Sunday, 29 May 2011
#SampleSunday – 29th May 2011
The biggest problem was that they wanted me to teach magic and I didn't have any to teach. I knew exactly eight spells. I remembered learning them, a loupe tucked firmly into one eye socket as I watched them cast by a sorcerer. This to make a light, this to warm a layer of air close to your skin, this to keep you dry if it's raining, this to make a flame. They were simple spells, easy spells, they were nothing. There cannot be a noble alive who didn't know them. If I cooperated they would soon learn that I knew nothing worth teaching, nothing they wanted to know. Then they would begin asking questions about the loupe; why did I have it? Where did I get it? And I didn't know what to tell them. They would not believe I'd stolen it.
I say that was my biggest problem. I'm not sure it's true. They'd let me keep my stone, after a fashion.
“We didn't think you could climb down. Didn't think you had it in you, frankly,” Ferrian told me when I was safely ensconced in my room, my cell. “I guess your dangerous-looking friend killed the guards. He'll be an asset, I'm sure, one way or another.”
I didn't see the point in responding.
“Larner put a ward over the window, so no going out there. It'll hurt and we will know.”
So Larner had been Turned. I'd started to think of it in that way, like a title. The Turned.
“He'll be along to see you later; talk to you, see what you know. We won't be seeing much of each other, I'm afraid. I have other duties. But I'm sure Larner will look after you admirably; he has one or two ideas.”
I didn't respond. Why bother? They would do what they would do and I would endure as best I could. Jocasta was safe, for now, and free. That mattered. It didn't much matter what happened to me. I was, after all, pretty useless.
He went to the door. “Relax,” he said, “take a drink,” and was gone.
I did. A small brandy. I sipped it slowly and fantasized murder.
Larner strode through the door some time Later. “Ah, our lost lamb returned to the fold. How are you feeling?”
I was sitting up on the bed, still imagining new ways to kill Ferrian. I didn't respond.
“Not very friendly, Sumto.” He crossed the room to stand by the bed, too close for my liking. “Here, I have a present for you.” He pressed his hand against my forehead, too quick for me to react, and there was a near invisible flash of light. I slapped my hand to my forehead as he stepped rapidly back. “There, perfect. Now we will always be able to find you.”
I probed at my forehead. There was something there, something small and hard and warm. A stone. The stone Jocasta had given me, or mine, it didn't matter which.
“It's embedded in your skull. I suppose you could cut it out, well...” he thought a moment. “Yes, I think you do have it in you to do that, so...” He leaned in again and I made a fist, waiting. “I could always bring the guards in here to hold you down. What do you think?”
No. I couldn't win this battle. No point in fighting it. I dropped my hand to my lap and relaxed.
He touched my forehead and there was another flash and pain, sudden flaring pain that was fading even before I could cry out. “Now if you remove it you will burst several blood vessels in your brain. Not a healthy thing to have happen.”
“What did they do to you?”
He shrugged, face suddenly bitter and angry. “Changed my mind. Opened my eyes, as they will open yours one way or another. It is easier to obey...” he trailed off, then suddenly came to himself. “Now, I have another present for you. Want to see?”
I shrugged. “Do I have a choice?”
“Not really, no.” He crossed to the window, waved his hand to disable the ward and stepped onto the balcony. I could still see him when he turned back. “Come along, then.”
I followed him. They'd broken him. Somehow. He was not the man I knew, that was for sure. This crazy old man had nothing in common with the Larner I had known in the camp. His false cheer was grating, unnatural. I decided I didn't want to know what had Turned him. Some horrors it's better not to contemplate.
“There, good,” he said as I joined him. He took my arm and led me to the balcony edge. Once there he pointed into the courtyard. I looked down.
They might have been dogs, once. But the gods alone knew what they were now. They were in the hands of two handlers, and pulled at their leashes. Their fur had gone gray. Terror will do that to you. They strained toward me, snarling and barking madly, jaws spraying spit, muzzles wrinkled. Their handlers were having a hard time holding them back, and they were both big men.
“They don't like you much. Sorry there are only two of them. I suppose I could make more, but I think two will do, don't you?”
I nodded dumbly.
“They can smell the stone, you see. Smell it anywhere, no matter how far away you are they will come after you. You will hear them coming, the sound vibrating from the stone, into your skull and then to your ears. A reminder that they are out there, coming for you. So,” he said sweetly, “no running away it is then, okay?”
I just stared at them.
“Good,” he said as though I had agreed with him. “Inside now, and I'll see you tomorrow.”
I went inside. He restored the ward and left.
He took the brandy with him
Anyone who has suffered prolonged periods of inactivity will know how the time passed. Pacing, talking to myself, trying to sleep and failing, sweating, shaking, wanting a drink, pacing, breaking things, and so on. I went out onto the balcony. It hurt, like fire in my marrow, and an alarm sounded. The pain faded as soldiers spilled out into the courtyard and looked up. I gave them a cheerful wave and looked about. The view wasn't much but it was better than the four walls behind me.
