Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Leaves Inclined to Listen

"So, Pan, I heard you had a visitor last night." Instructor Bedelia was looking right at Pan, almost trying to not scowl. Teachers are not fond of Questians, believing knowledge should be hoarded then dispensed, not freely traded.
"Yes, Instructor," Pan said, and practiced being as cold a fish as his father. He did reasonably well.
This, of course, frustrated Bedelia, who wanted to see some sort of shame. "And who was he, if I may ask?"
Pan gave her an indifferent gaze. "A traveler."
"A Questian," muttered Aeric, just loud enough for everyone to hear. Those who hadn't yet heard gasped, but everyone giggled.
All Bedelia said was, "Hmmm," and moved on to the next lesson, which was simple arithmetic. Pan did his best to pay attention, but that was rather difficult, seeing as how the other kids carried on.
"Hey, Pan," one would say, "could your sharecropper father answer any stupid questions?"
Then another would answer, "Of course he couldn't. He's dumb. And Pan's dumb like him." Which was not terribly witty, but the kids still laughed, and it still hurt Pan.
Luckily, Bedelia didn't get much opportunity to call on Pan and embarrass him, as Billiam answered any query left open too long.
When school finally let out, Pan went by Medic Field to play his flute. He looked over the thorny waste and sighed. The Sun was getting low in the sky, and the thistles and brambles shone gray in the failing light. Pan walked in about a mile, along a path not many people knew about, and took a seat on a rock. He played a simple melody, one in which he could simply vanish. He lost himself in the sound as the music echoed back to him from the hills, and the wind carried it to the horizon.
It was this very preoccupation that kept Pan from noticing Billiam coming up behind him. "Pan?" he asked.
Pan jumped. "Billiam? You scared me!" He shook himself for composure. "Of course it's me. Who else would play the flute?" Pan sneered at the last of this, and went back to his pipe.
"I had to ask because I couldn't really see you."
Pan stopped, sighed. "The Sun was in your eyes."
"Yeah. So, how are you?"
Pan gave Billiam a hard look. The boy was covered in various thorns from trudging through the field, and Pan would have been lying if he said this didn't make him a little happy. In fact, Billiam looked awful. "You came all the way out here," Pan asked, eyebrow raised, "to ask me that?"
Billiam popped his neck, which Pan recognized as one of Aeric's tough guy tactics. "No. I didn't." Unfortunately, Billiam didn't know what should follow, so he and Pan shared a moment of silence.
"Alright, then," Pan said, and lifted his flute.
"Wait, okay, I came here to ask you about the Questian," Billiam said, looking a little ashamed of his facade.
"Oh," Pan grunted, "you came here to make fun of me about the Questian."
Billiam kicked of bush, which caught his pant leg. "Ah, crap." He shook it out, tried to display some equanimity. "No, not make fun. When do I make fun of you?"
"You and Aeric and Bubula," Pan stated, knowing a complete sentence wasn't really necessary.
"Look, Pan, you're okay by me."
"The feeling isn't mutual. Leave." Pan returned to his flute, trying to find a calmer place.
Billiam would not be deterred. "Hey! do you know why Bedelia never calls on you?"
Pan didn't stop playing, but widened his eyes at Billiam, inviting a response in which he wasn't interested.
"Because I always answer them first," said Billiam.
Pan quieted and shook his head. "You're just bored when things don't get moving."
The other boy scratched the back of his head. "Yeah. That's true. Still, you didn't get embarrassed by her today, did you?"
"Yes, I did."
"Well not as badly as you could have!"
"No, but Aeric picked up the slack when he made those pervy comments about me and drifters."
"Well, I'm sorry!"
Pan and Billiam looked at each other, Pan blinking the Sun's reflection on Billiam's glasses out of his eyes. "You're sorry. Fine. Go."
Billiam clenched his fists. "No."
