13 November 2012

The Hero's Knot (II)

As part of the continuing serialization of my new novel, The Hero's Knot, currently in drafting stage for National Novel Writing Month, here's part II:

41,000 words down, 9,000 to go.


Outside the bank, on a sidewalk decorated beneath the litter of Starbucks cups with frescoes of chalk, chewing gum and old paint, there was a bench. Three horizontal planks of weathered wood set in stippled concrete formed the backrest, and atop the uppermost sat Raven, as secure and stately in his perch as the Lord Chancellor upon the Woolsack. No one noticed him: not the minor functionaries hustling by, tapping frantically at phones or berries or pads as they scuttled between meetings; not the flocks of ne’er-do-well ‘tweens jostling, smoking and cursing with the relish and facility of those new-come to the mysteries of profanity; not the shop-keeps sweeping store-fronts, straightening signs, putting out new produce and taking in the old, or simply standing and staring balefully at the tittering teenagers; not the old women gathered at the corner, scratching feebly at lottery tickets like superannuated hens scrabbling for a kernel in some long-forgotten and irregularly frequented corner of the barnyard.

None of them saw Raven, but Raven saw them. He saw everything. He was the eye in the sky, the all-watcher; the shadow-at-noon, who could hide in a head-beam, scream and be soundless, and even make himself invisible when alone upon a lighted stage. Long practice at his craft had made him a master, to the point where, now, the pale, mundane world and its scuttling denizens seemed to flit by like jabbering actors on the television that he no longer cared to watch. It was too like his everyday vistas; too similar, in that the poor players behind the glass spoke only to each other and never to him, never looked at him, never noticed or acknowledged him. The babbling box was a dim reflection of his life, save that in life the folk that passed him idly by were never so beautiful or witty or charming, never so poised or alluring or steely-jawed or clever or clean. The box spoke of gritty dramas; but his day, from dawn unto the dawning, was awash in the grit of the shadowy netherworld in which he floated like a dead leaf upon the stagnant water of a pond. He needed no pretense of grit; the reality of the world ground upon him every day, paring away flecks of his soul like a joiners rasp upon ash.

As he sat upon his perch, he found himself staring into the gutter, where the last wash of the evening’s rain carried the detritus of the city streets on its final journey via the city’s churning bowels to the river, and thence to the sea. Dead leaves, cigarette butts, a half-crushed bottle purporting to have contained Krystal! Klear! Springwater, a scrap of a campaign pamphlet promising change (although from what and to what was unclear; perhaps origin and destination had been laid out on the missing half of the appeal), a few fragments of a wooden pallet, the inevitable coffee cup-lids, all revolving slowly in the filthy rush, hurrying to the grate and the concrete pipe and oblivion. In their wake, bobbing like an augury, the severed head of a doll floated by. Its hair was long, blonde and clotted with some unnameable flotsam, its cornflower eyes wide and staring, possibly with the shock of decapitation. They seemed to fix on him for a moment, and Raven felt the feathers rise and rustle along his spine. The tangled skein of his destiny had made him a pragmatist and something of a skeptic, and he had long since learned to believe in that which he could see; but he had seen so much even in his brief time upon the earth that there was little left in the world in which he was not prepared to believe. He watched the severed head as it caught in an eddy, chilled by its rictus of a grin, following its azure gaze with his own beady ebon eyes until chance freed it and sent it swirling down into the oubliette, racing along after the rest of the great city’s ills.

Disturbed by the portent, Raven worked his neck, easing tight muscles against the gathering of the dusk and the evening’s chill. His feathers rustled again, and a long coat settled heavily upon his shoulders. His coal-black visage lightened to something pale, even sickly, and black, pinpoint eyes broadened and changed colour too. Only his hair remained the same shade as before; an unruly midnight tangle that hung to ears and eyebrows in a raffled rat’s-nest that hadn’t known a comb in recent memory, if at all. Legged and lanky now, he sat easily atop the wooden beam, not minding the hard edge of the rail as it dug into the back of his thighs through the thin and faded denim of his trousers. His feet, indifferently shod in runners that had once been white but were now an indescribable shade of old, were cold and damp, but that was nothing new. The cold and the damp were bonny companions, and Raven knew them of old, as most did who, like him, shunned the city’s clammy, grudging embrace.

The change came slowly, almost imperceptibly, as if no change were planned until all was done. One instant, Raven; and the next, the man, or nearly. It was a boy’s face atop a boy’s frame; the only manly things about him were the grim et to his lips and pale, jutting, beardless jaw, and the depth of knowledge in his eyes. Fortune’s grace kept curiosity away from them, and that was good; for if any had looked too deeply into those eyes, there might have been questions.

