A Bit of String

It began with a wave of redness passing through the dreams of the young men and women. The world is moved by such waves; without them it would run down.

Jafel woke first; he looked out of his tiny bedroom where he expected to see the red sun rising. Somewhere he knew the world was afire, and he wanted to be there, there where the ice of boredom would melt. But he saw only darkness in the East. He dressed and decided to wait for the dawn. When day came he might be able to finally convince old Saraj his time had come.

Loaj woke from her dream of fighting and conquest. Her lovely red, red, red dream. She found that she knew that her father had lied. That he did know where the swords were cached. She could see them in her mind's eye hidden beneath a stone of the courtyard. Her palms were hot and the thought of metal to cool them was like love.

Cashrel was among his father's flock. The sheep were not disturbed, but Cashrel was. He hungered for he knew not what. But it was in the East. He thought of the fire of the forge, the shaping of red hot metal into weapons to take what you want. It was a pity that the village of Rosu lacked a Dwarven armorer.

Others woke, or turned and muttered in their sleep as their souls echoed the magics afar.

#         #        #

Rosu was a small village on the burning plains. Life was hard here. It was a place of the blinding white sun and the cool whitewashed buildings, and there were more buildings than inhabitants. For a sad doom lay upon this village. It was a place fated to be the supplier of armies.

Small cities are ever thus. For as long as red blood pounds in the veins of men and women, they will always want more than the simple rhythms of the spinning wheel, or the mindless murmuring of the sheep. The young are like the white wool of the village–most of it goes far away to be dyed in the riotous colors of life. The white thread always longs to be part of the tapestry. From this simple desire is all of history woven.

#         #        #

Jafel had prepared breakfast for Saraj, his grandmother. She wasn't in a good mood this morning for she had dreamed of Riolot. She drank her tea, picked at her porridge.

"It's this land," she said. "The founders didn't get far enough away from the places of power. People living here are still drawn into those vortices of events that aren't their will. Why did we settle here? Because of greed. Greed for this."

She held out her hand and small glowing white and blue spheres appeared then rolled around. She tossed them up in the air where they circled in a complex pattern and disappeared by moving in that direction which hurt Jafel's brain.

"Your magic's saved the village from plague. I don't see why you are against it," said Jafel.

"It's not my magic. That's why I'm against it. If it were my own, it would be as transparent as the air. No, magic belongs to the land, and the land belongs to those who take it."

"We've taken this place," began Jafel.

"No, we don't own this land. Mana's so poor here, that no one wants to own it. But if we had gone to a place with no mana -- then we would be free."

"Free from what?"

"Free from the Makers of History, they call our young men and women to fight for them. They fill them with false dreams of glory. My Riolot had such dreams. He was going to make something of himself. He did. A corpse."

"Well at least he died in glory," said Jafel, who then regretted the words the instant they were spoken.

"Glory? He's dead because some planewalking god needed sword fodder. In the volcanic lands of the East, where the stone is as red as the blood spilled upon it, his whitening bones remain. His companions didn't manage to retrieve his corpse so that I could mourn properly–as if I had time to mourn with your father to raise. Of course your grandfather's bones have company since your father and mother left you with me the night that red mana flashed through a moonless sky. I dreamt of my husband last night as I often do on those rare nights when both moons are dark. A curse on dreams, they stir up the soul!"

Jafel tried to look downcast and convinced. But he would wait till later in the day. He would ask his grandmother how she had met his grandfather, how she had been a dancer-of-the-veils in the city of Teshub with its rich markets and terrible prisons. She could speak of the exotic market, of the smells of spices and the taste of succulent fruits, she could speak of the music hanging like silver wire in the night, and of the feel of satin sheets. She would remember, and with that memory could come longing–and with longing she might give him permission to go to Teshub. He would not tell her of his red dream.

Because, permission or not, he was going.

#         #        #

"Tell me about my mother," said Loaj.

Her father looked at her a little bored. She should be carding wool not carding memories. He had spent his life in the village of Rosu, he could not imagine why anyone would seek to dream of other places. However, maybe dreams weren't bad, provided that they gave you energy to put into your honest tasks.

"Your mother," he began, "was a minor wizard and a great swordswoman. When General T'Sael's calvary rode through here, he was so impressed with her skills that he made her his second-in-command. She raised an infantry and they marched east. They fought valiantly, but the aerial forces backed by blue mana overcame them."

"Why didn't you go with them?"

"Because," he said, surprised, "I had to take care of you, my dear. I've no talent at swordplay and none at magic."

"When my mother fell, did any of her comrades bring back any memento of her struggle?"

"No. Nothing. Now get to work."

#         #        #

Cashrel's father brought him his breakfast of cheese and bread. Later in the morning his sister would arrive to watch the flock, while he went into the village to rest. Cashrel wolfed down the breakfast. He almost told his father of the night's dream, but that would have been too bold, too likely to bring about direct opposition. So he would show craft, skirt around the issue.

