THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART ONE: THE OUTCASTS


CHAPTER TWO


     Dav wished the people of Heltala would damn well leave him alone. He found their badgering, cloaked by pretences of good will, to be intrusive and annoying. If he wanted to sit inside, thinking and remembering - brooding, they called it - that was his right. None of them had suffered the losses he had. Their settlement still stood. They didn't understand the kind of pain a man went through when he lost both wife and home in the span of a week.
     He was thankful of one thing, at least: that his children weren't around to pester him. They had made some friends among the local populace and spent most of the hours from dawn to dusk outside playing. Dav hadn't met Reg and Eya's companions, but, since at least one or two of them were likely elves, it was probably a good thing. What Dav didn't know about, he couldn't forbid.
     He didn't like elves. From the moment he had met Niam on the night of his arrival in Heltala, he hadn't liked them. There was about the race a sense of cold superiority, as if they knew they were better than humans and chose not to hide it. They smirked a lot - nasty, self-satisfied grins - but rarely smiled or laughed. They were aloof, and their attitude toward Dav spoke of unvoiced contempt. They sensed his dislike, but didn't respond to it, and that stung more than a mortal insult.
     On the morning following his entrance into Heltala, the villagers had gathered around Jey's house to bid him welcome. He had greeted them all, even the elves, and thanked them for their hospitality. But they hadn't left, as he had been hoping they would. Instead, they had coerced him into going outside and recounting the tale of how he had come to the settlement, then they had taken him to meet the town elders. Meanwhile, his children had started playing with some of the locals of about their age.
     Dav's initial dislike of the interior of the unfurnished house had dissipated as it became his refuge from the disdain of the elves and the enthusiasm of the humans. While the one group treated him like refuse, the other tried everything within their power to force Dav into the role of a model citizen, as if attending get-togethers and joining in community farm work would mend his wounds. They gave him no peace. In two weeks, nothing had changed. All during the day and into the night, they would knock on the door until he answered, then cheerfully invite him out to do one thing or another. It had gotten to the point where it was taking all of Dav's willpower to keep from throttling his "well-wishers".
     Today's visitors had been especially aggravating. A wrinkled old man with a full white beard but no hair on top had come to the house shortly after sunrise, inquiring if Dav would like to attend a group breakfast at the settlement's only tavern, Jii's Smile. When Dav had refused, the man had begun to question him about his eating habits. And, while it was true that he hadn't paid much attention to food since arriving in Heltala, Dav felt that was his affair and not anyone else's. When he'd told the old man this in no uncertain terms, his visitor had simply smiled, wished him well, then taken his leave.
     This afternoon, a man of about Dav's age, with the physique of a blacksmith, had knocked on the door wanting to discuss whether Dav intended to enroll in the local militia. According to him, while there had been no dwarf attacks in nearly twenty years, it was always a danger and if the town wasn't prepared, they could be wiped out in a night. He then recounted a rambling tale about the "original settlement" whose inhabitants had all been slaughtered by the mountain-dwellers on a raid one-hundred years ago. When Dav politely refused the offer to become a part-time soldier, saying that he had no experience with weapons, the man became indignant, saying that it was the duty of everyone dwelling in Heltala to serve the settlement. At that point, Dav slammed the door in the man's face and didn't open it again during fifteen minutes of loud banging.
     Despite his affinity for hiding in the house, Dav didn't feel comfortable inside. The second story especially made him uneasy. He had lived all his life in buildings whose only floor was the ground. Dav had been upstairs once, and, even though the floor had felt firm beneath his feet, comprised as it was of good, solid timber, it had been unnatural treading on a surface that was suspended over empty space. Since then, not only had he avoided the upper room, but he had forbidden his children to set foot upon the ladder leading to it.
     All of the houses in Heltala were, to one degree or another like his: small, windowless, and with more than one floor. Some had as many as three, and all looked more like towers than houses. The tavern was especially odd, because it had three common rooms, all identical, one on top of the other.
