It was a late afternoon when Levy and his family arrived at the keep. Lord Farley, the local landowner, welcomed them, and squinted carefully at Clifton Dargon’s letter of recommendation. The names and titles meant little this far south, but the gold in the seal spoke volumes. Farley allowed Levy’s band to spend the night, then released them in the morning with permission to go and study the great beanstalk.
It wasn’t even a day’s journey to Pudlong’s small farm. Their arrival found Pudlong and Thully busily at work in their field. Pudlong hurried over and bowed subserviently when Levy and his entourage arrived; no doubt the presence of the lord’s captain helped. The captain left after it was clear that nothing untoward was going to happen. By this time Pudlong was busy recounting the tale of how the beanstalk had come to be. Levy listened, fascinated, and Bren took copious notes.
“Do you fertilize it or anything?” Levy asked, shielding his eyes with his hand as he stared up into the verdant heights.
“No, lord,” Pudlong replied, following a step behind as Levy and Bren slowly walked around the trunk of the amazing sight. “It all just grew. I rekkin’ it’s all due to that wizard, what put ‘is spell on me land.”
“Wizard?” Bren asked, his hand unconsciously slipping a little closer to the hilt of his sword.
“Yes, it was a wizard what stowed a treasure hereabouts somewhere, no one knows where,” Pudlong’s eyes grew big and his hands animated as he lapsed back into storytelling mode. “An’ to guard it, ‘e put a spell on it, a spell that makes anyone what comes close to the treasure,” he straightened up and waved a hand at the ground the beanstalk grew from, “to pop up here, in my bean field.”
Levy and Bren stared at him, then glanced at each other, then back at Pudlong. There was a moment of quiet.
“Okay,” Levy said. They stood a moment longer, then Levy again looked up into the leaves above.
“I’d like to stay a while and study your beanstalk. Lord Farley has said I may. My family and I will sleep in our wagon. Is this alright?”
“Oh, yes, m’lord.” Pudlong nodded vigorously, ducking his shoulders in a slight bow.
“And we’ll need some food. I can pay for what we eat.”
“Oh, that’ll be fine, m’lord.” Pudlong continued nodding.
Levy glanced at the peasant, a quizzical look on his face.
“I don’t want to be a burden to you. I and my family can help out here, while we’re staying with you.”
“Yes, yes, that’ll be quite nice,” Pudlong continued, his head still bobbing up and down, his hands clasped.
“We shouldn’t really be a problem to you,” Levy explained, carefully watching the man’s expression.
“Oh, no trouble, no trouble,” Pudlong replied, smiling. “Any guest of m’lord’s is a guest of mine. Most happy to help you, m’lord. Anything you want, just ask me or the missus.”
“Yes, fine,” Levy replied, almost softly. “If we need anything, I’ll call. You may go back to work now.”
“Yes, thank you, m’lord.” Pudlong nodded and bowed, turning and walking back to where Sarah and the children were clustered around Thully. Levy watched him as he departed. When Bren started to follow the farmer, Levy seized the former herald by his cloak.
“Bren.” Levy ignored the sharp glance of indignation the younger man threw at the intrusive clutch. “We must be careful that our stay does not harm the farmer in any way.”
“I have no intention of harming the old sod,” Bren replied, twitching the cloth from Levy’s hand. His eyes were cold.
“This is a peasant. One needn’t intend harm to cause it.” Bren’s uncomprehending stare made Levy continue. “These two will float a boulder to make sure we’re happy and well cared for — they’ll see that as their lord’s will,” Levy gestured over his shoulder toward the distant keep. “They’ll work night and day to serve us, neglecting their crops, their house, everything. But their lord could care less if their crops wither, or that their winter’s wood doesn’t get cut, something that will happen if we allow them to spend all their time on us.”
“They’re peasants,” Bren shrugged. “Peasants survive.”
“And you’re my hired sword,” Levy’s voice grew quiet, “and you’ll do as I say.”
Bren stared at Levy for a moment, then nodded curtly and walked off. Levy watched him a moment, then followed him, thoughts about the current situation churning in his head. Levy had been born free, a member of the Barel clan. The Barel’s were originally from the South, but had moved north when one of their number had been granted a title by the Duke of Dargon. They had not brought many of their southern ways with them to the colder north. Each man was now considered to be born free.
