Hralf and the Way of the Endless Veldt

This story takes place between “Hralf and the Thief of Tarts” and “Hralf and the Temple Guardian“. To see the stories listed in reading order, see “Short Fiction“, above.

An interview with Master Tablet, Abbot of the Monastery of the Endless Veldt.

Welcome, honored guest. How may this one be of aid to you today?

Ah. Like so many, you have come to learn the words of the Veldt-Sage and find the solace and peace of the Endless Veldt.

No? This one is devastated to have been so mistaken. Yet the Veldt makes all things plain. Does not the Veldt-Sage say, “Vast is the veldt and ginormous the grasslands, the land of my longing and home of my heart”? What is it then, that you wish?

This one understands. And it is well for this one to remember his path to enlightenment, for if there is pain there is also joy, and advancement in the Way of the Endless Veldt. Says the Sage, “Steadfast the seekers the cheetahs to chastise, forward the followers the hunt for to happen.”

For this we shall require tea. Brother Chisel, please bring tea and refreshments for our guest.

And now, honored one, bide but a moment in contemplation of the Endless Veldt until the brother returns.

How are you to contemplate the Veldt, honored one?

Yes, it is true: the monastery is set among the mountains like a pearl in the ear of the Lady of the Veldt, and there is snow all about. It was not far from this place that one first encountered the Veldt-Sage and his Lady, and so it is here that we live according to his way. It may be that the eyes of the body find no sign of the golden grass of the veldt-lands. Yet still we may contemplate the Endless Veldt, for the way of the Veldt is a way of the spirit, and by contemplation we learn to roll with its rolling.

Thank you, Brother Chisel. Go now, but remain within call.

This one trusts that the tea pleases your palate? Then all is right under the Burning Sun.

To grant your wish, this one must first speak of his worthless self.

This one’s name? “Tablet” is not the name this one was born with, of course. It was bestowed by the brothers, for this one is the stone upon which the Veldt-Sage engraved his lessons, and through whom they are passed on.

As a youth, this one left his village and the tending of cattle and fields and the rural munificence of dung to seek enlightenment of the soul, finally entering the Monastery of Kai-Jee in the far hills of Tou. In this seemingly most beneficent of locations, this one hoped to ponder the infinite and seek the ultimate stillness of soul through the long nights and the wide afternoons. Alas! The brothers one found there were dedicated to no such purpose.

Instead, this one was made to rise before dawn each day, to run and to jump and to climb, to have no rest, and so no time for contemplation. And for what purpose? To no greater end than the art of Beating People Up. In the morning this one was taught the many Forms of Battle: the Sock in the Eye, the Fist to the Nose, the Insertion of the Boot. The afternoons were devoted to the Simply Answered Questions: What is the best defense? What is the only good enemy? What must you never leave behind you?

This one is slight of build, as you see, and slow of movement. Though one mastered the Simply Answered Questions on a single hearing, the execution of the Forms of Battle eluded him. In the art of Beating People Up this one was far more often People than Beating; and this was a skill that this one had already brought to perfection in the years before entering the monastery.

This one attempted to leave Kai-Jee in search of the peaceful contemplation for which he longed; for does not the Veldt-Sage say, “Blood and bones broken,” thereby signifying that we must abandon the bodily for the clarity and aridity of the Veldt?

But the Masters of Kai-Jee did not despair of this one, oh no! And moreover one’s brothers loved to spar with him, calling him by many fine names, such as Bag, and Target, and Side of Beef. And so they followed behind him and retrieved him, for this one is slow of movement, as has been said. And having so retrieved him, they redoubled their efforts to pass along the wisdom of Fist and Boot by diligent example.

At last this one was compelled to leave Kai-Jee by dead of night, and to travel by dark ways and all stealth lest his brothers recover him with cries of joy. But through seeking the darkness this one fell into dark and dishonorable ways, and so it was that he became known to the Veldt-Sage.

As the Sage says, “Provender most pleasing, the gullet to gladden, victuals most varied the hunter must have!” Contemplation feeds the soul but does not fill the belly. In seeking to allay the strong pangs of hunger this one entered an inn by night, and creeping into a sleeping chamber placed his dishonorable hand into the baggage of the one who slept there, withdrawing what came into his palm.

This one shall never forget the events that followed.

First, this one’s wrist was seized in a grasp of iron. There followed a spark and a flame—and in that moment this one was enlightened, and saw the Veldt-Sage and his Lady for the first time.

The honored guest already knows of the Veldt-Sage: his majestic stature, the blackness of his mane, the iron of his muscles, the ubiquity of his tablets. For it was the Sage himself who held this one’s wrist; and it was his Lady who held the lamp, which she hung from a holy lamp hook.

The Sage lifted this one up to the light, and looked him up and down.

