Goodness it's been a while. Spring 2009 was a rather hectic semester, and I was recalled from the majority of my writing and public musing to working and musing with my friends, my family, and my heavenly Father. I cannot express how tickled I am that so many of you keep reminding me that Graybeard and Georgie are still surrounded by blacksuits. If you don't remember the details, here is what's happened so far (I recommend you re-read part V, if nothing else):
And if you are interested in a little update and plans for summer writing, click here.
A little man in a striped suit with well-gelled hair and polished, long-toed dress shoes shuffled in behind the blacksuits.
“Ahem!” he coughed in a faint, squeaky voice, his hands behind his back.
All three blacksuits spun around, and all three, catching sight of the little man, stepped quickly backward, lightening shooting at him from their wands.
He whipped his hands forward, and, through a sheet of blue and yellow lightening bolts, Georgie and Graybeard saw rings of all shapes and sizes shining and flashing on his fingers. The lightening played around him like fireworks, but did not touch him.
The blacksuits continued backwards until the two on the floor were shoulder to shoulder with Graybeard, who, not trusting the staff, decided to wait and see what the little man did.
What he did was simply to cross two of his fingers and rub them together, setting half a dozen rings clinking.
The remaining lights and the purple fire went out instantly. The darkness was total, overwhelming. The blacksuits on either side of Graybeard blended into the black and were gone. He lost his balance and fell to his knees; the staff shattered in his hands. Georgie fell through the dark with the boxes and Styrofoam but stopped suddenly a few inches from the floor.
The lights came back on slowly, to reveal Nathanael Booth standing in the middle of a field of wilted fescue grass, umbrella under his arm, holding his hat in one hand, running his other through his hair. Graybeard was helping Georgie regain her feet. The little man's hands were behind his back again, his mouth grinning innocently behind his mustache and his eyes blinking rapidly behind his thin-rimmed spectacles. The blacksuits had blinked out with the lights.
“If anyone comes up with a better diversion than that, friends, I will drink his milkshake!” announced Nathanael. “Allow me to introduce the Ringmaker. Mr. Ringmaker, this is Miss Georgiana Vurner and Mr. Graybeard.
“We ran all the way over here to help you,” he explained to his friends.
“Just in time!” noted Graybeard, shaking hands with the Ringmaker. “We certainly weren't trying to be a diversion,” he complained, “but I think Mr. Jones was right, it looks like we are the protagonists. By the way, Georgie, nice pitching.”
“Thanks! And nice to meet you, Ringmaker!” said Georgie, “by the way, thanks for the soft landing.”
“Not at all, not at all,” he said faintly but energetically. “Nothing to it if you have these,” he waggled his fingers for a moment. “Now, we must be going. We have already wasted precious time.”
“What happened to the blacksuits?” asked Graybeard.
“They were repulsed but not destroyed,” sighed the Ringmaker sadly. “I fear they will be after us again in no time at all. Come now! Come.”
“Not so much like our last guide,” said Graybeard as they emerged into the warehouse at large from the scarred returns room.
“No!” laughed Georgie.
“Better taste in head wear,” murmured Nathanael.
They made their way through the maze of stockpiled magical items, marveling at the size and decor of the warehouse almost as much as at the purported powers of the items contained within.
“So where are we going?” asked Graybeard.
“Miss Doris said we could find the cabbie somewhere in the other direction,” added Georgie. “We were almost there when the blacksuits caught up with us.”
“We're going to save the world, of course,” explained Nathanael. Georgie and Graybeard eyed him thoughtfully. “Ask him! Ask him!” Nathanael motioned violently with his umbrella at the little man who moved briskly through the aisle ahead of them.
“Um, Mr. Ringmaker,” began Georgie.
“We were wondering what the dickens is going on!” Graybeard laughed with frustration.
“Oh, of course, your friend here knows, but I haven't told you two. Here, here, walk beside me and I will explain.” He smiled broadly at each of them, then cleared his throat with a sound like a woodwind.
“There are many rings in this place, created in time immemorial by me and my forebears. Each one has a past, and also a future. You see, the first rings were created for great purposes, but it was found that people became bored with rings that gave them three wishes, or made them powerful, or got them friends. And the Ringmakers, to be frank, grew tired of making them. So we branched out. We made rings of humor, rings of sadness, and rings of weakness. What we soon found was that all of these were just as worthy of being called rings of power as those that could move mountains. Each ring, you see, has its own destiny. Each ring, properly applied, can be so important that, to be concise, the world would end without it.