     It was raining outside this afternoon. There was no way to tell this from within the house, of course, with no windows and a thatch roof two stories above that hardly ever leaked, but Dav had noticed the thickening clouds during the morning when his two visitors had come to harass him. So he had opened his front door fifteen minutes ago to find a fine mist falling, shrouding the village with a veil of gray translucence.
     It wasn't that the rain meant anything to him personally, but it had been weeks since he had seen any sort of precipitation and the sudden opening of the clouds held a strange fascination. He watched for a while, as the rain became steadier and people scurried for cover, then shut the door and went back to sitting on the floor. He picked up a knife and block of wood and began to slice small shavings from it. Dav had no idea what he was carving, but it gave him something to do with hands that were otherwise too restless.
     Time stood still within the circular walls of Jey's house. There was little difference between day and night and only the arrival of his children in the evening and their departure around daybreak reminded Dav of the hour. His meals were regulated by when Reg or Eya brought him something to eat, not by the position of the sun or moon in the sky. So, when he heard a knock at the door late in the afternoon, he thought it was the twins arriving back for their night's slumber. Since Dav kept the door locked at all times, they had to knock when they came home.
     It was with surprise, therefore, that he opened the door to reveal the pockmarked, bearded features of a stooped middle-aged man with a gap-toothed, crooked smile and shrewd, shifty eyes. He doffed his worn hat, executed a clumsy bow, and inserted his foot between door and jam to prevent Dav from slamming shut the door.
     "I don't believe we've been introduced," he said, his words slightly slurred. "Jod son of Fik at your service, Sir."
     Dav eyed the slovenly man for a moment before addressing him. "Remove your foot and your presence from my house."
     "Come, come, my good Sir! No need to act as if I'm a thief or beggar come to relieve you of your treasures. On the contrary, I've come to offer you the kind of hospitality I doubt the good people of Haven have seen fit to give you." So saying, he reached beneath the tattered cloak that was wrapped tightly about him.
     Dav tensed, half-expecting Jod to draw a weapon. Instead, however, the man produced a skin which he proffered to his reluctant host.
     After accepting it and sniffing the brew, Dav took a deep draught. The taste was wretched and the mixture burned the back of his mouth and throat, but when it reached his belly, it spread outward through his veins with a pleasing warmth. Suddenly, the dampness filtering in from outside didn't seem as unpleasant. He stepped back to let Jod come in out of the rain.
     After sharing the contents of the skin for several minutes, draining it, and starting on a second Jod had brought with him, the two were sitting on the floor and talking companionably. Or, more appropriately, Jod was talking while Dav sat back against the wall, eyes heavy-lidded, listening.
     "Spent my whole damn youth here," he was saying, his voice more slurred than before, but the words still recognizable. "My parents used to beat me any time things didn't go right for them. Then one day my mama got killed by dwarves when she was out picking berries. After that, I couldn't live with my father any more, so I ran away. I didn't know anything about the world outside Haven, just that it had to be better. I headed north and eventually ended up in Vorti. That was twenty years ago, around the time of the Great Purge, when King Sor wiped out the entire class of nobility.
     "So, anyway, here I was a penniless waif of fourteen in a city of peasants and I figured things had to get better. They didn't. I was an outsider, you see, and hadn't paid my dues. It took ten years of sweeping streets and cleaning the docks before I was accepted into that society. There may not have been nobles any more, but there were guild leaders and foremen, and if you didn't pay tribute to them, you were finished.
     "After ten years, I got a bed of my own in what used to be a stall in an inn's stable. I'd fallen for a barmaid in that inn, and she seemed interested in me, but it turned out she was one of the guildmasters' daughters and when he found out about us, he ran me out of the city. On a whim, with nowhere to go, I came back here. I guess I'd forgotten how much I despised this place and the man who'd sired me.
     "It turned out he was dead and his house had been empty for three years. I took possession and worked hard to turn it into a home. And now I've been back eight years and I'm starting to remember why I hated Haven so much when I was a kid."
     "I thought the reason was your father," said Dav, opening his eyes, which had slipped shut. Not that Jod had noticed. He was too caught up in his own recollections.
