15 of Eleint 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
A few days had passed without an accident. I was slowly recovering from my fit and although my usual nightmares were as relentless as the coming and going of the sun, the sensations have dulled significantly after the incident with the book. I was still going through motions of begging, pleading, and being cut open and burnt to a crisp in a rusty metal cage but it was not nearly as vivid or disturbing as it was before. Now it was more like watching a bad horror play, performed by a second-rate theater troupe. The paint was too red to be real blood, and my supplications sounded like mechanical mutterings of a puppet. Praised be the stubborn resistance of mortal mind in its struggle for survival! I gather, a sentient being can get used to almost anything, by tapping on its unlimited reserves of creative adaptation.
Chyil repaired my coif on my insistence, though he was repeating while he sew that wearing the stupid thing only crippled my self-esteem and delayed my healing. I ignored his comments, and he was not happy. We had finished sorting through the trove of the desert plants that I had brought from my trip, and he was so pleased with the brown seeds that I had found for him that he forgot my stubbornness about the hood.
I did not go out much in those days, except following Chyil on his shopping trip to the bazaar, on a market day. He deemed it beneficial for me to be among the crowd, and although I could not see any gain in allowing myself to be pushed around, belched at, and squeezed by many unwashed bad-smelling bodies, I obliged and carried his purchases with detached resignation. I did not find it demeaning in the least since he never cared much about defining his status as a master of the household, and always did the lion's share of any housework, be it cooking, washing dishes or patching our clothes. I myself was awfully bad in any of these small chores. Thus I oftentimes wondered what kind of a life I was leading before being left on his doorstep like a foundling.
As Chyil pushed his frail old body through the crowd, stopping now and then to pat a small child on the head, sample some farmer's smoked olives or goat cheese, and accept a gift of dried melon, so sweet and tangy that it will fill your mouth with a blast of flavor and stick to your teeth like a piece of hard candy, I relaxed, slowly letting go of my inner tension and allowed my thoughts to wander idly and without purpose, observing the lively scenes of the market life. Amkethran is a miserable hovel but there is certain rustic charm in its carefree poverty.
It is amazing how the small sensations of taste, heat, light, and flavor can affect one's state of mind and even awaken emotions, or remembrances long lost. I felt completely overwhelmed by that bustling activity, and at one point something trembled at the edge of my awareness, as if a shadow of a memory locked deep inside the layers of my mind tried shyly to push its way to the surface. It was something about me standing in the middle of a busy marketplace of a big city, while the white dust and debris fell from the sky and settled on my shoulders. The faces around me were stricken by fear, and the loud noise of magical explosion just died away leaving behind an aftertaste of raw terror. The memory flickered and faded without a trace.
I was so preoccupied with my inner visions, that when a small dark-skinned hand darted out of my pocket I almost missed its exit, and the true identity of its owner. I only spotted the thief's fragile form when he darted into a dark alley behind the stalls and away from me as fast as he could, and noted that the way he carried his lithe, agile body through the tricky terrain of fruit-filled baskets and oil amphorae looked familiar. If I could have laughed at his futile quest to find anything useful in my pockets, I would have done so. They were as empty of anything substantial as the head of the pretty girl I had met in the desert the other day. However, when I turned away from the scene of my robber’s flight to follow Chyil into the midst of food-stalls, something grated against my leg. An item has been added to my possessions rather then taken away.
I pried the package gently out of its hiding place and removed the crumpled piece of leather that was wrapped around it. It was a dried snake head, hard and shriveled after being left in the sun for a few days, with a small piece of wood driven deep into its throat to keep the jaws open. Its eyes were removed and creatively replaced with two blue glass beads. Overall, the effect was almost humorous, if not for the yellow streaks of poison that stained the fangs. I shrugged and re-wrapped the offering, pocketing it carefully for further investigation.
Later that day, I deposited the snake head on a small shelf beside my bed, together with my other meager possessions that included a blunt knife with a cracked wooden handle carefully mended with a piece of string, a few obsidian arrowheads that I had found in the desert, and a pretty blue stone that I fancied to be a lapis lazuli but in reality was probably just a piece of old ceramic. I had no idea why I collected all that junk but it felt right, and I liked the way it cluttered the little space. When I looked at it I always had a strange feeling of déjà vu, but than again I had it when I looked at almost anything.
