Enter The Traveler

by Frenchy 13 Replies latest social entertainment

  • Frenchy

    Ah, gather 'round, ye olde companions, gather 'round the dying light and while we imbibe the last of this good ale and say a fond farewell to this day the French Knight will tell you a tale that was told to him whilst he was in a far away land. I remember not the teller of the tale other than he was one who seemed convinced of the account, perhaps one who witnessed the strange events I am about to recount to you. Here is the tale, judge for yourself.

    In the third year of the reign of good king Beltheheezar it came to pass that spring at long last sprang upon the countryside and the long, bitter winter which would not be soon forgotten was now a thing of the past. On a bright, sunny day that began like all others the watchman at the east gate of the great city, which stood high upon a mountain plateau, proceeded to herald the approach of a lone traveler on the main thoroughfare. As was the custom, the large gates were opened and Ahad, chief of the guards approached the stranger and asked his business with the city.
    "I am a traveler, officer, a wanderer making his way about the world in search of truth, beauty, and the meaning of life." Came the reply.
    Ahad regarded the young man before him with a trained eye. That he was a stranger was obvious by his dress. The young man--Ahad judged him to be no more than twenty--carried a leather satchel, fastened tightly with leather laces, across one shoulder. Two wineskins were slung across the other. One would contain water and the other probably wine. The army officer's gaze dropped lower and he regarded the short knife that the young man carried in a finely crafted sheath. His sandals were of good quality but worn and his muscular, bare, legs told him that this one was accustomed to much walking. The young man's skin was deeply tanned and his light hair, uncommon in these parts, seemed bleached by the sun. He carried no weapon save a staff in one hand and a stringed instrument in the other which prompted Ahad to ask:
    "Are you a minstrel?"
    "Ah, that I am, sire ." Was the brisk reply. "I am no beggar or troublemaker. I wish to work for my meals if that is permitted and trouble no one."
    Ahad nodded. "Very well, for the king has no use for either. You may enter and go straight to the square in the center of the city. If there is anyone in need of a minstrel or laborer, he will make it known to you."
    The young man thanked him kindly and the army officer watched him walk away. He muttered under his breath his displeasure at having to allow the young man entry into the city. If he had his way he would have thrashed him and sent him along back down the mountain from which he came. The king, however, had different views on hospitality and he grudgingly complied with his majesty's wishes that all strangers be welcomed in the great city. It was the king's contention that the inhabitants of the great city needed to be exposed more the things outside its walls. Ahad--and he was in the majority--believed that was had been good enough for a hundred generations was good enough for him.
    The young man had journeyed the better part of the night, climbing the mountain upon which the great city stood. He was tired but it was with the tiredness of youth and was nothing that five minutes of sitting would not remedy. He found the square and seated himself on a weather-worn wooden bench and watched the children play. Merchants and whores called out to the passersby, each one trying to outdo the other in plying their goods. There was the usual array of fruits, vegetables, and meat hanging in the open air with small children shooing away the blowflies. The city had a stench that most cities have, of unwashed human bodies, decaying vegetables and meat, of sheep and asses and what they left in their wake on the streets. Men and women alike could be seen urinating on the side of the structures --unashamed. Occasionally a sweet and innocent aroma like baking bread or the roasting of meat would provide a welcome relief from the heavy stench. He was grateful for the gentle breezes that blew and for a few moments at least, gave him a reprieve from the foul odors. He lay his baggage closely beside him and tuned his instrument. He began a soft ballad about a young lady lamenting the loss of her lover. Soon there was a crowd about him, his strong, resonant voice carried over the turmoil of the square.
    He finished and a kindly looking, well-dressed, older man dropped a few coins in his cup. The young man nodded his thanks and began another ballad. This one was a little livelier and he began dancing among the crowd as he sang while being careful not to get too far from his belongings and the cup with the coins. He finished amid enthusiastic applause and his practiced ear heard a few more coins drop into the cup. He thanked them all, collected his earnings and sought a tavern.
    He walked past the liveries and blacksmiths, turned a corner and was making his way past the cartmaker and the maker of tents when his keen eye caught a movement down one of the side streets. With all the caution of a stranger in a strange land he carefully made his way down the narrow path between the stone buildings. He stopped at the next corner and carefully peeked around. Two large men were busy tossing a young boy around while one was scavenging through what was apparently the boy's belongings. An inner voice told him: "You have a mission here, go about your business quickly" . Instead of listening to the voice, he dropped all but his staff and then walked around the corner and into plain sight of the two ruffians. One of them let out a grunt of inquiry as he saw the staffed young man walking up boldly to them.

