A story of wizards and cowboys in 7 parts.
The door was where he remembered it. Mathias placed his hand on the smooth stone of the outer wall, and the door-indiscernible from the rest of the wall-opened. He led Cyrus through it, watched it close, and headed into the forest.
The Tia were waiting just past the first line of trees. Slowly they approached as Mathias came closer, some visibly in awe of the great warhorse. Cyrus bowed his head as the Tia ran their hands along his mane. On a slight incline, a man with a long scar down his left cheek waited till the others admiring Cyrus stepped back.
Mathias dismounted Cyrus and walked halfway to the man.
“You come from the tower?” the man asked, moving towards Mathias.
“Yes. I am the wizard Mathias.”
“I am Kotitai, of the Tia,” he said. “The white men call me Red Tongue to disparage me, but I am not so easily offended. These are my warriors.” He moved closer to the wizard. “How is it that you enter and leave the tower? And dressed as the white man, how is it you speak in our tongue, Mathias?”
“I dress as they do because it is easier to move among them, and I have found that robes are no longer in fashion as they were in the days when I first roamed this land. As to the other, I have a gift for the languages of men, and I speak in many tongues, as you say. As for the tower, it knows me and is welcoming. In times past it was my keep and it has a long memory.”
“If you are not a man, but a wizard, then why are you here?” Kotitai asked.
Mathias smiled. “I have asked that myself, but we are exposed being so close to the forest’s edge. Perhaps we should council in that part of the woods where you and your warriors are obscured from, as you say, the white man.”
“Agreed,” Kotitai said, with his own smile.
James was intercepted by Fenton’s men as he left the tower on his way to the government house at Fort Care.
“I don’t answer to Fenton, Mr. Cannon. You should know that,” James said.
“You do when you’re in his valley, Mr. James.” Cannon nodded in the direction of town.
Blocked by the men, James pulled the reins of his horse towards the town of Bliss “Then let’s get this over with. I have my own work to do.”
Fenton stood on the steps of his building, his eyes fixed on James as his men led him into town, certain the government man could not be trusted. James had come west with Doe Johnson, the new territorial governor, six months earlier and Fenton worried they would ruin the many years of hard work he put in to secure the valley.
“I don’t like being handled, Mr. Fenton,” James said. “I’m not some easily intimidated farm hand.” James got off his horse.
“I don’t care what you like,” Fenton answered. “I want to know what’s going on in my tower!”
James tied his horse to the hitching post to the left of the stairs. “I imagine so, but getting on my bad side, and by extension the governor’s, isn’t the way to go about it. The days when you could get away with whatever you wanted are over.”
“I don’t need a lecture from some know-it-all eastern carpetbagger about what I can or can’t do on my own land.” Fenton stepped down to face James, the veins throbbing at his temples.
“I think maybe you do,” James said, sidestepping Fenton. He pointed to the office. “If you want to talk, we’ll talk. But if you think you can order me around, then I’m leaving.” He stood close to the beet red face of Harcourt Fenton. “What’ll it be?”
“Inside,” Fenton answered. “We’ll talk.”
They entered the building, and went into Fenton’s office. Fenton and James sat down as Cannon stood at the door.
“So talk,” Fenton said.
James shook his head and removed his hat, placing it on his knee. “I don’t know what you think is going on here, but it’s bigger than you or me–”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Did you feel the ground move last night, Mr. Fenton?”
Fenton looked at Cannon, who nodded. “What about it?”
“The tower is more than what it appears.” James’ eyes grew bright and glassy. “There’s a power to it, a great power, one that has to be reckoned with. I felt it myself, standing within its walls, and I learned some of its history. It’s no ordinary tower.” James looked at Cannon. “I reckon every soul in the valley felt it and watched it throughout the night. I bet neither of you slept last night, did ya?”
“No,” Cannon answered.
James turned to Fenton. “Up all night watching. And you, Mr. Fenton?”
Fenton groused. “What the hell’s that matter?”
“Because it does. That’s why you’re so worked up now. You can feel it in your bones, just like I can,” James said.
“The place ain’t natural, boss,” Cannon added. “We got to be mindful–”
“What we need,” Fenton shouted, “is to get in!” He stood and turned to the window and the tower in the distance.
The building began to vibrate. The three men reached out: James to the desk, Cannon to the wall by the door, and Fenton to the window frame.
“What the goddamned hell!” Fenton shouted.
“It’s the tower!” Cannon pointed in the tower’s direction.
“You know how to get in, don’t you, Mr. Government Man?” Fenton continued to stare at the distant tower.
“Only the wizard knows,” James answered. “He’s the key.”
“Then I want that wizard!”
The vibration subsided, and an eerie quiet took hold of them as if to keep them from speaking. A blackbird squeed, breaking the spell.
“We’ll have to draw him out,” Cannon said, straightening himself.
“Yeah,” said Fenton, his eyes still fixed on the tower.
James shook his head and stood. “Mathias is no fool.” He put his hat on. “I’ve got to get back to the governor, Mr. Fenton. You think this your business, but I know this is bigger than all of us. Governor’s got to know. And the Army.”