Chyil noticed the snake head on the next day and pried me for the information until I finally told him the story about the snake and the girl. He laughed silently for almost a minute then nodded with a sigh of resignation.
"Mirriam was always a bright child, if wistful and stubborn as a mule. Both she and her brother Kessen are terribly spoiled. Esamon fathered them on the local woman when he first set his base of operation here many years ago, and whenever he showed back in town, he showered the kids with exotic gifts and sweets. Her mother must be a rich woman but she has no protection now that Esamon has disappeared yet again. It was rumored that he had crossed the infamous Child of Bhaal, right before all the hell broke loose in our quiet backwater village. You know the rest of the story, since I repeated it to you so many times."
I nodded an agreement, without raising my head.
"The girl must be almost eighteen by now, and with her father gone and Kes under Farheed's strong influence I doubt she had much of a choice on the matter of her betrothal."
"I wonder why are you telling me all this," I answered in a curt tone. "I have no interest in her whatsoever, and neither do I care for any other topic you may offer for discussion."
"Is it so?" He raised one shaggy gray eyebrow. "Obviously you had made quite an impression on her. But I shall leave you to your thoughts. Pray forgive the old man for being too nosy."
He departed chuckling and muttering to himself and I went back to my chores. The next morning my only pair of sandals went missing only to reappear in the mid-afternoon with a small addition of two dead rats lovingly placed inside each shoe. I sighed and took the rats outside, leaving them on the heap of sheep dung that Chyil collected for his garden. That was when I heard his moaning and cursing at the front gate of the temple. Both halves of the gates were painted from inside with the scenes of Waukeen's miracles. Remarkably, the frescoes were not as ugly as one would have expected and Chyil freshened them up regularly with his own hands.
I went to him to see what was going on. Every one of the merchants bent in prayer before Waukeen while receiving her Merchant's Peace orders now had pointy, donkey-like ears, added with a generous application of charcoal. I blinked at the sight but kept my face blank.
But even that was not the end. After I helped Chyil clean his precious paintings as he swore to catch the perpetrator and show her Waukeen's justice, we went to the garden for the afternoon tea in the shade of acacia. I noticed that the old priest kept smiling to himself whilst looking in my direction, and decided that he was not particularly mad at the desecration after all. As for me, I was genuinely puzzled and wondered if my conduct with the girl justified all the energy spent on petty revenge. While we were finishing our tea and sweetmeats that Chyil had purchased the other day on the market I heard a distinctive noise of bleating coming from the front yard. We did not have any sheep in the house so I arched an eyebrow at my elderly companion, who gave me a puzzled look in return. We both turned towards the entrance, and were rewarded with the sight that beat even the pointy-eared worshippers of the merchant goddess.
I usually did not wear the coif inside the house, so when I went outside to help Chyil clean the gates I left it in the infirmary. Now it was gracing the head of a small white sheep that was extremely upset at this unexpected addition to its attire, and was baaing frantically while trying unsuccessfully to remove it with its front legs. Its floppy sheep-ears were tucked under the garment that was tightly laced around its neck, but a few strands of white curly fur were left dangling strategically over the sheep's brow.
Suddenly, I felt an unexpected sensation of tingling in the corners of my mouth, and a strange phenomenon in my chest, as if a mass of small bubbles was rising to the surface of the water in a clear brook. Chyil gave me a wide-eyed look.
"Praised be her clever thieving fingers!" he finally uttered with strong feeling. "It is the first time ever that I see you smile, Jon. I thought it would take a divine miracle."
After we finally captured the frightened animal and divested it of my property, I was not smiling anymore. My face was set in its usual mask of neutrality. But that strange experience left me wondering at what was done to me in my previous life if the simple act of laughing left me gasping like a fish pulled out of the water. Chyil ushered the sheep outside and locked the gates after it. I collected our dishes on a tray and lifted it to take it back into the kitchen. Then I thought I heard giggling and saw two dark-haired heads and two pairs of round eyes watching me from the temple roof. To my amazement, the tingling sensation in my lips returned, if not to the same extent as the first time. Nevertheless, I ignored the spectators as best as I could and went inside the house.