    -Say what you mean, mean what you say-

  • Frenchy


    They both stopped their antics and while one held the boy by his collar, the other made some lewd remark about what they were going to do to the stranger as well. The young man made no reply but in a very fluid and deliberate manner approached the two bullies and when he got only a few feet from them he began twirling the staff in a very deliberate and slow manner. He stopped and took a stance in a slight crouch, feet spread apart and staff held high over one shoulder. One of the thugs pulled out a wicked looking dagger and sprang at the young man who at once quickly and deftly sidestepped the much larger man. There was a dull thud and a cry of pain as the staff was brought to bear against the small of his back, the impact and his own forward momentum crashed him against the stone wall and he fell unconscious to the dusty ground. The young man twirled the staff as he spun around and once again took his stance before the other ruffian. The man snarled in a most unpleasant manner, dropped the young boy and pulled out a short sword with which he made several threatening gestures toward the immobile stranger. He charged the young man much in the same manner as had his ill-fated cohort. This time the young man's staff entangled he attacker's legs and the bully went face down in the dirt. He quickly recovered and raised the broad-bladed short sword only to have it knocked out of his hand by that infernal staff. He made a move toward it and was rewarded with a sharp whack on the outreaching hand. He let out a loud yelp but forgot about the blade for the moment. He made a dash for the open street but once again the staff came into play, this time to his neck and he fell to the ground once more. Time and again the big fellow would rise only to be reproved by the staff until at long last, in great pain and out of breath he begged for mercy and the young stranger stepped back and allowed him to leave.
    "You have saved me and my belongings, I am in debt to you." The boy said.
    "You owe me nothing, boy. Go your way and stay clear of these back streets."
    "What is your name that I may tell my parents of my deliverer?" He asked.
    "I am a traveler, a minstrel and there is no need to speak any more of this."
    He left the boy and picked up the belongings he had left for the moment and resumed his trek to find a tavern. He found one at the edge of town, approached the innkeeper and asked if he might earn a meal, a drink, and a night's lodging with a song or two. Although he had money from the market square, he preferred to pay by entertaining with his talents. The cash was for when there was no time for such things. The innkeeper was a pleasant enough fellow and agreed to the bargain. A minstrel was almost always welcome in a tavern where his peculiar talents were appreciated as perhaps nowhere else. Unlike the traveling merchants which were all business, the minstrels brought joy and humor in their happy songs and witty tales of faraway places, a welcome break from the drudgery and ordinariness of the everyday life. The night wore on and if the day's travels had wearied the young jester he never allowed it to show as he kept the laughter rolling and, much to the good pleasure of the innkeeper, also the ale. He kept his audience until exhaustion and the alcohol reduced them to staggering zombies and amid loud protests and upheld tankards of splashing ale, he bid them all a good night.
    He helped the innkeeper tidy up, took his meal of cold meat, bread, and ale and gratefully allowed himself to be led to a room in the back. There was no window and the air was stale. There was a straw pallet on the floor with room for nothing else but himself and his meager belongings. He curled up on the straw after bolting the door and drifted off into a guarded sleep.
    He was awakened by the early morning sounds of the rousing city coming through the sun-baked clay walls. The four hours of sleep on the few inches of straw between him and a stone floor had not replenished the energy he had spent in the last twenty four hours or so but it would have to suffice. He gathered his belongings and slipped out into the already busy streets and headed for the market square. Busy mornings are not a good time to barter for bread with amusing anecdotes and cheery songs so he bought bread with the previous day's earnings and sat on a bench, away from the flies, to eat it. He felt a presence behind him and he turned.
    "Well, good day to you, my young, wayfaring stranger. I hear that you have already gotten into the trouble you promised to stay clear of."
    The young man looked up into the bearded face of the first man he had encountered in the great city, Ahad, chief of the guards. He rose from the bench and still the man towered above him.
    "If you speak of the incident with the young boy, I was merely..."
    "Enough said!" Ahad cut him off. "The story was recounted to me by the boy."
    He regarded the young minstrel with the practiced scrutiny of a soldier evaluating an enemy. It was not the first time that the young traveling had been evaluated in such a way and so he knew how to stand and what expression to wear. The soldier's face betrayed confusion as if he were trying to reconcile what he was seeing with what he had heard. He was wise enough, however, to know the limits of what a cursory examination could reveal and the tale that time itself would eventually tell. He accepted for the moment the face value of things and reserved further judgment for yet another time and walked away.
    The young man was no stranger to such a scenario, it was one that repeated itself in as many cities as he visited. He sat down again and finished his bread and took a long drink from one of the wineskins and watched the bustle of the city dwellers. It was no idle curiosity that kept him on the bench for the better part of the morning, nor was it for lack of something to do for now the crowd was milling about and it would be a good time to earn a few coins. Instead he waited and watched with trained discipline and deliberation of purpose. He allowed part of his conscious mind to drift back while part continued the vigil at hand, for this also was part of his training, the triad of Ali-Kah. It was a way to rest while working, a diversion to replenish the spirit while at the same time continuing the task at hand. It was a form of mental discipline that few-- let alone those of his age --could master but one that was imperative for the task at hand.
    He began with Shi-ke-oontah, the ancient art of invisibility, that strange ability to assume a posture and expression that allowed one to be seen by the eyes but ignored by the mind. The ability to blend into the very fabric of one's surroundings by sheer force of mind and discipline of body. While part of his mind took care of that task, another part of his mind continued the search for what he sought while the remainder of his consciousness began the ritual of the Oon-tay, the most difficult of the three stages of the Ali-Kah to master and perform.
    In his mind's eye he conjured up the quiet, tranquil, afternoon meadow, the gentle swaying of wildflowers in the warm, spring breezes that swept up from the south. The sky was painted with pastels, blues, soft yellows, and subtle purples. This was his Oon-tay. For each Khali-ti had his own, unique place or situation that brought him the comfort and haven from the harshness of the reality at hand, a haven from the windstorm. For some it might be the ocean, for others a kindly figure from the past, for him it was this remembered meadow from boyhood. He peered closer and saw the butterflies and bees and the myriad of winged creatures delighting themselves on the variety of nectars there for the taking. There was the gentle gurgling of a nearby brook of clear, cold, spring water that flowed perpetually over a bed of smooth stones, the lifeblood of the meadow and all her children. An eagle soared in his lofty kingdom, riding currents in the heavenly ether, an experience and pleasure that God reserved for his empyrean creatures and denied to mortal man. The serenity of the pastoral scene siphoned the anxiety and fatigue from his every fiber until it seemed that to be any more tranquil would be death itself. That was the point that he sought and that was what he had attained. With the deliberate care one would use to extricate himself from an entanglement, he brought himself out of the Oon-tay and back to the reality of the moment, refreshed and alert as a twenty-two year old man can be. All of this he did while remaining as immobile as stone, virtually invisible to the multitude of scurrying humans all around him.
    A figure in the outer periphery of his vision began distinguishing itself from the mediocrity of the crowd. It was a young man, no, his inner vision corrected what the eyes were seeing. This was a young woman dressed as a young man. How intriguing. Remaining in his state of Shi-ke-oontah he observed her approach. At will he heightened his state of awareness and sensed the uneasiness that the clandestine female was experiencing. It was all there to see, the quick, small, unsure steps, and the furtive glances at her surroundings, always careful to avoid eye contact with her fellow pedestrians. There was another air about her as well and this is what sparked the young traveler's interests, what caused him to concentrate even more intensely on the hooded figure before him. Her skin --what little he could see of it-- was the color of milk, clearly not that of a laborer, perhaps she was a harlot? No. It was too early in the day for that, creatures of the night sleep late into the day. A few strands of hair spilled out from under the hood and they were the color of spun gold and their appearance suggested pampering and much combing. The garment itself that she wore though plain enough was of a fabric that, to the practiced eye, suggested nobility or at the very least, wealth. She walked past him, her foot missing his baggage only slightly, and his nostrils drank in her fragrances. She smelled of rosewater and myrrh, two items not available to the commoner. There was also the unmistakable lingering of just the slightest suggestion of nard, that costly item so rare and difficult to obtain here as to put it beyond the reach of all but the highest nobility. For the young man had been to the land of the origin of the costly perfume. It lay a great distance to the east of the mountain upon which the great city was situated, a strange and exotic land of not only spices but beasts of incredible size and strength and yet domesticated by the inhabitants, of the brilliantly stripped tigers that could tear a bull to shreds with its sharp claws. It was also a land of wise men, of men who had mastered incredible and ancient secrets of mind and body control from whom he had learned much and rounded out his unique education.

