Pudlong knew the smell of the earth. He knew the smell of warm, freshly turned soil, ready for planting. He knew the smell of hot, arid dirt, aching for a rain that was too long in coming. He knew the faint odor of beans ripe and ready to pick. He also knew the smell of dead, wet plants, sodden with the rains of autumn and laced with decay. But the smell he was smelling was as strange as the sight which lay before his eyes.
“‘Ere, Thully, whadya maka this?” He called out to his wife, who was a few yards away, pulling weeds from between some bean plants. She straightened, her long brown hair framing her sturdy face. She stepped over the rows of plants as she made her way to Pudlong’s side. She stared down at the sight which had given her husband pause.
“Oooo, don’t rightly know, luv.” She stooped and plucked a finger full of leaves off a nearby plant and held them up to her face. Thully studied them carefully. Instead of the usual dark green, these specimens were pink. Others around her were blue and orange and yellow, and not just the usual yellow, but a bright, almost glowing yellow. She shook her head, her loose tresses swaying gently. “You’d thank they’d up and gone flowers on us.” She held them to her nose and sniffed the faintly perfumed aroma they emitted.
Pudlong put his hands on his hips and shook his head slowly. He was not a man of great intellect or quick wit. As a peasant farmer he didn’t need to be. His master told him when to plant, and when to harvest, when to weed and when to pray. His was a life of work and toil, not study or adventure. As long as he stayed in tune with the cycle of the seasons, Pudlong was likely to do well, under his master’s steady hand. Strange events like pink bean sprouts just didn’t fit into his small world.
But ever since the strange happenings from that wizard started, Pudlong’s nice predictable life had taken a slight twist. It had started with knights and adventurers appearing in his beanfield: lured to a nearby cave by the legend of hidden gold, they were whisked away by sorcery to appear in Pudlong’s plot of land. After that the visions began: strange images, sounds and smells floating above the ground. Finally there appeared strange lights and mists, in the early evening and in the morning. Always they happened in this particular bean patch. Pudlong had wanted to move, but his lord insisted that he stay put. Now there were pink bean plants growing in his field.
The two peasants continued their labor, moving carefully around the rainbow- colored shoots, almost afraid to touch them. By the time of the evening prayers, both Pudlong and Thully had put thoughts of strangely colored plants out of their heads, concentrating instead on words of praise for Stevene and words of thanks for their food. By the time they fell asleep they were too tired to notice the wisps of light dancing over the distant bean patch.
The next day Pudlong went alone to gather up the strange bean plants. He carefully plucked up all the pink ones, then all the blue ones, then the orange, then the yellow, all the while being careful not to mix the colors. There weren’t that many — each color only filled one sack apiece. When he was done, he set the sacks together in the center of the disturbed area. He studied them a while, then walked back to the hut. He returned with a shovel, dug a hole, poured the uprooted plants in it, and covered it up.
Sunset found the couple busily mending their sacks in the twilight. A simple lard lamp shed its light on their work. Pudlong found himself casting furtive glances at Thully as she wove the plats through the torn matting. He was fascinated by the play of light and dark across her face. He had always admired her hair, ever since they had met the week of their wedding. Years of work and wear had wrinkled her cheeks, but her hair was still long and smooth. He touched it, and received a playful slap. She smirked, but did not look up. He poked her lightly in the ribs, and she squeaked.
“Behave,” she admonished, but he poked her again. Another slap followed. Pudlong let her be for a moment, then tickled her leg, snatching his hand away so that her slap landed on her own thigh.
“Now what’s the matter of slappin’ yourself?” he asked innocently. She reached out an arm to retaliate, but he was already sitting on the next stool over, where she couldn’t reach. She moved to his stool, arm out and ready to strike, and he slipped around the tiny table to her vacated spot, staying out of reach. She jumped to her feet to pursue, and in moments the game of tag became a friendly wrestling match that lingered into the night. The moon was already up by the time Pudlong lifted his snoring wife off the floor and laid her in their bed. He stared a moment out the window at the moon, the swaying branches silhouetted against its pale face, then lay down beside his mate and closed his eyes. As he faded into sleep, he wondered how branches could sway, as there was no wind. No matter, he told himself foggily, there are no trees near the hut anyway.
