Copyright 2015 F.T. McKinstry
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Tales of the Talisman
Volume 10 Issue 1, September 2014
It all started with a mouse.
Persistent creatures, mice, driven as all things are by the turn of winter’s gaze, but with the added cunning of the nocturnal. In early autumn, they found a crack in the eaves of Melisande’s cottage on the wooded outskirts of Ull. The swordsman had repaired the crack before returning to the towers and yards of Osprey on Sea, the great hall over the snow-draped Thorgrim Mountains, where he served. What a swordsman knew of carpentry, well, that was open to question. But he knew other things. Nice things.
As the moon waxed, the mice kept Melisande up at night, their tiny feet pattering in the rafters, claws scraping, teeth gnawing. How such a small creature could make such a racket eluded her almost as much as her lover’s carpentry skills. The cat, being wise in the ways of the season, knew all, for he did not sleep at night, not when the moon was bright and certainly not when leaves spiraled down to carpet the frosty earth. No, he hunted. But the mice knew that.
It was the eve of the Hunter’s Moon when Melisande first noticed something odd in her latest knitting project, a thick winter tunic for the young goatherd who lived at the bottom of the hill. The wool, deep brown as the smoke-stained rafters of the cottage ceiling, formed gaps where the sleeve joined the yoke, much like the cracks between a wall and a roof. Deep in her mind, the observation awoke a visceral awareness of interconnection, the wisdom of the natural world, a tapestry of patterns, lines, curves and counts as perfectly cast as a well-stitched swatch.
Pattern sense, her mother once called it; at least Melisande thought it might have been her, though it could have been her grandmother, or one of the old women in the village. Come to think of it, her mother had turned a dark eye on such things. Being of a wilder mind, Melisande picked up her needles, hummed softly and wove a neat kitchener stitch over the gaps in the armpit of her work.
She did not hear the mice that night, the night after, or the night after that. Melisande wondered if the cat’s vigilance had finally paid off. Clever hunters, cats. So she told herself as her pattern sense curled quietly as a snake in an ivy patch, to rest with both eyes open.
The swordsman did not return to Melisande that winter, though she plucked and snipped the white woolen threads of a blanket’s edge to keep the snow from the woodland path to her cottage. When the snows melted and she had folded her woolens and hung her snowshoes behind the door, still, he did not come. Accompanied by her old gray knitting bag, she wandered the streets of Ull and the sheep-dappled foothills of Thorgrim listening for rumors of war, but heard none. When the air became hot, she knit brindled patterns of drops and sky to soak the earth with rain. She knit green leaves and pulled threads of weeds from the vegetable patch, leaving purple violets here and there to grace the air with her lover’s favorite scent. But he did not return, as he had each moon for two suns past.
Perhaps he had found another sweetheart. A younger woman unstained by time and pattern sense. Why would he stay with a votary of needles and wool? Men such as he did not take wives or stay with lovers. They roamed like tomcats.
Still, she waited.
On the first day of summer, Melisande rose early, put on water for tea, fed the cat and went outside into the fog that cloaked the forest. A goat bleated in the mist. The village carpenter, in return for blankets for his children, now protected from cold and smiling in their dreams, had built her a shelter surrounded by a sturdy fence. It was now home to a nanny that the goatherd gave Melisande in return for his tunic, a very fine tunic, he said, that banished the rain from his bones.
After feeding the goat, Melisande fetched her tea and her knitting bag and walked to the stone bench on the edge of her garden, thickening with seedlings the village women had given her in return for tea cozies, placemats and shawls. Nary a puff of steam, drop of ale or chilling draft eluded her stitches, they claimed.
She drew forth the folds of a cloak for the constable’s daughter. Pale green as fresh grass, it had an intricate symmetrical pattern of wine-red climbing roses with dark green leaves. The shepherd’s wife, in return for a dress of silken flax, dyed and spun the knitter’s yarn in lovely colors of summer fields. Melisande drew a deep breath as she gathered up her needles and spread the soft, fine wool across her lap…
Her mind went blank.
