Bards love to give their stories names, preferably interesting and memorable names. Since by some odd chance there are no bards involved in this one, it falls to me to supply its label. In the language of my birth, I present you with Ol Tamboch Narhin, the Chaos Tapestry.
What? You don’t need all of the dramatics? Too bad, my friend. I am the only one who can tell this tale, and I will tell it my way. Listen or don’t, it’s up to you. Still there? Then I’ll continue.
Every tale has a beginning, and this one begins almost 150 years ago in the year you would number 872, in a small hamlet in the eastern part of middle Beinison, the empire to the south of Baranur.
Qawm lifted the yoke onto his shoulders and started walking home from the well. The buckets at the ends of the yoke were small, since he was only ten years old, but the water in them was still heavy. He didn’t mind, though: it was good exercise, and he would need to be strong when he grew up and became a hero.
He didn’t have to walk far. Lonial was such a small village that no one had to walk far from the central green, where the well was, to reach home. The forest crowded around the single row of houses that surrounded the central green except to the south, where they had been cleared away to make room for crop fields and pastures. A dirt road circled the hamlet, with a track leading north to the hills, another to the east toward one of the few bridges that crossed the river Sparok, and a third that led away southwest. Qawm had never been very far from the boundaries of his home, though he knew he would have to leave one day. After all, there wasn’t any heroing to be done in tiny Lonial.
Qawm reached his father’s house; his mother had died when he was very young. Yarol, his father, had said she’d gone away, but Qawm knew that meant ‘died’. Rellan, one of his friends, lived with just his mother because his father had been killed while hunting.
Qawm walked around the workshop where he could hear the rhythmic hum of the lathe being pedaled. He went into the house and poured the buckets into the water barrel just inside the kitchen. He then got the broom and gave the small house a quick sweeping, finishing his morning chores. Free until lunch, he dashed back out the door, grabbing up his trusty stick-sword from the same place he had stowed the buckets and yoke.
He was the first one of his friends to reach Lion’s Rock, a large, chest-high rock that rested in the middle of a clearing just inside the trees to the west of the hamlet. He climbed up on top of the rock and struck a hero’s pose, sure that he looked just like the heroes in the stories told by the traveling players that regularly visited Lonial.
Soon, the other children of the hamlet began arriving. Tavin, Qawm’s best friend, showed up first, complaining about all of the hard work his mother and father made him do just so he could come out and play. The clearing was soon full of similar complaints as the six other children, ranging from eleven down to eight years old, arrived. Qawm didn’t join in, and he had long since given up trying to get his friends to see that if they did their chores faster, they would have more time to play. For some reason, they never quite understood that.
Eventually, the complaining turned into their other favorite pastime, playing heroes. They all had their own favorite sticks ready, and Qawm eagerly joined in as everyone flailed away in their best heroic imitations at trees, bushes, and each other. They mostly went at it in a huge free-for-all, dashing around the rock, in between the trees, striking from ambush, all trying to be the hero of the day, so they could claim Lion’s Rock as their own until sundown.
That day, Rellan accidentally tripped the youngest, little eight-year-old Duamy, who hit her head on a tree. Everyone quickly quieted Duamy down, and then exacted the usual punishment on Rellan. Qawm loved this game: Rellan was made to play a wizard, and it was everyone against him. Rellan had to put aside his stick, as wizards never used such crude implements, but as the child had nothing else to defend himself with, the seven other heroes of Lonial succeeded in putting the wizard Rellan in his place quite well.
It was soon the middle of the day, and Qawm was called home for lunch. He saluted his friends and left. As he walked home, he thought about wizards. He knew that magic was real, of course. The Empire of Beinison was well known for its army’s war-mages, and for its far more powerful magi. He also knew that he had never heard a story that had a nice wizard in it. If such stories existed, they were never told in Lonial. His father told the best stories about the worst wizards, but everyone else also had their favorites where the magic users were evil, or cowardly, or stupid, or, most often, simply useless. Even the traveling players only told tales about brave, sword-weilding heroes saving the day and rescuing everyone from those nasty wizards. Qawm knew that someday he’d be one of the heroes wandering theatrical troupes acted out stories about.
