The Marvelous March to Completion: Day One: To Griot

A march protesting DOMA and Prop 8

A march protesting DOMA and Prop 8

Dear Readers,

I have begun a challenge of sorts.  I am aiming over the course of the next two weeks to complete a fully realized draft of my novel.  Why two weeks you ask?  Because I am looking to submit my novel to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest, whose first place prize is a $50,000 publishing contract with Amazon!  I think my novel has a good chance of making it.  If you’d like to learn more about my project, click here.

Over the next few days I will be posting my new writing every day, and it is a great opportunity to get a sneak peak of the finished product.  This novel is especially important to me because I have tried very hard to write an excellent story that anyone can enjoy, but that stars a character who is openly queer.  Too often I find that the mirror LGBT young people are help up in the media is either that they don’t exist, or that the only stories worth telling about people like us are BECAUSE we are LGBT.  I wanted to change that, and provide a thrilling and well-written adventure story that just happened to star a gay teen.

I hope you enjoy the work, and that you will consider resharing these pieces to your networks as they appear.  Thank you so much for your support!  Read the first bit after the jump.

Me at 3 yrs of age.  I'm writing a novel with the role model I needed.  (ALSO, my Aunt is so fierce!)

Me at 3 yrs of age. I’m writing a novel with the role model I needed.
(ALSO, my Aunt is so fierce!)

Prologue

In which a maiden is not saved

The sun was just beginning to rise when the Dragon crested the hillside.  It was an accepted fact that any maiden, offered to the Dragon, if she survived from sundown until tea time the next day, would be freed and a new, more pleasing sacrifice chosen.  You can imagine Millicent’s disappointment then when the great scaly beast came looming over the top of Hagar’s Hill.

The huge body was held aloft by great wings which looked to her as if they were two sheets of unspoiled night, preserved unharmed from the killing grasp of dawn’s first light for the specific purpose of bearing the monster to her.  It was a poetic thought, and Millicent was proud of it.  When she survived the Dragon’s visit, she resolved to become a roaming poet instead of a house wife; though she was certain the town would feel as great a sense of loss for her wanderings as they would for her death.

The Dragon, in most cases, was merely offered a small tribute of common items.  Once a year the signal would come that the scaly hoarder was ready for his annual donation of old furniture, excess bric-a-brac, and unwanted itchy knit sweaters.  Of course, the villagers gathered together in their finest mourning clothes and wailed over the useless trash, to be sure the Dragon thought they were offering him their very most prized possessions.  However, once in a great while, the Dragon would indicate its thirst for something more valuable than the overflowing contents of a junk drawer, and which the villagers were, in fact, rather reluctant to part with.

Sometimes the Dragon demanded a maiden.

As the Dragon streaked through the pre-dawn sky, Millicent thought it was odd that her heart was beating so hard.  It was a formality that she was out here at all. She was the mayor’s daughter, and if it hadn’t been for certain farmers (with droves of utterly dull daughters just perfect for sacrificing) pointing out that her own family hadn’t offered a maiden to the Dragon in twenty-five years, she wouldn’t be tied to a stake in the middle of a field at all.

The Dragon seemed to be getting awfully near now, and Millicent wondered just how close it could get to her in light of the extraordinary measures her father had taken to ensure the beast left her alone.  Despite the fact that the Dragon had, for the past fortnight, been ceaselessly demanding maiden sacrifices which the monster then ignored entirely, her father had insisted on hiring a specialist; a traveling doctor with extensive dealings in draconic physiology who had consulted the family immediately upon her selection to be sacrificed, and developed a complete plan of action designed to deter the devouring intent of any reptile great or small.

The specialist had given her every countermeasure imaginable.  She had no less than six amulets and charms designed to ward away various aspects of draconic myth, from talons to fire breath.  She was wearing a dress made of strictly dyed green cloth, a color which the doctor assured her father dragon eyes could not detect.  She was bound to a stake made of yaupon wood, the oil of which was said to irritate dragon scales.  She had even washed her hair, the most beautiful blonde hair in three counties, with shampoo made from vinegar, rosemary, and calf’s blood, so that any dragon noses she encountered would be stunned by her stench, and any dragon stomachs would be nauseated.

It was unfortunate for Millicent that none of these remedies would prove effective against this particular Dragon.  Indeed, I would be quite surprised to learn they had worked against any Dragon at all, though perhaps they would prove quite effective against common garden snakes, or tree lizards.  At any rate, I could not encourage attempting any of these remedies as prevention of any kind, especially against lethal threats, particularly monstrous lethal threats.

The Dragon landed with a great rush of wind.  The ground shook beneath its sudden weight, and Millicent let out a maidenly scream in spite of her supposed invulnerability.  The sky was just changing from pale black to dark grey, but Millicent thought she could see the Dragon’s dark scales sparkling none-the-less.

The long neck snaked out, the gigantic head hovering mere feet above Millicent.

As the two great nostrils flared wide, Millicent thought very stinky thoughts.

However, the Dragon did not recoil.  It lowered its head so that its two glowing red eyes could lock onto Millicent’s own.

She tried her best to look green.

One great claw lifted up slowly, talons glittering as the sun finally crested the edge of Hagar’s hill, lighting the great Dragon from behind.  As it gently wrapped its great fist around Millicent (and the Yaupon stake), she waited for the instantaneous appearance of hives or boils or cracks or…something…on the dragon’s forearm.

