An excerpt from
What Tales He Knows
by John L. French
(From The Society for the Preservation of CJ Henderson)
Conor of Scotia walked through the fair of Nieves enjoying the dry air and warm weather. Elsewhere storms raged, storms that kept him from boarding a ship and crossing the Norman Sea to Carney, and from there to Caerleon where he hoped to meet brothers-in-arms and perhaps revive an ancient tradition. That the rain and wind had not visited itself on the town and fairgrounds might have been explained by luck. However, the “after storm” smell and a certain tingling in the air told the knight that it was more likely magic at work, magic that guaranteed good weather for the fair at the expense of foul weather elsewhere.
He confirmed this when he sought a room at the Stone Moon Inn. “It’s the Wizard’s doing,” the landlord explained. “Two seasons ago the rains came and washed us all out. No money was to be made that year. And this town depends on what the fair brings in. So does the Wizard, for he gets a share of our earnings. Since then, well, look outside. Even those who don’t care to make merry come to Nieves if only to escape the foul mess outside it.”
“And the fact that others pay the price for your good weather?”
“What do you think? Look around, my inn is full and I’ll make enough to carry me until spring. Yes I know there’s no such thing as a free meal, but as long as I don’t have to pay for the piper’s tune it’s all right with me. And even if it wasn’t…” the landlord looked in the direction of the Wizard’s keep, “…it’s all right with him and there’s naught anyone can do about that.”
Conor knew differently. As a wandering knight and sometimes sword-for-hire, he had fought and overcome magic and its users. But he said nothing. It was not his fight. He had stopped at Nieves only because he had to.
“But enough talk about the weather,” the landlord said. “What else can I get you? Another ale?”
Conor nodded. “That and a room. From what you tell me I’m here until the fair is over and the weather breaks.”
The ale was good and easily poured. The room was somewhat harder to come by. Crowded as the inn was, as all the inns were, Conor settled for a space on the floor of the common room. It was better than sleeping outside, not that it was likely to rain, at least until the week was done.
So with nothing to do and a week to do it in, Conor walked the fair, enjoying what entertainment there was and examining the goods for sale. Most of the latter were from the locals but there were vendors from other parts of the continent as well. A couple from Stratford with what they claimed were fairies in a cage. A brewer from Barrie. Conor was at the stall of a leather smith’s trying to decide whether to replace his worn scabbard when he heard;
“Don’t walk by. Come, hear the stories. Welcome all to the big, fat, wonderful world of me!”
Conor turned toward the noise. On a makeshift stage he saw a large man in modified jester’s garb enticing people to gather round with promises of songs and stories—told and sung for a price of course.
“He’s been at that all day,” the smith complained. “Every half hour the same rant. It’s getting so if he should suddenly go mute, may the saints will it so, I could step in and say it for him.”
“But is he any good? Are his tales worth the telling?”
“Who can say? Once the crowd is large enough and there’s money in his bowl, his voice drops so that only those who paid can hear him. Now about that hide you hold in your hand. I can fashion you a nice scabbard from in that in no time at…”
But the knight was not listening, his attention now on the storyteller. “Thank you,” he told the smith absently. “I’ll think about it and be back.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
A small group had gathered around the stage, mostly children whose parents had left them while they shopped or sold. The bowl in front of the storyteller was mostly empty, the few coins in it either brass or debased copper.
The minstrel sighed. “For this I could tell a short tale of pirates or dragons.”
“Pirates and dragons,” suggested a young lad in the crowd.
“Would that I could, young sir, but the length of the story depends on the coins in the bowl, and for what I see before me I could only…” he looked out, appealing to what few adults were standing behind the children. No help was forthcoming, but unable to disappoint an audience, no matter its size or age, the storyteller sighed and said, “Perhaps I could tell the tale of Jac and Her Beanstalk.”
There were moans and groans and cries of “Not again” and “We’ve heard that one.” And indeed they had, for it had been told twice before and mostly to the same crowd of children.
