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       The Sampler Platter: A Little Bit of Everything, p.1

           Susan Skylark
 
The Sampler Platter: A Little Bit of Everything
The Sampler Platter: A Little Bit of Everything

  Susan Skylark

  Copyright 2015 Susan Skylark

  This disparate gathering of books and stories has as little in common as the varied contents of a ‘sampler platter’ of appetizers at a restaurant and serves the same purpose: if you don’t know what exactly you are hungry for, at least in a literary sense, why not try a little of everything? Within you will find a book of fairy tales and verse (Over the Hills and Far Away), two short and humorous tales (The Foibles), two volumes of longer tales (The Greylands), and several works from the ‘Chronicles of the Brethren’ series including the starter volume (The Serpent and the Unicorn: Book I and II), a collection of short stories (Legends), and the first of a trilogy within the series (Shadow of the Unicorn). Enjoy!

  Table of Contents:

  Chronicles of the Brethren:

  The Serpent and the Unicorn: Book I and II

  Shadow of the Unicorn (Book I of ‘In Shadow’)

  Legends of the Brethren: Volume I

  The Greylands: Volume I

  The Greylands: Volume VI

  Over the Hills and Far Away

  On Princesses: A Foible

  On Heroes: A Foible

  Other Books, website, etc.

  Excerpts

  The Serpent and the Unicorn

  Books I and II

  Copyright 2012 Susan Skylark

  Revised 2014

  Table of Contents:

  Prologue

  Map

  Book I:

  Book I: Chapter 1

  Book I: Chapter 2

  Book I: Chapter 3

  Book I: Chapter 4

  Book I: Chapter 5

  Book I: Chapter 6

  Book I: Chapter 7

  Book I: Chapter 8

  Book I: Chapter 9

  Book I: Chapter 10

  Book I: Chapter 11

  Book I: Chapter 12

  Book I: Chapter 13

  Book I: Chapter 14

  Book I: Chapter 15

  Book I: Chapter 16

  Book I: Chapter 17

  BookII:

  Book II: Chapter 1

  Book II: Chapter 2

  Book II: Chapter 3

  Book II: Chapter 4

  Book II: Chapter 5

  Book II: Chapter 6

  Book II: Chapter 7

  Book II: Chapter 8

  Book II: Chapter 9

  Book II: Chapter 10

  Book II: Chapter 11

  Book II: Chapter 12

  Book II: Chapter 13

  Book II: Chapter 14

  Book II: Chapter 15

  Prologue

  Long ago, when the world was young and men still walked in innocence, an ancient king made an alliance with the terrible god of war. In exchange for the life of his maiden daughter, he would receive power to conquer all the kingdoms of men and have dominion over all mortal lives. The night was dark with neither star nor moon giving light or hope to those who gathered upon the face of that forbidden hill to commence with their evil deed. The king had gathered all of his generals and advisors to stand as witnesses. The girl was brought forward and the hood removed from her head. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she stared with pleading eyes into the cold and remorseless depths of her father’s eyes. She saw neither love nor regret there, only a thirst for power beyond the reach of mortal ken. He drew forth a cruel knife from a sheath of black leather. Very soon the alliance would be sealed and no power on earth could withstand him. He approached the girl with a cruel and mirthless smile and raised the blade to strike.

  He was thrown back from the girl and blinded by a cold light, and all standing around the pair fell to the ground in fear. Like a bolt of lightning, a bright and terrible figure stood between the man and his prey. The king regained his footing with a sneer and a triumphant laugh. “You have no authority here,” he scoffed, “be gone before I become violent.”

  The light receded slightly and those standing about could make out a vaguely equine shape amidst the glow. The figure reared up on its hind legs and pawed the air. He appeared in the form of a horse but with the awe reserved for a charging bull or roaring lion. Then he spoke, “you must not do this terrible thing. You will forever tear apart the laws that bind the world together.”

  “I will do as I please,” scowled the king, “and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

  “If you are set upon this course I cannot stop you by force, but perhaps I can offer you an exchange,” said the figure.