Levy had not considered himself wealthy or special growing up, but in his travels he had come to realize that not all men were free. Indeed, most people were mere property, owned by their lord and used as any other cattle would be. To Levy this seemed strange, but he had grown accustomed to it. There was little else he could do. But what he could do, that he would.
The novice lay on a large rock in the middle of the stream, eyes closed, as the sun warmed his skin. The sound of the master’s chanting and splashing was soothing, calling him to sleep. He sighed happily, stretching. No need to draw water for the morning bath; the stream provided that in the form of a deep pool, filled to overflowing with the summer’s warm rain. With no supplicants begging for blessings there was no need to don ceremonial robes, or any clothing at all, for that matter. In fact, there was no need for anything but to lay here and rest and soak up the sun.
When the master climbed out of the pool, water streaming from the hair matting his thin chest, the novice rolled off the stone and took his place in the soothing embrace of the stream. For long moments he just floated underwater, listening to the song that roared in his ears. He then planted his feet on the sandy bottom and flung himself into the air, a fountain erupting around him. He landed back in the water and just wallowed there a moment longer, until the master’s voice summoned him. But even that wasn’t enough to draw the slight smile from his face.
They rode all day, as usual, trading for fresh horses at the royal stables halfway through the morning and halfway through the afternoon. The novice sneered at the lavish expense. After the war the price of horses had risen hellishly. The amount of coin the pair had spent on fresh horses thus far could have bought several largish villages. It was not a new thing, however, for the novice to see such profligate waste at the hands of the masters. They were quite willing to expend great effort to achieve their goals, especially if they themselves did not have to make that effort.
How many novices had died in foolish strivings over the years, the novice wondered to himself? Just last month two had died trying to capture a piece of lightning for some particular incantation. And what of that young novice lowered into that cave for bat dung? No one saw her again. Then there were the supplicants. How many poor peasants had poured their meager wealth into the greedy hands of the masters in exchange for cures that were easily procured, if one only knew where to go, and for blessings that were nothing more than words and gestures granted the ignorant? The novice began to burn inside as he thought about the great, heavy inequalities he had seen in his brief life inside the sanctuary. It had housed him, but it was no home.
The only image he had of his parents were of huddling forms, pushing him along a dark path in the rain, the walls of the sanctuary looming ahead. He had learned later that he, as most of the novices, had been payment for a cure for an older sibling who had been dying of the cough. This knowledge came from the sanctuary’s ledgers, It didn’t say whether the older child had lived or died, or even what the novice’s name was. Not that it mattered — the master only referred to him as ‘boy’, and the other novices didn’t get much chance to talk among themselves. Only the raven-haired novice ever referred to him by a name — she merely called him ‘Yellow’, as his hair color was an unusual blond.
They were drawing near to the target of their journey. They knew now that the fabulous plant grew in a northern province of Mandraka, on the land of minor lord named Farley. The master had a parchment that described the land, and even mentioned Farley, though not in great detail. The master was careful to listen to any rumor and gossip regarding Farley, and had instructed the novice to do so as well. No one seemed terribly anxious to speak to the young servant, however, and he had gleaned little.
Bren stood on one of the leaves of the beanstalk, several hundred handbreadths above the ground. Pudlong at first had been very anxious about anyone climbing the beanstalk, relating horrid tales of giants flinging careless adventurers to their ill-timed deaths, but Bren had insisted that he only wanted a better vantage point from which to scan the countryside. That had been several days ago. When no ill-effects came from the climb, Bren repeated it every day, and had actually established a small lookout in the leaves of the plant.
Levy had also climbed the stalk, with Eli, his eldest. They had been fascinated by small things, such as the shape and size of various leaves, the size and type of the insects found on the stem, and other, mundane things. One of those largish bugs now crawled toward Bren. It was the length of his boot, but not very bright, and quite sluggish. He kicked it off the leaf and watched it tumble to the ground. He directed his gaze upward at a cluster of mammoth beans that hung like fat swords over his head. Levy had drawn black lines in ink on the fruit, to chart how they grew. Bren cared little for such things, but it was interesting to watch the lines draw further and further apart. He was not up today to watch beans grow, however.
