“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright Jack Sutter 2018-2020

Chapter 4 “Conference at the House of Wog”

The voice spoke with an authority which caught one off guard.  Hardly hesitating, Alwog shot back the bolt and opened the door a crack to peek outside.  He was nearly bowled over when the door was shoved in the rest of the way from outside, revealing a tremendous golden brown Bear.  

 

The room was frozen with a chill of surprise and indecision.  The Bear looked calmly over the room’s occupants, and then proceeded to pad nonchalantly inside.  The Bear gazed regally at her surroundings, and spoke again in a sonorous, condescending tone.

 

“What a disreputable den.  If I had known what sort of company the Bird was letting me in for, I would have thought twice about coming, make no mistake.  I’m astonished that I am not smelling a dynasty or two of rats.”

Alwog bristled visibly, and appeared to gather up his hitherto misplaced confidence.

 

“Alright Mrs. Holier-than-art-else-Bear, just who do you think you are?  I don’t recognize you, you’re no local Bear.”

“Thankfully not, if the local Bears are in any way comparable in breeding to yourself.  My name is Ursilda, and I’ve come a very long way indeed. Just precisely what does the Bird want in bringing me all the way to the land of the Drixi?”

“I haven’t the foggiest.  The Bird made no mention of working with any bears.  If he had, I’d surely have charged sixty-six silver marks.”

“Sixty-seven!”

“Shutup, Berwog!”

The Bear sniffed.

 

“Mercenaries.  How vulgar. Well, can anyone tell me where that dratted Bird has got to?  I’ve got two cubs at home, and I have no desire to leave them any longer than necessary.  The Bird promised this venture would take but a single night, and that’s all I’m willing to spare him.”

 

“First talking Rabbits, and now a talking Bear.  What sort of conjurer’s circus do you suppose we have gotten ourselves into, Lindsey?”

 

The Bear’s ears pricked, and she turned with menacing deliberation to face Hae-jin, eyeing him levelly.

“You, sir, are a rude human.  Rude and foolish, to provoke a Bear.”

“I have slain more than one bear in my life.”

 

“As have I slain more than one man.”

“Then I should say that we are perhaps peers in our own way.”

 

“I doubt very much that you would find yourself the equal of my society.  Am I to endure the society of uncouth men as well as ugly hobgoblins in this quest?”

“Well, there’s also me.”

For the first time the Bear seemed to have taken notice of Lindsey.

 

“And a scrawny little Evecub too?  What does that dratted Bird have in mind?”

 

“Watch who you call scrawny.  And rude. You’re pretty darn free with your criticisms yourself, you know.”

Ursilda licked her jowls pensively.

“Well, you’re a stout one, Evecub, as little as you are.  You impress me. Perhaps the Bird is not quite so mad, as to have chosen such as you and I.”

“You think pretty highly of yourself, don’t you?”

“I am Ursilda.  I have borne a hundred cubs in a hundred years.  I have slept under the stars of ten thousand winter nights, and have dreamed ten thousand winter dreams.  I have traveled from the Falls of Lora Inerion to foothills of the Peaks of Luda. I have slain a hundred hunters and a hundred panthers and have scattered a thousand wolves, and all Wights in my realm fear my wrath and covet my favor.  I am Ursilda, and there is none other like me.”

 

“Yeah….I kinda guess there wouldn’t be.”

 

“Quite right, Evecub.  You are wise. Your mother raised you well, for a human.”

 

“Hullo, hullo!  I see that everyone is here!”

 

The door had been left open in the wake of Ursilda’s remarkable entrance, and all eyes now turned in that direction to see that they had been at last joined by the Bird.  Beside him stood a tallish sort of woman carrying a large satchel and wearing a long cloak with the hood thrown back, revealing fine locks of pale dun. Her face was smooth with little signs of age, suggesting to Lindsey that she might be in her mid thirties or so.  Her eyes were of striking steel-grey which met Lindsey’s gaze with a measured keenness that seemed to carefully take note of every detail. The woman held Lindsey’s gaze for a moment before the conversation of the Bird caught their attention.

“…..and so things took a bit longer than I expected, but everyone is here now, and we might as well all meet here under the kind hospitality of the good Wogs.”

“Our hospitality starts at a copper a head, Birdie.”

 

“Eh?  Oh right, of course.  I shall of course cover all expenses.  Do be so kind as to keep up a running tally, my good Wog, as these matters tend to slip my mind.”

 

“No worries on that score.  Such things never slip my mind.”

 

“Well, then, shall we begin?”

The whole party made themselves as comfortable as possible in the now excessively cramped front room.  The cloaked woman who was accompanying the Bird now stepped forward and spoke.

 

“My name is Joan Greyflower.  I come from the of Kingdom of Linster, which lies in the Hinterlands far away from here.  It is on the behalf of my nation that the Bird has gathered you all here.  