“I do not know you, do I?” he said.

This one was struck dumb, and hid his face, dropping that which he held: a tablet of stone.

The Veldt-Sage caught it even as it fell. “Ah!” he said. “You wish to hear one of my sagas!”

Then spoke his Lady. “Late is the hour, and the dawn is not yet come,” she said. “Dispose of this one swiftly. Though my beauty needs no augment, still we must rest.”

The Veldt-Sage nodded, but said, “Stealthy the seeker the sagas to sample. Patient the pupil, his goal shall be granted!” And so saying he bid his Lady remove the lamp from its hook, and there he hung this one by the scruff of his meager garment to await the dawn in contemplation.

This one spent several hours in this pursuit, contemplating the times of his life and his manifold failures. And yet, he was curious who this could be, this one who Hung One Up rather than Beating One Up, this one who was strong enough to have no need to Insert the Boot. And thus the Sage taught me the First Lesson, to give instruction to all who come, however lowly they may be; and also the Second Lesson, to ensure that they have ample opportunity to ponder what they have heard.

When morning came the Sage took this one down from the hook, and fed him in the inn’s common room, for which this one was assuredly grateful. The Sage and his Lady were joined by two others, an elf and a halfling.

“Who’s the kid?” said the halfling.

“A lover of learning, my sagas came seeking,” said the Sage, and his Lady added, “He tried to steal a saga. Hralf has kept him hanging about ever since.”

“Curiousity it was that killed the cat,” said the Sage. “And sagas the satisfaction that sustained him.”

“Another fan, huh?” said the halfling. “He’ll get what’s coming to him, not to worry. Hralf has done this before.”

After the meal the halfling procured for this one a pony. And so the five of us journeyed on under the Sun of the Endless Veldt: this one on his pony and the Sage on his feet of iron. And as we traveled, the Sage recited his sagas.

What did this one think of them?

This one is ashamed to confess that he did not think of them, not yet. For his belly was full, and the day was warm, and this one was sleepy. It was only with the passage of time that this one came to understand the wisdom that lies therein.

And so the day passed, and the evening came; I was fed again, and received the food with joy; and that night the Sage one again hung this one on a hook—there, so the Lady said, that this one might continue to contemplate his life choices.

It was not a pleasant time, that night, for skill in contemplation comes only with difficulty and much practice. But in time I found rest for my soul.

And then, in the morning, there was catastrophe! The Sage’s sack, in which he carried the Tablets of the Sagas, was gone! “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!” cried the Sage in his extremity, so as to remind himself and his listeners that the spirit must triumph over the bodily realm. His Lady gave this one a searching look. Yet this one was still on his hook, awaiting the Sage’s release. Nor was there any way this one might have climbed down, though he would gladly have forgone the night’s contemplation; nor, had this one done so, was there any way this one might have re-ascended to his perch of pondering.

This one was moved to speak. “This one begs your pardon, O Sage, and O Lady. From dusk to dawn has this worthless one dangled here, pondering the Veldt and the happenings of the sagas; yet he observed no one enter this chamber to despoil your sack.” And then this one recited the words of his mother on similar occasions:

Cookies are missing.
The jar holds no more than crumbs.
None here has done it.

The Veldt-Sage regarded this one for a time, his countenance terrible, his mane standing up, and then removed this one from his hook. Greatly this one feared that that the Sage might progress from Hanging to Beating at this time, but instead he silently instructed this one in the Third Lesson: to pursue enlightenment with diligence and all tenacity. As the Sage says, “The stalker must stubbornly run without resting, for the quarry unquitting the stalker much snatch!”

You wish to know, is that what the Sage said on this occasion?

It was not, for the Sage was greatly moved. This one remembers, he said “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!” many times as he cast about the chamber for some sign of the sack, and he said many hard words about thieves, until the Lady, ever most practical, said, “Remember to whom you are speaking. Now, continue to look about; I will ask the innkeeper if anyone saw anything.”

Returning, the Lady gave us news: the innkeeper had told her that there had been a struggle in the stable midway between the hours of dusk and dawn—that a groom had received the Sock in the Eye and the Fist to the Jaw, and that the thief had taken a horse and left at speed.

Taking no time for food the Veldt-Sage followed his quarry, and so too did this one and the Lady.

There were no sagas on this morning, for the Sage prowled ahead, intent on the trail. But the Lady spoke to this one as we rode, and she said, “I am glad that you have come. He has been low and in need of a good hunt.”

As we reached each village on our way the Lady would go and make inquiries while the Sage watched the horizon, contemplating the Endless Veldt even in the moment of his distress.

“A man most disreputable in appearance rode through on a fine bay horse,” she would return and say. “We must continue.” And so it went until evening, when we stopped at an inn.