In the center of the back, in a red rose tinged with pink and shimmering with dew, was a ragged hole. Blinking, she pulled it up and touched the popped loops of several missing stiches. She muttered an ugly word fit for swordsmen over drink. When was the last time she had dropped a stitch?
She jumped as something clattered on the other side of the cottage. Hoofbeats. Her arm hit the teacup by her side, knocking it off the bench with a clink and a splash. Between the trees beyond the path, a rider came into view. Melisande’s heart turned a triple beat as he dismounted.
Leaving her knitting by the garden, she ran to the swordsman, ignoring the sadness on his broad shoulders and the way his hand slid reluctantly from the reins of his dark charger. She flung her arms around him like a girl. He returned her embrace but weakly. Chilled, she withdrew. Age touched his long dark hair and the stubble on his face. His gray eyes held something she had not seen before, a blurred focus like that of a seedpod closing to an early frost.
“Othin,” she greeted him. She had never felt the name, taken from a god of wisdom, trickery and war, much suited him. Now, it seemed to. Her joy soaked into the ground like spilled tea.
“Melisande,” he returned, avoiding any affectionate nickname or other.
Details became clear and distant at the same time. He did not retrieve a bag from his saddle. Instead of the gentle garb of a man come to rest in the company of his woman, he wore the trappings of his station: shining mail, polished leather and glinting steel. Melisande stepped back, engulfed by a storm tide of self-conscious alarm. White threads in her hair, thin cracks on the corners of her eyes, she had become a priestess of pattern sense, a cruel goddess of time gone by, icy fingers of midwinter nights and a careless hole in the rose-red heart of her finest work.
“Do you go to war?” she asked, knowing it was not so.
The swordsman lowered his gaze briefly, as if to gather resolve from a void untouched by need. “I have taken a wife.”
Melisande stepped back again, catching her foot on a stone as the blood left her cheeks. Her heart started to pound. “Why return only to tell me this?” A reasonable question.
“I wanted you to know. I am sorry.”
He turned from her with controlled urgency, mounted his steed and rode away into the morning mist without looking back.
Melisande turned around on the path like the first purl row on a long scarf. Birds chirruped in the trees. The goat bleated.
A wife. Was it better to know the fate of a cat gone missing than to be left hoping for and imagining something kinder than the truth? She moved unsteadily to the garden bench where the maiden’s cloak lay half draped on the ground beside the broken teacup. A chill crept up her spine as she bent to retrieve it.
A dropped stitch in the heart of a rose. Surely not.
The cloak slipped from her fingers. Flooding into the wake of her scorned heart came a ferocious, ice-jammed torrent of what was and what might have been; the swordsman’s touch, his smile, the sound he made in his throat when rolling her into bed, the clumsy way he had muscled a ladder to the wall to fix a crack. Dark spots filled her eyes as she walked to the cottage. What use had she for marriage? For her work, the villagers helped her. And children? Pah! She preferred cats. A goat. A garden with violets.
For all that, a swordsman was quite nice to care for.
She reached the door in a near run as the pain flooded down. She had never asked the war god to be true to her; she preferred him free. What did she expect?
She entered the cottage and stumbled to her knitting cabinet. She flung open the doors, ripped the drawers from their tracks and rifled through yarn until she found a skein of blood red. Tears streaming down her face, she clutched the coils in her fist like a beating heart, snatched up a pair of elegant needles and sank to her knees, pattern sense rising and falling in her fingers like the breath of a dragon. She could change this. End this. Turn of a heart, death of a wife, fall of a trickster. She could—
With a cry, she dropped her woolen heart and threw the needles skittering across the floor. Then she buried her face in her tingling hands and wept.
Melisande eventually finished the constable’s daughter’s cloak. Quietly as an old grave, she had picked up and wove in the dropped stitches with no intention to alter her swordsman’s heart from its cruel course, as she might have done.
Instead, she knit pattern sense into tears and let them fall.
The villagers had never known rain and cold as they did that summer. Within a charger’s ride of Melisande’s cottage, the rivers overran their banks, forests hung low, crops drowned in their rows and sheep grazed in mud. Mushrooms and slugs took up residence on garden paths and in the shadows of rotting fruit. Finally, at the urging of the goatherd, those in the know gathered and headed for the knitter’s cottage.