Qawm walked past the last tree between him and home, then glanced back. There was a small, very black bird standing on the lowest branch, so black that he couldn’t quite see any details of what it looked like. He hadn’t ever seen such a black bird that small: crows, ravens, and even starlings were larger. It looked as much like a shadow of a bird as anything else. Before he could turn around for a better look, it spread its dark wings and flew away very fast. Puzzled, Qawm continued on home.
Qawm wasn’t surprised when Tavin showed up at the kitchen door that morning while he was still doing his chores. His father had told Qawm the night before that he was going to try Tavin as his apprentice, and Qawm was happy for his friend. At least, he tried to be.
Qawm was twelve years old and still happily spending his mornings and afternoons honing his heroing skills, when he wasn’t doing the chores he had been assigned. More and more lately, though, he was doing so alone. Tavin wasn’t the first of Qawm’s friends to desert playtime for more immediately productive pursuits, like finding apprenticeships under their parents, or someone else if their abilities so demanded.
Qawm greeted his friend, and led him to his father’s workshop. The small room was neatly arranged, with tools and projects on the walls, but sawdust covered everything despite being swept out every few days. That had never been one of Qawm’s chores, so perhaps it would now fall to Tavin to keep the place clean instead of whenever Yarol got around to it.
Qawm saw Tavin’s eyes light up with excitement. Yarol was a wood carver, making both decorative and functional items, usually quite small. Qawm could see the skill that went into the crafting of the pieces, but they certainly didn’t fascinate him like they did Tavin.
Qawm left his father with his new apprentice and headed out to Lion’s Rock. He pretended to attack bandits and other minions of evil along the way, stabbing his stick into shadows as well as slashing at leaves and bushes, but his mind wasn’t fully on his practicing. Instead, he was thinking about an interesting truth he had realized not long ago, which was that no one ever seemed to leave Lonial. He had questioned everyone about what lay beyond the hamlet, and no resident could give him an answer of their own, only retold tales from others.
Lonial wasn’t isolated by any means. Outsiders passed through frequently, from the traveling players who brought news and entertainment, a major source of the lore of the hero that Qawm studied, to the monthly visits by the imperial traders who came by ten times a year to barter the goods in their carts or wooden trade tokens for the hamlet’s surplus items. These strangers were happy to tell a boy about the glories of the Beinison Empire, about cities big and small, vistas vast and glorious, people of grand stature everywhere one looked. Qawm hadn’t needed those tales to spur his own ambitions. He had never expected to be a hero by staying within the narrow limits of Lonial.
Duamy was already at Lion’s Rock when Qawm arrived. She was sitting on top of the rock with her sling in her hand, and when Qawm entered the clearing, a rock clacked against the tree right next to him, exactly at head height. Qawm smiled and dashed over to join her on the rock, pulling out his own sling, which was just a scrap of cloth attached to a scrap of leather. Duamy was the best of his friends at slinging, and Qawm knew he was probably the worst. He grabbed some of the pebbles that Duamy had brought up with her and started flinging them at the trees, but he never hit his mark. As each of the other two children arrived, Duamy greeted them with a well-aimed sling stone, while Qawm made sure to direct his shots to the other side of the clearing, just in case.
Soon, all four were atop Lion’s Rock, slinging away. Though Qawm still preferred his mock sword battles, target practice had come to be everyone else’s favorite. He didn’t mind that he was so bad at it. He had never hit a target he’d aimed at, no matter how large or small, from the side of a house, to the fattest tree, to even Lion’s Rock itself. When they began slinging at moving objects, though, he almost became dangerous, losing his concentration to the point that the stone could go literally anywhere except toward the rat or wren it was supposed to hit.
While his friends were busy scaring the birds from the trees with their accuracy, Qawm made the ground his target, happily hitting what he aimed at for once. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement, and he looked to his left to see a canopit hop out of the forest fringe. The small, furry rodent with the big hind feet, long, floppy ears, and strange, stubby, branched horns on its head, stuck its head into a patch of clover, not the least bit afraid of the children up on Lion’s Rock.
Qawm shifted himself, set a stone to the leather pocket, and started spinning his sling. He felt someone grab his arm, and he turned around to find Rellan frowning at him.
“Don’t even joke like that,” Rellan said.