The dawn found Pudlong and Thully out weeding the beans again. Theirs was a world of quiet leaves and moist soil, as each worked face down, never seeing further than the next plant. As the day slowly lightened, they were working just east of the spot where Pudlong had buried the beans the night before. Now Pudlong stopped a moment to stand and stretch, facing the sun as it brightened the horizon. Thully rolled back on her rump, yawning. She stopped then, and stared for a moment at something behind Pudlong. She rubbed her eyes, and stared again. She then slowly got to her feet, her eyes fixed. Pudlong saw this strange behavior, and turned around. Thully began to back away, then broke and ran for the hut, frightened noises coming from her mouth, while Pudlong just stared at the pillar of green that now stood where the beans had been interred the night before. Finally, without a word, he just fell flat on his back and lay still.
Several weeks later, Levy and Sarah Barel were immersed in an intense discussion.
“No, we are not going. Do you know how hard a trip like that would be? You say we can take the children along, fine. Do you know what dangers are out there? Sure, you traveled some before we were married. But that was before the war. There are murderers loose out there! Packs of bandits who will kill for food! Not to mention disease, wild animals, have you ever had to face a wild animal with nothing but a sword? I have, and it wasn’t fun, I tell you. And the kids! It’s trouble enough to take them to the commons anymore, and you want to take them to the other end of the world!? No, we are not going south to see this magic bean plant.”
“But Levy,” Sarah countered, “you promised.”
Levy sighed. He stared across the river from the bank where he and Sarah lay, watching the children splash and swim. His mind was not quite there, however. He was remembering making that promise to Sarah, that night in the great hall. They had been arguing, and to placate his wife he had promised her that he would travel less, and that when he did travel, the whole family would go. Now his words were returning to him, and they sounded less pleasant now.
“I agree that it would be a good thing for the children to get out and see some of the world, but let’s wait for something useful to go for. We don’t know anything about this fabled beanstalk from the south. For all we know it could be a tall tale.”
“Very tall, from what I hear,” Sarah replied, a slight smile on her face. Levy was fortunate that she was good natured. Some women would have picked him threadbare until he consented. She was merely persistent.
“And what of the farm? Who would tend it while we were gone?” Levy was grasping now. His best arguments had been easily turned aside by his mate, and he was beginning to see the inevitable conclusion to this discussion closing in on him.
“The same people who tended it when you were away for months and even years as a young man. Why should now be any different?”
“Why now? Only a wife, four children, one not even walking yet, the responsibilities of the adult son of the village elder, scores of possible business transactions put on hold indefinitely, and a crop to tend.” These were only thoughts in his head, though. All Levy said was, “Why should it?”
Sarah got up from the spot where they and the other villagers were sunning themselves on the warm grass. The first nice weather of the new year had drawn the whole village to river for the spring washing. It was as if the immediacies of life had been eased for a brief moment, and everyone wanted to grasp the chance to relax a moment before the hard labor of the summer descended. Levy’s family was no exception. Sarah brushed the dirt and leaves off her behind as she walked down into the water to join her children in their fun.
Levy watched them as wordless thoughts milled about in his mind. Remembrances of the dangers and hardships of his youthful travels competed with the fond memories of the wonders and opportunities those same travels had presented. He took a moment to check Taffy, who lay sprawled beside him, her legs and arms splayed out like a sleeping puppy. He levered himself up on his elbows. He would have liked to have gone down into the water as well, but someone had to stay and watch the baby. As a father, husband, and leader in the village, his own desires were not his first consideration.
“Hello, Levy.” Levy looked up from his thoughts to see Lara approaching, stepping between chatting peasants and napping youngsters, carrying a basket of clothes on her head.
“Hello, Lara. How are you today?”
“Well. If you want, I can watch Taffy for you while you go swim. I’m just here to do the wash — it can wait, and she’ll be no trouble.”
“No, that’s all right. I can manage. Thanks anyway.”
She nodded and continued down to the waters edge, where she and Sarah spoke for a moment. The two headed upstream to join the other women where the water was not yet muddied. They waded out to center of the shallow flow, where an outcropping of rock allowed them to rest the bundle of clothes while they worked. While Lara added her own dingy dress to the pile, Sarah began to wash the clothes, dipping each item in the clear water, then wringing it and pounding it with a smooth stone.
