Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Message sticks (magic item)

It had been yet another night of face licking for Billobi, but at this point he was used to it. Sleeping on the floor in Mr. Bickleigh's brick house was a sure way of getting your face clean by the house cat; Mr. Bigglesworth sure had a rough tongue.

Living all alone in the middle of the Ogrebelly forest meant giving up on some of the convenience of a city or village, but Mr. Bickleigh didn't mind. The forest had everything he needed in terms of food, magical ingredients and - strangely enough - intellectual exchange.

"I talked to some heather last night", Mr. Bickleigh said and put a pot on the stove. "You'd think they'd be quite the conversationalists, Mr. Rustfoot, but sadly they just talk in riddles and twisted wordplays. Bah, it's easier to talk to a stream!"

Billobi got up on his feet and walked over to the kitchen window to adore the scenery for a second.

"How does one talk to heather anyway?" Billobi asked.

"What do you mean? With your mouth of course! But Mr. Bigglesworth, what are you doing! You stupid cat!"

Billobi turned around and saw the cat looking back at them both with a postage stamp attached to his nose, and one sticking out from his mouth half-chewed. It didn't seem to understand what the fuss was about.

"Congratulations, Mr. Bigglesworth! Your indisputable and unmatched hunting abilities have yet again led you to the feast of your lifetime - my box of stamps! I admit my defeat, you fat cat!"

"I don't understand", said Billobi, "he likes stamps?"

"Oh, 'like' is such a weak word", said Mr. Bickleigh and started to fumble with the pile of wood over at the stove. "I would rather say that he crave for them! I guess they shouldn't make the sticky stuff on the back so tasty, am I right Mr. Bigglesworth?"

The cat pulled off the stamp on his nose with the paw, and started to chew on it. Mr. Bickleigh took a bunch of narrow sticks from the wood pile, and headed for the front door.

"Come Mr. Rustfoot", he said and opened up the door. "I presume a man of your curious nature never turns down an opportunity to witness something old and magical?"

Billobi shook his head and smiled.

"Besides, I need to borrow your pen and some paper."

Mr. Bickleigh led Billobi to a small fireplace just outside. It consisted of big chunks of rock formed in a crude circle, with some charcoal in the middle from last night's cooking.

"Since that fat cat of mine decided to feast on my stamps on the very day I needed them, I guess I'll have to resort to more unconventional ways of communication. Put some logs on, will you?"

Billobi went around the house and fetched some logs and piled them up nicely in the middle of the stone circle.

"Stand back, or I'll have your nose hair burned off!" Mr. Bickleigh said, and snapped his fingers upon which the logs started to burn immediately.

"People tend to believe it's the motion, when it's really the sound", he added somewhat proud. "Anyway! Pen and paper, please!"

Billobi handed his pen and a piece of paper, tools which he never left home without. Mr. Bickleigh started to write immediately.

"There! This" - he folded the paper twice - "is my message, and that" - he threw the paper into the fire - "is my way of sending it. And now, we'll peel some sticks."

He handed some of the narrow sticks he brought with him to Billobi, and started to peel off their bark. After doing about fifteen or so, he bundled them together and threw them on the fire.

"Those are my receivers", he said and pointed at the sticks, which began to twist and turn in the heat. "A stick for a letter, so it's best to peel aplenty. Quick! Pull them out! Hurry, before they all turn into c's! Quickly, Mr. Rustfoot, my fingers are to valuable for such labour!"

Billobi performed some sort of hopping dance while trying to get the sticks out of the fire. He lined the burned and twisted sticks up in front of them. Somehow, nine of them had turned into crude, ornate letters, and one single stick remained straight but with a small dot placed on it. Mr. Bickleigh immediately started arranging them in different ways, until they spelled out two words, with the dotted stick in between, separating them.

"Hmm..." he said, clearly annoyed. "That's not very nice."

"May I ask what you wrote on the paper?"

"It was merely a request from one friend to another - or, so I thought! - about deliverance of certain beverages to my home, at his expense. Nothing fancy, maybe just some bottles of Pimbleman's Teeth or Horsehead's Stout. Maybe some ripe cheese. And that tasty sourdough bread... Well, that clearly shows that you can't be friends with innkeepers! Pen and paper, please!"

He wrote a new message, folded the paper and threw it on the fire.

"Come, Mr. Rustfoot", Mr. Bickleigh said and headed towards the house again. "No need to wait for an answer to that!"

Message sticks are a way of communicate over long distances using only fireplaces and narrow sticks. Any type of stick will do, as long as the bark is peeled off.

To send a message, one must write it down on a piece of paper (or some other material), fold it and throw it on the fire. Since it's impossible to know how many letters the response will contain, it's best to throw as many sticks as possible on the fire, since one stick corresponds to one letter.

After some seconds, the sticks will begin to twist and turn into letters, at which point they should be removed (or they'll turn into C's). Straight sticks with a dot on them should be treated as word dividers.

Unfortunately, the sticks need to be arranged properly after turning into letters, since they come out all scrambled. This is why most people prefer writing letters.


  1. Lovely tale. I like how seemingly prosaic and a little awkward the sticks are - especially the having to fetch them out of the fire and re-arrange them before the sticks are burnt too much.

    In my unfinished story (only 22 chapters written, another 20+ to go) a much more basic version of message sticks is used. They simply alert the creator instantly that they've been broken. That way any arrangement about why they are to be broken has to be made before-hand. :-)

    Love the good work Jensan. Keep'em coming! :-D

  2. Thank you! Yes, I wanted to show how impractical the sticks are, and why people abandon them in favour of writing letters.

  3. But for some reason Mr. Bickleigh still use them.

    I was confused all the way through until I read the last line "This is why most people prefer writing letters."

    However, it is an interesting perspective of the old long distance communication technique of what fire once was. In a way all things old and ancient usually becomes magical in the fantasy realm in this a refreshing look of what old and ancient also can be.

    Great story!

    PS. What is heather? The plant?

  4. Thank you, Antysmants! Yes, Mr. Bickleigh sometimes resort to message sticks; not because he wants to, but because Mr. Bigglesworth tend to eat all of the stamps! A cat with appetite...

    Yes, heather as in "ljung".

  5. Aha. I feel a bit slow now. I kind of should have made that connection already.

    I blame it on work