TF: The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs
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NavPress Publishing Group (July 15, 2008)
Dean Barkley Briggs is an author, father of eight, and prone to twisting his ankle playing basketball. He grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Patricia McKillip, Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen R. Donaldson, Ursila K. Leguin, Susan Cooper, Madeline L'Engle, Terry Brooks, Andre Norton and Lloyd Alexander (just to name a few)...and generally thinks most fantasy fiction pales in comparison. (Yes, he dabbled in sci-fi, too. Most notably Bradbury, Burroughs and Heinlein).
After losing his wife of 16 years, Briggs decided to tell a tale his four sons could relate to in their own journey through loss. Thus was born The Legends of Karac Tor, a sweeping adventure of four brothers who, while struggling to adjust to life without mom, become enmeshed in the crisis of another world. Along the way they must find their courage, face their pain, and never quit searching for home.
Briggs is remarried to a lovely woman, who previously lost her husband. Together with her four children, their hands are full.
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AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Doors shall open / Doors shall close
Forgotten curse / Blight the land
Four names, one blood / Fall or stand
If lost the great one / Fallen low
Rises new / Ancient foe
Darkest path / River black
Blade which breaks / Anoint, attack
If once and future / Lord of war,
Queen la Faye / Mighty sword,
Rises ‘gain / As warrior king,
Prepare / For day of reckoning
If Aion’s breath / For music cursed
Sings making things / Made perverse,
Fate shall split / Road in twain
One shall lose / One shall gain
If secret lore / Then be found
Eight plus one / All unbound
Beast shall come / Six must go
Doors shall open / Doors shall close
If buried deep / Hidden seen
Ancient tomb / Midst crimson green
Nine shall bow / Nine more rise
Nine horns blow / Nine stars shine
If falling flame / Burning pure
Ten thousand cries / For mercy heard
Then plagues, peril / Horns of dread
End of days / Land be red
When final days / Bring final woes
Doors shall open / Doors shall close
Fate for one / For all unleashed
Come the Prince / Slay the beast
Cross the water / Isgurd’s way
White horse / Top the waves
Aion, fierce! / Aion, brave!
Aion rides / To save the day
— The Ravna’s Last Riddle
The day was gray and cold, mildly damp. Perfect for magic. Strange clouds overhead teased the senses with a fragrance of storm wind and lightning and the faint, clean smell of ozone. Invisible energy sparkled like morning dew on blades of grass.
Standing alone in an empty field on the back end of their new acreage, Hadyn Barlow only saw the clouds. By definition, you can't see what's invisible, and as for smelling magic? Well, let's just say, unlikely. Hadyn saw what was obvious for late November, rural Missouri: leafless trees, dead grass, winter coming on strong. Most of all he saw (and despised) the humongous briar patch in front of him, feeling anew each and every blister and callous earned hacking through its branches.
Making room for cattle next spring, or so he was told; this, even though his dad had never owned a cow in his life. He was a history teacher for crying out loud. A college professor. Hadyn's shoulders slumped. It didn't matter. Everything was different now. Mr. Barlow didn't let his boys curse, but low under his breath, Hadyn did, mildly, just to prove the point. Life stunk. That was the brutal truth.
All true for the most part. Yet standing alone in the field, bundled in flannel, something else prickled his skin—something hidden in the rhythm of the day, at its core—and it wasn't just the chill wind. He couldn't shake it. A sense of something. Out-of-placeness. Faced with a friendless sophomore year, Hadyn knew that feeling all too well. It attacked him every morning, right before school.
But this was something more, more than the usual nervousness and name-calling stuff. His intuition was maddeningly vague. Hadyn sniffed the air, eyeing the field. A fox scampered in the distance. Bobwhites whistled softly. This had been his routine for weeks. Go to school, come home, do chores. Today was no different. Except for the clouds.
He looked upwards, struck again by the strange hues. The colors were still there; kinda creepy. They had lingered since the bus ride home. He had seen it happen with his own eyes, though he didn’t think much of it at the time. Right about the time school let out and the yellow buses began winding home, the skies had opened and spilled. Low banks of clouds came tumbling from the horizon like old woolen blankets. Like that scene from Independence Day, when the alien ships first appeared. Hues of purple, cobalt and charcoal smeared together. Not sky blue. Not normal. Riding on the bus, face pressed against the cold window, he didn’t know what to think. Only that it looked…otherworldly. Like God had put Van Gogh in charge for the day.