Watching the two, Levy smiled. Even after four children Sarah was still the most beautiful woman in the village. There were no lines on her face, her dark hair held no grey at all, and her breasts and hips were wide and firm. Listening to her sing to the children at night eased the furrows from his brow, and all living things thrived under her gentle care, especially the kids.
Levy shook his head, turning his attention to his offspring as they cavorted with the other village children in the still-cold water. It amazed him to think that he had ever been that young. Still, children didn’t stay young forever. Already Eli was strong enough to guide the oxen in plowing, and too soon his voice would break and he would become an adult. Eleya, who was currently engaging in a mudfight with Lara’s boy and girl, was not far behind her older brother, and even Jen, who was chasing crayfish in the shallows, was a help in the vegetable garden. It seemed like only a bell ago that it had been Jen who was the baby wrapped in swaddle, and Eli who was so fond of crawling things.
And maybe, just maybe, it hadn’t been so long ago that he himself had been a young, single man, roaming the countryside at will, discovering new and amazing vistas around each turn in the road. It seemed like ages ago since he had learned a new language, or visited a new city, or even seen the towers of Magnus, that huge, sophisticated city that was the jewel of the King’s royal crown.
Suddenly Levy felt rusty, creaky, not quite old, but more stiff than anything else. The war *was* over, and from what Levy had heard, this beanstalk was more than just a myth. A happening like this would not come again for a long time. Perhaps it *was* time to venture out again, to seek his fortune in the world, with his wife at his side and his son and daughters with him. He tried to picture this, but each time he did, all he could see was himself walking for miles in the sun, one exhausted child in his left arm and another hanging on the right. He sighed, and turned to cover Taffy up, so she wouldn’t get too much sun.
“Daddy, look what I caught!!”
He turned to see Jen standing there, every part of her completely coated in shiny, grey mud, holding up a squirming crayfish for his approval. She looked for all the world like a tiny knight, clad in wet armor. He almost chuckled. “Very nice, Jen. Are there any others?”
Without a word she turned and ran back down into the river, shrieking with joy as the water sprayed up around her. He nodded. Perhaps it was his turn, as it had been his father’s turn before him, to give his children the world.
The air wasn’t quite as cold for the novice as the water had been for the Barel children, but nonetheless the hair on his bare skin stood on end as he carried the scroll carefully to his master’s chamber. It was more fear than chill that inspired this, however. It was uncomfortable to walk into the master’s chamber, naked and unprotected, but even a full suit of mail would have been little protection from that man’s baleful glare. The novice shuddered as he pushed open the thick door and stepped inside. The air was warmer there, thick with exotic odors and rank with age. It was not a friendly warmth, however, and the novice shivered yet again.
“Finally!” The master emerged from behind a screen to snatch the scroll from the young man’s hands. “You’re sure it’s the right one?” He unrolled it without waiting for the reply, his cold grey eyes devouring the script.
“It has the words you told me to look for, master,” the novice replied, his arms wrapped around his thin chest. “May I go back to bed now, or at least dress and eat?”
“Dress and eat, yes, but come right back when you’re through — I may yet need you for something.”
The novice nodded and hurried out the door and down the long hall back toward the his chambers. As his bare feet slapped the stone floor he pondered. What insanity had prompted the master to pull him from his warm blankets and thrust him off onto this crazy search with only a few words to guide him? As he padded along, the novice held the wax tablet before his face, re-reading the words scratched in its surface. What exactly was a “legume”? And why was the master so interested in the legends of the South? He shook his head in disgust. It was too early for such foolishness.
It was later than he thought, however. The other novices were already getting ready for the ritual morning washings. Food and clothing was out of the question. He paused a moment. Should he help them prepare as usual, or return to the master’s chamber? The decision took only a moment. He proceeded to help the other novices, filling the water pots from the well and heating them for the master’s baths. As he worked he mulled over what the master had said. With the words jangling around in his head, he paused a moment by the fire to get warm
Ignoring the movements and voices of the other young men and women of the novice corp, the novice rubbed his hands over his goose-fleshed arms and legs, wishing he go outside into the warm sun, instead of going to stand on the cold stone of the master chamber and shiver with the novices while a bunch of old men and women chanted and splashed water around. He often wondered what he had done to be cursed with such a miserable existence. Still, things could be worse. He could be one of the latrine-diggers. Finally the water was hot, and he joined the other novices as they dragged the heavy pots to the master chamber.
