Buttercup Yellow

This is the story I didn’t write for The Writer’s Arena 2015 tournament.  It is a response to Mr. Tony Southcotte’s claim that when the call to adventure comes, the hero should always say yes.  To my mind, sometimes there are pressing reasons for the hero to stay at home instead.  To see the story I ended up writing for the tournament, read Dairy of a Madman.  If you’re looking for the reason I wrote that, instead of this, look a the dates the two were finished.  It’s taken me this long to make this tale work.  I hope you enjoy it.

The thing they never told you about, when you join the Council of the Wise, the thing they were curiously reticent about, the thing that never came up in the interview, was the travel.

“Your powers have grown, Eldrick the Wise,” they had said “and with them, your stewardship of all that grows and flourishes. Join us, that you may lend your wisdom to yet more of the Kingdoms of Man.”

But then as soon as something needed doing it was “A great darkness descends upon us! Someone must go forth and seek knowledge from the great Library of Lost Ee!”, or “Doom threatens! Someone must go forth and consult the Ebonii Codex!”, and the person doing the Going Forth was always Eldrick. It had reached the point where the conversations went thus:

“Wise Eldrick, there are terrible rumours of…”

“I’ll just get my coat, shall I?”

It was all very well being one of the Wise, but was it so Wise to leave vital information scattered about the continent in storehouses that were never less than a hundred leagues apart? And now, with the sun setting over yet another day on the road, Eldrick the wise sat staring at the arses of two unhappy oxen as they plodded slowly along a trackway towards some tiny village where, if he was lucky, someone might have a barn he could sleep in. Eldrick turned to the cart’s owner.

“How many days from here to the city of Erebeth?”

“By cart? Nine. P’raps more. Depends on traffic.”

Eldrick looked around him, at the rolling and swaying fields of late season wheat and the entire lack of people.

“Traffic?”

“Ar.”

“And where is the next village?”

The carter sat a little more upright and looked around.

“Fordham, about a league ahead.”

Eldrick suppressed a sigh. A few days earlier he’d been riding with a carter who had two horses and making better progress, but he’d made the mistake of not getting enough sleep for the fourteen nights before and being a bit of a hurry. This made him irritable enough to ask whether the animals could move any faster, at which point the carter had mentioned they’d go a deal faster with only one man in the cart and if he was such a wonderful wizard he could just magic himself to his destination. Being thrown off a cart hadn’t done anything for Eldrick’s sense of self worth.

He knew the country, though. Well, of course he did. He’d been criss crossing the continent for nearly two hundred years on assorted errands. He knew ALL the country. This particular bit was known as The Hundreds, a bucolic and deeply fertile place that raised crops and sturdy people. It was the sort of place he’d always thought he might retire to, if Wizards ever really retired. Rumbling through The Hundreds in an Ox-cart wouldn’t be so bad except there was the threat of immanent continent devouring war as the jealous hand of The Shadow stretched forth to usurp the throne. And as usual, there was a single passage in some dusty tome that held hints about how this would all play out, or something, so off he’d gone. The memory that there was work to be done, and probably always would be, quite spoiled the moment.

***

Molly poked the cow with a stick. The cow looked back at her and shifted its weight slightly. She poked it again. The stick was light and springy, so the cow didn’t mind being poked too much. Molly wasn’t in much of a hurry and anyway, her mother was up front trying to manage the small herd into the yard so they could be milked.

She liked the cows. The were mostly placid, mostly docile, slightly curious creatures that did pretty much what was asked of them most of the time, which was all you could reasonably ask of anyone. Unlike her younger brother who did what you least wanted him to at the worst possible moment.

There was space in front of the cow. She swatted it with the stick and the animal took a few lumbering steps forwards.

It mooed.

“Don’t you moo me,” said Molly, crossing her arms and frowning, “you just take your mooing and get in that yard to be milked. And no more fuss from you.”

