He’s tall and gangly; moustache, goatee and thin face, long curly hair, protruding jaw and cheekbones combine to form a striking, unforgettable, image. His T-shirt, orange and tight, shows ribs, has ‘Canticle’ printed on it above a hand-drawn picture of a long, stringed instrument – an angélique for those who know.
Canticle – for that is his chosen name – approaches a table; a plastic and stainless steel surface with an embedded keyboard and small screen on each side and larger square touchscreen in the centre. Around the table sit three people.
Canticle pitches his voice to be heard over the murmurs and background chatter from people sitting at similar tables dotted around the vast echoing hall. “I’m afraid it’s the booby prize for you.” He grins and reveals spotless white teeth. “You came last.” He pauses, frowning, “Why call yourselves ‘The Lonely Doomed’? Bit bleak…”
An elderly man swivels on his chair and looks up at Canticle. “I’m 81, cancer. I’m too weak for treatment.” He nods towards a team mate; a painfully thin young woman breathing through a hissing plastic mask fed from the gas cylinders on the trolley beside her. Long lank hair, wetted by the vapour discharged with her every exhalation, hangs in rat-tails over a T-shirt with ‘Radha’ printed over her scrawny chest. The elderly man goes on, “Radha has cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell.” Turning his head to the third person, he adds, “Cúchulainn here breathed toxic fumes in a burning factory. Messed his head. Sometimes he’s fine, sometimes he goes to buy drugs, pays and walks away not realising the dealers haven’t given him anything. Other times he walks among traffic.” He sighs and turns back to the table. “For what it’s worth my game-name is ‘Dreadnought’. We all live alone. No-one talks to us apart from NHS staff or each other when we meet in outpatients or here.” He nods at Radha. “Radha can’t talk at all.”
Radha’s fingers tap her keyboard. “hi cntcl wr al dyin an yr scrn is fckd”.
The message comes up on all the small screens. Cúchulainn says, “We couldn’t get to the next map-screen.”
Canticle leans over the table. “You just swipe it like this.” Nothing happens. “Like this.” He looks at the screen. “Sorry, you should have pressed ‘Help’.” He shrugs. “You still come last.”
“we did prs hlp – iz fckd,” Radha types.
Canticle frowns. “This button here.” He presses it.
“You should have walked over to the techies’ desk.”
“rly? u wnkr. cooch wd gt lst, i cnt wlk w/o hlp n dredz wd rn ot o brth. GIT.” Radha slaps the table, chokes and shakes.
Cúchulainn’s chair crashes across the floor as he leaps up and races to Radha’s side.
Dreadnought says, “Arse in gear, mate. Do what I say. Set her oxygen right down to 0%, CO² to 100%. Wait till she starts breathing again. Push the red lever down … the one on … that’s it. Half way down. Keep her head back…”
Cúchulainn says, “I know, I know.”
Dreadnought answers, “You do forget. Bear with me. As soon as she…”
“Got it; on it: she’s breathing.”
“Oxygen back to 45%, CO² 55… Reduce pressure to twice normal.”
Cúchulainn’s shoulders sag. “Thanks … I forgot that bit.” He strokes the side of Radha’s head. “Raise your hand when … great.” He nods to Dreadnought. “She’s OK. Breathing deep and good. Give her a min.”
Canticle picks up Cúchulainn’s chair, pulls out the spare one and sits on the fourth side of the table.
Cúchulainn says to him, “Well, something weird is written all over your face; wossup?” He sits in his chair.
“I … wait. How did you get into that room?” Canticle studies the screen. “You smashed the wall down…”
“Two-handed war hammer,” Cúchulainn explains, “All I got in that poxy room was a chain-mail shirt with 80% slash deflection, 30% stab and 17% awl-arrow resistance. All that for something barely better than I started with.”
“If you had completed all eleven screens … the contents of that room gets better with every screen you’ve cleared … but you couldn’t because this console has a glitch. How did you know there was a secret room there? You don’t get the clue until the last screen.”
A hiss escapes from Radha’s mask. “u entr th tnnl, trn r, trn l, trn l agn, trn r. Iz obv thr iz a rm thr.”
Canticle snorts. “You forget, the average age of most teams is about fifteen… Mind you, the average mental age of the organisers is less – or at least their IQs.” He sits back and looks at the players turn. “I am a bard.”
“fck tht. fx the cnsl.”
Canticle leans forward on both elbows. “I’m not here about this game. Real bards can’t be arsed with such stuff – or consoles.”
“wht u hr 4?”
Canticle smiles and looks into the distance. “Real bards have only one magic spell and rarely see the need to use it fully. The trick is to know when the time is right.”