  “What can you possibly offer me,” growled the king with the light of avarice in his eyes.

  “The foul demon with whom you are dealing demands innocent blood for your vile contract, so be it! Take mine instead of the girl’s,” said the mysterious figure.

  “Yours!” gasped the king, “but of what advantage is that to you?”

  “To ransom the life of this dear child shall be gain enough,” said the figure.

  “Very well,” said the king. “I have a feeling my master will be quite pleased with the exchange. What is one small child when the blood of his enemy is laid at his feet? What are your terms?”

  “Give me one hour to bear this child to safety, then I will return hither and you may do as we have agreed,” said the figure.

  “How do I know you will not steal the child and disappear?” asked the king.

  “You know very well I do not lie,” roared the figure. He swept the child onto his back and as the light disappeared over the rim of the hill called back, “in one hour I shall return.”

  For a time the girl clung silently to the back of her rescuer but as the horror of what she had so nearly escaped sunk in she began to sob uncontrollably. “Do not weep little one,” said the figure, “you are safe and all will be well.”

  “How can you say that?” sobbed the girl, “evil is about to be unleashed upon the earth and no one will be able to stop it.”

  “I can,” said he softly. A sense of immense peace fell upon the girl and dried her tears. Shortly, they approached a small cottage by the edge of a little stream that chattered invisibly in the night. A woman emerged from the door and wrapped a blanket around the quivering form of the girl. She bowed once to the retreating figure and took the child into the house. The girl fell into bed and knew no more that night. The woman stared into the darkness, tears streaming down her cheeks. Within the hour agreed upon, the figure returned to that forsaken hilltop. His light was dimmed to the slight flickering of a dying candle. He stood before the men with a drooping head but a righteous fire blazed in his eyes. The king laughed him to scorn, drew his blade, and approached the apparently cowed creature. Steel flickered in the light as the blade struck home. The light dimmed and went out. As if from a vast distance, a great wailing cry rent the night, as if the earth itself had been mortally wounded by the blow. A wind came howling out of the west and clouds blotted out the sky. Darkness engulfed the world, lightning flashed in the heavens, and thunder rolled as if all creation reared up in fury at the atrocity that had occurred. The hill itself began to roll like a wave on the sea and split in two. The men were thrown from their feet and retreated in confusion and fear from the horror before them. Their horses reared and snorted, broke loose, and disappeared into the storm.

  “What have you done!” roared one general over the wind. “

  I have loosed the wrath of the heavens,” screamed the king. A panic spread among them and all fled into the darkness.

  The next morning, the girl rode up the accursed hill hoping to find some trace of her rescuer. She found the
vile blade broken in two, but no sign of the mysterious glowing figure. She dismounted and peered with dismay into the gaping chasm that had once been the heart of the hill. “What is it you seek?” asked a voice behind her.

  With a shriek of pure joy she flung her arms around the figure that now stood at her shoulder, glowing like the sun. “You are alive!” she said.

  “Yes,” said he simply.

  “But what of last night?” asked she, “I was sure you had been slain. What of that horrible shriek and the dreadful darkness?”

  “My life cannot be taken against my will. Before anything ever was and after all has passed into nothing, I was and ever will be. I laid down my life not only for you, but for all things that would have been utterly destroyed by the acts of last night. Your blood would have strengthened that foul demon beyond anything he has yet achieved. My blood offered willing in exchange for another’s broke his power. What began in selfishness and evil, ended in selflessness and love, which alone has power to conquer the darkness. He has been vanquished but not destroyed. He still lurks in the world, full of malice and hate and ready to assist any who give themselves over to a lust for power and destruction. Until last night, mankind had lived in peace and harmony with one another and with all creation, but that peace has been shattered. Man has shown himself vulnerable to evil, willing to place himself above all else, even his own children. It is no longer safe to assume that all men are good in and of themselves. Each individual must hereafter make a decision to follow what is right and good, or to follow his own selfish path into evil and darkness. From the dawn of mankind, it was given into your hands to decide whether to pursue goodness or darkness. A member of your race has chosen the ultimate evil and with his fall, all are now required to make a decision that once came naturally to all.”