When I told Chyil I was not interested in the girl or anything else I was only half-lying, or if you like it better telling half of the truth. She amused me to some extent, but my mind was preoccupied with feeling much stronger than she could have possibly hoped to induce with her childish pranks. The desire I was burning with had nothing to do with her; and it was so powerful it scared me witless. The little black book on Chyil's desk drew me like a magnet, day after day. And as I worked in the garden, around the temple or in the infirmary I was always acutely aware of its presence somewhere on the edge of my perception. I knew it was calling me, tempting me to open it again and reclaim what was mine by birthright. Yet, how did I know that arcane magic was indeed my lost legacy? I had no answer to this question.
Finally, the drive became too strong for me to resist. On the day after the incident with the sheep Chyil went out to visit somebody in the village. (Later, I found out that he had gone to talk with Mirri's mother, much good that it did to his peace of mind in the long run!) I was left alone in the building. For a while I sat in the garden on my favorite warm spot, trying to think about something else, anything but the book of minor spells that was waiting for me behind the meager wall of clay bricks and white plaster. Then I rose and went inside with my eyes tightly shut and my heart fluttering like a caught sparrow.
After the oppressive white glow of the desert day outside Chyil's little studio with its bare walls and sparse furniture felt cool and shaded. At first I could see nothing but the grey outlines of a bed and a writing desk; then the dark square of the spellbook against the light wood of the table pulled my eyesight with the infallibility of the delayed intake of breath. I stood there for awhile, thinking about the consequences of a decision I was about to make. If I tried to walk away from it now I would only postpone it - that I knew with certainty. Sooner or later, I would face this choice again, until one day I would give in to the temptation that was making my head dizzy, and filled me with longing stronger than any ordinary lust or hunger, more powerful than drive for survival, and more painful than my imaginary torture sessions. Ever since I had accidentally cast that small cantrip without realizing what I was doing the pull of magic in my blood was growing stronger, as if I was the ocean drawn forth by the incessant gravity of the Selune.
"I may as well go ahead and accept my fate," I thought tiredly and made one step forward.
A silent alarm went on in my brain. I froze, preparing for the panic attack followed by another seizure. Nothing happened. Another step - nothing again. Finally, I walked briskly to the Chyil's desk and took the tome in my hands clutching it with a resignation of a starving mouse stealing a cheese crust from a mousetrap. But either the spring had gone rusty from the long wait, or it was not there to begin with - I was now holding the book in my hands without causing myself any harm. I took a deep breath and opened it on a random page. The sight of an empty white space filled me with sudden bitterness. I still had no idea who I was and why the book of arcane spells had such an effect on me, but I knew something was wrong, and a feeling of jealous, impotent fury was swelling inside me making me shake with repeating waves of anger and grief. The effect was so profound that I almost dropped the accursed book, yet a deeper knowledge of the futility of such an act stopped me this time.
I continued to flip through the book until I found the pages filled with Lazarus's meticulous script. Blessed be the old wizard, who even added small illustrations of the hand-gestures and finger patterns, needed for each of the castings. There were twenty-five pages, all filled with small spells. Some of them useful, other quirky and ridiculous, like summoning a bee or a mouse. Each one scrupulously penned and categorized. Those were divided into six major categories: including Useful or Household cantrips (among them clean and stitch, dust and polish, sweeten and spice), Reversed or Mischievous ones ( there was one for curdling milk and one for untying knots, and I felt a now familiar tingle in my lips when I thought of the possibilities), Personal cantrips (mostly minor summonings), Haunting cantrips (used to generate rather annoying set of creaks and moans), Minor illusions (the name speaks for itself but there were some useful ones such as globes of colored light, and minor facial alterations), and finally the Person-Affecting spells (that could be used to make someone blink, twitch of scratch involuntarily, and those in turn gave me some amusing thoughts). I flipped through the pages muttering and jesting like a madman and the room was soon filled with buzzing, small flashes of light, and smell of burnt wool from a hole that I made in the old rug.
Of course I failed as many times as I succeeded, and my fingers were numb and cramped from repetition, but when Chyil coughed behind my back and I jumped from his chair, I noticed with embarrassment that it was already dark outside and that I was now reading using the light of a small green globe that was floating above my head.