 

For many years now, my people have labored under a great misfortune.  A terrible curse which has withered our crops, sickened our beasts and taken our children.  Our only relief comes when we succumb to the demands of the one who laid this dark enchantment on our land:  Gurth the Witch, a sorcerer of terrible power. Only then do the rains come and the diseases abate. But the demands of Gurth are terrible.  In payment for relieving us of the miseries which he himself has inflicted on us, we must surrender to him a portion of our brothers and sisters, to be carried to faraway courts in the southern deserts to become the slaves of witches.  A valuable service indeed, for which Gurth is rewarded handsomely by his masters. For the witches are ever in need of more human chattel, and their appetite has been increasing of late. We are weak from years of plague and famine, and we cannot resist him.  Those who reject his demands starve, sicken and slowly die. The king and the nobility have long since surrendered to our oppressors, and demand that all people shall collect the Due of Gurth.

 

I have no doubt that by now all of you have guessed the purpose to which you have been gathered:  To put an end to the Curse of Gurth. It is not simply a matter of killing Gurth. Many have tried, and all have failed, and the vengeance of Gurth is so hideous that the king has forbidden that any further attempts should be made.  But even were we successful it wouldn’t be enough, for the curse itself would still remain. For you see, ours is a wicked land.

 

Petty witchcraft has long been practiced among the common people, and so long as the peasants were content our rulers would look away.  And Gurth exploited this venality. He came offering us spells and incantations with wondrous effects of every sort, and the people bought his remedies without regard to the darkness of the magic which produced them.  I am a midwife. I know the remedies of nature, and I know at least to discern between the remedies of magic, both black and white. I and others warned the people that Gurth purveyed naught but black magic, but few would heed us.  The rest debased themselves in his diabolical incantations with abandon, for the rites were intoxicating and their effects marvelous, seducing the mind and numbing the heart. And when Gurth was at last ready and laid his curse upon the land, he bound with it all the wickedness of the people.  Though my people may now repent their folly, the stain of their crimes remain. The spell can never be broken without also expiating the onus wrought by the sin of the people.”

 

Lindsey now spoke.  “Excuse me?”, she said, raising a hand as she did so, “Excuse me, but how do we do all this?  How are we going to break the spell?”

Joan turned to the Bird and spoke with some surprise.

 

“You mean you haven’t spoken with her?”

“Er, no, actually.  Not yet. I thought it would be better, you see…..”

“Well, I suppose you know your own business…..”

“I do.”

 

“…but I would have told her sooner.”

“Thorns, brambles, and beesting!”, the Bear interjected, “Enough dithering!  Why bring all of us into all this, if you just need break some spell or other?”

 

“Hear hear!”, concurred Alwog, “I hate to agree with the Bear, but we Wogs are professionals.  We don’t sign any contract until we know what it’s all about, an advance estimate of the number of heads we’ll need to break, and how much extra charge we need to apply for added risk.”

 

“Permit me to continue, then”, replied Joan, “and I shall explain our request to the rest of you.

I have long sought a remedy for this abomination upon our land, and at length I found council with the Good Folk, who took up my cause….”

“Good lord!  You don’t mean to say you brought fairies into this?  First humans, now fairies, this is wholly unacceptable!  That’ll be a hundred silver marks!”

“A hundred and one!”

“No, a hundred…no wait, you’re actually right this time, almost…make it a hundred two.”

“A hundred three!”

 

“Shutup.  A hundred two will do enough..for now.”

 

“Yes yes yes”, replied the Bird, “you have the my word that all will be paid in full.  Now, can we permit the good lady to continue?”

 

“Thank you”, replied Joan, “As I was saying, my cause was taken up by the Good Folk, who studied the curse, and uncovered a way to break it.  They instructed me on what to do, and they likewise sent the Bird to assist me. We soon will be travelling to a place not far from here, here in the land of the Drixi.  It is is a mountain called Vorn, with which some of you I understand are already acquainted.”

 

“Sure we are”, said Alwog, “My brothers and I spent three years working in the mines ‘round those parts, we know that mountain like our own palms.”

 

“Excellent.  Again, the Bird has chosen wisely.  You and your brothers will be invaluable for our task.”

“Which is?  You still haven’t gotten to that bit, though I’ll wager I already know what it is.  You want to get inside Harin’s Vault, don’t you? Well it won’t work, it’s impossible.  It’s sealed by magic inside solid rock, and nobody’s ever been able to dig through.”

 

“We shan’t need to dig inside.”

“So you’re going to break the seal, eh?  Ha! You’re Bird is good, but I’ll wager he’s not that good.  The vault was sealed shut long ago by the ancestors of the Drixi, and no one has been able to open it since, not even the Drixi themselves.”

 

Here the Bird bristled slightly.