Bren turned his gaze outward, scanning the land. This was not his home territory, but it was very near it. Seaport was only a hard three-day ride away. The plants and landscape were frustratingly familiar. He remembered the feel and flavor of home, and this was so like it that it burned not to be able to actually return home. But his duties here prevented that. He had been hired to protect Levy and his family. Besides that, the order for his exile was surely still in force. Even as he was busy keeping watch, planning escape routes, and noting strong points in the land, his black despair still threatened to engulf him. With an effort, he pushed it down. His home was in Dargon, now, and nowhere else.
His gaze dropped to Levy and the others, out in the field. He shook his head in bewilderment. Levy and Sarah were born free, of noble blood. Yet there they were, working and talking side by side with these peasants. Their children played in the dirt, like a litter of dogs, while they themselves grubbed in the ground like chattel. If Bren had not given his word to Bartol to protect them, he might have walked away in confusion and disgust. If those of noble blood did not behave as their stations demanded, it would give the lower classes ideas beyond *their* stations.
Even more disturbing was Levy’s insistence that Pudlong and Thully be treated as if they too were free. This worried Bren. Bren doubted that Lord Farley had a soft heart or head to go along with his soft belly. Peasant uprisings were few precisely because they were so ruthlessly put down. Bren hoped that Levy would have the sense not to put all their necks in jeopardy for some strange principle.
As Bren brooded he continued his vigil, hopping from leaf to leaf in order to see around the massive trunk. As he did a dark clot on the distant road caught his eye. He studied it. There appeared to be a group of people approaching from the keep. He narrowed his eyes to see more clearly. As they approached the cluster resolved into the Lord and some other men riding on horses. Bren leaned over the side of his perch and yelled down to Levy and the others.
“Levy!!” An upturned face looked in Bren’s direction. “Someone’s coming!”
Levy stood up and walked to the road. After peering down the highway for a long moment he returned to where his wife and the others were working. He paused to snatch up his clothes, having stripped for work like the others, then proceeded to climb up the stalk to join Bren. They watched the approaching group.
“You may wish to have your wife and children move away from the road,” Bren cautioned. Levy nodded, and after another long look, moved down the trunk. Bren studied the approaching group. He could now count four people on horseback, with six troops on foot. By Bren’s calculations it was either a small raiding party or the newcomer was a dignitary of sorts. He glanced down to see Sarah and the children moving across the field to where a shallow in the land led to the distant trees. He watched until they reached the hollow and turned, using it as concealment from the road. Levy was climbing back up.
“I’ll stay here and stay hidden for now,” Bren cautioned Levy. “This might be a state visit, but it never hurts to have a hidden dagger.”
Levy merely nodded and watched the newcomers draw closer. Finally he started down. Bren saw him conference for a moment with Pudlong on the ground, then Bren had to move to a different leaf to keep the trunk between himself and the approaching party.
“Greetings, Pudlong,” Bren heard as the group stopped at the small hut.
“G’day, m’lord,” came the dutiful reply.
“Good day, Lord Farley,” came Levy’s reply.
“I have brought a new guest, who also wishes to study the great beanstalk.” Bren hugged the trunk a little tighter, envisioning Farley looking up at the plant as he talked. “This is the great wizard Mon-Haddar. He has traveled far to see our great sight, and wishes to learn from it, just as you do, Levy Barel.”
A different voice spoke now, at once both resonant and feeble. “I had heard of your great wonder, Lord Farley, and had come to pay homage to it and you,” Bren could not hear the lie in the man’s voice, but he knew it was there, “but the legends do not keep pace with the reality. With your forbearance, we will stay here a while.”
“By all means, Mon-Haddar. All I have is at your disposal.” Farley’s voice grew quieter, more conspiratorial. “And perhaps later we will speak of this fabled treasure that is reported to be hidden hereabouts.”
“Indeed, indeed.” Now Bren knew the snake was hissing. Mon-Haddar, if that was his real name, was not here to help Farley. Life had just gotten more interesting.
Later that night, Bren and Levy sat by the fire, looking at the hut where Mon-Haddar could be seen chanting and gesticulating by the light of a lard candle. Behind them, in the wagon, Sarah and Eli snored contentedly, while to their left Thully made similar sounds as she lay beside Pudlong. The two men sat silent, watching. A sound in the dark caught their attention. Bren’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword, relaxing only when the novice came into view, carrying a load of branches on his back. He set them down beside the fire with a loud and theatrical gasp. Levy and Bren both looked at each other, unimpressed.
