WARNING: this is NOT a happy story with a happy ending.
Long ago lived a man named Ragnar, tall as a standing bear and twice as strong. Though he was mighty, he was short of temper, and a brute entirely without honor. The reputation of his strength and brutality spread, and attracted other low men of like temperament. They grew strong, and hunted the forest without thought for the wintering of their prey, and took from the villages and Free Clans whatsoever they pleased.
One day, they came upon a Clan of Artisans. Within the Clan lived and worked a man named Parnassus, the greatest of the Artisans, who had the art of making the resonant stones that form the heart of the radio. Parnassus would freely craft a radio for any Clan that came to him, but asked in return a gift price for his own Clan. Those who accepted the radios were happy to pay this price, for the radio was like magic, allowing people to talk to each other as though they stood in the same tent, yet they were separated by many miles.
Now Ragnar had heard of Parnassus and his radios, and in his raids, had tried to take them for his own use. But he did not understand the speech of the radio operators, nor how to operate the radio himself, and thought it was some kind of magic that bound the radio to its owner. So when they found Parnassus, he hid his brutal nature and pretended to be of a distant Clan, and asked Parnassus for a radio of his own. Parnassus gifted him one, and instructed him in how to use it, and named the gift price. Ragnar laughed, and promised to return with the price.
But Ragnar had not listened well to Parnassus’ instructions, and still could not make the radio work. So he returned with his men to demand that Parnassus fix the radio….
Parnassus emerged from his tent near the forge. He was a slight man, stooped from his work, with a bald head and a long, white beard. He was the last person in the village whom anyone would guess was a master smith, but his trade did not shape iron, but more delicate things.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“This!” Ragnar bellowed, and held up a tangle of wires and bits of metal, from which hung a splintered wooden box. “Fix it!”
Parnassus held out his hand, and Ragnar dropped the tangle into it.
“What happened to it?” Parnassus asked.
“It offended me,” Ragnar growled. “And so I silenced it.”
“Yes. I was speaking into it, and it suddenly spoke and told me to … to …” He scowled and looked to his lieutenant.
“It instructed our Lordship to ‘Get his ass off this channel.’”
“Right,” Ragnar shouted. “‘Get my ass off this channel.’ Whatever that means. I did not like his tone.”
“You have delivered the gift price?” he asked.
Ragnar’s men became very still. Ragnar bent until he was eye-to-eye with the smith.
“What did you say?”
“I asked if you had delivered the gift price, which I set when I gave you the radio.”
“Why should I offer you anything for a piece of garbage that does not WORK?” Ragnar’s voice rose to a howl on the last word.
“It does not work because you destroyed it,” Parnassus said. “By your own account, it worked perfectly, right up until that moment.”
Ragnar rolled his shoulders, and sharpened steel was suddenly at Parnassus’ throat.
“Fix it,” Ragnar whispered, “or I will open your neck.”
Parnassus returned Ragnar’s glare evenly.
“Kill me, and you will have no radio. No one else can make them.”
Ragnar’s grip on the blade tightened.
Ragnar’s lieutenant bent carefully and murmured to Ragnar, “My master, we do need the radio. For the … campaign. I suggest you let him live.”
Ragnar glared at Parnassus for a few more moments. Then with a roar of rage, he drove the knife blade into the ground, missing Parnassus’ foot by a fraction of an inch. He stood, panting. His face was red, and a vein throbbed on his forehead. He turned to walk away.
“The gift price?” Parnassus said.
Ragnar froze. He turned slowly, disbelief on his face, and stared at Parnassus, who stared back impassively.
Something evil appeared in Ragnar’s eyes, and he smiled.
“You have a girl,” Ragnar said, his voice suddenly mild and conversational. “I remember her from when we came before. She works here, does she not?” He gestured and snapped his fingers, and two of his men strode toward Parnassus’ tent. Parnassus’ stare wavered. Ragnar’s grin widened.
The two men returned with a struggling girl of about twelve. She had long blond hair, bound in a pair of braids. She beat ineffectually at her captors’ leathers.
“Our gift, old man, will be a little girl. Will that suffice?”
Parnassus held Ragnar’s gaze for a moment longer, then he lowered his eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “Release the girl, and I will fix your radio.”
“No,” Ragnar said. “You will fix the radio, and then we will release the girl.”
A crowd had by now gathered around the dispute, and stood silent, watching. Anguish twisted Parnassus’ face.
