“That’s a Storyteller’s story,” says Chapin admiringly. “Is it yours?”
“Thank you. My mother’s,” I respond.
“You know,” Chapin says, “I don’t think Milos set a trap. I don’t think there are Servants near. I’ve visited him in Fourth Division villages and if that was his plan he could have had Servants take me then.”
“There are four of us now.”
“Yes, but he couldn’t have known that. He only expected me. And the Servants last night had a chopper. If there was still a chopper in the area it’d be on top of us by now.”
We are crouched alongside a rooftop gable, wedged into the cornice, clutching the decorative tiling that lines the gable’s dorsal fin. Roberto and Roman are metres away, pressing back into the elbow of a parallel gable. It’s precarious, but thanks to the tiling being newly installed, and the structures newly built, I’m confident it’ll hold. That might be the only thing I’m confident about.
“Milos is right though. If we go, we’ll die. There’s nothing for us out there.”
Chapin narrows his eyes and shakes his head dismissively.
“Why are buying into what Milos says? You say I was naïve, but there you go buying a story from an amateur. He wants us to believe we have no options.”
“So what are our options now?”
Roberto is listening to every word. Roman is scanning the skies. I note that: not the streets, the skies. Chapin notices too.
“I say we pause here for a short while. Milos wanted to demoralise us. I say we tell stories till we remember who we are.”
“You know, that thing we’ve been doing since before we could crawl? I say we sit here on this roof, with nothing but birds between us and the clouds, and tell stories to the open sky. It’s been years of deep forest and grey woods. I want to tell a story to the sun.”
Roberto breaks into a beaming smile. It’s crazy, but it’s true to us. I like the plan.
“What will your story be about?”
Chapin is smiling too, now. He looks remarkably relaxed. We’re mad, us Storytellers. Mad and dangerous.
“Well, you told a story of water and air. How about my story be fire and earth?”
I nod. “How about it? Go right ahead.”
A warlord had a mighty host. His hall was the biggest hall ever known. The main table on the dais seated one hundred warriors, with one hundred maids in attendance. The length of the hall was filled with tables, and every table was filled with warriors, with a maid to attend each warrior individually. The warlord was wealthy and known to be generous; his fame had drawn warriors from every corner of the world, from the tiger lands to the south, to the dragon lands in the west, the turtle lands to the north and the snake lands in the east.
Their armours were of every type: some were lacquered leather, some buffalo or rhinoceros hide, some were disks of bronze stitched together with leather thongs, and some were made of multiple fine layers of paper, capable of stopping arrows. Each warrior had a weapon of choice. Most had a halberd, a long staff with a spear-tip at one end, a hatchet to one side – a hook on the back of the axe-blade could be used to unseat horsemen. Some had a sabre mounted on a long staff, or simply a sabre. There were longbow archers and crossbow archers and cavalry archers. There were broadswords and the finest weapon of all, the long silky blade forged by the great masters, two softer layers of steel surrounding a hard inner core. The softer outer steel makes for resilience, while the hardness at the centre keeps the edge sharp. All of these weapons are murderous, and all of these warriors deadly.
Every night the warlord and his warriors feasted on game in the great hall. Every day they hunted or played war-games. Other lords petitioned the warlord for the use of his men as mercenaries, so always contingents were coming and going, making war, bringing back the spoils.
One day a man came from the west requesting an audience. He was tall and thin, and around his head, shoulders and upper torso was wrapped a red scarf that covered all his face, except his eyes, which were burnished bronze. The man had no weapon except a knife. His knife attracted great interest: it was long, with a single-edged blade that curved forward, the opposite of a scythe. Like the swords of the masters, it was forged ingeniously, softer steel on its back, for resilience, hard steel on the cutting edge. The hilt was slimmer than the blade and was covered in gold embossed designs, which might have been writing.
“It’s a magi,” the men muttered, but the warlord granted an audience.
“What is it you want?” the warlord asked the magi.
The magi bowed low.
“Great lord,” he said. “I come from a land a long way to the west, but even in our territories your armies are harassing peoples who are under our protection. I ask you to stop.”
“To stop?” said the warlord. He didn’t know which territories the man could mean, or which peoples, but the possibility of simply stopping an offensive action, just for the asking, had never occurred to him.
“Stop,” repeated the magi.
“Why would I do that?” the warlord asked, his combative instincts rising.
“To stop would further your prosperity. To continue will bring you ruin.”
“I cannot believe you are making threats.” The warlord really meant this. “Do you have no understanding of protocol? Do you have no common sense?”
“I understand the protocol of civilised lands. Here, to you, I must speak direct.”
The warlord was incensed. “Seize him!” he yelled to the men nearest the guest.
The men made to rise but as they did, they burst into flame. A roar went up across the hall, but no-one moved. No-one except the human torches, staggering into each other as they burned.
“I will return tomorrow,” the magi said. “Think on my request, and come up with a better answer.”
Then he turned and walked out of the hall, each foot-step marked by a burst of flame.
The hall was in uproar. It took many minutes to restore sufficient order for the warlord to be heard.
“This is outrageous!” he shouted. “Tomorrow when this Fire Steps charlatan returns, we will receive him in the manner he deserves!”
So the warlord and his council made plans for Fire Steps’ return.
Sure enough, part-way through the feast a tall figure stepped through the great double doors. As instructed, the men let him pass.
“Are you ready to accede to my request?” the magi asked. “Will you stop harassing the plains peoples of the west?”
