“No Books of Men: Side Stories” – Tomas Sparks and the Mystic Cauldron

This has been a rough week for creativity, I’ve found. Lots to do round the house with the in-laws coming in a few weeks. Work’s been a mess for a number of reasons. Helping my wife bounce ideas around for a project she’s working. It’s been busy to say the least, and when I do finally have time to sit and write… Nothing.

Therefore, today you get something from the archives. This is a Tom Sparks story, originally written for a convention fiction collection, set in Scotland at an indistinct timeframe (as with most Tom stories). Tom is a favorite of mine and one of a handful of characters I’ve been writing off and on for about 10 years, and I always come back to writing him eventually. With the advent of my “No Books of Men” project, these Tom shorts (and there are more than half a dozen of them) are in a strange place in the canon of that setting. Tom exists in the No Books world, and we’ve already seen him in action here on the blog. The stories that predate No Books (in some cases by nearly a decade) are still canon for me, but in a broad strokes sort of fashion.

In other words: The Tom you have and will continue to see has been to Scotland, met the figure in the mists, and found a cauldron. It just might not have played out in exactly this fashion and the timing of it in his life is undetermined. It may happen in the future. It may have happened in the past. It may have happened in his “home time” which isn’t exactly the past but is also the 1940s (it’s a strange situation which will be illuminated in future No Books stories). In the meantime, enjoy “Tomas Sparks and the Mystic Cauldron.” This was written in 2012 for a convention whose yearly theme was “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

It was late. That was all that Tom knew for sure. He had been sitting alone in this car for hours, waiting and hoping that nothing had happened to her. Casually, he scratched his chin and pushed the brown and blonde fluff from his eyes, pretending not to care. He wasnt worried about Friday; he’d leave worrying to others. He was merely concerned if she had made contact like she had planned. Thats all.

For the thousandth time, he glanced up from behind the cover of his magazine. No sign of her. She had left at sunset, disappearing into the mists of the Scottish Moors with nothing but a promise. They were here to find an ancient cauldron, a mythical object which was said to have magic powers. Tom was an archaeologist and a man of science beside, he knew the legends were bunk. There was often a grain of truth behind the myth, however, and it had taken him years to track down the source of this artifact.

Friday had contacts amongst the shady and occult societies of the world, due to her families checkered past. Tom could scarcely believe the graceful woman had inherited her superstitious criminality from her parents. However, despite the womans bitter mockery and a penchant for putting Tom in uncomfortable situations, she always came through when he needed her, and tonight was no exception. With but a word, she called in favors and arranged a meeting with the only man that had the faintest clue left in the modern world that could lead to the cauldrons lost location. The man refused to meet, except alone and in the middle of nowhere.

Now, Tom found himself regretting ever asking for that favor. Again, he glanced over his magazine and saw no sign of his companion. With a huff and a grunt, he tossed the magazine onto the passenger seat and turned off the vehicle. He was tired of waiting. His door opened and shut with a slam, which echoed across the empty countryside.

Tom looked up at the nights full moon and across the moor. He tightened his old leather bomber jacket around himself, muttering about cool summers evenings as he wandered into the mists. Friday had been facing due east when she had departed, murmuring something about following Celtic tradition. He knew nothing of Celtic traditions, but he knew a thing or two about direction and he followed in her footsteps. It took mere minutes before he stumbled over a stone and nearly fell on his face.

“How do I keep finding myself in these messes?” Tom muttered to himself as he stood. He glanced at the muddy ground beneath him through the humid air. A footprint belonging to Fridays boots no doubt. He grinned and followed their direction to the south, squinting as the mists grew ever thicker. Soon, Tom could not even see a foot before him and the moon above had disappeared into the soupy night.

Tom wandered for some time before admitting to himself that he was completely lost. He turned around, intending to walk back the way he came, turning to face what he thought was the west, then the north, before stumbling forward. The mist was so thick now that he could no longer even make out the tips of his own fingers and the humidity was nearly choking him. Finally, with frustrated indignation, Tom pulled himself by touch alone atop a large stone and sat. He did not wish to risk growing more lost and he could wait for the mists to dissipate before returning to the safety of the car. Thus, he sat down in frustrated loneliness for an eternal moment, before the silence was interrupted.

It was only a sound at first; the scratching and scraping sound of some sort of rough material against stone, muffled slightly by the mist. Then there came a flash of bright light. It was blinding in its suddenness, followed immediately by the swiftly dissipating smell of sulphur.  As Tom blinked to clear his vision and saw a face illuminated by the faint glow of a match and framed by the encroaching fingers of fog.

The face was small and angular, with a pointed nose and pronounced cheek bones.  The figures eyes twinkled in the firelight and his thin-lipped mouth was cracked in a broad smile. Tom blinked a few times, trying to reassure himself that what he saw was real. The figures skin was pale and hairless; the only hair to be found was atop the head, where a shock of dark hair faded into the misty twilight. Where those misty curls did not fall, the tips of pointed ears could be seen peeking out. There was something distinctly otherworldly about the figure.

“Who is this stranger from afar?
What is it that he seeks out here,
What leads to him leaving his car?
And risk life and all he holds dear?”

The spindly man giggled a sound that seemed to echo off of every water droplet in the endless seas of mist that surrounded Tom. There was a wrenching sensation in his stomach, a warning sensation that what he saw was deceiving. He instinctively tensed his muscles in anticipation. He tried to hold his reaction in check, however.  “Names Tom, Tom Sparks. I might ask who you are before sharing my goals with you, stranger.” Tom shot the figure a broad grin and held out a hand, unabashed by the strangers strangeness.

