23 of Eleint 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
As I walked down the familiar trail that day, my mind was racing frantically. Curse the old man - but he was right - once again I had more questions than answers! When he told me that I was actually wearing that thing at the moment of my arrival at his doorstep, I almost called him a liar. It could not have even fitted me properly. I tried to demonstrate that by donning one of the bracers. My hand was too slender and the hollow piece of iron slid right off. Whoever owned that monstrosity possessed physique of a barbarian and aesthetics of a savage. And yet, it felt… familiar. As if I intimately knew someone who would wear the garment and feel comfortable in it. What distressed me most was the leather coif attached to the shoulder plates, torn and distorted, as if it had burst from inside. I could not believe that the original wearer of that fantastic attire survived the process of his head exploding like that. On the other hand, I doubted very much that Chyil would deliberately lie to me; which meant that I was dressed into that ill-fitting, foul-smelling article after my own clothes were removed to eliminate the last traces of my true identity. Was I battling with the creature that was wearing that strange armor originally - I wondered pointlessly. And if I did, who had won?
The old man knew nothing of it or if he did - he refused to discuss it with me. He repeated the tale of my arrival patiently, never adding any new details or altering the essentials. Yes, I had been wrapped into that leather and metal suit like a doll that had been erroneously clothed into a dress borrowed by a playful child from another toy, and thus a few sizes too large. No, I had not had any other objects in my possession. No books, no personal belongings, and no weapons. The company that had delivered me into Chyil's hands has been known to him before, and he had trusted those people. When they had asked him to take care of their ‘old acquaintance’ (that was the exact word he stressed on me, not a 'friend' or 'associate' but 'acquaintance'), he had agreed - firstly because he had owned them a favor and secondly …
"Because it was a right thing to do," I finished for him angrily.
I knew his little mannerisms and favorite phrases very well by then, and it grated on my nerves when he got into his 'compassionate' mode. In his everyday life, he possessed some small but healthy sense of humor, and an inborn talent to be as unobtrusive and tolerant as possible. I had grown to appreciate his ways, and even to some extent liked the old man, but when he went ranting on and on about duty and compassion, it had never failed to put me into a depressed mood. Lately, Chyil’s drivel also drove me into sudden fits of anger. I had thought the matter over and attributed my sudden irritability to my slow but steady recovery that went on at amazing pace ever since I had first opened my precious book of arcane spells.
I started carrying it in the pocket of my robes (that were really Chyil's old clothes that he himself had altered to accommodate my taller stature). The mouse-grey robe over the matching set of trousers and tunic of homespun hemp was all I owned in this world, if one did not count the book of spells, and the shriveled snake head that sat upon the little shelf in the infirmary. It was probably less than the old village beggar (who came to sit on the temple stairs with his cracked collection cup every day) carried in his backpack.
But what came as an unaccounted benefit with my lack of earthly possessions and essential memories of my former life, was an incredible sense of freedom of any obligations, rules dictated by social attachments and family relations, common laws of shared blood or religion, and even simple courtesies imposed on an individual by her local society after they had shared some time together. I owed nothing to anybody in this world. I was free as a piece of driftwood that was carried downstream on the majestic river of life. I could choose any little bay on the sunny side of the stream and allow myself to float there without worries about lost loves, broken friendships, shattered families, unpunished crimes, and unfulfilled obligations. I was less than nothing, and in this nameless misery I was also (in a broader, universal sense) everything, since I carried in my head the seeds of every possible future, every horrific, twisted crime or unlikely kindness, like some sort of a demigod set free on the unsuspecting world before me.
I must have been really lost in these thoughts as my feet carried me forward along the familiar route. That was why I never noticed them until it was too late. I was careless, and therefore an easy prey for two burly leather-clad thugs who got me as easy as a pair of rat-catcher dogs would have gotten an incautious rodent. As I was passing the narrower part of the trail, that twisted crazily between the steep walls of the canyon, I received a severe blow on the back of my head, another one in the solar plexus, and in less than a second found myself dangling between the two attackers with both of my hands painfully twisted behind my back, and almost pulled out of their sockets in process.
As I gulped for air, reprimanding myself silently for my idiotic lack of awareness, a series of painful strikes were delivered to my face, chest, and other, subtler parts of my anatomy. One would have thought that after months of phantom torture - which I experienced practically every night since my awakening - my body would be as used to pain as that of a terminally ill patient, whose senses are so dulled by his continuous agony that he cannot care less for another jolt delivered to his privates. Wrong. Although pain had become an old cherished friend, it still caused me serious discomfort. Yet, what was more important, I felt utterly humiliated by the fact of being reduced to the status of a punching bag for two brainless idiots.