It might have been the matter of fact tone of voice, or the frown, or the stick, but the cow did exactly as it was asked and Molly was left standing by the gate as her mother closed it behind them. Her mother reached down and patted her shoulder.

“Well done, Moll” she said “now go fetch buckets and the churn. Lots to do.”

There always was. It made the days rush by.

Mornings were fetching water, from the river upstream of the village because that was better water, and then a wash and some breakfast. Bread, normally. Then there was working. Cows to be brought in and milked, taken back to pasture, then to the fields for His Lordship. Or the orchards. Or dozens of odd jobs on the grounds of the manor, like ratting in the barns where if you were good with a sling you could earn praise and a penny or two. Then there was work at home, tending the yard so there would be food for winter or fixing things around the cottage. There were the goats to milk and feed, and fires to tend so there would be hot water for the pottage in the evening. There were clothes to clean and repair, sometimes wool to spin or wind. Always something. Molly never went to bed feeling wide awake. Best of all, though there were the mysteries. Like how Mother made cheese. Or where Father went when he came back with a bird, or a fish, for the pot. And how the beer went from funny smelling water to the small ale she and her brother drank. All the interesting stuff that she was just a year or so from knowing all about.

***

Eldrick had exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the cart and the oxen, so he decided to try conversation.

“And is Sir Robert still Lord of this particular Hundred?” The carter considered this.

“Ar.”

“I see. He had a son when last I came this way. Has the boy grown strong?”

“Ar.”

Eldrick clenched his fists.

“What, in your opinion, is the defining feature of Sir Robert’s tenure as Lord of the Fordham?”

The carter considered this. Eldrick could see his lips moving.

“Well, sir, I’d say it was his marrying that nice lady from over towards Barrowfield. She’m ever so gracious. And mostly we ‘ear tell she’m at court, sir.”

“So he married someone you rarely see, and you think that’s his greatest achievement?”

“Ar. Well, I ain’t really one for celebrity gossip, sir.”

“I see. Tell me, Carter, what have you heard of the threat that faces King Richard?”

There was a pause.

“’Ow do you know my name is Carter?”

“You drive a cart.”

“My friend drives a cart and he’s a Cooper.”

“I’m also a Wizard?”

“Ar. That’ll be it. Well, sir, I can’t say as I knew it was King Richard that’s king now. Last I ‘eard we ‘ad a King Stephen.”

Eldrick considered this. Stephen had been His Majesty’s grandfather, some eighty years old when a sudden fever took him. He was peacefully succeeded by his son Richard. Richard had died young, father to three sons, the eldest taking his father’s name on his accession to the throne. Which had happened some fifteen years previously.

“I can see you have more important concerns than far off events” said Eldrick.

“Well,” said the Carter, “no bugger ever comes out here to tell us anything.”

***

Molly watched the cart enter the village, leaning against one of the dry stone walls around the cattle yard. There were two tracks in the village, the one running in the direction of sunrise and the one that went to His Lordship’s place and, in the other direction, to the Assizes and the market at Wooton-under-Lip. It was an unusual sight. Normally, the carter would ride alone and there was almost never another man with him, beating at him with a hat. The second figure jumped from the cart before it came to a halt, hauling a staff and a pack with him, and stalked off perpendicular to the path of the cart. A moment or so later he came sprinting back.

Eldrick jumped off the cart and hauled his gear with him. The carter was muttering and cursing, which he was entitled to do, but Eldrick had been pushed further than he’d ever had to deal with before (including being subject to the soul tearing horrors in the dungeons of Maladestyn Wraithborn, the last true Necromancer of the Eastern lands) and all he wanted was a drink. He had begun to stalk off in the direction of what looked like a public house when, out of the corner of his eye, he’d caught a glimpse of something like the Aurora Royal. That ephemeral pastel fire that surrounded the King at the moment of accession paled into insignificance next to the moment of coruscation he’d seen. That bright, that obvious, it could only be…

