Justine (The Sum of Stories) is a short story from the same world as Valkwitch. This entire thing spun out of a sudden desire to write something in a more folksy, oral style.
Yeah, there’s more than a little Bastion in this one.
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Justine (The Sum of Stories)
We’re all the sum of stories. A man, a village, a nation, all are built from tall stacks of tales. Some stories aren’t so well known, aren’t so obvious to the greater structure of it all. But they’re load-bearing all the same. These are the foundational bricks of the people’s saga and mighty necessary to keep the whole thing standing upright. It falls to professional tongue wagglers like myself to make sure those obscure but essential stories are brought out of the stable once in a while to gallop alongside the popular canon. This here’s the story of one of them unseen bricks holding up Jalarn’s walls. This is the story of a gal who fought for all of us, asking nothing in return and receiving exactly that. It ain’t right leaving her so unknown. Spinning out her story when and where I can is the least I can do in repayment.
This here’s the story of Justine Lochwood.
Justine, daughter of Paul and Martine Lochwood, hailed from a little place called Springwarren, a constellation of homesteads in our nation’s heartland where the prairie seas of green and gold stretch on and on. Finally blessed with a healthy child, the Lochwoods figured their little girl was lucky right from the start. All parents believe their children are special after all, but the Lochwoods were reasonable prairie folk and didn’t put too much weight into superstition. Then circumstantial evidence started piling up. Storms that wrecked nearby farms left theirs unscathed. Their garden bloomed brighter, their hearth fires burned more even, their livestock took ill less often, and calves were birthed proper every spring. It was as if the random misfortunes of life had up and decided to send their attentions elsewhere and leave the Lochwoods in peace. They wondered at their streak of small fortunes but neither took it for granted or worried overmuch on it.
At the age of five Justine announced she had an invisible friend who spoke only to her. Not so unusual, that. Justine and her friend only conversed in a different language, one Paul and Martine had never heard the like of. That was a touch stranger. Particularly since it sounded much like a real language and not the nonsense fancies of a child. On top of all that, Justine’s friend told her secrets. Told her of places and things a five-year-old prairie girl could never know. Places that existed, things that were true. I don’t care who you are, no imagination could be so active yet so eerily accurate. A cause for concern, for a certainty.
At nine years old the fits started. Fierce ones. Thrashing, howling, jabbering ones that made the Lochwoods fear for their daughter’s life and soul, but grateful their neighbors lived well out of earshot. The thing was, no matter how bruised or banged up Justine got when she tumbled into a fit, she was right as rain the next day. Any damage healed up far too quickly for anyone’s liking. What’s more, when Justine emerged from these ill spells she would be possessed of a burning need to go to one of the places her friend showed her. More than once Paul had to ride out after his daughter and rein her back in when she slipped away unnoticed. Justine would be confined and watched as her right peculiar bouts of wanderlust faded after each episode.
If the Lochwoods were worried before, now they were baffled. They didn’t hold with the idea of daemonic possession happening to sweet little girls for no reason. There had to be an explanation. They consulted friends, sent letters to the learned Tinkers of Tillmoore, and asked the Spinners for any story similar to Justine’s. No one could rightly say why this happened to Justine, because no one rightly knew what the problem was. Eventually an answer of sorts was provided by Justine herself. Or, rather, by her imaginary friend.
Justine’s friend was named Thirty. Or at least, that’s what Justine called her, a translation from the odd language they shared. Thirty had a fair bit to say ‘bout what Justine was born to be, what she must be. She was a touch on the obsessed side and more than a touch off kilter and incomplete. Justine couldn’t even describe Thirty that well: Strange armor, long raven-black hair, and no face beyond luminous silver eyes. Proof? Well, time grinds everything down and the years of Justine’s conviction over Thirty being real, or at least a spirit in her head, won Paul and Martine over.
Thirty didn’t take kindly to being interviewed through Justin, but the answers came, trickled out over time as Justine grew out of girlhood. Her fits weakened by degrees, though still stuck her hard at times. With each fit came a sight, a vision of a place to go. Those became clearer, even if the whys and wherefores weren’t the most welcome. The fits had a purpose, they gave Justine an objective, a target. A threat, one she alone must attend to. The fiercer the fit, the greater the worry.