Melisande looked up from her work at a knock on the door. “Millie,” called a familiar voice. She moved from under the voluminous folds of a dark gray blanket thick with black threads, and went to answer for her stitches.
A small group of men and women stood in the rain wearing Melisande’s fine work: the miller a sweater, the thatcher a vest, the goatherd his tunic and the constable’s daughter her cloak. Clutching a woolen cap to his chest, the carpenter flicked a nervous glance at the steely sky. “Millie, lass. Will you not help us?” His large brown eyes grew gentle, almost desperate.
No one had ever called Melisande a witch, a dusty term used more often in cities than in the wilds, where folk lived with things like pattern sense even if they did not possess the skill to wield it. But the villagers’ presence here wrought truth from suspicion.
“‘Tis your own business,” said the midwife. “But if I didn’t know no better, I’d say your heart’s been broken.”
The others mumbled and nodded, shifting on their feet. The blacksmith, whom the swordsman used to visit during his stays in the valley, glanced up with telling brevity.
Melisande lowered her gaze to the ground, her fingers tingling with the dragon’s breath. It was labored, now, not as bright and lithe as it once had been.
“We’re your kith and kin,” said the goatherd.
The simple statement scattered Melisande’s thoughts like finding a mouse nest in a yarn drawer. Since the swordsman had abandoned her to the subtle whispers of pattern sense, kith and kin had become a cat, a goat and a garden patch. But these were her people. As they waited, their faces filled with love and sadness, she understood. Pattern sense was not a thing of mortals. Its roots had no bottom, no end, no definition; it lay in her hands to give it form. She looked up, gulped back tears with a grateful nod, and returned inside.
She spent all that night unraveling the black from the gray, twisting it into silent skeins and putting it away. Then she pulled out blue and gold, and began to cast stitches.
The next morning, sunlight dawned upon the soaked, glittering land.
By summer’s end, news of war reached the valley.
Melisande hid her feelings beneath a comfortable cloak of group concern. But war has the ears of wolves, and the Lords of Osprey on Sea soon heard of a knitter in the village of Ull with a remarkably deft hand. One dreary day, two soldiers arrived on fine mounts, knocked on Melisande’s door and respectfully commissioned her to make clothing to warm the king’s army in the coming months. She bowed her head, holding a hand over her heart to hide the scar.
With somber industry, the soldiers provided her with yarn in shades of forests in winter. As the shadows grew long and the days shorter, Melisande worked, her pattern sense quiescent but aware, touching her hands like moonlight breaking through swiftly moving clouds. Neat stacks of socks, gloves, sweaters, leggings, and blankets filled the corners of her cottage until the soldiers came to carry them off in carts filled with the villagers’ offerings—including young men fit for battle. Three times they came, their horses thumping up the path, breaking Melisande from the needles’ rhythm. Three times she provided them with wares, her fingers rough and sore and her heart knowing the fear of every wife and maid with a swordsman’s favor.
Until one day.
The trees had lost their leaves a full moon past. The garden had been harvested and stored in the root cellar. Wind whispered in the chimney top, drawing drafts mingled with the smell of two-day-old soup warming on the stove. Melisande worked a blanket of white and considered another long winter without the warmth of a man in her bed. Without thinking, she eyed a skein of sun-gold yarn tucked into a shelf in the open wool cabinet.
Hoofbeats startled her from the blur of a long-lost notion. Her fingers tingled as she looked up at the window, pale twilight fading from the sky. It had not been long since the soldiers last came and she had only a few things to give them.
After an odd time, a heavy hand fell upon the door.
Her throat dry, Melisande rose to answer it. A blast of cold air whirled snowflakes into her face.
“Millie?” the dark figure said, pushing back his hood.
A shock of blood raced in her veins. She had almost imagined this while recently casting an extra stitch onto a row with an odd count.
“May I come in?” Othin asked. She nodded and moved out of the way. The swordsman entered, closed the door and hung his cloak on the hook as if he had lived there all his life. His cheeks were windburned and his warrior’s trappings were dulled by trouble. His raven hair was bound on his back with a piece of blue yarn. “I took the liberty of caring for my horse. I found feed in the loft.”
