Lord_Of_The_LEGO wrote:Dale did not engage much in the talk, though he listened with amusement. When he was walking next to Alice, he asked, “So, what will happen now, now that fall is nearing it’s end?”
“Well,” said Alice, “On the 31st of October we hold a celebration, called Oktoberfest. It’s an annual event celebrating the good harvest. It also welcomes winter. There’s singing and dancing and games for the little ones and --” Alice laughed “Beer for everyone else. It’s a wonderfully jolly time.”
“I can’t wait.”
Upon return to Hemmerington, preparations for Oktoberfest went underway at once. Dale set to work with the town’s cooper, or barrel maker, Brian Broughton. Brian was a giant of a man, bigger even than the brawny blacksmith Medao. He was rounder than the barrels he built, but he bragged it was all muscle. Dale had been skeptical until he saw Brian heave a full cask of malted beer onto his back and manhandle it into Hemmerington’s square. Dale had to make do with rolling firkins of cranberry wine along the dusty ground.
On the other side of the square, Kevin the Gong Farmer was dutifully scooping piles of fresh dung and piling them into his cart. He would toss a bit of dirt over the soiled ground before continuing onward to the next pile. He never stopped humming jovially.
The carpenter Donald Dwight was assembling a puppet theatre out of planks of wood with the aid of the twins Herman and Lansen, while Mistress Korvalt and Alice Clooney aided the seamstress Roberta Wheetton unrolled a faded but still colorful line of pennants. Roberta’s husband Clyde was already nailing up along sting of pennants, one end to the creaking sign of the “Pu”, and the other to the roof of Fredfry MacDougals’ shop.
“Oy! Dale! Get the apple barrel, will ya!”
Dale rushed to do Brian’s bidding. The apple barrel had original been a five-foot-tall barrel for wine, but it had been sawed in half. Dale rolled it easily next to the well. Maeve MacDougal and Matt Korvalt began to fill it, nearly splashing as much water on themselves as into the barrel. When it was finally full, Farmer McGregor dumped a whole two bushels of apples into it.
By this time, the puppet theatre was built, and the pennants were hung. Now came out the pumpkins, fat and orange. As the men finished hauling the heavy items and stabling the horses, and as the women began preparing the evening feast, the children gathered to carve the pumpkins, under the supervision of Alice Clooney, Orla MacDougal and several other of the older girls.
Dusk was just appearing and the were about to festivities begin. Everyone from Hemmerington had squeezed into the square. Several bonfires were lit, and spooky Jack-O-Lanterns glowed. Dale was standing next to Alice, eagerly waiting for the first attraction of the night: dinner, when something outside the ring of light caught his eye. He turned, as did Alice. Something humanoid was walking toward the crowds. Whistling trilled in the semi-darkness. Slowly, all of Hemmerington turned to look. At last, the figure stepped into the light. It was a man, with a beard and clan in green. He looked only mildly surprised to see an entire village staring at him.
“Brix and blox! Now this is sure an odd sight for ole Jack, indeed…”
He walked forward, smiling.
“Greetings, greetings! Ole Jack Craft is honored to meet ye!”
Healer Melkan moved forward, holding out his hand.
“Greetings, Jack Craft. Welcome to Hemmerington. I’m Healer Melkan. You’ve arrived just in time for our Oktorberfest.”
Jack Craft wrinkled his noise.
“Oktoberfest! Brix and blox, I always knew ole Jack had good timing. Why, there was that time I t’was floating all by my lonesome, ready to be a tasty treat for them fishies, and lo! I gets picked up by none other than the King of the Bulls! Lucky he spotted my tablecloth…”
The crowd laughed quietly as they parted to admit Jack. Jack made his way to the front, where some children were still carving pumpkins. Jack chuckled.
“My, my, Jack-me-lad, this brings a tale to my lips! Who wants to hear a tale?”
“Me!” cried the children.
“As you wish, younglings,” smiled Jack, “Jack be my name and Craft be my game. The crafting of tales, that is. Now, Jack's not one to toot his own horn-- not unless I happens to be working as a musician that day, anyway -- but this be the perfect time of the year to tell about something that happened to ole’ Jack meself many years ago…”
Jack Craft wrote:The autumn rains drove Jack south, hoping for shelter in the shadows of the rocks that bordered the imperial lands on the edge of Fright Knight territory. He fled headlong, storm and wrack following close behind, and just managed to squeeze into a scrape of overhanging rock as the full force of the deluge began. He didn't notice the other traveler until after flinging his wet pack and cap to the ground, and by then could hardly ignore her, since she had a short blade just under his adam's apple.