"Why, aren't you too popular to be seen around me? I know your plan. You know that if I'm not the low man on the totem pole, you'll be the one," Pan took a mocking tone, "you little Pallas owl, you."
Billiam's fists disappeared, and his face sunk. "Wow. You're smarter than I thought."
"Not hard," said Pan.
"I'm sorry."
"You mentioned. Goodbye."
"I can't leave."
"Why not?" Pan was just getting annoyed at this point.
"Because I want to meet that Questian!"
Pan was flabbergasted. He was stupefied. He was dumbstruck. "You, teacher's pet, want to meet a Questian? Now doesn't that just beat all?" Pan then smiled and went back to his flute.
Billiam did not enjoy being ignored, especially after revealing this reputation-shattering information. He knocked Pan's flute away. "Yes, I want to meet him!"
Pan summarily punched Billiam and picked up his flute.
"Do you feel better?" asked Billiam.
"Yes. I do."
"So, can I meet him?" Billiam was a little worried he was jumping the gun, trying to go from sworn enemy to friend in twenty minutes, but you know how boys are: foolish.
Pan was not exempt from this descriptor, but that didn't much matter. "I have no idea where he is."
Billiam's tentative smile became a more concrete frown. "Huh?"
"How would I know?" Pan shrugged, and did feel a little bad for Billiam.
"I guess," Billiam sighed, then turned away. He started making his way through the prickly plants when he stopped and yelled back, "Where would you camp around here?"
Pan shrugged again. "Somewhere warm and dry."
"And where's the warmest, driest place around here, no matter what?" Billiam had that look of self pride in his face.
It was not to last. "Any house?" Pan asked.
"I mean outside! Ow!" A thorn has pricked Billiam's finger.
"Oh. In that case, the Great Oak Tree."
"Right! the Thursbaum!"
Billiam groaned. "The Great Oak."
"Oh," said Pan. "Right."
"So will you take me to him?" asked Billiam, too excited to contain his joy.
"No. Why would I?" Pan was not impressed by Billiam's posturing.
"I have a book..."
"Big surprise."
Billiam was able to contain his anger, keeping his mind on the goal. "This book contains a song known to attract moots."
Pan grinned a little grin. "Now you're talking."
It took them about an hour, but they made it to the tree. It was a dark, magnificent tree, brooding and thick in bark. "Wow," said Pan, "it's really big. I've never been out here."
"Yeah. It's really, impressive."
Billiam nodded and smiled. "It sure is."
"So," Pan looked around, "where do you think he's camping?"
Billiam looked around and saw a lot of nothing. "Oh, come on!"
Pan laughed. "Well, that's sunk. I'm going to play for the tree, though. Maybe it'll bring good luck."
Billiam sat down and pouted. "Maybe."
Pan played an old song, a song about weathering storms like all hard times. Billiam told Pan it was a very nice song, and Pan appreciated the compliment. What Pan and Billiam didn't notice, though, was that all the leaves were grasping toward Pan. When the song was over, they shot straight up.
That, Billiam noticed. "Hey, Pan, did you see the leaves WHOA!"
What alarmed Billiam so much was a bolt of lightning striking the tree, electricity jumping among the leaves before settling in a knothole, making it glow an opal glow.
"It wasn't even raining," said Pan.
"And it didn't hit us," said Billiam.
"And you boys are something else," said Vic.
The boys turned around and saw the ramrod-postured Questian. He had the twitch of fatigue, but did not show it in his face. It wasn't as though he were trying to hide it, but rather he was too strong to even realize.
"Hello, sir," said Billiam, full of awe. Pan felt he must be full of something else.
"Hello, boys. So, you found the Thursbaum. I've been looking myself for a while. Do you two know what this tree does?"
"No," they said.
"Look at that knothole where the lightning gathered." They did, and were shocked as it started growing. "It's a portal." The knothole dimmed as it grew into a door.
Pan shook himself out of his astonishment to ask a nagging question. "Vic, were you following us or something?"