“fx the fkn cnsl.”
“No. Let me tell you a story instead; a tale: a tale of legendary heroes.”
Cúchulainn calls from the stable doors, “Get your arse out of there.” He stamps frozen mud from his boots.
Radha ignores him for a moment, takes lazy deep breaths, wants to drown in the heady smells of horse, manure, hay and the odour of oats. The hot, hair-spiked nostrils and lips of the mare brush Radha’s skin, and a snort blasts her hair into a tangle. “You naughty, naughty horse.”
The stable ostler enters the bay. “I’ll…” He stops.
Radha walks past him to the entrance. “All done. She’s ready for the night. We always tend to our animals before we tend to ourselves.” Cúchulainn and Dreadnought wait for Radha near the entrance of the tavern. The tavern’s singnage creaks in the faint breeze but fails to shed the clinging snow and frost except as a faint spangling shimmer falling in silence and reflecting starlight.
Radha joins Cúchulainn and Dreadnought. They head for the entrance.
A youth dressed in soft leather stained in sky colours, takes a clay pipe from his mouth and nods to them. He leans on the architrave. “Leave all weapons outside: landlord’s orders.”
Radha smirks. “Sit on the point of my spontoon to keep it warm for me.”
The youth grins. “Take it inside. Kill the landlord; people are calling him ‘Blatter-Buster’ now. See if I care if you take your weapons in – I only get paid one groat a day.”
The three adventurers go to file through the doors when Radha stops and, grabbing the arms of Cúchulainn and Dreadnought, says, “Wait! Wait … what is going on here?”
Dreadnought pulls off his armet and shakes sweaty hair free. “What?”
“Dunno…” Radha frowns, shrugs her shoulders and spits on the ground. “Dunno. Something … something is not quite right here.”
Cúchulainn and Dreadnought ready their weapons. They know Radha has more brains and intuition than the pair of them put together.
“No,” says Radha, “Not that sort of thing. Something bigger.”
Dreadnought asks, “Bigger than, say, a hell bat in a harvest moon?”
Rada hugs herself and the spontoon she clutches. Leaning her forehead on the iron-braced shaft she says, “No … nothing like that.”
Cúchulainn asks, “What then?”
“Something we can think about over a pint of ale … like we haven’t drunk for six weeks?”
“Sod the pair of you. Get in there while I think.”
They crash through the next set of doors and scatter the tiny wraiths paid to open and close them.
The barman and hostelry owner: an ex-adventurer – falls back, in mock surprise to the rear of the bar. Pewter pots rattle as he crashes against them. “Well, rodger me with a badger, it’s the three mini-heroes back! Maybe they can get rid of the mouse in the grain-cellar.”
Cúchulainn shouts as he pulls a bench out and sits at a table, “It had better be a small one or I may scream. Get our tankards here – full – now.” He turns to Dreadnought and Radha. “Where did he get his ‘Blatter-buster’ name?”
Radha says, “From his deranged head.”
Dreadnought adds, “And a squashed frog.”
Radha goes on with a frown of concentration, “And a rat’s turd.”
The barman arrives at their table and puts down four tankards. He sits beside Radha. “Tell me everything.”
Dreadnought snorts. “Nothing to tell. We went south. There was a goblin job – but the goblins were nicer than the boss. A fake dragon thing came next – we really milked that. Lots of cash – but there was never a dragon.”
“Wait, wait…,” says Radha, “The noonday wraiths?”
Dreadnought nods. “They were serious scary. The first real monster for months.” He pauses and looks at Radha. “She got us through that one. If we were an all-man team – we’d be dead.”
The barman raps the raw wood table with a coin. “There’s money to be made.” He knows how to get the attention of adventurers.
Cúchulainn looks over the head of his ale. “Go on…”
The barman scowls. “I don’t like this sort of thing but I’m thinking of you.”
“So sweet!” Radha says. She frowns. “Talk!”
Customers call from the bar, bashing tankards on the wood. The barman rises. “I’ll come back. Hold on.”
Cúchulainn says to his comrades, “What? What was that all about? A real paying job?”
A child dressed in stained woven clothes, and with smudges over her face, passes the table, looks at the adventurers’ tankards, and says, “Drink! You want this place to stay open? Drink and buy more or granddad will have to close the tavern and stables. We’ll all starve to death!”
Dreadnought frowns, blows foam from his moustache and says, “We were here some…” He looks at his colleagues, “maybe eight months ago. How did the barman get that stupid name?” The girl widens her eyes. “He killed four goblins – all alone, in the dark: all by himself. They were after our pig. I called Granddad ‘Blatter-buster’.”
