The Hermit and the Songbird

They flew no banners, the carts that snaked down the narrow, overgrown paths of the Mordenwood, but any who saw them would recognize them as vehicles of conquest. The cart in the lead was open to the air, drawn by draft horses in barding and filled with soldiers and their kit – two pikemen, four musketeers and a driver with a matchlock pistol secreted in his garb, each of them with a cuirass and a steel helmet. Behind it was a carriage with a compartment reinforced with iron bars; two pikeman minded the roof of the vehicle while the captain sat with the driver, wearing his fine steel broadsword and ornate pistol proudly. A pair of men on coursers rode at the flanks, occasionally prodding the thickets with their lancets and sweeping the path ahead.

In a glade before the armed company stood a decrepit shack, a dwelling that perhaps once had been charming but which had been ill-treated by the elements for well over a generation. Here the trees parted enough to admit the rays of the sun, but it was also coldly silent. As the group drew closer, the chirping of birds and the rustling of animals in the undergrowth grew more and more distant. Eventually there was no sound but the idle conversation of the bored soldiers lounging in the war cart.

“This is pure foolishness,” said one, resting his short-barreled musket across his lap and tipping his helmet to let the sweat run out. “That they'd roust us all just to move one old barmy? Waste of the morning, I'd say.”

“You think he's just some old man?” said another soldier. “He's the most famous old looney you'll ever meet. I hear he's the one from the story, you know.”

“What story's that?” said the first soldier.

“You've never heard? What about the rest of you?” The second soldier leaned in to the center of the cart. “Well, he's been out here for as long as people lived in these parts, as long as any healer crone or broken old scholar can remember. Story goes that he fell in love with the melody of a little songbird, come and perched outside his window every day. Then it got colder, and some days the bird didn't turn up. The old man got worried that maybe the bird would leave and never come back, so he built himself a cage and locked the birdie up next time he saw it. Except he was still worried, so the crazy bastard took a knife and stabbed the little bird right through the heart.”

“He killed a songbird?” said the first soldier. “The cruel old devil.”

“Yeah. Killed it and stuffed it, or so the story says. Kept the bird, lost the song.” The second soldier leaned back as far as he dared. “I heard that story when I was just a little one. He's had a lot of years to go crazy out here. A lot of years.”

“So that's how you heard it?” A third soldier spoke up, peering about before adding his own thoughts. “Well, I heard a different story from my old grandma right before sickness took her. She said that the old man was a sorcerer, two hundred years old if he was a day. He killed the bird all right, but not with a knife. He sucked the thing's life right out and filled the body with black magic. It's a familiar now. By night, he brings the thing back to life and sends it out to find fresh victims for his blood rites.”

“That's what they say where you're from?” said a fourth man. “My village is real close to here, and they say that the old man is a mad alchemist. Got some kind of lab in that old shack. Built the bird out of metal bones, quicksilver and gears and made it move like it had a soul. It takes messages to his master.”

“Silence, the lot of you,” boomed the captain. “I've had enough of this superstitious nonsense. The old man is just an old man, and we're moving him out the same as everyone else who dwells in these woods.”

“Sorry, Captain Tybalt, sir, it's just...” The second soldier averted his eyes from his superior's stare. “...It's not as though we truly believe in such fairy stories, but we see such a force to detain and move one hermit and the tongues can't help but wag.”

“This is not an unusual force for wyvern duty,” said Captain Tybalt. “It is nothing more than that. I'll hear no more talk of sorcery. Now, ready yourselves.”

Captain Tybalt dismounted along with his men at the threshold of the hermit's old cottage. The Captain was accompanied by a pair each of pikes and muskets as he approached the door and delivered a firm knock, strong enough to shudder the aging timbers. A few moments later the door creaked open and a figure appeared in the shadows within. The man was barely visible beneath the floating white beard and the voluminous robes that hung loosely on his ephemeral frame.

“Company?” said the old man. “What brings you to this distant spot?”

“You are Donaeus, correct?” said Captain Tybalt.

“Indeed,” said the old man.