Earlier, the day hadn’t felt weird. If anything, he had felt relief. Two days until Friday...until Thanksgiving Break. Only two days. He could make it. Standing by the mailbox with his three brothers, waiting for the bus—he couldn’t wait to get his own car—mild winds had stirred from the south, scampering through row after row of brittle stalks in the neighbor’s cornfield across the road. He heard them in the leafless oak and elm of his own yard, hissing with a high, dry laughter. Warm winds, not cold. But about noon, the wind shifted. Again, no big deal for Missouri, always caught in the middle between the gulf streams of Mexico and Canada’s bitter cold. Temperamental weather was normal in these parts.
Yet there it was. From the winding ride home to this very moment, he couldn’t rid himself of that dry-mouthed, queasy feeling. It was more than a shift in wind. It was a shift in energy. Yes, the dark clouds and strange colors reminded him of the thickening air before a big, cracking Midwestern storm, but that wasn’t it. This was different.
Hadyn being Hadyn, more than anything else, wanted to identify the moment. To name it.
Though he didn’t actually verbalize until age three, Hadyn was born with a question mark wrinkled into his brows. Always searching, always studying something. He couldn’t speak a word before then—refused to, his dad always said—yet he knew the letters of the alphabet at a precocious 12 months. When he finally did decide to talk, words gushed. Full sentences. Big vocabulary. Not surprisingly, it was clear early on that Hadyn was one of those types bent toward structure, patterns. He hated incongruities, hated not knowing how to pinpoint the strange twist in sky and mood right in the middle of an otherwise typically dreary day. If it was just nasty weather, name it! What did it feel like? Wet fish guts? Not quite. A full wet diaper? He remembered those well enough from when the twins were little, but no. A three day old slice of cheese?
Yes, that was it. Cold, damp, moldy.
Velveeta, actually, he decided, feeling a small measure of satisfaction. He fumbled for the zipper of his coat as another icy breeze prickled his skin. Yep, another lousy Velveeta day in the life of Hadyn Barlow.
He thought of the roaring wood stove back home. Hot cocoa. Little consolation. Until dusk, the oldest Barlow boy was stuck outside in a field with hatchet and hedge shears. Stuck in a foul mood, stuck with a knot in his throat. Just plain stuck. His task, his life, seemed endless and pointless.
“Just a little bit every day, however much you can manage after school,” his father would remind him. “And don’t look so grumpy. The days are shorter and shorter.”
But not any warmer.
“Grr!” Hadyn grumbled aloud, snapping at the cold in his thoughts. He had chosen to “clear” the massive beast by carving tunnels in it, not just hacking mindlessly. Probably not exactly what Dad had in mind, but, well, to be honest, he didn’t really care. He was the one stuck out here in the cold. He had already carved several tunnels, and reentered the biggest one now, loping and clicking his shears at the endless mess of thorns and branches, alternated by halfhearted swings of the hatchet. The briar patch sprawled a couple hundred feet in every direction, comprised of dense, overgrown nettles, blackberry bushes and cottonweed. Untended for generations, the underbrush was so thick and tall a person could easily get lost in it, especially toward the center, where the land formed a shallow ravine that channeled wet weather rains toward the pond on the lower field. Hadyn guessed the height at the center point would be a good 12 feet or more. Enormous.
Really, it was a ridiculous task. Dad had to know that.
“Why not just burn the thing?” Hadyn had asked him. Burn it, then brush-hog it. Throw a hand grenade in and run.
Mr. Barlow never really answered, just said he wanted him to clear it by hand. After the first day of grumbling and complaining (which proved none too popular with his father), Hadyn started carving tunnels. His plan was to craft a maze out of it, maybe create a place to escape...at least have some fun before his dad made him level the whole thing
Fun? He caught himself, tasting the word like a spoonful of Nyquil. Fun is soccer with the guys back home.
