A Time to Every Purpose

by Carter Nipper
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I felt like a fraud as I approached Haven in my robes of blue trimmed in silver, a child playing dress-up. The scabbard holding my sword sought to trip me with every step, my staff resolved to leap from my sweat-slick hand. Could I, so fresh from the Academy, bear the weight of responsibility the people of this town expected of me? Even though my graduation certified me as a Magician, I knew my knowledge was only enough to keep me from being dangerous. The task that faced me here went far beyond that.

Old Granny Renold waited for me in the square. “Hail, Darien. Well met.” She raised her arms in greeting.

I stopped in front of her and returned her salute. “Hail, Grandmother. Well met.”

She was not really my Grandmother, but everyone called her Granny, which pleased her.

“Let’s sit for a while, Darien. There’s much we have to talk about.”

With the formalities done, we sat on an old wooden bench at the edge of the square. Paint flaked off under my fingers. That disturbed me. The people of Haven had always been proud of keeping the town neat and clean. The chance to rest was welcome, nonetheless. Many days hard travel lay behind me, and I had pushed myself to get home quickly. Even sitting in the hot afternoon sun was a relief.

“How did you know when to meet me, Granny?”

She cackled her old woman’s laugh. “I didn’t. For two weeks, I’ve come to the square every day to wait. I knew you’d be here soon.”

“I came as fast as I could. Academy students can’t leave until their training is complete.” I scuffled my foot a little and watched the dust swirl away on the breeze.

“Yes, we know, and we understand. One thing we don’t need is a bunch of half-trained Magicians running around getting into trouble.”

We both laughed at that, though I doubted she knew just how little confidence I had in my knowledge and abilities.

“Your message was very brief. How many besides my parents and Astrid?”

“Many more. Many, many more. They are waiting for you.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“They came from the desert, like a sandstorm. We don’t know who they were, maybe just a band of wandering marauders. They swept in and looted, raped, and killed. They took everything they could carry and rode away.”

Her voice quivered, and I became aware of her extreme age. No one knew how old Granny was, and no one dared ask. She had assisted at Old Ander’s birth, and he looked back on seventy summers. As far as I was concerned, she had always been old, but the extremity of her age had never registered until just then.

She looked up. Her eyes, a pale blue touched by silver, had seen a lot over her years and still saw much more than anyone else in the village. Her ancient hand rested on mine. It felt like twigs and dry leaves.

“Not all the wounded died, my son.”

“Darien, it is you! We’ve been waiting! Come quickly, she is ready! You can be wed this afternoon! Come, come!”

The shrill voice cracked the still air into shards and dust. I turned to see Linsel, Astrid’s mother, running toward us. I glanced at Granny Renold, saw her downcast eyes and the faint shake of her head.

“Come, Darien, come! She’s waiting!”

Linsel’s laughter was high and wild, and my heart broke for her. Her face was a mask, a rictus. Sorrow and pain pulled her mouth into an evil caricature of a smile. Her eyes stared and jumped; what they saw I dared not consider. Granny took her hand and drew her away.

“Come, Linsel, we must see about the arrangements.”

“The arrangements! We have to hurry! It’s almost time! Darien! Come soon! We must hurry!”

Granny’s voice was a soothing murmur as they moved away, and Linsel became calmer under the wise woman’s influence. Suddenly a tired old man of twenty summers, I leaned on my staff and turned my steps toward my childhood home.

The bones in my legs were as soft as oiled leather as I approached the door. It told its own story, sagging tiredly in the frame, it’s latch broken, hinges bent. The plaster covering the adobe of the wall of the small house showed scars and chips that I had not seen before. The door almost fell off in my hand as I opened it onto a scene of chaos and destruction. Shards of my father’s pottery lay scattered and heaped around the room. Dark stains and spatters told their own hideous story. My grief grew fresh again, as did my anger. I the door closed behind me as I left.

I turned away and trudged toward the solitary building outside of town. I felt many eyes watching my progress, but only my shuffling feet dared disturb the silence that filled the air.

#

The bone house stood a lonely vigil. After the villagers returned flesh and organs to nourish the ground that had nourished them in life, the bones of the dead abided in their dusty home until they could be buried with the respect they deserved. Sometimes family had to be summoned from far away. Sometimes no Magician was available to perform the appropriate rites, and the bones waited for months or even years. The bones could wait; they had the patience of eternity.