“Applying this principle to our present crisis, the solution to the blacksuit problem is simply to find the correct ring and to implement it in the correct fashion, you see? I know the power of each ring, and now I know you. It should not take me long to determine which ring has the destiny of winning this battle against the blacksuits. But here we are.”
“You're right, Graybeard,” Georgie whispered triumphantly “We are the protagonists. He finishes talking and we arrive. Our time isn't wasted!”
“Yes,” Nathanael mused, “Capital, really.”
While they were whispering to each other, the Ringmaker had put a ring into the keyhole of an iron padlock on the door of a whimsically decorated trailer. Graybeard chuckled and pointed out the license plate to Nathanael. In place of county it read “2nd circle unlawful good.” The Ringmaker swung the trailer door open with amazing vigor, his shined shoes scritching on the ground as he half- pushed on, half-hung from the handle. Then he leaped, coattails flying, into the dark mouth of the trailer.
Nathanael ran a gloved finger along the rusty trailer step and sniffed. Graybeard, voicing a question about why the Ringmaker and his compatriots had chosen a trailer from that particular circle in which to store their rings, clambered up onto the step and stood shakily, brushing rust from his clothes before offering Nathanael a hand. Nathanael set his hat and umbrella in the dark opening and took the proffered hand, scrambling up quickly and almost tipping Graybeard back over the edge.
Graybeard turned to give Georgie a hand up, and blinked in surprise.
“Oh,” he said, as he heard her voice somewhere inside the trailer, conversing with the Ringmaker, and the two young men followed their companions inside.
At the far end of the trailer there was a single light bulb dangling from a string and failing to illuminate anything besides the three travelers, the Ringmaker, and a circuit breaker with a gold-plated panel and runes on the individual breakers. The Ringmaker reached up with both hands and flipped the main. Every wall and shelf in the room lit up with a moon-like blue glow.
“Well I'll...I'll...I'll drink his milkshake,” Nathanael laughed in astonishment.
They were not, as they had believed, standing at the back of the trailer, but at a pillar in the middle of a large room. The door to the trailer was there, fluorescent light streaming in, yet around it rose walls stretching out of sight. The walls, pillars, and shelves were similar in design to the outer warehouse, except for the strange blue luminescence. The room was lined with shelves. Some of the rings were in open canisters, as if they were popcorn. Others were on strangely lifelike human or animal hands that stretched up from the shelves, some with fingers arched desperately, as if trying to get out, others straight and elegant, as if in greeting. Some of the rings sat on pillows of black velvet, their jewels glinting against the dark backdrop. Some hung from chains around the necks of dwarf and elf dummies.
All three students breathed in slowly as their eyes breathed in the rings.
The Ringmaker tapped one toe on the floor for a few moments, pursed mustache gazing along the near shelves.
“D17, I'd bet my tophat on it,” he cried, and took off into the depths of the shelves. The students followed him to D17, a particularly small shelf. There could not have been more than a hundred rings on it.
“The ring we need...I'm sorry, the ring you seek is almost assuredly one of these.” He smiled broadly at them.
“Well, which one?” asked Nathanael.
“Oh, I don't know; we'll have to look at each of them.”
“Then how can you know it's here?” Graybeard pressed.
“Well if I didn't you would be in a pretty tight spot, wouldn't you? No way to finish the story then!”
“That's a little ridiculous,” said Graybeard.
“It's my purpose to know these things. Don't blame me for it.”
“That's an interesting epistemology,” Graybeard complained.
“Yes,” Nathanael's eyes sparkled with the reflection of the rings. “Knowledge through purpose. But is it truth?” He and Graybeard glanced at each other thoughtfully, their minds working extra hard. Then they both started talking at once.
“What's that smell?” asked Georgie after the discussion had continued for a few moments.
“Hmmm?” pulled out of their philosophical musings, the two sniffed the air. “It doesn't smell any stranger than it did before,” said Nathanael.
“It's gone; but there was something...”
