I felt the magic gather as I proclaimed my spell, my fingers tingle with the channeled energy. The goat’s belly distended and gave the barest gurgling preface before it exploded with a muffled thump. I had just time to register the warm scattershot rain that coated my face before a large and ragged slab of goat loin caught the left side of my head and took me off my feet. My face and neck stung from the wet slap, my head felt as if it had been permanently twisted to the left, and I spent a few moments gathering myself, listening to the widening intervals between the drops of blood, digestive juices, meat, and mesentery still falling from the portions of the goat that had flown directly upward. The smell of incense and aromatic herbs mixed with the stronger scents from the alimentary canal of the late goat.
“Just like the others. That,” I observed mildly, “didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped.”
Roland Uffingskell hove into view, and pretty much obscured it. In any particular landscape, Uffingskell was generally the largest feature, and the most beligerent. His face, always red, was an interesting study in contrasts, what with the goat’s blood dripping down while his own was rising. “Not as you hoped?” His voice was keeping pace with his blood — rising. “Not as you bloody hoped!” He grabbed me by my shirt-front, a bit roughly I felt, and jerked me from my consideration of contrasts to my feet. My neck shot with pain, undoubtedly from having been hit off-center with a side of meat, and I gave a little shriek. He pulled his other hand back. “I’ll give you bloody hopes!”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. Put Wendall down, Daddy.” Alyssa Uffinskell was never dearer to me than that moment. She was my fiance, tall and willowy, strong-willed and passionate, and, most important to me at that moment, in between her father’s fist and my already-abused face.
The blood covered mountain frowned. “I’ll do no such thing. My goat — ”
“Was already sick, and Wendall ended its suffering.” She cast an glance over her shoulder to me. “He risked his very soul, dealing with dark forces and things and I don’t know what all, just for your nasty old goat. You should be grateful. Now,” she said, as if he had already set me back on my feet, “thank Wendall for trying so hard to save your goat.”
Uffingskell looked as if he’d swallowed something large and unpleasant that was trying to climb back up his throat. The hand holding my collar twisted and tightened. “I’ll thank him….”
Dark, but lovely storms formed in Alyssa’s eyes. “Father.”
He sighed, angry and beaten, the forced air of someone who was used to swallowing large and unpleasant things and keeping them down. Abruptly my feet held my weight again, my breath came more easily through my unobstructed laranyx, and I very nearly fell into the goat-mud again. His face twisted around a number of epithets, reviling comments shouldered one another to the side, jockeying for position, and finally, through teeth that were undoubtedly fracturing under clenched strain, snarled, “Thank you. Stay away from my goats.” He glanced at his daughter, cast his eyes down almost meekly, and turned away, stomping through the puddles of goat.
“Well, that didn’t go so well, then, did it?”
Alyssa pursed her lips. “We’ll talk tonight. She surveyed the caprine wreckage and seemed to find some vindication in the scattered remnants. “Now, you had better tidy up your mess, hadn’t you? Kiss.” She smooched the air next to my jaw and left, skirting the charnel epicenter.
Unsupported by my love, considered a disease by my future father-in-law, an utter failure in my chosen trade, a diffused goat my only companion, I was depressed. I kicked what was left of the livestock into the manure pile, bagged up my brazier and censer, had a wash at the pump, changed into clothes from my bag, and went looking for better spirits at the pub.
A dull rain had begun to fall by the time I arrived at the Whistling Pig, the village’s pub. Forbidding clouds were piled up over the mountain pass to the North, which probably meant that I’d be walking home drenched. In the dark. Alone.
I was, maybe, feeling just a little sorry for myself. I went in to get a drink.
“Hide your livestock, boys! It’s the goat-slayer!” I was buffeted by laughter. Uffingskell was there before me, and was holding court at one of the long tables, regaling a herd of farmers and hands with my attempt to cure his animal of bloat. “All my life, I’ve been curing bloat with doses of oil, but they always get it again come springtime. Wendall Goatsbane waves his magic wand and boom! Never gets it again.” Big laughs.