The Dragon’s scales stayed frustratingly healthy looking.

And as the Dragon opened its toothy mouth wide, and Millicent saw the flames glowing in its deep throat, for the very first and last time in her life thus far, she was too stunned to think one single thought about herself.

CHAPTER 1

In which

 

The story of Sebastian Smith begins with a faded and slightly soiled blue shirt.

The shirt was not Sebastian’s, but rather belonged to Roland Baked, the boy whom Sebastian had quite accidentally fallen in love with.  The shirt itself was not magical or even particularly well made.  It wasn’t the sort of object you would expect to begin an adventure.  But it belonged to Roland and smelled just a little like him and that was enough for Sebastian, who had stolen the shirt, which as you will see, is exactly what started it all.

However, though Sebastian’s story does truly and honestly begin with the pilfered shirt of Roland Baker, you my dear readers must come to the beginning by a different route.  You must begin not with a soiled blue shirt, but with clean white underwear.

*******

The fingers of twelve year old Sebastian Smith gently grazed the stiff fabric of Mrs. Geldeblat’s crisp white under-girdle.  Feeling his face flush, he strained further until he was able to barely hook his fingertips into the knotted lacing which would normally be used to pull the garment tight around Mrs. Geldeblat’s round stomach.  With a tremendous effort he heaved himself to the side and tugged the oversized underwear close to his chest, panting as he pressed his face into the rough shingles of the roof on which he lay.

From the ground below, Mrs. Geldeblat barked, “Don’t just lay there Sebastian!  Now my girdle isn’t flapping like a flag in the breeze, get back down here!  You’ve still got to clean the rest of this mess up!”

Sebastian sighed, carefully raising himself up on his hands and knees to crawl towards the edge of the roof where he could drop down onto the balcony of the Baker’s shop below.  The shame at dragging the enormous underwear down to the street below had sharply dulled his excitement at being in a building owned by the uncle of Roland Baker (whom you will remember was important to Sebastian).  He found the bulk of Mrs. Geldeblat’s girdle made his journey down much more complicated than his climb up.  Though he found himself very frustrated with Mrs. Geldeblat, not only for her large garments, but also for her ceaseless stream of comments and orders, he knew that really he had no one to blame but himself for the disaster strewn over the village square below.

In the small, seaside village of Hilsbac in which Sebastian lived there were, as in most villages, a great many problems.  As the thorough reader already knows, these problems included giant fire-breathing reptiles among others.  And had you seen Sebastian, a boy of meager size, with ears that were just a little too large, and feet that were just a little too small, I imagine you might have thought he wasn’t capable of handling very many problems at all.

The other people who lived in Hilsbac shared this very opinion, and as a result, Sebastian Smith was not allowed in the general vicinity of difficulties of any notable size.  He was not, for instance, permitted to go out hunting with the men as most other boys who had lived more than ten winters were.  Nor was he welcome on the swift fishing boats that cut through the waves near the docks.  He was not trained to stand watch in the high towers of the village wall, nor was he skilled with the heavy iron swords of the village guardsmen.

In fact, there was only one small problem, composed of several challenges, which Sebastian was allowed to even attempt solving.  He was permitted, without exception, to choose his own clothing and to eat all of his own food.  He was allowed to bathe when he smelled, and to sleep when he was tired.  He tended always to the complaints of his own body, and only on the rare occasion of a scraped knee or a bad winter fever, did he ask for any assistance at all.

Yes, by and large Sebastian helped the village by doing his very best to handle the only small problem the villagers would allow him to solve: himself.

But Sebastian was not content to solve only the problems he was allowed to.  Though he admitted there were perfectly good reasons to keep him away from large challenges or complicated troubles, he still felt there were plenty of smaller issues, obstacles, and quandaries in the community he should address if he could.

As Sebsatian swung his small body out over the gutters of the Baker’s Shoppe and scrabbled for a few moments with his too-small-feet to find the ledge of the balcony below, (with Mrs. Geldeblat hollering the whole time about broken legs and cracked skulls being no fair excuse not to clean up his mess), he supposed it was this very thought (that he should solve the biggest problems he was able) which had caused Mrs. Geldeblat’s girdle to be launched to the top of the Baker’s shop in the first place, not to mention Mr. Sander’s work coat, Mrs. Threshton’s best sun dress, and little Amelia’s patch-kneed play clothes, all of which were scattered in equally unique and inconvenient locations around the town square.

Sebastian, as you may have guessed, had most recently attempted to solve the problem of the village laundry.  It might seem strange to you that the village of HIlsbac had a laundry problem at all.  Laundry in the world you and I live in is a very personal problem, consisting of machines, and sinks, and soap.  However, in the world Sebastian lived in, laundry was still a very public problem.  In order to save time, and water, most villagers brought their clothes to the village square once a week, and a group of sturdy women and awkward young girls (as well as Sebastian), gathered together to wash all of the laundry together.

The specific problem which Sebastian had so recently, and disastrously, attempted to solve was the problem of drying.  It was a small problem really, but one that was always sure to cause at least one argument amongst the old women in charge of the communal wash.  You see, in the entire village square, there was only one corridor down which the salty sea breeze almost always blew, which was at the same time not darkened by the shadow of a nearby building for most of the day.  This section of street was naturally the most effective at drying clothing hung within it.  However, it was not nearly large enough for all of the clothes to be hung in it, which meant that most of the clothing had to be dried either in the shady breeze or the windless sunshine.