The Sage took the Lady’s horse and this one’s pony round to the stable, while the Lady drew me inside. There she took paper and pen and wrote a quick note. Sealing it she handed it to this one with a few coins, and said, “There is a messenger service across the square. See that this is sent on to the town of Lesser Hartness. You shall eat when you return.” And of course this one complied, though he feared he would in the end find himself once more on a hook.

“The man on the bay horse was seen here,” the Lady told the Sage. The Sage nodded, but was quiet during our meal; were he an ordinary person this one would have said that he was morose. And so this one attempted to comfort him with more of his mother’s words:

A wish is no horse.
What is lacking is lacking.
Want but be silent.

“What is this?” said the Veldt-Sage in tones of wonder.

“A call to contentment, the words of my mother,” said this one, “a poem or proverb in her way of speaking.”

The honored guest will see that this one was already beginning to follow the Way of the Endless Veldt, so quickly had the Sage’s instruction taken hold. And indeed, this one was given ample time to contemplate throughout that night until the Burning Sun returned once more.

In the morning this one was unhooked and we rode on, the elf and the halfling having caught us up; and the Sage returned to this one’s side and continued to instruct him in the way, chanting the sagas of the Lords of the Veldt. And so grateful was this one that he listened eagerly, and committed the words to memory, storing them up all the day, for as long as the Burning Sun shone upon him.

When the sun was high we came to a town; and as we traversed its main square a man ran up to us. He was stout, and perspiring, and this one could see that he had been waiting for us.

“Are you…are you Hralf, by any chance?” he said, gulping.

“Hralf am I, the Hewer of Sagas,” the Sage replied, “Last of the Veldt-Lords, my sagas I seek!” And he studied the man’s face. “I do not know you, do I?”

“No, sir, no.”

“Would you like to hear—” And the Sage put his hand to his waist where his sack should hang, and he said, “Blood and bones broken!” Just so was he ever mindful of the call of the Endless Veldt!

“Ah, yes, your sagas. About that,” said the man.

“Yes?” said the Lady of the Veldt.

“Ah, a man rode through here a few hours ago. He was on a bay horse, the finest I’ve seen. And he insisted that I watch for you and give you his message.”

The Sage bent down and looked him in the eye. And the Lady said, “And this was?”

The man gulped again. “I’m just passing this along, you understand?”

The Sage growled softly.

“He said,” began the man, wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, “he said, well, this: ‘The pussy’s a poser, his sagas are stupid, in Clutterback City his demise will develop!'”

The Sage rose to his full height. “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!”

“Calmly, dear one,” said the Lady. “It seems we must be most cautious. We shall reach Clutterback City in three days. When we do, I will investigate. Our thief will never see me coming.”

We rode on; and that evening over our meal the Sage questioned this one about his life and his mother’s sayings. This one recited,

Missing are the shoes.
Not to be found is the coat.
Success under the bed.

And also,

A scab on the knee.
Pick it not, though it calls you.
A scar you shall have.

And many others of this kind.

And so the days passed, the hook by night and the sagas by day; and on the third day this one beheld the City for the first time.

What were this one’s impressions? This one cannot improve on the words of the Veldt-Sage:

A stink in the sinus of offal most awful,
Cramped and enclosed, both noisome and noisy.
No room for running, nor rapturous romping,
From men of no manners the gelt I will glean.

This one did not like it. Contemplation is far to seek in such places, though hooks may abound.

The Lady led us to a low tavern of the sort favored by this one’s father, and taking the halfling away with her bade us wait patiently. And so this one did, though the Sage paced all the while. And so this one said,

We are not there yet.
But five minutes have passed us.
Do not ask again.

After a period of hours the Lady and the halfling returned.

“A man I didn’t recognize handed me this note and said to give it to you,” said the halfling. He showed us a piece of paper, and read these words:

If you wish to see your sagas again, you must follow these instructions to the letter. First, buy two pearls of great price from of the goldsmiths in Crucible Street, and have them made into earrings. Purchase a new loincloth, and clean your self and your harness and your weapons. Then, come to the following location at two hours after dusk. Come alone.

The halfling then recited a list of directions that meant nothing to this one, unacquainted as he was with the city.

“Blood and bones broken,” said the Sage. He looked very tired.

“That’s tonight,” said the halfling. “I took the liberty of tracking down a sweet pair of pearls and did a little bargaining for you. They’ll still be pricey, but hey, your sagas are worth it, right? Not to mention the sack you carry them in. You can afford it, you never spend anything anyway. C’mon, let’s go get them, there’s not much time.”
The Sage’s eyes were low as the halfling led him off. This one heard him say, “My temple,” in tones of despair.

And so the Sage taught me the Fourth Lesson, that the wisdom of the Endless Veldt is to be valued more than any treasure, more even than two pearls of great price.

