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Pishwi
July 12th, 2014, 12:41 PM
Five more minutes, decided Gruff. Five more and I’m leaving. Jonas can screw himself.

The last half an hour spent waiting for the idiot had done wonders for Gruff’s weary legs, but the barstool was utterly arse-numbing. It made the floor of a prison cell look comfortable by comparison.

He took another look around the large taproom of the Frog and Falcon, at the other customers: young lovers kissing and caressing each other; pipe-smokers hunched beyond clouds of tobacco fog; gamblers in every corner; roaring drunks at every table. The air was damp and heavy, and for the tenth time Gruff had to peel his coat-sleeves away from his skin.

The door behind Gruff opened, letting in a gust of cool air and the most ridiculously dressed man Gruff had ever seen. From neck to feet green silk and ermine wound its way down his clothes in a twisted pattern, like a frozen, verdant hurricane. Feathers of every size and colour spouted from the fabric of his tunic in erratic arrangement. As he walked, his long yellow hair swayed like beads, and every eye in the room turned to him. He had hardly walked a few steps before a greeting of drunken shouts and cheers flooded throughout the inn. The world Gruff had known hadn’t been this loud. But that was a long time ago.

“You want something to drink, old man?” The words sounded odd against the indiscernible din of the room. A tall, young man with hair like a mop was smiling expectantly across the counter at him, cleaning a beer-glass.

“No…” began Gruff, realising his voice was less than a murmur under the noise of the inn. He cleared his throat. “I’m waiting for a friend first”.

“You’re not allowed to drink without adult supervision?” chuckled the barkeep. “I understand”.

Gruff scowled at the youth. Forty years without a glass of Blackwell cider. I’ll be damned if I can’t wait a few more minutes. The barkeep seemed to read his mind, and turned to face the man in feathers, who took a seat next to Gruff. The man dismissed the bartender’s offer for a drink with the wave of a hand, instead taking out a bundle of paper from one huge, lavishly decorated pocket.

Forty years with no drink but piss and dirt water. But what if Jonas doesn’t come? Besides, I’m old enough to die at any moment.

“Actually” shouted Gruff, so the bartender could hear. The mop-haired youth turned back to him, smiling. “I’ll have a Blackwell”.

The man’s smile lingered, but only in puzzlement. “Blackwell”, repeated Gruff. “Blackwell cider”.

“Can’t say I’ve heard of it. We have blackberry cider, if that’s what you mean?”

Gruff shook his head. “Never mind. I’d best be going anyway. It’s late”. He hoisted himself off the hard wooden stool, feeling the blood flow back to his behind.

“What do you mean “it’s late”?”. Gruff half-fell back onto the stool, grimacing. There was no scorn in the words, but the voice was harsher and lower than the barkeep’s.

“Meaning, it’s past ten o’clock” he replied to the man in the feathers. “A man needs to sleep”.

The two other men just laughed. Even a passing barmaid failed to suppress a giggle.

“You’ve got the whole night ahead of you,” said the man in the feathers, making a wide gesture with his arms. His grin was wide, almost a taunt. “Are you not staying for the entertainment?”

“It isn’t my type of entertainment”.

The man’s grin turned to a weak smile. “Fair enough”, he said, shuffling the bits of paper in front of him.

Gruff pushed himself away from the counter to leave, and swung round stiffly to face a frowning, stocky, bald man.

“Leaving so soon, are we?” asked Jonas.

“You’re thirty minutes late”.

“And you’re forty years late”. He gripped Gruff in a bear-like embrace, and even over the hundred voices in the tavern his spine cracked audibly.

“Try not to crush me”, said Gruff, sitting back down. Jonas took the other seat next to him.

The feathered man left for the fireplace, papers in hand, provoking a dozen more unintelligible shouts from the drunkards. The man’s gait was majestic, to say the least, his strut quick but nonchalant. If not for the feathers and the sickly pattern of his clothes, he might have almost looked impressive. Gruff noticed that nearly all eyes were on the man. Even Jonas had to be asked twice by the bartender before ordering two beers.

“You do know there’s a coat stand?” said Jonas. The noise had died down a bit, but he still had to speak loudly.

“I’m not warm”.

“You bloody look it. You’re face is red as a pepper.” Gruff covered it by taking a long sip of beer, wondering what a pepper was. The sleeves were sticking to his arms again. He sighed and lowered his voice slightly. “When I came in, I’ll admit I got some strange looks”. He tugged at his coat. “This thing – it’s out of date, I can see that much”.

“What are you wearing underneath?”