"I see you've made a good use of this book," the old priest was looking at me with a mixed expression of hope and worry. "I've been back for a few hours now but did not want to disturb you. Dinner is ready. But my boy, if you go after it at such a pace I am afraid you may do yourself more harm than good. Look at you, you are all raw nerves and jitters, and the night is coming…"
Indeed it was. I could not eat, even though Chyil brought some fresh bread and combs full of fragrant mountain honey, and I did not hear a word from the long, detailed recital of his trip to the village. He finally noticed my state and forced me to swallow a cup of mint tea, spiced with poppy milk.
Despite these measures, my dreams were more vivid than ever that night, and the settings of my nightmares changed drastically. I was now floating in a glass jar half-filled with strange green liquid. The world outside looked vague and distorted, as I strained my eyes trying to make out the shape of my captor through the uneven glass walls of my prison, and coughing out the mouthfuls of greenish sludge. Then the pool of liquid was slowly drained from my glass container. It was only reaching to my waist now, then to my knees. I noticed with disgust that under the oozing layers of green goo I was absolutely naked, and trembled with fear and humiliation when the jar began to vibrate and the first bolt of raw magic hit my body. It took about five of those to kill me, then I was promptly revived and the torture began anew.
When Chyil shook me awake, he had to use some of his stronger compulsion spells to bring me under control, as I was asking him to finish it here and now rather than letting me go back into that new nightmare. So, that was the price I had to pay for my magic - the realization dawned on me when I thought about it in the morning. Was I willing to pay it, you may ask? Was it ever my choice? - I shall answer with a question of my own.
I went through the next day in a haze, dreading the coming of the nightfall. But as it was usually the case, the second dream was not as bad as the first, and in the mean time I have managed to perfect some of the spells to a level of decent repeatability. Chyil supplied me with some quills and ink, and I spent the morning of the day after writing my own comments under Lazarus' notes. At noontime, Chyil forced me outside, threatening to take the book away if I didn't go. I sighed and complied, telling him that I will take a walk in the desert.
I took my familiar route, letting my feet carry me forward whilst my mind was going over the firefinger cantrip for the thousandth time. Whether it had been Lazarus's hand that had failed to scribe it properly or my own eyes deceived me – but I could not make it work just yet. My fingers were locked in infinite repetition of the spell's somatic component and my lips were busy with refining the verbal part when I reached the familiar spot. The grey boulder still hanged precariously over the narrow path, covered with shifting sand that had absorbed some of my blood and that of the unlucky reptile. It did not matter much. Nothing mattered but the tingle of raw power in my fingers. I shrugged and climbed on top of the stone. It provided a nice view over the small valley below, although the path itself was hidden by the protruding stone lip.
I have no idea how much time I had spent there sitting cross-legged and muttering the arcane syllables, oblivious to the coming and passing of hours when the spell had finally worked. I extended my hand in slow motion, modifying the sound of the third incantation just a little and flicking the index finger, while at the same time extending it upright, and it suddenly burst into a steady orange flame. I cried out in excitement and brought it closer to my face looking at it in a state of total bliss. It was a small flame but it burned steadily, providing a sturdy supply of heat and light whilst my finger was not hurting at all.
"Hell and bloody bones," the voice said weakly at my back. "Are you some sort of a mage, elf-boy?"
I jerked my head, at the same time extinguishing the flame. Mirri was standing not two steps away, hands on her hips, giving me a look of deep puzzlement mixed with desperation. Today, she was wearing a rich vest of green silk, though the rest of her outfit was as practical as ever. Her expression was comical enough to make me chuckle, but when I remembered the whole score of the little calamities that she had wrought upon me through the last week it positively made me gloat. I was almost tempted to try one of my newly acquired spells on her but the common sense prevailed. The girl was nothing more than a minor nuisance, and I was too tired to be absolutely sure it would work. Besides, her present humiliation was good enough punishment for her past indiscretions. So, I looked at her coldly and gave a curt nod without saying a word, (since I have noticed that my silences had more profound effect on her anyway).
"You could have told me before, you bastard!" she snapped in frustration. “How am I supposed to apologize to you after that? You will surely take me for a coward..." Her cheeks were now covered with red stains of embarrassment, and she looked quite attractive in her panicked state.
"Apology from you?" I ran a hand through my tangled hair in confusion, belatedly remembering the coif that I did not bother to put on today in my distraught state. "What made you think I would even accept one?"
