[Excerpt from an old draft of book 1, circa 2009]
Cob shook his head and looked away. “Stories are stories.”
“Let me give you an example, eh? You know the tale of Gwydren and the Lion?”
“You mean Gidrin?”
“Ah, from the north are you?”
Flushing, Cob cursed his tongue for its automatic betrayal. “Er… Yeah. Kerrindryr,” he mumbled, still staring off the side.
“Aye, that makes sense. Gidrin, then. So how does the story go?”
“What? It’s been ages since I’ve heard it.”
“Go on, try.”
Cob gave the old man a puzzled look, but Jasper’s eyes were on the road. Sitting back from the edge of the bench, Cob squeezed his eyes shut, brows furrowing as he tried to remember.
“Well,” he said, “there was a boy named Gidrin. Lived with his parents and his sister near this Dark sorcerer’s forest which no one was supposed to enter.”
He frowned. It sounded clumsy, awkward, nothing like how he remembered it. Old echoes of his mother’s voice lingered on the words as he tried to recall them, bringing back the hollow resonance of the cave-home, the tapping of rain on the leather sheet of the door….
“The sister,” Jasper prompted gently.
“Oh. His sister. Well, she was shy and he was bold, so he was always off near the woods while she stayed home. And so one day Gidrin came back and she was gone.
“Their mother was at market, their father was at work or something, so she’d been all alone. And there were cat-prints everywhere–she liked cats–and then the sister’s little footprints going toward the woods. So Gidrin followed them. They went right up to the forest and he followed them in because he was bold and kind of stupid–they don’t say that part in the story but he was. So he called for her and called for her and heard somethin’ crying, so he went to find it.
“But it was a cat. Just a normal cat with a ribbon ’round its neck like his sister’s. So Gidrin freed the cat from the hedge and followed it when it ran off.
“It was too fast though, so he got lost. He came to a lake and there was this wildcat with a ribbon around its neck too. He wasn’t quite that stupid, so he threw a rock at it and chased it when it ran off. It was fast but he was pretty determined.
“They ran for a long time, then suddenly the forest ended in a huge hedge. The wildcat climbed right over, and Gidrin tried but it was covered in thorns. He went all the way around but there was no break at all. So he sat down to cry.
“Then this ragged old lion came out of the forest and walked right up to him. It wasn’t growling or anythin’, so he wasn’t afraid. It lay down in front of him and he saw a ribbon in its mane, so he climbed on its back.
“So the lion jumped right over the hedge, and Gidrin saw that behind it was this tall black tower. The lion went up to the big black door and then looked at Gidrin.
“It said, ‘Boy, I am an old weak lion. Give me your youth so I can be strong again, and I’ll take you to the top of the tower.’ And Gidrin was still not really smart so he believed the lion, because it had his sister’s ribbon, and so he agreed.
“The lion pounced and broke the door, wham! There were big spiral stairs inside that went all the way to the top, and the lion ran up them and got faster and faster. And Gidrin grew. At the bottom he’d been just a kid, but as they went up the tower he got bigger and stronger and the lion grew younger and sleeker. And Gidrin thought he’d become a man and figured he could fight the sorcerer.
“But the stairs went on and on, and the lion ran faster and faster. And Gidrin got older. His hair started going white. ‘Stop!’ he said, but the lion was just a blur and he couldn’t let go of its mane. Up and up they went until his hair was all white and he was weak and the lion was young and strong. Then finally they reached the top, and the lion went in through the open door.
“The only thing in the room was a big tangled bed. Gidrin got off the lion and went up to it and pulled away the blankets, but there were nothing but bones there. Bones and ribbons.”
Cob paused, remembering being on the listener side of this story while the firelight flickered and the thunder rattled through the mountains. How had his mother sounded when she told this part? Had she been sad? Cautionary? Smug, like the priest at the quarry when he told tales like that? But her voice was gone from his memory. He could not tell.
“But…so, anyway,” he continued, “then the lion came closer and it changed. It turned from a beast into a man with a lion’s head–the sorcerer. And he stretched his mouth wide and ate old Gidrin up. The end.”
Jasper bobbed his head thoughtfully. “So, what do you learn from that tale?”
“Cats are evil.”
“Heh. But not many turn into sorcerers. Anything else?”
“Um…magic is evil?”
“Possibly. How about ‘do not seek after the disappeared, lest you also disappear’?”