“As for you,” said the Lady to me, “you will come with me. You are slow, but you can carry many things.”

All the rest of that day she led me from place to place. First we went to a bathhouse, where this one was made to wash all over, and was given new clothes, while the Lady made her own ablutions. Next we went to a leather worker’s shop, where the Lady procured a new outfit, similar to the suit she already wore but all in the most supple black leather. The shopkeeper wrapped it in a clean cloth and tied it up with twine, and gave it to this one to carry. From there we went to any number of other establishments, where the Lady made arrangements she chose not to discuss with this one, and weighed him down with more parcels.

Finally the Lady led this one to an inn, the finest inn I had ever seen, where she handed this one over to the halfling and vanished upstairs.

“C’mon, kid,” said the halfling. “You look hungry, and we’ve got some time to kill. Let’s get something to eat.” He led me to another room, where a man brought us food. And as the sun went down and we ate our fill he filled this one’s ears with stories of the Veldt-Sage, some of which this one was willing to believe.

In all this time we saw no sign of the Veldt-Sage. “Will the master be able to retrieve his sagas?” this one asked. “Will he not need our help?”

“Not to worry, kid. It’ll all end well, you’ll see.”

The elf came to us, just before the appointed time, and took us to another room in the inn. It was decorated with many beautiful items, some of which this one recognized from earlier in the day. The Lady was there, clad in her new outfit, and there was a table laden with much food and drink, and a sign that said, “Hralf and Katia.” There were many people there, including a fearsome golem and a man who was introduced to this one as Master Halidom, and there was much talk and laughter.

And then there was a hiss, and the words, “He’s coming!” Everyone grew quiet and turned to face the door.

There was a silence of several minutes, broken only by scattered titters. And then the Sage entered. His mane had been brushed and combed. His loincloth was clean and new, and his weapons gleamed in the lamp light. He held a small box in one hand.
He looked around the room, and at last his eyes fell upon the Lady. She was standing in the center of the room, a sack on her hip.

“Blood and bones broken,” he whispered.

She smiled wickedly at him.

“Come, my dear,” she said. “If you wish the sagas, you must take all that goes with them. You have the pearls?”

The Veldt-Sage stared at her, mouth open. Then he stepped forward, and gave her the box. It is as my mother said:

A wise man is silent.
His lips are closed on his words.
A fool leaves no doubt.

The Lady opened the box, and removed a single pearl on a gold pin. She handed to this one the box with the remaining pearl.

“Bend down,” she said to the Sage, “and hold still.”

Deftly she pierced his right ear with one claw, and affixed the pearl in its place. Then she took the remaining pearl and handed it to the Sage.

“And now,” she said, “It is your turn.”

Gravely he took the pearl, pierced her ear, and set it in its place. He said,

Rare pearls most precious
More splendid the eyes that gleam
A life in their light.

The Sage took the Lady’s face in his hands and kissed her; and only this one heard her say to him, “You were taking too long. And besides, aren’t these easier to keep safe than those heavy chests of yours? They will be ready when we find your temple.”

Then the Lady stepped back, and patted the sack on her hip, and said to him so that all present could hear, “Now, my husband. Would you like to read one of my sagas?”

There was a cheer, and much laughter, and many more words and good wishes. And after the Sage and his Lady had spoken to each person in the room, she whispered in his ear; and he raised her up in his arms and carried her from the room to shouts and cheers.

This one remained with the rest, eating and drinking, for a good meal is not to be scorned. And when the crowd had gone, the elf and the halfling came to this one and led him up to a room.

“I’m sorry,” said the elf, “But Hralf said I had to do this, and I try not to argue with him over this sort of thing.” And he hung me on a hook, there to think over the events of the day.

By the end of that endless night this one knew that he had found his master. For this one had had a vision of the Endless Veldt, the rolling grassland stretching out eternally under the Burning Sun of Wisdom, and knew the Wisdom that must be pursued without relent lest the Horn of Attainment be lost forever.

And in due time this one came here and founded this monastery. The Veldt-Sage carries the Endless Veldt with him wherever he travels; but for lesser mortals it must be sought in quiet and contemplation. And thus we do.

Has this one answered your questions in full?

Very good. Brother Chisel? Please summon Brother Hammer.

Now that our honored guest has been well instructed, it is time for him to contemplate. Brother Chisel and Brother Hammer will show the honored guest to his guest hook.

No, no, honored guest, it is no trouble! It is this one’s delight to assist in the honored guest’s path of enlightenment. Did not the Veldt-Sage say, “Dawn lacks deliciousness when one has quested for quaffing, for fighting fatigue the night is most necessary?”

This one offers you his blessing, and bids you quaff deeply of the Endless Veldt until the Burning Sun of Wisdom rises in the morning. Good night.

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