Fable: The Balverine Order (Fable), Page 2Peter David
I wave my hand magnanimously. “Proceed.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he says with a slight bow that is, surprisingly, devoid of any sense of irony. “So . . . the young man. His name was Thomas. Thomas Kirkman. He was a resident of a region called Millfields, near the lake. His father was a wealthy merchant dealing in textiles and simply assumed that Thomas would devote his full efforts into going into the family business since he was about to come of age. His mother, on the other hand, was of ill health and seemingly had been for as long as Thomas could remember. As for Thomas himself, he was a large, bold, and bluff boy with a disturbing tendency to say precisely what was on his mind regardless of the consequences. But he was also haunted by his original sin.” He pauses. “You are doubtless wondering what that sin might be.”
“Dare I ask?” I say drily.
“You are a king. The king dares all.”
“What,” I say, “is Thomas Kirkman’s original sin?”
“He had the unadulterated nerve to not die.”
THE CREATURE WAS RIGHT IN FRONT of Thomas, right there, its mouth wide and its jaws slavering and its muzzle thick with blood. Its pointed ears were upright and quivering. Its fur was a dirty black, covered with debris and brambles from whatever bushes it had been hiding in, and when the creature roared, its breath washed over Thomas and caused his stomach to clench and his gorge to rise.
You can’t smell things in dreams! You can’t! This is . . . is no dream! Thomas’s fear-stricken voice sounded in his head, and he tried to scream, but he was unable to find the breath to do so. The most he was able to muster was a paralyzed “urkh” noise that was hardly helpful when it came to summoning aid.
Thomas, lying on his bed, tried to twist away from the creature, but his body refused to obey the commands of his distraught mind. His attention remained fixed upon the blood that was all over the beast’s mouth because he knew whose blood it was, and the notion that his blood was about to join it was overwhelmingly terrifying to him.
I don’t want the same thing to happen to me . . . I don’t want to end up like Stephen . . . please, no, please, no . . .
The creature grabbed one of his shoulders and began to shake him violently. This prompted Thomas to discover his voice, and it erupted from within him like uncorked champagne exploding from a bottle. Thomas screamed at the top of his newly liberated lungs. There were no words; it was pure, inarticulate horror spewing into the air.
Surprisingly, the creature actually seemed taken aback. It shook him even more, and then it spoke.
The fact that the monster was suddenly speaking in an understandable tongue was enough to shock Thomas to a halt. He stared uncomprehendingly at the beast with its fearsome yellow eyes, except instead of savagery, they were filled with confusion. “Thomas, wake up!”
With those words, it was as if a veil had been lifted from Thomas’s mind. Slowly, the monster that had been looming over Thomas, threatening his life, dissolved like morning dew dissipated by the sun’s rays. In its stead was the face of his father. He was jowly, with a gleaming, bald head that always seemed beaded with sweat regardless of whether it was hot as hell or cold as hell. His room likewise came into focus. It was a simple affair in terms of furniture, with only a single dresser and a bed with a lumpy mattress and a threadbare sheet.
The reason for this was that Thomas’s father was a big believer in teaching his son how to properly apportion money. Rather than furnish the room himself, his father told Thomas that he had a certain amount of money available to him every year specifically designated to be used for room furnishing and that he was free to use it as he saw fit.
But Thomas set little store in such things as mattresses or dressers or even clothing. Instead, his entire focus was on books.
Lots of books.
Copious numbers of books. Books that were stacked everywhere, in no particular order, and yet somehow Thomas was always able to locate whatever particular volume he might be seeking at any given time.
“I’m awake, Father,” Thomas said with a croak, sitting up in bed. His nightshirt was soaked with perspiration, and his long, thick brown hair was likewise hanging damp around his face. “I’m awake—”
“What was hammering through your skull, boy?” said his father, stepping back. He glanced around suspiciously at the books as if they were the source of all his problems. “More foolishness gleaned from your endless collection of nonsensical tales?”
“They’re not nonsense, and no,” said Thomas.
“What was it, then?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t.” His father did not sound particularly convinced, which was largely due to the fact that Thomas was an abysmal liar.
And Thomas knew perfectly well that his father was aware of his obfuscation. He tried to look his father in the eyes but wound up lowering his gaze, staring fixedly at the sheet as he insisted, “No. I don’t.”
His father considered pushing the matter but then shrugged it off, as if he had issues of far greater import on his mind. “You need to see her,” he said.
“Her?” It was at that point that Thomas abruptly realized the earliness of the hour. The sun was not yet above the horizon. His father had always been an early riser, but this was excessive even for him. “Her who? Mother, you mean?”
“She began coughing, and she will not stop.”
“Did you send for a doctor?” Even as he spoke, he tossed aside his blanket and settled his bare feet on the floor, which seemed unconscionably cold.
“Yes. And he suggested I send for you. He said that now would be a good time for you to see her.”