Now, the Elemental Powers are a fact of life, regardless of whether you call them magick or simply forces. They charge our Tinkers’ technology, spawn wild critters in the remote corners of the land, and warp out their own territories, domains where a single element holds sway, seeding the earth with its influence. And Justine, well she was a balancer, a counter force meant to fight back against the Elements when they go out of whack, when men and monsters ran amuck with their powers.
Sooth the Flames, Smooth the Waters, Still the Winds, and Steady the Earth. That was to be Justine’s life, her mission. Soften the Shadows, Leash the Light, and ensure the circle of Life and Death remains unbroken. We Jalarni are a tough, wide-ranging people, but some calls to adventure catch you by surprise in form and timing. And Justine never hesitated, never doubted it would be any other way. She had help, after all, coming to know Thirty’s distant language like a native and had her as a mental ghost: mentor, advisor, companion.
As to her own place in the wheel of Elements, that remained half a mystery for a while longer. She had the how and the why, it’s just the precise what took some time to puzzle out. She even got the name for what she was but didn’t care for it. Too Eastern, too ancient. Justine preferred Sheriff, something easy for anyone with enough good sense to grasp. You could append or precede a handful of words if you pleased. Elemental. Magick. Pact. Justine never specified, as it wasn’t her way to be too flowery in titles. Too Eastern and not our way.
Much of Justine’s new life involved hunting down men gone wrong. The Elemental Powers offer Pacts to those willing to serve and sometimes they ask too much and those empowered servants go awry. It fell to Justine to have them seen to. Other times she pursued the critters and stranger things of magick. Those were easier tasks, for sure. Still other times she addressed corruption ailing the land itself. In all cases, Justine tried to leave balance in her wake, even when the choices were hard and she had to be callous and forge that balance in blood. It was part and parcel of what she was, what she was born to be, and she embraced it in full. Justine had one hard and fast rule: She worked alone, if a qualified alone. She always had Thirty. She always had her horse, as any reasonable Jalarni would, even if her work took a tough toll on them.
The Spinners have traced Justine’s earliest official appearance to way out in the northern sticks. Now, a dedicated group of bandits who know their business are bad enough. Bandits with the ability to control and suppress fire at their beck and call is a whole ‘nother level of trouble. With the aid of an Elementally infused trio of leaders, they created a reign of terror and blood over those poor towns, the sort of slow boil of trouble that slips below the notice of greater authorities in times of stress. Local problems, local solutions, and to be fair that’s been our way more times than not. It’s a touch more difficult when your local problem can toss fire from their fingertips.
One day Justine rode into the central town wilting under the fire-flinging bandits’ rule, so fresh-faced it wouldn’t have been at all rude to call her ‘girl’. She didn’t blink when she rode beneath the dangling, charred bones of previous attempts to settle this trouble. All along the main drag of town, where every other building was reduced ashes and blackened timbers, she let herself be seen. Justine reached the center of town, tied up her horse, and called out their fiery champion, something no one dared to do after sufficient demonstration of his powers.
He arrived in short order. Flames licked along his bare skin and his eyes burned with madness and power. Justine faced him down right in the middle of the road, old fashioned style, her hands resting on the twin sabers at her hips, her weapons of choice. He raised his hands and flames filled the street between them. Justine didn’t flinch as the attack struck true. Nor did she burn. His magick could not touch her. She started walking through the inferno, turning fire to a trail of water muddying the road. Ever see it snow in summer? They did, that day. With a swing of each saber Justine struck the champion down, like culling a weed, her motions trailing steam and frost. It took some time to root out the rest of his allies, but soon enough the bandits melted away like ice in the sun.
When the task was said and done, the locals wanted to celebrate Justine, to hail her as a new hero. She demurred, slipped away in the night, and moved on to the next calling.