Jack goggled a moment at the young Fright Knight that held him at knife point, her dark eyes glittering from lighting flashes just beyond the shelter. Her black hair, long and straight, hung in wet lines along her white face and neck. It was obvious she had been caught in the storm only a few moments before Jack had. From the rough weaving of tinder at her feet, it looked like she had been trying to get a fire started when Jack arrived.
"Er... easy there, your Ladyship. Jack's just a journeyman in need of a roof, same as you. No need to be cutting any extra holes in his pipes, please."
Her blade twitched nervously before moving backwards several inches. She sniffled slightly, and clearly suppressed an urge to wipe her nose.
"Who are you? These are Fright Knight lands-- we do not like trespassers. Are you a tradesman? A journeyman what?"
"Aye, all of the above. Jack's a journeyman mason-- well, maybe not for much longer, since my tools are back at the tavern in Hawks-narrow, and I'm not likely to be getting them back anytime soon. Anyhow, I've had enough of stonework as it stands. So I guess you could say Jack's neither, too."
Unable to decide if the strange wanderer before her was a threat or not, the Fright Knight pulled back another few inches, and seemed about to speak. She sneezed instead, and the knife bounced lightly against the ground as it fell from her grasp. As she sneezed again, Jack darted to grab it. She lurched for it at the same moment, and their hands met on top of the handle of the blade.
"It's my knife," she said, trying to pull it out of his hand.
"Aye, and it's Jack's throat-- so I'd like to keep the two separate, if your Ladyship doesn't mind!"
Lightning shuddered the rock walls, and a thunderclap like the crash of a battering ram froze both of them like a painting. Wind screamed outside.
"Odd's truth, you keep the knife, and I'll keep my windpipe, and Jack'll throw in a fire in the bargain. Deal?"
She eyed the shrouds of rain that whipped across the stones a few feet away. Jack cautiously took his hand away from the knife.
As she put the knife away, Jack began to rummage in his pack, making sounds like a knife-grinder's wagon at full gallop. He pulled out a small ceramic lantern, which began to drip thick oil on the floor.
"Brix and Blox! Must have gotten cracked in the storm. Or maybe it was the tavern brawl... or could have been... nevermind."
He poured the contents of the lamp onto the damp tinder, and eyed the empty, cracked lantern mournfully.
"That's not something even Jack could fix, I'd warrant. Aye, I'll have to buy a new one in Twimsdale, or maybe Larkspur."
He discarded the broken lantern, and after a search in his clanking pack, produced flint and a steel rasp. A fire blazed in the shelter not long afterwards. The Fright Knight had said nothing the entire time he worked, though she cast wary glances at him whenever he went back into his supplies. Jack quickly realized that aside from her small knife, she had none of her own. The rain outside had settled into a steady murmur.
"Now, your Ladyship, seems to me that I might have a spare plug of hardtack or biscuit somewhere in here, if you've a mind."
"Yes. Yes, thank you."
Jack nodded and offered up the morsel. A short, noisy search of his pack produced a tiny battered pot, and after holding it outside for a moment to collect water, Jack soon had it bubbling over the fire as he added various bits of dried meats and vegetables from his supplies.
"I'm called Jack Craft, your Ladyship. Well, to be fair, I've been called a few other things besides, but I'd not repeat them in a lady's company." Jack stirred his makeshift soup with an equally makeshift spoon.
"My name is Natali. Border watch, third talon."
"Natali?" Jack snorted. "I thought all you Fright Knights had terrifying names. Shouldn't you have been named Morticia or Spidera or something?"
Natali flushed a tiny bit, and frowned.
"I was named after the name mages use for the Funnel-eared bats that haunt our caves."
Jack didn't know what to say to that one. He covered by offering up a mug of soup, and Natali took it cautiously. She sniffed warily at the contents before taking a tiny sip.
"Suspicious bunch, you Fright Knights. Seeing plots and poisons everywhere." Jack helped himself to his own soup, and ate with gusto, happy to get some hot food into his belly."
"We've learned to be. Our ancestors were persecuted everywhere in Dametreos for witchery, driven from every realm. Your kind have always hated and feared the powers of the night..."
"Easy, now, your Batship? Jack's not done any witch-burning himself in nearly a week." He grinned at her over his soup, and she flushed again, embarrassed at the outburst.
"Sorry. It's true, my people have become very wary of outsiders. We do not like strangers. No offense."
