Chapter Six

THE SCHEMER

Melkaz was so deep in thought he failed to see the group of Kern and collided headlong into them. As arms and legs flailed in all directions, he received a Kernish boot where it hurt most. While Melkaz lay on the ground clutching his heritage, the Kern managed to untangle themselves and find their feet.

Ah tis as I suspected,” said a Kernish voice, “who but a son of men would be making haste on such a noble day.”

The rest of the group nodded their agreement as they peered down at Melkaz.

Aye,” groaned Melkaz, still in quite some discomfort. “It is indeed a good day, and I regret interrupting your enjoyment of it. I also trust none of you is as I am now.”

Satisfied with his apology, the leader of the group (Methiyal) replied with a chuckle, “Indeed, the day is ours again, and none require the services of a salve save yourself.” Reaching into his bag, he produced a small package of Kernish ointment, wrapped in bright green leaf.

Taking it from Methiyal’s hand (for to refuse a gift would be unthinkable), Melkaz thanked him.

Tis a pleasure indeed,” replied Methiyal, grinning, “though I trust you will agree that its application is not best served by a Kernish hand.”

Melkaz managed a small smile.

Pointing to a large Awat tree, Methiyal invited him to enjoy its shade, and then he and the other Kern rested under its branches, allowing Melkaz, some privacy for the task at hand.

Kernish salve was legendary throughout the worlds, healing in seconds what would normally take days. Once Melkaz’s discomfort was relieved by its liberal application, he strolled over to join the Kern.

Melkaz was eager to be on his way, but to rush off without exchanging pleasantries would be the height of bad manners. Not wanting to alert the Kern, he forced himself to rest and pass the time of day in polite conversation.

The tree was laden with ripe awats and the Kern were busily enjoying the fruits’ sticky sweetness. Melkaz sat waiting for them to finish,to interrupt them while they ate would be the height of bad manners.

While they sucked and smacked their lips (the sound of a group of Kern eating is quite a noisy affair), the cogs of Melkaz’s brain were slowly turning. ‘Perhaps,’ he thought, ‘I can turn this interruption to my advantage.’

Finally, Methiyal finished his fruit, and after wiping his hands on the grass turned to Melkaz. “I trust the salve has restored you to your former self!”

It has indeed, and I am grateful for it.”

Tis nothing, I am glad to be of service. Your haste suggests you have a weighty matter to attend to?”

Indeed I find it very pressing.”

May I enquire what the matter is, as perhaps we could be of some assistance!”

Your enquiry is most welcome. I am a scholar of the Book of Woade and for its sake have I made my journey.

At the mention of the Book of Woade, he instantly had their undivided attention, as he well knew he would.

Well now that is indeed a noble cause, and I begin to understand your desire for speed. Would you honour us with the teaching that has brought you thus far?”

Indeed I would love nothing more. My study of late has been in regard to the chapter of beginnings, with which I am sure you are most familiar.”

A most worthwhile chapter, we know it well.”

Then no doubt you have wondered, as have I, where God stood when He furnished the worlds with all who now dwell on them!”

Ah, now there is a question worthy of many pleasing hours. But alas I fear its answer will forever be hidden with God.”

Long thought I that it would remain so, but I do believe the Book of Woade holds the key, and that key is within our grasp.”

Methiyal and the other Kern were impressed and allowed themselves several minutes to enjoy the anticipation of Melkaz’s revelation which also showed the respect such a weighty matter deserved.

Turning to Melkaz, Methiyal invited the conversation with a question“Are you certain as to its location?”

Melkaz nodded his head. “Almost, but to be completely sure I must see with my eyes that of which the Book of Woade only hints at.”

Methiyal stroked his beard, looking somewhat puzzled. “Then how is it that your journey has brought you to us? Does not the Book of Woade plainly state that God stood in the World of men, not that of the Kern when He furnished the worlds with all the living?”

Of that we are confident,” replied Melkaz.

Then to what purpose do have we owe the pleasure of your visit?”

Well my friend, the task at hand cannot be completed without the assistance of the Kern, so I have come to seek the wisdom and aid of the Kernish Elders.”

Looking pleased, Methiyal placed his hand on Melkaz’s arm. “As a fellow admirer of the book, and one of the 70 elders, I may well be able to shorten your journey. What is it that you seek from us?”