Conor could wait no longer. “Hold up, Sir Bard,” he called and walked up to the stage. Drawing a gold coin from his purse, he dropped in the bowl. “Your finest tale if you would, one of sword, sorcery, and daring deeds. A lengthy tale, one suitable for these fine young people.”
Smiling in delight at the coin that shone in the bowl, the storyteller winked and said;
“Many thanks, Sir Knight. What is your name so I can sing your praises at a later time and perhaps add you to a tale or two?”
“I am Conor of Scotia and you do me honor by accepting my coin. In my country, bards and shanachies are revered and it is considered a duty and privilege to support them.”
“We are well met, Sir Conor. I am called Seejay, son of Hender and if what you say is true then when this fair is over I may travel with you, if you will have me.”
“Let us talk of that another time, Sir Bard. For now you have young folk waiting for a great tale.”
“About that, Sir Conor. While the tale I’m about to tell is complete in itself, it would be even better with song. For another coin…”
Laughing, Conor added silver to the gold then sat with the children to enjoy the tale of Princess Eliza and the Dragon Lord. The Bard even made sure to include a few pirates. And in no time at all Seejay had his audience laughing, crying, and singing along.
The noise of enjoyment from the small crowd drew a larger one, then one larger still. Within two turns of the glass it seemed that half the fair had gathered around Seejay’s stage where he talked, sang, told jokes, and danced like a monkey whenever a small coin was added to the now-overflowing bowl.
Enjoying himself more than he had since leaving his native land, Conor sat through tales of Jacques of The Hague and London Teddy before deciding to see the rest of the fair. Thanks to Seejay, there were fewer buyers around the other vendors and so Conor was able to bargain for better prices on food, drink, and some of goods he would need for his journey. A man of his word, he did return to the pleasantly surprised leather smith and commissioned a new scabbard to be delivered at fair’s end.
Night came, the fair closed. While most vendors were closing their booths and covering their wares, Conor heard;
Turning he saw the storyteller walking toward him. “Master Seejay, was it a good day for you?”
“One of the best, though it could always be better. Still, I am weighed down by the coin that came my way. Could I perhaps trouble you to escort me? I hear there are thieves about, and I speak not just of some of the vendors.”
“Again, it is my honor. And as a bard stands higher than a simple knight, call me Conor.”
“And I am to one and all simply Seejay.”
“Where are you staying?”
The bard at least had the grace to look sheepish before saying;
“The thing is, I failed to make arrangements for proper lodging. Perhaps I could share yours? I’ll take up as little room as possible and I do not snore, at least, I have never heard myself doing so.”
Again the knight laughed. “You can share whatever part of the floor the landlord has allotted me.”
“The floor? Not even a couch?”
“The floor it is. Of course, your golden tongue can probably talk the landlord out of his own bed and into leaving his wife behind.”
Seejay smiled at the challenge. “I might at that. A bed would be nice, but as for the wife, tonight I am too tired.”
As Conor had expected, the Inn of the Stone Moon was already crowded. Ale and wine flowed and the exhausted barmaids grew tired of serving drinks and dodging the drinkers.
Catching the landlord’s eye, Conor told him of the great honor that had been bestowed upon his establishment. The famed storyteller, the most celebrated bard of the continent, the very talk of the Nieves’s Fair, had deigned to visit his inn, and for the small price of a comfortable place to sleep and enough mead and ale to keep his throat wet, he would entertain his guests and keep them eating and drinking until the watch ordered the inn closed. When the landlord hesitated, Conor added;
“Or Seejay Hender’s son can go elsewhere, but I cannot guarantee that he will not draw your patrons away with him. As I am staying here it would pain me to have to eat and drink alone.”
The landlord quickly agreed to the knight’s terms. On hearing what Conor had done, Seejay was, for once, speechless. Once he found his voice, his only words were “How?”
“You are a bard, I took training with them. I can tell a tale when I must.”
“And a pretty tale it was. Now let us eat and drink before,” Seejay looked at the crowd, “I must get to work.” He sighed, as if being the center of attention was a great burden to him.