Captain Tybalt produced a slender scroll which he held aloft for Donaeus to witness. “This land has been claimed by the Sacred Corverian Empire. By order of the Emperor, I have come to escort you to new property.”

“So this impressive retinue is for my benefit?” said Donaeus, admiring the well-armed men that surrounded his hovel. “Hmm. Pray tell, what does his majesty desire with this patch of forest?”

“The Mordenwood has become a den for dangerous and aggressive beasts,” said Captain Tybalt with practiced intensity. “We will be clearing this section of the Mordenwood and constructing a series of fortifications to keep the bestial threat contained. My men will help you gather your things, at which point we will relocate you this very day.”

Donaeus stroked his beard. “Ah. Well, I have little I'd need to bring on this journey. Only one thing, truly-”

“Sweet mercy,” shouted one of the soldiers. “It's the songbird! He still has the body!”

Captain Tybalt peered past the old man and into the shack interior. There was little inside that wasn't splinters and dust, but one object was clearly visible: a crudely shaped birdcage containing an unmoving bird, its once bright feathers dulled with age.

The Captain struggled to keep his shock inside lest he again invoke the primitive terrors of his men. “Why would you desire to possess such a thing? Are you well and truly mad?”

“Perhaps I am.” Donaeus turned back into the shack and retrieved the cage. “But perhaps this is merely the greater part of my punishment.”

“Punishment?” said Captain Tybalt.

“Punishment. Punishment for my sin, punishment for my crime. A curse to chase me to my dying day.” Donaeus cradled the cage, looking at the tiny lifeless bird with clouded eyes. “In an ugly world, there is no more senseless and wicked a trespass than to destroy a thing of natural beauty. Out of greed and self-pity, I ruined that which I could not hold. Now nature punishes me with days and nights of torturous silence. To think that I once found that silence a comfort! For my hubris, nature let me experience real joy, only that I would blot it out and condemn myself to this living entombment.”

“I see.” Captain Tybalt took Donaeus by his sleeve. “Then I have come to liberate you from your torments. There is a village, small but prosperous, not far from the imperial palace that will accommodate you. You'll not be lonely there, I assure you, not with the sounds of commerce and travel that fill the day or the music and discourse that comes with the moonrise. You shall not want for anything and can spend your remaining years in pleasing surroundings.”

Donaeus withdrew from Captain Tybalt. “Then I can not go, not if you wish to bring me to such a place. Promise me that you will leave me at the foot of some windswept mountain, I will go with you. Leave me in the middle of the salt plains with only bugs to keep company. Bring me to a desert, to an ice field, to a swamp bubbling with plague. But do not take me to a village or town.”

"Why would you be so stubborn?” said Captain Tybalt. “Is this not what you want?”

“It is,” said Donaeus. “This is why we will never reach our destination. Fate will never allow it.”

“It seems my curse is to ever be in the company of the mystically muddled.” Captain Tybalt seized the old man again, this time wrapping his fingers firmly around his wrist. “If you will not walk with me, then we will bind and carry you.”

“At your insistence, then, and only because I have spoken my piece.” Donaeus followed the Captain to the carriage, dragging the cage in his free hand. “Ah. A most hospitable vehicle.”

“The bars are for your security, and the door shall not be locked. If you need further rest, you may call for me.” Captain Tybalt showed Donaeus into the carriage, then took his own place with the driver. “Quickly, I wish to return to the imperial heartland before the sun meets the horizon.”

The carts turned about and the party began its return journey through the old Mordenwood paths, the Captain with his eyes on the sky and the brush, the soldiers conversing and idling in the lead cart, old man Donaeus seated in the carriage with his grisly cargo in the opposite seat. The first stretch was characteristically dull, without even a sudden stirring in the trees to provide a moment of tension. Then the winds grew in strength, letting forth a haunted sound as each rush passed through the trees. Sometimes, the unearthly howl would be joined by a sudden moment of darkness as a passing cloud blocked what little sunlight penetrated the canopy. Both the horses and the men grew anxious each time it happened.