Still speechless, Melisande nodded. The village groom, who quite loved the barley-brown scarf she had knit for him, had put feed in her lean-to stable for the soldiers’ horses. She gestured to the low stack of woolens in the corner, some of it unfinished. “I don’t have much done if that’s why you’re here.” A daft comment. “But there’s soup if you’re hungry.”
“I am that.” He pulled out a chair at the table and sat. She shuffled to the stove feeling as old and unkempt as her tattered gray knitting bag. “I didn’t come for woolens,” he added behind her.
Melisande stirred the soup. Truly, she had knit the dropped stitches in the constable’s daughter’s cloak with nothing but tears, her pattern sense buried in the earth like an onion plug. If she had known the swordsman would return, she would have buried it deeper.
“Millie,” he said quietly to the silence. “Forgive me.”
She set a bowl and spoon before him, and then a half-loaf of hard bread covered by a soft-knit cloth with black cats stitched in it. “I never asked you to stay,” she reminded him. All knitting had closure in a bound-off row. Had she not taken great care to close every seam, gusset and neckband to protect the soldiers from cold and harm? Pattern sense favored such things.
The swordsman stared into his soup. “She is the captain’s daughter,” he began. The cold draft on Melisande’s heart told her to whom he referred. “She told him I had gotten her with child.” He picked up the spoon and lifted a dripping bite to his mouth. “I never touched her. But had I not taken her to wife I’d have been released from my station to a life of dishonor.”
Melisande sat down and put her hands in her lap. The trouble with binding off too tightly, she mused, was that the ribbing would not give. Twice, her fingers tingling, she had unraveled the stitches above the bind to end it differently.
The swordsman continued: “When news arrived that armies from across the sea planned to plunder our shores on the eve of winter, our minds turned to provisions. A man in my company had a fine cloak he claimed to have bought in Ull.” He looked up, his gray gaze touching her softly. “I’d have known those stitches anywhere.”
The blacksmith. He had traded the cloak Melisande made him to a soldier in return for more time to make swords. She had run out of black wool and used the soldiers’ gray along the trim, thinking it outstanding.
“On my wedding day,” Othin said, tearing off a chunk of bread, “I decided I would leave her and take to the road as a mercenary. My feelings must have shown in my response to the cloak. She branded me a blackguard and cast me from the house.”
Melisande had had one less sock after pilfering the soldiers’ yarn to finish the blacksmith’s cloak. Humming, she had settled for a mismatched pair. They would be hidden inside of boots. Well, most of the time.
“You don’t look like a mercenary,” she observed.
He set his spoon into the bowl. “I’m not. When she did not grow with child, her father forced the truth from her. She intended to snare me after the wedding and hope no one took note of the days.”
Melisande rose to take the swordsman’s bowl. On their second visit, the soldiers had asked, while nervously looking around at anything but her, if she might knit a pocket in the crotches of their leggings that they might take care of their business more easily. She did apologize for not having thought of that.
“I got lucky,” Othin said with a dry smile, for he did not believe in luck. He rose, moved to the fire and placed a piece of birch on the flames. “Your wood pile is sound.” He looked over his shoulder. “Did the mice return?”
Ignoring the question, Melisande went to his side. “Why have you come here, Othin?”
The name had never fit him so well as now, as he knelt there gazing with seasoned wisdom into the fire. He said, “The old men claimed never to have seen the likes of the storm that came. ‘Tis now believed the raiders’ entire fleet went down.”
“Then there’ll be no war?”
He shrugged. “Nothing we can’t handle, if anything.”
On the last new moon, it had occurred to Melisande, while casting on the stitches of a sailor’s cap, that storms at sea could be terrible this time of year. She had placed aside her fair colors for shades of fate and strife. After all, the sun could not shine all of the time.
The swordsman rose and stepped close to her, causing her to flush in the warmth of his presence, much finer than fine yarn. “My captain released me from my vows to his daughter and bade me to go home until things settle. So I came here.” He held out his hands. “If you’ll have me.”
Melisande placed her hands in his. “Well, the eaves could use some attention.” She smiled.
