Fortune's Path: The Crossroads (book)

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Fortune's Path: The Crossroads

Knowing that someday these words would be seen by other than my own eyes, I have taken the time to begin this recitation so that you might see, gazing back on the past when normally all one can see is ahead. Mistake me not, I make no grandiose claims to great skill in writing or in the weaving of words. What lies before you is a simple tale of life, muddled though it may be, in response to that which I saw writ in the stars one night not long past. As the saying goes, "As Fate wills, so shall it be."

What need have I of money -- I who have always taken what I wished or needed from those unwary enough to misplace their possessions? Thus had my life always been one of carefree existence, moving where the fates took me, living off what was so bountifully provided by those around me, aware or not of their kindness to me. I should begin though, I suppose, at the beginning.

I had a mother and father like anyone else. They were kind people, and I was not beaten or starved as a child -- quite the contrary in fact. But it was always as though the face I wore and the manner I exposed to the world were like badly fitting garments, ill suited to my nature. As time passed, this feeling grew ever stronger, until the day I could not bear it longer. I packed my meager possessions, along with a store of food that would not easily spoil, and at the tender age of fifteen left my parents' home on a night when the sky was aglow with stars against a background of blue so deep as to be almost black.

I traveled thus, alone and unburdened, for many months, letting my feet wander as they would to some unheard urgings. It happened though that one day I met others much like myself, wild and untamed in the ways of men, happy and unfettered by convention. It was among these that I learned some sense of family and community of spirit. The sense of belonging was strong with these people, and I could not leave them -- nor would I have wished to. They were very fond of silks and brightly colored adornments, jewelry to sparkle in both sun- light and candlelight alike.

Quite common were representations of the stars that shone like diamonds, stylized depictions of the constellations we could see each clear night as we cooked that evening's meal over a single campfire ringed in by stones. Moving far enough away from the flickering fire afforded an unparalleled view of the sky's bounty, something that these people claimed gave them insight into the future.

You see, one way they earned coin from the villagers and townsfolk was by the telling of their fortunes based on the knowledge imparted by the stars and even the moons. The common folk, never knowing if this was real or a sham, but certainly very impressed and even amused by the whole process, always wished for these readings of fate's threads, also knowing that the information they received might not be to their liking. Still they came, seeking that knowledge, that glimpse of the future, hidden from common sight. And of course, we obliged.

Our methods varied as much as our clothing. Some of us traced the apparently meaningless lines on the palm of a hand, evoking mysteriously tantalizing glimpses of the future for the mark's consumption. Others set themselves up in small tents, the only furniture a velvet-draped table and a flawless crystal ball. The darkness of the interior hid any defects in the richly hued cloth that masked the inside walls of the tent, muffling the sounds from the camp. Some few of us delighted in the reading of tea leaves, though I found this to be harder to interpret. Sodden leaves ringing the sides of a teacup induced little in the way of insight for me. But, I get ahead of myself.

The eldest woman of the group, Anylika, came to me one evening when the sky was ablaze with color as the sun dipped below the horizon. She spoke to me of inconsequential things, waiting until full darkness overtook us and the stars in the sky shone with unnatural clarity. I had not been long among them when she came, mere weeks in fact, and was both surprised and wary at first, knowing she was frazzuri among us.

Grasping my chin within her weathered hand, she gazed deeply into my eyes, searching for what I did not know. After what seemed an eternity she released me, only to pull my hand to her lap and begin tracing the ingrained lines with one finger- tip. I could not help but squirm; her touch was gentle enough to tickle. Finally she gazed up at me and smiled, patting me on the back as she stood to take her leave of me.

Not long after, I began receiving instruction in their ways of reading the skies and of the telling of fortunes. I was already well experienced in assuring my continued well-being and in fact could teach my new family a few new tricks along those lines. Of particular interest were the Tokka cards. I had never seen anything like them, and the pictures, while beau- tiful in their own right, spoke to me in the heretofore-empty niches of my mind and soul.

So began my journey, not one measured in the number of steps my feet could walk, but in the expansion of my mind and the uncurling of the power seated deep within me. As time passed, I became more than proficient in my abilities, and com- fortable in the magic they taught me. During this time I became more tightly enmeshed with these people, truly a part of them. I confess though, some of their customs took me by surprise and I was hard pressed at first not to blush at what I saw. The mores I was exposed to were foreign, but compelling nonetheless and something that I eventually grew accustomed to and even participated in.

I speak of course of the way they acted with each other, how open in their regard they were, exceptionally unmistakable in their feelings towards those who attracted them. Every ges- ture or step was like a choreographed movement of some dance; every flutter of eyelashes or sidelong glance was like a shin- ing beacon of interest visible to all in view. I suppose that in time, all becomes commonplace, and even acceptable. Watch- ing the intricate dance of life around me, the pairing of people and seeing their internal brightness flame even higher, was now natural.