    Edited by - Frenchy on 10 June 2000 12:45:20

  • Frenchy

    I had hoped to finish the tale this knight but I fear that the ale has taken it's toll and I must submit to it's pleadings and take rest. But I shall, in the morrow, relate more to you of this strange tale.

    The French Knight

  • Seven

    Frenchy-Interesting story, can't wait to hear the rest.


  • Frenchy

    Is it morning already? Hmmm... so it is! Well, on with the tale:
    With slow, careful deliberation he eased himself out of Shi-ke-oontah lest he draw unwanted attention to himself. He picked up his baggage, slung it across his shoulder and followed the figure at a discreet distance. Soon one of his suspicions was confirmed. Two men dressed in the nondescript garb of vagabonds fell into step behind the young woman and although she continued to look about her, he could tell that she was completely oblivious to her pursuers. He closed the distance between them all the while being very careful to avoid detection by the cautious waylayers. The chase went on until they approached the outer fringes of the city. The young woman turned down an unpaved street and headed for what looked like an old abandoned garden behind a deteriorating stone wall with a rusty, iron gate falling off its hinges. Once at the gate she turned around and the two jackals pursuing her stopped and began talking to each other as if completely unaware of her presence. She regarded them for a moment or two and then dismissed them from her mind and stepped into the overgrown garden. They quickly darted in lest someone see them at their foul game.
    A close look at the now abandoned gardens revealed that they had once been grand indeed. Flora from far away had been brought here and meticulously set in place, tall, flowering plants here and low, green ferns there. Aromatic plants were set among brilliantly flowering perennials, all hedged in and outlined by evergreens. Fountains served as centerpieces although they were now covered with moss and lichen. Scraping away the vines and dead leaves one could see intricate geometrically patterned brick work that wove its way throughout the garden, a path to guide one through the botanical wonders that once flourished here. It was at such a fountain that the young lady stopped and then carefully sat on a nearby stone bench and dropped her hood.
    Startled, she jumped up from her seat and starred wide-eyed and horrified at the two culprits before her. She clutched her cloak tightly about her in a defensive gesture.
    "What have we here, Bilhi? A plump, juicy, little dove ready to eat." The vermin laughed and their big bellies shook.
    With a quick movement uncharacteristic of his size, the speaker snatched the cloak from the young woman, knocking her down to her knees. They laughed again, much amused at her terror and helplessness. She wore a fine, white, linen dress that was accented with blue thread at the throat and hem. She made no attempt to rise, her breath was short and her eyes wide in horror.
    "I think I shall take her first, Bilhi. You are far too crude of a fellow to appreciate such a dainty morsel as this." More laughter.
    Neither scoundrel heard the footsteps behind the fountain for indeed the finest hunting dog would have had trouble detecting them. Nor did they see the vines or bushes move for the young traveler moved barely disturbing the air about him. Just as the bolder of the two moved forward to perform his cowardly deed they saw the young man step out from behind the fountain.
    "Perchance you gentle sirs would care to dine on this morsel." He said with no mirth.
    "Uh?" The bigger of the two muttered.
    The young man quickly, and with the grace and fluid motion of a dancer, moved between the jackals and the girl. With one hand, and without taking his eyes off the scum before him, he lifted her to her feet and gently pushed her back. She retreated to the fountain, spellbound by the drama unfolding before her. The one who had been doing all the talking decided that it was time to dispose of what was keeping him from his quarry. He lunged at the traveler only to have his impetuousness rewarded by a swift crack on the head by the ever present staff. He fell to his knees, holding his head in his big, hairy hands. The other one was taken aback by the swiftness and severity of the traveler's actions but he soon recovered and reached down into his boot for a wicked looking blade which he began brandishing. A wild gleam came into his eyes as he slashed the air while advancing on the traveler. If the young man was concerned he certainly did not show it. He deftly danced away from the man still holding his head --there was blood running between his fingers now-- and twirled the staff first in one hand and then the other, all the while putting as much distance between them and the young lady as possible. She stood as if frozen in time, completely terrified at what was unfolding in front of her eyes and yet compelled to watch it. At last the traveler stopped and waited for the buffoon to make his move. Wild-eyed and snarling he thrust the blade at the traveler who, with no apparent effort, quickly turned, allowing the knife to pass a mere inch from his chest. The momentum of the thrust carried the attacker past him and into a tangle of dried vines. The man, startled and enraged by the action, turned and grasping the dagger by the blade raised it high over his head and threw it at the traveler. The young woman screamed at what she was certain would be the end of her deliverer. The traveler merely moved his staff in a lightning-like fashion and knocked the dagger harmlessly into the grass. The traveler smiled and with an economy of motion twirled the staff once more and then holding it as a lance plunged the end of it into the chest of his would-be assailant. The staff never penetrated the rib cage but the force of the blow was sufficient to render the thug unconscious amid excruciating pain.
    He turned on one heel and dropped to one knee before the young lady.
    "My lady." He addressed her. "I do hope you are unharmed."
    "Oh my!" She exclaimed.
    He sensed a presence behind him. Quickly he rose to his feet and whirled around, dropping to a half crouch. Before him was a compliment of soldiers with drawn long bows aimed directly at him. Their captain stood with arms folded across his chest. He eyes swept the scene. The first victim was, of course, dead now. The other would be unconscious for at least an hour.
    "Drop that staff!" Ahad ordered.
    The young man complied and allowed himself to be taken into custody. The young woman explained to the surly Ahad that the traveler had just saved her life but he spoke not a word in return. The young couple were escorted to a curtained carriage and then began what proved to be an hour long trip. The traveler was quiet and despite a couple of feeble efforts by the young woman to initiate conversation, he remained silent. He as pleased with the situation as it was for it suited his purposes well. What the young woman had been after or why she was in the garden at the time was not relevant to him now.
    Eventually the carriage stopped and they were escorted out and through a maze of hedges and low stone fences which finally opened up into a courtyard. Looming high above the moderately sized trees was a stupendous castle that seemed to reach into the very clouds themselves, rising out from behind a wall twice the height of any tree in the city. After a brief pause, a guard detail relieved their transporters and, headed by Ahad, led them toward the castle wall. There was the ever present moat and drawbridge which was being lowered as they approached. The bridge was narrow, maybe six feet or less. That was by design so that a charge against the castle would bottleneck at this point. The gate was itself a maze of right angle turns and narrow passages, not very conducive to an all out attack by an army. At one point they had to actually stoop to continue through. A large courtyard greeted their emergence from the gate, paved with brick in a basketweave design with spewing fountains and fish ponds scattered about and amid lush gardens immaculately kept. The traveler's keen eyes detected breaks in the brick pattern which were undoubtedly secret passages that would allow the castle guard to travel underground and emerge at these points to perhaps get behind an invading force should one get this far. There were also niches in the wall where archers could perch and pick off their enemies far below. The arrived not at the main entrance to the castle --for that was always reserved for visiting dignitaries-- but at a rather inconspicuous, wooden door overlaid with iron which opened up into a hall that was, for security purposes no doubt, also long and narrow. At the end of the hall they began climbing a winding stair case made of hewn stone which narrowed slowly as one climbed until, at its very top, only one person at a time could thread his way through it.