Melkaz’s heart was pounding; things were progressing much faster than he dared hope. “From my study of the Book, it is my contention that to see where God once stood, we must view it as God now sees it, and this is beyond the means of the sons of men.”

Methiyal understood. “So it is the services of a Shrike that you seek!”

Indeed my friend, for I can think of no other way!”

Then it is done,” replied Methiyal, “We shall return to the Gnarl, and you shall have your Shrike.”

Melkaz beamed, barely able to contain his excitement. As they rose to make their journey to the Stovall Gnarl, he experienced a new and unpleasant feeling. Whiles he conversed with the excited Kern, it gnawed away at his insides, distracting him and dulling the excitement of his victory.

The feeling was guilt.

The plain of Alcor is vast and apart from the occasional tree, featureless. The grass on the prairie, however, is lush and sweet and is watered by heavy dew that falls each night. The lush green carpet supports vast herds of animals, yet despite their enormous numbers, the plain can at times seem devoid of life due to its greats size.

An hour into their journey, they encountered a herd of several thousand Karsing, grazing contentedly on the lush grass of the plain. The Karsing are quite an odd-looking animal. They are roughly the size of a large horse, but there the similarity ends. Their bodies are covered with long black hair that looks like polished glass and is completely waterproof. The Kern call a large group of a thousand or more, a sea of Karsing, as on a bright day the reflected light from their coats does indeed appear to ripple and shine like a huge inland sea.

The Karsing have rear legs out of all proportion to their much smaller front ones. When they graze, they tend to ignore their front legs, waddling like a duck as they browse the tips of the long grass, only using their front legs if the grass happens to be short or they are eating wind-fallen fruit. If they are disturbed or run for sheer pleasure (as often they are want to do), they are a sight to behold. Tucking their front legs close to their chests, they rise up on their rear legs and bound along with enormous strides which allow them to attain tremendous speed. The sound they make as they run is like thunder and echoes throughout the plains for many leagues.

Once every five years when the sun is low in the sky, they gather in massive groups and shed their coats. During this time, the days are mild but warm, so their lack of a coat offers no adversity. But the nights can be cold, so to combat its chill they sit side by side at night, forming a massive sea of living flesh that extends for many leagues.

Once their coat has regrown and they have moved on, the Kern come and gather the shed fibre. This they weave into vests and jackets that are completely water repellent and very warm. These they trade with the tribe of the Telferion who live in the Plagerion swamps to North, which suffers greatly from the rain.

Arriving at the sea of Karsing, the Kern to Melkaz’s great annoyance began to walk around the Karsing instead of in a direct line toward the village.

Surely it would be more expedient for us to walk through their midst,” he said, trying to hide his frustration.

Methiyal looked at him, a quizzical expression on his face.

But my friend, we are few and they are many, surely a disruption to the few is far better than that of the many?”

But this will delay our arrival by many hours; indeed we won’t make the Gnarl of Stovall by nightfall.”

Yes indeed this is so,” replied Methiyal, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly, “but the nights are warm, and we have food.”

Seeing the slight change in Methiyal’s expression, Melkaz knew that to argue with his Kernish logic might cause his devious plans to unravel.

Indeed you are right,” he said, placing his hand on the Kern’s shoulder. “It will also extend the pleasure of your company.”

Methiyal looked at him fondly, “Aye my friend, as you add to ours.”

As they skirted around the herd, the guilty feeling that had been plaguing Melkaz was replaced with a new, much stronger one – frustration.

The diversion around the Karsing had ended up adding several hours to their trip, and they only made it to the forest edge before dark. Soon after arriving, a fire was lit, and a large copper pot of tea brewed. As they drank tea and ate supper (Melkaz discretely poured his out – Kernish tea is an acquired taste), the little group excitedly discussed the day’s events. Melkaz, who was not feeling very talkative, staredsullenly into the fire, dreaming of the day he would finally step into paradise.

As the Kern were about to turn in for the night, a large wolf-like creature (called a Sombal) appeared, looking expectantly at the fire. Shuffling aside, they made room for her. Stretching out in front of the fire, she yawned contentedly and promptly fell asleep.