You’ve certainly heard tales from the Grand Hunt, ‘bout thirty years back? When the local beasts of myth and magick got a little too riled up we sent out the call for hunters to settle them back down. A rousing success, all in all, creating a bumper crop of heroes and stories for that generation. Justine didn’t take much part in the main event. As wild as the bounty critters were, they were small game to her, though she was mighty grateful we were looking after our own minor Elemental troubles and eased her workload.
Eventually there was one remaining unclaimed bounty on the list: Old Rockjaw, the giant stone golem of the Red Ridgebacks. Those hills had been his stomping ground for decades and until the Grand Hunt came around he was harmless more often than not. But now he was bigger and meaner, killing whole flocks of sheep and more than a few shepherds. Standard tale goes that all the best hunters grouped up to share in the fight and the reward. Try as they might Old Rockjaw dodged them for days, and when they cornered him at his den he proved mightier than all the hunters together. However, it seemed the fight calmed the golem so they let him be, and he peacefully haunts the Red Ridgebacks to this day.
Not so. Now, it’s a fine version of the tale, no argument here. It’s just not quite right. A team of the best of the best traveled to the heart of the Red Ridgebacks, sure enough. They tracked down Old Rockjaw’s secret den, true enough. And Justine was ahead of them every step of the way. She had something the hunters didn’t: her ability to sniff out Elemental trouble with an otherworldly clarity of vision. While the hunters were combing the hills, Justine rode straight as an arrow towards Rockjaw’s den. Then, just as the hunters closed in on their target the clear day over their heads turned out a windstorm as vicious as any high plains twister. The gale turned dust to stinging darts and pinned the hunters down into cover. And far up the slopes, above the crown of the hill, a woman danced through the air, hair whirling and sabers flashing. Old Rockjaw leapt and swung after her, each clash causing the unceasing winds to surge in strength. The earth quaked and quivered as Old Rockjaw smashed about, his blows echoing like thunder across the hills, never finding their mark. Then Justine raised a cry and the entire mountain shivered and the winds lost their might and Old Rockjaw tumbled to pieces.
The hunters returned empty handed save for a pair of stories: One was the truth and the other was to save face. Both left a bit of mystery up in the Red Ridgebacks.
The bounty went unclaimed.
Even without the gift of her inner sight, Justine had a knack for finding the world’s hidden places. There’s more land out there than folk to claim it, places tucked away from prying eyes containing the work of ancients whose stories have been forgotten by even the most prodigious Spinners. Once, between grander missions, a hunch took Justine to a place not far from home but well away from uncommon paths, deep into the unclaimed mountains to the south. She had no pressing crisis driving her on, only a sense of curiosity. Thirty had nothing to say on the matter.
Justine found what she didn’t know she sought high among the crags, many days beyond the last sign of civilization, where the last griffons roost. Nestled among the peaks lay a lush vale, an oasis of greenery in the midst of a stony domain. Ruins built by those long gone studded with the area, ancient stonework now coated with the embrace of life, a city buried by the perpetual passing of time and the persistent creep of plant life. Serene as the Hereafter, the vale beckoned her deeper.
However, lurking below the ruins’ pleasant cloak of life lay the elegantly carved stylings and fashions of death: symbols of skulls and bone, decay and rot, and the cycle of sacrifice. Justine recognized these designs, seen their like elsewhere. This was a former seat of death magick now granted a stillness well apart from its previous grim purpose, for nothing stirred but the wind whipping down off the surrounding cliffs. Justine picked her way to the central temple, a site fringed with enough moss and new life to pass for a hill, grinning right back at any stone skulls or grim reapers peeking out among the vines.
The central temple held no danger, only a secret. Just an old, picked over skeleton. But Justine knew the armor it wore and knew the withered raven-black shock of hair. She’d carried the image in mind as long as she could remember. Here lies Thirty, her friend, mentor, predecessor. This vale had been the site of Thirty’s final successful but fatal mission and now served as her tomb. The passing of time had dressed it up all proper and solemn. A fit setting but a poor burial, so Justine rolled up her sleeves and made sure Thirty was rightly seen to. After silences were observed and words spoken and the deed was done, Thirty whispered a Thank You and was gone.