I couldn’t leave now, with everyone watching me, so I just moved doggedly ahead, found a darkish corner, and pulled at a beer. Over the next half an hour I heard every misadventure I’d had since childhood recounted; setting fire to Brettson’s barn with an uncontrolled elemental, accidentally giving all the dogs in town mange, and the time I blinded myself for three days by trying to correct Colin Stengal’s astigmatism. Every telling brought more and louder laughter, and when they ran out of stories they began to speculate on things I hadn’t done; dried up cows, failed wells, and even the weather. “I’ll just bet he tried to make the sun shine,” one wit decided after a thunderclap.
I snarled into my mug. They never made fun of Gunther, my granddad. They had talked to and about him with respect, and averted eyes. I’d learned everything I knew about sorcery from his books, but I hadn’t gotten the polish that he’d had. On the other hand, I hadn’t been found dismembered and cast about my workroom the way he had, either. Well, most of him had been found in the workroom.
Maybe magic gone wrong was a family trait, but Grand-dad’s screw-ups were at least private ones.
My brooding was interrupted at the bottom of my fourth pint by a stranger sitting a welcome fifth pint on the table and an unwelcome arse in the adjoining chair. “So. Sorcerer, eh?” The unasked guest was short and well-muffled in what must have been layers of clothing under a cloak smelling of long use that soaking in the rain hadn’t been able to wash away. He was clean shaven some time last week, and the scruff, the cloak, and a hat that had endured far longer than its original form had, it was hard to tell much about him — beyond the fact that his hygiene was suspect and that he had the fine character trait of supplying beer to strangers.
I waited until my new beer was firmly in hand before I answered. “Wizard. Sorcerers do deals with supernatural things. Wizards do magic. Big difference.” I had a little problem with some of the ’sorcerers’ and ‘difference’, but control is part of my business, and I am certain that my fragrant comrade didn’t notice a slurring in my speech. “Now. Some do both, sorcereree and wizardee stuff too. I don’.”
He smiled through his scruff and called for two more. “Pretty tough stuff, I bet. Turn people to toads, lead to gold, all that, am I right?”
“Oh yeah, real tough stuff. ‘S’why I live so good. All the gold lyin’ about. Gets in the way after a while. Be perfect, except for all the toads looking to get on my good side.” I drank some more. “Truth. Truth is, wizard-y is much harder than people think. Why, these buggers,” I indicated our colleagues in the pub, “would shake in their boots, they knew what could be done. Mend sick goats.” I snorted, splashing beer up around my nose when I did. “They got no idea. ‘S’why they treat me like I came out of a sick goat.” I leaned forward and tapped the table to emphasize the point, sloshing a bit more beer in the process. “‘F’I got the r’spect I d’serve, I’d show’m all.” Satisfied that I’d cleverly negotiated a knotty path of reasoning, I settled finished my beer and reached for the next, and was confused when it wasn’t there. I looked absently about for someone to bring me a beer.
“Y’know, if you’re such a wizard, you should just conjure a beer for both of us. That’d show ‘em, all right.” I must have looked doubtful; he leaned forward, tapping me on the back of my hand. “You can do that, right? A little thing like getting a beer?”
“Oh. Ah, ‘course. Simpl’sty. Need a circle….” I drew a rough, lopsided circle on the table with a piece of chalk from my bag. Sigils here, here, and there…I finished the final mark and set my empty mug over it. “Need a candle. Get a candle.” My tablemate produced a candle, which I set on the table and enclosed in a separate, connected circle. The room was quiet. I looked up from my work and saw that every eye was turned my way.
Well. I hadn’t even done anything yet, and already the tide was turning. My new friend was right. I stood in a grand posture, swaying a bit.
My friend eyed me critically. “Maybe you’d best sit for this part, too.” I sat.
I cleared my mind as best I could, threw my arms open, and began to intone the spell — and was suddenly at the center of a torrent of sour beer. For a moment I gaped at the design in front of me in confusion. The entire pub was rocking with laughter.
Uffingskell stood behind me, the spill bucket from the keg in one hand and my shoulder painfully locked in his other. “Ha! Not bad magic! Here, wizard, you need your magician’s hat!” The bucket came down hard and my vision exploded. Through my nausea I could feel rough hands dragging me from my chair and across the floor. I fumbled at the bucket, and it was shoved back down and ground back and forth. We stopped.
