Once upon a time there was a man.
Well you could have probably gathered that, as a great many men have come and gone over the ages of the earth, but this man had several qualities that bear remarking upon. To start with he is the one in this story, whether he is the protagonist or not is left as an exercise for the reader, but I digress.
His name was Raule Isnar Ibdan, his mother and father gave it to him, and he was descendant of Kings and Emperors.
He was commonly called Ralph.
He lived in a simple cottage on the side of a mountain overlooking a mountain valley. In this valley was that the village he had to visit to buy his bread. This continues to be unremarkable as there have been many men over the years who have lived in or on a mountain near a village and could not, for the life of them, make bread, but I continue to digress.
One day while making the long journey to the town, down winding paths and steep inclines he mussed to himself “There must be a better way for man to get around!” Living in a cottage on the side of the mountain does have certain advantages and one of them is a wide assortment of wildlife and a bird happened to fly past light on a nearby tree and begin to sing.
“Ah ha!” he said and drew his sling, “I shall have this little bird tonight roasted with my bread!” and with a shocking display of accuracy missed the bird so completely it did not even fly off, but rather looked at him with some confusion. Slightly embarrassed with himself he muttered under his breath something about air currents (a topic the bird was quite well versed in, sadly the language barrier posed a significant problem to communication as the bird understood not one of the tongues of man) and proceeded to walk past the bird down the path to the village to buy his bread.
He had several more encounters with the forest and its creatures on his way to the village. There was drifting leaves and seeds, as the fall was setting in. There was a number more birds flying with various degrees of urgency as is their way. There was a flying squirrel that brazenly glided gently across his path making angry noises as if to indicate that he should have been watching where he was going lest he interrupt the obviously important squirrels’ path.
His reactions to these encounters were notably mundane including yelling back at the squirrel, because who wishes to be chastised by passing rodents and let it go unchallenged? At no point, the reader will note, did the notion of flying or gliding to ease his journey occur to him as there have been persons beyond number over the years that have seen all of these sights and more who have not rushed to the nearest cliff to jump off in hopes of sprouting wings and he was not remarkable in this respect, though he was remarkable in many others.
After a time as it grew close to noon he reached the village, moderately weary and ill-tempered from a nagging feeling he was missing something. Shrugging off the sensation he went to the stall of his favoured baker and waited a brief moment for the stall keeper to note his presence which quickly he did.
“Hello Ralph!” said the transcendent golden angelic figure with eyes of fire and a voice of thick honey. Turning slowly we note that the figure seemed earnestly genderless, this is obvious as they were naked without shame. The speakers wings, great expansive things, extended slightly in pleasure of seeing a good regular customer, who it can be said always paid cash and never asked for credit, but I digress. He continued, “Would you like the usual Ralph? Or were you in the mood for something a little special this week?”
Raule eyed the angelic merchant of baked goods warily as he was leery of change and set in his ways “I don’t know Michael” (I will take this time to point out that this particular angelic figure was not THE Michael, it is just a rather common name, but I continue to digress) “I like your work as you know but you know poor old Ralph, I’m hard to turn around on a matter and I am powerfully fond of your hard crusted breads. They keep well in my little home and as you know I cannot bake for the life of me.” This last was true; Raule had been challenged to a baking duel, to the death no less, and had lost horrifically. His grand adventure leading up to this and his escape from the punishment and loss of his Imperial inheritance does go outside of the scope of this tale however.
Michael (as we now know the angelic merchants name to be) smiled with such beauty as to make the saints sin and the damned repent. This had little effect on Raule, he had seen this and greater wonders repeatedly and it is amazing what a person can find unremarkable after enough exposure. “Well,” Michael said “I have honest to goodness manna, made fresh today. I think I’ve finally figured out how to properly distil divine will into a tasty and nourishing treat. For you good sir I am willing to let it go at cost to allow you to try it today, all it will cost you is a single miracle, a most reasonable price as you, as a shrewd shopper, no doubt realise.”
Raule remained unfazed by the merchants’ shameless flattery. “You must take me for a fool to trade a miracle for a day’s bread. As any fool knows it took only a single miracle to feed the whole of the wandering tribe and I shall not pay it for any amount. I shall gladly pay you 3 small pieces of copper from the Kingdom of Iths to have a small loaf of this manna.” So the reader is advised the copper of the kingdom of Iths is of some of the poorest quality coin possible and it has been found that some of it is in fact simply cunningly fashioned stone.
Though you and I might take offence at this counter offer it was a tradition between these 2 to haggle from grossly differing starting values, which they started to do in earnest.
Some time passed and the 2 settled on the price that manna, or at least a single small loaf of manna, should be going for between 2 persons and although Raule agreed it was a fair price he was forced to admit he could not pay it with the wealth he had brought for the market this day. The fact that he did not ask for credit was noted by Michael who graciously gave Raule a small discount on his usual purchase and promised, if he still had manna in stock, to honour the agreed price the next week.
Having completed his main goal in the village that day Raule proceeded to the blacksmith to obtain a new knife and axe. Both the blacksmith and the transaction were completely mundane, a fact that Raule appreciated for his life was often overfull of miracles and wonder and he was glad for the break. Raule did however decline the offer to come over to the blacksmiths home for tea as it was rumoured the blacksmiths wife was a seer and prophetess and those she spoke with never came away unchanged.