After he had eaten, Seejay began earning his keep by singing a few songs. His rendition of “Stab Them in the Back” soon had most of the crowd, especially what guardsmen were present, singing along. He then told a tale about two men who journeyed to the moon in a giant saucer, until finally he said;
“More later. My throat is dry and demands ale. But while I satisfy my thirst, I present to you a young knight, one trained not only by the feared Red Branch itself but by the very bards of Scotia. He will tell you stories of his great deeds.”
Unlike Seejay, Conor did not like to be noticed. He would have demurred, but as a knight he was trained to meet all challenges. So while the storyteller ate and drank, Conor told of a genie who betrayed his master and was then bested by one more clever than he. He followed this with a tale of the merfolk and how a near war between land and sea was narrowly averted. While speaking, he noticed that Seejay listened intently, no doubt making mental notes of the knight’s stories so as to add them to his repertoire. Conor ended with a bawdy song about a mermaid and a tortoise before nodding to Seejay that it was again his turn.
“Well,” began the storyteller, “as my friend and companion has told a tale of the sea and sang a song about a tail of the sea,” he waited while those who got the jest laughed, “allow me to continue the theme. Has anyone here present heard of the Deep Ones?”
Conor had, as part of his knightly training. In his travels he had heard them spoken of in whispers and rumors. Conor looked around. Everyone else shook their heads; all save two guardsmen who began listening intently. Seejay spoke of the fish-like creatures that lured men to destruction with promises of gold and power.
The bard’s story ended with the navy of the Doge of Venice using Greek Fire to eliminate a town that had been overrun by the creatures. On seeing his audience’s fascination with such horrors he began telling of the Old Ones, beings forgotten by creation, cast out of existence, and now lurking on the other side of the world’s threshold, waiting to again enter and devour all.
Seejay was speaking of a Sleeper whose awakening would mean the end of all when one of the guardsmen nodded to another. The one who nodded then left but not before saying something to his fellow. Although Conor could not hear what was said by their actions he imagined it was something like “Watch him. I’ll bring the others.” The knight hoped he was wrong but loosened his sword in its scabbard just in case.
A turn of the glass and Seejay was still speaking. Conor was only partly listening, instead alternately watching the remaining guardsman and the inn door, waiting for something to happen. From what little the knight heard the bard’s story was one of fairies and cockroaches.
“Enough for now,” the storyteller announced, “for I need my rest if I am to thrill the fairgoers tomorrow with tales of daring deeds.”
“One more,” shouted several members of his audience.
“I don’t know…”
A coin hit the floor near Seejay, then several others.
“Well, if you insist. In the opening days of the Trojan War, an ominous tome falls into the hands of the Trojan High Command. Can our heroes ….
“Seejay, son of Hender …” interrupted a voice from the doorway.
Damn, thought Conor as what was clearly a lieutenant of the guards stepped into the inn. Several guardsmen followed. The one who had remained behind moved to join them.
“Seejay, son of Hender,” the lieutenant said again.
“Do you mind? I’m in the middle of a story. If there’s a tale you wish told, then come to the fair tomorrow and drop a coin in my bowl.”
“You will come with us,” the lieutenant said as if the storyteller had not spoken.
Damn, the knight again thought, then stood. “Where are you taking him and by whose authority?” he demanded of the lieutenant.
“What business is it of yours?”
“This man, this noble bard, this honored storyteller, is under my protection.”
By now the crowd that had gathered around Seejay to hear his tales dispersed as best they could. Some went upstairs, others hid under the tables, most hugged the walls.
“And who are you and why should I care?”
“I am Conor, a knight of Scotia, son of Seamus, son of Liam, son of Conor and you should care because I will not permit this man to be taken where he does not wish to go.” Turning to Seejay, Conor asked;
“Do you wish to go with them?”
Seejay shook his head. “It has been my experience that going with guardsmen in the middle of the night seldom leads to pleasant consequences. I would just as soon stay with you.”
“It matters not what either of you wish. The Wizard Maldon demands this man’s presence in his Keep.”
“I would still rather not.”
“Behind me then.”