Vic laughed heartily. "No. I'm camping right over there." He pointed to a lean-to on another, smaller oak."
Pan looked at Billiam. "How did we miss that?"
Billiam shrugged. Vic laughed again. "There are many things you miss, if you don't know the right question, boys," the man said. The last rays of day were dancing in his glasses.
"Then," asked Billiam, "where does this door lead?"
A red beam bounced off Vic's spectacles. "That is the question, isn't it?"

Saturday, April 4, 2009

An Oil Lamp Flickers

The Moon was high in the sky by the time Pan and Vic made their way back to Pan's neck of the woods. There were no crickets out that night, but Pan could hear the Pallas Owls screeching in the trees. While the birds would, occasionally, startle Pan, they were little more than an annoyance. To the Questian, though, they were a terror.
"Mah-AH-ah!" screeched the predator of night.
"Oh, ah!" cried Vic, who was now right behind Pan, and hunching so that he breathed right on Pan's neck.
This went on for several minutes before Pan, clutching his silent flute, turned on the Sage.
"Look, Vic, I'll feed you, but it would be very nice if you could, you know, not do that."
Vic rotated his head, not unlike an owl. "D-d-d-do what?"
Pan wanted to explain how difficult it is for children to be brave when adults are fearful, how disquieting it was for him when the grown-up was so, well, disquiet. But Pan did not know these were the things that bothered him, since all he could understand was his own annoyance, so he said, "Just calm down, huh?"
Vic wrung his hands. "Okay."
They were back on the move, and his father's barns were in sight, the heavy oak strong on the horizon. Pan didn't realize he started walking faster, especially when he saw the hazy glow of a candle in the window.
"Slow down," Vic forced out between pants. He was almost limping, or loping, now. Pan thought it might be called a lomping.
"We're almost there," Pan told the ponderous Questian.
"Well we don't have to run, then," Vic spat, quickly followed by a screech, a rustle of grass and, Pan was almost certain, a weakening squeak. "On the other hand..." Vic picked up the pace considerably.
In short time they arrived at Pan's father's house. It was a small place, a bedroom for each of them, a kitchen and a small parlor. An oil lamp blazed in this front room as Pan and Vic entered. Pan's father was sitting next to it, tying a fishing fly.
"Evening, Dad," Pan said.
"Hullo, there, Loafer," said Pan's father as he glanced up, fixing his gaze on Vic. "And who are you, stranger?" Pan's father set down the fly and took to his feet, then straightened his back, then raised his head. His brows settled into place last, forming a look of discernment more than anger.
"I'm Vic, the Sage," Vic said as he offered his hand.
Pan's father took his wrist and shook. "Rusby McKennitt. Pan's father," said Pan's father, who gave another shake and said, "And you're a Questian."
"Oh, yes, I am. I'm afraid. Yes." Vic looked as though he was trying to make his muddy clothes, indeed himself, dissolve into the deep shadows thrown by the single lamp.
"You're always saying we should be generous, Dad, and Vic said he was hungry, so I thought we could give him a crust, and you say to be generous. Right?" Pan said to his father's eyes, trying to pull them from the Questian.
Pan's father's look relaxed, if only in his brow, and he gave his son a little smile. "I do, don't I? Alright, Questian, you may have some food now, and a little to take with you. But then you have to go."
Vic the Questian frowned a sad, calloused sort of frown. "Yes, I suppose."
Pan took him to the kitchen and gave him a hearty heel of bread, along with a little hard cheese, a few wild onions and waybread.
"Thank you so much," said Vic, who was much less inquisitive when he had some food before him.
"Don't mention it," said Pan's father, who did not really go back to his fishing fly. "Really. Don't."
Vic took on an air of self-importance, but only one that is fully contained in self. "I don't mention, but rather inquire. And when I am enjoined, I answer. But I do not simply 'mention.'"
"Hmm," was Pan's father's only response.
The lamp flickered as a wind moved across the chimney.