“Linen. Braces.”

Jonas laughed. “I’d keep the coat on in that case, old man”.

Gruff gave him a reproachful look. “You’re just as old as me”.

“But I don’t look it. At least what I’m wearing has a colour.” He pointed at Gruff’s cloak. “I haven’t seen something like that in years”.

“The world seems to have moved on while I’ve been…” He hesitated. “While I’ve been away. They don’t even serve Blackwell any more.”

“Probably cause you’re the only one that drank that crap.” He laughed louder this time, though it may have been that the room had lost some of its noise. The conversations seemed to be stopping, and people were gathering round the man in the feathers now, gradually dragging chairs and barstools to a semi-circle around the fireplace. The man leant against the hearth, seemingly unconcerned, reading his papers.

Gruff gave a small poke in his direction. “I’m guessing that’s the “entertainment” you promised, Jonas?”

The bigger man took a long gulp of beer and smiled proudly. “I honestly think this might be to your tastes. The world’s changed a lot while you’ve been in prison. There are much better forms of “entertainment” as you put it, now, but that has its advantages”. He held up a hand, index finger pointing up. “One: our “entertainer” won’t attract so large a crowd”. He lifted a second finger. “Two: You might actually be able to cope.” At this he grinned childishly.

Part of Gruff wanted to agree, despite the mockery. He had always loved storytellers as a child, and the tales they told. To him they were thrilling, exciting, and paradoxically non-fatal. But that was a long time ago. Before prison. Before being sentenced forty years for speaking the wrong words to the wrong ears. Jonas was right; the world had changed. But so had he.

For the next few hours the man by the fireplace would narrate to the taproom his whole life story. Doubtless the man had had his adventures. Doubtless every sporadic feather on that tunic represented something; a man killed, an island visited, a lover lost. But Gruff cared little for that now, and the world cared little for him. His friends were all dead or in far-off lands, aside from Jonas, so he had nowhere else to go.

They finished their drinks and headed over to sit at the back of the small crowd. By now everyone in the inn had either left or gathered round the storyteller. Even the barman sat next to Jonas, a bowl of black stew in his hands.

The murmuring died completely, and the man in feathers looked up from his papers, as if only now noticing the audience in front of him.

“I hope you’re all comfortable”, he said, smiling. His voice was harsh as before, but had a pleasant ring as it resonated through the taproom. “My story is a long one, and quite unlike any you’ll have heard before.”

“I doubt that”, mumbled Gruff, but no one seemed to notice.

The man tucked the sheets of paper back into the large pocket, and cleared his throat in three great coughs. Then there was silence. A minute of silence. It lasted long enough that Gruff started to wonder whether the man had forgotten everything he was going to say, and was instead standing and smiling in compensation. The only sounds were that of the bartender spooning his stew and Gruff manoeuvring his backside on the stool, making a soft, shuffling noise.

Then the man started to speak: “It begins in a small fishing village - just north of here, actually…”

It was as Gruff had predicted. The entertainer, or “Grey”, as he introduced himself, filled the remainder of the night with his story, but at the same time he seemed to speak faster than a deer’s skitter. He spoke with such speed that Gruff missed a fraction of the words, and would have fallen asleep were it not for the haste and harsh relentlessness of Grey’s voice. He probably had another venue after this, decided Gruff, and, as the man had promised, his story was long.

It was a typical tale; Grey had been brought up on a barn, whisked away by a travelling wizard to seek riches in lands Gruff had never heard of. He killed dragons, swam with mermaids, saved a city from blind, tripedal vampires. He even (and he made no small thing of this) spent a full year in prison.

At this Gruff couldn’t help but chuckle, causing Jonas to nudge him aggressively. A year in prison! Just for killing a man! What a shame. Gruff tried his best to telepathically scold the youth. You stand here, complaining to the world of how long you were locked away. I spent forty years rotting in jail…for lying!

Apparently Grey escaped when ogres broke into the dungeon, and Gruff found himself doubting some of the “facts”. But the rapidity of the story brought it to Grey sailing to the Hidden Kingdoms in a matter of minutes, so he had no time to dwell on it.

It may have been Gruff’s age, but Grey seemed to be speaking with the haste of someone who wants his listeners to forget everything he says. He spoke like a nervous man accounting himself to the constable.

It had been about two hours when Gruff found himself needing a piss. The barman tucked in his legs and his second bowl of stew to allow Gruff a clumsy exit, knocking into the table as he reached the door. Grey didn’t seem to notice, and carried on his hurried speech without disruption.