“You forget, my good Wog, that I am an associate of the Good Folk.”

“But you’re not actually one of them, are you?”

“Er, well, no…”

“…Exactly.  I’ll still wager you can’t do it.”  

“Ha!  I’ll wager you a hundred silver marks that I can!”

“Ha!, yourself.  You won’t get off our bill that easy.  It’ll still be a hundred and two silver marks, plus our choice of loot from the vault.”

 

“You may not have an opportunity to access the vault.  We will only be able to open it once and even if we succeed it it will only remain open for a short time before closing again, and you and your brothers may be otherwise occupied when that happens.”

 

“How so?  You are expecting trouble, I take it?”

 

“In point of fact, yes.”

“Ha!  Fine job you’ve done being discreet about things.”

“Gurth has informants scattered throughout the Kingdom of Linster.  But likewise, so too have the eyes and ears of the Good Folk been turned to that land of late.  The Good Folk believe that Gurth is already aware of our intent to break the curse. They also believe that Gurth already  knows (or suspects) that our efforts in that regard are taking place here in the lands of the Drixi. Obviously, if this is true then our enterprise may be in grave peril, which is why I have been directed to assemble so formidable a party as ourselves.”

“In the name of the Mother Bear!  Why must you drivel over everything you say?  I take it then that we are to deal with this man called Gurth and keep him occupied until you’ve opened the vault and gotten what you want from it?”

“Er, yes.  Quite. Couldn’t have put it better myself.”

“Of course not.  I am Ursilda, nobody puts things better than me.  That makes for one man, the Evecub, three hobgoblins, and myself in all.  This should not be difficult, I myself am more than enough to handle one puny human sorcerer.

“I do not think that Gurth himself would come.  The witches have spread their influence far and wide, and in times of need they can communicate quickly over great distances.  There are any number of means by which an important sorcerer like Gurth could have gotten word to the nearest coven. The witches value their supply of slaves quite highly.” 

 

“That’s all well and good, but what if…….”

 

The conversation dragged on for quite a while, as the party debated this and that.  Through it all, Lindsey still felt she didn’t have a clear idea about what her role in all of this was, and whenever she spoke up to ask a question either Joan or the Bird would quickly steer the conversation in another direction.  At last, when the Wogs had gone off into other parts of the house to assemble their gear for the expedition and Joan, Hae-jin, and Ursilda at last had an opportunity to step outside the now insufferably stuffy front room, Lindsey addressed the Bird directly.

“Look Mr. Bird.  You still haven’t told me what my role in all of this is.  I’m not a fighter, I don’t have any special skills or talents.  Why am I even here?”

 

“You’re here because you were the right person at the right time, my dear.  Pure and simple.”

 

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Well, when my associates make the decision to intervene somewhere, they choose their allies based on the particular qualifications and circumstances of the specific parties involved.  Birds like me, chaps like Hae-jin, and sometimes people like you. For you see, in the end it is the personal merits of the individual which really count, not what world they happen to come from.”

 

“Your associates?  You mean the Good Folk?”

 

“Quite.”

 

“And just who are these ‘Good Folk’, anyway?” 

 

“Why, only the greatest and most ancient of all the elves and fairies!  This entire world was built by them. It is their legacy and their domain, and all the inhabitants of this world are in their charge.” 

 

“If that’s true, then why the heck do they allow stuff like this to happen in the first place?  From what I’ve seen so far it looks like a lot of bad stuff happens in this world of yours.”

 

“Well, while this world does technically belong to them, my associates are far from being omnipotent.  They are after all fairy folk, not gods. But even if they were gods it wouldn’t make much more of a difference.  You see, the Good Folk believe that people must be permitted to have a will of their own, and that the world must follow the course charted by the sum of its inhabitants, for good or for ill.  It is an inevitable consequence of having a reality, don’t you know. If my associates actually did manage absolutely everything that happened in the world there wouldn’t be any reality at all, not in any meaningful sense.  The world would merely be a sort of theater, and the people in it merely shadows to be manipulated like puppets for the amusement of the gods. The Good Folk have no desire for such a world. But likewise, neither do the Good Folk desire to stand by idly where evil and suffering abound.  They always do as much as they possibly can to strike a suitable balance in these matters, which is where birds like me come in.”

 

“Huh.  I feel like that would be a pretty darn difficult thing to get right.  It all must get really complicated really fast.”

 

“Dreadfully complicated, my dear Lindsey, dreadfully complicated.  It’s all quite beyond me really, and I’m glad none of it is my decision to make.  I merely do what I am bidden, and that’s quite enough for me.”

 

“So you just leave it all up to the Good Folk, huh?  Frankly, I would want to ask them more questions than that.  Do people like me ever get the chance to talk to your ‘associates’?”

 

“Oh, I am quite sure that eventually you shall.”

 

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