“My brothers and sisters!” Parnassus cried out. “Will you stand and watch and do nothing?”
One of Ragnar’s men casually unholstered a shotgun slung across his back, and pumped a shell into the chamber. The others put their hands on knife hilts, but did not draw them. The crowd grew more silent still. And then, slowly, it began to disperse, until no one remained but Parnassus, Ragnar and his men, and the blond girl, who wept silently.
“Work quickly, old man,” Ragnar said with a wolfish grin. Then he and his men strode away with the girl.
Parnassus worked as swiftly as he could, using what parts he could salvage from the ruined radio to complete the radio he had in progress, but it was hours later that he sent a boy to run and tell Ragnar that the work was done.
Ragnar returned a half hour after that, with his men. Parnassus gestured to the finished radio. Ragnar picked it up and turned to leave.
“The girl?” Parnassus said.
Ragnar stopped and turned back. He was grinning.
“Oh, that’s right, I’d almost forgotten. Your gift.”
He gestured, and one of his men dropped a limp form on the ground. Without another word, Ragnar and his men strode away.
Parnassus ran to the girl, and gently turned her. She still breathed, but she did not react when he touched her. Bruises covered her face and arms. Blood ran from one ear, and the pupil of one eye had swallowed up all the color. He cradled the girl in his arms, and the crowd slowly gathered again. Two healers stepped forward, and gently took the girl from Parnassus. He bent forward until his forehead touched the ground, and his shoulders began to shake.
Parnassus did not sleep that night, or the next. He sat at the entrance to his tent, and ate nothing, and drank nothing. On the dawn of the third day, he entered the tent, and emerged with a large blacksmith’s hammer. It looked enormous next to his fragile frame, and he dragged it to his forge, where he stood, staring into the heat-stained steel bowl where he blended the materials that gave life to his radios.
He lifted the hammer to chest height, still gazing into the bowl. A crowd again began to gather. One of the elders stepped forward.
“Parnassus…?” she said, gently, but Parnassus raised the hammer above his head, with with one swift motion, brought it down on the delicate nozzle that mixed the acetylene gas and air. The nozzle shattered.
“Parnassus!” the elder cried. Parnassus raised the hammer again, and brought it down on the shaped reflectors, deforming them, destroying their ability to focus heat.
“Parnassus, NO!” the elder shrieked, as Parnassus swung the hammer in a circle and smashed the valves that regulated the flow of gasses. A spark from the grinding metals ignited a residual burst of acetylene that escaped from the tank, and a gout of yellow flame shot upward and then went out.
“What have you done?” the elder said, aghast.
“What have I done?” Parnassus asked. “What have I done? She was my granddaughter, and my apprentice, and the last thing I loved in all the world, and you all stood by and watched and did nothing. Nothing. You are not worthy of my craft, my knowledge, or my friendship.”
He glared at each member of the Clan with his bloodshot eyes, and one by one, they dropped their gaze. He glared last at the elder.
“You are right, Parnassus,” she said, closing her eyes. “We failed you. We failed each other. We have lost our honor. Tell us, is there anything, anything that we can do to repay this debt of shame?”
“Yes,” said Parnassus. “You must bring Ragnar to me here, bound and helpless and alive. You must do this to regain your honor.”
“But how can we do such a thing?” the elder asked. “We do not practice the arts of war.”
“You hunt,” Parnassus said, “and Ragnar is but a clever animal. I have built many radios over the years, and gifted them to the Clans: use them to gather the Clans, and coordinate your hunt. Together, you are many, and his men are few. Kill his men, and bring him to me alive, and then I will rebuild the forge, and take a new apprentice.”
“It shall be done,” the elder said, and the crowd murmured its assent.
“Wolf, six o’clock, we’ve got visual.”
“Lynx, nine o’ clock, no visual, but I can smell ‘em.”
Ragnar scowled at the squawking radio. It crackled and went silent. He smacked his underling on the back of the head, who responded by spinning the crank on the side of the box. The faint crackling returned.
Ragnar looked to his lieutenant, who scanned the forest around them with a worried expression on his face.
“What is this infernal box babbling about?” Ragnar growled.
His lieutenant continued to watch the woods. “My lord, I think they are hunting. They are closing in on their prey.”
“So what is this nonsense about time? It’s barely after noon!”
“They are using the radio to coordinate their hunt, my lord. They are closing in from different directions.”
“That’s clever!” said Ragnar. His eyes gleamed at the thought of the advantage this would give them in their raids. “We need more radios. It’s too bad we don’t know where these are hunting. We could take theirs. You — keep turning that crank.” He aimed another swat at the radio tender.