     "Only in part. What really twists my guts are those elves. My papa was mean, and I almost never listened to what he said, but I'll never forget what he told me about them: 'Don't ever let an elf into your home, Son, or he'll rape your woman, steal your money, and burn the place to the ground with you in it, all the while thanking you for your hospitality.'"
     Dav was silent, but he understood Jod's feelings.
     "I can tell you don't like 'em, either," said Jod. "I've been watching you since you came here. You and I, we've been places, not like the other poor cattle that live in Haven. We know what the world's like out there. And we know what elves really are."
     Dav nodded. "One of them brought me into the town the night I got here. He liked playing games with me and my children, even though we were dead tired. Let us stumble along blindly behind him while he slipped just far ahead so we never knew exactly where we were going." The memory of that nightmarish journey was fresh in his mind. Now, with Jod's words ringing in his ears, it seemed clearer to Dav that Niam had been toying with him that night.
     "They can see in the dark, you know," said Jod. "And isn't it curious that there's no light allowed in Haven. None at all. It doesn't bother the elves, but our kind can't see a thing. After dark, we have to sit inside with a candle lit. They claim that light's a danger, that the dwarves will find us. But the dwarves have known where we are for decades now. The only reason the elves keep Haven dark is for their own benefit."
     "What do they do at night?" asked Dav, his curiosity piqued.
     "Damned if I know," snorted Jod. "I'm as blind as you in the dark. But some day, I'm going to find out."
     A comfortable silence settled over the two as they continued to trade sips from the flask. Outside, Dav could imagine it growing dark. He could almost see the elves sliding into the shadows, where the dusk would hide their movements. He was beginning to doze off when Jod's voice roused him.
     "If I were you, I'd watch who those children of yours spend their days with."
     "What do you mean by that?" demanded Dav.
     "I've seen them with Sava, the son of one of the elf elders, and Lora, a whore that even her own kind calls an outcast."
     Dav muttered a couple of choice oaths. "I'll have a talk with them tonight."
     "If I were you, I'd take them and leave. There's nothing here for them. Me, I ain't got no children and no place to go. I've been to Vorti and I don't want to go back, not there or any place like there. But it's different for you..."
     '"It's no different," snapped Dav. "My life is behind me, not ahead. I've gone far enough and fought long enough. There comes a time when a man just has to stop. I'll do what I can for Reg and Eya. I promised their mother that before she died, but there's only so much I can endure. I brought them safely here; they'll have to live with what they find in Heltala."
     "Haven," corrected Jod. "Don't use Heltala. That's their word for this place. Ours is Haven. Don't compromise on the smallest thing."
     Dav nodded. He understood what it meant not to compromise. He would never forget what certain pigs had expected of him and his sister years ago in the city of Fels and why they had left. His whole life had been a struggle against capitulation.
     "What is it about this place? The humans outnumber the elves. Surely they can't be blind to what's happening. Why don't they put a stop to it?"
     "I don't know," replied Jod simply. "I've been trying to figure that out for years. But whatever's happening here, it isn't healthy, and I intend to get to the bottom of it. I think you and I should keep in close contact. We may be the only two who feel the way we do."
     "You know where to find me."
     "I'm in the second house to the right, three streets down. It's the one with the little fire pit out front. Folks around here don't like that I won't get my food from their 'community feasts', but I don't trust what they put in it. I'd advise you to start doing your own cooking as well."
     Dav nodded, but didn't give the matter serious thought. Cooking was too much effort.
     By the time Jod left, after giving Dav a number of tips about how to live in the hostile environment that was Haven, both of them were drunk. They had finished off three skins of Jod's powerful home brew and neither of them was talking - or walking - straight. Jod was humming and chuckling to himself as he lurched outside into the street and Dav immediately dozed off, without bothering to secure his front door.
     Reg and Eya returned home to find the door ajar and their father passed out. Never at a loss to take the initiative, the children locked up, ate the food they had brought incapacitated Dav, then curled up on the blanket-covered bales of hay that comprised their sleeping pallets.

* * *

     One week later, on a gloriously sunny day when every door in the village stood open except Dav's, the twins made an unexpected mid-day appearance at their home. Dav was sitting in the gloom drinking from a flask given to him by Jod when they arrived.
