THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART ONE: THE OUTCASTS


CHAPTER SIX


     For Dav, the first few days after the birth of his daughter were nightmarish. While Lora was recovering from her ordeal, the care of the child was left to him, even though he found it difficult to look at the baby, much less pick her up, keep her clean, and feed her. A deep-rooted sense of responsibility forced him to do what was necessary to provide for the child's health and well-being. Love, nurturing, and affection, however, he could not give.
     The choice of a name was supposed to be his, but he had avoided the decision so far, despite prompting from his recuperating "wife." Naming the child was too personal an action for him to accept at this point. He could not deny his connection to Lora's daughter, but he shrank from the implications of an emotional bond. She was a half-breed, a misbegotten creature that should never have been conceived or allowed to be carried to term. Not only that, but she was an irrefutable reminder of his greatest sin.
     Eya and Reg adored their tiny half-sister. They were fascinated by the obvious differences between her and them. Part of Dav wanted to sever all contact between the twins - the products of a loving union - and the half-elf, but he realized the impracticality of that desire.
     The curiosity of the people of Haven knew no bounds. Dav's house had become a gathering place for gossip-mongers. They loitered outside, waiting for someone to emerge. By now, they had learned the folly of questioning Dav, but Reg and Eya faced harassment every time they stepped out for a breath of fresh air or a stroll.
     Finally, after over a week of convalescence, Lora was able to begin helping with the baby. She wasn't pleased by the way Dav had handled matters, but, since she had already handed over the reigns of responsibility to him, she offered no open criticism. There was sadness in her eyes, however, every time she saw the coldness with which he treated his youngest child.
     "When are you going to name her?" asked Lora one evening while Dav's two human offspring played with their sibling.
     "What does it matter? I don't know any elf names and I don't want to know any."
     "She must have a name," insisted Lora.
     "Then you name her."
     "That is not permitted."
     Dav, who had been standing with his back to Lora, rounded on her. She flinched, but it was more an instinctive reaction than from fear of violence. "Is not permitted?? Your people have rejected you, yet you cling to their customs like they give your life meaning!"
     "You would not understand."
     "I want to know!"
     "Being an elf is not like being a human. There is no human lifestyle. Humanness is a condition of birth. It is different for elves. It is not enough to be born with elf blood to be an elf. The life of an elf is defined by her - or his - actions. Were I to reject elf custom because my people have rejected me, I would be denying myself - the essence of who I am. To be an elf only by birth and not by how I live is to become as much a half-breed as our daughter." One look at Dav's expression convinced Lora that her initial assessment of his ability to comprehend elf traditions and lifestyle had been correct. "I knew you would not understand."
     "But how can you follow a way of life that means nothing and offers only burdens?"
     "I can not deny that I am an elf, nor do I wish to. The people of Heltala, humans and elves, have branded me an outcast, not the elf community of Devforth. It is a question of beliefs that have divided me from my family, not one of race."
     "What beliefs?"
     "They may not be discussed with an outsider."
     "I'm not an outsider. I live here. I'm more a member of this community than you are."
     Lora smiled sadly at him. "Not for long, I fear. By taking three outcasts into your house, you have marked yourself to be labeled as one of us."
     "Let them try to drive me out."
     "Without food and water, you can not survive. They will see that you get none. Force is not their way, nor will it be necessary."
     "So I'm to become like you."
     "It is unavoidable," replied Lora.
     "Yet knowing that, and that my children and I are caught up in this because of our association with you, you still won't tell me what separates you from the rest of your kind in Haven? What is this 'belief'' that causes them to shun you while you struggle to maintain their customs and traditions?"
     "I can say nothing."
     "You're protecting something you don't believe in?"
     "I protect their right to believe in their creed, not the creed itself."
     "If anyone treated me the way they've treated you..."
     "...You would tell all you knew to anyone who would listen to you. We are fundamentally different, Dav. We do not share the same values, nor do we look at life in the same way. That much was proven behind my hut in the valley. You saw something you wanted and took it."
     Dav didn't respond. He found it disturbing that she could talk about the rape while he was unable to. She had come to grips with something that his conscience was hiding from. The truth was stark, and Dav had not yet steeled himself to confront it head-on.
     "Our daughter must have a name, and you must give it to her," said Lora, bringing the conversation full circle. "It may be a human name. The choice is yours."
     "She doesn't deserve a human name. She's not human."
     "An elf one, then."
     "I've already told you, I don't..." began Dav, then let his voice trail off. This argument was getting tiresome, especially considering how pointless it was. How difficult could it be to come up with an elf-sounding name? Four letters arranged in such a way that they could be pronounced. "Mora," he announced suddenly. "Let's call her Mora."