  • Frenchy

    The chamber at which the stairway terminated was enormous. Huge, gilded, stone arches supported a massive ceiling. The arches rested on colossal, fluted columns that seemed to go through the floor, presumably to the very foundations of the castle. Small, arched openings in the wall held burning torches which illuminated the great hall but also emitted the foul smell of burning oil when lit at dusk. For now plenty of light spilled in from the shuttered openings on the outside wall. The floor was tiled with a mosaic pattern of multi-colored brick and thick, rich looking wool rugs --any one of which would have bought room and board at the finest inn for a lifetime --were everywhere. The heavy boots of the soldiers made not a sound on the rugs and soon they stood before a heavy, scarlet colored, velvet drape. The entourage stopped and the soldiers withdrew into a side room, leaving only Ahad and his two captives.
    The drape slid back and the traveler found himself looking at an old man seated on a magnificent chair atop a platform at least eight feet off the floor with wide steps leading up to it. It was a wondrous sight, intended to awe the observer and humble the one approaching. It was not the first time the traveler had seen a throne. He dropped to his knees even before Ahad did and dropped his head.
    "Ahad." The old man said. "What is this stranger doing before my throne?"
    "Your majesty." Began the captain of the guard, "This wandering" --slight pause-- "minstrel happened by just as the princess was being accosted by some rift-raft. He killed one and wounded the other."
    "Were they armed?" the king asked.
    "Yes, sire."
    "Hmm, a minstrel, you say?" The king muttered softly.
    "Yes, sire. That is his claim." replied Ahad.
    "And what say you...minstrel?" The king inquired of the traveler.
    "I am a minstrel indeed, your majesty, and I would perform for you."
    "You presume too much, young pup." Ahad injected.
    "He has earned the right, don't you think." The king said.
    "As you wish." Was Ahad's reply.
    "Show him to suitable quarters, Ahad, while I deal with my unmanageable daughter."
    "By your command."
    Ahad walked off and the traveler followed two steps behind, easily matching the long strides of the large man before him. They veered off into an opening close to the place they had entered and once again traveled down a long hall only much wider. Doors lined both walls and the traveler's keen senses could feel the presence of humans behind those bolted doors. Beautiful tapestries hung from the tall ceiling and an occasional painting could be seen in the various alcoves that appeared now and then. Tremendous chandeliers holding hundreds of large, scented candles illuminated the way. No smelly oil lamps here. Ahad stopped in front of a door that looked no different that all the ones they had passed, pushed it open and the traveler followed him in.
    The room was larger than the entire tavern he had performed in the night before and one of the four closets was larger than the room in which he had slept. A huge, canopied bed full of carvings of birds and beasts sat in the middle of the carpeted floor. There was a valet with a face bowl of rosewater, two spittoons, and a china chamber pot. Two very ornate and overstuffed chairs rested against one wall on either side of a window, with a cushioned bench seat. On the adjoining wall and between the doors of the two closets was a secretary with writing paraphernalia. The dresser was huge, made of a very dark wood and ornately carved with figures of snarling beasts with clawed feet and wild, screaming winged things with long talons and sharp beaks. The metal mirror --made of highly polished silver-- was of excellent quality as were the colored glass vases and jars that decorated the dresser top.
    The traveler made his way to the window and looked out of the soda-glass. Swinging out the two hinged panels he leaned out and examined the rough wall made of hewn stones set in mortar. He had seen better work but then the rough surface would make it easier in case he had to make a quick decent. He closed the window and looked upon the canopied bed with some amusement and then promptly made a pallet in a corner and curled up. He always had difficulty sleeping in cramped quarters, preferring the open air and the sounds of the night in his ears. He had resigned himself to a long night when he heard a gentle rapping on the hardwood door. With one cat-like motion he sprung to the center of the room, grabbing the ever-present staff, recently returned to him by Ahad's orders, that was leaning against the bed post. He twirled it, letting it find its balance in his hands as he took two steps toward the door, knocked the bolt back with the staff and dropped into a half-crouch. The door swung open slowly and as it did, he drew the staff high over his head.
    "You would not hit me with that would you?" Said the white-clad female standing before him.
    "Who are you and what is your business?" He demanded.
    "I am the king's gift to you this night."
    "Take your leave, I have no need of a whore this night." He said not unkindly.
    "As you wish, my lord, but the king will not be pleased."
    He thought about that for a moment. He relaxed and lowered the staff. So the night would not be so long after all. She was beautiful, no more than fifteen or sixteen. Her skin was smoother than the polished silver mirror and was the color of alabaster. Her long, silky hair glowed like burnished copper and smelled of myrrh and frankincense, clearly she was groomed and kept for one purpose, to entertain the king's guests. The traveler took her by both hands and led her to the pallet.

  • Frenchy

    When the first light of day began seeping into the world, he whisked her off to her quarters, washed his face and began his morning meditation. He was finished when the knock came, sharp and strong. A young man --perhaps a little younger than himself-- led him down the hall to the bathroom where several young women, standing around a large, gilded, bathtub, waited with towels and perfumed soap and oils. He was undressed and immersed in the hot, scented water while busy and knowing hands washed his body. The bath was intoxicating, the aroma of the spices was a s potent as the strongest ales and he had to resort to his training to keep part of his mind focused on his purpose and mission. He was finally led out of the water and onto a toweled table and there warm oil was poured on his body and again expert hands worked his hard muscles --all of them. He was eventually dressed with a fine, linen garment and led by the same young man to the dining hall where a crowd had already formed.
    All eyes were on him as he walked slowly to the table and took the seat furthest from what was without question, the king's seat. He sat in silence while his experienced and well-trained eyes took in everything and everyone while at the same time appearing to be oblivious to his surroundings. He was the first to rise as the king entered and he bowed low until the monarch sat.
    "We have a visitor among us." The king said without preamble. "Come, young man, you sit next to me."
    Even without his training and his natural abilities at sensing things he could tell that this was not well received by everyone. Jealousy runs high among the king's court as each one vies for his approval and favor. The politics within the high council can be both vicious and deadly at times. It was a dangerous position to be in, especially for a stranger who had no ally and no way of knowing who could be trusted and who could not. He was not totally unfamiliar with the situation, however.
    There was the usual table banter, nothing heavy. At last the king rose and left the great hall, leaving the traveler in the company of his court. Small groups began forming --there were at least thirty people-- and distancing themselves as if trying to keep the conversation private while at the same time making no effort to leave the hall entirely. Were they waiting for the king to return? The traveler made no attempt to associate with any particular group, instead he began the Ali-Kah., first the Shi-ke-oontah, not total invisibility but not egregious. He then began surveying the various groups, employing yet another skill of his, the reading of lips. It was the usual discussion of heads of state: the acquisition of another piece of property, the discovery of a new and rare wine brought in by a caravan, the latest exploits of one of their fellow's wife or children. What was conspicuously absent was the discussion of any immediate or impending danger and that was what interested the traveler.
    No one approached him and the king did come back later, talked to several individuals and then dismissed the entire group. He led the traveler to yet another part of the castle, a room that opened up into a fabulous courtyard curtained off by twelve foot high stone walls. There was the usual array of fountains of naked maidens and young men splashing about in the water. They walked on in silence. Good manners and etiquette dictated that he not speak unless spoken to by the king. They rounded one more corner and took a seat on a worn, wooden bench facing a trellis of beautiful, red roses.
    "You seem as comfortable in the company of kings as you do among the commoners." The king observed.
    "One in my profession is accustomed to entertaining nobility while living among their subjects." He replied.
    The king nodded. "Traveling as you do and being as astute as you are, surely you have picked up considerable wisdom even for one your age. Tell me something of our city."
    The traveler's mind was racing although his features would have never betrayed that. This was a very difficult question to answer, the king evidently wanted some concrete information, something practical and useful but at the same time he would have to be careful not to even hint at a suggestion that his majesty was doing anything wrong. It was also his intentions to give as little as possible lest it interfere with his own purpose here. It was clearly one of those situations where instinct and intuition would have to be given great latitude while discretion and caution held fast the reins.
    "This city has become great because of the wisdom of its king." The traveler felt it was always better to begin with an honest compliment about something very obvious. He could see the very faintest of disappointment forming on the monarch's face, the king did not want a back patting session and so he deftly changed directions.
    "There are limits, however, to the wisdom to which one man, however great, can attain. There is much wisdom that is scattered about in this world and I have taken note of this wisdom of men far greater than myself." He noted the king's expression changing. There was an eager expectation there behind the official mask that he wore. It was what the traveler was hoping to evoke from his majesty. He would give him some tidbit and that would be it.