"Hold him tight, and by the Nine Hells don't let him say a word or move his fingers! We don't want any spells cast, do we now?"
His words were followed by a knock in the face that split my lip and almost shattered my teeth. At the same time the bones of my palms were pressed together and squeezed in a crushing grip. Now, that was a lousy perspective - I found myself thinking. A mage with broken fingers and speech delinquency from missing teeth was no good.
"And take this damn thing off to bare his head!" said another voice, fat as a hunk of lard and dripping with contempt. "They say he is bald as baby's ass, and has blood hives on his scalp. I will send him home without a cap, so that everybody can see that the wretch has put a charm spell on the stupid girl! She has been acting strangely for the whole week – ever since they had been spotted together."
I raised my head and through the blood dripping from my torn eyebrow managed to discern the man who was talking. A face round and soggy as a half-baked pancake, stubble of black shaggy beard and eyes the color of dead fish's belly - Farheed scratched his cheek with broad blackened nails and pulled out his knife.
"Wait! Let me do it. Drop him to his knees. I want to see him grovel."
The two thugs holding my hands pushed me down. I tried to defy them but their grip was too strong, and I felt that any further resistance on my part might tear the ligaments in my shoulders. Farheed sliced the coif off my head piece by piece, enjoying himself immensely. Strangely, the only thing on my mind during the whole procedure was regret that the thing was now ruined irredeemably. Whatever he expected to find there, the sweaty tangle of my bleached-white hair did not please him at all.
"An elven freak!" he growled pushing the white strands away and baring my sharp, elongated ear. "I wonder if I should shorten these for you, mageling? I would get a nice pair of cat's ears in the bargain, or do you think I should take your balls instead?"
I suppose Mirriam always had a special talent to show up at the moments when she was least wanted.
She bounded down the rocky path like a mad rabbit that had suddenly decided it was a match for a pack of hounds. I cringed at the sheer stupidity of the act but since trying to talk sense into her in the given circumstances was unfeasible - I resigned myself to watching the performance, though honestly, by that time even my usually restrained demeanor was somewhat fried around the edges.
"Let him go, you son of a leprous she-camel who had lain with a rabid jackal in the middle of a dung heap!"
I realized she was yelling in Alzhedo, that sonorous musical dialect of the local tribes they probably developed in likeness of rustle of sand and wailing of winds over the endless dunes. I had picked up some of it whilst living in Amkethran, but my knowledge was insufficient to give her speech the full credit.
Unfortunately for Mirriam Farheed was even less impressed, for in response he barked a short command to one of his goons. The thug dropped my left hand and moved threateningly in her direction. Whatever her original intentions might have been - that sudden change in the scenario finally provided me with an opening. I leaped to my feet, amazed at my own agility, and twisted out of the grip of my single remaining captor, at the same time driving my knee into Farheed's crotch with all the force I could master. Judging by the roar that emerged from his throat, I did at least some moderate damage. Diving behind the nearest boulder, I wished solemnly that his future nuptials would be as painful as possible, though it was unlikely that his injury was permanent.
There was only one thing to do, and I did not even think of what would happen if I failed. My fingers were numb after being almost squashed by the hands of one of the ruffians, and my lips were bleeding badly. I spat out a blob of red gunk, running the tongue across my teeth, and finding them all in place. I had never tried that particular incantation on Mirri, since it was a bit more dangerous than the simple cantrips we have been practicing. The spell required a material component - a pinch of fine sand. The thought made me grin, despite the desperateness of the situation and the pain in my broken mouth. I was lucky to have the whole desert at my disposal.
All these reflections took less than a second as I grabbed a handful of sand and jumped on top of the stone that provided me with a temporary refuge from my enemies. It was time for a serious gamble now.
Farheed was rolling on the ground still clutching at his privates and howling like a wounded animal, while the grim character that was holding me before, hulked over him uncertain what to do. I briefly praised myself on the hardiness of my knee, and quickly moved my fingers following the elaborate weave of the spell I was about to cast, and muttering the verbal component. To my utter relief the syllables of the incantation tumbled out of my mouth like bright hard candy out of a tin can, almost as if I had always known them by heart and only needed the intense concentration of a fight to spit them out easily. My hands began to glow faintly, almost as if I was carrying an invisible coil of yarn between my outstretched palms. The moment I knew it was ready I threw the casting at them, and braced myself for the result.
