Fiction Friday: Tales from the Age of Sorrows
There was a stone bench by the side of the lake, a stone bench and that was all.
The bench, it must be said, was a marvel. Close inspection would have revealed that it had been carved where it stood from a titanic block of basalt, polished to a gleaming blackness that somehow stayed cool in even the worst of the summer heat. Its legs were one with the bones of the earth, its graceful curves melding with the unyielding stone beneath the carefully manicured meadow in which it stood. A single rough path led to it from the abandoned manor house in the distance; before it spread the calm and unruf?ed expanse of a nameless lake whose surface neither fsh nor waterfowl dared disturb without much trepidation. Trees could be seen at a respectful distance, ?owering cherry and red-leafed maple obscuring the horizon as they bowed their heads to the wind.
And on the bench sat a woman. Small of frame, she wore a simple white gown, belted at the waist with an embroidered black sash. On her feet were bamboo sandals of the sort a monk might wear, and her steel-grey hair was bound up in a bun, held in place by a single copper pin.
She faced the lake, or perhaps it would be truer to say that the lake had caught her attention, and that its unnatural stillness was its wishful attempt to make her lose interest and turn her gaze another way.
Beside her, a footstep crunched on gravel.
She turned. Beside her stood a man, shaven-headed and clad in nondescript traveling clothes. His left hand held a staff, and a small pack dangled from his back.
“Pardon me, grandmother,” he said, inclining his head at a proper angle to show respect for one’s elders. “May I-“
“I should certainly hope not,” she replied, and crossed her arms.
The man blinked, and gawped, and swallowed twice before finding himself able to speak again. “I beg your pardon?”
She turned back to the lake. “If I were to have a grandchild, which I do not, I would wish them both less clumsy and more polite than you.”
“I meant no offense-“
“You bow from the neck, not the waist. Your apology is insufficient in its humility, and you have not laid your staff at my feet as an offering to assist me in my infirm old age. Nor have you offered a name that I can call you by, when I deny whatever ridiculous request you are clearly preparing to make. You have offended from the first word and the first gesture, and every time you interrupt me you offend again. Now, what is it you wish?”
He pointed to the bench. “Might I sit beside you for a while and rest my feet, ere I continue my travels?”
A ?icker of annoyance crossed the woman’s face. “It is not my bench. You may sit where you wish.”
“It is yours in that you currently possess it.”
She crossed her arms. “Fine. Sit, then.” She shuf?ed a bit, turning her back artfully away at the slightest of angles. Not enough to cause offense, enough to make her intent unmistakably known.
He ignored it, as she knew he would, and settled himself in with much complaining about his feet, his back, and the size and number of stones – all of which were undoubtedly boulders sufficient to crush a lesser man beneath their weight – that had infested his sandals. She, in turn, ignored this, as he knew she would, and eventually he trailed off so that they sat there for some time in uncompanionable silence. Once, a sort of soft scraping noise came from below the bench.
“Was that…” he asked, before trailing off.
“No,” the woman replied, and they both sank into silence, observing the lake. For a very long time, very little happened. A frog broke the surface of the water in pursuit of a rainbow-winged dragon?y that had ventured a little too low. The wind itself had respectfully retired, and only the slow march of the sun toward the horizon and the lengthening crawl of the shadows across the ground indicated any time had passed at all.
Eventually, inevitably, he coughed.
Softly, into one cupped hand.
It resounded like a thunderbolt. The old woman turned and glared at him. “Yes?” she said.
“This is a very restful place. How did you find it?”
She glanced sideways at him. “The usual way. By placing one foot in front of the other until I found myself here.”
“I have only just arrived myself,” he confessed. “This place was not on any map, nor did any roads lead here. It was only a happy accident that allowed me to find such a serene and unspoiled place in which to meditate.”
“Then you had best get to meditating before you move on, hadn’t you?” She looked away and he winced. There was more silence.
Eventually, he tried again. “How long have you rested here, Grandmother? A few days?”
She gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Longer than that,” she said, and then, after a minute, “All right, out with it.”
“Grandmother?” The young man drew back in surprise.
“You obviously have something you want to say, or you wouldn’t keep making these idiot attempts at conversation.”
“Do you know the story of this place?” said the man, his tone carefully neutral. “It is a strange and marvelous tale.”
“Only if the teller is any good,” she retorted. “Are you?”
He inclined his head, camou?aging a cocky grin under the cover of a bow. “I have been told that my humble efforts are not displeasing.”
“You’ve been lied to, then,” the old woman said, lips pursed in disgust. “But go ahead. I might as well hear your version of things.”
“You honor me,” he said, and when she responded with a muf?ed “hmmph”, he felt safe in continuing.
See more about the history of the bench — and the two who sit upon it — in Exalted: Tales from the Age of Sorrows, available in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction.