Part 6 – The Fountain of the Meek
The woods were to the East.
Jala had only to retrace her steps, having almost elected to go in that direction several days ago. The woods were not the problem here. She had never heard of the Fountain of the Meek. She did not know where it was, nor how she was supposed to get under it. All she knew was that it was ‘yonder’.
Yonder. So infuriatingly vague.
Freya had found a piece of wood that she was using as a walking stick. She was more than capable of traversing great distances with her short leaping bounds and apparently limitless energy, so the stick spent almost no time on the ground. It pointed out the different types of tree, and the many facets of moss, mould and grubs. Freya was one with the woodland, and Jala was conflicted: it was undoubtedly part of a warrior’s duty to learn all they could about their surroundings, lest they be able to turn an element to their advantage. At the same time, Jala really did not care that much about moss. Apparently it was all the Wise Woman in the village proscribed for whatever ailment you visited her with.
Your teeth had the rot: Moss.
You were afflicted with shingles: Moss.
Your nipples weren’t symmetrical: Moss.
Jala suspected that the wise woman knew of the limited medical applications of mosses, but was also fully aware of how useful lies could be in healing the afflicted.
As it was, Freya darted about the forest path – her faithful stoatling at her feet – conveying what knowledge she had. It was Jala’s fault for reminding the girl of how little she knew, but she had hoped that Freya would be encouraged to learn, not show off exactly how much she knew. As she bounded from root to root, describing the properties of the woods in each tree that she had learned by rote, Jala noted the clasp on her knapsack was falling loose, and applied calming words and gestures to the child before the salted meat spilled across the forest floor.
The village had been wiped out. It seemed pointless not to make use of what resources had been present.
No sooner had Jala re-tied the knot, then Freya was off again, telling of how her father had made longbows from this tree, tables from that, arrow shafts from these. One time a group of travelling players had been through the village, having been attacked by bandits on their way. Her father and mother worked through the night to make and mend their props, and so the show went ahead as planned.
The players had moved on, but not before writing in characters called Freya, Marek, Roderick, and Helena in thanks to the family.
Jala thought of her mother – thin dry lips, staring eyes, and blood plastered across her torso – as they had lowered her into the ground. What she had done deserved better than a wordless burial, but that was all she received. Freya’s parents had died in a similar way, but it hadn’t even occurred to either of them to search for the bodies and to give them a proper funeral. There were too many villagers to entomb everyone, but perhaps she should have done that for the girl. She spoke of them as if they were still alive, as if they would be waiting for her when she got back.
Freya was almost out of breath as the footpath climbed sharply up an incline covered in bright green ankle-height plants, short dark trees lining the crest. The forest was dry, and smelt of dusty soil. Birdsong was mocking, raspy, and puritanical. It was not a place to spend a pleasant day, even if the Wise Woman had gathered much moss here she wouldn’t linger.
Over the ridge was a triangular clearing, two paths leading off in opposite directions at the other points, and a great upturned tree in its centre; its trunk hollow and dark, sloping back into the ground. Congealed sap spilled through the roots, and a spring produced a steady torrent from below. The roots twisted round like grasping fingers, sticky with copper-coloured sap and worn by the constantly running water.
‘Let’s rest,’ said Jala, ‘And make the most of the spring.’
They sat down beneath the wooden ribcage, and held their pouches beneath the falling water. The water tasted slightly sweet, but it was cool and refreshing after their walk.
‘This wood is poor,’ said Freya. ‘It is almost dead, nothing you could make from this would last.’
‘You could make a home,’ said a voice.
It echoed and spiralled from the hollows of the tree. Jala, twisting around, held her hand up at Freya as the girl rose to her feet and peered into the darkness.
‘Hello?’ she said.
‘Hello,’ said the man behind her. ‘You should try to learn from your warrior friend, rather than teach her the many fascinations of bark.’
Jala scowled. She had become aware of the man’s presence shortly before he spoke. He moved like a spear, direct and to the point, advancing. Clever trick with the throwing voice, but not one a warrior would fall for. She was already turning, her hand reaching for her sword. Freya was not a warrior though. She was a carpenter’s daughter, and no matter how capable she was for her age, she was still dead wood.