  • Frenchy

    "It is the nature of wisdom to disguise itself as foolishness so I would impose on his majesty's mercy and patience on this matter. " --slightly puzzled look on the old man's face...good, very good-- "There seems to be a growing tendency toward maladies of the stomach as your population grows. Many people are ill, vomiting, running fever, disorders of the bowels, some are dying." The king's eyes grew wide.
    "I am no sorcerer nor am I a spy, your majesty, for I will tell you how it is that I know this. I have seen the butchers urinate on the streets and then handle the meat that others must eat. I have seen sewer run down the alleyways and young children playing in it and rotting vegetables are attracting flies which bring disease." The traveler stopped and regarded the old man's eyes for the signs.
    "What you say..." The king began with a confused look on his face. "Is how things have always been. Do you tell me now that flies bring illness? That is truly difficult to believe."
    "I am but a simple observer, a man privileged to have witnessed the wisdom of great men in action. I have seen this before and I have seen it corrected. If my words cause you the slightest offense then I throw myself at your mercy and beg your forgiveness."
    The king waved his hand about. "I am a king, not a god, young man. I have asked you and you have told me, what possible offense could there be? I know enough to know that I do not possess all knowledge, no far from it. May I never be too old or too vain to learn. Let us talk of making changes."
    "Sire, again I must impose on your generosity and mercy. It has been my experience that the advise of strangers is not always welcomed by the king's advisors."
    "You are indeed wise, minstrel. No one will know from whence this information came. I shall call it my own for fear it would put you into danger."
    "You are too kind, sire." The traveler said. The old man would be only too glad to take credit for it and that would take the heat off of him.
    For the better part of two hours the traveler spoke of sanitation codes, latrines, quarantine, and garbage disposal and covered cesspools. The king listened with the greatest intensity, interrupting now and then for details. The traveler found himself actually going beyond what he had intended for he was sensing in this man a genuine interest and concern that was drawing the information from him. At last the king held up his hand and told the traveler that he could remember no more and that he must digest this information. They rose from the garden and walked about some more, this time no one spoke.
    That evening there was a great banquet and the king had the young minstrel perform before his court. The traveler amused the crowd with his bawdy songs and acrobatic antics and stories of far away places. Sometimes the stories were true and sometimes they were fabrications, sometimes they were mere embellishments, whatever he felt would work is what he would do. Toward the end of the evening the songs and stories became more mellow, he was winding the party down so they could go home. He finished off the evening by telling stories of sorcerers and ghosts, a sure crowd pleaser that sent everyone home with something to remember. He found his room and his pallet and this night no one came calling for which he was very grateful.
    He spent the next day wandering about the gardens, Ahad informed him that the king would not be seeing him this day and that he was to amuse himself at whatever pleased him. Ahad's tone reminded him that he was still not above suspicion, at least not in that one's eyes. His thoughts turned to the king and despite himself he found himself liking the old man, his humility and candor. The traveler wandered about the castle's grounds, seemingly aimlessly but his eyes were assembling everything. He noted the royal stables as well as the ones kept for the king's personal guards. Next to that, of course, was the blacksmith shop and then the weapons makers, swords, spears, bows and arrows. He noted the location of the arsenal which housed those manufactured instruments of death as well as the smoke house and granaries. It was all very well organized, to the point of the castle and its grounds being able to maintain itself for a few months even if the city should fall. He rounded another corner and almost ran right into her. It was the princess.
    "My, you do get around." She said.
    "Your highness." He acknowledged and bowed low.
    "Have you come to rescue me again?"
    "I do not perceive that you are in any danger." He said, smiling.
    "Are you on some gallant and dashing mission from my father or do you have the time to sit and talk with a foolish and misguided girl?"
    "I would be honored," He said. "to sit and talk with so lovely, and I might add brave, lady."
    "Brave?" She asked as they sat on one of the stone benches.
    "Oh yes, brave indeed. Even I would not travel that part of the city unarmed. It must have been very important to you to enter that garden."
    "How very curious that you should use that word. I have been told that young girls of royal decent know nothing of importance, that their life is a carefree lark to be enjoyed before the years bring worry and sorrow. Is that how you perceive it, minstrel? I suppose that I should be grateful that I am not a commoner so that I should have by now been bought by some uncouth and smelly herdsman for a camel and a few goats."
    "I perceive the matter to be thus: that all too often and with few exceptions, what is construed as important or relevant is merely that which immediately affects a person, male or female, with little if any regard for the good of others. That, my lady holds true for noble folk as well as smelly herdsmen."
    "How profound." She said with an unreadable expression.
    "You mock me." The traveler said.
    "Not at all. I am moved by your words, I truly am. You are a philosopher, perhaps, as well as a minstrel and a deliverer of beleaguered women? How impressive that one so young be so wise and adept at so many things. Perhaps it is because you are a man and are possessed of a mind instead of a silly girl with only an empty head and a deceitful heart, one who ascribes importance to foolish and vain things, things of no relevance."
    "Now I do know for a certainty that your highness is disturbed with me and so rather than risk further offending her, I shall beg to be allowed to take my leave." He said and rose from his seat.
    "No!" She cried, rising and taking his hands in hers and holding them to her breast, much to the young man's astonishment and discomfort. "Please, don't go!" She pleaded once more and then realizing that the young man was uncomfortable with her holding his hands so, she promptly released him.
    "I meant no harm. It's just that no one will speak to me like...like I'm a person. No one ever asks me what I think of anything, it's as if I am an item of sorts and not a person, a person with feelings, with wants and desires like everyone else." She sat down again, pouting.
    "What if I told you that I too felt that way once?"
    "But you are a man and people listen to you when you speak, they ask your opinion of things, even if it's only to ask if you think it will rain today. A woman is never asked anything unless it is to bring something to a man." And then as an afterthought, she added: "My father thinks very highly of you."
    "I am honored that I have found favor in the king's eyes, for I, too have grown fond of him. But about this matter of women being counted as unimportant, this is not so in all places, why I have been to a land that is ruled by women."
    "Now you are making light of me." She said with a smile and downcast eyes.
    "Not at all for this is so. I lived in that land for almost a year. It is a land of forests and rivers, of many wild and savage animals and it is ruled by women. The women there keep men much the same way that men are accustomed to keeping concubines and wives here. They make the laws and defend the villages while the men work the fields and tend to the animals. It is a society that works as well as one dominated by men."
    "I still do not believe it but it warms my heart that you would tell me this to make me feel better. Tell me about the strange and wondrous places that you have seen."