At first I could not decide if the spell had worked or not, as both of my enemies stayed in the same positions, though Farheed's crony had noticed me and yelped a warning to his boss. Yet in a moment their condition changed dramatically. Farheed stopped fidgeting, and dropped on his side like a sack of manure; his not-so-bright lackey opened his jaws in an enormous yawn and sagged to his knees unable to fight the all-powerful slumber spell that was overcoming him. Soon, he would be snoring softly side by side with his unconscious master. I turned quickly to see what was happening to the third thug and the maiden in distress. Not that I was worried much about her - I doubted Farheed would allow any serious harm to befall his future bride. He probably wanted her apprehended and sent home.
Mirri determinedly led her pursuer on a chase through the random maze of sharp rocks scattered across the canyon and back to my location. When she saw me standing near two sprawled bodies she stopped dead, and clapped a hand over her mouth. Unfortunately, this small pause was enough for the third bandit to catch up with her. He grabbed her by the hand while at the same time trying to get hold of her long thick braid that was hanging almost to her knees.
She yelped and tried to pull herself away, then lashed out aiming to dig her nails into his face. I almost felt sorry for the bandit for a brief second then decided it was time to interfere. I had very little time before the other two would awaken and decide to finish their job. A quick flicker of my fingers and the thief was suddenly jumping on one leg, howling and clutching at his thigh. A small angry spider dropped out of his trouser leg and scuttled away. Mirriam sneered and kicked the man in the shins sending him head forward to the ground.
"Now, get out of here quick," I growled menacingly, "before your whole body is crawling with black tarantulae!"
One look at my face was enough to set him running.
"Can you really do this?" Mirri asked hesitantly after awhile. I shrugged without interrupting my work of divesting her groom-to-be and his handyman of their belts, and securely tying their hands and feet.
"Jon-Jon, can you really summon a zillion spiders?"
"One at a time, perhaps," I chuckled dryly, "if they would cooperate and stay put for a month. But honestly, I was just bluffing. I am about out of my offensive resources now. Good thing that fellow was not particularly smart."
I should not have smiled. That simple twitch of my facial muscles was enough to open a fresh scab on my lip. The warm trickle started to dribble down my chin, and the girl gasped. My face was probably a mess of dried blood and bruises, I thought belatedly, and tried not to wince.
"Does it hurt much?" she asked annoyingly true to her gender. What was I supposed to answer? Some rubbish about this being only a wound to my mortal flesh? It did not sound right coming from my mouth, besides it did hurt like hell, and I was very, very angry.
So, I just scowled wiping the blood away with a sleeve of my shaggy robe. I saw the girl was itching to offer her assistance and shook my head silently, indicating that she should keep her distance. This whole situation was her fault. Then my eyes fell on the true offender who was still snoring soundly at my feet. Cold, unnatural fury suddenly seized my heart in its icy grip.
I saw a fat, unclean face with features distorted by magically induced sleep, and in my mind, it was transformed into a tusked snout of a boar or some other animal. This ugly, foul creature threatened to cut off my ears - I remembered with disgust. That surely deserved a special punishment. My foot whacked into his side soundly. With some satisfaction, I heard a sound of a cracking rib. Mirri gave a little cry of anguish. Farheed grunted and his eyes snapped open in sudden terror. He contemplated his bound hands, then his eyes spotted his equally immobilized assistant. Our positions were reversed now.
"How would you feel if I cut your ears for a souvenir?" I asked mildly, fingering his knife that I picked from the ground. "Sounds like a good idea - now that I think of it. Or would you like me to start with your foul tongue, human?"
"You... you cannot do this to me!" the words dropped from his mouth like cockroaches from a pile of trash. "I did not mean it! I just wanted to scare you, so that you would stay away from my girl! Mirri, tell this lunatic to stop! You will never do this, elf-boy, your kind does not have the guts."
"Really?" I asked with cold amusement. "Would you care to place a wager?" Something in my voice, perhaps, scared him witless for he turned the color of gray ash. I played with the knife, tumbling it idly in my hands. It felt ... familiar.
"Mirriam, make him stop!" there was real panic in his voice now.
"Jon-Jon..." she started anxiously.
"Silence, girl!" I snapped as the last vestiges of restraint were swept away by the hot, almost sensual flood of boiling rage. It felt … good compared to the cold, rational anger I had felt before that moment. "He dared threaten me. Now he shall pay."