Sneaking close to the bone house at night, even peaking inside, provided Haven’s children with hours of fascination and fear. My friends and I had embarked on our explorations of the mystery of death that way, just as countless generations had before us. I now approached the lonely house of the dead with a much different feeling.

The power radiating from that place raised all the hair on my body on end as I entered and paused to let my eyes adjust. When I saw the reality inside, I gasped and fell to my knees. I had expected horror, but the reality overwhelmed me. Stacks of pallets filled the building from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. Narrow passages between the stacks allowed access to the bones resting there. I tried and failed to imagine the feelings of those who had performed that horrid duty. I counted fifty-three pallets, more than a third of the population of the Haven I had left five years before.

The energy in their bones pounded on me like waves on a beach and threatened to force my mind from its moorings. I fumbled in my travel bag and pulled out a talisman charged with a spell of protection, a student project, and used it to draw a space around me. The tide receded, and I breathed freely again.

Even without the identifying tags, I knew my parents when I saw them. Their auras resonated in my soul. I prayed for their peace, and my tears etched bitter runes on my cheeks. I also prayed for my own peace and strength for the task ahead. I took my father’s frail, bony hand in mine, and the vision took me.

#

Angry shouts and the clatter of swords filled the air. First, the banging at the door, then a crash as it gave way. Shouting men filled the small room. I watched, a helpless spectator, as my father raged and fought a hopeless battle, armed only with pottery against swords and spears. His dying eyes watched my mother slide down the wall, her steaming, bloody secrets spilling from her belly to puddle on the freshly-swept dirt floor, a fatal augury in the afternoon sun. Her disbelieving eyes sought his, and they died helpless and alone.

#

Who were they? What drew them here? None of their dead lay here. What chance did my people have against hard, well-armed, and vicious men like that? The wonder was that so many had lived.

I let go of the fingers that had once shaped beauty from the raw earth and sank to my knees. I knelt in the dust and darkness for a long, lonely time, letting grief claim its time, but responsibilities also demand their due, and I rose, finally, and set to work.

From each body, I claimed a prize, here a hand, there a rib. From my beloved Astrid, I took the wide bones that had once cradled a womb–now forever empty–from Eugen, the jawbone that had once regaled us all with stories full of laughter and wonder. Each gave a special piece, and my travel bag bulged at the end with a complete skeleton that held the heart and the story of Haven.

Darkness had fallen when I emerged, and I returned to my former home. Rage and grief wrestled in my heart, grunting and straining to gain an advantage, neither giving an inch. Through the long night, I saw again and again the scene of my parents’ deaths replayed. Again and again, I watched them die, helpless to assist them. In the silent hours before dawn, as sleep denied me entrance, I turned my thoughts toward immediate need.

#

I emerged into the next day with a cold, crystalline need for revenge in my heart. My efforts in the darkness had borne fruit, and I now held the raiders auras in my heart. Vengeance would not be long delayed. I moved slowly and leaned on my staff. Weariness lay on me like a wet wool blanket. Though lack of sleep played its part in my fatigue, most of it arose from the magic that enabled me to locate the marauders. Even such small magic as that carried a price, and Magicians paid with the only coin they possessed, life. In one night, I aged at least a month, and the drain weighed me down.

Dawn dressed the Eastern sky in sheer satins of pearl and rose as I strolled beside the river. The brown water flowed wearily. It had traveled from the snow-capped peaks far to the West and now wandered aimlessly toward senility here at the edge of the desert. Not far beyond of Haven, it fell into dark caverns deep in the womb of the Earth.

The morning breeze caressed my face, a lover’s touch. My hand expected to feel Astrid’s fingers entwined in mine, her body close and warm against my side, memories of so many walks like this, but only air accompanied me now.

I turned away from the river. The first puffs of smoke rose from the smithy’s chimney. Townspeople opened their doors and window shutters in hopes of catching any stray breeze that happened by. As I watched the town wake to the new day, I stood for a few timeless moments feeling my childhood in my heart and wishing for a return to a simpler time.

#

I walked through the streets of the town that day with the springtime air warm and fresh around me. Signs of battle abounded, scars on the walls, grayed slash marks across wooden doors, a roofless hulk still scorched and stinking of ash, with so little rain to cleanse its wounds.