“Absolutely not!” screamed the warlord, and on the word “not” a bank of archers with curved horn-bows amassed to the right of the dais let fly their arrows. But as the arrows reached the peak of their arc they burst into flame, just as the men had. The flaming arrows fell on tables throughout the hall, setting multiple small fires the warriors attempted to douse. Sounds of shouting mixed with maids screaming.
The magi stood motionless, his eyes fixed on the warlord.
“Bring back your hosts from the plains to the west,” he ordered, and everyone present heard it as an order. “I will return tomorrow to hear your answer.”
This time as Fire Steps wheeled around towards the doors, warriors fell upon him, but every weapon turned on Fire Steps burst into flame, causing the warriors to drop their swords and halberds, their sabres and daggers, frantically beating out the fires instead.
“This has to stop,” the warlord growled. The warlord and his generals conferred.
On the third night, the warlord’s warriors had drawn up in battle-lines. The tables – those still intact – had been pushed back against the walls. The women were expelled to the smaller dormitory halls.
“I don’t think this will work,” said a young boy helping fasten the clasps on the warlord’s armour.
“You don’t?” said the warlord. The boy was his grandson, and he liked the lad.
“No,” said the child. “He’s already shown twice over that anything you throw at him will just burst into flames. If we launch a full military action against this man the whole hall will go up.”
“I’ve thought of that,” his grandfather replied, indeed, thoughtfully. “But we can’t let him get away with insulting us – insulting me – in the great hall of power. He must be punished.”
“One thing at a time,” said the boy. “If he can’t be punished, he must at least be stopped.”
“Do you have any better ideas?” his grandfather asked.
“Let me try,” said the child. “Before you let loose your armies, let me give it a go.”
So that night when Fire Steps pushed through the great double doors, in front of him he saw the entire forces of the warlord, arrayed as if for battle, and at the very front, standing alone, a boy, unarmed.
“Stop!” said the boy.
The magi stopped.
“That’s a good start,” he conceded, going down on one knee in front of the child. “You have made a reasonable request. Now I make my request of you.”
Turning to where the warlord stood, he asked again, “Will you stop harassing my people?”
“I speak for my lord,” the child said quickly.
“That’s an even better step,” Fire Steps said, approvingly. “Two sensible responses. I am encouraged. But I thought weapons speak for the great lord?”
“Weapons only speak the language of war. It takes a man or a woman to speak words of peace.”
“You are a remarkably wise child,” the magi smiled. “Are you born into the wrong tribe?”
“What will happen if we do not stop?”
The magi barely paused. “I told you. To continue to kill the plains people will bring you only ruin. To attempt to harm me will bring this hall down on your heads.”
The boy turned towards his grandfather. “I think we have no choice but to stop.”
The warlord suppressed a groan. “We cannot stop. We are born to kill. If you don’t understand that, the magi is right: you are no child of mine.”
With that, he motioned to his banner men. “Kill them!” he said.
As he said the words, the arrows flew, the men fell forwards, and the magi scooped the child into his arms. As he did so a halo of fire rose around them. The headscarf unfurled and extended into the long ridged back of a copper-coloured dragon. The magi became a great serpent, its long tail fanning flames that incinerated warriors in its sweep.
“Climb on my back,” the magi instructed the boy. “You won’t be scorched.”
The child climbed onto the dragon’s back and wedged himself between where the ridge of spines started and the base of the serpent’s neck, clutching its flaming mane. As the boy looked at his hands he saw he was glowing like an ember.
The dragon beat its wings and a hundred warriors fell. It threw back its head and breathed fire at the rafters. The great beams collapsed, crushing burning men who milled about below. The dragon rose onto its hind legs and took off through the roof. The sound of fire roared in the boy’s ears. As the dragon took flight the great hall fell, a heap of smouldering charcoal.
“Where are we headed?” the boy yelled into the dragon’s tufted ears.
“Home. The end is always home,” the dragon replied, its great voice husky. “You were born out of place. I came to fetch you.”
“Am I a dragon?” the boy screamed.
“Not yet,” the dragon answered. “But in time you will be. You have good genes, and the capacity to learn. Hold tight now!”
And with that, he wheeled towards the west and burst through the sunset.
“That has to be traditional,” I tell Chapin, laughing. “Or was it your father’s?”
“As a matter of fact,” Chapin grins, “It was. What we need now is a golden eagle or a flaming dragon to lift us from this roof!”
“My turn.” I’m shocked at the sound of Roberto’s voice. Chapin is too. Even Roman, who is deaf, turns in amazement.
“Let me tell my story,” says Roberto, voice husky as a dragon’s, but much softer. “When the fires tore through our home the roof made a sound like breaking ice and I grew deathly cold. The flames lit up the sky, my sisters were ablaze, but I plunged into darkness. The Servants in black were flame illuminated while I receded. I fell through time, through dark and cold and space. I screamed but my voice rang hollow, then silent. I screamed but nothing came out of my mouth. All around me people were killing, dying, running, falling. I ran and ran and I know I was on fire, but the deep chill had me.
“I ran into the deep forest, where no light penetrates and everything is dark. The deep forest is so thick I couldn’t run further. I couldn’t stand up. I fell to a floor of pine needles and I didn’t move. It was so cold I didn’t think I could live, but I have, and I am here. On a rooftop, telling stories. Truly, I am a magi. I am a Storyteller, and I’m still alive.”
The three of us stare at Roberto in wonderment. Here we are telling myths and fables and in front of us sits Roberto, clutching the corrugated tiles that are a dragon’s mane, pressed close against the serpentine line of the gable. He is transformed, and he’s right: we’re still alive.
“Are we ready to continue?” Chapin asks, directly facing Roman.
Roman, who cannot hear, understands at once. He scrambles to his feet and leads the way onwards.