She had not heard a mouse since humming to a kitchener stitch, of course. But as the swordsman took her into his arms, she remembered that pattern sense worked best through a gentle hand.
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“Pattern Sense” was the original inspiration for Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, epic fantasy woven with Norse mythology and a touch of science fiction.
A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Edros stepped up to the standing stone that marked the boundary of the Fylking’s domain. Smooth and unadorned, the ancient monolith offered no clues as to its purpose. But it had tales to tell.
The city of Merhafr, a dense, lively port clustered around the King’s Citadel, spread out behind him like shells cast over the rocky hills plunging into the Njorth Sea. Edros planted his staff with a breath and started up the path toward Tower Sor, perched on the distant crags rising from the plain. The tower’s presence, normally as rough and volatile as the ocean winds, lay cloaked in silence. Gulls wheeled and cried around the height.
A shepherd appeared over a rise, driving a small flock of sheep. When he saw Edros with his warden’s cloak and staff, he quickly directed the animals into the brush and stood with his head bowed. The warden murmured a greeting as he passed.
The calm that cloaked the sea at dawn had given way to the unruly rifts and white of heavy weather. Wind carried the scent of brine, heather and wild roses. The warden’s Guardian Fylking, who took the shapes of watery places, began to withdraw as they usually did in the presence of the High Fylking, who ruled the towers. Unseen by all but their wardens, the immortal warriors kept their oaths and vigils by the sword. One by one, a whisper in his ear, water lapping on a shore, a cold spot in a lake, fell into quiescence.
Sor was one of ten towers that defined the realm of Dyrregin. Five inner towers, each 50 leagues apart and 35 leagues from the center of the realm, stood on the intersections of lines between five outer towers. The resulting boundary formed the Gate, a pentacle with a diameter of 213 leagues. In the nine thousand suns since the Gate was built by the original wardens under the direction of the Fylking, the sea engulfed the granite shoals around one of the outer points, Tower Sef, isolating it from land and giving all sailors except wardens something to avoid as they might a siren’s song. War took Tower Sie, a second outer point which stood in the realm of Fjorgin across the Njorth Sea. Politics, bloodshed and treaties aside, no one interfered with the wardens in their business there unless they wanted to risk being destroyed by their Fylking. Being relatively new to the Order, Edros had not yet journeyed to Fjorgin. But he had heard the stories.
Being deployed on the rugged coast for thousands of suns had given the High Fylking of Tower Sor sullen, moody dispositions. Like the sea, the warriors were rarely silent. Today, however, Edros felt only the storm. He gazed ahead, rallying his inner senses around the tower with unease. The last time he had felt such quiet up here was after he banished the Fylking for frightening a ranger so badly he had lost his footing and fallen to his death on the rocks below. Such things happened around the gatetowers sometimes. Not everyone believed the tales, and fools abounded regardless. But it was the wardens’ charge to protect the citizens as much as they could—or so the high constable of the King’s Rangers had needlessly reminded him.
It was said the ranger’s spirit wandered the cliffs beneath the tower, cursing the Fylking. That was nonsense. The Fylking would never stand for such a thing, even if they could cross the boundaries of their dimensions and those of the mortal dead.
Silence. Nothing but the sea, crying gulls and wind in the brush. The tower gazed down with a discomfiting stare. On a parapet crowning the top crouched the shapes of dragons—so the Fylking called them—reptilian creatures with scales, long snouts and large bat wings folded against sinuous bodies. The creatures’ snaky tails twined down into the stones. Their eyes were empty.
A subtle prickle touched the warden’s navel as he began his ascent up the winding steps. The ground fell away, the sea grew vast and the wind quickened. Dark clouds streaked the sky like an infection. He reached the door, a tall arch of weathered oak with iron hinges shaped like talons. Rain pelted him. As he entered, a screech echoed from the stones, followed by a rush of warm air carrying the scent of wood smoke. His mind went blank as the smell filled his lungs. An impossible smell, in this place.
Edros slipped through and closed the door. He had never entered a gatetower to anything but cold and damp—except for that time the High Fylking had greeted him with the smell of roast partridge, a jest aimed at the late King Farcas, who died last winter with a wing bone lodged in his throat. They had never liked him.