"Portentous, that," Vic said through a bite of bread.
"What?" asked Pan, not noticing his father's look of exasperation.
Vic swallowed his bread. "Well, you see, I've heard, in sundry places, that a sudden wind flickering an oil lamp is a rather, ominous, sign."
Pan's father looked away from the fishing fly, then back. "Hmm."
A few hundred yards away, three figures, silhouetted by the waning moon, noticed the yellow twinkle.
"Rather like the stars," mused Billiam.
"What?" asked Bubula.
"The lamp, twinkling like that. It's like a little, yellow star just resting on the horizon, as if a shooting star could shoot back up."
At this, Aeric shot Billiam a scowl. "Would you shut up with that crap?"
"Hmm," was all Billiam said.
"Okay," said Aeric, turning his gaze from Billiam by degrees. "We're going to take the sissy's flute to catch the moot ourselves."
Bubula's lips formed a smile, but no sparkle entered his eyes. "Good idea."
"Except none of us can play," said Billiam, who wasn't only uncomfortable with the plan, but rather bored.
"Then we'll get him to play," Aeric growled. He motioned for the other two to follow him as he approached the house, staying in the tall grass and trees' shadows. When they finally arrived at the house, Aeric spied through the open window.
"Is his dad there?" asked Bubula, not wanting to incur an adult's wrath, let alone one as burly as Pan's father's.
Instead, he caught the conniption of Aeric, who smacked the idiot while putting the other hand over his mouth. Billiam merely rolled his eyes at Bubula.
Aeric glowered at Bubula. "Yes, he's there," whispered the little ringleader, looking back at the scene. He stared for a second, glared for a second, squinted for a second, and shuddered for a moment. "Guys!" he said in something like a stage whisper.
"What?" asked Billiam, rolling his eyes at Aeric.
"There's a Questian in there!" Aeric was elated.
Billiam met his ebullience with apathy, Bubula with confusion.
"So?" asked Bubula through Billiam's hand.
Aeric sneered a coyote sneer and walked up to the front door. Billiam would have stopped him, for fear of a hassle, but was too intrigued. Bubula was still muffled. Aeric knocked at the door.
The door swung open, and Pan's father filled the frame. "Yes, Aeric?" There was no humor in the bear voice, but no panic, either.
"Just thought I'd check on my father's sharecropper," Aeric beamed a buzzard's beam.
"You and your father can't come by here unless you ask if it's okay first. You know that." The door only creaked a little on its brass hinges.
"Could a Questian?"
The brass hinges glinted, seeming to catch the fire in the big man's eyes.
"Questian?" His tone betrayed nothing.
Aeric made of show of trying to look around the bulky man's frame. "Yeah. There's one in there, isn't there? And I'm sure everyone would like to know how generous you are toward travelers." A gator's grin was taking up residence on the boy's face.
The man sighed. "What do you want, Aeric?"
"Just to talk to your son, sir."
Pan's father started closing the door, sighing with the brass and oak. It was stopped by Pan.
"It's okay, Dad. I'll talk to him." Pan had somehow already moved around the big man's legs, looking Aeric in the eye.
"Pan," said Aeric, "we were wondering if you could do us a favor."
"Yeah, a real nice favor," chuckled Bubula.
Aeric looked several daggers at his idiot, then turned back to Pan. "We would like a concert, if you would."
"No." Pan's father's word fell like a stone in a well, a cello bow pulled too quickly. Pan's father's brow was not knit in concentration, but was certainly knit.
Aeric was shocked. "My father..."
"Will do nothing. I don't know what you think you're doing, Aeric, but you are not welcome here and my son will not be playing for you. He will never play for you." The sharecropper, plower, earth-tiller glared at each ruffian in turn. "Never. Now, leave."
The boys, in various stages of fear and frustration, turned. Only Aeric spoke, kicking a tuft of grass and muttering, "We'll see."
A Pallas owl hooted. "I'm so sorry," said Vic.
