Although dialogue is preferred over combat, there are times you should stop wagging your tongue and start wagging your sword.
Mubwon Book of Proverbs
There was a forced cheerfulness in the day’s mood, like a party for a terminally ill child. Smiling lips received no support from worried eyes. The festive atmosphere contained an uneasiness that was difficult to ignore. Lumins are an optimistic clan, but recent events were beginning to erode most of the borough of Hamlet down to a quiet despair.
The monthly Gathering Day had arrived which meant the first district commons was filled with clansmen. Shops were opened to the forest air and to eager customers. Breads, pastries, nuts, sweets, and spices filled noses with succulent aromas, causing mouths to water. Dozens of customers bickered loudly with shopkeepers as they crowded around tables and carts of goods in hopes of acquiring a bargain. Friends and families shared memories and enjoyed the entertainment provided by street performers. Yet, between all of this merriment, there were small groups of adults, scattered about, talking in serious, hushed tones; not wanting their disquiet to spoil the day’s festivities. There would be time enough for that when the Crier arrived.
The wind was a chorus of agreeable fragrances as Bunkip and Rutkin made their way toward the borough square. The plumes in their hats bounced floridly, while the two Lumins dodged playing children and maneuvered around groups of chattering adults.
Rutkin had donned his usual burgundy hat, which sported a dark-gray feather, while Bunkip wore his favored blue headdress with a deep-black feather. Around his neck, hung by a red braided lanyard, was his warden medallion. Bunkip’s medallion was gold, meaning he had served as an elected representative of his ward for more than ten years. As was customary, their capes and vests matched the coloring of their hats, and, like everyone in the borough today, they were wearing their Gathering best. Everywhere the eye wandered fine satin-like cloth, spun from insect and plant fibers, glistened in the warm spring sunshine.
Bunkip stopped to buy some shelled nuts, then proceeded to the borough square to acquire his assigned seat. The square was used for plays and concerts, as well as district Gatherings, which meant visibility was good from most locations. Even so, wardens were required to sit in the front row for practical reasons. Often, wardens found themselves having to walk forward to the speaker’s circle to address the audience several times during a meeting. Having them sprinkled throughout a large crowd would create an awkwardness and rob valuable time from discussions if wading through hundreds of clansmen was required.
Even though Bunkip’s seat was reserved, Rutkin’s was not. So Bunkip preferred to arrive early to make sure there was an empty seat where Rutkin could sit behind him. Waiting for the meeting to start, they watched Lumins fill the square, ate nuts, and contemplated private thoughts. Bunkip studied the crowd. He felt a tension that had been growing over the last nine months. Indeed, he thought, he had not felt such feelings since the Rhag-Lumin War. He hoped that his announcement would ease some of the strain which pressed upon everyone.
Rutkin was wishing Linyu was next to him, as was their custom. She rarely missed a Gathering, but a visit to an aunt in the next borough kept her away. Linyu’s mother was Chancellor of Hamlet and, much to Rutkin’s relief, she was one of the few members of the Council of whom Bunkip approved. Rutkin was not immune to the great respect Bunkip commanded from the community. Bunkip’s opinion of his future wife and mother-in-law mattered a great deal.
Noticing his trade-master, Rutkin gave him a respectful wave. In fourteen days, he would be of-age and a peace officer of Hamlet. When he chose the profession, it was the closest he thought he would come to excitement in this small borough, but recent events had changed that dreary picture. Rutkin started to grow anxious as he wondered how Bunkip was going to react when he stood to be recognized by the Crier. In a few moments, he was going to commit himself to what he thought would be an extraordinary adventure. Just how extraordinary it was to become exceeded even Rutkin’s youthful imagination.
Bunkip and Rutkin sat for some time before they were pulled from their private reflections by the distant sound of a hand bell, the calling card of the Noblen Crier. The standing Lumins moved quickly to find seats, as others hushed their neighbors. Soon, a ponderous Lumin, his white fur yellowed with age, entered the square and made his way to the stage. With great effort, the hefty clansmen worked his way up the stairs. The rolls of excess flesh on his body, as well as the enormous blue feather sticking up from his coal-black hat, bobbed and jiggled with each step. When he reached the top, he paused for breath, wiping the sweat from his pink nose as the crowd waited in silent anticipation. He placed three hour-glass-like timers in front of himself on the podium, then paused, waiting for a group of late arrivals to take their seats.
The Crier sucked in a lung full of air before letting loose his deep-bass voice, “First topic today: more missing whelps.”