Marek helped matters not by tumbling from the roots of the tree with a squeal, and scrambling to recover his dignity from the protection of Freya’s ankles.
The man was dressed in a thick bear skin cloak, matted fur across the outside, leather lining apparent from the curled trim. Heavy leather boots and a skull-like helm across his face. His mouth and eyes were visible beneath the battered metal. He chewed relentlessly, and spat something out towards Marek. The stoat ducked back behind Freya’s feet before hissing at the newcomer. Seeds. Spices. A hint of citrus tang. He smiled at the aggression.
‘Ahoy,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the Fountain of the Meek.’
‘Who are you?’ said Jala.
‘The Fountain of the Meek is a glorious place, and a place where even the most humble servant of chaos can find calm, understanding and significance.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I am the Whore,’ he said, and he drew back his cloak to reveal a dozen daggers that glittered like a battlefield. ‘I’ve been waiting. Did the boy send you? He used to be so good at sending custom my way. Shame what’s going to become of him.’
‘What did you do?’ shouted Freya. ‘What happened to my village?’
‘I don’t know details, but I should imagine nothing will remain alive there by tonight. Everything, you see? Even life the ignorant did not notice will die.’
‘Freya,’ Jala whispered, ‘I want you to get away from here. I want you to take my knapsack, and go.’
‘Shush! Look at me.’
Freya looked. She had not noticed it properly before, but Jala was a warrior. Everything about her sang it in a low, keen voice. Taught, poised, aware. Her eyes pierced you as sure as any steel, looking over you for strengths and weaknesses, saying more with a flick or a dart than Freya could yet with her tongue. They spoke to Freya now, and they said ‘Run.’
Jala straightened up. ‘Run along,’ she said pleasantly, ‘Get some herbs for our lunch.’
Freya took Jala’s belongings, and ran off along the path on the right. Marek scampered after her. The girl did not look back.
‘Jala,’ said the Whore of Knives, ‘That was pointless and noble of you.’
‘No,’ said Jala.
Freya ran, her feet slapping over the worn footpath as she concentrated on taking as huge-a strides as possible. She ducked as branches loomed and whipped past her, scratches in her vision and body. Marek pined behind her, and as she turned her head to check on him she caught her foot on a root and sprawled over and over, the spout of the water pouch cracking into her arm. Marek surged over and licked her face. Muzzily, she lifted her head, and gently raised her limbs. Her left arm felt numb, dead. It would recover.
She dragged herself backwards against a tree and drank. Then she took out some salted meat and nibbled at the end of it, petting Marek and feeding him crumbs. Anything, really, rather than dwell on what had just happened. So…inventory. What did she have?
She had meat, and water, and hard bread. She had a wooden sword and a stick. She had a stoat. She had oils. She had rope. She had some jewellery, some wooden splints, trinkets and charms.
There was not a lot she knew how to use.
Jala was back there with that…man…and Freya was alone in the woods with Marek. The man had said the village would not be safe, and she didn’t know what lay beyond these woods. She didn’t know how to hunt, she didn’t know how to navigate. All she could do was to build a shelter here, a temporary thing, and hope that the man didn’t consider her worth following.
If he was that dangerous though, he would surely find her. Jala would not have sent her away if he were not dangerous, but you could feel it at any rate. His mere presence was like a knife edge slowly eking its way along your spine.
‘Marek, what choice do we have?’
The stoat looked at her with its sad, scared eyes. Then it licked her nose, and seemed to nod once.
Freya unsheathed her wooden sword, and swallowed hard.
The Whore of Knives is a choice. Neither are good choices, but one must be made.
He will offer you a knife from his collection. Every day he selects a dozen from his greater arsenal, and sheaths them in his cloak. He is well-travelled. Reports of his deeds put him all across the land, from the harsh climes of the True North to the approach roads of the great Southern Cities. Hillwalkers to the West have found traces of his work in the high foothills of the Aplines. In the great Eastern mineworks some rich seams lie unworked, for the fate that met their finders was too appalling to be worth risking it again.
If you decline his offer, he will smile, and bid you on your way.
You will be found later, although by this stage you may more closely resemble a butterfly than a biped.
No-one knows his real name, where he is from, or how he does what he does.
All they know is the reason.
He writes it in his victories.