“What?” Qawm said. “I’d never hit it!”
“You know the stories,” Rellan said, “Canopits are the luck of Lonial. Don’t even pretend to sling one.”
Qawm sighed, and turned away from the still clover-chewing rodent. Rellan was right, of course. Qawm just figured that it was funny to use his inability to sling to keep the hamlet safe, but it was better not to take the chance. After all, if he wasn’t trying to hit the canopit, maybe he really would!
Movement again caught Qawm’s attention, and he looked over in time to see a small, very black bird land on a limb just above the canopit, then take wing again. Qawm frowned at the sight just as he did every time he saw that small shadowy bird. He wondered what kind it was, but no one else he’d asked had ever seen it or knew anything about such a thing.
Qawm was alone atop Lion’s Rock, staring at the trees as the sun neared its highest point. He had turned fourteen a month past, and he was the only one of the eight children he had grown up with who still had the freedom to spend his mornings slashing at trees with sticks, or slinging stones at rats and birds from on top of Lion’s Rock. Even little Duamy, now twelve years old, was busy at work with her parents in the fields to the south.
Qawm had no problem with his growing isolation, and he had long ago decided to ignore his friends when they called him crazy for having no interests beyond heroing. His father had never made an attempt at steering him into doing something productive beyond his chores, and Qawm was accustomed to filling his time on his own. His friends were probably just jealous that he could still spend the day playing.
He was spinning his sling, waiting for something to move in the trees, when he noticed a faint sparkling in the center of the trunks around him. He stilled the sling, hopped down from the rock, and walked over to one of the trees to take a closer look.
These weren’t the first sparks Qawm had seen. About three months earlier, he had started seeing faint clouds of sparks inside of the cows and pigs in Lonial’s pasturage to the south. He had asked his father about what he had seen, but Yarol couldn’t provide any answers, though he did reassure Qawm not to worry about it. Qawm noticed the look on his father’s face at the time — sadness, like when Qawm’s pet cat had died — but he didn’t understand why his father would feel like that.
The sparks in the trees were just the same as the sparks in the animals, except perhaps fainter. Qawm concentrated on the cloud, but the sparks were just there, they didn’t move or anything. Once he had seen the sparks in the cows and pigs, he had looked closely at other animals and sure enough, he saw them in dogs, birds, rats, horses, all manner of animal. Wondering whether he could now see sparks in plants, he concentrated on the grass in the clearing, and after a moment, the sparks were there. He looked at the undergrowth and saw sparks there, too. He just wished he had some idea of what the sparks meant.
Suddenly, a high, cackling voice called out, “Strange!” Qawm looked around, but there was no one there. The voice came again. “Weird!” Qawm looked up, and there was that charcoal-smear of a black bird sitting on a limb right above him. Its beak opened at the same time as “Crazy!” rang out.
Qawm fell back in astonishment, and the bird flew away. After lying on his back and staring at where the bird had stood, wondering whether it had really talked, he realized that he had seen no sparks in the center of the bird.
Qawm was lying on his stomach on Lion’s Rock as night descended. In the four months since he had seen the black bird talk, he had discovered that every natural thing around him had sparks. Not just animals and plants, but people too, and even rocks. He glanced down and watched the faint cloud of sparks inside Lion’s Rock glimmer. Anything natural, but not dead things like chopped wood, picked plants, or slain animals. Even the Sparok River, though it was easiest to see those flowing sparks in the dark when there was no sunlight glinting to hide them.
Qawm still had no idea what the sparks were. He had asked careful questions of everyone he came across, but no one had any more answers than his father’d had. He knew that they had to mean something, or have some purpose, but he was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to learn what that was until he left Lonial.
He stared at the sparks inside Lion’s Rock, concentrating on them as darkness fell. He was just about to turn over and look at the stars when the cloud began to move toward him. It started to flow upward from the center of the rock, and Qawm was too fascinated to be frightened. The sparks got closer and closer, and then passed from the rock into him. There was a slight tingling at the point of contact, very faint, not even enough to tickle. The sparks moved very slowly, and Qawm noticed that the cloud at the center of Lion’s Rock didn’t seem to get any smaller despite the flow.