“My master has instructed me to build a fire in the hut for him tonight, so he might do some scrivening,” he hesitated, “and to stay warm, of course.” Levy glanced quickly at Bren. It had been blisteringly hot that afternoon, and the heat would last until morning. They said nothing as the youngster continued. “I wonder if I might have some coals to start it with.”
After a moment Levy nodded. “Of course. Take your wood inside. I’ll get a potsherd to carry the coals in.” The novice nodded and re-hefted his load, while Levy levered himself up and stepped over to the wagon. He returned a moment later with the potsherd and stooped by the fire.
“Why should we care if the old man is scrivening?” Bren asked dourly.
“I don’t suppose it’s any business of ours,” Levy replied carefully. As he straightened, he and Bren exchanged a meaningful glance, then Levy slowly carried the coals to the hut.
The wizard had completely taken over the small hut. The couple’s meager possessions were shoved to one side, and the master’s own gear piled in its place. When Levy arrived the novice was piling the wood in the crude fireplace.
” … down to the stream for my evening ablutions. Do not talk … ” The man stopped as Levy appeared, cradling the embers carefully. The wizard scowled at him, then continued roughly. “Do not talk to anyone or rest until you have everything unpacked and my food set out.” He glowered at Levy as he finished. “I will return shortly.”
Levy stepped aside and allowed him to pass, then carefully poured the coals on the pile of tinder the young novice had prepared. While the boy blew on the smoking sticks and shavings, Levy glanced about the room. Several parchments lay on the small table. The script was ancient, but Levy, trained by several scribes over the years, was able to read it.
“So, where have you come from?” Levy asked the young man casually.
The novice started to look up, but instead leaned closer to the fire. “My master has told me not to speak to you until I have finished.”
“Ah, yes. Right.” Levy studied the papers a moment longer, then, when the boy started to get up, he scooped all the papers off the table. “Here, let me help you clear the table for your master’s food.”
“Thank you,” the boy replied gratefully. He stepped outside. Levy quickly scanned the pages, then set them on the small cot when the boy returned with a sack of food and dishes. Levy helped set the table, helped set the small stew pot on the fire, and then helped unpack, all the time sneaking glances at the pages that lay on the bed, until the boy gathered them up as well and set them carefully on the table beside the waiting bowl.
“Well, when you’re finished, why don’t you come out and chat with us for a moment before sleep?” Levy invited, sidling toward the door.
“Thank you, I will,” the boy replied, stirring the stew. Levy left, returning to the fire.
“Well?” Bren asked as Levy returned. Pudlong was sitting beside him, rubbing his legs. Levy sat down beside them and began speaking in a low voice.
“It seems that this beanstalk of ours is not a new idea,” Levy began. “That wizard has an old parchment that discusses the legend of a giant beanstalk that would spring up in the South, and of what to do if it appears.”
“What to do?” Both Pudlong and Bren cast uneasy glances at the ebony bulk that loomed over them, blocking the stars from view.
“It seems that the legend states that the beanstalk is a repository, a storage place for great magical power. With the right magics, the beanstalk can be induced to yield some of that power, so that whoever receives that power can direct it at his will, to do specifically what he wants.”
Bren uttered an oath and spat. “And so Mon-Haddar is here to extract that power for himself. Just what we need, one more bastard throwing his weight around, telling us to do this and do that, building up a following of hangers-on who leech off the hard work of others.” He scowled at Levy, almost as if Levy were to blame.
“There’s a catch, though,” Levy continued. “The power comes in the form of a talisman, an object of some sort. Whoever holds it wields the power. The parchment was very insistent that you have to be ready to grab it as soon as it appears.”
“What does it look like?” urged Bren.
Levy shrugged. “Unfortunately, it didn’t say, just that you need to be ready for it when it appears. Also, there is some sort of guardian, watching over the beanstalk. We need to keep an eye open for him, too.”
As he said this the wind kicked up. The leaves above rustled loudly, and there came a loud snap. Just off to the left, between where the men sat and Thully slept, a giant bean came crashing to the ground, splitting open and tossing squash-sized seeds about. They all jumped to their feet, while Thully sat up and stared bleary-eyed at the apparition.
“And what does *that* mean?” asked Bren.
“Wha’, I guess it mus’ be time ta pick ‘em,” Pudlong said simply, staring upward.
