Thursday, August 1, 2013

Thirty-Eighth Beginning: Collared

[This one was completed some time in the 1980s.  It's not the oldest thing I ever completed, but it's probably one of the first five completed.  I did have ideas for continuing the story from Dallum's perspective, but never did more than a loose outline.]

Tosc ducked down an alley, hid behind a barrel and, cradling his prize, waited until the sounds of his pursuit had faded into the more usual street noises. The nosy fools.  They had no business chasing him.  Personal business, that had been, between him and that weak whiner Dallum.  Boys were supposed to fight.  Like Da said, it made for stronger men.  Tosc would be as big as Da in another year or so and then he’d be able to prove it. ‘Til then, he would practice.

Not that Dallum was much practice.  Dallum was a pale-faced, whining booknose.  Always wasting his time with useless reading and scribbling.  Tosc had always told him how stupid he was.  A boy needed to make himself strong and tough like Da or he was nothing.  Nothing else counted.  Certainly not books.

A few years back Dallum had started writing up letters and contracts for merchants.  He had thought he’d found a way to prove that there were other things as important as being strong—until Tosc had demanded his money and punched him until he got it.

Things had been cat and mouse since then.  Dallum had started staying indoors as much as possible to avoid Tosc, and would leave his money with his mother when he did go out.  Threatening to beat him senseless unless he went and got some from her had set the little whiner complaining to her instead.  And she had complained to the town guards.

Da hadn’t been impressed with the two guards that had marched him to where Da worked in the shipyard.  He had laughed right in their faces.  “That’s just boys horsing around.  If you think you should bother honest folk every time some mama’s boy cries, you’re a bunch of sweet lilies.”

Yes, Da had laughed all right, and Tosc had laughed right with him—until the grim faces had had their say and were out of sight.  Then Da had smacked Tosc on the side of the head and told him to never do anything stupid enough to draw guard’s attention again.  Sure Dallum’s ma was a whore, but she was a whore with friends.  How else could she afford to pay those tutors and stuff?

So Tosc had settled for what he could get directly.  He took what small change Dallum carried, ripped scrolls, broke pens, and spilled ink.  When Dallum started studying magic, Tosc laughed at the silly spell components as he ground them into the dirt.  Dallum had never gotten a spell off and never would.  He was too scared.  Even magic took more guts than he had.  Tosc wasn’t worried.

Footsteps sounded at the mouth of the alley again.

“Did you find him?”

“No.  Is the boy alive?”

“So far.  He keeps falling asleep, though.  After a head wound, that’s not good.”

“Sure isn’t.  That Tosc has bought it this time.  He’s too big to whine about boy’s games any more and murder’s no game.  ‘N if murder wasn’t what he did, it was sure what he was trying.  I say we either hang ‘im or send him to the mines.  He can practice being strong there.”

“Did you see him carrying anything?”

“Just the rock he used to bash in the kid’s head.  You’d think he’d have sense enough to drop it before he ran, but then he never was too bright.”

Stupid fools.  Murder?  They had it all wrong.  Hah!  And they were saying he wasn’t bright.  Fools. 

“Poor kid must be babbling, then.  That’s not a good sign.”

“What’s he saying?”

“He keeps saying that Tosc took a collar he’d bought.  Says the collar is magic and dangerous.  Think it’s from a magic cloak?”

Tosc grinned.  Not collar – caller!  This stone disc called things.  If Dallum had just let him have it like he was supposed to, he never would have gotten himself smacked in the head with it, the twit. 

Tosc had watched Dallum sneak out into the courtyard behind the saloon his ma had rooms in, with a pack.  He’d looked around nervously, but Tosc had been up in a tree and the fool hadn’t had the sense to look up.  Dallum had been particularly secretive lately and Tosc’s curiosity had been up.

The pale youth had cleared a patch of packed dirt of leaves and twigs and then unpacked a book and pens and ink and brushes and a small pot with red splashes on it.  He had settled these at the edge of the cleared area.  Then he had reached into the pack and taken out a stone disc.  He had brushed it reverently with his fingers and placed it in the center of the space.

Sitting down before it, he pulled the book into his lap and read.  He was nervous and read the same passage several times.  Tosc knew enough about reading to know that.  He knew as much about reading as anyone needed to.

Then Dallum had closed the book, touched the stone and said “Lashal.”  Light danced up from the stone in a fountain—cascading, pulsing, and shifting hue randomly.  Even in the afternoon light of the grimy yard, it was beautiful.  Tosc’s teeth nearly fell out.  He watched as Dallum consulted the book and used other words to form the light into shapes and to send the light away.  He made notes in the book after each command.  Other commands brought rats or flies or smoke from the stone.  Dallum finally finished writing and put the book down.  He picked up the red pot and a brush and began to draw letters carefully on the stone.

Those fools at the alley’s mouth might think he wasn’t bright, Tosc thought, but he had figured it out quick enough.  It didn’t take magic to call things with the stone, the stone had all the magic it needed.  All it took was the word.  And the only word Tosc wanted was the first one—the word that called the light.  So when Dallum had turned to check in the book for the next word, Tosc had dropped out of the tree and gone to collect what was his.

The twit hadn’t said anything when Tosc had given him a hearty greeting and asked with gleeful innocence what he was doing.  He just flapped about, grabbing the book and disc and almost dropping both as he dived for the back door.  He was slow, though, and it was no trouble to get the disc away from him or to smack him one with it when he wouldn’t stop trying to grab it back.  Tosc had said some clever, cutting things during the brief encounter, but Dallum hadn’t seemed to hear him.  His whole attention had been on the disc.  It was insulting.  Stupid twit deserved a smack.  And there hadn’t been much blood.

Now the meddlers were walking off.  In the shade of the alley, Tosc decided to try the disc just once before heading out of town.  With a treasure like this his fortune was made.  He would show it at inns for entertainment, like a traveling harper.  Maybe he could get a harper to play along with it.  Yeah.  A female harper, a good looking one, who’d be grateful for the opportunity and for his protection on the roads. 

Tosc put the disc down in the dirt.  He put his hand on it.  Nice of the whiner to paint the word on it.  Tosc grinned and read it.  “Lish--. . . Laz--. . . “  Now how had that sounded?  Oh, yes.  “Lizhar!”

Light sprang up from the disc.  But as Tosc watched with his mouth hanging open, it solidified into a tall, scaly man-thing that grabbed him by the neck and dragged him, choking, up off his knees.  Things went a little swimmy from the pain and fright as Tosc first clawed at the hand, then flailed wildly at the thing with arms and legs, desperate for a breath.

The thing ignored him.  It looked calmly around the alley and listened for sounds.  Then it looked at Tosc, smiled, and squeezed.

Once death had truly begun, the pain lessened and with it, some of the desperation.  There was a buzzing in his ears.  The face in front of him seemed to melt and blur.  His arms and legs shivered and twitched.  As his limbs began to relax and his vision to dim, he noticed that the face really had changed shape.  He was staring at a young human man with a gleeful, evil smile and rumpled brown hair.

As the light faded, he realized that he was looking at himself.  Yes, weak one.  I have taken your life and now I will take your form.  The thought buzzed in the back of his mind.  Tosc hoped the town guard would hang it.  Serve it right.  The weak are fit only to be used by the strong.

It wasn’t fair.  This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.  It wasn’t . . .

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