Growling low, but still clear through the bucket and laughter, Uffingskell said, “Stay away from me. Stay away from my daughter. Bad things could happen. Get me?” With a sudden shove to my back I left his grasp, the bucket finally leaving my head as I skidded bellyfirst into a puddle. More laughter barked around me before the door to the pub shut.
My head throbbed, and my chin and the palms of my hands were scraped raw from the gravel. I was wet, and cold, covered in bar-filth, and alone in the dark and rain. It suddenly occured to me that there was a moral, here.
If I was going to drink, I should drink alone.
The walk home was cold and wet. I was chilled through, and thoroughly sorry for myself by the time I arrived. Thorn met me, as always, at the door. Home was a large house or a small estate, depending on social perspective. It had been in the family for generations, and was just as picturesque as anyone could wish; ivy-wrapped stonework, upper story, enormous front door, extensive grounds. It cost a fortune to maintain, a fortune that, unfortunately, my father had spent before he passed on. Thorn was the last vestige of the dwindling importance of my family. If I had a house staff, he would be the butler; if I had any sort of pretention, he would be my valet. He was simply Thorn. Father had called him, “my man” when referring to him by position, and he did it all. He was groundskeeper, house staff, governess, and counsellor all in one. If I hadn’t known him all my life, and so fondly, he would intimidate me.
“Miss Alyssa is waiting for you in the study, sir. I will inform her that you will be along as soon as you have cleaned up.”
Remembering her promise of a talk later, I grew even colder. There are no more frightening words to hear than “we need to talk. The thought of what Alyssa’s state would be after waiting on me for any length of time was icing on the cake — or, rather, dark shadows added to the terror. Alyssa was not someone who takes waiting as a part of life. She resents it, and expresses her resentment on whoever happens to be at hand. “No, no, I’ll see her straight away. She’s been waiting long, has she?”
“For nearly half an hour.” I started for the study with some energy. Thorn’s nostrils fluttered. He didn’t exactly sniff, that would be too crude, but he gave the impression of a man who had just sniffed, and found what he smelled distasteful. “Are you certain you don’t care to tidy up?”
“Just a towel, thanks. And something hot to drink, would you? Alyssa, love,” I cried as I went through the door, and moved to her side, thinking to brazen through by appealing to her maternal side. “I have had the most wholly miserable day ever.” My attempt to take her in my arms was thwarted by her hand, firmly placed at my sternum.
“Wendall. You are soaked through, and covered in filth.” Her face wrinkled in disgust. “You look like something I can’t think of right now, and you positively reek. You have been drinking.” She inspected me more closely, obviously finding much to disapprove in the process. Too late, I recognized Thorn’s wisdom; I should have tidied up. One does not approach Alyssa looking less than perfect, and certainly not while emitting odors.
“I stopped and had one at the pub. Well, two. Ah, thr –” I broke off, not liking the pleading note in my voice. Take the offensive. “That isn’t important. Your father was at the pub, and he got took me from behind. Beat me up.” I felt like a child tattling. How does a grown man relate that he had been made fun of and beaten? “He hit me with a bucket and shoved me in the mud.” He doesn’t.
Alyssa arched an eyebrow. “If Daddy had hit you, you wouldn’t be here telling me lies about him, and he certainly wouldn’t need to sneak up behind you. At least be man enough to own up to your own actions.” I fought the urge to protest, my heart sinking within me. Alyssa had decided, and that ended the matter. Satisfied by my cowed expression that the subject had been resolved, she sat primly on the edge of a chair.
“Now. This afternoon’s foolishness.”
Well. We were full in agreement on this matter. “Yes. It didn’t go very well, did it. I wonder if I didn’t smudge some of the sigils. Or perhaps-”
She looked pityingly at me. “Oh, Wendall. I don’t know anything about that, but I do know what went wrong today. It’s you. You just need to give up this wizardry foolishness. You haven’t the knack, and it’s no undertaking for respectable men, in any case.”
“Now see here,” I started, stung. “Grandfather Lastname was a damned fine wizard. Respected. Honored. This house came from wizardry.”