A casual witness would be struck first by the fact that they were of two different colours: the right eye blue, the bright and piercing azure of ice beneath a winter’s sun; and the left green, as glimmering green as a gleaming emerald. He knew what caused it. Raven loved the march of the written word and spent long hours in public libraries, idly rubbing the runestone charm, polishing the worn, knurled silver; consuming printed wisdom with the appetite of a starving man, losing himself in the majesty of lore until inattention made him careless and he allowed his disguise to fray, leading indignant custodians to expel him and his shabbiness from their august environs in a flurry of righteous imprecation. In one such foray he had researched his condition. The learned called it heterochromia iridis, and it was often associated with deafness or blotchy skin, neither of which afflicted him; save when he altered it for anonymity’s sake, his entire body was as pale as his cheeks, while his aural acuity was almost preternaturally sharp, and always had been. As sharp as his oddly-coloured eyes, in fact.

The blue-green eyes were unusual, and invited impudent stares, and so Raven worked hard to blur them. It was all a part of his daily ritual, the moment-to-moment attention that was necessary to blend in to his surroundings, to become a part of the drab and unremarkable backdrop that was the great and impersonal city. As he sat atop the bench, balancing easily, watching the drama at the bank unfold before him, his hands were in the pockets of his long coat. Beneath the wads of folded bills that he had convinced the bewildered teller to give him were other, more precious things. In his left hand – the hand of guile, of base emotion, of trickery – he held the forcing charm, the runestone, working it between thumb and forefinger, warming the silver, unlocking its nascent force, tapping into the coiled strength within it and letting that strength flow up sinister wrist and arm, through shoulder and chest and heart and belly, into his lungs, breathing the power, tasting it. And all the while controlling it by conscious volition, shaping it with his thoughts, binding and constraining it; forcing the flow like crackling current down his right arm, into the dexter hand, the hand of strength and reason, the hand of mastery, wherein lay the working charm.

Without looking, working by touch alone, he had selected a single charm from the score that lay jumbled in the depths of his pocket. He knew them all by touch, and knew which one he needed now, feeling the whorls and indentations with his fingertips, seeing in his mind’s eye the fading image of the tiny, grinning imp that hung head-down from the bent limb of witch hazel, sensing the shaping, the focus, that it vouchsafed the river of power coursing through him. It was nisse, the elf; the sprightly gamboller, the wight of the woodlands, the rascal of a thousand faces. Swift and tricky, the charm helped him work the magic, shaping it like clay, like the mass of water-slicked muck atop a potter’s wheel.

For the thousandth time, as he worked to mould the magic, panting and squinting, the image of the potter was replaced by another; by a vision of a smith, bare-chested and sweating, labouring at his forge, shaping glowing steel into a lath by the knowledge of his craft and the strength of his arms. It was a simile more apt to Raven’s peculiar circumstance; after all, one could scarcely wound or kill one’s-self with an ill-wrought earthenware bowl, whereas the magic, like hot iron, could, if mishandled, wound or kill without warning or remorse. It had happened before, through inattention, and would doubtless happen to him again.

Like his form and features, his internal monologue went unnoticed by passersby. Imperceptibly, by inches, his hair lengthened, changing from black to blonde, snarling like a nest of snakes and working itself into a ponytail. His features softened, the nose changing from aquiline to pert, the chin and Adam’s apple receding, the crooked teeth aligning themselves, the lips thickening and turning red. High cheekbones vanished, replaced by dimpled chubbiness, a pattern replicated elsewhere on his body as certain places thinned and others thickened; while crow’s feet, a thick layer of rouge and a clumpy excess of eyelash thickener made for the sort of face men glanced at once and thereafter ignored. Finally, the long, drab coat, jeans and runners became a short, faded leather jacket, a calf-length skirt, and heeled boots.

Careful now, moving with fluid feminine grace instead of his usual lumbering stalk, Raven stepped down from the bench. He didn’t feel any different, not really; the trick of nisse was only a disguise, a glamer, a cheat of the eyes. It was at best a half-change; the boot-heels, for instance, were higher and narrower than his normal footwear, and would trip him up if his concentration failed, but the rounded contours that graced his once-angular form were naught but smoke and shadow, a trompe l’oeil that would betray him if anyone so much as brushed up against him and felt the truth of bone and muscle behind the facade of soft, curvaceous flesh. He had to be careful to avoid physical contact when so disguised. He never wore the glamer of a woman on the subway.

With a final, deliberately incurious glance at the clot of police, investigators, employees and miscellaneous slack-jawed gawkers clustered outside the bank, enduring the cold and the beginnings of a sleety late-autumn mist for the sake of procedural drama, he turned away. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his illusory jacket. The wadded bills – twenties and fifties mostly, just as he had requested from the dreamy-eyed, elderly teller that he had charmed into handing over the contents of her till – were not as warm as gloves (even illusory gloves) might have been, but they were a comfort nonetheless. He had places to go, people to whom to speak, and debts to pay, and the night was still young. Certain that there were no eyes upon him, Raven, cautious and painstaking atop his ill-suited heels, tottered carefully off into the mist. The chill notwithstanding, a little money, no harm done, and a scatheless exit all made for a tolerably successful day. None of the authorities milling about so much as noticed the blonde girl’s departure.

None of the usual ones, at least.