     Lora appeared surprised, maybe even shocked, by his choice. Or perhaps her expression was the result of his relenting. He didn't care which. His task, or at least one of them, was finished.
     "That is your choice, then?" asked Lora. "You will not change it?"
     "No. That's it," said Dav.
     "Do you know what 'Mora' means in elf?"
     "Of course not."
     "The best translation is 'child of pain and sadness'. Never have I known an elf called by that name or anything similar."
     "A name's a name," replied Dav, although unsettled by the ease with which his random choice fit the circumstances of his daughter's birth.
     "So be it," stated Lora, her voice sounding formal. "Her name is Mora."

* * *

     Dav's ambivalence toward his daughter was counterbalanced by Reg and Eya's adoration for her. The twins spent hours with their tiny sister, letting her nibble on their fingers with the soft teeth typical of newborn elves while they held her, fed her, and bathed her, all with a gentleness that was surprising for children of their age.
     Lora watched them carefully, but concluded that Mora was in better hands with the children than with Dav, who was never comfortable around the baby and had taken to spending large portions of the daytime hours outside. Lora didn't know where he went, but she suspected it was beyond the boundaries of Heltala. She wondered if he was hiding in the valley. Whatever the case, he was doing his best to avoid the responsibilities placed upon him by a tradition he was unwilling to acknowledge.
     Something odd happened one morning when Lora and the children were alone in the house. As usual, following her morning meal, Mora was sleeping in a makeshift crib piled high with blankets while Reg and Eya lingered near the base of the ladder that led to the unused second floor. Lora had noted the twins' fascination with the upper story, but she had also heard Dav's proclamations that they were not to climb the ladder or in any way explore what lay above. It seemed unreasonable, but she was not about to question the commands of the man under whose roof she was living.
     "Let's," said Reg, letting the volume of his voice rise above that of a whisper. "He'll never know. He doesn't care what we do anyway."
     "All right," agreed Eya dubiously. "But you go first. It smells funny up there."
     It didn't take much imagination to guess what the twins were planning. Lora decided to say something. "Your father will not like it."
     "Tough," replied Reg. "He won't find out. Not unless you tell him, but you won't, will you, Lora?"
     "No," she replied. She couldn't speak to them with authority. She was their friend, not their mother. During the time they had been together, they had treated each other as equals, and there was no reason that should change now.
     "Come with us, Lora," invited Eya.
     "I do not like heights. I think I will stay down here."
     Reg shrugged, as if it didn't matter to him, but Eya was crestfallen. "Take a candle with you," advised Lora. "It will be darker up there than it is down here and you do not know what you will find."
     Reg took a candle, touched its wick to the flame of one of the burning lights, then started up the ladder. Eya lingered below, reluctant to follow her brother.
     Reg had nearly reached the top when the accident happened. The ladder, which hadn't been used since the family's early days in the house, had fallen victim to the humid air of Haven. The second-from-the-top rung had rotted and when Reg placed too much of his weight on it with his lead hand, it collapsed.
     Reg was able to catch himself to prevent a fall, but the lit candle tumbled from his grip and plummeted for Eya's upturned face.
     What happened occurred in a split second. Eya screamed as she saw her brother slip, then threw up her arms to ward off the candle. But it never reached her. Instead, it came to a momentary halt in mid-air before exploding into hundreds of fragments that showered the area around her.
     Reg did not see what happened, but Lora did. Even though her attention had been on the boy, the disintegration of the candle was too spectacular to miss. The elf stared openmouthed at the confused young girl.
     "Did you do that?" whispered Lora, her voice almost reverent.
     Eya looked frightened. "I...It was going to hit me. I thought it was going to hurt me." She started to tremble.
     Lora came over and took the girl in her arms, offering comfort. Alarmed by his sister's reaction, Reg asked, "Are you all right?? Eya? What happened?" When he didn't get an answer, he scampered down the ladder.
     "What is it?" repeated Reg, again receiving no response. Faced with his sister's uncommunicativeness, he turned to the elf. "Lora, what happened? Did she get hurt?"
     "Look at the candle," said Lora.
     Reg scanned the area, but saw nothing. He knew he had dropped the candle, but it was nowhere to be found. Lora released Eya, bent down and retrieved a miniscule piece of white wax, then handed it to the boy for his inspection.
     He gaped at the sliver in disbelief. After turning it over in his hand, he dropped to his haunches and started collecting other remnants.