In a doorway, a little girl played at a game that I could not see. Maybe she only scratched in the dust. When she looked at me, her eyes were dark and deep, old with knowledge that no ten-year-old should ever have to carry. I felt her father’s arms ache to hold his Palline one last time, to soothe her pain and return her childhood to her, and I knew his pain as my own.

At the smithy, I looked into a scene lit by bloody fires and filled with clanging and clatter. Harald, the smith caught sight of me and his giant body froze in the timeless instant before hammerfall. Then he recognized me and smiled a smile that never reached eyes as watchful as a hawk’s. He was unbalanced and awkward, and it took me a moment to realize that he held the hammer in his left hand, for his right sleeve sagged empty. At his side, his wife, Josine, danced in time with his movements, working tongs and other tools for him, and the scars and burns on her arms and face told a story of a love and determination too deep for words.

All through that day, I walked and I saw and I counted the wounds of body and heart and soul that lay upon this place and the people I loved. I spoke to Oryon, he of the echoing laugh, whose perpetual smile and sparkling eyes had turned to sorrow and tears. I heard of Nechina, who gave herself to the desert, of Yamary, who walked into the river and lay down, letting the slow current bear her to her sepulcher deep inside the Earth. I learned about Inaro, who spent days trapping scorpions, then lay among them and died in agony, screaming the names of the children he could not save from pain and violent death. Others, likewise, had followed similar paths: Benna, Unan, Catalin, Aitana, Medur. Everyone I met had a story, always told with eyes ever-moving, seeking any hint of danger that they now knew might lurk anywhere.

I sat awake deep into that night, pondering. In my mind, I heard the echo of a voice from the recent past, that of Mikel, the Academy’s Sergeant-At-Arms: “See to the wounded, the dead will see to themselves for a time.”

#

The Sun climbed the sky, steadily, inevitably rising over our heads. Soon the time would be upon us. When the Sun reached the peak of the sky, the height of its power over the Earth, I must decide; I must act. My sword rested easily in my right hand, deadly as a serpent, ready to strike. My staff was ready in my left hand. Sword or staff, death or life, such was my choice. I shifted uncomfortably and blew a drop of sweat off my lips.

All the residents of Haven surrounded the village square, in a midday cauldron of heat and dust. I stood in the center. Sweat soaked our clothes and burned our eyes. This was traditionally the time of quiet and rest, short naps and cool drinks to refresh us after a morning’s work, to ready us for the evening’s work yet to come, but we came together that day for a purpose much greater than the need for rest.

Around us lay the bones of our friends and neighbors, our parents, our children, our loved ones, our neighbors, carefully and reverently arranged at my direction. The bones radiated power–the power of lives suddenly cut short, the power of loves cruelly wrenched away, the power of righteous anger at the injustice of their deaths. As a Magician, I felt their power. Sparks played between my fingers and crackled through my clothes with every movement.

Granny Renold watched me silently. She had not lived so many years and learned so much by being a fool. She knew more of healing than anyone else in my experience. She also held an equally deep knowledge of people. I watched for any sign, a nod, a wink, a shrug, anything. She watched with the eternal stillness of one already past her allotted years and gave nothing away. She knew my thoughts, but the decision remained mine and mine alone.

Over the past two days, I had discovered the hardness of the Magician’s life. In five years at the Academy I had learned much of theory and practice, but now I faced the real lessons, the difficult lessons of life. My decision and the power I wielded would affect this village and its people, my people, for generations.

The Sun rose to the zenith, and my shadow fled beneath my robe. The time had come. I must decide. I must act. As I raised my arms, I remembered the lesson that our teachers had drilled into us again and again, one of the basic disciplines of a Magician: “There is a season for everything and a time to every purpose.” A time for hope and a time for fear. A time for tears and a time for laughter. A time for vengeance. A time for healing. Determining the right timing made all the difference between beneficial magic and destructive magic. I had trained for that: to make the choice between the path of the most benefit and that of the least, to invoke and guide the powers of life and death down that chosen path.

Maybe some of them would understand. I knew Granny would. The people of Haven had placed themselves into my hands. They had given me, by default, the responsibility for their well-being. Hatred or healing. My decision. These people would take no revenge on their own, they were too settled and peaceful. Neither could they heal their own wounds. The damage ran too deep. They could only fester and rot from the inside out, shrivel and die in the heat of the sun. Revenge without healing would leave only empty, joyless husks.