The Ringmaker was behind them, muttering and shaking his head as he examined each ring. “Here's one,” he called to them, his voice drifting with whimsy “to be used when milking cows. It pasteurizes the milk. And here's one,” he raised a big green one with a jade stone, “that causes trees to grow. But no, no, they aren't what you need, I don't think.”
Despite the number of rings on the shelf, the Ringmaker was already nearing the bottom of the shelf.
“Well?” Graybeard glanced back towards the trailer door. “Can't you find it?”
“Apparently it's not his purpose too,” chimed in Nathanael.
“I have smelled that before,” said Georgie emphatically. This time everyone crinkled his or her nose as they sniffed.
“It's like perfume,” Graybeard said incredulously.
“Bad perfume,” agreed Nathanael. “Did you happen to rub a ring of sickly-sweet smells, Mr. Ringmaker?”
“No, no, I wonder what that could be?”
The light from the trailer door seemed to blink for a moment. “Did you see that?” asked Graybeard, crouching down. Georgie and Nathanael nodded. The light blinked again.
“There's someone here, Mr. Ringmaker,” Georgie whispered, “and unless that perfume is a whole lot more popular than it ought to be, it's the blacksuits. Remember the one I hit with the jar?” she asked Graybeard, and he nodded violently in recognition. “That's it. It's got to be them.”
Then the lights went out. The echo of the circuit breaker being thrown lasted interminably, then a ring on the rinmaker's finger lit up.
“Is there another way out?” whispered Nathanael.
“They'll be able to see us in that light...”
Even as Georgie spoke, a flash a blue lightening struck beside them, fragments of shelf, dummy, and ring singing past and into them. Graybeard held a hand to a cut on his temple as they darted deeper in amongst the shelves by the light of the Ringmaker's finger. Finally, they stopped to catch their breath. Just as the Ringmaker was extinguishing his light Nathanael noticed Georgie grimacing as she plucked a shard of silver shelf from her arm. “You all right?” he inquired.
“I'm fine. Ask Graybeard -- he's bleeding.”
“Nothing,” Graybeard hissed embarrassedly, and then spoke to the Ringmaker. “Did you find it?”
“No. No, and it wouldn't have helped if we had been able to stay, either,” exclaimed the little man. “That was the right shelf, I can feel it in my bones. But I checked every ring on it, and I'm just as certain that none of them are correct. I cannot understand it.”
“Then what do we do?” asked Graybeard and Georgie at the same time.
“There is nothing you can do!” boomed a deep voice from somewhere near the front, and a harsh snicker followed the voice, echoing out of the darkness on all sides of them. “We have you trapped. Your only hope is to give yourselves up.”
The three looked at the Ringmaker in the long silence that followed.
“Well?” asked Graybeard.
“Well what?” The Ringmaker snorted at them in his high voice, “I'm about ready to give up on you myself. Not much of a set of fairy-tale children, are you? Much too old, anyway. Fine! Give yourselves up.” He waved his be-ringed fingers at them dismissively.
The three stared into the dark, then back at him.
“I just wonder if it's safe...?” Graybeard explained.
“They will probably respect your world's notable neutrality in the matter,” the Ringmaker's emphasis on the word “notable” could only have been called bitter.
“You hold us responsible?” Nathanael's words were pitched high with disbelief.
“It's not like we could just send troops to help, even if we knew about it,” muttered Georgie. “But what will happen to you, Mr. Ringmaker?”
“Oh, they'll kill me, of course,” he replied.
“Oh!” they said.
“That settles it, then,” Graybeard shrugged, and Georgie nodded.
“We can't let them kill you. We'll just have to find a way out.”
“Could the ring have been moved?” asked Nathanael abruptly. He had spent the last few moments thinking and gasping with pain as he used a handkerchief to bind up a deep cut in his leg.
“Moved?” the Ringmaker cocked his head. “But I am notified of all in-use rings. But of course!” The Ringmaker hopped half a foot in the air in sheer excitement, shoes clattering in the dark. “That's it! There's a ringuser's special they just started. My helper elves haven't told me which rings they took for distribution yet. It must be one of those!”
“Ooooh,” said Graybeard, Georgie, and Nathanael.
“Too late,” said the deep voice, and the lights came back on to reveal that they were once again surrounded by blacksuits. A frog in dark glasses ribbitted its agreement from beside the men, and one of the blacksuits smelled sickly-sweet.