What is Re-Told

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What is Re-Told est une nouvelle écrite par Alex Thomas.[1]

Partie 1[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

A lot of things were on Hafr’s mind.

Foremost was an ache that worked its way into his feet, unaccustomed to pounding hard rock in thin leather shoes. The intricately carved walking stick in his hand had become more of an anchor than an aid. Aside from that, there was the complex pattern he had been failing to memorize for a week, a cumbersome bundle of books and scrolls carving into his shoulders and the irksome memory of an awkward and eventually embarrassing conversation he had with a girl before he left. It chafed, looping over and over in his head with nothing but repetitive back-country paths to distract from it, and no recourse to be taken. At least, not until he was done with this, another pointless errand.

This is why when a bag slipped over his face, and an enormous force throttled him by the neck toward the ground, Hafr had no idea it was coming. He wasn’t certain whether he was blacking out or it was just the bag, but his fight or flight instincts had opted for a third option: embrace death. The decision may have already been out of his hands. Muffled voices made casual agreements, to take something or go somewhere. Laughter. Then there was the heaviness of being hoisted by one’s mid-section, the irregular bounce of a long stride, and finally a quick descent into unconsciousness.

Hafr awoke to ebbing daylight and an intense throbbing behind the eyes, undecided whether his head or fragile self-worth had been more wounded. He found himself propped up in an obscuring thicket that had been nowhere in sight when last he retained his senses.

Across from him sat a giant. To be clear- not a tall or muscular man, but a creature sporting thick charcoal horns from his head, curved like a yox, and an abundant mane and beard equal parts braid and knot. It’s cumbrous arms extended far beyond the reach of any man, using them now to hold one of Hafr’s books at an uncomfortable reading distance, thumbing through the pages with thick fingers unsuited to the task. Hafr realized he was alone with a varl, and it was not a comforting thought. He knew of varl, but had never been in the company of one, relatively sheltered as he was by the walls of Manaharr. Eventually the giant noticed that his captive had begun to stir.

“I wasn’t looking for pictures, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said the varl with the sort of low growl you’d expect from a horned giant. He pushed off one knee to launch himself up to a full height, at least twelve feet. “You know what I was looking for?”

Hafr remained silent, not only because he was terrified, but because he had no idea.

“Something of value!” The varl guffawed, gesturing to the contents of Hafr’s pack, splayed across the dirt around them. “Instead, just books full of things I already knew. So I started to worry that we had wasted your time, friend.” He frowned. “I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

Hafr quickly weighed his options. He had no idea who he was speaking to or how much they knew, and more importantly, what might happen if he was caught in a lie. “Hafr,” he finally mumbled.

“Hafr?” replied the varl. “Boy, your daddy named you “Goat”? Was he disappointed when he saw you squirt forth? Hah! Goat it is. Mine’s Bersi.” He tossed the book in a pile with the rest. “Anyway, as I was saying, my companion and I were distraught thinking that we had throttled you for no good reason, but then we got a good look at that walking stick.”

Hafr did his best to show no reaction.

“Despite appearances,” continued Bersi, “You’re the most valuable thing in the bunch! It’s a rare occasion we have a mender tied to a tree. He’s gone off to show your wet nurses that stick of yours, and see how much they’d like to have the owner back. Until then, we’ll be spending some time together. How does that sound?”

“The Guild’s more likely to drop him off a cliff than pay him,” Hafr managed to squeak.

“Listen, Goat, your concern is truly touching, but let me worry over the details. Just relax and we’ll all go on our way if I don’t yawn myself to an early grave first. Agreed?”

Oddly enough, Hafr did relax a bit knowing that the menders would be involved. However they chose to deal with this, things would probably end poorly for these brigands.

“Goats stay out in the yard,” announced Bersi, who was disappearing off into the bracken. “We’ll speak again tomorrow.”

The rope around Hafr’s neck chafed as he shifted his weight against the tree, his bound hands and feet making it more difficult than it should have been. Aside from his strewn pack and books, the small clearing was featureless. So Hafr sat and fretted. The night descended quickly, like a bag over his face.

Partie 2[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

When Hafr finally did sleep it was poor and fitful, a combination of aches and disturbed dreams, so that as the sun rose the next morning he felt somehow more exhausted than before.

Again, Bersi sat quietly across from him, leafing through one of the books. Hafr groggily recognized the cover: “Antiquity of Man”, a dry piece of history he had been made to memorize several times over.

“This is some dire stuff, Goat,” moaned Bersi. “Is this what you do all day? I’d rather be punched repeatedly in the sack.”

“I’ve read worse,” choked Hafr, betraying no minor discomfort.

