Tano didn’t rest very well. Oh, the root they ground and put in his soup ensured he lay in that cell and think about his plight. The thing is it put his body to sleep while keeping his mind very much awake.
Needless to say he suffered. They kept the mud packed against his nose with a cloth that smelled worst than the mud. No, he could no longer feel the pain of a broken bridge, or the small gourds shoved up his nostrils to keep the mud or the swelling from closing them off. It all just felt uncomfortable and embarrassing.
The stone bed felt as cold as Alba’s shoulder when he and Owlchi locked him in here. All these years he’d looked up to Alba. Orphaned young, Tano had been handed from family to family until one of them sold him to a stranger. That stranger brought him to Sagewart and began to teach him the math and sciences involved in the school’s magics. At first it all seemed just busy work. Then Tano found a book filled with pictures and puzzles. He had worked three of those puzzles out when Owlchi found him. I guess the Old wizard wanted to share how wonderful it was that the boy, so young, could work such advanced lessons out, pretty much on his own. Alba, however, became quite cross, and Tano didn’t eat for three days because of it.
Over time Tano stopped trying, and became about as grumpy as his adopted father. Father? Well, Alba provided, food, shelter, and after the puzzles a better education. Except that education seemed to take on the most convoluted path possible. Before Tano could take it personally he noticed, that’s how Alba taught all his students. Sure, histories, of Thularia, of the Khluls, of Ärngwendor and Bloedwendor, heirs of Thularia’s government over the world. By the time the professor read the War of the Wraiths from memory Tano realized he could have read it faster and with more, I don’t know, bounce?
And then, just when Tano almost quit in disrepair two new souls entered the school. Both were about as big as he at seven, though the redheaded rhosswine seemed slight of build as he offered the song his friends said qualified him for entry. Finished, the boy cleared his throat and gained applaud and welcome.
The other seemed a bit odd. Well, he, too, looked to be about seven, well built, and just about as sad as Tano felt, at the time. Tano just couldn’t make up his mind if the kid’s skin was yellow or leaning into green, and where are his—but they don’t have any girls here, so welcoming him meant he was a boy. Still, two friends, and maybe this school won’t be so bad.
And then Alba put his two kips into the boy’s head. Rotten pretenders to magic and the sciences of the school. He didn’t know why he didn’t like them, but he didn’t and reason didn’t matter.
Tano felt something, too. It came about while the two new comers were given and putting on their new robes. Simple colors for the apprentice, black with red shoulders. While the ‘yellow’ one seemed to have some trouble with his, the other took time to help him. Tano didn’t understand, why did neither seem that ashamed of their bodies while being just that naked? Is that what Alba didn’t like about them?
Caught between the innocence and shame Tano began to feel grumpy, and followed his adopted father into war.
Until just last morning it all seemed like fun and games. No, it wasn’t Alba’s gripe about Llast's body growing into that new shape. Nor was it Alba’s beef that Dove seemed just too queer for the school’s own good that drove him into acts too violent for kind company. It was learning that Alba had poisoned Dove’s breakfast.
Tano didn’t know that when he tied Dove up like that. Come to think of it, he couldn’t be sure why he’d done that? It all seemed like someone else drove his body, and he just went for the ride.
He felt something wet trickle from an eye down to his ear. He felt so lost, and didn’t like it one bit. He knew if his body weren’t so far asleep at the moment he’d find a sharp, pointy weapon and run it through his own gut.
Just as he took in a deep breath he felt a new presence in the room. Sedated, he couldn’t look around, nay, he couldn’t even open his eyes to see who it was. He just thought the name that held his fear, Alba?
“Hardly, my boy.”
That voice spent a few minutes humming a quiet tune that sounded very much like the one Dove sang as he left the school. Meanwhile, he felt a hand pull the gourds out of his nostrils while another swiped the mud off his nose. And for some reason, he could feel the sedative get sucked from his blood.
When those hands finished, Tano turned his head to see a fair sized body buried under a voluminous cloak that looked like they’d been patched a dozen times, and maybe some of those patches might be the leaves or bark from a tree or two. That cloak covered every bit of that person’s body, except for a single hand holding a staff, and covered with little feathers. The outline surely didn’t seem very human, and that gave the boy some cause for concern.
“Have you come to kill me? Or am I dead and you’ve come to take me on?”
The creature silently shook for a moment. Then, added a melodious laugh to go with the shake. This was followed by several attempts at a few words that melted into more giggles.
Finally, “No, child, no. I am not death, at least not this week. No, not at all.” More giggles echoed through the room, soon becoming infectious.
“So, how can I accommodate you, sir?”
“Sir? I’m sure there’s an education in that. Until then, no, I’m here to show you a door, and see what you will do with it.”
“Door? Out of this place?” Tano let his mind drift. The thought of leaving the school hadn’t entered his mind since Llast and Dove arrived. And with that, he felt just a little fear. What could he do? Read for people? Tell them lengthy histories about the world around them? After seeing what Dove could do he realized he’d wasted years of his life at this school learning meaningless spit. The thought of becoming a librarian or court scribe rose to mind.
“Scribe? Librarian? Oh, you have the talents for that, I’m sure. But lets look a little closer at what you might have available to you. Let your mind drift. Remember when the thorn released your friend, Dove, from your bonds?”
“Not my friend. Doubt he’ll think much of me after….”