"Aye, hence the border watch bit you mentioned a few moments ago. Do you always hoist a knife at passing strangers?"
"You startled me. I was too busy trying to get a fire started, and I didn't see you approach. I'm supposed to be guarding this part of the border-- how would it look if I let an outsider pass unchallenged? It's Fright Knight law; only travellers with legitimate business in our lands may pass. And we have to keep a record of them, too."
"So does that mean I pass? Or do you drive me back north into imperial domain?"
Natali took a swallow from her mug and considered.
"Making soup for border guards? I'll let that go as legitimate business." She finally smiled, and Jack thought it had been worth the wait.
By morning, the storm had blown past, and an autumn chill had settled between the crags. The wind still blew, scattering small pebbles and grit in its path. Jack shivered next to the ghost of the fire.
"Brix and Blox... it's colder than a witch's..."
He caught the glare Natali had leveled at him, and trailed off.
"Anyhow. It's cold."
Natali tied her coal-black hair back behind her head as she nodded.
"First frost. Harvest Moon will be tonight."
She explained as they stumbled out from the shelter of the rocks. Jack blinked in the watery autumn sunlight.
"Harvest Moon is a Fright Knight holiday. We pay honor to the moon and the harvest of food it brings us for the winter."
"The moon? Aye, but doesn't the sun..."
"Yes, crops grow by the light of the day, but we plant them under the watch of the moon. It's Fright Knight tradition. Tonight is one of the most important nights. The powers of the moon will be strongest-- our mages will cast some of their most powerful spells for the coming year."
Jack shuddered a bit at the thought of the necromancers and the spells they would work tonight. Natali caught his look, and smirked.
"You're not alone in that feeling. The ordinary folk-- the villains and townsfolk-- will stay close to home tonight. They're afraid of the forces that will be out tonight, and with good reason. They'll light banefires and share food, and won't go out for anything."
"Aye, sounds like a sensible lot."
"Well, I'm going back to my home village before sunset. You're welcome to come along, and see the Harvest Moon for yourself. I'd advise against traveling after dark, tonight-- it won't be safe. There are things that go abroad Harvest Moon night that no man should face."
She was half-smiling as she said it, her voice theatrical. Jack wondered how much she was joking about, but decided it was best not to ask.
Natali told him a bit more about the legends associated with Harvest Moon as they walked. She told him the story of Snatch-your-head, who lurked at crossroads for the unwary, and about the Fool's Fires-- sometimes called Dead Monk's Lanterns-- that lured the young into woods and swamps, never to be seen again. Jack, a little on the superstitious side, shivered appreciatively at each tale, and kicked a bit at the autumn leaves that carpeted the ground along their journey. An occasional slip of cold wind stirred the leaves into whirling shapes on the edge of the path, and Jack started at a few of those, too. Natali was just finishing the tale of the dreadful Pale Child-- and how when it found a new "mommy" or "daddy" would never, never let go of them again-- when they reached the outskirts of her village.
While Jack had seen a few Fright Knight cities before, he had never seen how the ordinary folk lived. It was somewhat disappointing how normal the village seemed at first glance-- a well, a small granary, a scattering of small cottages and fields seemingly thrown down at random, like the toss of dominoes. Then he began to notice the dark runes daubed on the eaves, and the bats and leering gargoyles carved along fence posts and rails. Still, children played among those carvings, and smiled shyly from behind hay bales. Not so very different, after all, Jack thought. Some of the macabre decorations-- bats and crescent moons cut from paper and cloth-- were obviously recent additions for the holiday. A few of the folk were building a stack of wood in the open space near the edge of a field, in preparation for tonight's banefire. They glared warily at Jack as he passed, but said nothing. Jack felt their gaze on the back of his neck as Natali lead him though the center of the tiny settlement.
"Everyone will gather in the barn, tonight-- it's the only building with enough room for us all-- and the banefire will be lit just outside. Between the food and the fire, anything lurking in the darkness of Harvest Moon will keep its distance. There's still much that needs doing before sunset, and I'm sure an extra set of hands would be welcomed."
Jack pitched in throughout the afternoon, hauling and carrying, hewing and hanging, and even telling a few lighthearted jokes here and there. Slowly, the sullen looks from the villains faded, and by late afternoon Jack had been largely accepted as harmless and occasionally useful.
The air grew colder as the sun slipped low on the horizon, and even Jack admitted to himself that the wind had an eerie chill that could not entirely be accounted for by the weather. Though he had been a solitary traveller many times, tonight he would be glad of company and a blazing fire.