…a girl. Perhaps ten, or a short fourteen, or a tall eight. She had the stringy look of a peasant who worked more than she ate, but ate regularly enough that she had muscle. Her eyes were brown and bright with intelligence, her skin sun browned but also dirty. Her jaw was squarish, and he revised his estimate of her age because it was clear she was yet to grow into the bones she already had. Young, then, but already hard at work. Her brown hair was pulled back and tied. Eldrick didn’t know into what, but it was out of the way. She was staring at him with a curiosity that he enjoyed, and all about her danced a prismatic fire that he had to work to ignore because looking at it directly was hard on his eyes. He knew what that meant. He had one himself. Only, and this was a hard realisation, not as bright.

“Hello” said Eldrick, and raised his hat. “What is your name?”

“Molly” said the girl. She gave him an appraising look.

The stranger was old. Older even than Old Tom, who was well into his forties and a local talking legend. Molly could tell because his face was lined and wrinkled, and because his beard, which wasn’t anywhere near a sensible length, was mostly white. His eyes, a cold and pale blue that reminded her of ice on the water bucket in a bad winter, had the sort of intensity that she saw in her Pa when he was working on something. His clothes were scruffy from travel – stained, dusty, dark with wear – but hard wearing and expensive. His cloak, for example, was oiled leather and she’d only seen that when His Lordship had ridden through to inspect storm damage the Fall before last. You needed to have money to have an oiled leather travel cloak. So, old, rich and riding an ox cart. It didn’t make sense he’d want to talk to her.

“Molly,” said the old man “where might I find your father?”

“At home today, working on the roof. Out cottage is along of the bakery.” She paused. “Shall I ask my Ma to take you there?”

“Yes. Please. Now, if it’s convenient”.

Molly knew rich folk were often in a hurry, although she often wondered why since they didn’t ever seem to have anything really pressing to do. In her, admittedly limited, experience, they went about and looked at things, and pointed, and then other people did the actual work. She ran to find her Ma.

Eldrick watched the girl go and sighed. That a talent such as hers should be dressed in a plain cloth smock and hand me down shoes was almost an affront. He hadn’t been able to judge her age. On a normal person, it would have been evident in her aura but the insistent power of her talent hid all of the fine details from him. He would ask, though he knew already she was old for an apprentice. Ideally, you’d secure them young enough that learning to read and picking up new languages would be easy. At this age, even the words of her own language would be harder for the girl to read and write. He sighed, impatient and just a little frustrated, re-working his route and responsibilities. Of course he would take her to the Sanctum for training. He’d try to acquire her as his own apprentice but he knew these decisions were political in the extreme. Perhaps if he took her along on the rest of his journey first. Erebeth was nine days from here. A day, maybe three, to search the Bibliodome of Karath for the Parchment of Tuum. Perhaps another day to transcribe the important section. Then nine days back here, then fourteen from here to the Santcum. Thirty five days, on most of which he’d be able to train the girl at least a little. Who could deny him then? He nodded to himself. He could take a day here, and buy a horse in Erebeth to cut the travel time a little. It would work. All he had to do was convince the parents.

***

The girl’s mother looked to be in her mid fifties. Her greying hair was pulled back from her face, which was lined and weary. Eldrick was used to long weeks of travel and long nights of study, but he had never felt as weary as this woman looked. He clothing was brown, hard wearing, and patched. She was thin, but Eldrick noted that she was wiry and had some muscle even if it was whipcord lean. Her blue eyes never met his.

“We live this way” said the mother, and started off down the track at a respectable pace. The wizard tried to keep up.

“Just the two children, then?”

“Of the six,” she said “I’ve turned my husband out of my bed now, though, since the last one nearly killed me.”

“Six?”

“Aye”.

He shrugged, and caught sight of the cottage.

Eldrick had been born in the great coast city of Nezz. If you wanted something to last more than a year in Nezz, you built it from stone. Everything else rotted or corroded. He knew that peasants lived in cottages, he knew that sometimes they were little more than single room huts. This one, he realised at a glance, had been made with a technique called wattle and daub.

“Sticks and mud” he said under his breath. How could such a powerful talent have been fated to live here? The mother shot him an angry glance.

“That’s as may be” she said “but there’s near four acres of land and cattle of our own to consider, so we live frugal that our children will have something when they come of age.”

“They may have more than you suspect” said Eldrick.

The girl’s father was repairing the roof when Eldrick and her mother arrived. He looked the stranger over once or twice before carefully descending on a ladder that, slight as he was, didn’t look strong enough to hold him.

“I’ve come to ask about your daughter” he said.

“Molly?” The man scowled. “Why? Has she done something she ought not?”

“Not at all. You may not realise this, and I’m not sure your daughter knows either, but she harbours a talent which I may be able to nurture.”

The father reached out and grabbed him by the robe.

“Oh aye? We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? When that traveling scribe convinced Jack the Cottar that his eldest girl had a talent for penmanship, and took her off to learn, and she come back a six month later battered and three month gone with child!”

Eldrick was appalled. Unmarried, because a lifetime of study had led to another lifetime of wandering around looking for obscure texts in hard to find places, he had simply stopped thinking about women as anything other than people he needed to deal with occasionally. He was dimly aware of sex, but not as something he was likely to indulge in. Mistreating people, on the other hand, he could never stand.

“No!” he said. He leaned on his staff, suddenly very weary.

“Look, it’s not like that. Your daughter has a powerful gift for magic, one that should be trained. And the world faces a threat, some time off yet, which she could be the sole counter to. If she joins me now, I can begin her training as I travel. She will want for nothing, and when you see her next she will have the respect of all who see her. I am a wizard, a member of The Council of the Wise.” He waited for the reaction.

“Never heard of you” said the mother. The father nodded.

“I work for the King” hissed Eldrick. “Your child would learn to read, to write, to work sorcery. She would eat the best food. She would live in a house that was not made of shit and twigs.”

The father grinned.

“Alright, alright, no need to baffle us with all your fancy persuasions.” Eldrick reminded himself that not everyone who lives in a village is an idiot. The father thought for a moment. “I can’t just give her away. She’s my daughter, not my table. For another thing, you’ll need His Lordship’s permission to move her out of the village. So, if they both say yes then you’ll have my blessing.”

Eldrick was wise enough to look to the mother for the actual approval, and he saw it in her eyes even though her face was stone.

“You don’t need to worry about His Lordship” said Eldrick “Crown Law says I can take an apprentice when and if I find one suitable. A benefit of serving the Crown and the Council. I’ll just have to convince your girl.”

“Her name,” the mother’s tone would have frozen the fastest flowing river “is Molly.”

***

Molly sat on the Pudding Stone near the well, scrunched up her features so she could look at the old man without getting the sun in her eyes and made thoughtful noises.

“What’s a wizard?”

Eldrick wondered how to explain this in terms that an illiterate twelve year old who knew a lot about cows and nothing about magic might easily understand.

“Well. When you want something from your father, do you ask for it?”

“D’pends on his mood. Yes, sometimes.”

“Do you always get what you want?”

“D’pends what I ask for.”

“Does it also depend on how you ask? And what you might have done that day?”

“Yeah…”

“A wizard is a person who knows how to behave so that things like the sky, and fire, and mountains, will listen when you ask for things. A wizard can ask them so they’ll say yes.”

“Show me” she said.

Eldrick had not done any actual magic in some time. There was seldom a need. He got from place to place by horse, cart, carriage, coach and on foot. It never occurred to him to ask the earth to carry him, because to his mind it already did. He frowned. Something to inspire rather than terrify. Something a child might like. Something memorable. He brought his hands together in front of him as if slowly and silently clapping. The words he mouthed, tumbling from his lips in a restless stream of sibilant silence, were as familiar to him the steps to his bedchamber. He drew his hands apart and between them grew a delicate violet tracery of lines and tiny regular shapes. The further apart his hands moved, the more detail could be seen – an occult spider’s web of significant paths and shapes surrounding a space in the centre.

“Tell me,” said Eldrick “what have you always wanted to see?”

“The golden ships at Smarna” said the girl, to her own surprise. The golden ships were a wonder, their fame as well traveled as the ships themselves. Eldrick smiled. He’s been there.

In the central space, an image formed. Hazy at first, it resolved quickly until it seemed to be a window onto the brined and gull haunted Smarna docks, the oldest port in the world. The black and ancient timbered warehouses that seemed to scrum around the docks were the perfect back drop to the three perfect golden hulls that sat in the dark water. Bright and sleek and glorious, the Golden Ships were the pride and joy of a merchant prince so rich he could plate a working hull with incorruptible gold and never once worry about the cost. They were the pinnacle of a Master Shipwright’s art and the tale ran that he’d seen them built and then put aside his tools forever. Eldrick pulled his hands apart and allowed the glowing circles to hang unsupported in the air, the violet occult lacework a perfect window onto a scene more than a thousand leagues away. Molly, her parents, stood in rapt silence.

“Could I learn to do this?”

Eldrick smiled.

“This? This is one of the first things you will learn to do. This is the beginning of your journey.”

“I’ll think about it” said Molly. She slipped from the stone and walked away. Eldrick ended the scrying window with a flick of his fingers and watched the girl’s retreating form.

“Well,” he said “where can I find something to eat around here?”

***

Molly found him back at the Well. Eldrick had bought some beer, some bread and had provided some sausage and cheese from his own supplies. He sat on the Pudding Stone – an odd conglomeration of other stones which was said to have magical powers but was really just a rock – watching the sun set.

“Why do you want me to go with you?” Molly didn’t waste time on niceties and had an expression of slow calculation in her eyes. Eldrick decided to tell the truth.

“The King is under threat. His step brother, who cannot himself ever become King, went into the South to learn their ways and now, grown strong in magic himself and backed by the jealous petty warlords of the Southern wastes, he seeks to raise an army and come north to topple the Royal family and seize these lands for himself. You have a powerful talent, Molly. The strongest I’ve seen. Stronger even than that of Iruven who is head of my Council. If we can train you properly, you might turn the tide in our favour. You might secure peace for another generation.”

“So there’s to be a war?”

“It will happen no matter if you come or no. But with you, it will be shorter. Fewer people will suffer and die.”

She considered this carefully.

“What will happen to me?”

“Starting tomorrow, you will become my apprentice. Every day there will be new lessons. Reading, writing. Numbers. Simple magics so you can practice and exercise your talent. A little history, a little of the politics of our Kingdom. Then the greater workings, the underpinnings of how the world moves. So much. You will see the world very differently in only a few weeks time, I promise you.”

She nodded.

“Will I come back?”

“If you want to” said Eldrick.

“Where are your mother and father?”

“Long dead,” said Eldrick, raising an eyebrow at the question. “Magic has a quality to it…using it extends life. I am far older than I look.”

“And did you ever go back home?”

Once. He had visited Nezz once. He’d paused outside his parents’ house, his hand hovering over the door paralysed by the sensation that he was now a stranger here. He’d wrapped himself in his cloak and hurried on, promising himself he’d stop in on his way back. But strange tides had turned and he’d left that place the next day, by ship in the company of…

…Eldrick snapped himself back to the moment.

“No,” he said “because when I tried, home was no longer there.”

Molly gave him a solemn nod, as if she understood. Which she might.

“Do you know how to make butter?”

Eldrick sipped his beer to cover the fact that he’d almost laughed.

“In what way?”

“In the way that do you know how to make butter?”

She was staring at him, defiant, perhaps even a little angry.

“No, I do not know how to make butter. Is it important?”