Radha hisses. “Goblins come this far north now? Shit, I’m prepared to help with some blattering and busting.”
The girl leaps up and down. “They’ve come three times. Kill them all!”
Radha scoops her up into a hug and tries to ignore the smell of urine and unwashed child. “I don’t kill. Ask Cúchulainn and Dreadnought.”
The girl writhes on Radha’s lap. “So what do you do?”
“I sort of heal these two idiots while they are getting dobbed.”
“Hit.” She strokes the girl’s hair. “What is your name, little one?”
The girl curls up into a little ball and whispers, “I only have child names; ‘sweetie, choochie, get out the fucking way, don’t touch that’.” She looks up at Radha. “I’m only eight: I haven’t been given my name yet.”
“Here,” Radha says and passes the girl over the table. “This man is called ‘Dreadnought’ and does the best hugs in the world.”
Cúchulainn looks at Radha. “What’s wrong?”
She glances at him. “What?”
“What’s wrong? you keep looking worried … confused.”
Radha looks down at the ale she hasn’t touched. “Yes … sort of worried … sort of confused. Have you ever thought there is more to everything?”
She looks at both of them in turn, a frown, pursed lips, piercing eyes. “Stop drinking. This is serious.”
The barman returns and screeches a bench over the straw-covered cobbles of the floor. “Yes… Money… Someone wants to talk to you … a bard called Canticle. Turned up a week and more past. You have a reputation. Probably wants to make a poem, a song or something. May pay well. Shall I give the nod?”
Radha shakes her head. “No. We have important things to deal with.”
Cúchulainn shrugs. “Send her over. She can buy the drinks.”
“While we talk rubbish,” adds Dreadnought, “and make ourselves sound like heroes.”
The barman waves to someone across the room. “He … a male bard. Says he has quite a following in the promontory district of Port Capitol.”
Dreadnought rolls his eyes. “They all say stuff like that.”
Cúchulainn’s fist hits the table. Tankards jump at the impact. “We can talk stories to make money.”
“No!” Radha snaps. “Tell only the truth.” She looks at their expressions of bemusement. “Truth is what we need now … what I need. There’s a bitch of a problem going on.”
“Where?” Dreadnought asks.
“In me. In my head.”
Leaning forward, Cúchulainn reaches between tankards and touches the back of her hand. “You alright?”
She slaps the table – one of her habitual ways of expressing a need for attention. “I … I am perfect. It’s the world…” She falls silent, staring into space, biting her lower lip.
A tall thin bard weaves between tables and approaches the adventurers. He’s dressed in clothes stained orange – a dye so rare it draws the eyes of anyone nearby. Arriving at the table, he looks each of the adventurers in the eye, bows and says, “Canticle at your service. May I join you?” He spins a silver coin on the table and leaves it as if forgetting that it’s there.
“S’pose,” says Dreadnought.
The bard straps an angélique across his back and sits on a bench. “I have heard many tales of your exploits. I would learn more, but first, barman, more ale for your guests and one for yourself.”
Radha smirks. “Tales? That’s all they’ll be. Adventuring is not the heroic career that people like to believe.”
The bard twists a point of his moustache back into his preferred form. “The sting-bat at Goldloss Point?”
Radha splutters. Dreadnought says, “Was old and weak. One hit from my hammer … pathetic. It couldn’t have fought back. The village was terrorised by a memory – not something that could have hurt them any more.”
The bard smiles and laughs. “You still charged them?”
“How about the cursed boar at Sugar Fields?”
Dreadnought sniggers. “Shit … that was seven years ago. Are they still talking about that?”
Radha says, “It was a big boar. Nothing more than that. It ended up spitted on my spontoon. The head hangs on a wooden plaque in the village moot-hall. We ate the rest.”
The bard chuckles, sits back and looks at the ceiling. “The noonday wraiths at Riveround?”
Dreadnought covers his face. “Oh no!”
Radha slaps his wrist. She turns to the bard. “Yes … they were a bitch … bitches. Dreders here is always pathetic with noondays. He looks at them and goes all gooey-eyed while they drain his life away. Cúchulainn chopped them up.”
The bard looks at Cúchulainn. “You used the rapiers of the gods?”
“What? You mean the swords Gristle Gallant flogged me in Pinpont? Bastard of a smith stitched me up.” He looks at the hilts on both his hips. “They’re adequate but nothing like as good as he claimed.”
Three more ales are brought on a tray carried by the little girl.
Dreadnought says to her, “Go and wash, smell-bag, then I’ll give you a hug.” He looks at the bard. “You want tales of real monsters? More like the wraiths?” He leans forward to speak but instead cries, “POX!” as the girl, having climbed onto the bench beside him, empties a tankard of ale over his head, leaps down and runs away screeching with laughter, pewter clattering on the cobbles.