He paused for a moment to wipe his brow. Home was no longer a city, not for four months now. It was a cow pasture. Home had been Independence, the suburb of Kansas City whose chief claim to fame (other than being the birthplace of Harry S. Truman) was that Jesus would return there, at least according to one of numerous Mormon splinter groups. For Hadyn, it was all about skateboards and traffic and rows of houses. Noise. Friends. Now, all that—everything familiar and good—was exactly three hours and nineteen minutes straight across I-70 on the opposite end of the state. Might as well have been on the opposite side of the planet. Home now: three hundred acres in the middle of nowhere, away from all he had ever known.
The town was called Newland. The name seemed like a smack in the face.
New town. New school. New faces. New troubles to deal with. New disappointments. His dad had tried to make a big deal of the “new” thing. This would be a new start for their family, a new chapter, blah, blah, blah. A change, from sadness to hope, he said. Hadyn hated change.
He didn’t want new. He wanted it how it used to be.
How it used to be was happy. Normal. Right. Fair. How it used to be meant they were a family of six, not five. Hadyn felt a familiar pang slice across his chest. He would have traded all the unknown magic in the world for five more minutes with—
It had been a year since she died. His mental images of her remained vivid, of a beautiful woman with porcelain smooth skin, naturally blonde, witty, vivacious. All four Barlow brothers shared her spunky attitude, as well as an even mix of their parents’ coloring: mom’s fairness, dad’s darker hair and complexion, the boys somewhere in between. Hadyn, rapidly entering his adult body, was tall for his age, muscular, lean, possessed of a sometimes uncomfortably aristocratic air. Some days his eyes were smoky jade, others, iron gray. But he had Anna’s cleverness.
His parents had been saving money for several years, studying the land all around Newland. Hadyn could not fathom why. What was so special about Podunk, America? But he knew his mom had been happy to think about life in the country. Once upon a time, that was enough. But now? Without her, what was the point? Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Independence? Moving wasn’t going to bring her back. Didn’t Dad know that?
For the second time that afternoon, a tidal wave of loneliness nearly drowned him, left him in a goo of self-pity, the sort of sticky feeling he didn’t want anyone to spoil by cheering him up. He took one more angry swing. Done or not, he was done for the day. Work could wait. Dad would just have to deal with it. Already, he had built a pretty impressive maze, though. Six unconnected tunnels so far.
Like I give a rip about these stupid tunnels, he thought as he crawled from the center toward the mouth of the largest, longest shaft. Or this stupid land, or town, or patch of—his knee jammed against a thorn protruding from the soil—thorny! ridiculous!...
He clenched his jaw, flashing through dozens of choice words, using none. Honoring his dad. Pain streamed as tears down his cheek, and it wasn’t just the thorn in his knee. It was life. Crawling forty more feet, he emerged to face the slowly westering sun melting down the sky. The otherworldly colors he had seen earlier were gone. Only the cold remained. And now, a bleeding, sore knee.
Behind him, he heard heard rustling grass and the high pitched, lilting notes of his brother’s tin whistle. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and grimaced. Ewan, like his mother, was musical. Even more like her, he was sentimental. He often carried the whistle she had brought him as a gift from Ireland. It would, no doubt, have seemed humorous to some, to see him wandering the field, playing a spritely little tune. It only annoyed Hadyn. Thankfully, as Ewan drew closer, the song trailed away.
Hadyn grunted. “What do you want?”
Ewan shrugged, tucking the flute into his back pocket. He wore blue jeans, and a blue embroidered ball cap, initialed ‘ECB’.
“Wondered how things were going.”
“Dad sent you to help, didn’t he?”
Ewan frowned. “Yep. Got done with my chores sooner than planned.”
“Major bummer,” Ewan emphasized. “Looks like you’re near the center, though. That’s pretty cool.”
Hadyn didn’t reply. With only two years between them, the two brothers had always been the closest of friends, the fiercest competitors, the quickest of combatants. They understood each other’s rhythms like no one else in the family. Whereas Hadyn was studied, wise and cautious, Ewan was quick, fearless and comfortable with long odds. No one could make Ewan laugh—gasping-for-air, fall-on-the-ground-cackling—like Hadyn. Likewise, Ewan could frustrate Hadyn to no end, or, with the sheer power of silliness, cheer him up when a sullen moment was about to strike. Not much wanting to be rescued from his mood at the moment, however, Hadyn let his silent response wrap around him like a barrier against further penetration. He didn’t notice that Ewan’s gaze had drifted from the briar patch to the low sky and paused there.