The Whore offers you a choice of two knives. Each one has a power that can be used to enhance the mere wickedness of the blade, and he will tell you (without telling you) what it is. If you manage to work out what extra power the blade has you may be able to use it to survive a dangerous encounter with a madman.
Also, you may not.
The latter is more common. Only one person alive has survived an encounter with the Whore of Knives, and that is the current Whore of Knives. He is a man who knows how to whisper, which is more than his predecessor did.
Once upon a time he was a hero, but then once upon a time he noticed that being a hero had its privileges.
Now, if he catches you, this man, he will kill you. And then he will tell the world why he did it with words in your flesh.
The word he will write in your body with his blade is short, and it is sad, and it is obvious.
The word he will write in your body is ‘FUN’.
Jala knows of this. She knows of the legend. It isn’t a title handed down, it’s a title wrested from corpses.
It isn’t a legend she particularly wants to be a part of, but she doesn’t really have much of a choice anymore.
The blades are simple things, as all useful blades are. One has a red leather grip, the other black. Both blades are pale steel with pronged hand guards. They sit on either side of the Whore’s torso as he grins and coos and suggests which one might be Jala’s salvation.
‘Attend very carefully, for which blade you pick will surely be itself, and yet not itself, for that is its power. This one here belonged to an unskilled widower who I was merciful to, and this one to a pirate who did terrible deeds with it and others like it. He discovered its true purpose more quickly than the widower, who only knew it briefly when I showed him.’
Jala knew, deep down, that it was a trap. It was said that he could throw a blade in less than the time it took to blink. By the time she drew her sword, or nocked an arrow, her throat would be open.
What power could be hidden in a blade? How could a knife be imbued with such potency that it became more than a mere short-sword? What had he said that she could use to defeat him?
Nothing. He had said nothing.
Hesitantly, she reached out for the red-handled blade…
Nothing. And that was it.
Her fingers gripped the handle, and gently prised it from the sheath in the lining of the cloak. She saw the movement start, letting her new knife fall and grabbing it by the point, swinging it round until the handle rose into her palm. Then she twisted her wrist so that the blade followed the line of her forearm, just as the Whore’s knife drove down.
Nothing was special about these knives. You stuck the pointy end in meat. That was all.
Jala thought of all those people who had died hoping for a miracle that was never going to come.
Deflected away from the veins, the blade sliced through the flesh at the top of Jala’s arm. She grunted in pain and fury, before instinct took over and she slammed the knife into the Whore’s ribs, but too high. He roared, and sent her sprawling with a swing of his arm. He pulled the blade out and spun it in his hand. Holding the two knives ready, he advanced on Jala and stomped a foot down on her ankle, pinning her to the ground.
He squatted, putting more weight on her ankle, and then lightly draped the point of his knife along Jala’s midriff. It tickled, but arcing her back twisted her ankle further. Then the Whore of Knives took his blade and pressed it into her body until it drew blood, before dragging it along in a straight line, adding two shorter lines at right-angles in short sharp slices.
Jala screamed. The Whore of Knives exhaled, snorting. He left the knife embedded in Jala, and then began tracing the shape of the ‘U’.
‘What fun,’ he said.
Then Freya twatted him in the eye with a stick.
Jala grabbed the knife from her stomach and surged it through his neck. She pushed his body against the Fountain of the Meek and stabbed at him again and again and agai, screaming wordlessly all the while, until the blade broke off in his torso. Freya stood and watched as her stick fell from her fingers.
Satisfied that no living thing could look like that, Jala took a step back, and then fell to the ground clutching at her wound.
‘Freya,’ she gasped, ‘You should’ve gone…’
Jala’s head slumped back. Her breathing was shallow, and the blood continued to flow from her stomach and arm.
Freya tried not to cry, but she was alone in the woods with nowhere to go. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
She looked into the hollow of the tree. The darkness seemed to go on forever, but that is where she would find what she was seeking. That’s what the little man had said. She had to go under the Fountain of the Meek. Where else was there for her to go?
Until that day, the Fountain of the Meek only looked like it ran red with blood. After that day, the water of the spring pinched at the throats of those who drank it, an iron tang that was never quite pleasant nor off-putting.
Voting closed at Noon BST on 23rd June. Thanks to all who took part!