It was nowhere near as big a problem as fire-breathing reptiles, but nevertheless, it was the problem Sebastian attempted to solve.  He had done so with great effort on his part.  Not only had he constructed a massive and complex system of rotating ropes, lashed together through rusted old pulleys salvaged from the castoff bits of ships that had long since set sail from the docks, but he had also convinced Mrs. Geldeblat to allow his attempt to solve the problem to go forward at all.

Mrs. Geldeblat, who had been in charge of laundry for as long as Sebastian had been alive, had been very difficult to convince.

As he scrabbled over the open attic windowsill of the Baker’s shop and into the narrow stairway which led to the floor below, trying hard to keep the white fabric of the girdle he carried from trailing in any more dust than it already had, Sebastian was certain he would never be able to convince Mrs. Geldeblat to let him try anything ever again.

While concealed safely in the staircase, Sebastian tried to puzzle out what had gone so terribly wrong.  He was so sure the idea was a good one.  It had seemed so simple to him.  If the problem was that only some clothes got to be both in the sun and the breeze, the solution was to make it easy to rotate all the clothes equally through the good spot.  It seemed fair, and he thought it would make the whole process of doing laundry faster for everyone.  And at first, it had gone so well!  The clothes had started rotating into the sweet spot on their ropes just as he thought.  But then somewhere between Mrs. Thurston’s best sun dress, and Amelia’s patch-kneed play clothes, one of the garments hit a snag.  Sebastian thought it was just a little bump, and so had continued to tug valiantly on the rope, never realizing how much tension he was building, until, with a crack like a whip, the main line snapped and still damp garments exploded in every direction.

After the initial shock of the disastrous laundry upheaval, Sebastian now sorely wished that he could have prevented the sudden snort of laughter he had let out when Mrs. Geldeblat had discovered her enormous underwear flapping in the wind, caught on the highest corner guttering of the baker’s shop.  But he hadn’t, and with Mrs. Geldeblat’s face turning roughly the same ruddy red shade as Mrs. Tawning’s favorite blouse, Sebastian had scurried into the baker’s shop to retrieve the embarrassing large garment, though he did note it was flapping directly into the sweet spot.

As he was tip-toeing slowly down the narrow staircase, drawing out each step to delay his inevitable meeting face to face with Mrs. Geldeblat, Sebastian stopped entirely when he heard the hushed voices of the Baker and his assistant wafting up through the loose boards of the stairs beneath his feet.  His feet felt stuck entirely, as if there were glue on the stairs.  Sebastian had become caught in the sticky sonic snare of voices speaking with the softness of secrets.

“Did you hear about poor Millicent Cobblestop?”, came the furtive voice of the young Baker’s Assistant.  Sebastian thought his name was Brennan or Brandon or Bradley.

“Aye, boy.  I was there when the poor Threshton boy had to give the report to the mayor himself.  Was delivering the morning pastries to Mrs. Cobblestop.  You’ve never heard such terrible girlish sobbing in all your life…”, replied the Baker, (who everyone in the village knew simply as the Baker).

“Oh…was Mrs. Cobblestop there too?”, gasped the Baker’s Assistant.

The Baker snorted, “Nay.  Twas the Mayor’s girlish sobbing I’m referring too.  But who could blame him after what poor Henry Threshton had to report.  Twasn’t just her death…but the manner of her death…all ash and grease on the field…it’s just not right.”

Brennan or Brandon or Bradley was silent for a long moment, and then asked with a catch in his voice, “But…sir…if the Mayor set his daughter out for the Dragon to come claim…wouldn’t he have expected that sort of report from Henry?”

The Baker let out a sigh, “I suppose you’re too young to really remember how a maiden sacrifice works.  It only happens once every few years afterall.  You were what…six or seven the last time a maiden was offered?”

“Five, sir.  I was five winters then.”, the Assistant said.

“Then you probably don’t know how things normally go.  If the Dragon finds the maiden…well… let’s say suitable, I suppose, then he swoops down out of the sky and grabs her in his huge claws and off he flies with her.  He’s never…uh…done the deed right there in the field.  And most years, after he flies over a few maidens he doesn’t like, he just stops asking”, The Baker said.

Brennan or Brandon or Bradley  asked, “You mean the Dragon Stone stops glowing?”

“Aye, but since the beast claimed Millie it hasn’t so much as dimmed.  Even after charring the poor girl worse than a loaf left in the oven all afternoon, the Dragon still wants another sacrifice.  This hasn’t happened before.  Ever.”  The sound of the Baker pulling a heavy stone plate out of the enormous oven muffled his reply to Brennan or Brandon or Bradley, and the strong smell of freshly baked bread wafted up into the attic staircase, causing Sebastian to shift with sudden hunger.

The voice of the Baker’s Young Assistant cracked as he asked, “What’ll we do?  Wh-what if we run out of maidens?”

Sebastian heard the Baker snort, “There’s a special council in two days’ time to decide what to do.  It may be the biggest problem we’ve ever had, but we’ll just have to figure it out together.”

Sebastian twisted the handle to the attic door and stepped out into the back room of the Bake Shop, quite disturbed by the news he had heard.  His mind swam with thoughts of what the Dragon’s deadly new behavior would mean, for the village, for the other young girls, and especially for his two older sisters.  Without thinking about how strange it would seem that he was joining in the middle of their conversation, Sebastian felt himself drawn to the large Kitchen where the Baker and his Assistant were working, and he might have wandered right into the middle of their worrying had the Baker’s Assistant not chosen that exact moment to break the tension in his own way.