For the first time Justine was truly alone.
Justine was always a lone wolf, a prime example of that old chestnut of the wanderer quietly doing good when and where she could. Now with Thirty gone silent Justine roamed further afield, keeping on her strange mission from one calling to the next with redoubled vigor. Her way of mourning the second passing of her friend, I suppose. She traveled clear across the continent many times over, leaving a breadcrumb trail of heroics kicked up like so much dust in her wake. Little tales of a strange Jalarni woman riding in out of nowhere to clean up other people’s Elemental messes. She was all over and at just the right time to make a difference. Some might call her a prophetess, if you hold with that sort of thinking.
Her work took her as far as boots and hooves could take you but she always came back to our rolling, wide-open country pinned to the corner of the continent. We aren’t the most convenient home base and all that travel didn’t allow for much time in terms of keeping kith and kin. When you have as few roots as Justine those blood ties matter all the more. She’d ride back into the border towns and stop at a watering hole like this one, those humble centerpieces of our culture, and take comfort in the welcoming anonymity. No fuss and no fanfare. Sometimes she’d still have the same Jalarni horse as she set out on months or years ago, the battle scars on its hide worn with pride. And if she came back on a ‘good enough’ foreign breed, well, you know her first order of business was arranging a meet and greet for a proper homegrown steed.
It was a subtler kind of brewing trouble that Justine dealt with. For every flashy expression of magick and counter-magick, there were three times the whispered, half-complete rumors. So Justine’s tale ain’t some grand sweep, no ready-made package, but a stitched together tapestry, the sum of stories. She made the Spinners work for it, allowing us an extra round of craftsmanship before the final product.
Despite her efforts to remain a quiet, anonymous heroine, Justine still managed to gather a kind of mystique around herself. This proved handy when her usual methods weren’t enough, those times when trouble was writ large across the sky and she had to drop her bashfulness and shine bold and bright.
As with Grand Hunt, everyone knows of Winter’s Long Shadow. A time when the days kept getting shorter in the spring instead of longer and only in our corner of the world. A time when a pall of shadow lay thick over the land, dimming the sun and stalling out the springtime bloom of the grasslands and forests. A time when living shadows sprang from the darkness, when predatory, formless monsters stalked the night. A time when men and women of weak mind and morals took the shadow into themselves, becoming agents of the formless enemy, able to merge into the darkness and reappear elsewhere.
The city of Elpin became the dark heart of all this trouble. There, a self-styled Shade Lord claimed rule over the animate shadows and darkened hearts of the land. Justine tried to ride on into Elpin and cut off the problem at its head, as she’s always done. She approached the walled city, aglow with a silver light. A wave of clawing, biting shadows swarmed her. They were burned away by cleansing magick. Another wave came and it too was banished, but not before gutting her horse and leaving Justine afoot too far from the city. A third wave roiled out over the walls and Justine knew she must turn back or be overwhelmed.
Justine could win a fight alone, could skirmish with creatures of the Elemental Powers alone, she could even cleanse a twisted and corrupted land alone. She could not win a war alone. So she broke her one rule and went to gather help.
When she returned to Elpin it was at the heart of the assembled armies of the nation, a brighter beacon in a defiant sea of small lights. Not as a leader, mind. This gathering was already in motion before Justine lent her aid. She was gussied up as just another rider ready for the charge, a hidden trump card. Shadows make great spies, after all.
I won’t recount the siege and breech of the walls. I certainly tell it often enough and besides…everyone knows that bit. It’s the centerpiece where Justine came into play. At the heart of Elpin stands what’s now called the Tower of Dawn. Back then it was the Gemstone Tower, an ancient construction topped by a darkly glowing gemstone. An old curio that became the heart of the Shadow’s power, corrupted into a pulsing well of unnatural twilight.
In the midst of carnage in the streets of Elpin, where man fought shadowman, Justine climbed the tower, slicing her way through resistance with the inevitability of the long-delayed dawn. She found the Shade Lord at the top of the tower, surrounded by his court of darkness, as appropriate for any good showdown. This was a fight on a scale she knew. This was something she could handle on her own.