  • Frenchy

    The traveler took his seat again. He stared into her eyes and despite himself was enchanted by her eagerness and childlike curiosity. He told her of strange and exotic places, of villages hidden far up in the mountains, of towns set in deep and fertile valleys, of great civilizations that existed on the seashores, of tall ships and intrepid men who sailed them to lands of unimaginable distance. He told her of people who were seven feet tall and black as coal as well as people who never got any bigger than a ten year old, also black as pitch, wild savage people who ate one another. He recounted to her tales of his traveling with caravans that crossed the great desert, as dangerous and eternal as any ocean. He told her of great rivers, of mountains that belched fire and smoke, of places where the ground trembled as if a hundred thousand horses were stampeding, of animals larger than a house and birds that spoke like a human. Her eyes stayed wide and she would gasp from time to time at the wonders being described to her for the traveler was a master story teller.
    "I wonder how much of this is true and how much is a fabrication of your mind." She said when he was done.
    "It is all true, your highness. I swear to it all just as I swear to never tell you an untruth. By the same token you must swear to me the same."
    "I swear it." She said. "I will never lie to you and I shall always take you at your word. No man has ever spoken to me this way."
    "Now you must tell me what it is that you were doing in the old abandoned gardens."
    "It was a foolish adventure. I had heard of them, that they were haunted by evil spirits and I craved excitement. I slipped out and went to see for myself."
    He could read her expressions and he knew that she was telling the truth. This disturbed him. A castle is not only a haven for the king but it is also a prison for those whom he wants to keep there. No one can leave without permission anymore than one can enter without being allowed, especially the daughter of the king.
    "How is it that you were able to leave the castle?" He asked in an offhanded manner.
    "I have a friend that helped me go out through a secret passage." And then she quickly added: "But you mustn't tell my father for he would..."
    "Enough said." The traveler cut her off. "We will share this secret. Tell me, this friend of yours, is it a woman or a man?
    "Why, are you perhaps jealous that I should have a lover?" She smiled coyly.
    "Why not? I am a man." He answered.
    "It is a woman, I have no lover." She said quickly.
    "Then you must do as I ask. Do not allow your friend to lead you anywhere else."
    The king did not call him for the next few days and so he spent his time wandering about the grounds. Two weeks passed and the king sent for him. It was Ahad that came for him early that morning and the traveler followed him to the great hall for an audience with his majesty. He had to wait his turn for a small group of what was apparently a committee from a caravan was explaining something to the king and he was not very happy about the news. The traveler focused his attention on their lips to see what they were saying but they were moving about so much that he could not make out anything. They finally concluded their business and were granted leave by the king and then he was brought before the throne.
    "I have put into practice the things we talked about, young minstrel, and I am very pleased with the results. The physicians are as yet unable to explain it but the results are indisputable. You have rendered this city a great service, how do you wish to be paid?"
    "Your good pleasure is payment enough, sire." The traveler said.
    The king rubbed his chin. The young man was following court etiquette in not asking outright for a reward but allowing the king to be generous. He had already pondered and anticipated this but somehow the decision he had made in his chambers did not seem appropriate now. He decided to test the young man.
    "Very well, minstrel. I hereby grant you status of court advisor and all the privileges and compensation that go with it."
    It was more than he could have hoped for and yet he found no pleasure in it. It would make his job so much easier and yet he found himself saying:
    "You are very kind and generous to a poor wanderer but I must impose on your majesty's great compassion and mercy and beg that he grant his servant leave and allow him to continue on his mission."
    "You have a mission?
    "A personal one, your majesty."
    "What is it that you seek?" The old king asked.
    "What all men seek... freedom." Replied the young man.
    "There are many freedoms, minstrel. There is the freedom from want as well as the freedom from anxiety. Too often they are at opposing ends, dividing the very soul of the man. What sort of freedom do you seek?"
    It proved to be quite a question for the young man. The reply had meant to be only a way out of the conversation but now the king was making an issue of it.. He remembered too well the life from which he had come, from poverty and slavery. As if that wasn't bad enough, the famine came and the nobles and men of property began hoarding what little grain there and men began dying like flies. An only child, he watched his mother and father wither to nothing more than skin and bones, giving him what precious, little food there was. They died one cold, rainy night. He covered their emaciated bodies with blankets, said a prayer for their souls, and slipped out into the rainy night. He kept to the shadows for the famine had become so severe that an eight year old boy, though thin and bony, would be very tempting. He made it past the gate and out into the countryside. He found shelter under a rock outcropping, rose with the sun and with the scant energy he had, began the walk that would eventually lead him to the camp of the gypsies that took him in. They fed him but worked him like an animal as they wandered about the countryside. Several weeks, perhaps months, passed and they came to a land very distant from his own, a strange land of rugged mountains and strange beasts. The caravan was met one day by a hooded figure who spoke to the leader of the gypsies. Money changed hands and then he had a new home.
    It was with some trepidation and fear that he left the gypsy camp and followed the hooded man into the mountains. They walked for two days, stopping only to eat and to sleep until they arrived at a small settlement where other hooded men walked about and there he spent the next ten years of his life. It was there he was trained and disciplined with such intensity and severity as no soldier has ever seen. It was there that he became a Khali-ti, an assassin. He'd had no choice in the matter, the gypsies had saved his life and then sold him to this order of mercenaries where they, in turn, had provided for him and trained him and now he must perform for the order. He had never questioned the situation...until now.
    The king, aware that he had struck a deep chord in the young man, smiled, rose from his great throne and slapped him on the back.
    "Do not fret over this as yet, my son. You are young and there is still time."
    To be addressed such a way by the king was most disturbing to him. This was not his first assignment, many times in his young life he had traveled to far off places, befriended lords, generals, and kings only to perform his deadly art upon them at the first opportunity. His successes had earned him a reputation within the order for never before had one so young become so competent in the deadly arts of the Khali-ti. For the very first time in his life he was feeling something other than the need to accomplish his mission. For the first time in his life he was experiencing feelings. To one trained such as he, false displays of affection were easy to detect and he saw none here. Perhaps it was the kindness shown to him by a grateful father, or perhaps it was just that time had finally healed some of the emotional scars or maybe it was merely the fact that he was grown now and was assuming a different perspective, whatever the case, he felt himself changing and it was frightening.
    (to be continued)

