Thursday, December 20, 2007

Veillard the Half-Mad

Written By Dan Hood
Illustrated by Aaron Siddall

In Alyecir, where duels are common and honor is as precious as blood, they call me Sir Veyardo, and are astonished at my prowess with a blade.

In the Southern Tier, where they love music and poetry, Veyardio is welcome on every stage, at every recital.

In the Freeports, the deal is everything; they call me Master Vellardt, and the contracts I write there are considered masterpieces.

In the hoary old city of Torquay, where knowledge is power, my name is Vellardus and my erudition is deeply respected.

In Harcourt, with its stifled canals and rotting piers, they call me Veillard the Half-Mad, and some wit always adds: "Yes, but which half?"

It is not the half that fights, or the half that sings. Nor is it the half that conducts business, or brings forth reams of ancient scholarship.

So which half is it, this half of mine that is mad? I fight like a demon, sing like an elf or an angel, barter like a Yezidi merchant and pontificate like a grey-bearded sage.

The answer is this: I am a master of all trades -- and the part of me that is mad is the part that was never an apprentice.

I do not know how I became what I am. How did I learn to fight, for instance? Skill such as mine is not inherent in a child at birth -- it is the product of long training, years of training. But I never trained.

And so for poetry. The thousands of poems and songs I know, I never learned -- and yet there are bards who spend their lives learning less than a tenth of what I know.

Business and scholarship: I do not remember the financial tricks that are second nature to me, the arguments and conclusions that come so easily to my mind and yet baffle the wise.

I should be content. Content? I should rejoice in my powers, my unacquired armory of skills and knowledges. I should own fleets, lead armies, rule nations, woo women.

However, I am half-mad. I do not know how I came by my gifts, and this torments me, even as I know it is ridiculous to be tortured. Who were my parents? Where did I grow up? What patient tutors taught me to sing, to fight, to do business?

These questions hound me through my wandering life -- for I do wander, from land to land, searching for the familiar, for something to remind me, to make the first break in the wall that hides my history from me.

Plunging from kingdom to kingdom, careering wildly about the known world, carrying my madness with me. With my talents, I gain place and make friends easily. But I lose them easily as well -- with my questions, my incessant investigations, my digging into the muck of the recent past, looking for news of a lost child, a kidnapped heir, a faerie-switched youth. And, too, I lose them with my fractiousness, for I grow irritable when my investigations yield nothing.

I fight duels. I kill men.

This is by way of an introduction. You know something of me now.

* * *

I went to the Midlands of Taralon because I had not been there before. My past was not in Harcourt or Torquay, the Southern Tier or the Freeports, all places where my skills might have come from. No skills come out of the Midlands. It is a jumble of petty domains, where equally petty lords try to carve pathetic empires out of a rich countryside, ignoring the feeble protests of the king in Torquay.

There was a rumor, though, of a lord who had died in one of their constant wars and left a son. The son was said to have been a precocious scholar -- and he had disappeared.

I went to the Midlands because I thought I might be this son.

I was not.

There were those who had known him, who knew even then where he was. I was not he.

But I stayed on in the Midlands. I bought a cottage in a small village by the small keep of a small lord. There was a stream behind my cottage, and it burbled quietly all day long. In the summer, the great scattered oaks of the countryside provided cool shade, and the days were sweet. Snow blanketed the land in winter, and it was a small joy to sit by the warm hearth. There was food in plenty and a measure of peace because, though his land was rich, the local lord's holdings were small.

Why did I stay there? I did not forget the past I did not know, and it did not cease gnawing at me. The people, though, did not know me. They had heard nothing of the prodigy who could could do everything except point to his origins, the genius who knew everything except where he came from. And they were farmers, after all, only tillers of the soil, which I knew I had never been.

In solitude, I found a small measure of comfort; in the simple surroundings I found nothing to remind me of my complexity. This is condescending, but it is true.