What Sebastian heard that woke him from his trance of concern was Brennan or Brandon or Bradley saying with a smile in his voice, “I guess we could always ask the weird laundry kid up on the roof what he thinks we should do, eh?”

The words stopped Sebastian in his tracks.  He realized all at once where he was, and was grateful that he hadn’t yet rounded the corner into the kitchen.  After four very awkward moments of silence, the sturdy laughter of the Baker echoed through the shop, and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley’s own short nervous bark of a laugh soon joined it.  By the time they stopped laughing, their guffaws were joined by the muffled sound of their oven mitted hands slapping their respective thighs.

Sebastian squirmed with every passing second of laugher the two men indulged in at his expense, both unaware of his eavesdropping.  He was unconsciously twisting Mrs. Geldeblat’s girdle into tight knots by the time the Baker, still gasping slightly for breath, said, “Aye, that’s who can save us.  Young Master Girdle.  Maybe he can tinker together a special pile of junk to confuse the Dragon away.”

Brennan or Brandon or Bradley added, “Maybe the Dragon’s secret weakness is lady’s underthings!”

As the Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley returned to their laughing (which was actually quite a relief from their earlier grim conversation) Sebastian retreated silently into the back room of the Bake Shop.  He felt very small, clutching in his hands the evidence of his laughably poor attempt to solve the village’s smallest of problems.  And now the villagers would face the largest problem they’d ever faced, and Sebastian wanted to help too.  But the townspeople intended to solve the problem together, and though he sometimes forgot, Sebastian knew that together didn’t mean him.

He made his shuffling way across the stock room floor, and reached the rickety wooden door into the alleyway behind the shop.  The white fabric of Mrs. Geldeblat’s girdle which he had crumpled in his hands had caused his fingers to start throbbing.  He paused to disentangle his digits from that stiff fabric before he stepped back into the cool alleyway, which was still slick with late autumn snow the sun had not melted.  With his hand on the door he tried to turn his attention back to the problem at hand, back to the problem of laundry, back to the problem of his own making.  Surely he could solve that much.

What happened then might seem very strange to you if you were only to read it, just like that.  What happened next was that Sebastian found a shirt, wadded and forgotten and blue in the corner of the Baker’s storeroom.  Not an exciting event by itself; and one that might even be expected given the already unfortunate events surrounding clothing that had so recently occurred.  However, this shirt was one that Sebastian recognized.  It was a shirt Sebastian liked very much.  Not because of the color or the cut, but because it belonged to the tall, broad-shouldered nephew of the Baker.

And suddenly, Sebastian found that he had forgotten all about the shame of his failed invention or the anger of Mrs. Gildeblat, or even the humiliation of his unintentional mocking at the hands of the Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley.  Sebastian had found something which his mind very much needed at that very moment.  He had found an escape.  Quickly snatching the shirt up into now-trembling fingers, and then bursting into the alley, he shoved the shirt into the small space behind a snow-covered stack of firewood.  Then Sebastian scurried out into the village square, to clean up his mess as quickly as he could, returning and rewashing every last piece of exploding laundry; every last piece except one.

CHAPTER 2

In which we find our hero in a rather important alley

It took Sebastian nearly two more hours of vigorous acrobatics to retrieve and rewash all of the village laundry, and then to sneak back to the woodpile behind the Baker’s shop and retrieve that secret shirt which belonged to Roland Baker, and to arrive at last on his knees in the alleyway where our story begins.

You must accept my apologies, dear reader, for leading you down such a winding road to the start of it all, but you must understand how small Sebastian’s world was back then, so that you will understand why what he did seemed to large.  In all his years of life, the biggest thing Sebastian could ever remember doing was stealing the shirt of Roland Baker and sniffing it in the alley behind the Baker’s Shop.

Had I neglected to mention that Sebastian was sniffing the shirt?  Well he was, at any rate, though the vigor and desperation with which he performed the procedure might be more accurately described as huffing.

He was crouching in the moist snow which had fallen that afternoon, in the back alleyway between the Baker’s shop, and Mrs. Holand’s new two story family house (a gift from her husband, upon the birth of their tenth child, a house his own father had overseen construction of), with the light blue, still soiled fabric of Roland’s large shirt practically jammed up his nostrils.

It might also interest you to know that Sebastian was crying.  He was huffing and crying.  You see, Sebastian felt very bad for stealing Roland’s shirt.  In fact, more broadly, he felt very bad for loving Roland.  In Sebastian’s small village, as is true in many other larger places, it isn’t precisely permitted for a boy to be in love with another boy, especially when they were supposed to be of the age to start loving (and marrying) girls; and Sebastian was still very interested in the people in his village accepting, and in fact liking him (A prospect unlikely were they to know how he felt for Roland).

Yet Sebastian found he couldn’t help himself; with the theft or the love.  When the familiar blue garment had caught his eyes, crumpled in the dusty corner of the Baker’s Shop, he felt his heart might climb out of his throat, and quite contrary to his earnest desire to aid with the town washing, he found his hands stuffing the shirt under his own and then into the woodpile without a second thought, and now he was feeling giddy and guilty as he stole little intimate bits of Roland he really shouldn’t have; like the way the nape of his neck smelled on his shirt collar, or the odor Sebastian imagined his belly button gave off in the heat of the day.  Sebastian’s heart was aching with fear, even though each breath caused his stomach to flutter with joy and desire.

