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The Silver Sword


malign

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Not really a Fairy Godfather story, but a Fairy Godfather kind of story, so ...

The Silver Sword

A hill, a sword, and an old man

A young girl is dreaming:

I'm in a forest unmarked by signs of people. Everything is emerald green; the tree trunks are black and slick as if wet. I'm on foot, walking quickly in as straight a line as the trees allow, like I know where I'm going though there is no path. The ground begins to rise, and I continue walking straight up the hill. Near the top the trees end abruptly, and I emerge on a green lawn that rings the hilltop like a tonsure. There is something unnatural in the transition, for no smaller trees or taller grasses surround the clearing; it is as if carved from the forest.

As I climb, my impression that people made this place is confirmed, for the very summit of the hill is ringed by a circle of tall, thin stones standing on end, surrounding a great irregular boulder like an altar. I had heard enough of fairy rings to know what they are, and not enough to fear them, so I stepped inside and walked to the center. I climbed up the boulder, I think intending to look out over the forest to get my bearings, though in fact I don't remember the view at all.

For when I stepped onto the top of the boulder, there appeared before me a bright silver sword with its point buried in the stone. I'm sure it had not been there before, for it would have been easily visible from below. It was a thing of beauty, the blade long and slender, the hilts extending straight out to make a nearly perfect cross, and the grip smoothly wrapped in leather. The metal shone as if new and polished; I was sure the blade would be exquisitely sharp. Without even thinking about it, I wrapped my hands around the grip and pulled the sword from the stone.

It came free effortlessly, with a slight ringing sound. It was light and well-balanced, but a little too long for me to handle it well, and obviously I had never had any training with a sword. So, I was holding it with both hands, with the point nearly touching the ground, when I turned around and came face to face with an old man.

Startled, I exclaimed, “This stuff shouldn't keep happening!”

Looking at me gravely, the old man replied, “My dear, don't you think it might be wise to stop telling the world that it can't do the things it quite obviously has just done, and concentrate instead on formulating a cogent response? I assure you that the dangers you will encounter will not stop trying to harm you long enough for you to agree that they exist.”

Still not believing this sudden apparition, I'm afraid I just stood staring at him. He was somewhat taller than I, but shorter than most men, perhaps because of a slight stoop. His hair and beard flowed together and were of a color that blended brown and white. He wore a simple gray homespun garment that resembled a monk's, belted at the waist with a length of rope. Yet if his hair concealed a tonsure, not even God could find it, and there was no crucifix around his neck. The things that held you, though, were his eyes, bright and sharp, and as piercing as if he could look through solid wood.

Recovering, I said, “Dangers, huh? So which one of us is holding the sharp sword?”

“Which one of us needs a sharp sword?” he countered. Then, disconcertingly, he turned his back on me. My first thought was that that was a dangerous thing to do when his opponent, me, was armed with such a great sword. My second thought was that he would only have done it if it wasn't a dangerous thing to do, and therefore he must have an even greater weapon I didn't know about, so I let him talk. It was only much later that I thought that he might have known all along what I would think, and therefore didn't need a weapon at all. And that he might have been trying to teach me to think.

But now he was continuing to talk to me over his shoulder. “The sword you hold is more than just sharp. It is one of the great swords of the ages, once wielded by a mighty conqueror, who used it to perform deeds of legend.”

“Whose sword is it?” I asked naively.

He replied, “Why, it appears to be yours, young lady. It has chosen you; it would not have left the stone so easily for any other.”

“Well then, whose sword was it?” I continued. Somehow the human connection was important to me. However, he seemed to find the question irritating.

“Next you will be asking me who makes the sun rise every morning!” he exclaimed. “Is it not enough that it does? The sword is yours now; its past deeds no longer matter.

“Mark me well, though,” he said, turning back to me at last. “A sword such as this one is not simply a tool of violence. In fact, using it for indiscriminate violence would mark you as one unworthy to wield it, and it would leave you of its own volition.”

I did not interrupt to ask about a sword having volition; I had already seen enough of this world to know that there were things I was going to have to unlearn.