I turned to face the South. With the tip of my staff, I traced the Sign of the Sun in the dust at my feet. Then, I raised my hands to the sky and spoke the Word that drew the power of fire. Golden radiance rose from the Sign and twined around my staff. Threads of flame outlined the runes hidden in the wood. The threads thickened into strings. The strings braided themselves into ropes. The ropes crawled down my arm and wove a net of brilliance around me.

Heat filled me as power surged within and about me, barely controlled. I felt as tall and wide as the sky, the God of Flame. The Heavens awaited my bidding.

I focused, concentrated my will. If this power gained control, catastrophe would erupt. Unbridled, the power of the Sun would burn everything within sight to ash and fuse the very sand into glass. Sweat burned my eyes and blurred my vision as I fought for control. Slowly, unwillingly, the golden power surrendered to my will.

Trembling, knowing that time ran short, as did my strength, I turned to the North, traced the Sign of the Earth at my feet and spoke another Word. This time, blue flame filled me with the strength of the mountains, the hardness of stone. My body grew cold and heavy as I gathered the power into myself.

From the East, I drew the power of Life, and it filled me with joy and love. My heart longed to burst open and encompass the whole world with the white fire of passion, and I fought almost to my last extremity to harness that power to my will.

As I turned to the West, I feared for the outcome of this work. The forces of Sun, Earth, and Life plunged and surged within and around me, wild stallions barely harnessed. Gold, blue, and white merged and twined, a kaleidoscope of confusion to my eyes. My mind reeled with conflicting pressures. Fire, stone, and passion pulled and shoved. My hands shook as if with palsy, and my sword and staff slipped and turned in my hands, live things seeking escape. Should either fall to the ground, we would all be doomed, and the powers would consume us. I focused my mind and body into stillness in preparation for the final reckoning. Trembling, I traced the Sign of Death in the dust and spoke the final Word.

Silence covered the sky. The sunlight dimmed, and the flames surrounding me paled to gray. From the bones, a shadow rose, a darkness blacker than night, a darkness as black as the soul of a murderer, as black as the depths of the grave. The shadow towered over the square and fear drove icicles into my heart. As the black power of Death rolled over me, I saw the lightning hidden within it.

Death fell upon me, and the world turned to dust. A cyclone formed around me, and lightning struck at me from the wall of wind. Again and again, sharp spikes struck into my mind, and with each spike came a voice. The voices burned my ears and echoed in my soul.

“Vengeance,” my father’s voice demanded. “Vengeance for your mother! Vengeance for you family! Justice!”

“It hurts!” My mother’s voice was a plaintive wail. “It burns! Make it stop!”

Astrid only screamed, but her scream told of violation, of pain, of hard hands holding her down, of filthy bodies battering her into unconsciousness, one after another after another. Even as she choked on her own vomit, even as she strangled and died, they continued their abuse. Her scream filled my soul with rage.

Roars of rage and screams of pain filled the air around me. They demanded red-hot vengeance, eternal damnation for their murderers, savagery and torture seven times as much as they had endured. The Shadow entered my heart, and my own need swelled into a furnace, a firestorm, a holocaust.

I fell to my knees, shaking as the mighty wind engulfed me. Gasping, I focused my single remaining thread of reason and forced my mouth to say the Words of Sun, Earth, and Life. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, warmth entered my fingertips, curled in the palms of my hands, sneaked up my arms. I held onto that warmth like a drowning man clinging to the neck of his savior. The strength of stone reclaimed my legs, and I stood, wobbling but upright. A spark of life flared in my heart, and timid hope crept back in.

With the last of my strength and a tiny reserve I never knew I possessed, I guided the allied powers as they tamed the darkness, formed it into the shapes of trees and shrubs, siphoned the energy of pain and death into the service of healing and life. With fading eyesight, I saw grass spring from lifeless dust, trees rose toward the cloudless sky, bushes burst into joyous bloom. In the center of the square, a fountain of clear, cold water burst from the heart of the Earth. The bones crumbled into dust, and I fell to my knees, rolled onto my side, and passed into darkness.

#

I woke in dappled shade to the sound of laughter and splashing water. A bird twittered somewhere above me. I sat up in a panic, certain I was late for class. The Headmaster would be furious.

My head rang as if I were inside the giant iron bell that called the Apprentices to dinner. I lay back gingerly. Someone laid a cool cloth on my brow and smoothed it with a gentle touch. When I could open my eyes, I saw Granny Renold leaning over me, smiling.