As he desperately sniffed the dirty shirt of the boy he loved, Sebastian tried to focus on how excited he felt to be so close to Roland, and to use that smell to forget all about the big problems of the village.  Each desperate whiff made him think of another reason why he loved Roland; his courage, his strength, his kindness, and the way his short brown hair curled near his green eyes.  He tried to make his world so small there was only room for his nose and Roland.  No laundry, and no ropes.  No Bakers and no apprentices.  No maidens and no dragons.

Only his secret love.

I wonder if you have ever felt like Sebastian felt then, dear reader?   To have wanted something even if you suspected it might not be good for you or would get you into trouble; especially when you were sad or afraid?

Whether you have or not, I know that there are people who would think they knew what was best for Sebastian at that moment.  There are some people who feel that such temptation is better ignored, who will argue that Sebastian should have, like them, turned always away from the things that might have gotten him into trouble, and to have denied the truth of what he felt in his heart.  And if Sebastian had followed their advice, he would never have stolen the shirt, and as you will see, the wondrous adventures that ensued would never have come to pass.

However, there are others still who would argue that Sebastian should not have been upset by his choices at all.  That the theft of the shirt, or at least the love which motivated it, was not wrong in any way, no matter what the other villagers might have thought, and that Sebastian would be healthiest and happiest were he to have accepted himself just as he was, and that he should have helped others to accept themselves as well.  And those people would be right, of course, save for the fact that if Sebastian had not been slowed by guilt, and tormented by the feelings inside of him, his excitement to have procured an item belonging to Roland would have propelled him quite beyond the dirty streets, and into the relative safety of his own home.

But he would never have stopped in the alleyway.

And stopping in the alleyway is, in fact, the decision which made all the difference for so many more than just the people in the small village of Hillsbac.  You might, in fact, have found it difficult to let Sebastian sit in the alley, huffing a shirt and crying, feeling quite miserable about himself.  You might have wanted to make him feel better, or feel worse; to make him return the shirt, or proclaim his love.  But if he had not stayed, just as he was, caught between his love for the life he lived in his small village, and the secret longings of his heart, he would never have heard the words that started it all:

“Hey Girlie!  Give us a kiss eh?!”

CHAPTER 3

In which Chickens come up at the oddest times

Sebastian’s heart froze in his chest, the moist fabric still pressed incriminatingly to his face.  He waited for the first blows to come, sure that the familiar voice of the town’s most notorious childhood tormentor, Gregor Tailor, was aimed at him.  The words echoed down the alleyway, “Hey Girlie!  Give us a kiss eh?!”

However, a second voice, tainted with sickeningly with the same fear that was bubbling up in Sebastian answered before the startled boy could even move, “No!  You stay away from me!”

It was the voice of a young woman.  Not one that Sebastian recognized.  A third voice, one belonging to another of Gregor’s kind, barked, “You ain’t goin’ anywhere Girlie!  You heard the man!  Give us a kiss!”

Gregor spoke up again, “Yea, its ‘cause of your stupid master we got ourselves one less set of pretty girl lips in this town.  So I reckon your lips are gonna have to make up her fair share, ain’t that right boys?”

A chorus of teenaged male voices, edged with excitement, like young wolves, starved too long and circling a helpless rabbit, echoed in the alleyway just around the bend.  Sebastian swallowed the lump in his throat, forcing his heart back down into his chest.

The unfamiliar female voice spoke again, rapid with fear, “No!  It isn’t our fault!  We had no idea that girl would die!  The Professor’s remedies…”

The girl’s words were cut short by the dull slap of a meaty hand making contact with flesh, most likely Gregor’s hand on the unknown girl’s face.  Sebastian heard a body crush the snow as it fell.  Gregor’s voice was lower now, tinged with genuine anger.

“Her name was Millicent. Millicent Cobblestop.  She was the most beautiful girl in the whole town, and I was gonna make her my wife.  Now she’s just ash on the meadow. And your Professor’s gonna hang for it.”

“No, I…”

A second blow rang out.

“And you thought you could just sneak off like nothing ever happened, eh?  Figured no one would care that the girl who fed, and cleaned, and cared for that murderer was popping off without even a slap on the wrist?  Well I don’t think me and the boys can stand for that!”

A third dull slapping was joined by a pained female yelp.

And when the sound of that third blow finished echoing down the alleyway, a strange thing happened.  Sebastian, who mere moments before had thought that his life would end over another boy’s pilfered laundry, forgot completely about himself.  He forgot about Roland.  He forgot about his plan to sneak the shirt into next week’s laundry so no one would suspect it was missing.  He forgot about the cover story he would tell his father in case he was asked about the strange garment.  He forgot about his fantasies of one day feeling what it was like to have Roland wrap his arms around him and really mean it, like Sebastian meant it.  Sebastian quite forgot that he was ever afraid for himself at all.

All that Sebastian could feel now was a tiny glowing warmth in his belly; the kind of heat which threatened at any instant to force its way up his throat like fire up a chimney.  He slipped only once in the melted snow as he sprang to his feet and launched around the corner, into the middle of six large boys and one scared girl, and hollered at the top of his lungs.

“Leave her alone!”

No one said anything for what seemed like hours.  Sebastian shuffled until he was standing over the collapsed girl, staring up into Gregor’s stunned face, small fists clenched by his waist, breath coming in short puffs of steam.  Gregor’s sudden laughter punched Sebastian in the stomach.