“Hail!” Edros called out, stepping from the shadow of the thick stone wall.
The interior of the gatetower was as large as a warlord’s feasting hall, a cylindrical well rising seventy feet to a ceiling glinting with quartz crystal. Narrow, steep steps spiraled up the walls to a hatch that accessed the top. Thin openings placed here and there in the heights aligned the light of the sun, stars and moon. The Fylking jokingly referred to these as arrow slits, though as far as Edros knew, the inaccessible windows had never been used for that.
His heart skipped a beat as he saw the source of the smoke. In the center of the floor, directly on top of the crystal circle that focused the light of the heavens for the Fylking, burned a fire. Heather and broom had been ripped from the roots, tossed into a pile and lit as if by lightning. An old man stood there warming his hands.
Stunned by this flagrant transgression of the Fylkings’ domain, Edros strode forward and yanked his hood from his face. “Are you mad?” he said, none too kindly. “What means this?”
Where were the High Fylking? They would turn a man to dust for building a fire in here! Chilled to the bone despite the heat, the warden opened his senses to the subtle murk of the rising storm. Wind whistled through the arrow slits, as cold and strange as a nightmare lost to memory.
The old man said nothing.
“How did you get in here?” Edros asked in a quieter voice. He and the man were not alone. He sensed the stormy presence of a Fylking filling the tower vaults. Immense and unfriendly, this Fylking had no care for humanity, even hidden by the lofty ascendancy of the unseen. His antipathy was tangible.
The warden moved his hand into a Banishing sigil, his fingers curling one after the other into a fist, like a many-legged sea creature withdrawing into a shell. It had no effect.
“Don’t trouble yourself with that,” the old man said. “The Sor Fylking are dead and your Guardians scattered to the wind.” He straightened his back and shrugged his tattered cloak to the floor. He was fully armed and clad in shades of brown and green stitched with branches, marking him as a votary of the Blackthorn Guild. Once a noble order of magicians created by King Magnfred, the first ruler to claim Dyrregin’s throne after the Gate War, the Guild had been stripped of its thorns over the centuries and now comprised a harmless assortment of hedge witches and warlocks that served the Old Gods and studied the forces of nature, mapping the heavens, concocting potions for common ailments, talking to crows.
Edros had never heard of a Blackthorn warlock wielding arms or associating with the Fylking. Aside from hair the color of ashes, he was not as old as he initially seemed. He had smooth flesh and eyes like winter twilight, pale gray and ice cold. Something about him stirred the warden’s memory.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
The warlock gazed back, his expression inscrutable but for a sliver of scorn.
Blackthorn, indeed. Edros struck the floor with his staff and raised his voice to the stormy presence enveloping the tower. “Show yourself! What Fylking would disregard a sigil cast by a Warden of Dyrregin? You are bound to an ancient oath.”
The wind howled and thunder shook the earth, driving rain and snow into the tower, the spiraling frozen tears of fallen warriors, five of them, beautiful and lying on the floor like felled trees in broken armor made of stars, long hair tangled in blood, and fair eyes staring at nothing.
Dead? He had not believed the claim.
Edros broke from his trance as the warlock moved. Before the warden understood the way of this, the intruder pulled a knife from his belt and hefted it by the blade. By his side stood the shimmering form of a tall warrior clad in black steel, wearing a helmet in the shape of the spike-crested, fanged creatures on the parapet.
It was the warden’s last thought as the knife struck him between the eyes.
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F.T. McKinstry grew up studying music and reading books. An old-school fantasy geek, she acquired a deep love for fantasy, science fiction and the esoteric, of which she was an avid reader. With a background in computer electronics and software development, she wrote and illustrated technical documentation for many years, during which time she created fantasy worlds. She is inspired by plant and animal lore, Northern European legend and mythology, fairy tales, mythical creatures, heavy metal, medieval warfare and shamanism. She also enjoys oil painting, gardening, yoga, hanging out with her cats and fishes, and being in the woods.
Other Titles by F.T. McKinstry
The Chronicles of Ealiron