“It's the hermit, I know it,” whispered one of the soldiers. “Using his sorceror's tricks to frighten us. Heaven knows what he's truly capable of.”

Each time he heard it, the Captain admonished them. “Silence, all of you. This is nothing more than ill weather.” Even so, he wondered – if only briefly and silently – if there wasn't some sinister omen here. He commanded the men in the lead cart to keep a tighter watch and sent the horsemen to clear the path more aggressively.

Eventually, the clouds and gales passed and the sky was again kind. Captain Tybalt looked up at the endless expanse of blue, now fully visible through the thinning canopy at the Mordenwood's edge. The men, grateful for having survived their brush with a sort of darkness they could barely comprehend, let out grateful sighs. Only the Captain remained tense. The area was silent – the same unnatural silence he had heard at the very heart of the Mordenwood.

Then the silence was broken by a sound, a loud rush that sounded like a wrathful wind. A moment later came the first scream as one of the pikeman on the roof of the carriage flew clear of the vehicle and hit the ground, a great bloody wound in his torso. The cry went up: “Wyverns! Everyone form up and prepare to engage!” There was a second noise and a great green tendril struck the driver of the lead cart, smashing him into a tree. Whatever discipline the company had evaporated in an instant. The musketeers let loose a volley of shot into empty air; the pikemen flailed their weapons ineffectively at the sky, the pikes clattering against each other and against the muskets. The Captain had his sword and pistol out but he couldn't spot the beasts. The attack had come too quickly, leaving no trace save the two dead men. When he caught sight of them, he nearly dropped his weapons. There were at least five of the creatures circling the group, an enormous group given their own strength.

Old man Donaeus, roused from his slumber by the sound of carnage, leaned out of the carriage to witness the fight. Just as he did, a third wyvern swooped down on the group, tearing into the lead cart with its talons outstretched. The musketeers, still fumbling for their powder horns, were caught completely by surprise as the great beast struck the cart. Donaeus fell from his perch, the cage clattering on the ground beside him. One of the wyverns alighted on the ground near him and lashed out at the soldiers with its cruelly barbed tail. Donaeus was frozen to the spot by the sudden assault, watching feebly as the beast clawed at the dirt right in front of him.

Captain Tybalt didn't notice the old man's exit, focused as he was on surviving the attack. There was little left of his own company. At least five men were already dead or too badly wounded to put up any sort of resistance. Two more had been disarmed and searched in vain for an intact weapon in the pile of powder and shot that spilled from the overturned lead cart. The rest had fled, though this too was futile – the individuals running through the open spaces made for easy targets, and the still airborne wyverns greedily scooped them up. The Captain braced himself to make a last stand but it was clear that the beasts would win the day. The sword was too short to reach the wyverns with their sinuous tails, and the pistol would be more effective on himself than on the five attackers. The blow that felled him came from behind, shredding through the muscles of his unarmored back. It came so quick that he hadn't time to feel it before he expired.

There were none left alive save Donaeus, who lay in the dust of the road in the shadow cast by one of the creatures. The beast was joined at once by its kin – all five of them, their talons and tails colored crimson from their prey. Donaeus struggled to his feet and looked up at the largest of the wyverns. “Then it is my turn? It is only fair. They made this sojourn merely to protect me, and you eagerly claimed their lives. I have nothing to offer you by way of ransom except these bones of mine, and none lives who will mourn my passing. Go on, claim your due and I will not resist, not a stroke.”

The wyverns studied Donaeus with bestial curiosity, staring at the willowy old man, then at the carnage they'd wrought, then at each other. The largest wyvern sniffed at Donaeus, then flicked its tail along the ground, catching the cage and launching it at the old man. A moment later the beasts stirred the dust and took to the skies, leaving Donaeus alive and alone.

Donaeus fell to his knees, picking up the sorry little cage. “Then, is there to be no end to this torment? I can't fathom how you can punish me for destroying beauty by bringing such horror into the world. Is this truly just? This curse is mine alone to bear, is it right that others suffer in kind? Or was this massacre merely some caprice of fate? Was I the cause at all?”

The songbird didn't respond.

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