Then did his father’s meaning become clear to him as the last dregs of slumber fell from his mind. Forgotten, or at least shunted aside for the time being, was the snarling creature from his dreams. Instead, his focus was entirely on his father’s concern for his mother. Not that his father was ever the most demonstrative of men, but even so, his worry was palpable.
Thomas followed his father out into the hallway and up the stairs to their bedroom. The doctor was standing just outside, holding his satchel loosely, a look of carefully contrived sorrow upon his face. “I have made her as comfortable as possible,” he said, “but beyond that, there is nothing I can do.”
“I’m sure you tried your best,” said Thomas.
He stopped in the doorway, however, and even though he had known what he was going to see, it still wasn’t easy for him.
His mother was lying in bed, looking wasted and wan. For a moment, he wasn’t even sure if she was still alive, and then he saw her chest rise and fall ever so slightly, and a faint rasp sounded from her chest. “She’s breathing easier,” said his father, and Thomas found that distressing because she still sounded awful to him.
Then her mouth moved as if it was a tremendous effort of will, and her voice barely above a whisper, she said, “My son . . .”
“I’m here,” said Thomas, and he crossed the room and sat upon the edge of the bed. He took her hand, and it felt cold as death already. He knew that sensation all too well, for he had felt it once before, and it was something that he would never, ever forget. “I’m here, Mother.”
“I’m so glad. I . . . I need to tell you . . .” She squeezed his hand with all the strength that her frailty enabled her to display.
“Tell me what?”
“I . . .” A cough seized her, but she suppressed it. “I . . . forgive you.”
He heard a sharp intake of breath from his father. “You . . . you do . . . ?”
She nodded, and even that seemed to require tremendous effort. “I blamed you . . . for your brother’s death. It is a terrible thing to admit . . . but I did. And I should not have . . . it . . . it was not fair to you . . .”
Thomas was a swirl of emotions. “That’s all right. Mother, I k
now that you love me. I’ve always known that.”
“Yes. And the truth is . . .” Her body shook, trembling, and she forced herself to continue. “The truth is . . . if only one of my sons had to survive . . . I’m so relieved it was you.”
“Mother, don’t say things like that—”
“I’ll say what I wish . . . what I need to say . . . the truth is that . . . that you have potential . . .” The three-syllable word had taken great effort for her to say, and she had to regain her strength before she could continue. “Far more . . . than your brother ever did . . .”
He wanted to tell her that that was ridiculous. That Stephen had had as much potential, if not more, than Thomas ever did. That Stephen had been smart and business savvy and also brave, so brave, and the fact that his life had been cut short by the—
Thomas stopped short. Even in his own head, the events of his past as he had remembered them had been subjected to such criticism and contempt that he censored his very thoughts.
“It’s true,” she said, as if he had spoken. “Your brother . . . he had very little worth. All he cared about were his books and his legends and tales of heroic adventure. He was never going to be of any use to your father. Heavens know he was of no use to me. Not like you.” And she squeezed his hand. “Not like you, Stephen.”
Thomas felt as if his heart had just been crushed.
“The world would be so much poorer without you in it, Stephen. And you . . . you made up that . . . that insane story . . . about a balverine killing your brother . . . you didn’t want to admit that you weren’t able to save him . . . so you said it was something unnatural . . . that no mortal could have stopped . . . I forgive you that. I forgive you everything, Stephen. At least you’re still here . . . instead of Thomas . . .”
His jaw twitched, and he saw his father looking at him with both despair and warning. “Yes, good thing for that,” said Thomas, trying to keep the misery out of his voice and not entirely succeeding.
She didn’t notice his tone. “Good thing,” she echoed, and then she closed her eyes and let her head slump back. She shuddered once more, and there was a rattle in her throat that Thomas recognized immediately, for he had heard it on that long-ago day in that last, final moment of his life.
Then she was gone. And with her, she took the last dregs of Thomas’s childhood. And he had no idea what she had left behind.
JAMES SKELTON WAS A TOWHEADED lad, with a ruddy complexion and arms and legs that seemed determined to outstrip him when it came to physical development. Just when he thought he had the damned things under control, there would come another growth spurt, and suddenly he was tripping over his own feet or knocking things over with his elbows because he had turned around too quickly.
Not that it was difficult to knock things over or find other things to trip over in James’s incredibly crowded home. Situated in one of the grimier, more run-down regions of Bowerstone Old Quarter, the house was only a notch or two above the category of “hovel,” wherein resided James, his mother, his two surviving grand-parents, a lazy bastard of an uncle, and six siblings. James was the second oldest of the brood, all of whom had been born one after the other over a period of six years. There was a permanent sense of frustration and claustrophobia in the home, and the children slept in shifts since there was insufficient bed space. All of the kids were actively employed in jobs ranging from apprentice ironsmith to apprentice beggar.
James had, as far as he was concerned, the best job of the lot of them because he was the only one who didn’t complain about it incessantly. Not only that, but it was the only job that got him out of his section of town and into someplace that didn’t perpetually carry the stench of offal mixed with blackened air. It brought him to Millfields and the home of Thomas Kirkman. According to Thomas, their house was relatively modest compared to some of the others, but as far as James was concerned, it was nothing short of palatial.