Outside the air was cool and refreshing. Gruff searched for a tree, and settled for a hedge across the street. Bright blue lamplight and muffled voices leaked from nearly all the windows of the neighbouring houses, and Gruff felt uncomfortably public as he relieved himself. A black wagon powered on across the road, as if from nowhere. Oddly, it was gone in an eyeblink, and it was hard to tell in the dark and dust of the road but it seemed to leave a thin trail of smoke behind.

Gruff finished just as a great uproar of claps and stamped feet sounded from the tavern. As Gruff reached the door a cluster of customers emerged from within, pulling over colourful cloaks and shouting their farewells. Jonas wasn’t amongst them.

He found the stocky man settling back at the bar, where a few others were still drinking and talking quietly. Grey was looking through his papers again, smirking to himself. He looked up and frowned as Gruff approached the fireplace.

“Grey, is it?” The other man smiled in affirmation. He motioned to a seat for Gruff, which seemed to be about two rows away from Grey. “No”, said Gruff. “I just wanted to ask you a question.”

Grey nodded.

“Lost your voice, Grey?”

“No, sir”. He was still smiling. “Was that the question?”

Gruff glowered at him. “Of course not,” he growled. “It’s about your story”.

The other man leant back against the hearth, stroking one of the feathers on his shoulder. “It’s about the dinosaurs, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“The dinosaurs? No?” A look of puzzlement broke through the old man’s scowl. “Of course not,” continued Grey. “This is about my flight through the clouds”. He sounded more certain with this.

Gruff didn’t even remember that part. “It’s about the prison”.

Grey seemed to ponder this for a moment. Then he tucked the papers back into his pocket, and gestured to the seat again. Except this time he also took a chair, turning it round to face Gruff. As they both sat, Gruff thought he heard another iron wagon storm past the tavern.

“I’ll be honest with you sir”, said Grey. “No one has ever asked me about the prison. Not once”. He held up an accompanying finger. “I’ll tell you why: nothing happened. A whole year,” (and again he held up his finger) “but absolutely nothing happened. Because I was locked away from the world. A whole year. Do you know how awful that is, sir?”

Gruff held the storyteller’s gaze, but when he said nothing more it became evident that the question was not rhetorical.

“I understand, Grey”, said Gruff, and at the same time he silently praised himself for the calmness in his voice. “I understand you had a whole year, with nothing to do. Nothing to do but to think. In a year you could have perfected your story. You could have made something truly memorable, Grey”.

Grey was doing a worse job than Gruff at hiding his contempt. His eyes narrowed, and his mouth shaped itself into a scowl or a frown at nearly every word Gruff spoke. In his ridiculous white and green coat he looked like an outraged stick of celery.

Gruff continued: “Every aspect of your tale could have been an epic. Easily. Everything you did had meaning in it. But no one saw it.” Grey’s face had passed from angry to a state of dismay. “And I guarantee that by tomorrow every man and woman here will have forgotten it.” He leaned back, folded his arms. “I already have”.

The storyteller was fiddling with his feather again. He looked worried.

“I’ll tell you something, Grey. I spent forty years rotting in a dungeon. Because I lied to someone. This is my first day in the outside world!”

His voice was raised, Gruff realised. Across the room the murmurings had died down. A couple of people were leaving.

“You could be above all this,” said Gruff, more quietly. “You could be famous. You shouldn’t have to talk in taprooms to tiny crowds. You should be in the king’s court.”

The smirk reappeared on Grey’s lips. “The king? What king?” He chuckled, and Gruff felt his cheeks flush. “You really are in the past, my friend. We haven’t had a monarchy for thirty years!”

Another man left the inn, leaving just Jonas and the innkeeper at the bar.

“I noticed you left at the end,” said Grey. “The grand finale. I killed a family of krulks single-handedly, you know? So, when you left, what did you see outside?”

Gruff recalled the strangeness of the scene outside, just moments before. “I saw a huge, black wagon. Twice my height. It had a chimney.” He looked back at the door, trying to remember the scene outside, though it had only been a moment ago. I really am getting old. He sighed, and looked towards the bar. Jonas was by himself, head down on the bar, asleep. Gruff turned back to Grey. “I saw windows with blue lanterns, brighter than ten candles. On the way here tonight, I saw a man with a handheld cannon”.

“A gun”, corrected Grey, grinning widely. “You saw the new world tonight, my friend. The world where people need a man like me for their entertainment, and are willing to pay for it quite handsomely indeed.”

Jonas didn’t mention paying, thought Gruff.