A month after its sudden appearance, Pudlong and Thully were still getting used to the idea of the beanstalk. After the local teacher of Stevene had come and looked the thing over, they were able to be convinced to return to their fields, but they continued to glance up at it with worried looks for several days afterward. Pudlong had wanted to chop it down, but the lord had refused. He liked having something strange and unusual in his back yard — it provided some excitement.
One day, while Pudlong and Thully were working their field, a strange man rode up to their cottage. He was about forty, with grey in his beard, but he still looked strong. He wasn’t bent, so that meant he was noble, or at least freeborn. He carried a sword, but no mail, and his horse had fine livery, but no recognizable ducal crest. As the couple watched, the man rode his horse over the bean plants to the base of the stalk. He dismounted, and stared for long mene up into the foliage high above. Without a word he started climbing.
Higher and higher he climbed, until Pudlong and Thully lost sight of him among the huge leaves. They finally stopped looking and returned to their beans. They continued weeding, passing by the massive plant once or twice as they made their way up and back the long furrows. After about four bells they both cast startled eyes upward. Had that been thunder? There were no clouds in the sky. The sonorous boom rolled out across the land again. Pudlong thought it had sounded more like a loud, deep voice than any thunder he had ever heard. When it didn’t happen again, they shrugged and returned to weeding, but it wasn’t more than a mene later that they heard another sound — a scream. They again looked up, and watched in shock as a tiny figure fell into view, tumbling and howling. His cacophony ended suddenly as he hit the ground about a furlong away. Thully covered her eyes for a moment, then they looked at each other, at a loss for words.
Finally Pudlong spoke. “D’ya rekkin’ that would be D’yarn’s field over there?” He indicated the impact point.
“Looks like,” hazarded Thully, still not willing to look.
They stood in silence a moment more.
“The Lord hadn’t told us we could go out there, ‘ad ‘e?” Pudlong asked.
“No, I rekkin’ not,” Thully replied, staring through her fingers at Pudlong with one wide eye.
They stood in silence again.
“Then I rekkin’ it must be up to D’yarn then.”
There was another long pause.
“Rekkin’ so,” Thully answered. They stared at each other for a moment, looked over at the poor soul’s resting place, then returned to weeding.
“Can you show me again how you do that?”
Eli trotted along beside Levy and Bren as they walked down the road together. Behind them came the oxcart that carried Sarah and the girls, and ahead of them were several other carts: a caravan from the last village they visited. They had banded together for protection, as was customary, and were headed for the next town. The Barel’s cart was the last in line. Bren now looked down at the boy. Levy thought he heard Bren sigh.
“You hold it here, and here,” he replied, bending down to show the child, “and then just do it like this.”
Eli did as he was shown, putting the blade of grass to his lips and blowing. A tentative buzz came forth, stuttering.
“Okay,” he replied in thanks, then ran back and climbed back on the cart.
“You realize he’ll be back at least ten more times,” Levy commented.
“I’m never, never having children,” muttered Bren.
“How do you know you don’t already?” Levy asked. Bren said nothing.
Bren had been hired by Levy to be their bodyguard as they traveled to see this strange occurrence in the South. Levy often found himself watching the young man out of the corner of his eye. Levy knew nothing about him, save that Bartol, Lord Dargon’s bard and confident, had recommended him. Still, Levy was impressed by the stranger’s learning. They were currently engaged in a discussion of religion.
Bren shook his head in disgust. “I can’t believe that you of all people are a Stevenic.”
Levy’s eyes widened. “Why is that?”
“I mean, you have traveled so much, and you are such a learned man. Why do you bother with such a foolish old superstition?”
“What gods do you subscribe to, Bren?”
“I have no need of a god to guide me,” Bren replied. “I set my own course. I control my destiny.”
Levy smiled as he looked at the young man. “That you do, Bren. That you do. But surely you must admit that there are things larger than yourself, that men cannot hope to fully understand?”