“Have you?” contemplated Bersi. “Did you know this is all I’ve had to distract myself with for half a day?” It was true; dappled light came down through leaves directly above his head. Despite his discomfort he had been in and out of consciousness all morning. “Thirsty?” grinned Bersi.

Hafr nodded, suspicious. Bersi cracked the book to a page he had previously dog-eared.

“Oh, I was just wondering, what started the Second War with the dredge?” he grinned.

“Please... a drink...” started Hafr, unable to finish the sentence before he launched into a coughing fit.

“I will, Goat!” taunted Bersi. “I’m not completely heartless. Just answer the question.”

“You’re sick,” shot Hafr, throwing his head back in frustration. It wasn’t the request that worried him- he knew exactly where the varl was taking this.

“I’m bored out of my mind, is what I am. Not exactly asking for your hand in marriage here. Just remind me how the Second War was started.”

Hafr sighed, fully aware he was walking into a trap. He orated in a scholarly tone; “After the dredge were defeated by the human and varl alliance, they were driven to the north where the varl remained as their wardens. Over time, the varl grew overconfident and bored, venturing into dredge territory to slaughter whole villages without provocation. Following a particularly brutal encounter, the dredge organized and retaliated, penetrating the borders. The invasion would not be resolved for nearly a decade.”

Bersi let out a sharp howl, digging his finger into the open page; “Hahaaa! Goat! Are you kidding me? Nearly word for word! You must be quite the lady-slayer back at Manaharr. It’s a shame how wrong you really are.”

“What?” grumbled Hafr.

“You believe this trash?” continued Bersi. “Think all of us varl just sat around daring each other to knock the head off another dredge child ‘cause they had nothing better to do? It didn’t have anything to do with a certain bastard of a prince with a grudge as bottomless as his mead horn?”

“What are you talking about?” scoffed Hafr.

“The only thing the varl should get credit for is holding the borders against the mess that the king’s men couldn’t finish!”

“Idiot! You don’t even have that right!” shouted Hafr, forgetting his fear momentarily. “It was the menders who drove the dredge back.”

“According to books written by menders!” spat Bersi. “Look at you, “mender”, softer than a librarian’s ass-pillow! You couldn’t hold a spear upright if I tied it to your wrist. You expect me to believe that your limp breed pushed back endless waves of black-plated destroyers?”

The two sat in silence for a moment, eyeing each other contemptuously. “Still,” spoke Bersi, waving the book in his hand, “Can’t blame you for being wrong, when this is all you’ve got to go on. You think, just maybe, you don’t have the whole story?”

“Maybe,” stammered Hafr, who wasn’t sure if the varl had a point or his thirst outweighed his pride.

Bersi tossed a waterskin to Hafr’s feet, who managed eventually to scoot the thing to his hands and into his mouth.

“What’s your preference; hare or fish?” asked Bersi.

“Hare,” replied Hafr, once he had drained the waterskin dry.

“Just curious,” shrugged Bersi. “Most goats eat grass. Hah! See you tomorrow.”

Partie 3[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Hafr was awake with the sun this time. He was exhausted, starving and despondent. He never had much meat on his bones in the first place, so there wasn’t much to go around.

Hafr would be left alone until late afternoon. In the meantime, he struggled against his bonds and came up short. There was nothing within reach to shear the rope and the tree itself had been smoothed. Bersi had clearly done this before. Hafr passed the time meditating on his patterns.

“Up long?” bellowed Bersi, finally thumping into view. “Such a nice day I didn’t feel like spending it staring at your miserable face, but I thought I ought to make sure you’re still here.”

Hafr wasn’t in the mood. He remained silent, rather than invite more mockery.

“Oh, that’s how it is now,” said Bersi, who took his usual seat across the clearing. He shuffled through a couple books and picked up one with a blank cover. Hafr knew this as the mender primer which describes the basic principals of the craft. It was written in an old language that doubled as the first test to being accepted to the order.

“Ah yes, the tapestry,” Bersi would say, casually flipping through the pages. “The loom-mother wove life into the tapestry, and so also discovered death. Then they all killed each other! What a tale.” He smirked, looking up. “So the menders stitched the long banner into the threads of time itself to make our memories live on forever. Can you believe that, Goat?”

Hafr instinctively recognized the bluff. “There’s no history in that book. You’re not fooling anyone,” he uttered. “Don’t presume to know us. The loom-mother made mankind. The varl are just half-breeds of men and yox, smashed together and discarded like ugly clay toys.” It was a common sentiment amongst those who would look down on the varl.

“‘Us’?” replied Bersi, not taking the bait. “Are you a real mender now, weaving the very fabric of the tapestry out of thin air? Or just a future dress-maker? Because this is a book for beginners.”