* * *

There is a phrase I often use: "Such a one as that might I have been."

It is what I say when I see someone even mildly special, in the bosom of his family or the thick of a fight with comrades at his back. When I see someone like that, I wonder what I should be now if I knew a family, home, friends. And I think, "Such a one as that might I have been."

And so I said when I saw the knight approach the gate of the small lord's small keep. It was a perfect keep, just the sort envisioned in a thousand tales and songs of courtly love -- there was a moat and a drawbridge, and pennons snapping in the strong spring breeze. The knight, too, was perfect, upright in his saddle, armor gleaming, lance like a pillar holding up the sky. Beneath his helm, I knew he was handsome and young.

There are assumptions in all the songs and stories of romance that I know without having learned, assured facts that composers and tale-spinners have no right to know. That a lord was stubborn, when none are alive who knew him; that a lady had golden tresses when not a lock has escaped the grave; that a knight was handsome, when no pictures survive his death.

This, however, was not a tale -- I had lived in the village for over a year, somewhat at peace, the edge of my madness dulled. I knew that this handsome knight sought the hand of the lord's golden-haired daughter, who would gladly have given it but that the lord refused it stubbornly. The rumors in the village spoke of second sons and insufficient bride-prices, of insolent demands, cold refusals, and tearful pleadings.

And so when the knight -- a true troubador's knight, a vision on a perfect spring day -- came to the stubborn lord's keep, some of my madness returned, tinged as it always had been with a certain romantic spirit, and I said to myself, "Such a one as that might I have been."

The knight was refused audience with the lord; a low retainer even went so far as to fire a bolt into the road to drive him off.

I watched from the village commons, and even as the bolt quivered in the dust and the perfect knight coolly turned his horse and cantered off, I could see myself in the same position. A different Veillard would have held the reins just so, tilting his lance at just such an angle as he rode away with dignity.

Or would he? Mightn't he have stormed the castle? As skilled as I am in war, I could take the lord's keep: he had only three retainers, and they were but poor soldiers.

I cannot answer; there is no different Veillard, a second son with an insufficient bride-price who can court golden-haired beauties. I am a blank slate, and a half-cracked blank slate at that.

* * *

As a teller of tales and singer of love songs, I despise irony. It is cheap; it mocks where mockery is inappropriate. But as a trader and intriguer of some skill, I appreciate it to the full. Thus the abduction of the lord's daughter by bandits within the week was both a sorrow to me and a source of amusement. Had the lord let the knight have his way, she should have been safe, ensconced in her new husband's arms.

The lord's grief was spectacular, his tears scattered widely -- but I could not help wondering if they were scattered for his daughter or for the money the bandits demanded as ransom.

I despised him a little, I must confess, thinking, "Such a one as that I would not be." I would not have clouded motives; I would not worry about money. A daughter would have been precious to a different Veillard.

Perhaps I am unfair; the lord collected the demanded ransom, but he could find no one to deliver it. The bandits had slit the throat of one of his retainers, and the remaining two refused point-blank to take the money to the secluded glen mentioned in the bandits' note; there was no one in the village willing to either.

I think I should have volunteered, but the perfect knight came first. He rode onto the commons, where the lord had just finished pleading for someone to carry his treasure off to the forest and bring back his daughter. With magnificent disdain he peered down at the lord.

"I will rescue your daughter."

"Such a one...." I muttered admiringly to myself, from beneath a shady oak at the edge of the commons.

"Ah," the lord said, and once again I despised him for his baseness, "but then you will demand her hand."

The knight stiffened. "I will not, sir. I will rescue her for love, and demand nothing. And if you will not give me the treasure to carry, I shall go anyway, undoubtedly to die for love."

In my head, I heard echoes from a thousand stories, and nodded my approval. The lord, however, still hesitated. Then I remembered a particular story, and stood up.