“All things large are merely made up of things small,” Bren replied. “Even as a city is merely a collection of individual persons, so the world is merely a collection of individual pieces.” He stooped a searched for a moment in the gravel by the side of the road. Levy stood there and waited, watching the cart as it caught up to and passed them. Sarah looked up from the game she was playing with Jen, a question on her face. Levy shrugged and turned back to Bren. After a moment Bren straightened, a rock in his hands. “Look at this rock,” he said. Levy did. It was an aggregate, a stone made up of smaller stones cemented together. “This looks like one rock at first. Then you see it is really only small rocks held together. And if you were to look closely at all these rocks,” he waved a hand at the gravel, “you would see that they are all just made up of smaller pieces.”
“Quite so,” Levy agreed. “but does that mean there is not something larger that has put all the small pieces together into the whole?”
Bren tossed the stone away. “Perhaps not, but I see no reason to change my life just to flatter some large, unknown and unknowable something.”
“Levy,” Sarah called from ahead. Levy trotted up to see what she needed. She pointed up ahead. There the road forked, and some carts were taking one fork, and others taking the other.
“Which way do we go?” she asked.
“We’ll wait to see where the largest number of carts go, then follow them.” In unknown lands, Levy had learned long ago that there was safety in numbers.
Sarah nodded, watching ahead. Levy did as well, walking alongside.
The majority of carts chose an easterly path, and so did the Barels. It wasn’t long after that they entered a village. Levy immediately presented himself at the blacksmith shop, to see if there was an opportunity to work for some quick wages. Failing at that, he joined Sarah in the market as she bought some food for the journey. They began asking the usual questions, listening carefully to the strangely accented replies. Yes, the villagers had heard of the strange beanstalk in the South. No, they didn’t know where it was at. No, they had no lord here, this was a free town. No, they had no gold or silversmith in the area, perhaps further north near Magnus. Yes, there was an inn, it was right over there.
Levy and Sarah thanked the villagers. They had followed the same pattern in each town they encountered. They did not want to be thought of as wealthy, so they sought work in each town, taking any small jobs they could. Only when no work was available would they then find a wealthy family or merchant and secretly sell them some of Sarah’s gold- and silver-work. They worked as quietly as they could, to avoid spreading the word that a silver-smith was peddling wares on the road. Even one loose tongue could easily bring unwanted attention to the family.
Bren was much more open. Levy had paid half his wages in advance, so Bren had coin to spend, which he did freely. Of course, he was a strong young man in the prime of life, well armed and not traveling alone. He feared little, and was learning much. Each meal at each inn became a language lesson, or a history lesson, or a geography lesson. Each time he stopped he would immediately seek out the local inn, and the local innkeeper’s daughter (of which there were sometimes multiple examples), and promptly impress her with his learning and sophistication (or sometimes his charm and naivete, depending on the woman). And all the time he was writing, taking notes. Several years before he would have scorned such a frivolity — now it was his hobby, and useful for loosening tongues.
The group had been traveling for well over a month now. The boat ride to Magnus had been followed by travel using the cart they had purchased in the royal city. The tales of the beanstalk had always drawn them south-east, and were now beginning to take on more realistic detail. Levy even had a name now — Pudlong. The image it conjured in his mind was a hilarious one, but it was slowly taking on a more human aspect as he weeded the legend from the truth. Levy felt that he was closing in on the target of his journey.
At the same time Levy and Sarah were working to procure food for their family, two others were also making the journey south. These two rode horses, however, and were making much better time than Levy. Of course, since they started later, this meant that they were not even to Magnus yet.
The novice cursed his luck for perhaps the twentieth time that day. His saddle sores were not healing, and the master refused to give him any help creating a balm to ease them. His own feeble concoctions smelled bad, and did little. Further, the stupid animal he had drawn from the royal stables at their last stop refused to gallop for more than a mene at a time before slowing for grass, requiring the novice to spur it again or fall behind.
Still, it was better than being cooped up in the sanctuary. The sun was warm, and the air fresh and mostly unscented. The tedium of morning washings, afternoon lessons, and evening chores was replaced by simple riding. Even the master was less odious, even though he refused to do any cooking or gathering, instead spending his free, non-riding time staring at the stars at night and reading parchments by day. Each time they passed through a town the master immediately sequestered himself with the innkeeper, leaving the novice to fetch food and tend the horses. But the evenings were free, and the novice wisely spent them doing absolutely nothing.