The old man continued, “Indeed, the magic of this sword is far greater than simply being good at cutting people up. It is a living reservoir of courage. It will sustain you when all other hope is lost; it can heal the hearts of your companions when doubt overcomes them.”

Again he turned as if to look out over a land I couldn't see. I kept my attention on him.

“Use it well,” he concluded. “For there are things of great evil abroad in these lands, in addition to the ordinary. And, as always, only one of you. Out there, I cannot help you, any more than I have already. Be careful, and may you come safely through the challenge. Once you have, you may well be my master.” And as I looked at the back of his head, he was gone.

“Boy, I wish I knew how he does that,” I said to myself, as much to cover my sudden loneliness as anything else. I scrambled quickly off the rock, feeling suddenly out of place in the fairy ring, and carried my sword down the hill and into the woods again. I had realized by this time that without a scabbard, a sharp two-edged sword is not something one carries easily. I took turns carrying it by the handle, first in one hand and then in the other. It was awkward, and as my arm tired it would tend to droop and catch on things, which it immediately sliced through of course, but which repeatedly tugged at my grip so that I had to rest more often. Still, I continued through the woods in the opposite direction from which I had come, venturing deeper and deeper into the wilderness.

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A beast or two

As I traveled, I found the forest seemed to darken, not from the fall of night but from a thickening of the trees. Here there was undergrowth too, thickets around which I was forced to detour. These thickets never seemed to be empty either, but were full of rustlings and the snapping of twigs. I knew the sounds were probably made by squirrels and foraging birds, but my imagination always showed me bears, or worse. It would be hard for me to say whether fear drove imagination or whether imagination fed fear, but I gradually become more and more nervous. I had been in dark woods before of course, many times, but I also remembered the old man's words about “things of great evil”, and I began to lose heart.

My steps slowed, my heart rate rose, and I began to look behind me for the first time. Despair began to set in; for the first time I considered turning back. My grip on the sword loosened until the point touched the dirt.

Suddenly, from a tangle of briars to my left came a squawk like a carrion bird taking flight. An ungainly flapping receded in that direction. Whatever made that sound was not large, but it carried with it a hint of immense evil that nearly sent me running.

At that same moment, though, the point of the sword sprang into the air without the help of my arms, which were anyway too weakened by fear to have lifted it. Holding the point straight out in front of me, both hands on the grip, I could feel the courage flowing down the blade and into my body. Roused, I turned towards the sound of receding wings, ready now to face its terrors. I could see nothing of it, though, and slowly the silence of the woods returned. I pressed on.

For a while, the woods remained silent. Perhaps it was because my courage had returned, or perhaps it was because of the alertness of the sword, whose point remained aloft in front of me, but I neither saw nor heard anything except my own movements for quite some time.

Eventually, though, as I was skirting a particularly dense knot of fallen trees and brambles, I once again heard a noise. This noise was more plaintive than frightening, however. It was also muffled as if the … animal? … thing? … making it were simultaneously calling for help and trying not to be heard. It sounded a bit like, “Ma-woo?”

Against my better judgment, I kept circling toward the source of the sound. As I got closer to it, I realized that whatever was making it was larger than I had thought, but was trying even harder than I had expected to avoid being heard. Believe me, I know how silly that sounds; why produce sounds at all if you don't want to be heard? I couldn't explain it myself at the time.

I began to hear small noises of movement, the rustling of feet, in addition to the periodic “ma-woo”. In fact, the rustling of many feet. Again I revised upward my estimate of the size of the thing, though for some reason I was still not afraid of it. Nevertheless, I continued to use what caution I could, not knowing what I was about to find.

I was quite close, then, when the beast became aware of me. I heard it startle, and an eye peered at me through an opening between the leaves, quite far above my head. Yet still it neither ran away nor tried to attack, but looked directly at me and once again said, “Ma-woo!” Intrigued, I circled the trees where it stood, hoping to get a better look at it without getting any closer.