"I will go with him, my lord, as his companion. Then he may not demand the lady's hand, for we will both have rescued her." The lord beamed his gratitude, and the knight frowned. "Though it would be fitting to recognize both his courage and his worthiness," I added, which caused the lord to scowl. The knight, to my surprise, continued to frown, but then I realized that a different Veillard might well have resented my intrusion, however well-intentioned. A different Veillard would not have wanted to share the glory.

As I have said, though, I am not a different Veillard, and the horsetrader in me suggested that the knight should be grateful for whatever assistance he could get.

* * *

We rode off that very afternoon, the treasure in a chest lashed across the withers of his horse. I did not wear armor, in deference to his position as the head of our party of two. To anyone who cared to look, we might have been knight and squire. I rode behind him, for the woodland trail we followed was narrow.

It was a quiet ride; we did not speak, each sunk in his own reflections. He, I did not doubt, was thinking of his beloved, helpless in the hands of cruel bandits.

I, on the other hand, was enjoying the day. Bandits do not frighten me -- I am equal to ten bandits. There is no hubris in this, only plain-speaking. I take no pride in talents for which I cannot account.

The day, though, was beautiful; the woods alive with birdsong and bursting with spring growth, heady with the scent of flowers and the magic of deeds worth doing. I was following a perfect knight (who might have been me) in search of a beautiful lady. I was a fool.

He made us stop the night, though another hour's riding would have brought us to the rendezvous.

"I will not meet them at night," he told me, making a bed for himself on the hard ground.

Such scruples! I marvelled at and admired his chivalry then, even as I told myself that a night meeting might be better. Trickery is best served by darkness. Nonetheless, he would not be moved, and I did not try.

He lit a fire, though I counselled against it.

"They may see, and attack us in the night."

"I will not hide myself," he said with pride. "Let them come."

I thought that I had offended him, because he was sullen all through our dinner, staring moodily at the fire, darting occasional angry glances my way, frowning with ill-suppressed displeasure.

My mood was good, however; I took pleasure in his displeasure, because I understood it to mean, not that he did not like me, but that he did not like me there, intruding on his lover's errand.

"I admire you," I said, in an attempt to mollify his anger. "You are a true knight."

He laughed harshly and poked at the fire.

"No, truly. If my life had been different, I hope I should have been like you -- a knight on a righteous quest, a figure out of a story."

He peered at me across the fire, a penetrating gaze, and asked in what way my life would have to have been different.

I told him of my past then, of waking on that beach ten years ago, without clothes, without money, without memory. Since then, I have been scouring the land for some hint of who I am, incessant and fruitless search.

Again a harsh laugh greeted my words. "And now you scour the Midlands, and you thrust yourself into my affairs, and you say you 'admire' me! Ha!"

I was a little hurt by this, but then I remembered his treatment at the hands of the lord -- the refusals, the humiliations, the bolt in the dust between his horse's hooves. There is only so much adversity a person, even a perfect knight, can be expected to bear with equanimity. I think a different Veillard might have known this.

In any case, I gave up, leaving him to his taciturn moodiness. To a certain extent, I told myself, it was appropriate. Does not every great hero have his dark times, his moments of suspicion, when he feels every hand is against him?

He offered to take the first watch, and I went to sleep. I dreamed of that beach, where I was born fully grown, thrust into the world with all the skills I would need to survive, except a way to explain them.

* * *

My sleep is ever light, and so I woke when the knight left the camp, though he had tried to be silent. I did not move, smiling a little at his clumsiness. Who can be quiet in armor? And besides, the treasure in the chest clinked loudly as he led his horse away.

I let him get a quarter of an hour's lead, lying by the dead fire and silently applauding his courage and desire for singular glory. Then I rose and slipped after him like a wraith.

The moon was high and the path clear; he was easy to follow.

As I trailed him, I know I was smiling, beaming like an idiot. Here, at least, was a story I had earned, a romance from my present, not my unknown past. And I blessed him, this surly paragon of knighthood, jealous of his fame and his honor and his lady-love.