He looked up, and saw the brighter flaring of the trees around the clearing. He rolled off of the rock and went over to a trunk. He put his hand on it and concentrated, and sure enough, the sparks started flowing into his palm with that faint non-tickle. The sparks moved faster than those from Lion’s Rock, and again didn’t seem to diminish the overall size of the tree’s cloud.
Excited, Qawm dashed out of the clearing, down the road, into the pasture, and up to a cow. He put his hands on its warm flank and drew, and the sparks came rather rapidly flowing into him. This time, though, they only flowed for a short time before simply stopping. He concentrated harder, trying to keep up the draw, but he couldn’t get it to start again.
He looked down at his chest and saw that the cloud of sparks that he had been seeing in there was larger than it had been before. Qawm knew that this had to be a clue to the purpose of the sparks, but he still didn’t know what that purpose was. He didn’t feel stronger, or healthier, or warmer, or in any way physically different than he had before he’d discovered this new trick. So what could the sparks be for?
“Freak!” suddenly rang out in that same high, cackling voice he had heard four months previously. Qawm looked around, but it was too dark to see anything clearly, much less a tiny, soot-black bird. There was a sound of wings, and he hoped that the bird was gone. The sparks didn’t make him feel strange, or like a freak, but hearing a bird talk certainly did.
Qawm stalked through the woods around Lonial, slashing at everything he came across. He broke his stick, picked up another, broke that one against another tree, and went searching for a third.
Four more months had passed since he had learned to draw on the sparks, nine since he had turned fourteen. In another month, he would be fifteen, an event he was anticipating as being his entry into adulthood. Rellan, who was already fifteen, was planning on getting married in two months, and his friend Tavin, who was Qawm’s age, had his eye on one of the traveling players.
Qawm wasn’t expecting to find someone to settle down with in his fifteenth year. Instead, he anticipated leaving Lonial to finally become a hero. If, that was, he could manage to last that long. For months now, the taunts of his friends had been becoming increasingly annoying, and whether they were just jealous of his freedom, or really disliked his lack of responsibilities, he wished they would stop.
In addition, Qawm had been experimenting with drawing on the sparks. He had learned that there were limits to what he could draw from a single object, but there didn’t seem to be a limit to how much he could absorb. He had even learned that he could draw sparks from a person, thanks to Tavin.
Even though he couldn’t see any ill effects from his spark-drawing on anything else he tried it with, he had hesitated to try it with a person. He might never have tried that experiment if Tavin hadn’t chosen a day about a month past to torment him yet again about his aimlessness. Driven beyond bearing it, Qawm had slapped his hand against the side of the apprentice’s face and drew as hard as he was able. Tavin had looked surprised, then angry, and the force behind the punch that had blackened Qawm’s eye had lacked nothing, despite the rush of sparks that had flowed into Qawm before he had been knocked down.
In all of his experimentation, he had learned another important fact: there might well be limits to how many sparks he could take into himself. With every draw, he took more in, but as far as he could tell, they never went away. The cloud of sparks within him grew larger and larger, filling his chest and flowing down his arms and legs. At first, he wasn’t bothered by this, but as he drew more and more, he realized that he was getting more and more edgy, more and more irritable.
He resolved to stop drawing sparks soon after being punched by Tavin, hoping the situation would resolve itself. It didn’t. Instead, he found that sparks seemed to flow into him from anything he was near, without him drawing them. The cloud within him expanded into his hands and feet, then his fingers and toes. He began to feel stuffed by the sparks, full to overflowing. He hoped the cloud would subside by itself, but with the involuntary drawing, it never seemed to. Which was why he was storming through the trees breaking sticks and tearing leaves in hopes of ridding himself of his frustration, the sparks, or both.
In time, he found himself climbing up onto Lion’s Rock. He tried to sit and think, but he was too restless, to agitated to stay still. He stood atop the rock and glared at the sparking trees, the sparking grass and plants and even the sparking stone beneath his feet. He stomped on the sparks that were flowing into his feet, to no effect.
He drew his knife in desperation. If the sparks wouldn’t leave him on their own, maybe he could force them out. He set the blade against his wrist and tried to prepare himself to cut deep, because he knew that a simple scrape wouldn’t be enough.
“Fool!” Qawm tracked the sound, and saw the black bird standing on the ground next to the trunk of a tree. “Idiot! Moron!” it cried.
