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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Low Fantasy: Pike's Quest by @kj_bennett (excerpt)


Pike's Quest

By K J Bennett




Synopsis


In a future where horses are revered as gifts of the gods, and sheep and hounds are the beasts of burden, ancient magicks have been rediscovered. But there are those who wish to uncover the technology of the past and take control of the world for their own evil ends. Now, more than ever, the world needs a hero.

In the hamlet of Ooze, a fish-faced, flaky-skinned youth commences a quest: to win the heart of the fair maiden at the Pit of Zidor, and to release Moorlock the Warlock from captivity. Accompanied by a garrulous sparrow and a belligerent horse, Pike is captured and employed by the lisping Lord Nairey du Well and then pursued by the deadly huntress, Scarlet Deadnight.

Excerpt


Chapter 1

The Fertility Stone of Ooze
The Longest Day – Summer 902 ND

Grey and jagged, and tinged with the orange glow of the low morning sun, it stood no more than three adult feet high. It was hardly impressive, but the villagers believed it had been the source of many a pregnancy in the tiny hamlet of Ooze.

It was just after dawn when the small figure cautiously trod the path, which was no more than soil compressed by the feet of thousands. He could see its pointed top above the low-lying mist of a humid summer morn, and he wondered why he had been sent there. His feet sliced through the vapour: he looked back over his shoulder, seeing that it curled in behind him, blocking his view of the trail.

The boy reached his destination and stood next to the stone in anticipation. Forty smaller slabs, flat and round, formed a perfect circle, with the fertility stone at its centre. The radius was thirty adult feet. As the mist swirled, he could just make out the shape of the circle, but not the individual stones. It was as if they sent out invisible blades to cut their boundary through the blur. A dense forest surrounded the clearing.

Apprehensively, the boy draped a dirty sack over the stone and gingerly placed his backside upon it.

Two hours passed, and things were getting uncomfortable. He stood, doubled the sack, and draped it over the stone once more. Another hour passed: he folded the sack over again to create an even thicker barrier against the sharp edges. When the sun was at its highest, and sweat beaded on the boy’s forehead, dripping into his eyes over his not-yet-bushy-enough eyebrows, a dark figure emerged from the woods, shuffling towards him along the well-trodden path.

It was an elderly man with a long, dark-grey beard and a pronounced stoop. A floppy, pointed hat sat on his head. Roughly cut hair in straggles and clumps jutted out from under it. His face was grizzled and weather-beaten and caked with grime. He supported himself with a gnarled and knotted length of wood, which had the appearance of having been hewn directly from a tree, bark and all. It was the height of a fully grown man, standing a good child’s foot taller than its stooped keeper. He looked inquisitively at the boy on the stone and stopped close by.

“You’re sitting on the fertility stone,” he said.

“I know.”

“Why?”

“Mother said I’d need all the help I could get for later life. I don’t know what she meant. It’s a good job I brought this sack.” He wriggled his bum to ease the pressure.

The old man’s jaw dropped, displaying unusually white teeth, like the polished whalebone ornaments sold by passing traders. The sight of them belied his otherwise vagrant-like appearance.

“How old are you, boy?”

“I am in my seventh year. Today is my birthday. It hasn’t been much fun, so far.” The scruffy old man looked shocked. “Can you really be the one? Your seventh year, eh? And are you the seventh son of a seventh son?”

“I think I am,” replied the boy. “I’ve got lots of brothers and many uncles. I don’t know what you’re getting at, though.”

“Oh.”

“Why ‘oh’? And why are your teeth so white?”

“I am Quentin Moorlock, the County Warlock – and that should answer your question about my teeth. I said ‘oh’ because there is a problem, an insurmountable one.”

“What’s the problem? And what does insum ... insir ... insmontacle mean?”

Moorlock the Warlock pushed down on his staff and un-stooped himself, standing at even height with it. “It’s a problem, my lad, because it’s noon on the longest day, and you are sitting on that stone. That gives you a role that in later life you must fulfil. It’s insurmountable – yes, that’s the correct way to say it: in-sur-mount-able – because normally in these situations we expect our champions to be of higher pedigree and, dare I say, a little less fishy.”

The boy glared at the old man, his mouth opening and closing. A sharp lump blocked his throat, stopping his words from forming. He scratched his head, causing flakes of dry skin to fall onto his sackcloth clothing, and managed to say, “You think I’m fishy?”

“Let’s put it this way: if ever modern scholars needed proof positive that all life originated from the ocean, then that proof sits before me. On a stone. The fertility stone. At noon. On midsummer’s day. Look at the way your mouth opens and closes, like a fish: and that skin condition – fish scales, it looks to be. So, what’s your name, my pseudo-aquatic friend?”

“Pike”, he sobbed. But you’re not my friend and I don’t know what sue dough means,” “Ha! This gets better and better. Pike: fish by name, fish by nature. This can’t possibly work.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to do it, anyway,” said Pike, his tears forming. “And I’m not fishy.”

“Yes you are. But, fish or no fish, you must follow your destiny. Meet me back here in the year of your sixteenth birthday, same time, same stone. And don’t forget to moisturise.”

He turned to leave, but then paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Don’t take it to heart, young man, I’m sure that when you get home, your mother will console you. Pike, she’ll say, of course you don’t look fishy.”

Pike huffed, sliding off the stone and grabbing his old sack. “She don’t call me Pike; she calls me Tiddler, ’cos I’m little.”

With a hoot of laughter, Moorlock the Warlock walked away.

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