It didn't seem to want to be seen, however. Every time I came close to getting a better view, it edged around behind whatever cover it could find, so that all I ever saw were bits and pieces. And as I gradually came to realize, bits and pieces were all there were to be seen. From the glimpses I was able to get, the creature seemed to be made up of random parts of various well-known animals, connected haphazardly with minimal regard for function, and no regard at all for color. It had any number of mismatched legs, and I had some suspicion that the number was odd. It had the leg of a lion opposite an antelope's, badger and rabbit legs, deer and buffalo, and many more that I could not name. Its body was similarly composite, with a panda pattern near the front but a leopard's spots near the rear. And I could only say which end was the front because that was where the head was attached. It only had one head, but that too was made up of a patchwork of jaws, muzzles, ears and eyes without too much regard for the correct proportions or even numbers of each.

Overall, it was difficult to look at the creature directly, and it seemed to sense this and be trying to spare me from having to see too much of it at once. Looking at me sadly, it said simply, “Ma-woo?” and held out a random leg. It wasn't entirely a random leg, of course; this one was wrapped by a prehensile woody vine, almost like a snare. It shook the leg, to show that it could not get free from the vine. It seemed to be hoping that I would help it escape.

In fact, the entire setup had the appearance of a trap. It made me wonder, though, what kind of anything would want to trap one of these creatures? This beast was more something to pity and leave be, which seemed to be just what it would have preferred, as well. Suddenly I realized that the beast was not the intended victim of this trap; it was the bait. If that was the case, then you had to wonder what would be attracted by such repellent bait. Then I realized that I was probably the only creature that fit that description for a considerable radius in this forsaken forest. That shifted the question to what might be out there hoping to trap me …

Still, I didn't know any way to find the answer unless I sprang the trap. Besides, I couldn't just leave the beast there, not after it had called to me and I had answered. Perhaps it was the continuing influence of the sword, but I suddenly made my decision and strode towards the beast. After a second of cowering, it seemed to accept my approach, but it shrank back and whined when I raised the sword.

“Fear not, my friend,” I said reassuringly, as much to myself as to the beast, “This sword seems to account me its master, and I think in that case it will not permit me to use it badly.” Saying this, I drew the sword across the woody vine, severing it cleanly without effort. The cut end withered and dropped from the beast's leg, whereon it scampered with surprising agility off into the shelter of the trees. I guess it was still shy, and I admit it was easier on the eyes when it was invisible. It gave an emphatic “Ma-woo!” of thanks as it moved off through the brush, though. I waved goodbye to it, but it didn't turn to look.

Suddenly, I shouted, “I shall call you Heffalump, like Piglet's mythical prey in 'Winnie the Pooh'.” It gave an answering “Ma-woo”, then I heard it no longer.

The trap seemed to be a dud, or maybe it wasn't a trap at all. Nothing happened when I freed the Heffalump, at least as far as I could tell. So I returned to the trail and continued on, my spirits lifted by what I felt was a good deed. And sometimes as I went on I thought I heard sounds that might be made by a Heffalump paralleling me, just out of sight. Sometimes when you're out alone in the forest, you may hear them too, quietly singing “ma-woo”.

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A real danger

The way, as I traveled onward, did not become easier. The forest gradually gave way to a drier, stonier upland. The trees no longer stood side by side, and the undergrowth first became thicker, then turned to a rocky grassland with widely spaced trees. The green of the forest faded into browns and then tans; now there was a layer of dry dust over all that lived.

Three times as I made my way slowly through this less hospitable land, I heard again the cry of the unknown evil beast and the beating of its leathery wings. Each time I heard it, I felt a thrill of fear, and each time it seemed to grow stronger for my weakness. Whenever the beast was near, the sword would swing upward in my hands to point in its direction. The last time, I actually caught sight of it, a large black serpent body flapping away on bone-webbed wings.

As the trees became sparse, I noticed that the sounds of the Heffalump seemed to come up closer behind me. Sometimes if I happened to glance back, I could glimpse a flash of something darting behind a solitary tree trunk, leaving only a few appendages visible on either side to let me know what it was. I tried not to look back after that, partly out of respect for its attempts to stay concealed, and partly because otherwise I might have burst out laughing.