Fenton turned to James. “It belongs to me, government man; it belongs to me.”
James smiled. “I won’t argue the point, but until we can get in and out of it, it belongs to the wizard.”
Fenton turned back to the tower. “It belongs to me.”
Cannon followed James out of the office. “I don’t like this,” he said. “It ain’t natural.”
James got on his horse and stared at Cannon. “Get some rest. You’re going to need it.” He turned to the looming tower, felt it at the tips of his fingers as they tingled. “Don’t do anything foolish, Mr. Cannon.” He shook his hands as if they were covered in dust. “I’ll be back.”
The government man rode off.
Two miles through the forest, past a dry creek bed, and into a box canyon, Mathias and the Tia rode. A camp was set within a series of caves cut into the rock. The entrance was sheltered by brush and guarded by sentries in the rocks above. Slowly people emerged from the caves as the riders came into view. The children huddled behind their mothers, gawked at Cyrus, as the riders got off their horses. Kotitai led Mathias into the cave, where a group of five elders were sitting cross-legged.
“This is the wizard Mathias,” Kotitai told them. “Please sit,” he said to Mathias.
“The tower has awoken,” said the man, Unnai, sitting in the middle with the other four elders on either side. “It has been sleeping since our people first came here, yet now it is breathing. What have you to tell us, Mathias the wizard?”
“That you need not fear the tower, only that you be mindful of it. It has indeed been quiet for many years, perhaps too many years. I was sent here because I know the tower from days past, so it knows me.” Mathias laid his staff upon his crossed legs. “Tell me, what do you know of the tower?”
The man looked to the others before answering. “That it is old, older than time. That it is not to be trusted. That it does not belong to men or beasts or even to the land itself. We have left it alone and it has left us alone.”
“You have made no attempt to enter the tower?” Mathias turned to Kotitai.
Unnai nodded to Kotitai. “Only once according to our ancestors,” he said. “When our people first came here, they discovered the tower and they were, as you would expect, curious. Our legends tell us an elder named Oindai approached the gate and was seized by visions of war and a hooded figure standing as tall as the trees. A great blinding light filed the sky and the land shook so violently that all the people were thrown to the ground. Oindai is said to have grown to the size of two men and had eyes that glowed like fire. It was he who forbade us from ever entering the tower, and the gods gave him great life so this would not be forgotten.”
A murmur went through the Tia, who had gathered and were listening to Unnai.
“And none have tried since?” Mathias smiled at Unnai.
“Any who tried did not return,” Unnai said, returning Mathias’ smile.
A series of women approached, bringing a fermented tea to the elders, Mathias, and Kotitai. A small fire crackled as they drank.
“What do you think of these white men, as you call them, and their desire to possess the tower,” Mathias asked.
“The man, Fenton, is obsessed with it,” Kotitai said. “The others stay away. The tower is not welcoming. I think that your presence will change that. We saw the government man enter and leave and he will, no doubt, tell others.” Kotitai glanced at Unnai. “That means the Army will be here.”
An older woman offered Mathias more tea. “We all felt the tower rumble last night,” she said, as she poured. “The children were frightened.”
Mathias sipped his tea. The Tia were waiting for him to speak.
“Is this the end, wizard?” Kotitai set his tea down.
“It is,” the wizard answered.
The sun was edging slowly down the backs of the western mountains when James entered Fort Care. The fort was set along the Blood River, so named for the colors that ran through it in the spring, when the melting snow scrubbed the mineral beds. Two young privates waved him in. Other than the Tia occasionally pilfering Fenton’s cattle, and the range war between the Forge and Brutane clans (which had grown quiet after Lester Brutane was found hung on Lodgepole Hill) little in the territory gave the soldiers any reason to leave the fort.
The commander, Captain Franklin Cartigan, greeted James as he got off his horse. He noted James’ bloodshot eyes and how his shoulders slumped forward. “Hard ride, Bart?”
“Had to make time, Frank. The world’s beginning to crack–”
“Crack?” Cartigan reached out towards James. James handed him the panting horse’s reins. Cartigan took a sniff of James’ breath. “Well, I don’t smell any liquor on ya,” he said as he tied off the reins to the hitching post.
“A drink sounds mighty invitin’, Frank. I got a good pint in my room.”
Cartigan followed James to his quarters and watched him pull the bottle from a drawer in the desk across from his bunk. James took a swig from the bottle before handing it to Cartigan. Cartigan set it on the small table by the door and sat down in one of the chairs.
“Not drinkin’, Frank?” James smiled and sat in the other chair.
“Maybe later. I can see you’re rattled. Why? Fenton?”
James laughed. “Fenton’s the least of our problems. No, this is big, Frank; end of the world big.”
“End of the world?”
“End of the world.” James leaned in. “I was in the tower, Frank, the tower! And you won’t believe this, but I’ll tell you anyway…” James took another drink from the bottle of sour mash.
“Tell me what?”
“It’s alive, Frank. Alive!”
©2020 David William Pearce