“Yes, dear. But you’re not Grandfather Lastname, are you? As for this house,” she curled a delicate lip, “well. I suppose that, when we’re married, it will provide enough to start us a proper home and for you to buy a share in Father’s business.”
“…a share…?” My burst of indignation fled before my confusion, and I was left gaping.
“You can’t expect that I would want to live in a drafty old pile of stones as the wife of the county’s laughingstock. You’ll leave behind childish things and take a responsible position. Now, now,” she patted my hand, wiping it discreetly on her hankerchief, “stop looking so trapped. There’s still plenty to work out. I was thinking we would take a house in town, to begin, until we could afford a larger place. Just one maid and a cook.”
“And Thorn.” I looked around the room, lost. I had grown up up here. I had bunged my head on the grate, had stolen Grandpa’s brandy from the sideboard. How could I leave it behind?
“I’m certain that Thorn will be able to find any number of comfortable positions. We can write him a very positive letter.” My slack jaw was all the confirmation she seemed to need that her plan was a good one. She rose. “Now you should go clean up. I’ll see you tomorrow. Kiss.” She kissed the air next to my cheek, and bustled out.
“But,” protested to the empty room. My voice sounded odd in the emptiness, and I stopped.
Alyssa had decided, and that ended the matter.
The moment the door closed behind her, Thorn stepped in with a towel and a steaming mug. I smelled apple brandy, and drank deeply. “Thorn. You heard?”
“Yes sir. If you will just give me your jacket, please.” He began removing me from the clammy garments, just as he had when I was a boy. I sat heavily, so he could remove my boots. The brandy moved within me, and I began to feel stirrings of life again. I began to get angry.
“I’m not leaving. This is my home.” I drank again. “It has a history. It has my history. And she can’t send you away, I won’t let her. Who,” I said, sitting up straighter, “does she think she is, cutting me off from home and family? I will live where I wish, keep whom I wish, and practice wizardy if that is my wish.”
“Do you wish to send for Miss Alyssa, to inform her of this?”
I thought of this afternoon’s demonstration, and sagged. Alyssa was right; I was the county’s joke. “How can I tell her anything? She looks at me, and sees a man who isn’t a man at all. I’m not my grandfather, as she kindly pointed out. She plans to remake me into a man like Uffingskell. Gah!”
Thorn raised a brow. “You know, if you were thought to be the wizard your grandfather was, you would be able to make your stand?”
“Oh, yes. Certainly. But it would take more than magic go make me the wizard he was.”
He lifted my chin and frowned down at me, just as he used to when I was small and misbehaving. “I served your grandfather. I know what it took to get him the reputation he had. You just leave things to me.” He handed me my glass, refilled. An awful lot of people were handing me drinks without my asking for them today. I looked over my shoulder, just to make certain no one with a bucket was lurking behind my chair. Recent history didn’t seem to be repeating, so I drank.
I frowned and asked, “what, exactly, do you plan to do?”
Distantly, I heard the front door close. Thorn was gone.
Irregular and muffled, the beating of drums was nonetheless sufficient to wake me. Light blazed with unnatural glare and intensity through the small gap in my bedroom curtains, and the air was corrupt with the odor of burning hair and sulfur. I sat up, stifling a scream my vision hazed red with pain. After a nausea-ridden moment I recognized the rhythm as my pulse throbbing in my head, and the vile illumination as cheery morning light. The ghost of last night’s brandy decanter rose before me, and my stomach responded, making me feel a sympathy for yesterday’s goat. My eye fell on my nightstand, which held a tall glass of suspicious fluid. It was red, shot with yellow streaks, and smelled vile, but I drained it with a will. Thorn had left it, expecting my hangover; this was his favored remedy, which contained grain spirits as a base and a list of other things that he would not divulge. Whatever their provenance, they always did well to soothe the head and settle the stomache, and I lay back to wait out their healing caress.
The light slowly returned to normal, pleasant morning light. My pulse subsided from my awareness. My skull ceased to swell and beat, and my stomache no longer sought egress through my throat. The air, however, was still rife with the aroma of a fire in a haircutter’s stall.
Crossposted from Epinepherine & Sophistry