The Page and the Palantir
One of the things that I found myself thinking about in the last year or so—and wondering why I hadn’t before—is the magical aspect to reading. I knew vaguely that there was a point when I began to read smoothly as a child, and it was no longer something I had to think about doing as I did it, and that it became very enjoyable.
But recently it occurred to me that there’s a much more strange quality to a good reader. You open a book, you begin to read, you begin to see things unfold before your eyes. It’s like watching your own movie. And yet you’re also seeing the page! If there’s a felicitous turn of phrase, you can stop and appreciate it, seeing it as words on a page, black type against white paper. Then the shadow play resumes, and you’re once again seeing a scene that isn’t there.
How is it possible to see the page and yet see something else simultaneously? If you think I have an answer, dear reader, I don’t. I have read recently that, when summoning a scene before the mind’s eye—someone asks you if there’s a gas station near the library in the next town over, and you’re trying to envision it from memory—your optic nerve stops sending images from the outside world to your consciousness, and passes them to a low-level monitor in your brain. Meanwhile the optic nerve is stimulated directly by the re-created scene. If there’s an emergency, you are shunted back to the “live feed” from the real world. There may be something like this at work in the back-and-forth between the page as physical object and the page that functions as one of the palantir, the seeing-stones that enable visions of far-distant events in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
In the selection below, taken from my new novel (pub date: September 18), Something Red, the boy Hob listens to a tale told by Molly, the Irish leader of a little troupe of travelers in thirteenth-century England. As she speaks, he begins to envision the scene as we readers do.
The action of Something Red takes place in a terribly bitter winter. However, the excerpt you are about to read is from a flashback chapter, recounting events of the summer before, when Hob was only twelve years old. The troupe, consisting of Molly, a woman in her early fifties, her lover Jack, a man in his late forties, Molly’s granddaughter Nemain, and the prentice boy Hob, is camped in a forest clearing on a night in late June.
Hob awoke alone in the middle-sized wagon, with an unsettled, incomplete feeling: a dream ruptured midway, a significant revelation interrupted. He rolled over on his back and looked out the wagon window. The wooden shutter was latched back against the wagon side and the leather shade was rolled high and tied in place, despite the unseasonably cool night. He craned his neck, trying to see the stars, but the overarching branches in full leaf hid much of the sky. Fresh air played over his face, and the scent of yarrow came and went in the interior of the wagon. The lost dream nagged at him, a task left undone.
A strong golden glow moved and danced on the wagon's ceiling. He hitched himself up on one elbow to see. The fire had been built up again, and there on the other side of the clearing sat Molly, gazing into the flames, her back against a thick-bodied grandfather of an oak and a fired-clay jug by her side. Her hair was unbound, and fell forward over one shoulder in a rich gray tumble, down past her hip.
Hob reached down a long linen shirt from its peg and pulled it over his head. He rolled off the chest and stumbled barefoot to the door. He was still half asleep. He swung down awkwardly from the wagon and made his way over to Molly.
He thought she might shoo him back to bed, but she said nothing. She wiped a film of perspiration from her round sun-reddened face with a wing of her shawl, though a cool night wind was moving through the broad leaves.
He stood next to her and she looked up and wordlessly patted the space beside her. She had spread a cloth between the bases of two large roots, and it was on this that she sat. He joined her, leaning back, the bark rough against his shoulderblades. Molly put her stout arm around his shoulders and drew him to her side, smoothing the fine black hair back from his forehead.
“Is it that you can't sleep, mo chroí?” she said dreamily.
“I was asleep, and then I was looking out, and. . . .”
Thunderous snores from Jack began to rattle through the clearing.
“Sure and there's not a creature sleeping within a league of that,” she said. “Well, that's all that's left of him this night, that snore.” She laughed a little to herself.
“I was dreaming, and it was, it was. . . . I wanted to know what it was.”
She turned a little and looked at him with more interest, although her eyes, blue as summer lakewater, were low-lidded and focused on him with some difficulty.
“And what can ye bring to mind of it, at all, Hob?”
“It was. . . . I forget.” The fire, the wind, the trees, crowded in on the memory of the dream; it flew apart like the steam from Molly's kettles. He squinted across the clearing. “It was something that was, that was white, that gleamed, it was a gleam of white, and something else, something red. I wanted to know what, what—it was something important and I wanted to know, but I, I can't. . . .”
“You men,” said Molly, to Hob's delight. “You men never remember your dreams.” She took a sip from the jug. “Jack, now, says that there's never a dream he remembers on waking, it's like a black sea he jumps into each night. You can learn from dreams: what was, or what's to come. But what's forgotten is no help at all.”
Beyond the fire's yellow circle the moon threw patches of pale light where it made its way through the net of heavy branches. Close by an owl gave voice to a startling series of barking screeches. The snores paused an instant, then resumed, a snarling undercurrent to the crackling of the fire, the pop of sap in a too-new twig thrown in with last winter's dead logs. Wisplets of smoke played in amid the flames, as though reluctant to join the main upwelling cloud.