  The girl fell sobbing at his feet, feeling in herself the dreadful truth she had just heard spoken. It was as if something inside her had been torn or ripped away and she was left with a gaping hole, much like the defiled face of the hill. Looking up into his eyes, she said, “I have lost something within myself. I am no longer whole. I have a longing, a desire for something. Something, though I know not what. Something greater than myself.”

  “Yes,” said he, “your whole race now shares that same longing. And with what you fill that hole will determine the course of your life, and the lives of all those around you, from now and ever onwards. Choose carefully.”

  “Can I choose you?” she asked hesitantly.

  A smile crept over his face and the whole hillside seemed to laugh with joy. “Of course,” he said. “After last night, the world is hurting and needs to be told these things which you have just heard. I need someone to go forth and tell them. Bring your horse forward.”

  The girl ran over to the horse which had strayed and was happily nibbling at weeds upon the far side of the hill. She led the beast towards the figure. The stallion pulled back against the reins and nearly reared, trying to avoid the glowing figure before him. “Do not be afraid my simple beast,” said the figure, “from now and ever onwards, you and your descendants will no longer be considered simple.” The figure turned his side towards the girl and for the first time she saw the gaping wound in his side. From it dribbled a steady stream of silver blood. She gasped in horror and drew back. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “this is the price of last night’s adventure. Though much was lost, much good also came of it. Take a drop of my blood on your finger and place it on the horse’s tongue.” Hesitantly the girl complied. Almost reverently she poked a finger into the sliver stream and placed a drop of the precious fluid into the horse’s mouth.

  An indignant snort was followed by a blinding flash. She no longer held a horse by the reins but a unicorn. The sorrel coat had become white as the snow; wisdom and fire were in his once placid and simple eyes. Cloven hooves of silver had replaced his single hooves of grey. A silver horn protruded proudly from his forehead. He shook his head in disgust a few times and looked with dismay at the girl and the glowing figure.

  “Remove his bit,” laughed the figure. The girl complied and the unicorn seemed much happier. “Now it is your turn,” said he. The girl looked with shock and disgust at the gaping hole in the figure’s side and turned pleading eyes to his. “If you really wish to serve me, you must taste of my blood,” he said, “by doing so you are binding yourself to me and my purposes. You will gain much in wisdom and abilities but in doing so you are also swearing to serve me, even with the forfeit of your life be it necessary. Do you wish to proceed?”

  She nodded and did as she was bidden. She seemed to grow taller and a thirst for knowledge grew within her. A deeper understanding of things once hidden to mortal mind blossomed in her heart. She had changed as much as the horse.

  “Now,” said the figure,” I will tell you of things long hidden to the race of men, things vital to your quest. The demon of war, to whom your father nearly sacrificed you, was once my greatest servant. But he desired things beyond his grasp and made an attempt to supplant me as The Master of All. He was banished from my presence and ever since has made war upon all that is good and wonderful. He has claimed lordship over all creation and still yearns for the power he cannot have. Until last night, he had made little progress in his war against me, but last night there came a breaking. Men, who had once lived in peace, have heeded his call and some have broken away from me seeking the power promised by their new master. Now all must decide whether to follow him or me. None can sit this out. By stepping aside, they are simply declaring themselves for him, if only by doing nothing. This is war a war that has raged since before the world began, there can be no civilians. He will devour everything if all stand aside and let him. I will only do so much. I am Master of all things, but I have given all sapient creatures a choice, and upon that freedom I will not trespass. They must choose what is right or what is evil. I will not infringe upon their decisions for good or ill. If they choose the right, I can assist them, but if they choose the evil I can only stand aside and weep for their ill choices and dire fate. That is why I could not interfere directly in the affairs of last night. It is up to you, and those like you: my servants, to pursue evil in whatever form or guise it takes and do what you must to defeat it and to defend the innocent. You must spread word of this through all lands and to all peoples. It will not be easy and there will be great heartache along the way but you will never be alone; it must be done or evil will consume the world and all within it. Last night a deadly blow was dealt to my enemy, but he is still lurking about and still very powerful. In the end, he will be completely vanquished but until that final day, you are all that stands between the world and devastation. A rent has been created in the hearts of men. They will yearn for me and try to fill the gap with all sorts of vain things. You must tell them the truth of what you have seen. Last night, the innocence of man was lost, but by my blood it can be healed.”