Tano felt emotions rise in his chest, forcing tears out of his eyes.
The creature stepped forward and rested another winged hand on the boy’s head, then shoulder. That song never really stopped. Tano couldn’t hear it well, more like felt it. And it felt, oddly, familiar. And it was there, him on the wall, watching as the rope burned and Dove came down. Something flowed through his chest and loins. He couldn’t name it, or even describe it. And now it embarrassed him.
“No, no need for embarrassment, my boy. It is a feeling. And now you are old enough for that feeling to cultivate new desires in your young and healthy body.” The creature laid a wood box on the stone bed. “Touch that feeling, the one in your lions. Imagine what it might look like.”
After a moment Tano said, “A warm pool with a rock in the center.”
“Now, ‘see’, if you will’ a hand, your hand rising from that pool, reach out, and lift that box.”
Tano did that with a good deal of doubt. It’s not possible. Magic is just a myth.
“Myth, yes, a story told to share a truth. And today you fear the story you have might not be the best one to have. Oh, don’t worry about failing. You fail only if you give up before giving it a go. So, what do you say, Tano, give it a go.”
Tano sat up with some help. The sedative seemed to have left his blood, and he just needed to work it out of his muscles. Once he squared himself he gave it a go. Warm water, embarrassed feeling, hand rising, no, it’s a snake, a ghostly one. Before he could think his way though it the box moved. Just a finger or so, but it moved.
Tano looked at his visitor.
Who’s head rocked a negative.
Tano took in a fresh breath and ‘pushed’ it one more time.
The box broke open spilling several cards onto the floor.
“About what? That was much better than expected.”
“I broke your box.”
“No,” the creature laughed a little. “Your box. I’ve just held onto it for you to find it again. Now, what will you do?”
Tano studied the box and her spilled contents. Mine? I don’t remember anything like it.
“Well, it was yours long before you started this life.” The creature rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Do you know who you are, sister? You are a gift who has forgotten your purpose. Do you know who you are?”
Tano panicked as he watched the creature head for the door. “Wait, what’s your name?” He grabbed the creature’s cloak, dislodging the hood from xer head.
He looked on in wonder at what must have been a magnificently aged Tergon with more laugh lines than an old tree.
“Name? My, my, my, I guess I will have to remember one. Oy, I’ve had so many. Let’s try, oh, I know, Chimatle. That’s ‘midwife’ in your mother’s tongue. Yes, I like that.” Xe studied the door for a moment. “If I were you I would not eat that.”
“And, um,” xe gestured at the box, “keep that out of his grubby little paws or he will consign it to the fires. Or worst, the library.”
Tano reached down and collected the box and the cards. While he did he studied one of the pictures, an orcish boy with a dog singing to the Mother. On the other side was a poem:
Rock and stone, water cool,
Mother’s heart is warm.
Gentle night, stars can rule,
Earth is life and tomb.
So many footsteps from cradle to grave,
When you are chasing the moon.
Your fortunes are mixed,
trust your own feet.
Mother’s heart is warm,
return to her soon.
He swiped a tear from his eye and heard footsteps approaching his cell.
Time’s up. He collected the last of the cards, rolled back onto the bed, and rested the box under a thigh just in time to see the door swing open.
On one side he wondered where Chimatle had gone. Was xe even there? But he could feel the box under his thigh as he tried to pretend to still be sedated.
On the other side he studied Alba. Father, professor, magus, how much of that was pretense? The boy studied the tray the man had brought with him, smelling the noodles in sweet broth—the same kind of sweet broth Dove’s breakfast had smelled of. It just became a little harder to play dead.
Alba just scowled, saying, “Disappointment of all disappointments. Couldn’t you even break his nose?”
“No, he moved too fast. More magic, I suppose.”
“So, how can I accommodate you, sir?”
“Address me as ‘Magus’.”
“Yes, Magus.” Tano could barely keep the spit out of the word.
“You can’t be so slow as to lose against the ergi so spectacularly.”
“Ergi? Maybe if we studied magic, such as it is, we’d understand how a simple, meaningless song can….”
“Dead, the crops are all dead. How could he do that so fast?”
“He did warn us to feed the plants. Did you think he was just joking?”
Alba shot his eyes at his boy. After a moment of chewing on his lip he set the tray on the bed, “Eat. We have work to do, Ergi!”
The magus left, and Tano could hear the lock settle into place.
His stomach growled.
The soup called to him in a voice like the one he heard while laying ambush for Dove, yesterday.
The ‘serpent’ rose from that pool and shoved the tray and all its food into the wall hard enough for it to break the stone wall.
And now he had a choice. Stay and fight a monster that would murder him just for losing a fight he was ill prepared for, or….
His stomach growled again as he stood and walked to the door. He’d seen the lock enough times he didn’t need to now. He meant to just lift it and push the door open. Well, the door opened, the upper half. Except the heavy wood door wasn’t built like that.
“How strong am I?”
He could see the sliver of the Mother rising through a window as the last of daylight washed out of the skies. Tano looked at the remains of the door and smiled.
“Well, if that is what an ergi can do, then ergi is a term of honor.”
And from the back of his mind he could hear Chimatle’s voice, “Only if in honor you use it.”
“Care to hint what direction they headed?”
“Pass through Gildenvan and head north of the Wizard’s Scrublands. Hurry or you will miss out on all the fun.”