“Sir,” Conor said to the lieutenant. “Please tell your master that Bard Seejay will await his pleasure tomorrow on the fairgrounds. If it is a story he wants, the bard will tell it gratis, in thanks to the Wizard for hosting the fair in such pleasant weather. Anything else can be discussed at that time.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “That, Sir Knight, is not an option.”
Conor’s hand went to his sword. “Then blood must be spilt.”
With Seejay safely behind him in a corner, Conor positioned himself so that the guardsmen could come at him only singly or in pairs. He tried not to kill, recognizing that his foes of the evening were simply men doing their job. He wounded when he could but there were those who fell never to rise again. Slowly he reduced his enemy. A dozen became nine, then six, then three until there was only the one.
“Well fought, Sir Knight,” the lieutenant of the guard said. “I told the Wizard that the Guard would be no match for one such as yourself.”
“Why fight me then?’
“Because the Wizard ordered me too. Because he needed time.”
Conor did not ask “time for what?” As soon as the lieutenant spoke he knew that he had been duped, that the men he fought, the ones he had injured or killed, had been sent merely as a distraction. Behind him came a rumble, then the sound of air rushing through a hole. Conor did not have to turn around to know that Seejay was gone.
Anger almost took the knight. He nearly struck out with his sword to remove the lieutenant’s head from his shoulders. But his training held. Anger in battle only got one killed.
“You have until daybreak to leave Nieves,” the lieutenant told him. “Accept your defeat gracefully, Sir Conor, and move on. You did your best, but there is now nothing you can do to save your friend.”
“I will give you until daybreak,” Conor calmly replied, “to deliver my message to this Wizard Maldon. He has until tomorrow eve to return the Bard Seejay—unharmed, unspelled, and with a purse twice as heavy as he had when taken.”
“Ask your master if he knows exactly of what a Knight of the Red Branch is capable. Our training goes deep. If I must, I will raise armies of the dead. I will call on the spirits of Fairie. I will mortgage my soul to whatever demon I must to fulfill my vow to one under my protection. Tell your master this. Tell him to return the bard or prepare for war.”
Looking into the knight’s eyes the lieutenant read truth in what had been said. “I will tell him.” He then looked past Conor at his fallen men.
“They will be cared for. Now go.”
After the lieutenant left, those remaining gathered around Conor. They all began to talk at once.
“Are you really going to do all those things? Can you?…Will you usurp the Wizard?… You will be killed…You should leave; the storyteller is no doubt already dead…what of the fair?…What of my inn? Who’s paying the damages…What about these men?…
With a shout and a wave of his arms Conor silenced them all. “The less you all know the better. Someone fetch a healer for the wounded. Landlord,” gold and silver hit a table, “that should be payment enough for what is needed.” Looking over the dead, Conor selected one. Picking up the corpse, he slung it over his shoulder.
“What do you want him for?” asked one of the wounded guardsmen.
Conor looked at the man with cold eyes. “Sometimes an offering is needed. Thank your gods that I do not need a living one.” Addressing those remaining he said, “Warn your loved ones. Tomorrow will be a dark day. I go now to summon my forces and prepare for battle. Let none follow or disturb me.”
~ * ~
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On July 4th, 2014 the world lost CJ Henderson, an iconic author and all-around great guy. He lost his battle with cancer, but he did not go quietly and he will not be forgotten. His work is immortalized in over 70 novels and works of non-fiction, and at least as many collections, anthologies, and magazines. In fact, new works by CJ Henderson will publish for years to come thanks to his heroic efforts to finish and find homes for those projects as-yet unpublished at the time of his illness, two of which are printed here. CJ always did what he could to give other authors a boost. Encouraging them, mentoring them, sending opportunities their way. With that in mind those of us who called him friend feel there is no better tribute we can raise in his memory than an anthology filled with people he has helped over the years, writing stories inspired by CJ or his work. We hope you enjoy these tales of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and that they might inspire you as well. Featuring stories by: John L. French, Jean Rabe, Patrick Thomas, David Boop, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Jeff Young, Leona Wisoker Robert M. Price, Leona Wisoker, James Chambers, and, as always, CJ Henderson.
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