How long must we put up with this tyranny?” one villager shouted amongst the throng. “He has cost me my livelihood. My cattle are too scrawny to pull the plough, and there is not enough meat on ’em to make a meal.” His foot went splat into the mud of the village square, which was no more than a central space yet to be built upon. Still, it was filled with the mud and today, for a change, people too. Had the village clerk not been so busy this would have gone down in history as the lowest mud to person ratio that had ever been measured in the village square. He was on stage with the town elders though, hastily scribbling down every word that was being said.
In the crowd, a young Borin, which is much like any other human boy but with a slightly different name, pushed back against his jostling neighbours while stretching in an attempt to see who had spoken. However, all he could see were shoulders wrapped in fur and matted, muddy heads.
“Armies of ‘is kind do ‘is bidding and protect ‘im. If you think you can end it, please, be my guest,” an older villager replied.
“How the god let such a demon come about is lost to me,” said one of the few women present.
Borin squeezed between another rib cage and an elbow in time to see the chaplain rise from his chair.
“It is a test; a sign from our god that we must grow stronger and crush our enemies in his name. We must stand up to this demon who has proclaimed himself king.”
Murmurs of agreement rippled through the crowd. Then came a terrible crack and blackness. The murmurs died like a rat under a hammer.
The crack resounded in Borin’s ears, but before he realised what it was screams seeped in, replacing one din with another. He dared to look, and he saw that the chaplain had gone. Though a similarly shaped smouldering lump now sat beside the stage.
Mrs. Gribbins batted out flames on her furs. Someone elbowed Borin in the face. He bent over, rubbing his cheek.
“You see what we’re up against?”
“How can we defeat the vampire?”
“We should give him what he wants.”
“I would offer my daughters for protection.”
A moment of silence descended as everyone in the crowd turned to face the ugly squire Middley. Borin hated him. He was always mean, kicking him when he only wanted to play with his daughters. How had that ogre had such pretty girls?
“Well, I would…” he added.
“I would brave the vampire’s castle myself for one of your daughters.”
Borin thought that sounded like his friend Tybal.
“Aye. If you kill the vampire, I would offer them gladly.”
“No mere man can destroy the vampire.” Elder Catcher said, the one who smelt of sour milk. “This is why I have called you here today. Several weeks past, my son set forth to find someone more than mortal who would be willing to help us.”
“Has he returned?” the son’s fiancée said, no hidden desperation in her voice.
“He has, and not alone. He formed a bond of friendship with a mage from distant lands.”
A mage? Those men could play with magic like it was… mud. Borin bounced forward, his hands grasping the stage. They were almost trodden on by the elders.
“He and his brethren have agreed to help us.”
A stranger ambled onto the porch of Catcher’s hut and banged an ebony staff on its surface. Borin had never seen a man in a gown before, but something told him he might live to regret laughing, if he lived at all after that.
The man pulled back a purple hood and looked out over the crowd. His eyes were tiny black spheres. Borin instinctively hid from his gaze.
The mage, for he was clearly magical, as clear as mud is dirt and water, waved a hand at the crowd in greeting.
“Look! He has the mark,” said one of the lads beside Borin.
“The mark of the crescent moon. He is the god’s chosen one.”
“He can defeat the vampire.”
The mage looked at his palm. “Oh, that. That’s not a crescent moon. I burnt my hand on a hot potion bottle.”
Even Borin could see that and he was the shortest. Stupids.
A murmur flew in on the breeze: “If he was chosen then we could follow him.”
“Oh great mage, what can you do to help us?”
The stranger raised an eyebrow and pointed his staff at the charred lump that used to be the chaplain. He paused long enough for even the oldest and slowest of minds to form an understanding.
“I never could tolerate religion. Clouds the mind.”
* * *
Borin poked his head out of his hut. It was true!
He raced towards the unmistakable glow of a bonfire and the joyful twangs of the local ditties. The elders were throwing a feast for the mage, and after what he did to the chaplain. Maybe it was so he wouldn’t zap them too.
He crept the last few feet, his desire to idolize the most fantastic person he had ever seen as soon as possible losing against his desire to not be on fire should he skid and stumble into the beacon in his excitement. Such things were instinctual when you grew up on muddy ground.
The mage sat at the head table with the elders. He scoffed a bowl of corn and rice. The common folk sat around him, staring, only breaking their gaze to make muted comments.
The heavy air was broken when the mage threw down an empty bowl.
“Thank you, kind sirs. I must now prepare for the trial ahead.”
He rose and left the glow of the firelight, every eye at his back. Only when the dark had swallowed the purple robes did Borin creep out of his hiding place. He slipped onto a chair next to the blacksmith, Middley and a circle of other adults, pleased, for once, of the mud, mud and more mud that coated the ground as its muffling qualities helped him remain unnoticed.
“Ee killed our chaplain without a thought! Where are we supposed to place our faith now? In ‘im? If ee slays the vampire then maybe, but I do not like ’im,” Middley said, and then resumed scoffing down his bowl of stewed corn.