"Father," he said, "why is no one taught the art of swordsmanship in Rosu?"

"We have no enemies here in the plains. We have nothing to steal. You couldn't imagine a great troop coming to take our sheep, could you?"

"But soldiers have marched through here, calvaries ridden, and they have taken sheep."

"So they eat a few sheep. They do not eat our freedom. If we fought them, they might leave a garrison behind. Having nothing is sometimes a key to abundance. Remember the poem I wrote for the spring festival:

The sad foolish thief

thought he had taken my wealth.

"Look! Two moons above!"

"But, father, with great enough magic even the moons might be stolen."

"Do you think that someone from Rosu could steal the moons?!"

"We have Saraj. She is a very powerful wizard."

"She is that."

#         #        #

The high desert of Rosu has slightly thin air and the sun burns so hot that most sleep during the height of the day. However, after the night of red dreams two meetings occurred hidden by the secrecy of sleep. One took place in the house of Saraj. There Saraj met with Antel, father of Loaj, and Zucrel, father of Cashrel. The other met at the fountain near the center of town.

"I knew you would be here," said Jafel to Loaj. It had long been suspected in the village of Rosu that these two would become lovers, yet despite (or perhaps because of) this widely held belief such a magical transformation had not taken place.

"I think," said Loaj, "that others may be coming - Kaaj or perhaps Cashrel. I had a dream last night."

"So did I."

"I dreamt of a vast battle where we fought lizard men with skins pink and black, while the sky was filled with sprites and dragons," said Loaj.

Jafel said, "I dreamt of awards and honors after battle, when a great planeswalker in a scarlet cape made me governor of Teshub."

Someone walked from behind a building to join them. It was Cashrel.

"And I dreamt of dying. I dreamt of spending my long boring life in this village where naught happens save for the shearing of the sheep and the birthing of lambs."

"If we stay here, we'll all die of boredom," said Jafel.

"It's time to go," said Loaj. "We will go to the East where a great army is being assembled. I have had a dream."

"What use would that be?" asked Cashrel. "So we can offer our services as sheep herders and wool spinners? There is no glory in this."

"In my dream," said Loaj, "it was revealed to me that my father hides a cache of swords from my mother's campaign. In my dream I saw them under a loose stone of my father's courtyard. I have checked the stone and it is loose; although I have not yet had the chance to grab the swords."

"The swords would buy our way into an army. Metal is rare and the sacrifice we made to transport them across the lava hot rocks would show that we were serious," said Cashrel.

"We could never escape from here," said Jafel. "My grandmother would call to the clouds or the birds of the air or even the thin grass of the fields to bear us back."

"So we sneak past, or we go at night," said Cashrel.

"You could give her a sleeping draught that would give us time to get far away. Saraj is powerful, but even she cannot effect things miles away," said Loaj.

"Where would I get such a potion?" asked Jafel.

"Saraj made one for my father when he had trouble sleeping last winter," said Loaj. "I could bring it to you."

It was agreed that Jafel would slip the drink into his grandmother's porridge at breakfast. The others would have stolen away in the night, and they would meet at the red mesa. Once they had crossed the mesa, they should be able to see the smoke from the kilns of Teshub rising in the air.

Later they agreed (with that solemnity that is peculiar to youth) to return here to the blue fountain of Rosu. They would bring wealth to their families, inspiration to the youth, and tales for the children. They would weave Rosu into the warp of the world. They drank the slightly alkaline water of the well and swore their oaths.

#         #        #

Meanwhile in the house that Saraj's father had built, Saraj served mint tea to her guests. They were agitated, and Saraj knew they would have to become calm before a plan of action could be decided on.

"I cannot understand why the boy is interested in these matters. I even recited one of my poems to him," said Zucrel.

"Oh, I'm sure that was a great help," said Antel.

"You're the worst among us. You acted like what your wife did was glorious," said Zucrel.

"I loved my wife. I loved her when she rode off to battle. That's the bad thing about wizards. They make you think that their impulses are your own free will. A plague on them! Er, present company excluded, of course."

After this sort of other-blaming between the two men died out, Saraj brought the meeting to order.

"What is important," she said, "is that all of the children suddenly developed an interest in warfare and particularly in the battles of the red lands of the East at the same time. I unfortunately have watched this cycle twice in my life, and I'm tired of it. Some planeswalker is gathering his forces–fire elementals, dragons, undead and as always human sword fodder.

They send a signal into the world and it is answered from the most unlikely places."

"So what do we do?" asked Zucrel. "What arguments do we use to make them awaken to their senses?"