“Little bitch. I think I love her.” Dreadnought wipes his face with a sleeve.
The bard, not wanting to be distracted, asks Radha, “You are a famous adventurer and have, over the years, aided the people of this vale from time to time. Have you never had the urge to settle down and have a family?”
Radha suppresses the urge to ram the blade of her spontoon through his tonsils. “Bards should not have to think within the pitifully small limits of ordinary people.”
The bard strokes his goatee. “True. Pardon me, I beg. I spoke without due thought.”
Radha narrows her eyes. “There is one story we can give you – but a song about the truth of our lives may be of more value to posterity than silly tales of heroism.”
Dreadnought groans. “You’re going to tell him about the fog serpent?”
Radha’s eyebrows lift in surprise. “Actually, good idea. I’d forgotten about that. No. I was going to tell them about the sorcerer of Bell Tree Wood.”
The bard’s eyes widen. “Haspar? You’ve worked for him? Gods, you must warriors of the highest order!”
“We just came from there.” Radha rolls her eyes. “Haspar is … was … a wanker.”
Canticle’s breath hisses between his teeth. “What? He is the greatest healer in… What do you mean ‘was’?”
“I killed him.” Dreadnought replies. “Have you seen what a splat my warhammer can make of a sad git?”
The bard’s mouth opens and closes silently until he finds his voice. “You killed Haspar, the greatest healer in the vale?”
Radha says, “Keep your voice down. We don’t want a brawl. No. Haspar wasn’t a healer. He claimed to be one but the people that came back from his hospital healed themselves. He took the credit.”
“But…” The bard falters.
Radha goes on, “And the ashes of the dead, supposedly sanctified by him, came out of his grate.”
Cúchulainn butts in. “From his fireplaces. He kept the bodies.”
“Haspar,” Dreadnought adds, “was a necromancer. Now he’s a red smudge. Don’t worry about the vale not having a healer. Radha will have healed everyone in every cottage we rode past on the way into the village and everyone in this tavern by now.” He looks at her. “Yes?”
She shrugs. “It’s a hobby.” Radha sits back, stiffens and her eyes widen. “Wait! What? Some sort of dream I had…” She shakes her head and slaps a temple. Staring into space Radha falls silent.
The bard says to Dreadnought and Cúchulainn, “Tell me about Haspar.”
Cúchulainn answers, “He paid us to enter some caves. Wanted us to copy a sigil carved behind an ancient altar. The caves were guarded by a groke…”
“A what?” The bard pulls a scroll from a baggy sleeve and a quill and ink from his belt.
Dreadnought says, “Groke. Think sour old woman, really sour, magic. Freezes and demoralises anything in eyesight – unless you have an archer like Cúchulainn backed up with a healer like Radha.”
Cúchulainn goes on, “Everything was in those caves, every sodding monster you can think of. We got to this altar, copied the rune-sigil thing and got out as fast as we could. I was about to kill this goblin doom-doctor when she told me about the sigil.” He sighs. “A goblin saved our lives. Can you believe it?”
The bard asks, “Will you tell me more?” He’s holding the scroll flat with an arm and taking notes, pausing only to slide another coin on the table.
Dreadnought cuts in. “She told us that the sigil wasn’t important – but the person or people who read it were. Haspar had to kill us to make the sigil’s magic work for him. Someone reads the sigil, you kill them, the sigil comes to life and you can use it.”
“What does the sigil do … what magic?”
Dreadnought shrugs. “Who cares? Something ghastly no doubt. We went back to Bell Tree Wood and sorted Haspar out. That’s all we cared about … oh, and the undead he sent out to capture us.”
The bard looks up at him. “This will make a great tale. Thank you.” He winks. “Another piece of silver will pay for the details.”
Radha snaps back into reality. “That’s it! A tale … a dream…” She looks at Dreadnought and Cúchulainn. “A dream in which I wanted to heal me and everyone around me. I thought illness was unfair.” She takes a deep breath. “You two were in it I swear, but you were different-looking … I think.” She turns to Canticle. “You were in it too … just for a tiny moment.” Hands either side of her head, she clutches her hair. “A dream… Why is it you can only remember little bits? A game? Something to do with a game… Something hissing… Vapour in front of my eyes… Something like iron bands round my chest…”
Cúchulainn gently lifts one of her hands from the tangle of locks. “Don’t worry about dreams. Reality is hard enough to cope with.” He winks. “Drink up.”
Canticle looks at her and says, “Let us not talk of dreams and that which is not real. Tell me about Haspar and his schemes.”
©Gary Bonn, 2016