“And ‘old people are worthless’?”
“Well…yeah. No offense.”
Jasper chuckled and waved a gnarled hand amiably. “Not to worry. It’s changed quite a bit from when it was true, I must say.”
“It was true?”
“Aye. Not the way you’ve told it, mind, but there was a boy named Gwydren once. And he lived with his sister and parents in a tower in a sorcerer’s wood. Though to be honest, it was a sorceress’s wood: his mother’s.”
Cob stared at him. “You’re making things up. It’s just a fable.”
“No, no,” said Jasper, his eyes gleaming from their crinkled settings like a pair of bright emeralds. “It was long ago, lad, when even the world was young and magic had none of the dark reputation it does now. This is a very different age we live in. Doesn’t mean things were always this way.”
“So what happened then? To Gwydren.”
“You sure? It might harm your delicate sensibilities.”
“It’s just a story. Go on.”
Jasper nodded and adjusted his hat. His white brows drew together in thought. “Been a long time since I last told this one, mind you. Let’s see.
“Once, a very long time ago, a boy named Gwydren lived in a tall black tower with his mother, father and little sister. His father was a forester and his mother a sorceress, both tasked to watch over the dark forest in which they had made their home, for it was a time when great and terrible forces walked the wilderness and sometimes threatened the shining cities beyond.
“The tower and its walled grounds were enchanted with the strongest spells the sorceress could muster, to make the family’s home safe within the threatening forest. And thus the children never felt afraid though they were often left alone. They had each other and the family cat–a tubby, pampered creature–and often played in the vast labyrinthine gardens where their mother’s enchanted flowers grew. They rarely thought about the forest outside.
“One day, while the children were playing hide-and-seek among the hedges, Gwydren happened to pass by the great wrought-iron gates. To his surprise, he saw his sister on the other side, walking into the forest. He knew that they were not allowed to go out so he called to her, but she did not seem to hear. So he opened the gates and went after her.
“Into the forest he ran, catching glimpses of her among the dark trees, but no matter how fast he went, he couldn’t seem to catch up. No matter how loudly he called, she did not hear him. Further and further he ran until he lost any sight of his sister, and he realized that he was lost.
“Frightened for himself and his sister, he sat down and cried. He knew no magic, no woods lore; the children had always been sheltered and kept safe within the walls. And he cried so long and hard that eventually he fell asleep beneath the trees.
“He woke up to a rough tongue licking his face: the family cat’s. Gwydren was overjoyed and told the cat, ‘If you can find me, you can find my sister. Please, lead the way.’ Immediately the cat turned and started through the woods, and the boy followed.
“They walked for a long time. Finally the trees thinned and Gwydren saw the gates of home–still open, still revealing the garden maze. Though it was growing dark he could see no lights within the tower. Confused, he asked the cat, ‘Where is everyone? Where is my sister?’
“And the cat said, ‘Within.’
“Now, understand that the boy was not surprised. His mother was a sorceress after all, and in that age talking animals were not a strange thing–though this cat had never spoken before. ‘Something is wrong,’ the boy said. Even the hedges seemed threatening somehow.
“‘It is no longer your home, and you can not pass through the garden,’ said the cat.
“‘But I must,’ said the boy.
“‘Tell me,’ said the cat, ‘would you do anything for your sister?’
“‘Of course,’ said the boy.
“‘Then give me your strength, and I shall fight for you.’
“And the boy said, ‘I will.’
“He reached out to the cat, who very delicately bit him. He felt pain, then weakness, and before his eyes the cat grew to the size of a wolf. ‘Come,’ it said, and paced through the gates. Gwydren followed.
“As they passed through the garden, the hedges reached for them with thorny branches, but the cat slashed them apart with sharp claws. The weeds tripped Gwydren up and even the flowers waved their petals threateningly. The cat pounced on each creeping vine and saw-edged frill, but the boy was too slow and one small flower managed to latch onto his hand. The cat clawed it to bits, but not before the boy had bled. The cat scolded the boy for being careless and led on to the tower.
“The door was open and the inside dark. Strange laughter echoed down from above, chilling the boy. The huge cat sat in the doorway and looked up the stairs and said, ‘The magic here has been twisted. Child, you can not pass through these wards.’
“‘But I must,’ said the boy.
“‘Would you do anything for your sister?’ asked the cat. The boy looked down at his bitten hand, then nodded.
“And the cat said, ‘Give me your will and I shall break these wards.’