“We’re glad to have you back, Darien. Hungry?”

I had never been so ravenous in my life! I thought I could eat a tree. The bowl of soup she offered me looked insignificant, barely a crumb against my hunger. After three bowls and a loaf of soft, brown bread, I felt like I might survive.

I sat up again, carefully this time, and looked around. Trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers surrounded the once barren square. Strategically placed but unobtrusive openings allowed passage through the hedge-wall onto a lawn of grass. In the center, a wall of smooth gray stone enclosed a fountain surrounded by a pool of water. There was writing on the stone that I could not read. My eyesight had always been sharp, but the writing remained a blur. I shook my head, but still my eyes refused to focus.

As I looked around, more wonders appeared. Linsel sat on the grass watching young Jakobe play beside her. He was a child without a grandmother, she a mother who would never have a grandchild. They looked like a family. Linsel laughed as Jakobe tried to do a cartwheel but sprawled on his face. He looked up at her and laughed as well.

Ten-year-old Palline sat on Harald’s lap, and the giant smith held her in his one arm with that special gentleness very large, very strong men have. She played with a puzzle he had made from nails, trying to figure out how they came apart, and he beamed. Others sat, strolled, or played amidst the beauty.

“How long did I sleep?” My voice quivered.

“An entire day,” Granny said.

I knew that magic had accomplished a great work there, and wonder filled my heart. I wobbled to my feet and tottered into the sunshine.

Silence fell over the park, and everyone turned to stare. Granny Renold hurried to my side, and I leaned on her as we walked to the fountain. How odd that one so young and healthy should have to lean on one so old and fragile, but Granny was stronger than she looked, and I swallowed my pride.

The inscription on the side of the fountain contained names. Many names. I recognized them as I read. They were the victims of the raid. Their bones had raised this place, and it was consecrated to their memory. I sat on the wall of the fountain and looked over. A stranger’s face looked back, a face with snow on its temples and crows-feet at its eyes. The magic had claimed a great piece of my life, maybe as much as twenty-five years. I looked around and did not begrudge one minute of it.

When I looked up, villagers stood in a semi-circle a respectful distance away. Heaviness filled me as I stood and walked slowly toward the tree where I had lain. I stumbled a bit, at first, and Granny hurried over, but I waved her away and continued on my own.

The walk over and back loosened my limbs and I felt more like myself. I faced the crowd and searched their faces. These people were once my friends, my neighbors. Now, we gazed at each other in silence, an unbridgeable chasm gaping between us, unseen, but no less real for that. The sorrow I bore for that loss matched what I felt for my parents and lover. A terrible price, indeed, but one I gladly paid.

I held my staff in my left hand and rested my right on the travel-worn bag slung over my shoulder. Bones shifted slightly beneath my fingers, and their power tickled my fingertips. The fountain gave a musical background to my words as I spoke.

“Magic wrought a great wonder here yesterday. I make no claim of accomplishment here. I did not give you this gift. Rather, it was your friends, your neighbors, your families, your…”

I drew a deep breath and steadied the tremble in my voice. “Your lovers. This is their gift. Not through their deaths, but through their love.”

The smiles and tears around me showed their understanding.

“I, too, have a gift for you. A small token, but I offer it with all my heart.

“This place is no longer a Haven, its innocence and safety are shattered and scattered on the wind. With the power of the bones, with the power of love, you will have no more fear, and violence will come here no longer. As my gift, I offer you the name of Shiloh, for this is now truly a Place of Peace that will stand as a monument to those who perished and a testament to the strength of those who survived.

“It is true that there is a time to every purpose, and vengeance will always have its time. My sword rests sharp and hungry at my side. My path leads me to the doom of those who hurt us so grievously. In their own time and in their own ways, they will repay.

“I leave you today with sorrow for people and times lost, but joy for healing well begun. I leave, but I carry in my bag the soul of a time and a place and a people wronged. Their stories will not die.”

I turned away and walked quickly out of town. My tears healed the open wounds in my heart, but the scars I carry with me always.

3 Responses to “A Time to Every Purpose”

  1. [...] Part 2 By carter A Time to Every Purpose is up at A Fly in Amber. This entry is filed under Publications, Short Stories. You can follow [...]

  2. Pedre says:

    It’s fun. ATP Subscribe to the RCC perhaps

  3. amenodimeno says:

    That’s good man, keep it going.

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