“Sebastian?  Is that…little Basty?  Little Basty-wasty sticking his wittle nosey-wosey where it doesn’t belong?  Are you seeing this boys?  You gotta death wish Basty?”

Sebastian could feel his face starting to burn red as the others began their familiar jeering.  When he spoke next his voice cracked, “Just leave her alone ok?  She didn’t do anything!”

Gregor shoved Sebastian, but he didn’t fall.  The bully looked surprised. “Didn’t do anything?  If she hadn’t taken care of the lying scum bag, we’d still have Milly!  You think we’re gonna just let her walk away?!”

Gregor shoved Sebastian again, harder now; hard enough that he fell to one knee.

Sebastian felt the hand of the girl below touch his calf as she spoke with a shaking voice, “Don’t worry kid.  Just go.”

Sebastian looked down to see the young assistant to the mayor’s “specialist”.  Her brown eyes were dark with despair.  Sebastian felt his jaw tighten as he stood back up.  “I’m not gonna leave you.”

Gregor snorted and spoke in a mocking sing-song voice, “Oh I’m not gonna leave you.  I’m Sebastian! I’ll protect you with my big strong muscles!”

Sebastian was shoved again, and this time second pair of hands joined as Gregor continued, his voice once again angry, “Except you haven’t got any muscles huh?  Why don’t you just go crawl back into a laundry basket!”

Sebastian balled his small hand into a fist and took a wild swing.  He felt a larger hand close around his wrist, as a second hand closed around his throat, lifting him up.  He was nose to nose with Gregor now, who looked so much more dangerous now than he ever had before.  He wasn’t teasing Sebastian.  The town’s rage and grief at losing Millicent to the dragon’s fiery wrath burned bright in his eyes.  The bully sneered, “Look at you.  You look like you’ve been crying already!  What’d you do?  Crawl into the alley to cry about Milly?  You’re what’s wrong with this whole stinkin’ village.  Softies like you that won’t do what’s right!  Well me and the boys are doing what’s right, here and now!  We’re gonna make sure Milly’s murderers come to justice…all of them.”

Sebastian coughed, struggling to speak through his constricted throat, the tips of his toes barely grazing the ground now, “What’s right?  Beating…up…a girl?  I thought it was…the Dragon…killed Milly.  Don’t…see you…and the boys…doing anything about that…eh…Greggie…poo…”

The last word barely hissed out of Sebastian’s throat as a low sound like a growl had started to come from Gregor the more the smaller boy spoke, until finally, he turned from the crouching girl to throw Sebastian into the alley wall, hollering as he began to thrash his limbs at Sebastian’s now crumpled body.

“You shut up!  You don’t know anything!  You’re just a stupid, worthless laundry boy!  You can’t hunt, or fish, or fight!  You’re an embarrassment to this village AND your father, and I’m gonna teach you your place when you are talking to a man!”

As Gregor hurled his insults at Sebastian he continued striking him with fists and feet, over and over.  Sebastian could only think to make himself smaller now, and perhaps, that was ultimately what gave him those precious moments he needed.  If he hadn’t curled just as small as he had, Gregor might never have aimed a particularly vicious punch at the smaller boy’s head, only to catch the sturdy stones of the Baker’s shop instead.  He staggered back with a howl like a hurt animal, and fell onto his backside in the snow.  It was the absence of the girl’s fallen body that truly startled the raging bully though.  Still cradling his hand, he rolled to his knees, following the frantic footprints left by the intended victim of his rage as they disappeared out of the alley.  He cursed out loud and turned back to the still curled body of Sebastian, and spit on the ground.

“Well what’s the matter you lot?!  Do I have to do it all?!  Teach that limp-wrist a lesson!”

The seething teenage rage and excitement boiled over in the other boys, unleashed by the single phrase from their bruised ring leader.  They moved as a single creature, intent on tearing Sebastian apart for his insolence, and in vengeance for the escaped prey they would likely never catch again.

But, as you might have guessed by now, though things seemed to be going very poorly to Sebastian, who was silently counting his teeth with his tongue in an effort to distract himself from the pain of his impending death, they were actually happening in exactly the right way.  For had Gregor not paused for the pain in his hand, the beating which had only just started, might have been much further along, and the figure that entered the alley might have come upon a very different scene.

But as it was, the long walking stick clicked on the stones behind the group of rowdy boys just as they lunged for Sebastian.  A kick or two might have landed, but the sharp elderly voice of a man froze each and every body into the alleyway in its tracks.

“What!”

The stillness that followed hung like a spell in the air.  Sebastian opened one eye, spying a strange figure whose billowing ragged clothing seemed to entirely fill the entrance to the alleyway.  He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until the man spoke again and he found air rushing into his lungs.

“…in the world are you doing?”

The first word had sounded monstrous and loud, like all the sound in the world striking the boys in their chests.  But the end of the question sounded like it belonged more properly to the hunched old man, frail and perhaps a little confused, who now hobbled further into the alley, and into the group of frozen ruffians.

The group seemed mesmerized by the soft scuffling sound the old man’s uncertain steps made in the snow.  As Sebastian watched, still crouched in fear, the strange intruder slowly parted the bodies of the older boys with the end of his walking stick, and stood before Sebastian, who recognized him, all at once, as if cold water had been splashed upon a dreamer.

“Graybeard the Peddler!”