“But you saw his power. I think he could do it. A swift lightning bolt or two would put that vampire back in the ground,” the blacksmith said.
Middley’s neighbour swallowed his mouthful. “Aye, the devil may control the land, but what defence does ee ‘ave from the sky? I say we give this mage all our best. Ee will save us.”
He could. Whether he was scary or not Borin had to give him his support. With luck they could finally be free to leave the village and find some worthwhile land to live off of instead of this useless boring… mud. Borin couldn’t help feeling, even if he could not understand the exact reason, that the abundance of the stuff had caused him to forget other more interesting words to describe land, money, clothes, appearance and pretty much everything else that existed in their homeland. Well, it was all mud, for sure, but soon it might be grass and…. and … that other stuff that had colourful circles on top of it that the insects liked.
If only the mage won.
Their hero would still be preparing in the hut Elder Hideracker had given him. It was on the edge of the village, next to the pond (which was also mud and pretty indistinguishable from the other piles of mud unless you had been around to see the last puddle of water disappear).
He bounded past the huts and felt like singing, like crying out to the mage, but he slowed to a tiptoe as he drew nearer to his destination. There was a glow from inside the hut.
“As arranged, it will be done,” Borin heard the mage say. “I’ll be at the castle by midnight. Halt your nagging mother!”
Borin stopped at the door, watching the shadow on the ground before him. It was like using a dark mirror. The figure held something in its hand, something round. He was turned away so it was hard to make out, but Borin thought that the light might have been coming from that. He decided to risk peeking round the corner. The mage looked into a crystal. He spoke to it in a completely different voice. It wasn’t low, and growling like before, but whining like a small child.
“I was already set upon the task. I will be king, mother. I will, I will be king. I only have to defeat the vampire.”
Borin noticed there was scarce else in the hut. What preparations did the stranger have to make?
“We can. You haven’t seen us! You know nothing about me, or my group and the magic we perform, mother. I’m going.”
The mage lowered the crystal into a knapsack and then he turned towards the door. Borin jumped in his skin. He had been too slow. The mage froze. Then a hand slid up stroke the beginnings of beard.
“Ah, a visitor.” The mage’s normal growl had returned.
He stepped closer to see who spied on him. For the first time, Borin could see the mage’s face clearly. There was no shadow to hide the cruel point of his nose, no hood to hide the sharp chin, and those eyes seemed to glow.
“Curious of your visitor, no doubt. And scared. Worry not. I will leave your village soon and ….”
Borin edged away, slipping and squelching.
The mage’s shoulders slumped. “Why is everyone scared of me? I try… I plan to aid you.”
Borin flinched when the mage bent down and his hand moved from his side, but it only went to the boy’s head and ruffled his hair.
“See? I’m no foe.” He stood up. “I can’t get the respect I deserve from anyone. Would you take a gift? Show your friends that I’m not such a bad guy. Enjoy it, please.” He reached into his knapsack for something. “Then maybe you’ll remember that all mages aren’t so bad. Only, don’t ever bury it on the night of a new moon, mark my words, not unless you really like rabbits. Well, hold out your hands, boy.”
Borin did as he was asked. The mage placed into his quivering palm a metal leaf. Borin stared at it. He prodded it with his finger. It was cold and smooth. Although, he was pleased to get a gift he wasn’t sure what to do with it – only what not to do with it. Maybe he could give it to his Ma next birthday.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now get back to your mother, before she believes I turned you into a roach. I do not need another mother on my back.”
* * *
The mage left soon after. Borin waved him off. The loud cheer of support swiftly died leaving only the chatter of the night’s insects. The group stared after the man. Only Borin and a handful of others waited until the mage could no longer be seen. Then he too wandered off in the direction of his hut.
He stopped when he reached the bonfire. Borin felt some satisfaction that he could stay awake so late, but he had nothing to do. No one would play. No one even talked. He studied the mage’s gift, the metal leaf by the dying embers. It looked just like the real thing, but it was harder, not like mud at all. Soon, the villagers came in groups of twos and fours to pray to god and made offerings of corn and animals to his baked-mud idols.
After a while, a desperate cry interrupted the hum of prayer. Borin ran to see what was the matter.
He found a group of boys jostling for a look through the cracks of Middley’s doorway.
“Let us in, you crazy old coot!”
They hammered at the door.
“It’s no good. He’s barred it with crates.”
“What are we going to do?”
Legs and arms thrashed back and forth. Borin approached the boys carefully, spitting out some of the flying mud he had the misfortune to catch.
Tybal looked down.
“He’s gone loony. He’s planning to kill his youngest. She’s the finest of them all!”
The best any of them could do was to watch through an axe-hole someone had made in the door. By the light of all his candles, Borin could see Middley clear as day. He polished a blade to make it clean enough for his task. His eyes were like a frog’s eyes. The girl, Thea, lay on her bed with her eyes open. She seemed calm.
“Why is she not fighting?”
Borin didn’t quite understand why the boys liked Middley’s daughters so much. Sure, they were nice – they liked playing games that didn’t involve thumping him senseless – and he didn’t want to see anyone killed, but the others had always been clawing to get at them.