  The girl had been held spellbound by the tale. The light around the figure dimmed a little, just enough so that she could make out his full form. She had glimpsed a horse-like figure last night and this morning, but now saw him fully, as if a fog had lifted. He was similar to the unicorn standing at her shoulder, but taller and more terrible; his horn and hooves were of gold and he glowed with the very light of the sun.

  “Your faithful steed will be the father of the race of mortal unicorns and you shall be the first among a great and future throng of my servants. I will hereafter withdraw from wandering abroad in the world but I will be found by those who seek me. Go forth and teach what you have been taught, fight evil, and protect the innocent.” With that he seemed to glow brighter and as the sun topped the head of the hill, vanished into the blinding rays.

  This is the story, as it is told through all generations and to all who will listen of the beginning of the Brethren. The girl, Astoria, went on to tell many of the great happenin
gs she had seen, and such was the hunger in the hearts of men that her following quickly grew. Organization was needed and the Brethren was established, each member forsaking lands, riches, and friends to dedicate his life in service to the Master of All. Some became Warriors who chased down and destroyed evil, some became Philosophers ever seeking wisdom and truth, others became poets, minstrels, and Teachers roaming the world, spreading the Truth far and wide.

  The evil king retreated to his domain and his advisors, seeing him in a weakened state after his defeat, quickly overthrew him. They then proceeded to fight amongst themselves for the kingdom; evil consumed itself, never to rise again from that quarter. Astoria lived nearly three hundred years, and until the very last year of her life went from village to village sharing all she had seen. The unicorn became her dearest companion and helped her through many dangers and long journeys. He would never be fitted with a bit nor bear any rider but his mistress. He fathered many offspring and each became the beloved companion of one of the Brethren. The unicorn was swift of foot, stealthy at need, wise in council, fierce at bay, and faithful unto death. If his master took a grave wound, he could at will, take it upon himself and spare the life of his friend at the cost of his own. He became the symbol of the order and the means of its swift spread and success.

  Anyone who wished could join the Brethren, but must take an Oath to forsake all possessions and quests, save those granted by the Brethren. It was forbidden to marry outside the Brethren, and those within married only seldom as their quests consumed them and their lives were fraught with danger and much travel. Once a decision had been made to join the Brethren, it was made publicly in front of all available members and then an obliging unicorn donated a drop of blood to the aspiring Brother and the Oath was made. A member could leave the Brethren at any time by conscious decision or by vile action, but in so doing lost all access to the knowledge, skills, and long life acquired by its members. Children who wished to join, must wait until their sixteenth birthday and then were allowed to take their Oath. Once an Oath was taken, a unicorn sought out the new Brother and a friendship that would last a lifetime was formed. How a particular unicorn chose a particular man is a mystery known only to unicorns. Together they embarked on a life of adventure in service to the Master.

  For the first few centuries, the ranks of the Brethren swelled with new recruits. The Brethren were honored and welcomed wherever they appeared. Their council was sought by kings, philosophers, and merchants. They roamed throughout the civilized world maintaining peace and order and teaching the Truth. The Warrior sect roamed the wild lands keeping evil from encroaching on the lands of peaceful folk and hunted down perpetrators of evil. The Teachers taught not only the Truth, but also writing, reading, music, law, and lore to peasants and lords alike. The Philosophers acted as advisors and negotiators to kings and nations. It was a time of peace and growing prosperity in all lands within the reach of the Brethren.