The crowd became restless; it took several rings of the bell to quiet them. The Noblen Crier cleared his throat. “Thirty-two more whelps are missing from the province. As in previous abductions, witnesses and evidence indicates that a Dragon is the culprit. The Dragon flies in from the Noblen Mountains, then returns the way he came, carrying his prey in his claws.”
The Crier read the children’s names, which produced some gasps and cries as the surnames of friends or kin were recognized. Then, once the Lumins realized the Crier had finished his list, the crowd exploded into chatter. The Crier let them discuss this among themselves for a few minutes before ringing his bell again.
“Order, please!” His jowls rattled with the force of the words. The talking ceased quickly. When he was satisfied with the silence, he continued, “It is believed that the Dragon is taking refuge beyond The Wall, for Deeplund Valley is nothing but a sea of grass and unsuitable for a Dragon lair. As the last of winter gives way to spring, it is feared the Dragon’s visits will increase. That is all that is known at this time. I now invite wardens to the floor.”
The Crier’s formal invitation for speakers was answered immediately by a female who stood, then called, “Citizen Crier, Hylin Whumpus, Chancellor of Hamlet.”
“Recognized, Chancellor Whumpus,” said the Crier. He took hold of one of the timers and turned it over.
Hylin’s bright green hat and cape looked pretty against her golden fur as she moved gracefully toward the speaker’s circle. When she stepped into the circle she asked, “What is the number of whelps lost in our province since this started?”
The Crier took a moment to consult a scroll, which he pulled from his vest, before replying. “Three-thousand eight-hundred sixty-four province wide. No other provinces have been affected.”
“Three-thousand eight-hundred sixty-four,” thought Rutkin aloud. “Enough to fill half the University of Hamlet.”
He was shushed by an ancient Lumin who was sitting to his right.
Hylin turned to the crowd, pleading, “How long are we going to stand for this? We must petition the Lumin High Council again! It is time we sent a small exploratory party to seek out the source of this crisis! We must demand action!”
Shouts of approval roared from the crowd while a thin, dark-brown Lumin, wearing a bright-red hat and cape, eased himself up and moved toward the Chancellor.
“Order!” shouted the Noblen Crier, shaking his bell vigorously. The crowd obeyed. “I know this is a subject of great emotion, and that is why I have been lenient about your lack of protocol, but use your hand signals, dear citizens, or be ejected from this meeting.” He paused to let his warning be absorbed, then to himself, as he shook his head, he said, “Every meeting; same reminder.”
“Citizen Crier,” the thin Lumin said, not taking his eyes off Hylin, “Kalpit Kringle, Councilor, first district of Hamlet.”
“Recognized, Councilor Kringle.” The Crier turned the second timer over.
“With all due respect to our honorable Chancellor, she’s talking nonsense.” As Kalpit turned to the audience his yellow feather flew into Hylin’s face, forcing her to step back. “First, she’s made so many trips to our fair capital city in the last year that I’m surprised she’s eligible for resident status in Hamlet, yet the High Council offers no solutions. Perhaps we should change the name of the capital from Bright to Dim.”
This was met with laughter from many in the audience.
“Second, have you forgotten our treaty with the Rhags? It forbids Lumin armies from passing into Deeplund Valley without permission.”
“Suddenly my ‘small exploratory party’ has turned into an army?” Hylin said defensively. “Don’t change my words to suit your purpose. Our treaty with the Rhags allows non-military groups to explore beyond the Noblen Mountains.”
“Ha!” croaked Kalpit. “All the Rhags need is an excuse to stir up trouble. They will surely twist your small exploratory party into something they don’t like. If for no other reason, they’ll do it just to give us grief.” As Kalpit surveyed the audience with his eyes hundreds of hands were raised, the backs of the hands toward him to show their support for his statement. The Crier smiled; finally the meeting was being conducted as it should.
“Surely the Rhags will understand our plight,” said Hylin. Before Kalpit could respond, almost all of the hands turned, palms facing Hylin, showing their disagreement.
“Of course, they will understand,” Kalpit purred to the Chancellor, then he turned to the crowd and yelled, “but who here thinks Rhags care about Lumin problems?” A sea of upheld palms responded.
In the spirit of the true dramatist, Kalpit lowered his voice forcing the crowd to listen carefully, “Fifteen short years ago, we were up to our bellies in the blood of our kinfolk and friends fighting a war with the Rhags. A war we came close to losing.” He turned to Hylin, “Even our Chancellor knows the pain brought on by war.”
Kalpit’s look of empathy did not comfort Hylin, and she resented him using her fallen husband for political fodder.