Kern have never been known to turn their backs on a windfall and were soon snuggled up in the luxuriant warmth of the Sombal’s coat.

Melkaz was up well before daybreak, having had a terrible night’s sleep. Driven away from the fire by the Kerns’ ear-shattering snoring, the cold night and hard ground had left him tired and ill-tempered.

The Kern woke in good moods (as they always did), and had enjoyed a comfortable night and had slept well into the morning. By the time they had eaten a leisurely breakfast and brewed yet another pot of tea, Melkaz was chafing at the bit to get away. To his horror both Shaylan and Zebedeel decided it would be a good idea to go and gather some toadstools for the Sombal, who was still stretched out in front of the ashes of the fire. By the time they returned from their foraging trip, it was nearly midday, and to make matters worse the sombal had left. It didn’t bother Shaylan or Zebedeel; they left the assorted toadstools in a pile, just in case the sombal returned later.

Methiyal was about to suggest they brew another pot of tea, but decided against it when he saw the haunted expression on Melkaz’s face. Taking pity on him, they packed and resumed their journey.

The Gnarl of the Stovall Kern is situated in a densely vegetated part of the forest. No tracks or paths lead to it, so unless you have a guide, your chances of finding it are very remote. If you did try to find it by blundering your way through the forest, you would almost certainly encounter a particularly embarrassing plant called the stripit vine.

The stripit is an innocent looking black vine that is about as thick as a Kern’s thumb and grows up to 50 or more paces long. If however, you brush against it, you will discover that it is not quite as innocent as it appears. The stripit has an amazing ability to attach itself to any article of clothing that brushes against it. Once attached, it is impossible to pull free without either removing the snarled article of clothing or tearing a piece from it. Amazingly, bare skin is immune to its clutches. Why this is, no one really knows.

In his desperation to get on the move, Melkaz had neglected one of the more basic requirements of life. Now that things were going his way, he began to relax, as did his bladder. Not wanting to give the Kern an excuse to stop and brew yet another pot of tea, Melkaz shot into the undergrowth to have a quick wee. Eager to relieve his aching bladder, he failed to notice the large number of stripit vines that twisted their way through the undergrowth. Frantically trying to get his pants down he backed into a particularly tenacious vine which grasped his pants in its stubborn clutches. With his bladder bursting, he abandoned his pants and was soon sighing with relief, but alas, despite his relieved bladder his problems were not over; they had only just begun. Seizing his pants, he pulled for all he was worth, which resulted in him falling backward into yet another vine, tearing his pants in half. Unable to stand (because the vine now had hold of his shirt), he had to unbutton it and wriggle and twist until he was free from its confines. Melkaz was now stark naked and furious. Screaming abuse at the vine, he grabbed his shirt and promptly tore a sleeve off.

Things got worse. Hearing the terrible commotion, Methiyal, and his friends backtracked to investigate, to be greeted with the sight of a very naked Melkaz screaming abuse at a vine. Not knowing exactly what to do, Shaylan politely coughed, alerting Melkaz to their presence. He turned, clad only in his birthday suit. The Kern were lost for words and amazed at such peculiar behavior. Muttering under his breath, a very red-faced Melkaz snatched up the tattered remains of his clothing and walked back to where he had left his pack.

Fortuitously for Melkaz (and the Kern) he had a knee-length jacket in his pack, which he wore for the rest of the trip. Soon they were underway again, but Methiyal and the others were quite subdued as they walked, each of them troubled by Melkaz’s violent outburst. In the untroubled world, they lived in, such bad behavior was unknown.

The rest of their trip was uneventful, and they arrived at the Gnarlish tree just before nightfall. Their arrival was met with much excitement, as the Kern were not often visited by the sons of men.In Melkaz’s honor, they held a feast.

The Kern need very little reason to hold a celebration and were always hopeful of finding an excuse to have one. Just recently, Tweenkle Littenbee found a small digging stick she thought she had lost when digging for darnals (darnals are a truffle-like fungus that tastes like aaged cheddar). When she told her friends she had found the digging stick, they decided to hold a feast to celebrate the occasion. The feast lasted for over a week and was so successful they decided to have another  in its honor.