  As time passed and men became prosperous and the peace continued, a contented unrest developed in the middle and upper classes of society. Men began to desire more than they needed and became discontent with what they had. Without a need to work day and night for their daily bread and no wars or imminent dangers to occupy their thoughts, they became lazy and greedy, always wanting more but never satisfied. They began to oppress the lower classes and push the advantage of their status and wealth. The Brethren became an annoyance with their continual preaching of “love all men” and “serve others wholeheartedly” and other such platitudes. The rich felt they somehow deserved what they had and did not care what it cost others to achieve it. They were only peasants after all! Eventually this led to unrest among the peasantry and treachery amongst the ruling classes, which in turn led to wars and uprisings. In the turmoil, men once again sought the aide of the Brethren in hopes of regaining peace and justice. Once order was restored, the population again fell into the discontent that only peace and prosperity can bring; the cycle often repeated itself throughout the centuries with the reputation and numbers of the Brethren cycling along with it. At times they were many and their counsel much sought and at other times they were few and often reviled or forgotten, but always they were there to rise from the ashes when the world needed them once more.

  During one such nadir of civilization, a group of opportunists took advantage of the situation and founded the Order of the Unicorn. According to the Order, men deserved material prosperity and it indicated the blessings of the Master. Therefore, the rich were not only blessed, but destined to be richer and more powerful. The poor must have done something terrible to deserve their pitiable state and therefore it was no great evil to treat them as one thought appropriate. These teachings, which were pleasant to the ears of many amongst the well-to-do made the Order of the Unicorn very popular with the nobility. It was not very long before the Brethren were eschewed and their previous place of honor was taken by the usurpers. Knights of the Order went about on prancing white horses adorned with fake horns. Wherever they went, they told the common people that their lack of wealth was due to their lack of blessing by the Master, and the Master only blessed those he found deserving. Therefore, their lords and kings must be wonderful and deserving people, whereas the commonfolk were the scum of the earth and worthy only of endless toil and labor. Needless to say, the peasants were not happy about such things and soon developed a loathing for anyone on a white horse, including the Brethren. More than one was chased from a village by a raging mob and not a few were killed for daring to venture abroad with the Truth. Their teaching was not welcomed by rich or poor; to one they were a nuisance and a reminder of what they should be doing and to the other an out-dated and pedantic preacher who knew nothing of the realities and harshness of life.

  The glory days of the Brethren were over once more. Recruits were few and far between. Their teaching and labors seemed vain. There was much enmity and despair among the common people. War was brewing between several nations and the lords brutally oppressed their people. It was dangerous to go out and proclaim the Truth, although they still went few would listen. Those that paid too much attention were bullied by their friends and neighbors into inattention. It was a dangerous time to pay attention to or proclaim the Truth. Why should a man love his neighbor, when his neighbor was out to get him? That sort of thinking did not work in the real world. It is a cruel world where only the strong survive. The Master, if he exists, has forsaken the common people. These and other thoughts plagued the footsteps of the Brethren. The Warriors still fought evil things on the edges of civilization, but no longer pursued criminals within civilized lands. The Philosophers still advised kings and leaders, but secretly in back rooms and out of the way places; their advice was seldom heeded. The Teachers still went about, but they did not willingly show their allegiance. They were readily accepted in the villages to teach the youngsters reading, writing, and history, but could not openly teach the Truth; though they often incorporated it into their histories and legends and discussed it secretly with those open to it. The unicorns were forced into secrecy as well, cloaking themselves in the guise of normal horses. Gradually knowledge of the Brethren waned in the minds of small and the great alike. The legends of the Brethren and the nuisance of the Order became confused and intertwined in local lore and the one became synonymous with the other, though in reality they were worlds apart in practice and doctrine. It was a discouraging time for all, but wherever he hid himself the Enemy watched in delight; the greatest threat to his reemergence in power seemed near its end.

  Book I

  “Great heart of my own heart

  Whatever befall,

  Still be my vision

  Oh, Master of All.”

  ‘Be Thou My Vision’

  Irish Hymn

 
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