The town took up much of it, a spread of buildings of various sizes, none bigger than this one. The streets were busy. Life going on as normal, or as normal as it can be under an occupying army. The bulk of the people had merely exchanged one master for another. The army will have soaked up their goods, taken their food stocks, stolen their treasures, filched their possessions, probably taken their women. Armies do all of that, usually. We had laws about loot, and we did not practice rape. Okay, if a legion were let off the leash they would loot and pillage till they were spent but it didn't happen very often. There would be reason for such retribution even if some of those who suffered it were not part of the decision that caused it. In any case the scene was remarkably ordinary. Beyond the walls lay the enemy encampment and I studied them for a while. There wasn't much to see. The army sprawled over a larger area than the city and they were a fair way away from me. Just movement and stillness mixed together. I left them all too it and went back inside.
I took my shirt off and tossed it aside. It was soaked in sweat. Lack of booze to an addict causes all sorts of physical reactions. I felt hot but shivered as though cold, for example. My muscles ached and my head throbbed. My mouth tasted foul and I stank of a sick, stale smell that offended me. There was nothing to do about that. I wasn't tired, not in the sense that I needed sleep at least, but I crawled under the eiderdown and tried to sleep. It was a long time coming.
When the mist swirled and thinned around me I knew what it was, but not where. I couldn't see much. A couple of shafts of light in which dust motes danced. As things cleared I could tell no more than that I was in a large, dusty, empty room. Empty of all but Jocasta She stood in front of me, anxious, her face a picture of concern.
“Why did you do it?” I said.
“What?” It wasn't what she had been expecting me to say.
“Why did you come after me?”
“Oh, that.” She frowned prettily, looking down. When she looked up she had made some kind of decision, her expression was challenging. “When you were courting my sister I was jealous.”
“Is that all?”
“Of course that's not all! Really, Sumto, do you think we should be talking about this now?”
“Yes. Why did you come after me?”
“It wasn't just jealousy. You talked to her. I liked the way you talked, what you talked about. She didn't understand. I'm afraid my sister is a bit foolish. But I understood, and I liked what I heard.”
I tried to remember. I can't have said much of importance. It was only one year we visited together, strictly chaperoned. “What, specifically?”
“You talked about truth. How all beauty comes from truth and all ugliness from lies.”
I remembered now. I had been pretentiously attempting to form my own philosophy. We do not use religion. The fact that we have souls is undisputed fact. But getting sense out of a spirit was like having a conversation with yourself. They turn your own ideas back on you as though deliberately forcing you to understand life, not what comes after it. Perhaps that was exactly what they were doing. In any case, without religion, and knowing that there is an afterlife, what is left as most important is a philosophy validating life itself. Leave the unknowable for when you experience it. I had not found any of the philosophies I had read satisfying so I had set about developing my own. Truth seemed a good place to start. Facts, actually. Well, I had been talking to a girl so beauty must have crept into the philosophy for her benefit.
“I was a boy. The truth can be ugly.”
She sighed. “I know that, Sumto, I am not a fool and I wish you would give me some credit. I knew you were wrong, but I also thought you were right, And it got me thinking, and also thinking about the kind of man I wanted for myself. One who valued truth, I reasoned, would at least not try and enslave me with lies.”
It was a phrase I could have used and I said so.
She nodded, smiling. “Good. Now, can we talk about how to get you out of there?”
“No. So you decided that I was the kind of man you wanted so you had better come get me?”
“Basically, yes. Done embarrassing me now?”
I smiled. I liked her. Well, I always had but now I saw why. “I'm glad, though I think you have made a bit of a bad bargain. Throwing away your place in society for someone who may not live to continue life as a bad drunk.”
For a second I thought she would slap me, but that would be pointless of course. “Stop it. You are better than that. You will find a way or I will find a way, and with your reputation what matters it that mine is in tatters?”
I grinned. “Not much,” I agreed.
“That's what I thought. Now, how are we going to get you free?”
“Did you think about illusory spell forms?”
“What are you talking about now?”
I sighed in exasperation, running my hand over my face. “I told you about this.”
She pointed to my forehead, coming closer. “In your forehead? What is it? A stone?”
“Yes. Mine or yours. They can use it to find me. And there are dogs; enhanced. I can hear them when they growl or bark or howl, but otherwise I forget it's there.”
“It's mine,” she said. “Can you use it?”
“Does it matter? Now, about illusory spell forms. I told you. It was an idea I had. Pay attention,” she was still looking at my forehead. “Spirits can see them and...”
I snapped awake. Someone was standing over me, shaking me. I slapped them away and sat up.
“Awake now? Good.” Larner had stepped back from the bed. “So, about teaching. Ready to start? I can't wait to find out what you know. Maybe learn a thing or two. I must admit I was surprised to be told you had your own loupe. Never would have thought it. With your reputation I suspected you were a waster; an idle, drunken waster at that. But all the time you were learning. What college?”
“Go away.” I told him.
“Well, I could, I suppose. But I brought you a present.” He pulled a hip flask out of his pocket and waved it enticingly just out of reach. “Want some? Just a sip in here but better than nothing, eh? Now tell me something useful and you can have a drop...”
I refused. He talked some more, pressing me. I got angry, impatient for him to go and leave me alone. Eventually he did and I was left to my miserable, drink-free existence.