In rapid succession, different voices called off numbers from one to six, punctuated by sharp pops and crackles. Ragnar leaned forward, a wolfish grin on his face. He liked this radio — it was exciting.
His lieutenant was pale, and licked his dry lips. “My lord, I think—“
The radio crackled. “Hey, Ragnar!” it said. “You listening in?”
Ragnar sat up straight.
“We’re half-brothers, you know that? My pa, he was a cheap bastard. Used to tell me your ma was the cheapest whore in town. Said she couldn’t charge much ‘cause she was so ugly.”
Ragnar’s eyes went wide in shock. His face reddened, and a vein began to throb in his forehead.
“Said she was stupid, too. Dumb as a cow. Looks like you took after her on both counts.”
“My Lord!” his lieutenant shouted, but Ragnar wasn’t listening. He rose to his feet with a roar and reached out with both hands to grab the radio and crush the life from it.
“To arms!” his lieutenant shouted. “To a—“
The scarlet point of an arrow bloomed from his chest. He choked in mid-shout, and fell to one knee. The other men had risen in a panic at his shout, but they started to fall like rotten trees in a windstorm. Several dove for cover. A single shotgun blast rang out, then the shooter fell with three arrows sprouting from his body.
Ragnar stood motionless, his face red, lips flecked with spittle. Then he came to his senses, and tried to run.
Six short arrows tipped with blunt stones flew at him from three different directions. Each pair whispered past harmlessly to either side, then snapped to a sudden stop and whirled around him upon the cord strung between them. He stumbled and fell heavily to his knees.
Shadows moved swiftly in the darkness under the trees. One of Ragnar’s men had found a bow as he dove for cover, and loosed one shot, which brought a cry of pain from the tree shadows. A dozen feathers bloomed from him as he reached for a second arrow.
The shadows emerged from the trees, and there were brief cries as the rest of Ragnar’s men were found and killed. The hunters formed a circle around Ragnar, who struggled to free his arms from the cords wrapped around him. One of the hunters stepped forward, a long wooden pole in his hand. He smiled, but his eyes were cold as a winter night.
“Hello, half-brother,” the hunter said.
Ragnar glared and bellowed curses. The hunter waited silently until Ragnar ran down.
“She was like a daughter to us,” the hunter said, quietly. Then he swung his pole, hard.
The hunters marched Ragnar to the forge, and forced him to his knees. His elbows were bound behind his back, and his hands in front. His face was bloodied, and one eye was swollen shut, but the other glared naked hate at Parnassus. He strained against his bonds.
Parnassus watched him impassively. Then his gaze encompassed the crowd, which was many times larger than before.
“You have taken the first step toward regaining your honor,” he cried out, so that all could hear. “Now, you must complete the journey. For myself, I care nothing for what you do with this piece of meat in the shape of a man. Kill him or let him go free.
“But I tell you this. If you wish to live as Free Clans, you must now set an example, and you must make it widely known. You must ensure that every beast like this Ragnar, for generations to come, will piss on himself in terror at the very thought of offending one of the Clans. If you fail in this, you will be forever at the mercy of these beasts, and they have no mercy in them.
“Think on this, and pronounce your judgement in the morning.”
Parnassus returned his gaze to Ragnar. His eyes held pity, and seeing this, Ragnar’s rage slowly gave way to uncertainty, and then fear as the meaning of Parnassus’ words penetrated. He began to scream as they dragged him away.
And so it is said that the most skilled Artisans from each of the Clans took Ragnar, and tanned his skin upon him while he yet lived, beginning with his feet, and would not let him die. When they reached his face, it was etched with such agony and horror that it made strong men weep to look upon it. They preserved his face with this visage, and still, they would not let him die. For a fortnight, they forced Ragnar to stagger through villages, and when he could no longer walk, they mounted him on a pole in a wheeled cart, and still, they would not let him die.
And then, on the first day of the Hallows, they took him to the grave of Parnassus’ apprentice, and set his pole in the ground and left him to watch over the grave as her guardian. Such was the skill of the Artisans that he did not die for another three days. It is said that his great suffering purified his soul and made his spirit the fierce enemy of any who would molest the young.
Thus, every year on the first day of the Hallows, we erect the effigy of Ragnar, Guardian of the Innocents, and scatter flowers at his feet in memory of Parnassus’ lost apprentice.