     "Papa! Open the door!" wailed Reg, pounding at the front entrance with his small fists.
     Dav got to his feet and flung back the bolt. Reg and Eya staggered inside, the former supporting most of the latter's weight. "Papa! Eya's sick!"
     That much was obvious by looking at the five year old girl. Her face was mottled with red spots and shiny with sweat. Her limbs and the muscles in her cheeks were twitching spasmodically and her body was being racked by a violent shivering.
     Dav picked up his daughter and carried her to her pallet. She began to cough and choke, spitting up blood, then vomiting all over her father. She started to cry weakly, her sobs sounding like a kitten's mewling.
     Stripping off his soiled tunic and donning one of the few others he owned, Dav commanded his son to sit by Eya while he ventured outside for the first time since his early days in Haven. Recalling his children's stories about the old wise woman who lived on the settlement's extreme southern border and was said to possess powers of healing, Dav headed in that direction.
     The people he passed in the streets nodded pleasantly at him or wished him good afternoon, but none seemed surprised to see him. Dav didn't catch sight of any elves, but since they preferred the darkness and even then tended to congregate around the northern half of the village, that wasn't surprising.
     It took less than ten minutes to reach the strange little house - actually little more than a hut - that stood apart from the others to the south. It was perhaps the only one-story house in the whole of Haven and looked in worse disrepair than Dav's own, which had gone unlived-in for the last four years. Weeds covered the ground in the immediate vicinity of the building and the odor of excrement hung heavily in the air, apparently coming from a pile off to the side around which a large number of flies were buzzing. Typically for a Haven dwelling, there were no windows, and the front door looked termite-infested and rotting. When Dav rapped on it, he thought it might fall off its hinges.
     There was no immediate answer. Dav knocked a second time, but he was beginning to wonder if anyone lived here. Maybe the old lady in question had died some years ago. He hadn't paid that much attention to his children's idle prattling the other night. Perhaps he should have tried a more practical avenue of finding help for Eya. Surely Jod knew someone who practised healing skills.
     Dav had turned away from the hut and was heading back down the rutted path toward the street when the door creaked open behind him.
     The woman looked ancient, perhaps as old as the village itself. She was emaciated, with bony legs and arms. A few wayward wisps of hair the color of virgin snow clung to an otherwise bare pate. The dusky skin of her face was wrinkled like a prune and her sunken green eyes were partially obscured by a milky film.
     "Who be it?" she lisped through toothless gums, squinting along the path that led to her front door. When she spied Dav, she demanded, "Come closer, young man! I can't see you that far away. My eyes be going."
     Dav approached the woman and addressed her by the name he'd heard Eya use. "Mistress Yrr, my daughter is seriously ill..."
     "Eh?? Who be you? I've never seen you before."
     "My name is Dav and I've only recently come to live in the house of my late sister, Jey," explained Dav, trying to curb his impatience.
     "I recall Jey," declared Yrr. "I attended her at the birth of her child. Too bad the little mite was so weak, or it might have lived."
     "My daughter Eya is seriously ill," repeated Dav.
     "And you wish for me to attend her?"
     "Yes."
     "What be her symptoms?"
     Dav described his daughter's condition as succinctly as he could. The old woman listened attentively, licked her parched lips once, then reached inside for her cane and began to hobble down the path toward Dav. "I'll see the poor little creature," Yrr said. "Though it may already be too late. The signs you have described be not good portents."
     The journey that had taken Dav ten minutes by himself took nearly half an hour in the company of Yrr, who moved at a snail's pace. Considering the frail condition of the old woman's legs, Dav was surprised she could walk at all. But the slowness of her speed grated on him, and, by the time they reached his house, his patience was almost exhausted.
     Yrr went directly to Eya's side, where Reg was already sitting, holding his sister's hand and patting her forehead with a damp cloth. The old woman waved the boy away, then took his place.
     Eya had been sick at least one more time and the blankets under which her body trembled were flecked with gobs of crimson. The stench in the room was so foul that Dav flung open the door to let in fresh air.