"Such a one," I said to myself, over and over and over, mouthing the words like a prayer. Oh, Gods, to be another Veillard, with another lady waiting at the end of the trail -- my lady. The bandits, I remember thinking, could be the same. Bandits are cheap, like irony.

Except there were no bandits.

* * *

I came to the edge of the glade appointed in the ransom note, and saw the perfect knight and his beauteous lady, arguing in fierce whispers in the moonshine.

"And I say we should kill him!" the knight was saying. "He wears his sword like a soldier, but he has no armor. I could cut his throat as he slept." The moon played over his armor, limning him in silver.

The moon did wonders for his lady as well, turning her golden hair into a shower of molten silver, showing her heart-stopping face with its expression of scorn.

"Will you always kill? Must you be so simple? There was no need to kill old Yowen, and I tell you there is no need to kill this meddler."

"And if the 'bandits' hadn't killed a man, do you think your father's retainers would have hesitated to ride out here? Would we have been able to get away with this?"

She conceded his point with little grace. "All right, Yowen was necessary. But this other? We have the money -- we can leave, ride off. We will kill an animal, daub a bit of clothing with its blood, create signs of a struggle. When this fool wakes, he will discover the signs, and assume that you went off to rescue me on your own. We can leave a piece of my veil as well -- then everyone will think we are both dead. We can be in Torquay in a month, and live like kings on father's money."

I had long since stopped muttering my prayer.

"I still say we should kill him," the knight persisted stubbornly. "Why leave a loose end?"

Their voices grew a little heated, serpents' hisses in a scene suited only to tender whispers. Two handsome lovers meeting in moon-drenched glade, yet where they should have caressed, they gestured angrily; where they should have kissed they spat. I was dull as a stone, rooted to the spot, unwilling to comprehend this treachery.

They argued on, until finally she turned from him and mounted her horse.

"Fine, kill him if you will. I'm going now -- you may catch up." She took hold of the reins of his horse, on whose back rested the treasure.

"Oh no," he said, quickly retrieving the reins. "I'm not leaving you with the money. If we have to leave him alive, we will -- but I'm not leaving you with the money."

They were frozen now, mutual suspicion revealed. There is no honor among thieves; perhaps there is no honor among lovers, either.

I stepped out of hiding, drawing my sword as I went.

What was my intention? The result would probably have been the same, but a different Veillard would have known what he meant to do as he stepped from the woods. I waited, however, and only fought when the knight drew his sword and attacked me.

In the heat of the fight, even as he pressed his attack desperately, I wondered at the master who had taught me swordcraft. The knight flailed madly and I parried easily; who ground this into me? Who had had the patience to instill me with a thousand defenses, to train me til they came by instinct?

The knight fell on my sword within a minute, run cleanly through. He cursed me as he fell.

The girl fled while we fought, remembering even in her haste to grab the reins of the treasure horse.

I caught her less than an hour later.

* * *

The lord was truly grateful for his daughter's return, and I bitterly regretted my earlier thoughts: he offered me the whole of the treasure as reward.

Some will say I should not have told him of his daughter's deception. Certainly it would have been easier for me -- he turned me off his land, shouting that I lied, that I was a bandit myself, that I defamed his daughter and the memory of the young knight who had sacrificed his life to rescue her.

Even as I rode away, I thought anew: "Such a one as that might I have been." Now, however, I meant the lord, blinded by his own love for the his daughter, and his baseless faith in romance. So, though I could have slaughtered his pitiful retainers, I let them ride me to the border of his small domain.

I could not blame him for his anger. A different Veillard might have -- but, for the last time, I am not a different Veillard. In the Midlands I am Veillard the Bandit, and my treachery is a byword.

But there are lands I have not seen, where a half-mad man might have come from.

I will go there and look.



This are my attempt at making heroes that are physically proto-superhuman, more on par with Doc Savage or the Goon than Superman. These Gold...