Fair Upon the Tor #11 (updates Mondays)

“Your speaking demon-servant is right. I learnt this particular art in the court of the Emperor-Magi in the lands of the Sungilt Stone. Far away, yes, over seas, in the blessed lands of the south where the summer reigns long and sure, and the days are bright.” He seemed to gather up some concentration then. “That is how it is put in the stories, I think?”

“But what are you doing? You don’t seem to be doing anything.”

He chuckled. “Magic, true, deep magic, isn’t made of chants or glyphs, spirit-dances, knots  tying up the wind, or little witching dollies. Old deep magic is thought, breath, heartbeat.” A shadow of a frown. “Hush now, please. I have to concentrate for this bit.” His breathing grew a little harsher, hissing through his teeth, like storm winds gathering in a distant rocky place. It seemed like he was in pain, but as each breath became harder for him, Keru looked a little bit more alive, until the boy’s eyes began to muster flicks and blinks. Without warning, the old magician grunted out a long, groaning “Urnnngggh,” and wrenched his hand away from Keru. The old, frail palm was patched with discoloured skin, grey and black and lumpish.

“Oh!” said Caewen, though she choked herself off from saying anything more. She didn’t know what might distract him.

He grit his teeth and actually snarled for a moment at his own hand. Dimly, Caewen was aware that a small crowd of gawkers had gathered around them. A few under-breath words and murmurs shuffled through the onlookers. There was more than one sound of someone making an impressed huff or whistle. A few heads nodded appreciatively, as if this were a show. The blue-grey blotch started to move along the skin of the old man’s wrist, then along his arm. It was not spreading, but creeping along under the skin. Once it left his hand, the fingers, then the palm, flushed again with healthy blood and colour. The blotch moved until it disappeared under his sleeve, then there was a minute in which the old magician sniffed and breathed hard enough to turn red in the face. Finally, the discoloured blotch reappeared, and it crept up his neck and into his throat. At about half-way up the neck, it started to sink inward. The greyness just sort of disappeared down into the skin, into the flesh, vanishing deep into his throat. Eyes bulging now, breath wild, he snorted and hacked, and then he made a gut-prickling retch of a sound. His cheeks puffed out. He spat a wet wad of something that looked like off-green tar into the grass. Where it landed, the grass sizzled, smoked and withered until it was ash. People moved away from the charred space. A few of them applauded.

After a long draw of breath, he fumbled about his belt, found a water gourd and glugged from it, washing his mouth out, then spitting stringy green saliva onto the ground. These second and third spits were less searing than the first glob, but the liquid burned the grass a little, all the same. After a few more times doing this, swilling water around his gums and tongue, spitting, swilling, he seemed to decide he was done, and got to his feet. He trembled a little. “Uh,” he said, “there’s a thing I wouldn’t want to do twice in one day. Awful stuff.”

Keru was coming back to his senses. His breathing seemed more normal and his eyes were opening, coming alert a little, if still confused and foggy.

“Thank you,” said Caewen. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what to say.”

“Well,” said the old man, “there is the matter of payment, of course.”

“What?” said Caewen.

“Yes,” said Dapplegrim, a note of deeper menace in his voice. “What?”

The old man raised his palms in a conciliatory sort of way. “I have saved a life for you. Yet we had not agreed on a price. By the rules of the moot, I can make a claim. Now, I cannot be unreasonable, but the Broadtable would, I think, agree to any price up to and including the value of a whole and entire life, healthy and well-lived. Which is what I have, after all, restored.”

“We didn’t agree to anything like that,” said Caewen. “How can you–“

He flickered one of his pleasant, friendly little bald gnome smiles. “It is within my right to request. It is within your right to refuse, but I warn you, if this is brought before the Broadtable, they will judge in my favour, and they may well impose penalties that are much more unpleasant than anything I would ever ask of anyone.”

“What do you want then?” said Caewen, a twisting twin-ribbon of anger and burgeoning fear in her chest and throat. What if she tried to escape on Dapplegrim? He was quick. They would probably get away, but then they would never address the moot. And then what? Tamsin’s death really would have been for nothing. Caewen’s word would be broken. Coldly, she asked again, “What is your price?”

He took in a flummoxed little breath. “I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead.” He took a step away, locking his hands behind his back. “Let us call it a standing debt of obligation. Be well assured though, I will think of something. When I do, I will call on you.” He turned enough to give a slight nod of a bow. “Until then, Caewen of Drossel, I bid you pleasant and fond leave-taking.” With a tap of two fingers to his head he added, “Wotcha,” as he moved off.

As the old magician wandered away, he took up a cherry whistle that sounded half-way between a flute and a dawn birdsong.

Caewen and Dapplegrim watched him recede into the crowd. When he was gone, Dapplegrim said, voice low, “Did you tell him your name?”

“No,” said Caewen. “No, I did not.” She looked down at Keru, who was still on his back, his expression confused getting onto drowsy. “It’s alright now,” she said and knelt next to him. “At least I think so. Assuming the strange old wizard doesn’t want our souls or something.”

“Just your soul, I imagine.”

She looked up.