Pan's father closed the door. "Me too." He picked up his fishing fly, inspected it and went back to work. "Leave as soon as you can."
"Dad, I," Pan started, the words seizing in his throat.
"No, Pan, you did alright."
The words, the very texture of the words, reassured Pan, but still he wished for a smile.
Pan's father did not say another word, and went to bed minutes later, after Vic had left. Pan did not get much sleep that night. He was dreading next day's school.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Who Was There at Medic

When Lord Medic (his actual title has been lost to antiquity) planted the grains in his royal field, he did so that none in his country would know hunger. That had been the plan, but, over time, the green grains withered. The grasses Pan knew were pincer grass, gall cane and such weeds. All his father's fathers had to eat was culled from the earth. All they could drink was a brackish beer. This was far from the mead and amber brew of the Medician legends, but so was everything else in Pan's world.
Entering Medic Field this day, Pan found something of a rarity: a red mushroom. Pan's father told them they made men into heroes. Pan just thought they were tasty. Even though, he found them fairly often, more than anyone else.
He picked the fungus, and was just about to pop it in his mouth and enjoy the warm feeling it would give him, when he head someone say, "Can you trust the fungus?"
Pan, startled, looked to his left, to his right and saw no one. When he faced front again, he saw the man who had spoken.
He was a man of slight frame, just taller than Pan, with hair just beginning to gray at the temples. His clothes may have been a faded black, or just very dirty. Whatever the color, the tattered suit revealed him to be a traveling Questian. Pan had heard of men and women who went from place to place, raising hackles and queries. They were troublemakers.
"I do believe," Pan sighed, "I can."
The man leaned toward Pan, and the Sun flared off his glasses, glinting on the frames. Had he been wearing those before? "What do you see when you look at the mushroom, young man?" The Questian was more smug than Aeric when he actually answered one of the teacher's questions correctly.
Pan contemplated the tepid toadstool, and was shocked. The spots were not white, but yellow! "What's that?" Pan asked, a pained expression on his face.
"That, young man, is a quashroom. They are said to make one lesser. They are succulent, with a repulsive aftertaste. They make excellent wine. The wine causes horrid hangovers. The hangovers are quickly forgotten, but the bad humour in the liver is not. Is that enough information?"
Pan suddenly understood why Questians were so disliked: they made you feel dumb. "Yes, that's quite enough."
The Questian snapped to attention. "Of course," he gave a little laugh, the Sun sanguine in his spectacles, "there is no 'enough' information. So, I think I'll learn your name, young man."
"My name is Pan," said Pan, not looking the man in the eye. It was as if the Sun reflected in the Questian's pince-nez burned Pan's own cheeks.
"Ah! Pan! Do you know what your name means, lad?" The man was smiling, no longer priggish.
Pan kicked at a clod of elf grass, which wasn't nearly as pleasant as you'd think. "No."
"'Pan' comes from the early-Medician 'Pane.' It means 'bread.'"
The wind whistled through the gray grasses of the field. Pan clutched his flute. "Okay."
"Well," said the man, "aren't you going to ask me my name?"
Pan hated when adults prompted you to questions for which you didn't care to have an answer. Still and all, "what's your name, sir?"
"My name is Vic the Sage, of the Questian order." Vic seemed proud, but Pan couldn't tell is he was so because of the knowledge being shared, or the knowledge itself.
"I'll remember you ere and after, Vic the Sage." Pan used the most formal greeting he could, hoping it would placate the grown-up.
Vic beamed down on Pan. "And I you, young Master Pan. Now, tell me, what brings you to Medic Field?"
"I came to play my flute." Why had Pan told him that? He never told anyone that!
The last flash of true day shimmered in Vic's glasses. "Why?"
Pan noticed the first waxing of the moon as he looked into Vic's eyes, which seemed a little closer now, a little sunken, all of a sudden. "I just wanted to." Pan felt no need to say anything about bullies or moots or begging the land for food.