“D’pends, dunnit?” said Molly “It won’t save a King, but my Ma makes the best butter for miles. My Pa knows how to seed a pasture so the cows who eat there give a milk that makes a butter so rich and yellow. Proper buttercup, you know? And he knows how to keep the crows off while the seed takes, and when to bring the cows in. He watches the weather. Ma knows how to milk a cow so it gives nice and calm and don’t tread in the bucket or kick, and she can make ‘em follow her all nice and calm so the milk is always good. Cross cows give bad milk. You dint know that either, mister.”

Eldrick shrugged.

“You’re right. I know nothing about butter.”

“So who is it going to take over from my parents? If you can’t teach me that, what use is it talking to mountains or the sky when I can’t pay His Lordship’s tax? Because it’s butter what does it, mister. Butter for His Lordship’s pantry means we sell a little bit each year, buy cows of our own, a little bit of land here and there for grazing, and we has milk. And cheese to sell. But Ma and Pa won’t last forever, so who will they teach all that to?”

Eldrick dropped his gaze to the floor. You didn’t need to Fore-Scry to see where this was going.

“I don’t know” he said.

“Then I has to stay” said Molly. “I don’t have much, but I’ve got that.”

***

He could have marshaled arguments. He could have explained that the war would touch every place and change everything, that the Shadow was a man long steeped in jealousy and such men are often cruel. Instead he nodded, waved farewell and wrapped himself in his cloak for the long walk out of the village and into the night.

***

Molly was fourteen when the rumours began. War, people said, in the East and the North. Great battles were fought. His Lordship made noises about calling his levy and taking his household to join the King, but nothing came of it.

A year later, His Lordship packed up his household and left. It had happened before. His Lordship had other homes and sometimes his wife insisted that all his servants pack up all the prettiest things and take them somewhere else. He would be back in a sixmonth, like as not, and until then the peasants paid the Reeve and everything went on as normal.

***

She was sixteen when The Shadow, the Usurper, came. His soldiers arrived the day before and told everyone to make ready to pay their taxes. They set out a board on the green and pitched a tent for The Shadow to take his ease in. The villagers came in the morning and set out their taxes on the board, then stood in a nervous huddle because the soldiers were talking about a man they feared. They spoke his name in whispers when they spoke it at all. He was the Usurper’s oldest friend and most capable warrior, and they called him Donjon, because you sent things to him that you wanted gone forever.

Donjon stood no higher than most men, but all in armour. He wore no helm and his hair was cut close to his skull. He was not scarred because no blade had ever reached him, and he stood looking at the board with something approaching annoyance on his broad features.

“We should level the place, move the peasants on. You could have a park here.”

The Shadow was a slimmer man, dressed in blues and blacks. His hair was dark and his eyes pale, like his skin. To Molly’s eyes he seemed very unshadowlike.

“You’re still too much the soldier, Hugh. I told you, we won. Now we must think like farmers.” The Shadow gestured to the Reeve.

“You said that this village has paid taxes of this sort regularly, even without a Lord in residence?”

“Yesyermajesty” said the Reeve.

“And it is generally of this quality?”

“This is a fair year, yermajesty” said the Reeve “in a good one, ‘tis better.”

“Better. Hmmm. You see, Hugh? Look at the land around here. This is fertile country, well managed and well run, but not by some halfwit Lord with half an eye on the Court. There are lessons here.”

He paused and looked at the board.

“Look, this is a perfect example of what I mean. Have you seen butter that was this colour ever in your life? Actually buttercup yellow. It would not believe it if I had not seen it myself.” The Shadow gestured to the Reeve.

“Find me the producers of these goods. We will have talk with them about their land and how it shall be run. To stock my table with goods as these, I would make a free man of every single person in this village. Find me my scribes and the master of the purse. We must learn the lessons this village has to teach.” He paused, looked over the board again.

“And I think,” he said slowly “we shall start with how they make that wonderful butter.”

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