     "Feverish, twitching, vomiting, coughing up blood," murmured Yrr, cataloguing Dav's daughter's symptoms in a clinical voice. She then lapsed into silence as she ministered to the sick girl.
     Finally, after about twenty minutes, she arose and approached Dav. "She be seriously ill, but I do not believe the condition to be terminal. I have seen others like her, the last one many years ago in Vorti, and they did not meet bad ends. It be a parasitic infection, caused by a certain... uniqueness… of your daughter. But it be beyond my ability to treat it. I advise you to take her to Master Savi. He be far better versed in matters of this nature than I be."
     "Savi?" repeated Dav. He could tell by the name that Yrr referred to an elf. "I will not have my daughter treated by one of his kind."
     "So be it," said Yrr. "It be not my life we discuss. It be unlikely that the condition be terminal, but I could be wrong. 'Tis folly not to see Savi."
     "I will not have my child touched by an elf."
     Yrr shrugged. "Then bother me no more. If she dies, you have none to blame other than yourself."
* * *

     For the next week, Eya's life hung in the balance. Reg and Dav stayed by her side, but the elf Savi was not summoned to the sick house. Dav preferred his daughter's death to a life contaminated by and owed to one of them.
     However, as the sickness moved into its second week, its hold over Eya weakened. She regained consciousness more frequently and her words gained coherence.
     Shortly after dawn on the tenth day of Eya's sickness, when the sky outside had turned black with the promise of violent weather and the citizens of Haven were scurrying in preparation for the storm, there came a knock on the front door of Dav's house.
     He rose from his position by his daughter's side and approached the door, expecting another of the endless parade of well-wishers who came to inquire about Eya's health. At first, early in the sickness, Dav had felt touched by the apparent concern of the men and women of Haven, but their platitudes had become meaningless and irritating.
     Standing outside was a girl. At first glance, Dav thought she was his daughter's age. She was short - barely coming up to his waist - and thin, with long dark hair braided in a fashion common to the young female children of Haven. Then Dav noticed her olive skin, upswept ears, and delicate face - features that disallowed the possibility of her being human.
     Although Dav couldn't tell her age, he recognized that because of her race, she had to be older than Eya, perhaps even even as old as he was. He had learned from Jod that, because of their long lifespans, elves matured more slowly than humans. They were not considered adults until they had lived a half-century.
     The girl fixed his eyes with her own obsidian orbs, a gaze that crossed bounds of politeness and propriety, then said, "My name is Lora. I have come to ask about the health of your daughter, Eya." The words were spoken without a trace of accent.
     As Dav stared incredulously at Lora - an elf who had dared approach his house - a surge of anger welled within him. But alongside that emotion came something that took him by surprise: the first forceful stirrings of lust. As perverse as it might be, he found something sensual in Lora's appearance and bearing, in the way she stood there with one hand resting on a hip and her face upturned to regard him. Her lips were parted slightly, as if in invitation, and her eyes seemed to smoulder with a hint of hidden passion. It was incomprehensible that someone her age, well beyond what was considered mature for human females, could be so waif-like. And as the dichotomy of her innocence and forthrightness fed his anger, it also fanned his desire.
     "Your kind are not welcome here," growled Dav. His eyes raked her body, lingering first on the slight swell of her hips, then on her chest, where he was unable to detect any trace of breasts except for the nipples, which protruded against the clinging material of her gown. A child in form, yet an adult by human terms in age - which was she in attitude?
     "I meant no offense. I merely wished to inquire whether my friend is well," replied Lora, lowering her eyes in a gesture that could have been coquettish or apologetic.
     "Your friend?" repeated Dav.
     "I regard her as such, and I believe the feeling to be mutual."
     "Get away from here!" Dav spat.
     Wordlessly, Lora turned and left without a backward glance. She reached the street as the storm broke, yet the torrent of wind-driven rain didn't cause her to hurry her pace. Dav slammed shut the door, but try as he might, he could not banish the sight of her - of her half-parted lips and erect nipples - from his mind's eye.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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