"You can't argue with magic," said Saraj. "You might as well convince the moons not to shine or a mountain not to be tall. You fight magic with magic. I don't have the unlimited resources of a planeswalker, who can send a signal to all alternity, but I do have the power to send a very loud signal to three youngsters I've known all their lives. I have enough substance of being to be a stone in the river of history–a small stone, yes, but big enough to shelter three teenagers."

"What do we need to do?" asked Zucrel.

"You must bring me something personal of Loaj and Cashrel's. I'll steal something of my grandson's. This will provide a magical link for my magic to manifest through. You must do this today, for it will take me several hours tomorrow morning to do the spell right. And you must not let them know what you have done. Be quick about it. It would be my guess that they are away from home plotting a counsel of war."

The men left inspired by her wisdom, thinking that she knew a great deal by virtue of her sorcery, but like all the wise she knew a great deal by having had a hard life.

#         #        #

Jafel couldn't sleep. He lay in his bed watching the greater moon wondering if he could escape. Loaj and Cashrel would make it–they had fools for parents. But Saraj was a wizard. He had heard her moving around the house, singing songs of Teshub dance halls popular a century ago. Maybe if she was up all night, she would sleep long. What was she doing?

In his mind's eye he could picture Loaj prying up the stone while Cashrel kept nervous guard by candlelight. Loaj's father snored loudly and they tensed to jump with each snore.

They packed the ancient crate with fleece so that the metal would not rattle against metal. Then picking up their packs of food–Cashrel's far too large, of course–they marched out of Antel's house heading toward the mesa, the gateway to their long and glorious lives. He knew he couldn't sleep.

He fell asleep.

#         #        #

He woke an hour later than he planned.

He ran to start the fire to heat the water to make the porridge. Oh why wouldn't the wood catch?


He pulled the stopper from the clay bottle and poured the brown liquid in the porridge. That wasn't right. He was supposed to put it just in her bowl. He'd tell her wasn't hungry. He was ruining everything. It wasn't fair he was meant to be a great general, not a houseboy for an old woman.

Saraj walked into the room. He made his face a mask of inscrutability.

"Is one of your teeth bothering you?" she asked.

"No. Ah yes. Yes, my molar. I think I'll skip breakfast this morning. Let me dish you up some."

She ate her breakfast hungrily.

"I heard you up all night," said Jafel. "Did you have trouble sleeping?"

"I was preparing to do magic."


"I have to cast a spell that ensures we will have an adequate sheep sheering in the spring."

Good she would be busy. Get her to talk more.

"What makes for effective magic, grandmother?"

"Enthusiasm and exactitude. You must be really impassioned, truly need the outcome, as well as having an understanding of the cosmos in order for your spell to work."

"Why exactitude?"

"For the magician of this world, unlike those who intrude here from other realms and are subject to other laws, the result must be possible within the laws of this place. and the magical link that allows the magician's will to manifest must be exact."

Saraj yawned at the end of her speech.

Jafel began putting away the dishes and Saraj went off to her spinning room, which doubled as her ritual chamber.

Jafel decided to wait half an hour, so that the potion had time to take effect.

Saraj had forbidden him to enter the chamber while she worked her magic. He would check to see if she slept. Perhaps he should tie her up so that she would not raise alarm nor spell for many hours should she wake.

It had been several hundred heartbeats since he had heard any noise. He swallowed hard and quietly opened the door to the chamber.

Saraj sat in her favorite chair. Her eyes were closed and she whispered in an unknown tongue. She held Loaj's coral comb in her right hand, Cashrel's lyre in her left. A glowing chain was forming between the objects–of blue and white mana. Some links were clearly defined, others nebulous. The half-seen glowing chain continued to a seashell, a gift Jafel had received from his aunt, which rested on Saraj's lap; and even beyond the seashell and into the stones of the floor.

She must be binding them to the village. She was destroying their hopes, their dreams, their fantasies.

Jafel rushed forward and grabbed the shell from Saraj's lap. As he pulled it away, it was as though simultaneously someone was pulling hairs from the back of his head. Saraj slumped forward in her chair, for a moment he thought he might have killed her, but she raised herself up. She looked very tired and sleepy, and suddenly Jafel realized how very _old_ she was.

She spoke, "I was too slow to finish the spell this morning.

Too tired. You put something in my porridge."

Jafel said nothing.

"I must go and sleep and then I will read the spell."

"No. You won't. You have no right."

"I don't claim rights. I claim love."

Saraj rose from the chair. Jafel pushed her back. He had meant only to stop her, but the chair overturned. Her head hit the stone floor with a cracking sound, and her hair once white as salt became white and red. She rolled out of the chair in a heap.

She still moved. She reached her hand over and grabbed some fleece near the base of her spinning wheel. She pulled away a ball of fleece and looked at Jafel.

"No. No go to war. Saraj stop." And she threw the ball of fleece onto Jafel. Then she collapsed utterly. Jafel ran from the house.