Suddenly furious, Qawm pointed his knife at the bird. With a shout of heartfelt frustration at everything in his life, he tried to thrust his anger at the bird … and a bolt of energy flashed out of his body, through the knife, and right at the bird. With a flash of wings and a cackling laugh, the bird flew up, and the bolt smashed into a canopit that hopped around the trunk of the tree right at that moment. It screamed, jerked, fell over, and lay still.
Qawm stood and stared as the sparks faded from the carcass of the long-eared, fuzzy, horned rodent. He felt calm for a moment, and he could see with a brief glance that the cloud of sparks in him was once again restricted to his chest.
The calm faded, though, as he looked back at the dead canopit. He had just killed the luck of Lonial. “Doomed!” cried the tiny black bird. Qawm was ready to agree.
The next day, Qawm left his house after breakfast. He was much calmer now, with the cloud of sparks reduced to its normal proportions. He had chosen in the night to ignore the death of the canopit. Tavin walked by, going to work, and Qawm smiled at him. Tavin’s cheery, slightly taunting, “Happy playtime, Qawm,” only got a smile in return.
At about midmorning, a caravan of players rolled into the central green. Qawm raced over and watched as their wagons were expertly positioned and the unloading started even before the last cart had left the forest. A delegation from the players went into the headman’s home, and Qawm knew that they were going to negotiate terms for the coming performances. Sounds of anticipation rose as news of their arrival spread through the tiny hamlet, and people took time to steal glimpses of the strangers setting up to entertain them.
Qawm noticed a change in the sounds as the last cart rolled up onto the green, followed by a woman on a horse who did not look like a player of any kind. She was beautiful, regal in bearing and dress, with jewelry sparkling from her neck and wrists and even the mane of her horse.
The mystery woman followed the others into the headman’s house, and Qawm headed down to the green to greet the players, who were regulars in Lonial. He spent the rest of the morning listening to stories, helping as the stages were set up, and being smug about being able to spend his time at this pursuit, just as he and all of his friends used to do five years previously.
Qawm knew when to return home for lunch, and that time had not yet arrived when he heard Yarol calling out to summon him back. Curious, he broke away from the players and walked across the green. He circled the house, and was startled to find the mystery woman standing just outside of the door, her horse next to her. His father was standing in the doorway looking sad. No, something more. Defeated?
Qawm found himself impressed by his first close-up view of the woman. His previous estimation was only reinforced by this look: she was tall, regal, beautiful, with long brown hair, a thin face, and long-fingered hands accentuated by the multiple rings she wore on each finger.
She looked Qawm up and down as he approached, and by the look on her face, she was not similarly impressed. That didn’t bother Qawm unduly, though he wondered who she was to judge him in the first place. Everything changed, though, when his father said, “Ah, Qawm, this is … En-Allodurul, your m-mother.”
Qawm stared at the woman whom his father had always said was dead. “But you …” Then he realized that Yarol never said ‘dead’ when speaking of Qawm’s mother, just ‘gone’. “Um …”
Yarol said, “She’s your mother, Qawm, and she’s come to take you away.”
The woman with the long, strange name said, “Yes. Now.” Her voice was low and cruel, but that wasn’t what made Qawm want to run. As his father reached inside the door, grabbed a bundle, and handed it to Qawm, he realized that it was going to happen right then. No chance to think about it, no chance to ask questions.
Tavin then came around the side of the cottage leading a mule, reinforcing the immediacy of the event. Yarol stepped out of the doorway to hug his son, whispering “I’m sorry” in his ear, then helping him onto the blanket-padded back of the mule. Qawm grabbed the rope of the halter that Tavin handed him. His friend’s worried expression did nothing to calm him down.
En-Allodurul glided up onto the back of her horse, then reached down to him. He gripped her cold, hard, thin hand and, as the large brown horse began to move, the mule followed at its stirrup. Qawm wondered what was happening to him, why he was being taken away. Did it have to do with the sparks? With the dead canopit? He looked back at his father, who stood in the doorway once more and waved. Qawm thought he saw a tear on his father’s cheek.
With no more ceremony than that, Qawm finally left Lonial, and everything and everyone he had ever known.