Bersi walked over and placed the book on Hafr’s lap, then proceeded to tear out one of the pages.

“Mend this for me, would you?”

“I... you took my distaff,” stuttered Hafr, stalling. “I need it to focus...”

“Focus on this,” interrupted Bersi, pulling out a piece of jerky. “Do I have to treat you like an animal to make you do your little tricks?”

Hafr was past humiliation. If he didn’t eat soon he may not live to see his release. “Put the page back in its place,” he confirmed, closing his eyes. Usually Hafr would run his fingers over the carvings of his walking stick to remember the intricate pattern that enabled him to see the lines of power, but this time he would have to do it the hard way. He imagined weaving together threads that separated the page from the book as though there were strings connecting the two. They flickered and faded in his mind as he concentrated on them. Beads of sweat sprang upon his forehead as he struggled, threatening to sputter out at every stitch. Eventually he opened his eyes. It was frayed and askew, but the page was certainly connected to the book once again.

“Magical,” scoffed Bersi, after watching the whole process carefully. He dropped the jerky in Hafr’s lap and sat back, munching on his own piece.

As Hafr awkwardly gnawed the dried meat, he began wondering how long he could survive like this. He wondered how long it would take the menders to deal with Bersi’s partner and come to release him. Surely they’d be able to find him? The more he thought, the more nervous he became. What if they weren’t coming? It had already been three days...

“How long do we do this?” he finally blurted. “I doubt your friend will even come back before you let me starve.” said Hafr.

“Let you starve? I just gave you a feast for a king, you ingrate. Besides, it’s none of your business,” replied Bersi, but the usual pleasure of mockery was missing from his voice. It suddenly struck Hafr that his varl captor may have been just as worried as he was.

“He’s dead.” said Hafr, bluffing. “When they come for me you won’t be spared.”

“Goat grows some balls,” replied a wide-eyed Bersi. “Truly, we have witnessed miracles today.”

“That’s why you were gone all morning!” shouted Hafr. “Isn’t it? Release me and I’ll tell them to let you keep your horns!”

Bersi stood quickly, menacingly, face turning red. He pulled a hunting knife from his belt. “Keep your voice down,” he threatened. The more upset the varl became the less he said. Hafr had struck a nerve.

Hunger and exhaustion dulled the boy’s better judgment. “Untie me now, before you’re hung in a courtyard for the ravens to shit on!” he screamed.

Bersi shook with rage, suddenly driving the blade deep into Hafr’s thigh. He screamed in a deep and primal way reserved for worst of pains.

“Mend yourself quickly,” hissed Bersi, inches from Hafr’s face, “Because there will be a new hole for each day we spend alone together.”

And then he was gone.

Partie 4[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Hafr faded in and out of consciousness. His thoughts orbited like celestial bodies; the events that had led him to this place and this time repeated infinitely. He thought about how it could have gone differently, but then remembered that it didn’t, and the thought would echo again. Self-pity and terror fought against the will to survive.

With great effort he clawed his way out of the mental quagmire. The moon hid behind the clouds, as if afraid of the darkness it had, itself, created. Hafr had no idea how long it had been, what time it was now, or when Bersi would return. He believed every word of the varl’s threat.

He tried to “see” his wound in the dark, the same way he had envisioned the torn book page. It was a grisly mess. Repairing the fibers of a sheet of paper was one thing, but mending flesh was endlessly more complex; organic, layered, moving... bleeding. The intimacy of the image turned his stomach as much as the pain.

Hafr worked for several minutes, weaving the skin back together in his mind, making little progress, terrified of mistakes; it would be easy to accidentally sew muscle to bone or shred a nerve. Sweat and tears pouring down his face. He dropped his focus. It was vastly beyond him. Hafr instead focused on meditation, something he could manage, something that would at least dull the pain. During this reflection he knew he would have to escape this night, because the thought of another wound like this, and then another, was unbearable.

Before the fear could overwhelm him, Hafr changed focus to the rope around his neck, holding him to the tree. He could feel the rough fibers digging into skin and his mind’s eye lent them form. In this trance-like state, he began to slowly and patiently unravel it. It would be a slow and repetitive process.

Hafr’s thoughts wandered to abstruse things he seemed to have no control over. The girl he barely knew, as if that mattered. The day his father forced him to choose between a farmer’s life amongst family or “nothing but books for company” when the Menders came to recruit him. If he had stayed at home this would have never happened. Was it, in part, his own doing? He wondered if his task now was anything like when the first menders had sewn the long banner into time itself, and if they found it as paradoxically dull yet terrifying at the same time. His thoughts wandered back to the age of myth, the god of creation and the ancestral menders who were taught the first patterns. He envied them, at least they had a god to call out to. He had Bersi.