The next day presented an unusual scene. While Levy and Bren climbed the stalk to continue their study of the plant and the land, Mon-Haddar and Yellow, as he was calling himself, chanted and built fires and made smoke and disemboweled small animals, all in an attempt to study the strange phenomenon themselves, with Pudlong shuffling between the two parties solicitously, and with Thully, Sarah, and the children working the beans, casting occasional glances up at the madness.
After making his measurements and notes, Levy returned to Sarah’s side in the beanfield. As they worked their way down the long rows they talked in low voices, casting the occasional glance up at the gesticulating wizard.
“Certainly is a lively fellow,” Sarah commented after a particularly wild outburst from the man.
“Probably the most activity he’s had in years,” commented Levy wryly as he laid the uprooted weeds up against the base of the beans.
“What is he saying? Can you tell?”
“He’s using an ancient dialect from the east. It’s not used much any more, except for dark incantations and weird magic. I studied it some when I was young, but I don’t really understand it.”
“Can you make out any of the words?”
“Some.” Levy cocked an ear toward the wizard and listened for a moment. “Gold. Power. Praise. Evil. Power again.” He shook his head. “Not real comforting, I know.”
“Perhaps we should leave,” Sarah said quietly.
They weeded on for a ways.
“Is there anything we should be doing?” Sarah asked.
“Well, we don’t actually know that he’s up to no good,” Levy cautioned. “Just because he looks mean, smells bad, talks funny, and is a wizard doesn’t automatically mean he’s up to no good.”
Sarah just looked at him. He put his head back down and continued weeding, until a set of shoes suddenly appeared before his downturned face. He looked up to see Bren standing before him.
Bren was frowning, hands on his hips. “The wizard wants to hire me.”
“What?” Levy got up to a kneeling position. “But I’m hiring you.”
“He insists that he talk to you. He wants to hire me to climb the beanstalk for him.” Bren lowered his voice. “I think he’s after the talisman. He may know where it is.”
Levy stood up, brushing off his knees. He voice was raised just the slightest bit. “Sarah, I think you and the children ought to go down to the stream to cool off. I wouldn’t want them to overheat.”
Sarah accepted Levy’s outstretched hand and got up also. Hers was an expression of worry as she studied Bren’s frown. “I think that’s a good idea.”
“Let’s you and I go and talk to this wizard, eh?” Levy commented to Bren as Sarah hurried away. They headed over to the beanstalk, Levy stopping to snatch up his breeches along the way. Pudlong hurried over to greet them, then accompanied them to where the wizard and the boy stood.
“I understand you wish to hire Bren to climb the tree for you,” Levy started in.
“Yes.” The man’s eyes were keen and hard.
“I have already hired him,” Levy began, “but if there’s something you wish to know about the beanstalk, I too can help you.” Levy resisted the urge to glance at Bren. “Bren and I can both climb the beanstalk, and find … out whatever you wish found out.”
“I require only Bren,” the wizard replied, turning away.
“I cannot hire him out. He is still doing work for me,” Levy ventured to the retreating back. The wizard stopped, and looked over his shoulder at Levy.
“No matter. I and my assistant will climb the stalk.”
“He’s onto me,” Levy thought to himself. “He knows that I know that he’s up to something, that he’s looking for something.”
Levy started to look over at Bren, hoping for something to say. Just then there was a faint whistle and another of the giant bean pods crashed to the ground, squarely in the middle of the five men, splitting open. As each jumped back, startled, each one saw the gleam of something shiny inside the pod. The halves fell apart, and there, among the other green squash-sized seeds, lay one seed which was not green, but instead a warm, gleaming gold. There was a long moment as each man stared at the seed, then another long moment as they stared at each other. Then, as one, the men dove for the seed.
Levy was never sure just whose hand it was that was wrapped around his belt. Looking back it seemed preposterous that it could have been the wizard’s, and too strong to have been the boy’s. Nonetheless, someone had his belt firmly in their grasp and was trying to pull him away from the bean. There were arms and legs all over the place and even someone’s belly pressing into his face, as Levy strained to reach the bean, and pulled it from someone’s hands, only to have it taken from him. He tried again to take it, and managed to touch it, when suddenly something as if from underneath him lifted him up and rolled him away. He found himself on his back, staring up at the sun. He blinked, and saw a man, standing, with the golden seed held firmly aloft. The man’s face was a study in self-knowing satisfaction and expectant pleasure, like a two-year old who has done something special and expects to be praised for it. It was suddenly an amazing face. That face belonged to Pudlong.