    Edited by - Frenchy on 10 June 2000 15:52:29

  • Frenchy

    The king walked him out to one of several balconies overlooking the gardens and for a long time not a word was spoken. Finally, the king spoke.
    "I perceive that you are no ordinary man. Ahad thinks your heart is less than pure but then men of his position are by nature always suspicious. When I look into your eyes I see many things, I see purpose and determination but I also see some pain and uncertainty."
    "Sire, you are a prophet." The young man said.
    The old man laughed. "No, but I am a father and a father can see things in the eyes of the young. It is no magic or working of the gods, it is merely the nature of things. Now tell me, for we are alone here, what is it that troubles you?"
    The traveler found himself having to draw upon his discipline to refrain from just spilling out everything to the king, so kindly were his words and voice.
    "It is nothing that is not common to all men, your majesty. I wish to see more of the world before I settle down." His next words as well as their tone was chosen very carefully. "I fear that perhaps your majesty will detain me from my quest."
    The king laughed again. "Far be it for me to hold you back, young minstrel. No, you need not fear that. You are free to go whenever you wish, not only that but I will provide you with a horse and pack animals, and whatever supplies you may require."
    "Why would you do that?" It was question irrelevant to his mission and he regretted it the moment the words emerged.
    "You saved my daughter's life. As a father I can never repay you fully for that. I have also heard of the incident of the young boy whom you also saved, and there's the matter of your...let's see what you called it...yes...your sanitation code that is saving the lives of my people. As a king I cannot overlook my indebtedness to you for that."
    The words of the king struck deep into his heart and he could find no words. He eventually took his leave of the king and made his way to the stables and chose a horse to his liking. He rode up to the castle gate fully expecting to be turned away or at the very least made to wait while Ahad was consulted but to his surprise, he was merely waved on through. He rode through the city and to one of the city gates where he was stopped by two guards. They asked who he was and then promptly waved him by. Again he was surprised. Two hours later of hard riding and he found Abib waiting where he was supposed to be.
    "You are late, young traveler, our employer grows restless."
    "Has there ever been an instance where a Khali-ti has broken a contract?" The young traveler asked as he dismounted his steed.
    "Yes." The man said with a worried look on his face. "It happens from time to time but it is very rare and never without good reason and the sanction of the master."
    "Perhaps this will be one of those times."
    The conversation that ensued was not pleasant for either man. At certain times one or both would get angry that the other could not understand the situation. Much deliberation followed and in the end there was still anger and confusion as they parted. The young traveler made his way back to the great city and Abib headed off in another direction.
    Time passed as time has a way of doing, days became weeks and weeks became months. All the while the young traveler continued to find favor in the king's eyes. Time and again his counsel proved right and the city prospered for it until everyone knew that it was he that was advising the king and the king's court became fearful of him, perceiving him to be a sorcerer or magician of sorts. Each time the king would offer him a position the traveler would decline it much to the regret of the king for he had become as a son in his eyes and he loved him as he loved his own children. He would continue to do whatever it was that the king asked of him and then refuse all payment for his services.
    He sat in his quarters staring out at the rain falling outside. The musty smell of hay was heavy in the air, the stables being right beneath him. He had long since, much to the king's displeasure, asked for his leave from his room in the castle and to be allowed to live here in the stables. Everyone in the city was talking about the wizard that lived with animals and that counseled the king. He was fast becoming a legend much to his displeasure. Each day he would look out of this particular window at the mountainside to the East only to be disappointed. There was knock on the hatch that opened into his loft and he broke off from his meditation to answer it. It was Ahad.
    "Good morning...what shall I call you? You are more a counselor or lord than you are a minstrel."
    "A lord who sleeps with horses?"
    "Your choice, minstrel. I dare say that our king would gladly give you his bed if you would but ask for it."
    "His majesty is far too kind to this lowly minstrel."
    "Well, minstrel I must say that you are proving to be a great riddle to me. You are no opportunist for you refuse any and all worldly goods offered to you. You cannot be a spy for you never leave the city and you spend all your time in a stable. You are young and yet you possess knowledge far beyond your years. You have won the heart of the king and he is not one easily impressed. You carry no weapons and yet I suspect that no four of the king's finest bodyguards could subdue you."
    The young traveler caught something out of the corner of his eye and he turned toward the eastern mountainside. He turned back to Ahad.
    "The king told me once that you think my heart less than pure."
    "Perhaps I was wrong." The big man said with a softness the young traveler would not have guessed existed.
    "You were not wrong, my lord. Look out of my window toward the morning sun and you will see a yellow cloud of smoke. There a man waits for me to report to him that I have fulfilled my mission here."
    Ahad's face soured into a worried look.
    "I came here to kill your king."
    Ahad's hand flew to the hilt of his sword but he stopped there.
    "Easy, my big friend. I could no more do that now than I could deny the existence of the sun. I have discovered that my heart now has it's own mindand now there exists a great conflict inside my soul, a war that is tearing me to pieces. How does a man determine his loyalties?"
    "As long as you are in this city, minstrel, your loyalty had better be for our king. If I suspect for a moment that it is not, then I'll have your head." There was determination in the tone of his voice.
    "For you it is a simple matter. Your one and only job is to protect the king. Let me propose a situation to you and then you tell me what you would do. Suppose that our lord the king were to send you on a mission upon which he obliged you to take an oath that you would travel to a distant land, secure a job with a warring king and then destroy your king's enemy at the first opportunity. What would you do? Once in the other city and with the other king, where would your loyalty be?"
    The worried look returned to Ahad's face. "I am loyal to my king and to no one else."
    "Suppose you would find the other king to be a wise and generous man, a man deserving to live, a man devoted to his subjects, a man who's death would cause untold suffering for a multitude of people? Would you still kill him?"

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