The craggy face of the old man was festooned with a wild sprig of gray whiskers from which the old man drew his name.  Graybeard, though of course you wouldn’t know him, was known by many more people than you might imagine.  He travelled from border to border, through much of the kingdom of Gregoria, selling various trinkets and supplies to the villages and towns he came across.  He was also known to be a most excellent story teller, and children who had never met him in their short lifetimes were sure to know him, if only by reputation of his tales among their peers.

Sebastian was startled then, as you might have been, when Graybeard’s walking stick quickly jabbed him in the thigh and the old man snorted, “He looks scrawny, don’t he boys?  Back in my day, we would’ve called him a sissy, a jenny.  Knew a girl named Jenny once.  Lovely girl.  Unfortunate name, but her parents were old fashioned.  Of course, she murdered chickens so it never would’ve worked.  Chickens are nature’s purely innocent creatures.  Now wait…where was I?  Oh!  Lookie here.  He’s scrawny, ain’t he boys?  Why…he looks like a jenny to me!”

Sebastian made a small choking sound, and recoiled from the old peddler whose ramblings were, if anything, more alarming than the beatings he had only recently endured.

However, the ranting by the little old man had a strange effect on the other boys, whose rage and exhilaration seemed to get tangled up inside Graybeard’s words.  By the time he had finished, each of them was clasping their hands behind their back or digging the toe of one boot into the snow.  Gregor stood slowly, his eyes now hooded by guilt.  He cleared his throat.

“Ah..we were just…uh…we were just…listen, uh, maybe we got a little out of hand.  We…we should go.”

Graybeard reached out and gently patted Gregor on the shoulder, nodding his head in a most amiable way, “Yes, son.  Never trust a rooster with a blue feather.  Just remember that, and you should be fine.”

A chorus of murmurs accompanied the single minded exodus of the once vicious gang, who now slunk from the alleyway like dogs with their tails between their legs.  Only once the last footsteps faded did Sebastian slowly stretch out from the tight ball he was curled into, cautiously using the wall to stand, testing each movement for injury.

The soft touch of the peddler’s hand on his shoulder brought Sebastian’s eyes up to meet Graybeard’s own.  There was something strange and deep in them that frightened Sebastian for only a moment and then Graybeard clapped him on the shoulder with surprising strength.

“Of course, you are quite right Sebastian Smith.  Quite right indeed.  It was the dragon that murdered Milly.”

 

 

CHAPTER 4

In which

Sebastian nodded his head dully as Graybeard the peddler parroted his own provocative words back to him.

“R-right…I mean…it wasn’t that Professor’s fault or…whatever.  Wait…how did you know…?”

Graybeard held up his hand and smiled.

“Well I would truly love to continue our enlightening chat in this…quaint venue, I’m afraid I’m late for tea.”

Sebastian, unsure how to respond to the old man’s sudden announcement, stared up at the old man for a long and honestly awkward moment.  When the only further action taken by Graybeard was to smile expectantly at him, Sebastian finally stammered a reply, “I..I’m sorry.  What?”

“Tea, my dear boy.  The most refined and civilized practice of gathering together with friends and acquaintances to pour boiling water over dried weeds in order to produce a moderately drinkable concoction with which to occupy your mouth while your brain thinks of clever things to say in otherwise dangerous rhetorical circumstances.  It’s a thrilling sport really.  And I’m afraid I’m late.”

Sebastian frowned and looked first one way and then the other down the alley feeling as confused as if he had woken suddenly from a dream and shrugged his shoulders slowly, “Um…ok.  Sorry to keep you?”

Graybeard nodded his head, smiling in a way Sebastian thought the old man must believe was gracious.  Another long silence stretched between them, during which time the intensity of the earlier conflict finally faded and Sebastian was once again left present to his original reason for being in the alleyway to begin with, a blue reason he happened to notice was currently being tramped into the snow by one of Griot’s large traveling boots.  With embarrassment flooding into his cheeks Sebastian exploded, “Well what are you waiting for then?!  Some kind of escort?”

Graybeard’s gracious smile widened noticeably and he extended his knobby elbow towards Sebastian, “An escort would be most appreciated!  I’m not so sure on my feet as I once was…”

Sebastian, realizing he had trapped himself, sighed, and hesitated for a few moments before walking over, taking Graybeard by the arm and saying, “Alright.  I guess it’s the least I can do…”

Graybeard’s posture didn’t feel frail to Sebastian.  In fact, the leathery old peddler felt coiled tighter than a spring as he immediately set off towards the entrance to the alleyway.  However, as he took a few steps, he paused and looked down, saying, “Oh, what have we here?  It looks like someone lost a shirt!  Terrible thing to lose, shirts.  Not like socks.  Everyone loses socks.  Why, few people know this, but they come in pairs precisely because…”

Even as he babbled on, Graybeard leaned down and caught the snow-wet corner of Roland’s stolen shirt and began to lift it out of the dirty muck.  Quickly, Sebastian snatched the shirt away, causing Griot to stop midsentence and stare at him.  Sebastian felt his heart racing as he said, “Thanks!  Thank you.  Yea, that’s mine.  My shirt I mean.”

Graybeard frowned a bit and caught the opposite corner of the shirt in his own fingers and stretched the fabric out.  Sebastian bit his bottom lip, and winced when the old man let out a deep and suspicious harum.  But after a moment, the peddler straightened back up and stroked the silvery whiskers for which he was named before muttering, “Fashion…never understood fashion.  Shirt’s much too big…”

Still mumbling to himself, Graybeard turned and began to shuffle away in the show.  Without thinking, Sebastian quickly wadded the shirt under one of his arms, and scampered a few steps forward to keep up with the peddler, saying, “W-wait!  I was going to…escort you.”