Hours passed, when to Hafr’s genuine surprise the rope around his neck began to slacken, tattered as it had become. He strained against it, and it tore and dropped away. For the first time in three days he stood up, in that dim and quiet clearing.

What now?

Pain came in flashes as Hafr hobbled simply forward, his arms searching for hidden obstacles in the dark. A faint amethyst glow had begun to wash over him. The sun was rising, and so would be Bersi.

As before, stories sprang into his mind from this new misery. Hafr imagined wounded warriors from antiquity, as they marched on the dredge after a decade of slaughter. Why did the races even war? This was rarely addressed by history books, where “what” and “when” always took precedence over “why”. To hear the books tell it, man, varl and dredge had only been made to destroy each other. That had a sad ring of truth to it, all things considered.

After many such bleak reveries, the trees gave way to a thin cliff side above a lake, battered by wind. To his right and left were only more rocks, no road in sight. A rustle crept into Hafr’s ears and he turned to see behind him a towering giant with charcoal horns lumbering out from the umbra.

Hafr’s leg gave out and he slumped to the ground. Bersi’s eyes glowed viciously in the sunrise.

Partie 5[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

A half-scream stuck in Hafr’s throat like a chicken bone. The giant towered above him, and then a long, silent moment passed between the captive and his former captor.

The varl shook his head and quietly sat on a nearby rock. Hafr’s bag slumped nearby and the varl resumed reading one of the books, looking uninterested just as Hafr had often seen him before.

Slowly, as if any sudden movement or sound would cause Bersi to spring like a bear-trap, Hafr rose again to his feet, and shuffled slowly away.

Bersi sighed loudly. “Not that way, Goat,” he said. Hafr froze, silent. “Do you even know where you are?” continued Bersi, pointing across the lake. “Four days ago you were hauling these books over that ridge”.

“A trick?” Hafr managed to murmur. Bersi noticed the boy’s wound looked grim, either re-opened or never properly fixed to in the first place, and he still hadn’t managed to free his hands. Bersi nearly spoke, but an odd, unfamiliar expression took over instead. Pity? He rubbed his temples and sighed again. Then he leaned back and continued reading.

In a stupor, Hafr hobbled the direction Bersi had pointed. Questions buzzed in his mind like angry wasps. Why was he free to go? Had the menders paid his ransom? Was Bersi playing a cruel game? He ventured a glance back. The varl hadn’t moved.

Bersi watched Hafr from the corner of his eye. Time passed. The sun rose and Hafr eventually disappeared over a hill. The sun started its descent until once again stars peeked out from the evening drapery.

A figure now approached from the same place where Hafr had disappeared. Bersi stood to address an elderly man picking his way across the terrain, leaning on an intricately carved spear, much older and more weather-worn than Hafr’s. “Hello, Bersi,” greeted the man, catching his breath. From around his waist he pulled a purse jangling with coin and handed it to the giant.

“The council would ask if you could be called upon for something a little more important than an apprentice’s test, this time,” said the man.

“What sort of something?” replied Bersi, thoughtlessly tucking the coin purse away.

“The young prince Ludin is traveling north to meet with your king...” he began, interrupted by Bersi; “Not a king. Just another varl.”

“Yes,” continued the elder, “In any case, we would have someone join them, and return to tell us what they have observed.”

Bersi squinted. “I’m the best you could find? Don’t you have menders you can trust in Arberrang?” he asked, staring across the lake as a rising moon reflected off its surface. “Are you guys having trouble making friends?”

“Varl friends, anyway,” he replied bluntly, stooping to collect the Hafr’s books, “And varl kings have not many human friends. Wouldn’t we all like to see that change? I assure you, it will pay well and be less bloody than this.”

“Blood doesn’t bother me, but I could do with a change of scenery,” replied Bersi with a thin smile.

The mender gathered his robe so as not to trip. “The prince has already left from the capital, so you will need to prepare for travel soon, I should think.”

“Fine,” said Bersi as the mender turned to leave. “Give my regards to Goat. Not the best or brightest, but he had spirit. I liked him.”

“A shame,” the old man called over his shoulder. “Hafr did not return. We found him collapsed, bled to death from his wounds." Bersi frowned. "Don't be troubled, you've done well, as always. His banner shall be returned to his family in the morning.”

Bersi rubbed his neck. Ah well, if they all made it, it wouldn’t be much of a test.

He shrugged, his mind already turned to travel.

Notes et références[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Références[modifier | modifier le wikicode]