“What do you make of that?” he dimly heard his brother say, distracted, curious. Through the haze of his own thoughts, Hadyn followed Ewan’s line of sight, his pointing finger, straight into the sunset. At first, he saw nothing. Then it was obvious. Several large, black birds were swooping low on the horizon. Even at a distance, it appeared they were headed straight for the two boys, unveering over the slope of the ground, drawing swiftly nearer, a hundred yards or so away. From the sound of their raucous cry, they were like ravens, only larger, throatier, and if possible, blacker.
“Cawl-cawl,” they cried.
Hadyn counted four total, wings outstretched, unflapping, like stealth bombers in formation. There was something organized and determined about their flight. It lacked animal randomness.
“Do they look strange to you?” Ewan asked, cocking his head.
Hadyn pretended to be uninterested. It didn’t last. “What is that in their claws? What’re they carrying?”
“Yeah, I see it. Sticks?”
“Too thick. It would be too heavy. Wouldn’t it?”
“Hard to tell at this angle. Are they heading for us?” Ewan held up his hand to shield his eyes. “Man, they’re fast. What are they?”
“I don’t know, but they’re still—”
“Look out!” Ewan dove to the side, tripping Hadyn in the process. Both boys hit the ground on a roll, turning just in time to see the birds swoop suddenly upward, arcing high into the sky, turn, then turn again. The lead bird, larger than the others, croaked loudly; the other three responded. Over and over, the same phrase, like a demand: “Cawl!”
All four were pitch black, having none of the deep blue sheen of a crow’s feathers, or so it seemed in the failing light. They flew as black slashes in the sky, all wing and beak, not elegant in the air, but fast. Disappearing completely against the lightless eastern expanse, they reappeared again as silhouettes skimming the western horizon. At first it seemed to Hadyn the birds would fly away, as they swept up and out in a wide arc. But the curve of their path soon came full circle. They were attempting another pass. Both boys nervously scooted further outside the angle of the birds’ approach.
“What in the world?” Hadyn said, hatchet raised and ready. It was clearer now in silhouette form. Each bird carried the form of a long, thick tube in their talons.
The brothers hunched on the ground, motionless, muscles tensed, watching as the birds continued their second approach. Hadyn held his breath. The birds didn’t veer, nor aim again for the boys. Instead, they formed a precise, single-file line, a black arrow shooting toward the main tunnel of the thicket. With a final loud croak—“Cawl!”—and not a single flap of wing, all four swooped straight into the hole, one after the other. As they did, each released the object clutched in its talons. The tubes clattered together with a light, tinny sound at the mouth of the tunnel, literally at the boys’ feet. The birds were already beyond sight. Their throaty noise echoed for a moment, evaporating into an obvious silence marked only by the faint breeze of wings passing over broken grass.
Hadyn and Ewan stared first at the tunnel, then at the objects. Then at each other. Then back at the tunnel. In the same instant, each of them leaped toward what the birds had left behind: four thin, black metallic tubes, trimmed with milky white bands at top and bottom.
Hadyn slowly stretched out his hand and picked up a tube. He rolled it between his fingers. It was about the length of Ewan’s Irish whistle, but thicker, maybe the circumference of a quarter. Not heavy at all. In the middle of each tube, finely wrought in scripted gold filigree, the letter ‘A’ appeared.
Ewan lightly shook his tube, listening for clues to its contents. It sounded hollow.
“They didn’t even have us sign for delivery,” he deadpanned. “What do we do with these? They look important.”
“How should I know?” Hadyn said contemptuously, flicking his eyes cautiously toward the tunnel. “Where’d they even go? I mean, really. Are they just hiding back there until we leave?”
“Who cares!” Ewan said. His disgust was obvious. Hadyn’s was being an analyst again. “This isn’t hard, Hadyn. Some big birds dive bombed us. They dropped these cool tubes. It makes no sense. It’s awesome. Totally, factor 10 cool.”
Hadyn mulled it over. “Maybe they’re some sort of carrier pigeon, but...do carrier pigeons even fly anymore?