The figure looked down at Toms hand with a skeptical grin. The figures mouth did not move, but the sound of laughter resonated through the very air.

“So bold a mortal who lights a spark,
Who makes demands of his betters,
Fighting fear with his little bark,
No thought to his future fetters.

But, amusement this farce has shown,
I shall tell you my name, truly.
By many names I have been known,
But, always a known unruly

My name the first takes to the skies,
Foretelling the coming of spring.
As for my second be now wise,
Always a good king and fellow.”

The match finally reached the end of its life, and guttered out. Darkness fell heavily across the land and Tom found himself once again swallowed by the mists. The sound of giggles echoed from all around once more, and then fell silent in anticipation of Toms response.

“What the hell? Is that a riddle? Am I supposed to guess your name, is that it? Toms eyebrow lifted as he called out into the darkness. Okay, fine. Takes to the skies That probably means a bird of some sort, Id guess. Tells about spring? A Robin? Yeah, Robin.” He placed a hand on his chin in contemplation. “Good king and fellow? Richard? Nah, too specific and subjective. Unless A good fellow and king. Robin good fellow and king. Wait a sec Thats it! Robin Goodfellow!”

Again the mists themselves seemed to laugh, and they began to thin. Slowly, the mists cleared until a perfect circle island of clarity appeared. A column of emptiness spread upward to the skies and the moonlight shown down through the gap. Tom could see a perfect circle of stones along the edge of the mist, marking the boundaries of this clearing. He was currently sitting on one of the largest stones in this circle, and before him stood the creature.  The figure, Robin Goodfellow, stood near to six feet tall and wore little more than a simple tunic and trousers. Robin leaned forward and grinned from his place in the center of the circle.

“No fool is he, who speaks my name.
Now, fair is fair and equals met,
Answer this, I promise no game
What item do you hope to get?”

Tom leaned forward and off of the rock. “Well, Im here to find my wife, who came to speak with a contact she knows in the area…” He trailed off at the bald look of annoyance in the figures eyes.

“Facts that a simpleton would share,
We both know this farce for its truth.
Tell me your quest, if you would dare,
Else, this circle waste your youth.”

The threat was indistinct, but clear. That tone of voice was rarely used to make a joke or greet an old friend. He cleared his throat and nodded. “Fine. Im here to look for something called the Cauldron of Cerridwen. Its from a legend and Im here to find the truth behind the”

“Enough! I know of this object.
As I know why you seek it out.
A proud child of reasons sect
Foolishly, you charge the redoubt.

You doubt, examine and debate,
To prove magics duplicity.
Never do you consider fate.
Never do you treasure mystry.

I have known your name and your quest.
You never held secrets from me.
Your answers were merely a test
To teach what your future would be.

Now, one final question remains.
Answer truly and take your prize.
Else spend eternity in chains,
Choose now, and no time to revise.”

Tom stood stock still, the reality of his situation uncertain and shaken by what he had seen and heard. He took a deep breath and nodded, suspecting he had little choice in the matter. “Fine. Lay it on me.”

“Excellent. I await your due.
In truth but one answer holds true.
No sooner the word is spoken,
Else the pact be surely broken.”

Tom stood in silence for the longest time, frozen by indecision. Not a word escaped his mouth as he wracked his brain for a solution to the riddle. With each passing moment, he could feel his demise crawling closer, but still he made no sign to reveal his worry. Finally, he could take it no more and he extended his arms in submission, opening himself to judgment by his companion.

Robin glared. Then he roared in frustration. Then he sighed and smiled.

“Be you a fool or be you wise,
Your answer is correct, my friend.
You shall take this, your worthy prize,
For now our time must truly end.”

The mist began to close in once more, the instant that Robin stopped talking. The last thing to disappear into the fog was the figures eyes, twinkling in the moonlight. Tom stumbled forward, uncertain and lost once more.

With a sudden and final thud, Tom ran into something large and metal. The fog began to clear, revealing a young and slender woman with richly tan skin and dark hair. She grinned mischievously and laughed.

“So, Tomas, I see you found the car?  Did you get lost trying to find a toilet?” She laughed. It was a mocking, but friendly, chuckle.

“What? No! I” Tom trailed off, looking around the clearing mist to see himself back to at where he had started. “Nevermind.”

“Whatever you say” The woman, Friday, rolled her eyes and sighed. “What will I do with you, Tomas? You are utterly hopeless without” She stopped suddenly and glance between Toms feet.

Tom seemed about ready to defend himself when he saw where her gaze had gone. He followed her gaze down to the ground where, just behind his feet and beside the car, there sat a small and tarnished silver cauldron.  He blinked a few times before picking it up. Pulling up his sleeve over his paws, Tom wiped away the top layer of dust and grime to better reveal the intricate knot work designs which twinkled in the moonlight.

“Is that…?” Friday trailed off.

“You know what I think it is.” Tom flashed her a grin. “Guess we didnt need your contact after all.” His smile was met with a bitter glare.

“So you think” Friday grumbled and drug him to the car. “Now lets go home, Ive had enough of this place”

As he put the vehicle into gear and pulled away, Tom could swear he heard the faint sound of echoing laughter issuing from the receding mists of the slowly brightening dawn.

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