“Oh you’ll be by for tea.” The blacksmith uttered as Raule left his shop, “She said you will visit today, so you will.”
Put out by being prophesised to Raule fell into a yet fouler mood for his final reason to be in town today, the barber.
Now for those of you who do not know, deposed heirs to kingdoms of dream and wonder who live humbly on the side of a mountain near small villages tend to allow their personal grooming to go sadly into decline. This goes doubly so for persons such as Raule who are confirmed bachelors. He had in fact had lost his true love years past, she was kidnapped and murdered whilst he was off battling demons to win back from the underworld the soul of the only rival for his loves affections, the last of one thousand and one fantastic and impossible tasks she had assigned him to win her hand, but I digress.
Whether this is a survival tactic to avoid assassins and those seeking the true heir or just a sure sign of the poor personal habits of pampered royalty we can only speculate.
Regardless of the cause Raule had permitted his beard to enter a frightful state and he had resolved to have it removed before some manner for small woodland creature or devil took up residence and made removal either particularly cruel or virtuous.
Entering the barber shop the first thing you or I would have noticed was the strange implements and knifes lining the shelves and walls. The next thing would have been the smell of blood. This is because this was a barber of the old variety, skilled in dentistry and bloodletting, basic surgery and grooming. In short a single stop for many things people do not want done to them, all under one convenient roof to make avoiding it easier and permitting you to get it all out of the way at once when you could no long avoid it.
This particular establishment was operated by a young spectacled man who appeared totally unassuming. Raule of course was not fooled by so mundane a disguise and called out “I abjure thee Garthat, Assassin of Angels and Drinker of the Blasted-Water, your blades shall not cut my flesh or break my bones and no words you say will sway my mind!”
The bespectacled demon prince looked up with an over toothy grin and said “So you are here for a hair cut then Ralph? Because there is little else I could do to you at this point without being rude and ignoring your previous abjurations.”
Raules’ eyes narrowed and a glint previously unseen in our tale came to them that made even the demon prince re-think his flippant attitude “I have long since given up demon slaying Garthat but I came here for a shave and found you wearing the barbers face. Where is the barber Garthat, for I have had enough enchantment for one day and my beard is itching terribly in this heat.”
Garthat shed the barbers’ skin as a man would remove a scarf and stood a full 9 feet tall with skin of bronze and fire, with wings of burning coals and he bowed slightly to his honoured foe (their duels were once the thing of legends and song in lands long sunk beneath the sea but I digress). His voice rumbled like torture of innocents and the darkest things that crawl in the darkest night “I had no intent to met you this day old friend and only took this shape while seeking prey I have stalked for long eons, if you would like Raule Isnar Ibdan, once Prince and future King” (Raule winced viably at this, 2 prophesies in one day was a bad sign and was only one more away from 3, a binding number) “I, slayer of the guardians of the gates shall shave your chin for a meagre 3 pieces of silver.”
Raule narrowed his eyes further, “A shave is not worth more then 2 coppers even if the 7 Kings of Heaven administer it. What do you offer that could be worth 3 pieces of the kings silver?”
Garthat again grinned an over toothy grin and said “Your life perhaps? I see that you are without your armour or your steel and I am a Demon Prince, and there are ways to kill you without cutting your flesh or breaking your bones or swaying your mind.”
Raule weighed his options over several seconds and though he had a fine new knife and axe he doubted they had been blessed to slay demons and killing a demon without blessed weapons is rather more difficult then the worth of 3 pieces of silver and he sorely needed a shave. “I have decided to pay you the 2 coppers for a fine shave and tip you a single piece of silver for not slaying me while you do it, agreed?” he said.
“Agreed.” muttered the burning demon and with that Garthat proceeded to give Raule the finest shave he had ever had. It is a little known fact that demons are superb barbers, their personal grooming talents and skill with knives and blood unparalleled for reasons that are obvious once stated, but I digress.
While they were so engaged a villager came into the barbershop moaning in pain and holding his jaw and belly in obvious pain. Noting the presence of a Prince of the Hells standing and administering a shave he came to a rather hasty decision – and that was that he was in so much pain he did not care and sat down to take his turn, after all, what is a daemon compared to a compound toothache and appendicitis?
Satisfied with the shave and service Raule did indeed give the demon his 2 coppers for the shave, a tip of silver for his courtesy and left the shop to go into the streets, only faintly hearing the screams though the thick barber shop walls. Shaking his head at the folly of men he set a measured tread that should have lead him from the village and back to his plain cottage in short order.
Sadly there were prophesies involved and he had an appointment for tea.
How much enchantment can a not-so-humble mountain man take in a day before he breaks out his indescribable Mixed Martial Arts Sorcery to make it stop only to realise he has compounded the problem?
Was a silver piece a big enough tip for the finest shave Raule had ever had?
What did happen to the barber?
How much is a loaf of manna worth?
The guardians of which gates?
The answer to some, all or none of these questions in the next instalment!