I pocketed his knife and snapped my fingers almost casually, sending a stream of raw magic energy into his fat carcass. Magic Missile is a very basic spell but it can produce amazing results at a short distance if used properly. Farheed twitched as a jolt of magic run through him, singing his skin and hair, and making his massive body bend like a longbow. He screamed and trashed, dripping bloody foam from his lips. I suppose he had bitten through his tongue. I smiled, and repeated the process, feeling a strange nausea rising in my stomach as I watched him suffer.
She slammed into me with all her strength, almost knocking me off my feet, and pinning my hands to my sides in a weird semblance of a lover's embrace. But I was stronger now than I was on the memorable day almost two weeks ago, and she was not able to upset my balance that easily. The memory of that ill-timed rescue was probably the only thing that stopped me from hitting her.
"Do not ever do this again." My voice was tense with rage as I peeled her fingers off mine one by one. "Calm yourself and let me go before I do something we both may regret later." My mouth was full of warm salty fluid, and I spat out another mouthful of blood.
"Only if you stop doing these horrible things!" Mirriam hissed through
clenched teeth. Her expression was a strange mixture of pity, anger, and outright
"Now, why did you do this?" I asked reproachfully, finally disentangling her hands, and pushing her away from myself. My anger was still there but it subdued, and I was somewhat puzzled by her reaction.
"You… you are almost as bad as him!" she cried shaking like a leaf. I noticed that her eyes were brimming with tears that were running down her tan-colored cheeks in rivulets. "No, you are worse! I thought elves were supposed to be kind and noble!"
"Then maybe I am not one of them." I answered touching my stinging face. "You can free this smelly bag of lard from his restraints, though I ask that you wait until I am safely out of sight. I did not realize you had such a strong affection to him. Be careful though, I think he just lost the contents of his bowels." Indeed, Farheed smelled like a privy and a big brown stain was slowly spreading under him.
"Curse you for an arrogant, selfish idiot!" Her eyes were blazing and her wet cheeks flashed scarlet under the tan. "It is you I was worried about, not him!" She spat at her would-be fiancée, looking at me reproachfully. "He deserves a thousand times worse for what he did to you but you cannot torture someone who is bound and helpless! It is ... it is just not right!"
"I have no desire to listen to your ill-mannered irrational blabber," I snapped back. "Consider our arrangement complete, and your promise fulfilled, since you have provided me with a lot of practice today, though not in a way I had anticipated. Leave me be now. Go. I have no wish to continue our association." My voice was cold and dripping with venom. It sounded harsh, even to myself. Good. Maybe now she would leave me alone.
I left her standing over the stinking body of her 'friend', and walked away, trying to subdue the shaking of my hands. Something was wrong. I could feel the wave after wave of queasiness coming over me with every step. I increased my pace and lengthened my step, praying to get out of her eyesight before this strange illness would overcome me entirely, and hoping she was sufficiently angry not to follow.
I was lucky enough to last until the path made a sharp turn and split into two new branches. I picked a goat trail leading further into the red outcrops of the Marching Mountains, and dragged myself across the steep slope until my feet gave up under me and I rolled down into the thick tangle of blackthorn that covered the bottom of the small gorge. At least nobody would be able to spot my semi-conscious form lying down there, I thought briefly. When my fall was finally stopped by the barbed wall of undergrowth, my hands and feet were slashed into a bloody mess and my face was further damaged by the sharp cruel needles Yet, that was the least of my concerns. My intestines were on fire. It felt like I was slowly turned inside out by some invisible but persistent hand. I threw up the remains of my morning meal, but that did not stop it. If anything the nausea became worse for now I was retching acrid yellow bile mixed with blood, coughing painfully with every violent heave of my stomach. Most of all I was afraid to die in this manner, laying face down in the pile of my own vomit; and it felt like it was about to happen. That was the last thought on my mind when the blackness swallowed me.
I returned to my senses when the bright azure of the desert sky had already faded to the darkest shade of cobalt. The night was falling quickly, and the sprinkle of evening stars was visible above the dark fringe of the hills. Right above my head I could see the starry outline of the Night Serpent biting its own tail in eternal malice directed at the Swordsman, who was threatening her with his bright, heavenly blade. I was stiff and rigid after lying in the ravine for many hours. My whole body itched from the network of bloody gashes induced by my fall into the bushes and my face was swollen from the blows I had received from Farheed and his cronies. I took a tentative breath - no sharp pain that could indicate broken ribs. My limbs moved freely although my every motion hurt, and I was covered in bruises and half-dried crusts of many long deep scratches. My clothes were torn and caught in a tangle of brittle needle-sharp thorns. It took me another half an hour to get free of the bush and crawl rather than climb back to the trail.