As Methiyal and the others recounted their adventures, large platters laden with Kernish delicacies appeared, and soon the Gnarlish hall was filled with delicious aromas. Even Melkaz rediscovered his appetite and momentarily forgot the Tear in the Sky, devouring tasty morsel after tasty morsel.

The highlight of every Kernish feast is a drink called spring wine. Spring wine is famous throughout the worlds and is one of the Kerns’ major items of trade. Unlike the wine of the sons of men, it does not contain alcohol, nor does it leave you with a sore head in the morning. The greatest lovers of spring wine are the Telferion of the Plagerion swamps;many of their poems (the Telferion are famous for their poetry) contain a reference to Kernish spring wine.

The Plagerion swamp, though greatly loved by the Telferion, can at times be very bleak; as it is not uncommon for it to rain nonstop for several weeks. The Telferion, however, don’t mind the rain as the worse the weather, the better their poetry. In fact, the most famous poem ever written (An Ode to Wet Feet, by Lement Samp) was penned during the longest period of rain they had ever known.

The reason the Telferion (and everyone who has ever tasted it) loves spring wine is that it does indeed taste exactly like spring. Not only can you taste spring, but you can smell, hear and even see it. To the Telferion there is nothing grander than to toast a poem inspired by several weeks of inclement weather with a glass of spring wine.

That night as the Kernish folk celebrated, Melkaz sulked in a dark corner of the hall, irritated by their incessant cheerfulness and the terrible draft that wafted up through his overcoat. Appetite satiated, his mind was again fully occupied with the Tear in the Sky. All he wanted to do was get out of this wretched place and make his way to paradise. Melkaz however he was completely reliant on the Kern to get him there, so he had to endure the Kern and their insufferable cheerfulness until they were ready. He just hoped that his outburst in the forest hadn’t made Methiyal change his mind about providing him with a Shrike.

Melkaz’s behaviour puzzled had unsettled Methiyal. Unsure exactly what to do, he consulted two old friends, telling them of Melkaz’s odd demeanour and his request for a Shrike. The elders listened intently to him, before allowing themselves the privilege of mulling over his words.

They sat quietly, enjoying the silence as their thoughts churned over the subject of Melkaz. Reluctantly, Selial broke the silence.

“Are you confident that you promised him a Shrike?”

“Aye, of that I am sure.”

“It would seem then that there is only one thing to be done.”

Methiyal nodded. ”I suppose I must, it would not be right to do otherwise.”

They peered over at Melkaz, who was plainly not enjoying the party.

Selial turned to Methiyal, absently stroking his chin. “He does act in an astonishing way, even for a son of men.”

“Aye, but as you rightly said, he has my word as a Kern.”

“Yes,” continued Selial, a smile forming on his wrinkled face.”and it would be a fine thing to discover the footprints of God.”

“That it would,” replied Methiyal, returning the smile.

“So the matter is settled.”

“It is settled,” chorused his friends.

“I think some spring wine would be order!” said Selial rubbing his hands expectantly.

And with that, they rejoined the party.

Melkaz’s ill humour became worse as the night wore on, and he was afraid he might display his lack of patience. Several Kern had approached him, eager to discuss the book of Woade and the footprints of God. Feigning tiredness he sent them on their way.

Sick of their pestering he pretended to sleep, so the Kern would leave him alone and with a bit of luck take the hint, and go to bed. They covered him with a blanket and talked well into the early morning.

Melkaz only managed to grab a couple of hours of sleep before waking. Casting off his blanket, he strolled outside, eager to find Methiyal and persuade him to get their trip underway. But the Kern were tucked away in their nooks and crannies, none of them rose until late in the afternoon, by which time Melkaz was on the verge of exploding.

He found Methiyal  under a tree carving the shell of a large nut.

“I hope you enjoyed yourself last night,” said Melkaz with a forced smile.

“Aye, indeed it was a grand night, I trust you found it pleasing.”

“Yes, yes it was amazing,” Melkaz replied, with an obvious lack of sincerity.

Methiyal raised an eyebrow. “Is something on your mind?”

“Well I suppose it is, I am eager to get our journey started, do you know when might will be?”

“Could be today, or tomorrow or even next week, it depends.”

“Depends on what?” Melkaz snapped.