Looking back at the crowd, Kalpit’s voice grew louder, “Do I understand that our Chancellor now wishes to risk another war? And what of this Polymath Gord who has recently been the subject of Mubwon tales? Even the Mubwons, with their gift of gossip, claim to know little of him, except that he commands powerful magic. The lands that lie beyond The Wall are unknown to us, as well. Like Dragons, we have no diplomatic relations with him. Do we wish to provoke a fight with Gord’s clansmen as well?”
Annoyed, Hylin replied, “We can only start diplomatic relations if we send someone to start talking with these clansmen.”
Kalpit turned to Hylin. “How would we react if he, or anyone, sent an army through our valley?”
“You are the one with the army, Councilor. I’m talking about a diplomatic mission.” Hylin was becoming visibly irritated, a mood that Kalpit often inflicted on his fellow clansmen.
Rutkin noticed Bunkip’s body bending forward, a sure sign that he was about to stand and speak. Rutkin jumped up before all courage left him.
“Citizen Crier,” Rutkin’s voice cracked; someone behind him laughed. Bunkip, mouth open, turned and stared in surprise. Kalpit pulled his monocle from its vest pocket and eyed Rutkin through it as if the young Lumin were a disagreeable insect. Rutkin continued, “Rutkin Flintwood, apprentice peace officer.”
The Noblen Crier studied Rutkin carefully, smiled in recognition, then asked, “My first question is, are you of-age, good Rutkin?”
“That’s Regain Flintwood’s boy,” Kalpit answered for Rutkin; then he pocketed the monocle. “He’s not of-age.” This was said in the same tone one would say contemptible blood worm.
“I know who this young Lumin is,” growled the Crier. He had served in the war with Regain Flintwood, and he had helped bury him. The crier thought it a strange irony for someone to live through such a bloody war only to be killed in a coach accident.
The Crier gave Kalpit a look of disapproval, then said, “I’m sure Citizen Rutkin has a tongue of his own, Councilor Kringle.”
“I’ll be of age in twenty days.”
The Crier spoke sincerely, “Well, Rutkin, you bear a proud name, and I’m glad to see you showing an interest in the affairs of your community, but, as you should know, future peace officer, while it is encouraged for those who will be of-age within a year’s time to attend Gathering discussions, you are to leave your voice at home.”
‘’With all due respect —,” Rutkin began.
“Not finished, good Rutkin.” The Crier’s voice was friendly, but the undertones of authority were still there. He thought this would be a good time to deliver a civics lesson to the younger adults in the crowd. “As we all should be aware, anyone not of-age can bring questions or ideas to their ward meetings. In turn, the warden will bring them to the Gathering if they have merit. It requires special circumstances to speak here if you are not a warden. Understood?”
“Yes, Crier,” said Rutkin, then added quickly before he was told to sit down, “but I must speak, for I intend to slay the Dragon.”
Many in the crowd responded with gasps or laughter, and a murmuring begin to sweep across the audience. The Crier’s bell brought them to silence again.
‘’Very noble, boy,” hissed Kalpit, “but this is no time to be playing war.” Kalpit pointed to the empty seat behind Bunkip’s and ordered, “Sit down!”
Rutkin turned around to face the crowd, “Surely Gord nor the Rhags won’t care if we rid the world of one less Dragon.” Rutkin noticed that only a dozen hands were up in support of his idea, the rest of the Lumins kept their opinions in their laps.
The Crier’s voice lost its friendly tone. “If you do not sit down now, Rutkin, I will forbid your attendance at meetings until well after you are of-age.” Without a word, Rutkin quickly took his seat, putting on his most respectful expression. “Not another word, agreed?”
Rutkin showed the back of his hand, signaling compliance.
The Crier nodded once. “Good,” he said, then turned his attention to Kalpit. “And it is not your place, Councilor Kringle, to correct behavior at a Gathering.”
Kalpit gave a slight bow toward the Crier. “My apologies, Citizen Crier.”
The Crier nodded back. “Accepted. Please continue.”
“Dragons are a clan! Thinking creatures!” Kalpit said to everyone. “We’re not talking about hunting an animal! The legal complications are enormous. The clan of Dragon is a mystery, and one we can’t solve by sending armies into areas protected by treaties. That is a dangerous proposition. A war with Dragons could be the end of us all!”
It was clear how the audience felt about Kalpit’s speech; almost every hand was up showing agreement with him.