Something about the snoring reminded Hob of Jack's harsh difficult speech. The encircling arm, the stroking hand, Molly's warm bulk, relaxed him, and made him bold. “Mistress,” he asked, “what happened to Jack's neck?”
Now, he thought, I'll be sent off for being the curious mouse at the larder.
But Molly tilted the jug up again. From the side of his eye, Hob watched the thick shapely throat quiver as she swallowed, swallowed again.
“Well, I'll tell you some of it, mo chroí.” Beads of moisture stood out on her forehead. A few damp silver locks had tumbled over her eye, and she pulled them back and tucked them behind her ear.
“Jack Brown was in the Holy Land. He was carrying a pike for Sir Baldwin, he being the castellan of Aiglemont, when that knight went on pilgrimage. Our Jack was one of sixteen in Sir Baldwin's company, and they traveling along with a whole train of others, pilgrims and men-at-arms on their way down to Jerusalem, and baggage wagons, and the Templars their shepherds on that stretch of road. It was some road of the old Roman folk they were on, dust and dry hills all around, and the heat terrible late in the day as it was, and didn't the Moors come at them in a rush, one minute nowhere and the next down upon them.”
“The Moors are the Devil's followers, Mistress?”
“Something like,” she said, and drank again. “Cruel dark men, on horses fast as thaw-water. With curvy swords like sickles, only with the edge outwards, if you see what I mean.”
With Molly's lilt in his ears and the shifting firelight in his eyes, Hob seemed to see the clouds of dust, the column of wayfarers, the sun's beams stuttering along the polished lanceheads. Pictures came to him as though he were watching, from a mountain ledge, the dwellers in a valley far below: clearly seen but very small, and not quite real.
The first attack swept along the column like a Syrian sparrowhawk stooping at a snake. White cloaks billowed out behind the lean dark horsemen; the burning desert sun flashed and sparkled on the storm of scimitars; the riders in their quilted tunics were shouting what Jack had come to learn was “God! God is great!” in their rapid rattling speech. An uproar began at the rear by the baggage wagons, swelling toward Jack's position in the center of the march, in which was mixed the wails of pilgrims and the clank of colliding metal and the skeeking of wooden whistles as the sergeants tried to rally a defense.
Jack and his comrades had a scant moment to snatch at swords and war-hammers, and to swing their short kite-shields around from behind their backs. All was confusion on the instant, the pikes out of reach in one of the wagons, no time for forming up. Jack got his sword out and swung his shield up just in time to parry a whistling slash at his head, stabbed ineffectually at the horse, then braced for the next rider, who passed him by but cut Leofric next to him crosswise, left shoulder to right waist, smooth as silk, and then was gone.
Another blur of striped tunic and white turban, a glimpse of narrowed black eyes, a prominent nose, and Jack hacked at the rider's thigh and felt the bite of the sword-blade into meat, but the horse carried the brown man on away and then the greater part of the fighting was on up the line.
Jack looked around. Leofric was plainly beyond all help; Jack turned away and set himself, braced for the next assault.
Three more times the Saracens circled and raced up the column on their swift beautiful horses, the delicate hooves kicking up clouds of dust. The wind was picking up, too, and raising more dust and loose sand from the dry burnt land. The riders came a fourth time, out of the wind, and Jack had to squint against the grit that stung his eyes and half blinded him.
The day steadily darkened and the wind began to sing. The moving air ripped the top layer from the land and threw it against the stalled caravan and still the bronze men came, wave upon wave. Jack's throat was so dry that it burned. He set his back against an opentop wagon and hunched behind his shield, lunging whenever a rider loomed up out of the murk. He could not see a yard to either side, and the cries of his comrades came dimly above the blare of the gale. He was alone in a tan blankness.
The sand flung by the storm against his unprotected face and hands was beginning to wear away bits of skin, and his hands were oozing blood from dozens of tiny cuts. There was shouting toward the distant front of the procession, and the hissing ring of steel upon steel, the thud of mace upon flesh, a horse screaming, but nearby was only the moan and shriek of the wind, the gritty patter of sand upon his boiled-leather gambeson. He peered through the dun haze. There was nothing.
There was nothing, and then there was the Beast. It came bounding out of the brown clouds on all fours, and Jack's stomach turned to ice as he saw the big dark broadbacked shape hurtling toward him: massive black-furred limbs, a naked leathery breast, hands folded into fists the size of Jack's head, the knuckles pounding along the ground, a bestial mask of anger, fangs like a demon, and yet it was like a man and yet, yet, it was not a man.
The next instant it had slammed him against the wagon, his left arm pinned beneath the great body pressing against the shield, his sword somewhere in the dirt. From the shadow beneath a heavy shelf of bone, little red eyes bored horribly into his; black lips drew back from yellow canines, two inches long. A scorching breath was on his face, a salty animal reek in his nostrils. Giant hands gripped his arms and shook him like an infant; his chin rattled against his collarbone and he felt himself sinking into a dazed lassitude. His head lolled back and he felt the rim of the wagon's side at the back of his neck and he looked up into the roil of brown cloud in a stupor, a vast weight on his chest crushing the air from his body.