Methiyal closed his penknife, placing it in his pocket along with the shell. “Well, it depends on the Shrike.”

“What do you mean it depends on the Shrike?”

“Well, she may be busy, or sleepy, or perhaps she just doesn’t feel like coming just now.”

“But can’t you force her to to come?”

Methiyal had a mystified expression on his face. “Why would I want  to do such a thing?”

“So we can get going, surely you can make her come.”

Methiyal was now genuinely bewildered. “Well, I can whistle again, and she will come. Why does she need to come straight away?”

“BECAUSE IT’S URGENT!” Screamed Melkaz, little bubbles of spittle forming on his lips.

“What does this word ‘urgent’ mean?” (No such word existed in the Kernish vocabulary).

“It means right now!” screamed Melkaz, his face bright crimson.

Methiyal was baffled by Melkaz’s outburst. His misgivings about taking him on the Shrike grew. Yet he had made a promise, so had no other choice but to keep it. “Well, if it will put you at ease, I will call her again.”

Pursing his lips, he whistled shrilly and then resumed carving. As he whittled, Melkaz paced, his eyes constantly turned skyward.

As the minutes turned to hours, Melkaz’s irritation grew into despair.

Just before dark, he slumped down beside a tree and sobbed.

Methiyal ceased carving, eager to ease Melkaz’s misery, but having no idea what to say.

 Melkaz lifted his head, his eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” he sobbed, “I‘m so very sorry.”

“Oh come now Melkaz, you are among friends, there’s no need to be upset.” Methiyal’s heart was filled with compassion.

“No, I have not treated you well; I don’t know what it is that possesses me to act so poorly.”

“Come,” said Methiyal rising to his feet, “enjoy some spring wine with me, and all will be well again.”

Melkaz managed a  genuine smile. “Aye, that is indeed what I need.”

As the two of them walked to the hall, Melkaz felt the fog lift from his mind. ‘I need to tell Methiyal all I have seen,’ he thought. ‘It is wrong of me to hide it from him.’

“There are some things I need to discuss with you Methiyal.”

“Then let us do so with some tasty food and a cup.”

Seconds, before they reached the Gnarlish tree, a piercing cry rent the air as a Shrike, swooped overhead, filling the evening sky with light. After it landed in the Karapoti tree, Methiyal gently placed his hand on Melkaz’s leg. “Let us delay the spring wine just, for now, it would be wrong not to greet her.”

They walked over to the tree, where the Shrike was glowing in all its dazzling glory. Melkaz couldn’t help but be reminded of the wonders of the Tear in the Sky. ‘Perhaps it would be best to speak of these things later,’ he thought. ‘Yes, I think I’ll tell him once I have shown him the Tear.’

After complimenting the Shrike, they went back to the hall and were soon enjoying some tasty food.

The hall that night was nearly empty, as many of the Kern, had retired earlier than usual, due to the late night before. Most of the baskets of Shrike scales had been put away, so the light was very subdued and peaceful.

The tables were scrubbed clean using water infused with the petals of various flowers. Combined with the scent of the rich dark wood it gave off a marvellous scent and  Melkaz began to appreciate what a special place the hall was.

While they ate quietly together, a battle raged inside Melkaz’s head. Part of him longed to return to the way things were before he had seen the Tear.Yet he also desperately wanted to know the treasures that lay beyond, it and couldn’t understand why the Book of Woade would speak ill of the amazing wonders he had seen and heard. Melkaz’s thoughts were interrupted by Methiyal, who signalled he had finished his meal with a large satisfied burp.

“Ahhh,” he sighed, contentedly clutching his belly. “That was an excellent meal, but you’ve hardly touched yours Melkaz.”Concern furrowed his eyebrows.

“Oh, I was busy thinking, and besides I’m not overly hungry.”

“Feel free to share your thoughts friend, the night is still young, and my ears are fresh.”

What I think what I need is a good night’s sleep,” said Melkaz as he rose from the table, yawning.

“Yes indeed that is a worthy idea, we have a big day ahead of us; it will do us the worlds of good.

As they headed their separate ways, Methiyal couldn’t help but smile. Crawling into his comfortable little nook, he quietly said to himself, “He is a noble man, twas nothing.”

Curling up in his nice warm bed, he was soon fast asleep.

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