Barnaby’s Task – Fiction

From the Book of SeasonsApen-Table-Mountain-10-19

Translation by Cormag M.

In a time long past, four Ladies began the never-ending cycle of seasons. Each Lady an embodiment of her quarter of the year. Each Lady the bringer of a season. For as long as we have marked time by watching the leaves fall and the snow melt, the flowers burst through the soil and the crops fruit, they have been the wardens of the year. Eternal and unchanging, they carry the seasons to each other in a dance designed by the Creator. They are guarded with vigilance from those who seek to do them harm, for they are not invulnerable. As the cycles spin on, many Ladies seek to share their duty and time with a partner, who will step into the dance alongside them, equally eternal. Many have danced for a time in the shoes of the Ladies, and returned to their mortal place to live out their days. In times of tragedy or great strife, some have retreated from the world, for a time…

Autumn 1221

The men had been hard at work all summer constructing dwellings and making a life for themselves in the little valley. It was an interesting time for the three men. While tightly bound to their mission, they were also untethered from the strict rules they had been living under. Beyond their settling of the little valley, they had been intently focused on their first Autumn as Guardians. Once that duty had been discharged, and the season received from the Summer Lady, they found themselves with little to do but await the pass to Winter. Daily tasks and preparation for the cold had continued, of course, but their primary duty was to watch and wait, and that meant a lot of free time. Barnaby, the oldest, was the slowest to let go of his usual rigid schedule.

Barnaby had been married. His young wife had died while giving birth to their daughter, who had followed his wife into the afterlife. Devastated by their deaths, the talk of crusades and pilgrimages to the Holy Land had fired his imagination.  He joined the Brotherhood hoping to be taught how to fight, and to go somewhere where he could vent the anger he felt over losing his wife on something. On the surface, the Brotherhood was much as the Knights Templar or Hospitaller: a Christian order that was helping the Empire to free the Holy Land from the Saracen and protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The reality was much more. The Brotherhood’s primary purpose in participating in the crusades was preserving knowledge. For them that meant all knowledge, regardless of whether the Church branded it heresy, or treason, or sin. They had gone to the Holy Land alongside the other orders and had stopped the burning  of libraries, and murder of clerics. Carefully made copies of every book they saved were in a vast library under the council chamber.

Barnaby, at first, wanted only to learn to fight, and he did.  He quickly found that fighting wasn’t helping him to let go of his anger, but rather causing him to hold more tightly to it. The elders of the Brotherhood saw this struggle and began teaching him of other duties of the Brothers.  They recognized a Guardian coming of age in Barnaby. The Brotherhood had been serving the Ladies and their Lords for centuries. The Autumn Lady’s Guardian was growing too old to continue his duty, and so, when Barnaby, so full of fire, wanted something more than fighting, the council apprenticed him to the elder Guardian at once. Barnaby was dedicated. Serving The Autumn Lady was, he felt, his calling.

In the most recent crusade, the Brotherhood had found themselves pushed to the limit. The other holy orders had become more bloodthirsty and more ruthless, even more convinced to their right to the Holy Land. The Brotherhood spent so much effort trying to save women and children, that they didn’t manage to save the books. This was Barnaby’s third journey to the Holy Land, and his last. This was the crusade that pushed Lugh to the breaking point. Many other Brothers had simply left afterwards, fading into the night with no word, never to be heard from again.

Barnaby, in saving every person that he could from the senseless slaughter, had found himself alone and injured at the edge of a now abandoned town. The residents had fled, again. This town was one of the first to be encountered on the long journey to Jerusalem, and as such it was ransacked repeatedly. Barnaby had been here before, and he knew the families here had a safeholding in the surrounding hills. He did not know how far the rest of the Brotherhood had moved, nor did he know if the other orders were coming back. At nightfall, he had begun the journey to the hiding place of the village residents. He never made it. Diarmuid had found him two days later, fevered and wandering in the desert surrounding the village. The Brotherhood had failed in their task completely. The battered and diminished force fled toward home immediately, carrying the wounded along, leaving the dead to face the sun and sand in the desert.

Barnaby spent most of the return journey incoherent. Diarmuid tended his wounds, and prayed. The fever took days to break. The Autumn Lord visited Barnaby in his fever dreams and told him he would face a great challenge. That this task would outlast his years on this earth, and many other men’s as well.  The Lord told him that it was his destiny, and he could not deny it, for it was important to the one he served so selflessly. He said that Barnaby would lead two others with him, and that they were crucial to the success of his challenge. When the fever broke, Barnaby recalled only the clear prophecy of the Autumn Lord, though Diarmuid said he ranted about many things.

Barnaby healed and waited for this challenge to present itself. The chaos of their returning so beaten and battered had thrown the town into an uproar. When the rustlings of judgement against Cormag for Lugh’s sins began, Barnaby knew something was about to happen. The Council summoned Barnaby and called for a volunteer to take up the task alongside Barnaby. Diarmuid had been undone by what he had seen of his Brothers in the Holy Land, and loudly protested the Brotherhood’s further involvement, in any form, to the Council. He knew he would be unable to face the results of another slaughter, and volunteered to accompany with Barnaby. In one sitting, the Council sentenced Cormag, accepted Diarmuid’s request, and laid the task of guardianship in absentia on Barnaby.