“And the boy said, ‘I will.’
“And so the huge cat rubbed against his leg, and with each brush of fur he felt crackles of energy pass through and leave him. Each spark sent weariness through his heart, and with each spark the cat grew again. From waist-high it became chest-high, and a great shaggy mane grew around its head. In a deeper growl, the cat said, ‘Come,’ and started up the stairs. Gwydren followed.
“Ahead of him the cat snarled and snapped at the air, sparks flying away with every swipe of its claws. The spells gleamed and shattered before it, but like slashed spiderwebs some remnants still lingered. Gwydren watched in a daze until glimmering filaments reached from the darkness to caress his face and steal his breath. With a roar, the great cat bounded back and shattered those strands, but the boy’s face stung and bled from where the magic had touched. And the cat scolded the boy for being careless and led on up the stairs.
“They passed many closed doors on their way up the spiral, but at the very top the door to his mother’s sanctum was open. The laughter came clearer from here though the room was dark, and the boy made out two voices: his sister’s and a voice that sounded both strange and somehow familiar. He smelled blood. Despite his weariness, he wanted to rush right in, but the great cat barred his way.
“‘There is evil here, child,’ the cat said in a solemn voice, ‘and it is not an evil that you can fight. To go through this door now is to die.’
“‘But I must,’ the boy said, for he knew that it was true. The tower had been breached, its magic perverted. Though weak, though weary, he stepped forward to push past the great cat. ‘If you will do nothing, I must at least try!’
“And the great cat looked at him solemnly and said, ‘You would give everything?’
“And the boy–for though frightened he was still the child of a sorceress–said, ‘Everything.’
“‘Then give me your future, and you shall wield my claws,’ said the cat.
“And the boy said, ‘I will.’
“And the great cat rose and put its heavy paws on his shoulders, and he saw that its eyes were golden and deep as oceans. Slowly he sank into them, and the weight on his shoulders lifted. He flexed his hands and found them furred and bearing wicked curved claws, and he shook his head and felt the soft mane shift about his face. The last of the wards bent away from his golden glow and snapped. The cat was gone, but in his head it whispered, ‘Come.’ And Gwydren crossed the threshold.
“His own light lifted the darkness from the room and he saw the blood everywhere–on the floor and walls and tables, on the bookshelves and the reading-chairs. And he saw the bodies crumpled in the shadows, done in by trickery and ambush. And finally he saw the two figures before the cold hearth.
“His sister stared at him with blank, terrified eyes. Her playmate stood and Gwydren saw that it wore his face, blood-smeared. ‘It’s another monster from the woods come to harm us, dear sister,’ the not-Gwydren said. Its eyes were unreflecting black.
“‘Who are you?’ Gwydren demanded, ‘and what have you done?’ And the black-eyed boy laughed a harsh, monstrous laugh.
“‘I? I have done nothing,’ it said. ‘It was not I who fell for a phantasm and opened the gates. Not I that fled the sanctuary, leaving those inside without protection. Not I that discarded his skin bit by bit, too weak and frightened to face danger on his own. Mankind is so easy to trick–is it not, my brother?’ And Gwydren knew that it spoke to the cat within him. ‘So easy to mold, to turn upon itself. Such a fertile hunting ground for me and my new playmate.’ It set its hand on the sister’s shoulder and smiled a nasty smile.
“Gwydren snarled, feeling the strength and rage of the lion within him. ‘I have not been tricked,; he said. ‘I have come to destroy you, monster.’
“But the black-eyed boy only laughed and replied, ‘I am not so much a monster as you. You have sold yourself to the beasts; you will never again walk among men, nor take back your face. Kill me and you kill her true brother. You can never regain your place.’
“And Gwydren looked to the girl cowering before him, and to the blood-stained boy that bore his face. And he remembered what he had told the lion: Everything. I would give everything. He felt the lion-fangs in his own mouth as he opened it to speak.
“‘Then she shall have no brother,’ he said.
“And with that–”
Jasper stopped abruptly, and Cob looked up, shaking himself from the dark dream. Sitting forward, the old man squinted ahead intently. A plume of dust rose in the distance.
[brief interlude of spoilery action]
“So how did the story end?”
Jasper glanced sidelong to him and grinned. “How do you think? The lion ate him.”
[This set of stories was cut from the current draft due to being too much of a digression at the time. Jasper’s version may return in a later book.]