Sometimes, when a couple's dance was more than just move- ments around the fire to sounds both heard and unheard, there would be an understanding. More than a few of the women sported necklaces hung with golden coins that glinted in the firelight, and it was not long before their meaning became clear to me. I noticed -- how could I not -- that those who wore such adornments danced ever more vivaciously, and their eyes were only for one man of the many. The giving of such a necklace was a celebration of its own. The closest family for each would gather, sharing wine and stories in lavish amounts. This was, of course, a time of changes for them; no longer would their beloved daughter reside with them, but soon gain her place in the group as a full adult alongside her chosen mate.

However, I digress. Owing to my association and accept- ance into this family, these people, I was now of their number and an adept mage in my own right. The forces of the moons and stars flowed strongly within me and I could sense the phases of the moon and the turning of the sky just by closing my eyes. I like to think I could also feel the pull of the tides, but per- haps that is merely fancy on my part. It was nothing to me to sit quietly for a moment, soaking in the sounds of revelry and merriment at evening's end, and achieve a perfect sense of peace and stillness.

As one, we traveled as fate decreed, telling the fortunes of villagers and townsfolk with our cards, speaking always with cryptic words and vague promises of what the future held for each. Always we went away with silver, some from the telling, some which accidentally found its way to us along with the odd bolt of silk or side of beef. Amazing, is it not, how rich one can become when one owns next to nothing? Magic we used as befit us, drawing upon the power of the moons to smooth our way or amuse outsiders, or as necessary to protect ourselves from those who might have some small cause to be upset -- never to harm, you understand, but surely to confuse and beguile.

Daily life was simple enough -- we traveled in our cara- vans, stopping when the sun was high to rest and water the animals, and to partake of a light meal. Before long, we would be on our way again, not stopping until the sun began to sink in a molten mass of crimson and fiery orange. With prac- ticed ease the animals would be cared for, the fires laid and fresh carcasses gathered along the way by our hunters spitted and set out to roast for that evening's meal. The younger children would make a game of getting water from whatever stream or river we'd ended up next to, while the older ones would help with tasks that required more responsibility.

After the revelry of each night had quieted, and talk was nothing more than murmurs and sleepy mutterings, those that enjoyed sleeping under the stars wandered off to the pallets they'd laid out earlier. Others took up watch around the camp, while the rest returned to the caravans to slumber until morn- ing. Most days were like this; we did not often stop in any one place for more than the night. This is not to say that there were not some like us, but who encamped more permanently, usually at a crossroads. While rare, these groups were the ones who traded between the various clans and offered a place of greater safety in which to make repairs or hold the larger celebrations.

In truth, those gatherings that all the clans were wont to attend were held at Taisgath Island, where a group of seafaring gypsies had established a more or less permanent encampment. That the island was usually quiet and free of outside influ- ences made it quite popular for such activities, though even should someone journey there during a revel, it was not likely he would stumble on us by accident. For all our free-spirited merrymaking, we were ever careful to conceal what outsiders should not see. Even the youngest knew this, and worked toward that goal.

As with myself, there were others who wandered into our midst and were tested. I was privileged to once witness this, hidden in the shadows while Anylika went about her work. One unfortunate, though I know not what flaw lay within him, failed her probing. Though she maintained a cheerful demeanor (for her), the cup of tea she handed the young man was hardly inno- cent in nature. Shortly thereafter, he slipped into uncon- sciousness and was taken to a pallet of woven grasses and reeds and left to sleep, not to wake until long after we had gone. I did inquire later of Anylika what the test entailed, but her cryptic answer only baffled me more, and better served to drive home the emphasis of not having met the same fate.

I grow tired though this night, and will continue some time later perhaps.

Looking back over what I have thus far written, I realize I have not begun to really touch upon certain parts of our lives, our customs or even what can be the sensitive issue of religion. One might ask, or even wonder, if my kinsmen worshipped the Gods. Most common was devotion shown to the trine of Damaris, Dergati and Phelim. I can almost sense you wondering why. The answer is simple enough -- dreams are so much like visions and portents, vague messages that require interpretation and at times careful study. Also, the trine deals in the opposing facets of neutral, good and evil.

Take for example the art of stealing. While many may find it extremely distasteful and even worth the death of the thief, for some it is a way of life -- a form of survival. One of the family might call on Phelim to grant sweet bounty, Damaris to deter the target's watchful eye, and Dergati to guide their hand in the process. There is a great art to a game, espec- ially if you are not exactly playing by the established rules. One can never let on, by even the tiniest hint, that all is not as it appears to be. Tricksters we are called for good reason, are we not? This same philosophy applies to many aspects of life -- perspective is everything, and is what you see reality, or merely a dream?

Other clans were safe from these less than innocent amuse- ments by common law. Courtesy dictates that you do not target your own kind, even for survival's sake. All others, however, were fair game by our rules. One should understand that this is a casual thing -- we do not go about with the express intent of appropriating other people's worldly goods simply because they exist. However, if we should happen to run low on sup- plies and someone is foolish enough to leave things unattended or just to be careless in full view, then who is to say it was not meant to be?

Each person among us was no better nor worse than the next. None held themselves superior to their fellows. We had a nominal leader naturally, but even so, this changed as all things do, and our leader was afforded the respect due the position, but not treated much differently overall. The leader made sure that all were fed each night, that everything was properly gathered before we moved, and most importantly handled the chance meeting of others of our kind.