They all saw it unfold from down below in the streets, even if they didn’t understand it. A luminous figure, flitting around the top of the old tower, furiously dancing with a swarm of shadows, twin sabers flashing with all the power of the sun. Then, in the end, a burst of brightness from the tower’s centerpiece, the blue-black gemstone inverted from twilight to radiance. Light bathed the city, washing away the animate shadows and setting the sky right again. For a long victorious moment Justine stood outlined against pure, pure light, like a figure pulled straight out of myth.
Respect where it’s due, our armies fought well that day and paid a heavy toll to bring back the light. But in the end they were a delivery method, an armored shell to get Justine into the city. People remember the greater picture well enough, but some have attributed too much credit to the wrong folk, and the wrong folk have claim too much credit for themselves. Suppose that’s a downside to Justine’s shunning of attention and accolades.
She left an undeniable legacy behind, though. To this day the tower in Elpin shines like a beacon across the plains, keeping shadows at bay and guiding travelers home.
I had the personal pleasure of meeting Justine on a night like this one, in a watering hole like this one. I’d call it twenty years ago if it were a day, in a backwater town tucked up against the rambling mountains to the northeast of our fair country. I was a freshly minted Spinner, plying my trade and practicing my craft, collecting the tall tales of the frontier. It was a slow night, not many requests for renditions or recordings, and I tended to a mug I had to pay for, for a change. Justine caused no stir when she entered the bar, despite her past deeds. That was her way, after all. Just another trail gal by the look of her, no different than any other rider that night.
She helped herself to my table and fixed me down with soft but serious silver eyes. Had the kindly face of a woman grown, though whether she was thirty-six, forty-three, or a graceful fifty I couldn’t tell.
You the local Spinner? She asked.
I sure was.
Got your notes ready?
I tapped my noggin. Always.
Then listen well, friend.
The slow night vanished into her tale, her voice inflected by her wide travels but still in tune, still twanging with the song of the central prairies. She confirmed what the Spinners had gathered about her and made claims on tales we had no inkling of, keeping as many secrets as she revealed. When she’d finished the bar was quiet and empty, the proprietor cleaning up but polite enough to recognize when I was at work and allowing us the time to finish. Justine didn’t have an ending to her tale, just a stopping point. I had many questions but allowed myself only two.
Where you bound next?
Straight into the Heart of Fire itself, and I don’t believe I’m coming back.
She said it with all the confidence of an assured vision and with all the uncertainty of a doubtful outcome. She was right to be doubtful. Once you go over those mountains there’s nothing but volcanic wastes, lands burning endlessly in punishment for some long-forgotten transgression. The source for many troubles for our nation, big and small. To strike at the heart of it all, well, that’s a task only the mightiest heroes could even consider.
Why tell me? Justine quirked a smile, a fleeting, welcome thing, a bright bird flitting between pockets of dull winter brush.
Some people never know why they’re chosen.
Maybe it was always meant to be by some Almighty design.
Or maybe you were just a convenient point along the way.
And that’s how I became her official chronicler.
Safe to say Justine’s suspicions proved out. She never came back from the Heart of Fire. I can’t rightly say what happened to her with a certainty. None can. But I know those fiery critters on the northeast frontier calmed down by degrees not long after she went over the mountains. I know the horizon out thataway still goes aglow with hellish light like an ill-meaning and unscheduled sunrise, but only one night in ten instead of every evening. Safe to say Justine’s sacrifice accomplished something, even if no one knows the precise details.
I kept an ear out for her all the same and heard nothing but the wind whispering across the grasslands. Stories are traveling farther and faster these days that much is sure. I hear tell of a similar young gal with similar traits and powers making waves out east in shattered, Wind-swept Hithia. I’ve been piecing together the rumors and heresay to see if she adds up to Justine. Perhaps another was chosen for whatever reason or no reason at all and Justine’s legacy lives on beyond the reach of my voice.
I’d certainly rest easier if that were the case.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael L. Watson