Bunkip stood, as well as three other wardens, but his call was first. “Citizen Crier, Bunkip Kindlewood, professor of archeology and anthropology, warden six.”
“Recognized, Professor Kindlewood,” said the Crier as he turned the third timer over.
Bunkip turned toward the crowd and said with great force, “Rutkin may not be of-age, but he’s correct!” He paused between each word as he added, “We must act!” He spread out his arms to show he was addressing everyone. “What say you?”
A few Lumins shouted agreement, then, like a dam bursting, the pressure of the crowd’s emotions broke through protocol, quickly swelling to a flood of yelling and hand waving.
The Crier’s face was a mask of exasperation as he called his fellow clansmen to order. “Silence! In the name of Lumin law, I call for order!” he bellowed. He waited for the silence; then waited some more after he got what he wanted. To speak after the Crier called formally for order was to lose one’s seat at the meeting. No one wanted that.
“All hear me now,” the Crier said firmly. “Use your hands to respond, or use your feet to leave.” He paused a moment to allow everyone to think about what he had just said, then added, “Professor Kindlewood is the third voice. We have three on the floor. No calls, please, until one of them has yielded or time has expired.” He glanced at the first timer which, in his best estimate, gave Hylin about eight more minutes in the circle. Even with the timers, he could tell this was going to be a long day.
He nodded to the trio standing to restart their discussion. “And,” he said, raising his index finger to the air, saying each word with heavy emphasis, “mind the rules.”
Kalpit’s nostrils flared as he pointed a long finger into Bunkip’s face. “You put the whelp up to this disruption,” he accused. “You can be imprisoned if you attempt to take the whelp into danger.”
Bunkip did not respond to the finger. He knew brushing it aside might be considered a physical attack, punishable by losing the right to participate in any Gathering for up to a year. He also knew Kalpit would push for the maximum time, as that would force Bunkip to resign as warden. Bunkip replied calmly, “Where we go is our business.”
Kalpit’s response echoed his incredulous expression. “This is outrageous!”
Bunkip started to pace, as he addressed the crowd. “Councilor Kringle insults the High Council for having no solution to this problem, yet provides none himself. We know that sending a few Lumins into Deeplund Valley, even if they are armed, would not break the terms of the Rhag treaty, and such a party shouldn’t be threatening to Gord, and certainly not to the Dragon clan. Our goal,” he added as he looked straight at Kalpit, “is to arrest the Dragon and bring him to justice. However, if the Dragon puts up a fight, interclan law permits clansmen to defend themselves.”
Kalpit sneered, “Dragons have not signed the Interclan Law Pact. What you’re suggesting is that we rid ourselves of one Dragon, and perhaps have an entire clan attacking us in revenge. A war with Dragons would make the Rhag-Lumin War seem like a courting!” Again, almost all of the crowd agreed with Kalpit. The fear of Dragons had grown stronger since Lumin children begin to disappear.
Ignoring Kalpit, Bunkip directed his argument back to the crowd. “What I am suggesting is action. We need to do something besides count missing whelps!” Much of the crowd showed their support for this statement by showing the back of one of their hands to Bunkip. This encouraged him.
Kalpit’s mood suddenly became friendlier as he turned to the Chancellor. “I agree as well; something should be done, but we want to avoid making this crisis worse. I think we should write another petition for action to the Lumin High Council. Wouldn’t you agree, Chancellor Whumpus?”
Bunkip did not let the Chancellor respond, a breach in etiquette but not of law. “Nonsense! What can develop, except for more missing whelps?”
“We need to pressure the Lumin High Council to study the issue further. We want to prod them into formulating a plan that doesn’t involve a war against Dragons and powerful polymaths,” said Kalpit as if that settled the matter.
“I agree,” said Hylin, “I will travel to Bright with a petition for the High Council again. It would be unwise to act without the backing of our central government.”
“Every borough in our province has sent a petition, yet, the Lumin High Council continues to study the problem,” complained Bunkip. “We need action, not political rhetoric.” Again, the crowd showed the backs of their hands. Several wardens raised a thumb over their heads indicating they would like someone to surrender the floor so they could speak.
Chancellor Whumpus offered, “When the Hamlet Council meets tomorrow, we can discuss sending an exploratory party,” turning to Kalpit, she added, “not an army…” She paused to emphasize her point, then continued, “but a small band of Lumins to investigate the Dragon situation.” She turned toward Bunkip. “I can then take our proposal to the High Council. It isn’t our place to make such a decision.”