“And I can guarantee, as you said, that everyone here tonight will have forgotten my story as of tomorrow.” But Grey kept on smiling. “So tomorrow night, they’ll come back to hear it again!”

Gruff made a move to get up, but Grey placed a hand on the old man’s shoulder.

“You still haven’t asked me your question, sir.”

Gruff sat back, and looked calmly into Grey’s grey eyes.

“Why?” Even in the silence of the room, it sounded softer than a whispered choke.

“This will irritate you, sir, but it is the way of the world. You say you were arrested for lying?” Gruff nodded. “Every aspect of the story I told you tonight: the dragons, the krulks…” He grinned savagely. “…the prison. Why was it all so interesting?”

Still not rhetorical, thought Gruff, but before he could answer –

“All lies.”

LeeC
July 12th, 2014, 04:32 PM
Ah, a bit of an allegory, refreshing as appropriate to our community and to life :-)

I found the conveyance of your tale well done, and commend you for the effort, but, at least to my mind, found the setting and means a bit weak, though unique. Understandable as I've toyed with writing an allegory on how there's so much fantasizing to no thought provoking end, without yet coming up with a suitable setting and means — which might explain my take ;-)

I am heartened in seeing the effort, as it shows promise with your evident writing skills, and am interested is seeing your progress.

Write on,
LeeC

PS: You might include a word count in the title to clue readers to allow sufficient time to do your writing justice :-) PM me if you wish to.

Canjul
July 13th, 2014, 01:33 AM
Definitely an interesting and well-written story. Gruff's voice comes across loud and clear within the first line and the scene of the tavern is admirably set. It's busy, but the fine balance of active narrator presence vs. direct descriptive text is hit quite nicely, which keeps the flow smooth and natural.

LeeC above me refers to the piece as an allegory and I find no reason to disagree with this. The principal actor's names are nicely representative of this with Gruff being old, tired and somewhat...well, gruff (little on the nose, don't you think?) and Grey being an outwardly colourful and charming personality who is in reality a cynical cardboard cutout of a man (this one I like a lot more, as it provides an interesting surface contrast and a lovely bit of foreshadowing).

In the way of criticism, I would suggest that the setting was muddy and the overtly fantastic elements merely distracted from the central narrative. At first, I thought the tale was taking place in our own modern day. The initial confusion I felt was at first attributable to the somewhat timeless setting of a pub, which can while away in states of perpetual gloomy warmth for decades as the world changes around them. This itself, and the reveal of more mundane details like the monarchy or the discontinuation of Blackwell cider are brilliantly handled and serve to have us empathize with Gruff by discovering the world along with him.

However, the introduction of the fantastic is absolutely breakneck, dropping in with an almost audible clunk at
It was a typical tale; Grey had been brought up on a barn, whisked away by a travelling wizard to seek riches in lands Gruff had never heard of. He killed dragons, swam with mermaids, saved a city from blind, tripedal vampires. He even (and he made no small thing of this) spent a full year in prison. I feel that this was done to attempt add an air of mundanity to these elements, to make them seem perfectly natural to the characters. While this is a viable way to approach fantasy, it functions far more effectively if the reader knows that s/he's reading a fantasy to begin with. Even minor words or exchanges could accomplish this. Perhaps as the bartender could offer Gruff a pitcher of "Goblin Brew" or "Dragonfire Ale". Perhaps a mention of somebody's mother being compared to an orc in a passing description of an overheard argument. These are 100% stock fantasy terms inadvisable in the building of a fresh setting, but in a brief tale like this, whose central message doesn't seem to be about the world itself as much as the characters in the room, they are merely signposts to notify the reader of the rules by simple word association and ensure that the sudden introduction of wizards and dragons to a tale, that could be happening down the road from them otherwise, doesn't seem incongruous or distracting. Hell, I'd excise these elements entirely if they aren't too important to you personally, as without them the story becomes far more intriguing for its mystery. The overthrown monarch, the blue lanterns and the great black wagon are all fresh ideas that offer a tantalizing glimpse of a world that wizards and dragons can only serve to render a little more cliche.

Also, minor grammar bug!
“You bloody look it. You’re face is red as a pepper.” should read
“You bloody look it. Your face is red as a pepper.”

Hope this helps
Canjul

Pishwi
July 13th, 2014, 03:28 PM
Thanks so much for the advice :eagerness: it's greatly appreciated and the compliments are certainly encouraging. I wasn't too sure about this piece, but you've given me hope, as well as a lot to work on (such as my yours and you'res). I hadn't thought of any of the points you guys made; evidently I still have a lot too work on!
Thanks again : )