Vic scanned the horizon. "Hmmm. Sure. Well, would you like to know why I'm here?"
Pan didn't want to, but his father had taught him to be polite. Pan had wished his father had not. "Why are you here?"
"I am here to find something to eat, because I cannot afford anything. I told you not to eat that 'shroom because I wanted it, despite its mephitic nature. I was also, somewhere in the back of my mind, hoping to find the Princess's lost moot, so I could afford some victuals. Alas, I have been nowhere where knowledge of moots in abundant, so I have little awareness of them."
Pan thought that was entirely too much information, but knew not to say so. "Well, I can give you something to eat from my father's pantry. We haven't much, but there are some crusts."
Vic chuckled. "Pan indeed."

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Immutable Moot

"Children," said Pan's teacher, Instructor Bedelia, "the palace wants everyone to be on the lookout for the young princess's moot. It is white like when you see the moon through dark clouds, and its wings are green as leaves on a flower."
One of Pan's classmates, a know-it-all little girl named Cerebella, raised her hand. "But even though the moot is rare, don't most look like that?"
"That's true, Cerebella, but this moot is a Royal Moot, and it's special. It has golden veins in its wings and a circlet of coruscating silver in its fur."
The girls all marveled at the beauty of the princess's misplaced moot. The boys groaned at the palpable excitement for a stupid fluff beast. They all wanted their own fang beast, like a Lesser Manticore, or a Greater Tarantula. Either would have scared any of those girls to death.
"Instructor?" asked another girl as she raised her hand, "how would we even get ahold of the moot if we saw it?"
Bedelia thought about this for a little while. "Well, you could try calling its name."
Aeric, the rude boy, the son of the richest, most powerful farmer in the whole district, spoke up. "What's it's name? Something girly like Powderpuff?" All the other boys laughed, but Pan didn't think it was funny. Aeric was rarely funny, but always wealthy and often mean, which made him funny enough.
Of course, Bedilia did nothing. "Now, Aeric. I don't know what it's name is, but. Hmm. I seem to remember," she said as she flipped open her copy of Tobin's Bestiary. "Ah, here we go. 'The moot is also very fond of flute music, and will often fly from great distances to perch upon a flautist's pipe. This allows it to better feel the vibrations, and, if the player is especially talented, will jiggle with the music.' There." She closed the book, then opened it, remembering it was the subject of the next lesson.
When school got out, Pan knew he would be made fun of, and he was right. He was a bright boy, after all, and had little recourse on his walk back to his father's house.
"So you gonna play your little flute and rescue Powderpuff?" Aeric asked in his ridicule voice, the one he saved for people who were good for something besides being born into money.
"Probably not," Pan said.
"Why not? Because you're a loser? Yeah." said Bubula, Aeric's sniveling little cronie.
Pan had to listen to Aeric, but Bubula he could get away with a little. "Wow, you can have an entire conversation with yourself. All with knowledge you already have. Why not just sit at home with your thoughts? I'm sure they'll both be delighted."
"What do you mean by that, you little turd?" asked Bubula.
"You don't know the answer to that one, do ya?" Pan smiled.
"Help me out here, Billiam," said Bubula.
Billiam was a quiet, intelligent, popular boy. Which is to say, he did Aeric's homework and thus was not the subject of his ridicule. This approximated to popularity.
"Hm? Oh, yeah. Bubula's father actually owns land, while yours, Pan, can only work it. That good?" Billiam did not seem to care if this passed for a good put-down, and returned to his book.
At this, Pan turned and marched home as fast as he could without running. Behind him he could hear Aeric yelling, "You're just mad because it's true! It'll always be true!" Pan did not so much care about it being true, as everyone has to make a living. He just didn't like being ostracized for it.
When Pan reached his father's house, he dumped his book bag just inside the front door, grabbed his flute and went out the door. By the time he stopped walking, he was on the outskirts of Medic Field.