It was a crisp morning, the sun’s warmth not having yet done much to warm it up. These days with the seemingly permanent haze of smoke that hung over the city, the sun was oftentimes fighting to penetrate it and not always succeeding. James ran as quickly as he could, striving as always to maintain his balance since his unfortunate gawkiness presented a constant challenge to remaining upright.
Other servants lived with their masters, but James did not reside at the Kirkman house. There were several reasons for this: They did not have a separate servant’s quarters; and Thomas’s father, when asked by his peers about the absence of live-in help, would sneer and say, “Why should I spend good money putting food into other people’s mouths? What service are they going to provide me while I sleep? Let them feed themselves breakfast and dinner and not breathe my air in their slumber.”
So James would hurry every morning from his home, such as it was, to the Kirkman residence, to serve in Thomas’s employ and do whatever it was that Thomas required. He had operated in that capacity since both of them were quite young, and in more recent years, he had functioned less and less as a servant and more and more as Thomas’s friend. A paid friend, by all means, but a friend nevertheless.
He was surprised to discover, on this particular morning, that the front door to the manor was standing wide open rather than closed as it normally was. The discovery was enough to cause him to slow his run to a trot, and then to a halt. It seemed odd, to be standing in front of the house that he had entered so many times and to find himself hesitating at the threshold. Then he heard the sounds of heavy footfalls coming slowly, methodically down the stairs, thump, thump, one at a time. The pattern was enough for him to figure out that it was two men who were carrying some sort of burden.
Then he saw two men dressed in black emerging into the daylight, carrying a stretcher between them, and there was a body on it covered with a shroud that reached up and over the head. But James didn’t have to see the body beneath it to know whose it was.
“Poor Thomas,” he muttered. It wasn’t as if he was unsympathetic to the woman whose corpse was beneath the shroud, but at least her lengthy suffering was over. Thomas, though, had been left behind, with a father who was hardly the most nurturing of men. On the other hand, at least Thomas had come of age and was in command of his own future even though that future seemed to be already set as part of his father’s business.
As the men walked past with their burden, he said, “No hearse?”
One of the men shrugged, and said, “Busy elsewhere, and he wanted her gone as soon as possible.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“Ain’t gonna be one,” said the other man with a look of obvious disgust. “Said he didn’t see the point in it. That they’d all had plenty of time to mourn her while she was dying, and no point in everyone sitting around and being . . . what’d he say?”
“Lachrymose,” the first man said.
“Right. Lachrymose. We take her back to the charnel house, we burn her, and we’ll be bringing back the ashes directly. No fuss. No muss.”
“And no big cost.”
Slowly, they both shook their heads, making no effort to hide their disdain for such a mind-set, and then continued on their way. James Skelton watched them go, scarcely knowing what to think of such a thing. Then he turned and headed into the house. Normally, he would have gone straight up to Thomas’s room, but under the circumstances, he wasn’t sure what his destination should be. But then the question was quickly settled when he heard an abrupt, frustrated, and very loud, “Damnation, Thomas, not this again!” It was coming from upstairs, and James didn’t hesitate to sprint up the stairs to what was, as it turned out, the study of Thomas’s father.
The man was in a fine lather, and he didn’t even notice when James appeared at the door looking concerned. He was circling Thomas, who was seated in a chair in the middle of the room. It seemed like some manner of grand inquisition. “Could you possibly have picked,” he was raging, “a worse possible time to—”
didn’t pick it!” Thomas said plaintively. “Mother brought it up! When she was talking about how Stephen died! Well, actually how I died, but . . .”
“You died?” James spoke up, confused.
Thomas turned and saw that James was standing there, his face aghast. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed at having a witness to this confrontation. The Kirkman family had no secrets from James by this point in any of their lives. Still, he obviously felt the need to clarify the statement he’d just made. “Mother, while she lay dying, got everything jumbled in her head. She thought Stephen was the one who survived the balverine attack years ago instead of me . . .”
“There you go again! There are no such bloody things as balverines!” his father shouted. “Certainly not now, if there ever were! They’re from another time, another age—”
“A better one,” Thomas shot back. “An age of magic and wonder and heroism.”
“Oh, balls, boy!” said his father with growing impatience. “When the hell are you going to live in the world we have rather than your world of books?”
“I need those books to keep me sane around here!” And now he was on his feet, bellowing in fury. “I mean . . . come on, Dad! How else? The way you talk to me every day, you make it pretty clear how disappointed you are in me. Even though I’m there, every day, down at the market, working as hard as any employee.”
“You’re supposed to be working harder! You’re supposed to be working like someone who’s going to own it all one day! You’re—”
And James could take it no longer. Tossing aside decorum, uncaring of his relative status in the world, losing sight of who he was and what he was supposed to be, James’s voice rose above both of theirs, silencing them with his outrage: “For crying out loud, a woman has died here today! Will the two of you please knock it off? Show a little damned respect!”