“Only on Gilligan’s Island. TV Land. Listen to me, you’re just guessing.”
“Have you got a better idea?” Hadyn demanded.
Ewan waited, considered. Hadyn knew he hated being put on the spot like that, in the inferior position. Now it was Ewan’s turn to think.
“Okay, maybe you’re right. Maybe those birds really are carriers of some sort?—” Ewan held up a tube, “—obviously they are. What if they need to carry these things farther still? What if they’re just resting? What if they are trained to do this when they need to rest? Drop their packages, find a hole, rest, then grab their stuff and carry on?”
“So...are you suggesting we flush them out? Cause there is no way I’m going to crawl back there. They can get out later on their own.”
Ewan didn’t reply. Instead he dug into his pocket, pulled out a small flashlight, and scuttled into the tunnel the birds had entered. “Wait here,” he ordered.
“Hey, watch it back there!” Hadyn cautioned. Secretly, he wanted him to go, knew how to punch his brother’s buttons to make it happen. “Those claws looked sharp!”
While he waited for Ewan to return, Hadyn examined the tubes further. He shook one tube, flicked it, smelled another; picked up and twirled the third and fourth tubes. His efforts yielded the same muffled sensation of something barely shifting inside. Maybe a rolled up piece of paper? If the ravens (or crows, or whatever they were) were carriers of some sort, a written message did make the most sense. But who in the world still sent paper messages...by bird? By raven, no less. Hello, email anyone?
Presently, Ewan reappeared, breathing hard.
“They’re gone,” he said simply. “Must have flown out one of the other tunnels.”
Hadyn creased his brow. “No way. None of the tunnels connect yet.”
“They don’t?” Ewan’s eyes widened as it dawned on him that he hadn’t seen any other tunnels. “No...they don’t.”
The two boys stared at one another in silence. Evening enfolded them; soon, darkness. “They must have crawled through the branches,” Hadyn surmised, but he hardly sounded convinced. “Are you sure you didn’t see them?”
Ewan rolled his eyes. “Hello? Big, black flappy things. Yes, I’m sure.” He grabbed one of the tubes, shook it again. “This band looks like ivory, but it’s hard to tell in this light.”
“Reminds me of one of mom’s necklaces.”
Ewan grabbed the end and twisted. “Only one way to find out.”
This time Hadyn didn’t argue or analyze. Curiosity had gotten the best of him. The lid twisted off with surprising ease, followed by a thin hiss of sealed air. Ewan wrinkled his face. “Smells old. Yuck. Turn on your flashlight. Mine is getting weak.”
He tapped the open end against the palm of his left hand. The coiled edge of a piece of thick, cream-colored parchment slipped out. Hadyn leaned in closer. Ewan gingerly teased the scroll out. It had a heavy grain of woven cotton, with rough edges trimmed in gold foil. Both boys let out a long slow breath. Neither the silver moon hung off the treeline, nor the winking stars, provided light enough to clearly see. Hadyn turned on his flashlight as his brother unrolled the parchment. The paper was larger than normal, rich to the touch. Pinning both ends to the ground, both boys read at once the simple message beautifully scripted on the inside in golden ink: “You have been chosen for a life of great purpose. Adventure awaits you in the Hidden Lands.”
“Dude!” Ewan whistled softly. “Looks like something from King Arthur. What in the world are the Hidden Lands?”
Hadyn, who actually loved the lore of King Arthur—and Ewan knew it—was already reaching for another tube. Ewan followed his lead. Within twenty seconds, all four tubes were opened, and four identical parchments lay spread on the ground in the dark, illuminated only by flashlights. Golden ink glimmered, subtly shifting hues. Each bore the exact same message.
“You have been chosen for a life of great purpose. Adventure awaits you in the Hidden Lands.”
Hadyn grabbed the four sheets, quickly rolled them up, and inserted each back into its thin metal sleeve. “We need to head home before Dad gets worried,” he said. “You take two and I’ll take two. Stick them under your shirt and act cool. I have no idea what these are. But for now, they’re our little secret.”
He puffed up for a moment, the older brother. Still out of sorts with the world.
“And none of your games, either, Ewan. I mean it. I’m not in the mood.”