"And why should you not?" she flashed even deeper red. "After you've snitched on me to the old man he went to Ma and then both of them set upon on me like hornets! I waited for your pointy-eared highness to come out for three days, and then had to search through half of the valley only to find you sitting here playing with fire, like you are a sorcerer or something!"
"So, what if I am a sorcerer? If you wanted to apologize you should have come to the temple," I answered quietly. My temper was rising again at her hasty, reckless words.
"I did not want to apologize!" she stomped her foot. "They made me promise I would do it, but even they could not make me do it in public. What was I supposed to do - send you a love letter?"
"Do you even know how to write?" I drawled arching an eyebrow at her. That made her choke on whatever she was going to say, and she looked at me with an expression of such white-hot fury that you could have started fires with that look.
"You are an arrogant, despicable, cold-blooded moron."
"Now, that was quite an apology."
"I did not mean to," Mirri mumbled in horror. "I am sorry! It was not my fault. You made me do it!"
"Look," I counted on my fingers, "I also made you put rats in my shoes, ruin Chyil's frescoes, put my headgear on a sheep - something flickered in her eyes then, as if she could not stop herself from laughing - and call me 'pretty boy'. That's quite a record."
"So, what was so bad about calling you a boy?" She blushed and waved, dismissing all my other accusations. "Even if you are an elf, you could not be older than me in your own counting, and Ma still calls me 'girl' even though I am already eighteen."
"I have no interest in discussing my age with you, whatever it may be," I returned curtly. "I was only making a point. Now, since your business here is done, can you please leave me alone?"
"So, you are satisfied?" She could not believe her ears. "You've accepted my apology?"
"Apology? So far, I've only got more insults from you," I answered with a snort. "I simply have no desire to share your company any longer."
"You cannot do this to me!" the girl wailed. "What am I supposed to do now? I gave Ma my word to settle this!"
"Well, you've failed," I lowered my chin, "now please go." The look she gave me could have evaporated icecaps on the Snowflake Mountains or sent forests in Tethyr into roaring fire. Her normally plump mouth was set in a hard line, and I thought she was seriously considering if killing me on a spot would resolve her dilemma.
"I…I apologize for what I did to you, and for anything I might have said inadvertently," Mirri finally managed to force out of herself. "This should be enough even for your damned elven arrogance."
"No, it is not. I refuse to accept an apology voiced like that."
"Can I do something about it?" The girl finally asked biting at her lips, and digging her nails into the flesh of her own palms. (I was seriously surprised at the amount of self-control that she was able to exercise, and the importance she had put on her given world.) "I am not going to beg you for this, but maybe we can agree on some sort of retribution?"
That was said in a quiet dignified voice, which was the only reason I consented to answer.
"Perhaps," I thought the situation over, "I can consider forgiving you if you prove you are serious about it."
"And how am I supposed to prove this?" she asked suddenly bristling with suspicion.
I blinked, surprised at her reaction, and stated my offer carefully - maybe the idea that came into my head on a whim of a fancy was not that good after all but it was something that could appease my wounded pride, and give her a way out of her pledge.
"Since I am studying spells that require active participation of a subject, you can prove your good will by helping me out. I shall be casting a simple cantrip, say to make you blink or sneeze. You will have to sit still during the casting and then tell me all about your experience." I turned away hiding a smile that I knew was now playing on my lips. The newly discovered sensation was a pleasant one but I did not want her to get mad at me again - I fancied that convincing her to be my experimental subject would be much more rewarding.
"How long will it take?" Mirri asked grabbing the end of her thick plait and wrapping it around her fingers. She still sounded suspicious but some of the tension was gone from her voice. I wondered briefly, what was it that she originally thought I had in mind?
"A few days perhaps," I shrugged. "Let's say I will forgive you if you will come here for three days in a row and sit still for a few hours, while I practice my magic on you. I can even swear that it will be absolutely harmless if you like."
"You better," Mirri muttered darkly. "You've got yourself a bargain elf-boy." I raised an eyebrow. "Fine, fine! I... I promise never call you ‘a boy’ again on top of other things," she scowled through clenched teeth and looked at me defiantly. "It's a deal. And don’t even start to gloat about the effort I’m making. Since I’m curious about what are you going to do, it won’t be such a great sacrifice!"