#         #        #

Jafel had begun to climb the red mesa when it occurred to him that he had brought no water. Hopefully either Loaj or Cashrel had, or there were springs to be found. By now he was sure that Saraj had got up. So she had bled a little. You couldn't kill a wizard by a simple push. Surely magical beings weren't subject to the laws of accident. He would buy her something fine in Teshub with the loot he would no doubt get. She would be proud of him.

She couldn't be dead.

He should've waited and taken his good shoes. The rocks really hurt his feet through the thin soles of his old shoes. He was thirsty, better not to think about that. Loaj and Cashrel would be waiting for him at the top of the mesa. He would drink and eat cheese and bread. Cashrel was a shepherd, he knew how to pack food for the outdoors. It was harder climbing the mesa than he thought. How did they get the wagon up here when they took the wool to market in the fall?

What about that wool Saraj had thrown on him? There it was,a little ball of fleece. He went to pull it off his breeches, but lost concentration and skidded down the slope. When he rose he saw that the fleece had spread from a nice white ball into a long mess of fibers and gravel across his left leg. Some had even worked its way up to his tunic. He would have to pull it off fiber by fiber before he tried to enlist in an army at Teshub. He would need to wash his clothes and his body as well. It would be better not to mention that he came from one of the villages of the plains. It was like saying that he came from a heap of mud. He would talk to Loaj and Cashrel about that. They must pretend to be sophisticates.

Up. Up. To the top of the mesa.

He couldn't see Loaj or Cashrel. Well of course they had gone on. Why would they wait for him? They would make camp somewhere. Somewhere cool by water and trees. That would be nice. The air was thinner and hotter up here. Harder to breathe. If he could find some shade he'd rest and pull the threads off. He seemed to have somehow spread them just by walking and climbing. He was such a mess. Such a rural fool with fleece on both legs and his tummy. He would need to sell one of the swords to buy new clothes. He couldn't begin his glorious military career looking like a sheep fleecer.

How much money would a sword bring? There were several in the box, or so Loaj had said. Of course he hadn't seen them. But surely she wouldn't lie.

Would she?

Could Loaj and Cashrel be laughing at him back at the blue fountain? They said they had had dreams, but who knew? Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he should go back to the village.

No, he couldn't do that. They would have found Saraj's corpse by now. No, that's not right. She couldn't be dead.

No, he would continue on until he found Loaj and Cashrel's tracks.

He needed to get out of the sun. It was so hot with all of this wool hanging from his clothes. He couldn't understand how Saraj had thrown such a huge ball of wool.

He began to walk quickly and then to run. There were no tracks on the stony soil of the mesa's top. Loaj and Cashrel had gone on and abandoned him. They were already in Teshub–already joining the army. He needed to move faster, but it was so hard in this huge mass of wool.

As he ran the shaggy and ever-increasing wool on his legs tripped him. He pitched forward.

#         #        #

When he woke, he panicked. He couldn't move his arms or legs. He tried to cry out, but found something covering his mouth. His eyes as well.

He struggled against his bonds. He worked till tears came down his eyes and little whimpering sounds from his throat. At last he could move the fingers of his right hand. Then the hand itself, then the arm.

He would get tired and the thin air didn't help. He kept breathing fleece up his nose and the itching was maddening.

He got his other arm free, and then he could really move about. He pushed both hands out. Then he could push off the stony soil and stand.

He eventually got free from his cocoon.

It was night and cool and the two moons shown brilliantly above.

So Saraj had stopped him for a while. Perhaps as long as she had lived. But nothing could stop him now and that gave him a fierce joy. He marched across the mesa.

Near dawn as he had begun descent he spotted three large cocoons. He went to them and tore at the largest. Soon he had revealed Cashrel's face. After he had freed Cashrel's arms, Cashrel was able to free himself while he tore away the wool from Loaj and the box.

Jafel explained that Saraj had managed to ensorcel them, but that he had stopped her spell before it reached its full potential. He did not mention how he had stopped her spell.

Cashrel and Jafel lifted up the box and they descended. The three of them began making plans for their arrival. By the end of the day they knew that they were lost.

Where they had expected to find Teshub was only a rather pitiful farmstead, a small plaster building amidst mounds of earth.

Perhaps Saraj's sorcery had taken away their sense of direction.

They knocked long and loud before an old man came to the door. He was deaf and they had to shout their inquiries.

"Teshub?" said the old man. "There used to be a city called Teshub, but it was destroyed in a war in my grandfather's time. That's Teshub buried there." He pointed at the many mounds around his small home. "Only me here now, no more excitement."

The three walked away and pried open the box. It contained only rust. They were several years too late to enlist in the army.

Now there was only peace and desolation.

About This Story

  • Author: Don Webb
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Dec 1999