Tybal launched himself at the door, again and again.
“No fairy’s thrall will be murderin’ no one!”
Borin had heard those rumours too. No one had ever seen the mother, and so people whispered that he had slept with the fairies. He asked his Ma about fairies once:
“Oh, they are dangerous but dazzling creatures, son. Stay away from the forests. They tempt men to their doom with their beauty, so they can make their wicked brews from our bones and look beautiful forever.”
So, for a long while, Borin avoided Middley’s girls, out of fear for his bones, and his Ma made him promise not to mention fairies around them.
Inside the hut, Middley rose from his chair and turned to face his youngest.
“I’m sorry, my child. I am sorry. So sorry, my dear,” he looked up as he said this, “but we must appease the god. You understand. You have to understand.”
He stepped closer. The boys watched him looming over her, his knife raised, about to strike the fatal blow to his sacrifice. Suddenly, the girl spoke, and her voice came as a soft chime.
“Father, first tell me this. How does an act of violence appease a god who is opposed to violence in every form?”
Slowly, he lowered the dagger to his side.
“That is a good question. I would not want our god to disfavour us at such a time of hardship.” Contemplating this, Middley put down the knife and sat on the bed. “What to do? Why does god never give a clear sign?”
Crowded around his door, the young men of the village rejoiced.
* * *
That night, dark clouds gathered as flies gather around carthorses’ waste. Lightning and thunder raged across the sky. Sometimes it darted close to the village and scared the horses. It scared Borin too.
He imagined the titanic battle in which the mage and the vampire were mortally locked; the mage throwing lightning bolts like a god while the vampire commanded his army of minions and a terrible strength. Not a chance of sleep remained that night, though the storm did cease after hours of tremendous crashes and booms.
“Come to bed, Borin,” said his Ma. “It’ll be done for tonight.”
Borin leapt down from the fence that was his perch. He put the mage’s gift in his pocket. He could have sworn that it had grown warmer this past hour.
“Ma, no, please. I want to see him return.”
She smiled in a way he didn’t understand.
“No more. The sun’s light is coming.”
So he went with her, but as he lay awake in bed, he watched his Ma busy herself with cooking or clothing one moment, then stand at the door, staring into the distance the next, a candle in her clasped hands.
Only the fact that he awoke let Borin know he had slept at all. The night had felt long and he had been thinking all the time about the mage and the vampire.
He leapt out of bed.
“Is he here?”
“Oh! By all that’s holy. You scared me,” Ma said. “No, nothing yet.”
So Borin ignored his breakfast until Ma took it away and then he went outside to look himself. He found a number of villagers in the square.
“He’s dead! What will the demon do now? He’ll destroy us all,” the blacksmith said.
“I knew I should have sacrificed my daughter.”
“No. You made the right choice, Middley. There is no sense in wasting such beauty,” Tybal said with a smirk on his spotty face.
“I won’t be wasting ‘er on you, you whelp.”
Middley moved to strike the boy, but only succeeded in kicking up fresh mud.
Elder Hideracker stood from his chair. “Alas. We must honour his efforts and ease his passage into the beyond.”
“Yes, a stone memorial in his honour.”
Borin nodded too.
The villagers turned towards the last speaker and saw that lo and behold, the mage had indeed returned. He stood bloodied and weary from his struggle, but he still lived.
“Praise be,” the Elder said. “Does this mean…?”
“The vampire! Is no more!”
Borin jumped about as the others cheered and cried; the engaged couple embraced; cheeky Tybal dived at Middley’s youngest daughter for a kiss and received a beating from her father in return. All were happy. All was well.
Borin rushed home to tell his Ma.
* * *
That night, at the celebration, as the last of the rice wine was drunk and the young ones danced around the bonfire, the mage told of a desperate battle in which he could not kill the vampire, but put him into a slumber that would span the centuries. This news did little to dissuade the villagers from celebrating though. Borin thought that there was no sense in worrying about what would happen centuries later….however long that was.
“You have done us, and indeed, everyone in the land, a great service,” Elder Catcher said, still smelling of sour milk.
“But heed this,” the mage added, and Borin listened. “His body has been buried at the great crossroad six miles east of here. You would be wise not to move him.”
“Why?” Borin asked, wide-eyed and fearful.
”Oh, he’s heavy. I almost put my back out and I had to summon three scroflar demons to get him there.” The mage finished off a bread roll. “And you wouldn’t want to risk waking him up, would you?”
“Of course, we wouldn’t dare move him. Though I meant, why there?”
“I just thought it looked like a nice spot.” He took another bite of a fresh roll. “Easy to remember.”
Borin swore never to go there again.
“But that’s a major trade route,” the blacksmith said. “More clattering, rumbling caravans go over that spot than anywhere else!”
Would that wake it up?
“Fret not. I know what I do. Gods, you are like my mother. It would take one as skilled in magic as me to even begin to know how to wake up the monster.”
At the time, Borin thought that was a good thing.