Irritated, Bunkip said, “Dragon situation? You make it sound as if I were applying for a cesspool permit.” Then, in a volume only Hylin and Kalpit could hear, he added, “Please don’t turn politician on me now, Hylin.” Addressing the crowd again, he said, “The longer we wait, the more whelps are lost. Who will join a posse to travel beyond The Wall to seek answers to these crimes?”
Over three-thousand pairs of worried eyes studied Bunkip as every hand fell to its owner’s lap.
The silence engulfed Bunkip.
Only Rutkin stood. Apparently, whatever action the crowd approved of earlier didn’t involve doing anything beyond the borough limits. Bunkip was stunned into silence.
“That answers that,” Kalpit chuckled. “No one here wants to endanger themselves or possibly our entire clan, except for you and the whelp. He can’t go due to his age, and you…” Kalpit whipped out his monocle, a feat he could achieve so rapidly that it rarely failed to impress onlookers. He peered through it while pointing at Bunkip with his free hand. “Actually, you can’t go for the same reason. I admit; you were once a good warrior, but now you are older, Professor Kindlewood.” He slipped the monocle back in its pocket. “Now you are much more suited to prowling libraries in search of dusty tomes than hunting in Dragon infested forests.”
A few of the Lumins laughed along with Kalpit, while most, unsettled by the insult, showed the palm of one of their hands. Rage boiled in Bunkip, but it was not due to Kalpit. It was his borough that caused his temper to flare. “If I didn’t know you all as well as I do, I might think you cowards! I might think you are hiding behind Kalpit’s rhetoric, points of law, and predictions of destruction to protect yourselves from harm and justify your cowardice!” Bunkip spat on the ground, coloring his words with contempt. “For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of my borough.”
Almost all of the citizens responded by putting their palms flat out, facing Bunkip. It was clear they did not share his shame, nor did they like what he just said. Many of the wardens were using one hand to show their palm, and one to request that someone yield the floor.
Kalpit brushed Bunkip’s words away with a sweep of his hand. “You know better than to call me, or any of our good clansmen, a coward, citizen. This is more complicated than cowardice or ideals of what’s right. A Dragon war could mean our extinction.” Then to the crowd, he shouted, “What say you? Should we send an exploratory party to Deeplund Valley without the high counsel’s consent?”
Much to the Crier’s delight, no voices were used. Only a sea of palms lifted to show the Lumins’ wanted to wait for approval. Kalpit gloated, “Count the palms; your fellow citizens agree with me.”
Bunkip stood like stone, defeated.
Kalpit added, “By the way, if you try to leave with the whelp, I’ll have you arrested. You know you cannot knowingly take Rutkin into danger; he is under age.”
Chancellor Whumpus looked sternly at Kalpit. “Councilor Kringle, there is no need for such threats. Professor Kindlewood and Rutkin both know the law.”
Bunkip placed his hands behind himself, rocking back and fourth, then he looked at Rutkin and said, “Let’s go to Tamfire to visit an old friend.” Lifting his head toward the Crier he said, “I surrender the floor.”
Bunkip started to leave among shouts of “Citizen Crier” from several wardens, but Kalpit grabbed his arm stopping him. Bunkip’s fierce glare caused Kalpit to release his grip, as if he had touched a hot stove. The crowd quickly became quiet as they watched the drama unfold. Kalpit raised his hands to show no assault was intended, but he knew he had crossed the line of law.
Kalpit switched his angry tone of voice to one of concern. “Forgive my trespass, good Professor Kindlewood. But a trip to Tamfire? It is obvious what you’re really planning to do, and, frankly, I’m worried. You’re not fooling anyone with the ruse of a pleasure trip to a borough closest to the Noblen Mountains. You will be endangering not just yourself, but a whelp, and that would be breaking—”
“Enough!” Bunkip’s eyes were ablaze. He spoke with controlled but fiery emotion. “If I were trying to fool you, Councilor Kringle, you would never know. I am leaving for a pleasure trip to Tamfire with Rutkin. That is not against the law. And furthermore, Councilor, you may take your pompous attitude, and—and—”
“Stuff it up your nose!” cried Rutkin.
Bunkip nodded his approval at the remark then walked away, while Rutkin followed him, leaving Kalpit too shocked to speak. Some of the crowd laughed, not because the remark was humorous. It was a nervous laugh coming from a frightened people. It was a laugh born in the hopes of purging the tension from within, but when the last sound of it died, the feeling of uneasiness persisted.
• • • •
Mubwon Chronicles: Of Dragons, Boxes, and Periapts; copyright © 2016 by Jared Mark Graham. All rights reserved.