Barnaby held on to the traditions and rituals of the Brotherhood more strongly than any of the three men. He needed the routine to keep him grounded, and he thrived on it. As a result, he was having the hardest time adjusting to the relative freedom in their little valley. The other two seemed to find peace in solitude, or caring for others, or even in building them a home.  Barnaby was at a loss without temples to attend, rituals to oversee, and people to train. He started new rituals and  new traditions that he could settle himself into.  His two companions had been amenable to the first round of suggestions, and had incorporated Barnaby’s rituals into their lives.  However, when Barnaby began suggesting more, until their lives began to resemble that of a Council hall guard, both Diarmuid and Cormag had drawn up short. Cormag had flat out refused anymore senseless imitation of Brotherhood rituals, and Diarmuid had simply stated that he didn’t feel that much devotion was really needed in this situation. After all, their very existence in this situation was a daily devotion.

Barnaby had been furious.  He was the leader of this group.  This challenge was his!  He would be the one to dictate what was needed and when. After an exchange of angry words, he stormed out of the small cabin and into the woods.  Unsurprisingly, he found himself at the tree. In the moment before he crashed through the screen of evergreens, he heard the sound of a woman crying. It ceased abruptly when he thundered into the clearing, looking around in alarm. A gentle breeze moved the tree’s leaves, which remained as vibrant as the day they arrived. They looked appropriate now, at least, he thought.  Barnaby moved quietly around the clearing looking for the source of the crying, hoping it had been a trick of the wind.  What would he do with a crying woman, here, where she was not supposed to be? He had no idea. Finally he set himself up at the edge of the clearing, tucked slightly behind an evergreen and watched.

The leaves of the tree shook in what appeared to be a great wind, even though everything else in the clearing was still and quiet. With the great invisible gust a handful of leaves fell to the ground. As Barnaby watched, another wind picked the leaves up and blew them into a a column of wind and orange. There was a bright glow, and then, the Autumn Lady stood at the base of the tree. Barnaby stared in shock. He had seen the Lady before, but never seen her do what he could only classify as magic.  She looked at him and motioned him to her. He slowly rose and moved toward her, falling into a deep bow when he reached her.

“Oh, Barnaby, rise please.  There is no need here, in the dark woods, to use such ceremony.  Here, I am merely a leaf girl, and you, a very angry man,” she said as she settled herself under the tree.

“But, Lady, I serve, and…” he trailed off.

“I know you serve.  I know you.  You could no more disrespect me than burn down the forest.  That doesn’t mean that you may not relax when people don’t expect you to be in full armor,” she smiled at him, “In fact, I believe that is why you are here tonight, is it not?  Your companions have found their ease, and you have not.  At least that was the gist of the loud words I heard from your home tonight.”

“Aye, Lady, you have it. I am trying to anchor myself.  I feel like I have nothing solid to hold on to.  The others, they find things to do, or enjoy.  I have done nothing but serve since my wife died, and now, all the trappings are gone. Two decades of the same structure, and now, there is nothing but waiting.”

“There may be much waiting, I am afraid. The others have found a life.  Neither has served as long nor as intensely as you have, and they find it easier to disregard the ritual nonsense of the Brotherhood,” she said and laughed when Barnaby looked at her in shock, “Know this, I neither expect nor require prayers so many times a day, offerings on every other Tuesday, or any other silly thing that the council had decreed sacrosanct.  I prefer Cormag reading under my branches, or Diarmuid singing as he plants herbs nearby. But you, Barnaby, seldom visit me, in any form.”

“I have been worried. The others had not met you, seen you. I had, and worried that there would be little of the Lady I serve in this tree, magnificent though it is. Bluntly put, I was scared,” Barnaby said.

“Now you know, I am here, and can be present when you need me.  Allow me to provide comfort to you as you do to me,” she said.

“I shall try. The crying that I heard as I crashed through the tress so rudely, was that you?” Barnaby asked, embarrassed.

“It was. Usually there is no one here at night, and I am free to grieve,” she said quietly.

“I still do not know why you grieve.”

“That is a tale for another night, my friend. I am not ready to revisit it just now.”

“As you wish.”

They sat silently for a while, listening to the night noises around them, like old friends are able to do. Barnaby had been devoted to serving the Lady for most of his life but had always interacted with her from a carefully held distance – a Lady and her servitor. Never before had he talked so casually with her. Sitting under this tree with her, he saw a young woman, caught in the sting tide of great grief.

“Lady, may I visit you and speak with you again?”

“I would like nothing more.”

“I must go and mend things with Cormag and Diarmuid. I will return tomorrow night,” he said, “Thank you.”

“For as much as I am spending this time as a tree, we share in this adventure. You are most welcome.” She stood and vanished in a whirl of leaves and wind before Barnaby fully managed to rise. He stood and ran his hand down the trunk of the tree, feeling that it leaned into him for comfort. Barnaby walked back to the cabin to apologize to the others, and to make amends. For the first time since they had arrived, he felt at peace.

Author’s Note:

This is part seven of a short story/novella. I am posting parts every Tuesday until it is here in its entirety. It is by no means finished, so please share your questions/comments/suggestions.  

You can find the previous parts here:

Part 1: Population 3

Part 2: A Harvest Festival

Part 3: The Sentencing

Part 4: Journey’s Beginning

Part 5: A Visitor

Part 6: The Tree