giving advice. Here, I offered you my ale. Why would I then wish to anger you? I simply share the truth."
"A better idea would be to counter this action. The Tale of the Fat Orange Goddess, perhaps." Beldin snickered.
"What be the gain in that, Joyful Noise?" soothed Newton. "The title does not flow to the name of an earlier tune, so it sounds as spite. We drink." They did. Until a few giggling children approached the pair.
"Are you Beldin the Sorcerer?" asked the bravest one, as the others peered behind him.
"Indeed. Beldin the Sorcerer, at your service," he florished and bowed. The shrieks went up as the group ran off, singing:
the Magic Braggert
Beldin means latrine!
"That is what ye say I should ignore? Why, I shall rip out her intestines with a white-hot poker! I shall use a cudgel! And fireballs, and they shall meet their mark!"
"If ye be a Sorcerer, fireballs are an option. So why did ye not do so at the tavern, then?"
"But I did! The ditty is nothing but falsehood. I disarmed her, then threw a fireball but held it from striking. I left the Inn at my own choosing. And if I pen a ballad of what truly happened, then all will know of her lies." Come, ye know the town and this market. Show me where the Aft Jacks work their trades.
"This I will do, but from my fence, for it is a comfortable perch, and my leg needs much rest. Ye will find most of them to the left. Look ye to your right, where ye left the Disciples. Only Dun Richard stays to that side. Now look across, sinister. Tom the Advocate is at the assize. See ye the big temple? Scholar Charles is there, for it is his."
"What? A scholar owns the temple? What manner of god is worshipped there, bychance?"
"Scholar Charles started that temple, and oversees it. Many of the Aft Jacks worship there, if you would call such pagan actions worship. The god is Tezcat something or other. I have no interest other than my faith, of course."
"They all worship there? Then why is the Orange woman called the Goddess?"
"That's a small bit of confusion, tis true. She has a temple too, but each day it is found in a new place. Part of the cult. Magdalene of the Shifting Residence is her full title, should you care. And I daresay she has more than once shifted it right into the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. I did say it was complex, as she is the Treasurer of Scholar Charles' faith. But their currency is in cacao beans, not gold. Yet, enough of the town shares the faith that the beans are as good as metal."
"Then what be the rate of exchange? I have some experience in financial matters, and might see a method here."
"I know and care little of that. My former employer paid me in gold after my mishap, and metal is what I use. And the Goddess' temple is quite interested in coinage as well. Despite her moving her Temple about, her landholdings are extensive.
"Now, the other Aft Jacks ye wish to find. Hellwig we don't know much about. Best find Hellwig at Deeway's. Brother Axel is usually in the library, studying the scrolls. Father Brien, well, none knows just what Temple he serves, but he seems welcome at them all. Ask around.
"There are a few of them who may serve ye well. Not all of them worship the Goddess. Try Eric the Seafarer. I believe they both served on a pirate ship together."
"The Goddess was a criminal! Why is the town so in her thrall?"
"It was many years ago, when the Bush Quail were running. From the tales I heard tell, it was one big lark to them. Do make Eric's aquaintance. You see him there, at the Issaquan, wearing red."
"One last thing. Waste not your time with Theodoric of the Arids. He enjoys argument for its own sake, and cares not for the conventions of same."
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All additional graphics by Cyn, © 7/2000