On those occasions when our path crossed that of another group, there would be an impromptu celebration -- once the leaders, of course, had spoken at length. Much like twin crescent moons, each group would form half of a wide circle centered on an enormous communal fire. All that we had would be shared in these meetings, with meat roasting upon a slowly turning spit and dripping into the fire to punctuate the night air with sharp sizzling noises. In the flickering light we would dance to the sweet sounds of tambourines and flutes interwoven with driving drumbeats, our steps and movements a studied counterpoint to each other.

It was during these times that many new friendships were made, and old ones renewed. Gifts were exchanged, not all of which were material in nature. The dancing alone ensured that. The roaring fire would burn with the same heat as the atmosphere surrounding the gathered throng, though many in the midst of their revelry never noticed nor complained, intent as they were on their activities. As the celebration drove on in the velvet depths of the night, the music's tempo would quicken and rise as the gathering reached its fevered crescendo, every- one rejoicing in the moment, knowing that such a time of meet- ing could not come again for quite some time, unless fate found reason to bring them once again together.

Come morning, the circle would ring with the laughter of children, waking the adults from their slumber with muffled but good-natured protests. In an unconscious mimicry of the pre- vious night's dance all would participate in the breaking of camp, taking care to give each person some sign of affection before parting. Once away, life would return to normal and we would wander as before, following the urges we all felt but could not consciously voice.

Often heard spoken by my kinsman were the words "As Fate wills" or even "By the Fates!" if one was moved to an exclam- ation. Also common were the words, when one intended to actu- ally honor a bargain struck, "Bound by the Threads of Fate, so will it be." The sayings of other groups were similar, though not precisely the same. That is to be expected, I suppose. However, these things were an indication of our nature and philosophy. Fate, fortune, and chance played a great part in all things, and we took care to cultivate them, even court them. The games we enjoyed, while seemingly innocent enough, were underlain with the understanding that this trine was not to be trifled with, or needlessly angered.

From time to time we did of course come upon kinsmen of a different sort. I have seen the Prophets with their mysterious smiles and quiet murmured greetings of "Garden be seen" and the Celestians clothed in their dignity and eloquence, eyes often on the stars above. The Sophists with their serious nature and utter devotion to their beliefs were a studied contrast to the wildness of the Nomads, so close to nature itself. Most peculiar, if that can be believed, were those that walked always in the shadow of tragedy, progeny of a Mistress doomed to wander a realm not of the living for her actions.

These meetings were handled with far more care than with those akin to my own family. It goes without saying that customs differed greatly, and we took pains to, if not act as they might, at least avoid offense. These convergences were much like the wary circling of distantly acquainted relations uncertain of where the invisible boundaries lie. Always we came away with a bit more knowledge, carefully tucked away for future need.

I often wondered in the privacy of my own mind what com- pelled these others to their particular ways. What would cause a person to deliberately gouge out their eyes? Do they really believe it affords them some special kind of sight not enjoyed by the rest of us? What kind of person would be so calm and composed at all times, or living in awe and apparent wonder of any one person, so much so that they base their lives on those beliefs? I confess to simply not understanding, but perhaps my own lifestyle and those of my people are as foreign to them as theirs are to me.

There came a day when Itrelis joined our family much as I had done, and in much the same manner was tested by Anylika a short time later. I would be less than truthful did I profess lack of immediate interest; instead I confess I often found myself lurking, casually of course, in the general vicinity of wherever Itrelis was to be found. This did not go unnoticed. Around the fire at night I was more daring though still hesi- tant, I who had never before felt a moment of uncertainty with others, and never before felt such strength of emotion for one person only.

This regard was returned with subtlety, Itrelis being less of a free spirit by nature than the rest of our family. In time, in a rare bonding of soul, Itrelis and I came to stand slightly apart from the rest, and while our evenings remained full of the things there had always been, the nights were given over to each other. Our family, wise as they were even while appearing to be something less than aware, respected this.

In the presence of our adopted families within the clan, a necklace was gifted and worn with pride and confidence. Much like any other couple, we eventually had children of our own, who were accepted into the protection of the clan. All child- ren in our midst were treated well and given care to the utmost of everyone's ability. Precious things should not be harmed or held back, but they should be watched over and kept safe.

From those modest beginnings eventually rose an entirely new clan, peopled with the fruits of my relationship with Itrelis. Neither of us ever claimed any special privileges due to this happenstance, it was merely a weaving of fate and not cause for excessive glory for ourselves. We were assured, of course, of a comfortable life. Amazing how that worked out, is it not?

In all life's glory we each of us walk alone, despite the invisible ties of love and enmity alike. For some this is a stately, measured progression, while others move in a welter of confusion and uncertainty. Still others glide along without haste, pausing to investigate each point of interest as it appears. In the end, we all have a time to live and to die. For myself, my time approaches, as I have seen it writ in the stars. I grow weary, and what I foresaw long ago has come to pass. Knowing this have I written my final words to the future.

By my hand, on this 29th day in the month of Akroeg the Ram in the year of the Silver Unicorn, as men reckon time.