A searing pain at the side of his throat broke the dreamy paralysis of his limbs. He tried to scream but had no breath. He managed to draw up his right leg, and his right hand scrabbled at his calf, groping for the dagger strapped there. He drew the foot-long blade, struck blindly at the demon's side. It was like striking a young oak, but the thing sprang back. Jack fell groaning to the ground and scrambled beneath the wagon, chest heaving and throat a bloody mess.
He felt a hand close on him, just above his foot. Jack was a powerful man himself, and had wrestled Jack White and other burly men on feast days on the grassy field to the west of his village, but he had never felt anything like this grip crushing down on his ankle. The Beast began to drag him from beneath the wagon bed as though he were a child. Somewhere the wind howled and the shouts and clang of battle echoed, but beneath the wagon Jack was sunk in a soundless sobbing nightmare, his fingers digging into the sandy soil as an arm, thick as his own thigh, drew him slowly toward those drooling tushes.
He kicked back ineffectually with his free leg. He saw the wagon bed moving backward above him and then he was drawn inexorably from beneath its shelter. He heard a trumpet sounding, faint with distance. He could hardly hear it above the wind and the pounding of the blood in his head. The pounding grew louder and then louder and he realized that it was outside him, and a knot of Templars came barreling up the line, pitiless men on huge horses, appearing out of the whirling sands, the red cross stark against the dull gleam of battle-stained white surcoats. The horses' broad breasts smashed into the Beast, tumbling it under the heavy iron-shod hooves as they thundered past. The chargers, big as twenty-hundredweight draft horses, barely missed a stride. Jack was free.
Jack saw the demon for a moment, collapsed in a tangle of massy limbs, before the dust obscured it. Blood from his throat soaked the shoulder of his shirt beneath the gambeson. He pulled off his helmet. He ripped the kerchief he wore beneath the helmet from his head and jammed it against his neck.
He managed to roll over on his belly and crawl under the wagon again before lying still. He was unable to move further, and he lay there gasping and spitting with the sand blowing into his mouth, until the roaring in his ears grew louder than the roaring of the wind, and he fainted.
When the attack had been driven off, Jack was found beneath the wagon, barely alive. When he was well enough to ask cautiously, much later, concerning the Beast, no one could remember seeing anything like such a creature. There was only the blood-blackened sand; the battered wagons, some burnt; the bodies of two or three of the fined-boned Arab horses; and scores of Christian and Saracen corpses, some of the latter so badly trampled by the Templar destriers with their spike-studded horseshoes that they were naked and unrecognizable.
Molly paused, and drank again from the jug.
“And they never saw the Beast again?” Hob prompted.
“They did not, surely.”
“And did he ever go on to the Holy City, Mistress?”
“He went to the lip of his own grave and that's no mistake. The Knights of St. John got him well enough to come home, but he was sore sick for a long weary time. There was little enough left of Jack when he found me at St. Audrey's Fair at Ely. You've seen the wee bag about his neck?”
“Yes. He let me see inside it once, Mistress,” Hob said.
Jack wore a thong about his neck, from which depended a little leather bag, and he took it off only when they went swimming in the hot part of summer. Hob had asked Jack about it one day, and the silent man had opened it to show him. Within were several small bunches of dried herbs, each tied with a lock of Molly's silver hair, and a little wooden figurine of a seated man, legs folded, with antlers growing from his head. In his hands he held out two serpents, whose heads were those of curl-horned rams.
“By the herbs in that bag, by potions I brew him up, by the power of the Horn-Man, Lord of the Beasts and a powerful god he is, Jack's relieved of the fevers he had from the bite of that Beast. Sure and had he not found me that feast day, there'd be no more Jack.” She gave a little laugh deep in that soft white throat. “He's man enough now, though, and a bit to spare.”
About Something Red
Something RedEmily Bestler Books / Atria Books, September 18, 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages
From debut author Douglas Nicholas comes a haunting story of love, murder, and sorcery.
During the thirteenth century in northwest England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable yet charming Irish healer, Molly, and the troupe she leads are driving their three wagons, hoping to cross the Pennine Mountains before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her lover Jack, granddaughter Nemain, and young apprentice Hob become aware that they are being stalked by something terrible. The refuge they seek in a monastery, then an inn, and finally a Norman castle proves to be an illusion. As danger continues to rise, it becomes clear that the creature must be faced and defeated—or else they will all surely die. It is then that Hob discovers how much more there is to his adopted family than he had realized.
An intoxicating blend of fantasy and mythology, Something Red presents an enchanting world full of mysterious and fascinating characters— shapeshifters, sorceresses, warrior monks, and knights—where no one is safe from the terrible being that lurks in the darkness. In this extraordinary, fantastical world, nothing is as it seems, and the journey for survival is as magical as it is perilous.
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