Authors: Matthew Butler
Written and illustrated by
© 2015 Matthew Butler.
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ISBN: 978-1-4834-2413-2 (sc)
ISBN: 978-1-4834-2412-5 (e)
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Lulu Publishing Services rev. date: 1/30/2015
Fair Avalon, I call thee now; thy hour has arr
For all around had rotted; the light has almost
Youth waits only for your blessing, the gift you freely
A spider’s web shall bridge the worlds, and hope shall be re
Time to die. Pain was all that separated my mind from darkness.
… I lurched the remaining distance and slumped into the back corner of my cage.
At the door, a shape separated from the gloom. The creature was already here. Consumed with bloodlust, it leapt into my cage.
“Come, beast,” I murmured with bloody lips.
Innor slammed and bolted the cage door shut. My life was a small sacrifice to trap an angel of death.
“Come on, Tyler!”
Tyler ground his jaw together and hissed through his teeth.
“Goodness, look at that face! Tyler, you’re in danger of exploding, m’boy!” said Uncle Jarith with great enthusiasm, as though he was looking forward to watching his adopted son burst suddenly apart.
Half the pots and pans in the kitchen jumped an inch as Tyler’s long arm was driven into the table.
“Victory!” Derek whooped proudly. “Is there none who can best the mightiest?”
“Not in modesty,” said Tyler sarcastically as he nursed his battered knuckles.
!” bellowed Uncle Jarith. “Well, come on, Tyler, quit moping about and get up that hill! You’ll get no sympathy from me.”
“All right, all right!” said Tyler as he tried, without much success, to ignore Derek, who was jumping around behind Uncle Jarith celebrating his victory with unrestrained glee. A moment later Tyler was outside, hat balanced like a deflated squirrel over his head as he pulled on his gloves with his teeth. There was no need for a torch tonight: the land was bathed in the shine of one perfect moon and one million glinting stars.
A low hill sheltered his village from the cold southerly, and Tyler trudged up the back of it with a grim determination. His progress was slow; last night’s snowstorm lay thick ahead, so it was some time before he entered a small clearing where the scent of pinewood still clung to a stack of recently trimmed logs. He selected a knobbly one from the pile and fetched the nearby axe.
Tyler Finch was six months past his fifteenth year, and he was one inch short of tall. Some might have called him good-looking, but if they did, Tyler had never heard of it – words such as “interesting” or “intense” had instead been offered in the past. He had a dark look to him, and at present his lanky frame caused more than a few erratic axe swings. “The boy is permanently imbalanced,” Uncle Jarith would fondly tell all who would listen after a drink (and usually several) at The Yellow Toad. “Even when stationary, he appears to be in constant free fall! It’s an intricate and constant series of last-minute adjustments that keeps him on his feet.”
Soon Tyler was finished, and he had a good-sized pile of firewood ready to be loaded back home. He removed his squirrel hat, exposing a sweaty wash of hair to the wind, and blew out a long, smoky breath. After a moment’s reflection he stepped towards the thicker part of the forest, ducking under branches and brushing between the leaning pines.
It was not long before the trees broke way to expose an enormous boulder gleaming like a second moon. A wayward root, killed by frost, coiled up one side of it and served as a convenient foothold to the view, which tonight was more fantastic than usual thanks to the snow storm. The hill Tyler had so recently ascended banked down to meet a dark and wide river that forked to the west and south before running out of sight towards the sea that he had never seen. A village was tucked into the natural V-shaped wedge created by the water.
“The great town of Elliun,” mumbled Tyler, giving it a little bow.
He squinted at the faint lights that defined the boundaries of his village, and then he noted at the sharp squares of snow-caked farmland that lay on the other side of the river to the west. Somewhere on the horizon was Firith, a quarry mine that supplied stones to Elliun. In between – and everywhere else – sprawled the White Wood, a name well deserved at present because the forest shone in a great canopy of snow and moonlight. On and on the woods continued, past the horizon and – according to old Trandle, who had a love for grand stories – to the edge of the world.
Tyler contemplated the familiar scene for a final moment before unexpectedly kicking at a pebble, which gave a small, almost reproachful bounce before tumbling over the edge. He could see his home from here. Uncle Jarith always took the time to hang a friendly lamp on the porch. Good old Uncle Jarith, who had taken care of him and the other orphans since before he could remember. Tyler owed him dearly.
!” A voice yelled, and an icy hand clamped the back of his neck.
Tyler yelped and spun around to see his adopted brother chortling behind him. “Derek, you freak! You scared me half to death.”
“Totally worth it,” Derek giggled. “One for the record books. You should have seen your—”
The snowball caught him square in the jaw. Derek gasped in a fairly unmanly way and bounced from one foot to the next, tutting to himself as he desperately brushed away the icy flakes.
Now Tyler was in stitches. “You should have, you should have –
” he recounted whilst performing his very best Derek-getting-hit-by-a-snowball impression.
“Ha, very funny,” said Derek sarcastically. “I’ll think twice about coming up here to save you next time.”
Derek rolled his eyes. “Apparently I’m the rescue operation. Uncle Jar kept muttering about wolves. To tell the truth, I kind of wish we’d left you up here just a little longer …”
They were nearing home when something exploded out onto the front porch with such velocity that it was a wonder the door remained buckled to its hinges. In an instant the enormous, apron-wearing, whisky-breathed, flour-covered, spoon-waving whirlwind of energy and justice that was Uncle Jarith grabbed Tyler’s ear and gave him a good tongue wagging.
!” he boomed at his eardrum, “What in
name were you doing, m’boy?”
“I think he was, um, admiring the daisies, so to speak, Uncle Jar,” said Derek from the side.
“Quiet, Derek! Tyler?”
“Ouch! Uncle Jar, you’ll stretch my earlobe!” Tyler cringed as he tried to alleviate the pain by rising to his tiptoes. “All right! I was caught up in my thoughts for longer than I realised. Really, Uncle Jar, that’s the truth. I took a detour to the lookout rock, and—”
Caught up in your thoughts?
” cut in his uncle disbelievingly as he released his death grip on Tyler’s earlobe and arched his thinning eyebrows so high up his forehead that they disappeared beneath his hairline.
“Caught up in his thoughts,” repeated Derek unhelpfully, as though he were a human punctuation mark.
“And here I was, worried to death that you had fallen off a cleft or had been eaten by wolves!” Uncle Jarith proceeded to glare as meanly as was possible through his round, jolly features. Whenever he performed this particular expression, his cheeks would puff up brilliantly, and his face would turn, shade by shade, towards an ever more worrying degrees of crimson. “
!” he said finally, apparently deeming the boy had suffered enough. “That said, I’m glad you’re safe and have brought back that great stack of firewood. I’ve primed the berry tart, and it’s waiting to be cooked.” With a wink he put his hand on Tyler’s shoulder. “It’s all cause and effect, the cause being that I love ya, Tyler. You know that. Now, let’s hope this wood’s not too wet.”
It was an excellent evening. Uncle Jarith’s house – the home in which Tyler had been raised – was a haven of strange trinkets and trophies: shiny porcelain dogs, china dolls, and dozens of other mysterious objects lined the shelves. The dolls’ and dog statues’ wide, dead eyes stared into the living area with endless attention. A number of the statues had deep cracks through their white faces, patched up with great dollops of glue – a reminder of Tyler and Derek’s wilder childhood days.
Currently a hot fire roared like a trapped beast in the corner. The room was sunk with weighty shadows, and these wide-eyed animals stared down even more ominously than usual. Two sofas sprawled across the clutter. One was only large enough to fit a single person, and Uncle Jarith now occupied every inch of it completely. In one hand he held a smoking pipe. With the other he rocked a cot containing little Meg, who was sucking happily away at her tiny fist. Tyler and Derek were sprawled lizard-like across the much larger sofa.
“I’m going to regret eating that much,” Derek slurred, as though he could hardly be bothered flexing his lips. “The feast is tomorrow, and it’ll be a miracle if I fit as much as a peanut more into my belly!”
“You’ll manage,” Tyler replied sleepily. “There’ll be errands tomorrow to work up your appetite.”
For the last few days, everyone in the village had been slavishly preparing for the annual feast to mark winter’s longest day, before the winds would warm and usher in the long days of summer.
Uncle Jarith sucked at his pipe and blew out a sleepy purple haze that dispersed across the ceiling. “You know, I think we couldn’t do any better,” he mused. “Myself and you lads, in this nice little house of ours. We truly want for nothing.”
“Well, a dog would be grand,” Tyler quipped. “If this is now a forum for complaint.”
“What’s that, Tyler?”
“He’s right! A dog,” said Derek, catching on. “A puppy. The Crosbys got a new whole litter last week and are already teaching them to hunt rabbits.” Derek scowled in sudden reflection. “At present I feel the rabbits have the upper hand.”
“All right, all right!” Uncle Jarith chortled. “What can I say, life is rarely perfect.”
Tyler watched his uncle quietly for the next few minutes as the man continued to puff pleasurably on his pipe. After a while, to Tyler it seemed as if the smoke at one point coiled up into a vision that he had seen only a few hours before – a vision of the shining canopy of the White Wood. As the smokey treetops curled away into the empty air, he was suddenly overcome with a strange restlessness, a feeling he would never had admitted it to Uncle Jarith – and barely to himself. Sometimes the world he had lived in for his whole life seemed almost terrifyingly small. Not long afterwards he muttered goodnight and excused himself to bed.
If only Tyler knew how much was to change only the following day, and how many times he was to relive that precious last night over and over in his dreams, wishing with his every marrow that he could venture back. Perhaps then he would have asked for a second serve of berry tart, and he would have appreciated the warm blaze of the fire and the friendly company just a little while longer.