"Aye, Jack-me-lad... Harvest Moon night in Fright Knight territory. There's things ye've a better time not knowing about."
He thought about the stories Natali had told him during their journey here, and shuddered. As the shadows of the trees around the settlement lengthened, they twisted and grasped in strange patterns on the ground. He wasn't the only one who noticed, either, as he watched several of the folk mutter prayers and charms before heading inside. Two of the men lit the huge banefire, and the light of the glowing logs seemed to drive the shadowy shapes back under the cover of the trees, while at the same time making them leap and caper in disturbing ways. The bitter wind mumbled at Jack's ear, or called, high and keening, from the woods. And something that might or might not have been a lantern bobbed along the ridge to the west of the village. Jack went inside.
A smaller fire burned in the center of the barn, causing smoke to curl along the roof beams before finding its way out though the upper loft. A few pots of stew and mulled wine already bubbled on the edges of the makeshift hearth. Bundles of turnips and tubers were cooking in the ashes. Some of the children had begun roasting apples, a task Jack cheerfully joined in on. His strange jokes and constant grin had already won him numerous friends among the younger members of the crowd. That, and the boiled sweets he had been handing out during the afternoon. A fiddler and a piper threw a tune back and forth between them, and the fears of what might lurk outside began to fade.
As the night went on, Jack juggled a bit for the crowd, struggled through a few tunes on the pipe himself, and danced more than once with Natali. He also ate too many spiced fritters, and drank more than his share of mulled cider. When most of the smaller children had finally fallen asleep under the watchful eye of their grandparents, they began to trade ghoulish stories over the red glow of the fire. Jack heard a few that Natali had already shared, and others more horrific still.
"...the tangle of branches hung above the camp, and in the light of the morning sun, they found only his raw bones among the twigs and leaves-- but of his skin, not a sign..."
Jack heard a whimper off to his side, and turned to see one young child who had not been asleep shivering at the gruesome tale. He knelt down next to her, and smiled.
"Here, now, young miss-- no tears, no tears, the Wood-witch isn't real. It's just pretend."
The child sniffled, not reassured. She knew what lay beyond the safety of the banefire this night.
"Aye. Jack has just the answer. His lantern will keep back the creepies and crawlies in the night. Hold on."
Jack rummaged though his pack for a long moment, then swore under his breath, suddenly remembering the broken lantern that lay discarded on the edge of the crags northeast of here. He thought hard for a moment, and grinned.
Grabbing up one of the turnips that had been too large to cook in the fire, he quickly hollowed out the earthy vegetable. He was about to carve out a simple square for a lantern window, when he thought better of it and made a silly face of crooked eyes and a grin to rival his own. He scooped in a few glowing embers with his spoon, and the face cast a flickering light towards the young girl. She giggled at the strange sight, entranced.
"W-what is it?"
"Oh, it's just Jack's ol' lantern. It'll keep the nasties at bay. See? None of them would dare to come face to face with this face."
The child ran to show the oddity to the other children, even waking many who were already asleep. And Jack was quickly surrounded by begging faces, each one wanting a "Jack's ol' lantern" of their own. He was kept busy for the next couple of hours carving up spare turnips, parsnips, and gourds into wilder and more imaginative faces, much to amusement of Natali and several other adults.
"Brix and blox! There's going to be more of these glowing faces than there are real ones in here, before long!"
A few other villagers offered to help, but the children wanted them only from Jack. It was well past midnight when the last of the youngsters had been given a lantern face to carry, and for the rest of the night the flickering, strangely cheerful lanterns cast their watchful light from the corners and walls of the barn. Jack fell asleep not long afterwards, though he continued to carve turnips in his dreams until sunrise.
Natali had gone back to the northern border by the time Jack awoke. He ate a spare breakfast by the embers of the banefire, watching a few of the village mothers collecting discarded turnip-lanterns from the barn. He smiled to himself, wondering if the children would have been so eager to have their lanterns if they had known it would mean turnip stew for dinner the following day. Still, he decided a few would probably want the same decorations for next year...
He shouldered his pack and said a few goodbyes among the villagers, thanking them for the safety of their celebration. The dirt road beyond arched both north and south, and he thought for a long while before he decided which would be his path.
At the end of Jack’s tale, the younglings were all staring, wide-eyed.
“So you invented the Jack-O-Lantern?” asked one child in awe.
Jack laughed and winked.
“Ye could say that.”
And so, with Jack Craft’s tale, Oktoberfest began.