Finally we came to a place where there were no more trees. Ahead, a rock-strewn ridge sprang up, with a clear trail staggering up its slope. And above it for the first time was visible my journey's goal, previously unknown to me and only felt: the sacred mountain, source and end of all quests in this strange realm.

Resolutely, I stepped onto the path, but I sensed a reluctance from behind me. I realized that the Heffalump was uncertain, not wanting to stay behind but disliking the exposure of the path. So, I spoke over my shoulder in reassurance: "If you will continue to follow me, my friend, I promise you that I will not turn to look. But somehow, it seems better to me that we stay together."

And without turning to see if it was following, I began the long climb. As the spine of the ridge rose, its top became narrower and its sides steeper, so that I soon had a wide view around me. Here the land was drier still, and very little grew; the browns had faded into grays. I was climbing above a desert towards the solitary snow-capped peak of the sacred mountain.

Abruptly the ridge was interrupted by a rocky cliff that split its entire width, far too broad to cross and too steep to descend. I felt a sudden thrill of fear, and backed away from the edge just in time. Swooping up out of the depths of the crevasse came a deadly black dragon.

Without thinking, I hacked at it with the sword. I struck at its face and neck as they bent to bite at me, and at the claw-tipped feet that reached out for me. But at each blow the dragon increased in size and strength, almost as if my efforts were feeding it somehow. I backed away from the cliff edge, using the sword like a club to keep the dragon off me, fearing what would happen when I tired.

However, the dragon broke off its attack. Cupping its wide naked wings, it landed on the ledge in front of me.

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An end

It was beautiful and terrible at the same time. No prey enjoys knowing that its predator is one of its species' greatest specimens, and I know I didn't. It was glossy black, with scales that absorbed all light except for a highlight in the sheen on every curve. Its breath was cold, an evil from the depths emanated from it and chilled the blood. The sword remained alert to the challenge, but I myself was frozen in fear.

The dragon spoke, with a voice that rasped as if the metallic scales of its throat were rubbing together. "Foolish mortal, you see that there is no way through. I am your fear, and I become stronger with each blow you strike. Yield to me, and I will let you slink back the way you came. But I claim the life of that ridiculous thing hiding behind you."

I might have quailed at the horrible beast in front of me, but I would not let it slaughter the Heffalump. Taking a deep breath, I drew on the sword's strength, and felt my courage grow. Emboldened, I stuck the sword in the ground in front of me and leaned on the hilt.

"Never!" I shouted. "If you are my fear, then you belong to me, not I to you. Begone!"

Startled, the beast reared back, flapping its wings for balance. "Very well," it replied. "Then I shall return to you shortly, and one of us will perish."

Turning, it leapt over the cliff and rose flapping toward the distant mountain. Clearly, it sought the advantage of height, to swoop down on me from above. In a moment, it would turn and begin a dive that would undoubtedly be the end of me.

Yet for the first time since the fairy circle, I was completely free of fear. Instead, I was thinking clearly and unemotionally, for a change.

"My fear belongs to me, and so does my courage. They're not outside of me; they're not in things. They're part of me, and I control them both," I thought. The sword had done its work: it had brought me courage when I needed it. But relying on it as a weapon, when the opponent was my own fear, only made the fear stronger as well. I was going to have to go it alone.

Just as the dragon reached the top of its climb and wheeled around towards me again, I bent and laid the sword on the rocks at my feet. Seeing what I had done, the dragon shrieked and dove at me with folded wings and claws extended. Murmuring, "You can only hurt me if I let you," I closed my eyes, spread my arms wide, and waited for whatever would happen.

Something soft and small smacked into my chest and bounced onto the ground at my feet. I opened my eyes, startled, to see a disgruntled pigeon stagger to its feet and then fly off as fast as it could.

Standing, I felt taller, fully grown, an adult woman. Taking the sword from the ground, I found that it fit me now. I looked around for the Heffalump, but I could not see it any more. But somehow, I felt that my motley friend would always be somewhere nearby, perhaps a part of me, too, now. Turning back toward the sacred mountain, I found that the rift that had blocked my way was gone. The stony path climbed unbroken towards my goal, and I followed it gladly.

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