Sebastian regretted his words as soon as he said them, but found his hand inexplicably trapped once more in the crook of the old man’s arm, who said, “Quite right!  You were escorting me.  Uh.  Where were you escorting me to?”

Sebastian quirked an eyebrow, “Tea?  Remember?  You said you were late?”

Graybeard straightened up all at once and slapped himself on the forehead, right between two bushy white brows, “Why of course!   I quite forgot!  Elda!  Elda invited me to Tea.”

Sebastian paused in his steps, causing Graybeard to slow and look back at the boy, as he said, “Elda?  You mean Aunt Elda?  You were going to her house?”

Graybeard cocked his head to the side, examining Sebastian in the manner of an enormous bearded seabird as he said, “Yes.  Elda.  The Aunt Elda.  Is there someone else named Elda I should be aware of?  Oh, I would hate to have accepted Elda’s invitation, only to discover Elda had invited me instead.  Oh dear me…”

Sebastian shook his head, “No, no.  There is only one Elda in Hisbac…actually, probably in the whole world.  But, it’s just…I was going to her house too.”

Graybeard smiled, “Of course you were, my boy.  You were escorting me.  Where else would you be going?”

Sebastian scowled at the old peddler, trying to decide whether he could really be that perfectly dense or if he was just having a joke at his expense.  You could never tell with Graybeard.  As Sebastian stepped out onto the familiar thoroughfare which wound its way through the heart of Hilsbac, from port to palisade, arm in arm with Griot, he absently tightened his free arm around the wadded contraband shirt he had so recently struggled to hide.  In the wide, bright street he found he quickly forgot the strange coincidence of Elda, and focused very keenly on the steady passage of townsfolk into which he was now thrust.  He wished, not for the first time, that his meager frame had a more masculine bulk, so that at least the bulge of his bicep might conceal the telltale signs of his illicit theft.  But as it stood, his own skinny limb was little more than a fleshy ribbon running across the crinkled blue fabric of Roland’s ill-gotten shirt.  He almost jumped through a nearby shop window when Griot spoke up suddenly, “You have some explaining to do!”

Sebastian tried to pull his arm away, sure that the peddler had finally caught on to his secret, but found the old man’s bony elbow an immovable vice from which he could not escape.  Quickly he said, “It was an accident!”

Griot patted Sebastian’s trapped hand with his own, and said, “Be that as it may, you’ll still have to answer some questions I’m afraid.”

Sebastian felt a hot wetness flood his face, escaping in a sudden sheen of slick sweat on his brow which threatened any moment to be joined by heavy tears.  The arm ineffectually hiding the pilfered shirt ached from the effort of concealment, while Sebastian’s mind whirled in circles trying to come up with a plausible explanation to any question Griot could level against him.

What Griot said was, “You said there was only one Elda, but it occurs to me that you may not, in fact, know every resident of Hilsbac.  So how can I be certain that you are taking me to Elda’s house, and not this…Elda…character’s residence instead?”

Sebastian stumbled in his steps, and found his thoughts scattered like a house of cards.  He looked up at Griot, who looked gravely serious and blinked twice, “Elda?”

Griot’s frown deepened, “Or Elda.  That is the question.”

When the old man’s frank and frankly farfetched question was asked with such sincere severity, Sebastian felt the absurd bubble his fears had created around him burst.  The real world came flooding in around him, as the dark shadow of Sebastian’s shameful secret was dispelled in the dawning realizing of Griot’s own apparent self-interest.  It was as if he saw clearly for the first time how invisible he was, not just to Griot, but to everyone else passing on the street too.  No one was paying any attention to a small boy carrying a bit of blue cloth walking with a funny old man.  The enormous lump of Roland’s shirt felt once again like a thin slip of fabric pressed nevertheless unbearably close to his own armpit.  And Sebastian’s crushing anxiety escaped in that instant with a sudden exhalation of breath that sounded to the otherwise unconcerned pedestrians around him like a bark of laughter.

Griot pursed his lips, causing the entire mass of his long beard to ripple on his face and then smiled, “Well, I’m glad you understand the quandary we are in!  It’s the tale of two Eldas!”

Sebastian smiled at Griot, feeling for the first time since he left ground zero of his laundry disaster that morning like he could breathe again.  He found the old man’s frown had turned into something softer, which his beard made out to look very much like a smirk.  Shifting the shirt down into his free hand, Sebastian tightened his grip on Griot’s elbow and said, “Alright, let’s figure it out together then.”

Griot bobbed his head in a good natured way, and added a small, almost unnoticeable skip to their step, which Sebastian soon found had infected his own feet.  As they made their way down the main street of Hilsbac in something passably resembling a frolic, Griot said with a practiced casual tone, “Since we have some time before we can lay this Elda business to rest at last, I was wondering if you would be so kind as to tell me what exactly happened with this poor Millicent Cobblestop business…”

Sebastian stumbled in his step, wincing as though Griot had just plunged a thick wiggling finger into an open wound on his chest.  He slowed a bit, and found Griot instantly matched his pace.  His mind felt sluggish, as though it was reluctant even to think of the most recent and tragic of events to befall the small seaside village of Hilsbac.

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