     "Eya, think carefully," said Lora, looking into the frightened girl's eyes. "Shortly after you and your brother and father came here, there was a time when you were very sick. The old woman Yrr was sent for. Do you remember what she said?"
     Eya shook her head. She barely recalled the incident Lora was referring to. She remembered feeling bad and wondering if this was how her mother had felt before she had left them, but her memories of Yrr were cloudy.
     "I do," said Reg. "She told father that he should ask some elf to look at Eya, that there was nothing she could do about the sickness, but Eya would get better. Which she did."
     "And your father didn't see this elf," surmised Lora. "Do you remember his name?"
     "No," said Reg. "But I might know it if I heard it."
     "Was it Tkaa?" she asked, referring to the elf healer of the village, the man to whom most of the sick and wounded were brought. Few used Yrr's services, except those who felt like Dav, either openly or in secret, that elves were not to be trusted, especially in matters of life and death.
     Reg shook his head. Everyone in Haven knew of Tkaa and that was not the name Yrr had mentioned.      "What about Savi?" she asked.
     Reg nodded. "That's it. Savi!"
     Lora took a deep breath. Savi was one of Heltala's most reclusive residents, and many humans didn't know he existed. The elves, however, had heard of him and what he was: a mystic, astrologer, and practitioner of the supernatural rites. Not a charlatan, but neither a true wizard. Nevertheless, in the case of the awakening of someone who could use magic, he would be the one to summon, for his knowledge and wisdom about such matters was paramount in the village.
     Thr facts led to one conclusion: Eya was a wizard, or, as they were more commonly called across Devforth, an Apath.
     Lora knew the basics about Apaths. Their condition was latent until activated by the infestation of a parasite whose influence was benign in non-magical creatures. Upon "awakening'" as the resultant sickness was called, the Apath became able to use his powers. But the ability to use them did not guarantee that they would be used, or even that their possessor would be aware of them.
     A wizard's magical powers were activated, sometimes involuntarily, by a strong emotion, and the energy for whatever happened resulted from the transformation of that emotion into magic. Only Apaths could control and wield such forces, but for each magical outburst, a corresponding amount of emotion was permanently drained. If a wizard repeated the process too often with too much power, a condition of total apathy could result. This state, called Burgeoning Apathy, led to death, for, beyond a certain point, the Apath would cease to care about his own well-being and would allow himself to die, either by his own hand or by that of another.
     Among elves and humans alike, Apaths were regarded with awe because of the powers they possessed and the rarity of the condition. In the recorded history of Devforth, there had been less than two-hundred known wizards, most of whom had been male. There had been twenty acknowledged elf Apaths and only one, the legendary Mith, had been female.
     Lora regarded Eya with amazement. The elf's radiance contrasted with Eya's fear and Reg's confusion. Both looked at her curiously when they noticed the smile that had overspread her features.
     "Oh little one," said Lora. "There is no need to be frightened. This thing that has happened to you is a wonderful thing. It shows that you have powers most of us can only dream of. Powers to shape the world and make it a better place. Powers that will make men and elves alike respect and honor you and your family."
     "You're saying she's a wizard?" demanded Reg. "That's nonsense!"
     "Is what happened to that candle nonsense?" countered Lora, pointing to the fragments in the boy's palm.
     Reg shrugged, nonplused, but attempted to come up with an explanation anyway. "It was defective."
     Lora shook her head. "No matter how defective it was, Eya never could have done that much damage. And she did not touch it. She saw it, still lit, falling toward her and her burst of alarm ignited the power that destroyed the candle. You are intelligent, Reg. You can not ignore the evidence."
     "I don't want this," Eya cried, breaking into tears. Then, more quietly, "I'm scared."
     This time it was Reg's turn to comfort his sister. Yet as he wrapped her into a tight embrace, he mouthed a question to Lora: "Are you sure?"
     Her answering nod and accompanying smile of pride were all the confirmation Reg needed.
     As the elf watched brother and sister embrace, she realized that this would not be an easy transition for Eya. Unlike Lora, she had not been raised to believe in the preeminence of the Apath. Dav was not a man who taught his children such things, which made it all-the-more remarkable that Reg had come to such a quick conclusion. In fact, Lora doubted whether Dav believed the "legends" about wizards. She knew that there was a large school of skeptics in Devforth who refused to accept what they could not see. If that was the case, Eya's father was about to receive an awakening.
     Lora was confident, however, that with nurturing, Eya would come to accept how special her gift was. She was equally sure that Reg, once he had gotten over his initial shock, would be an asset in his sister's adjustment. Dav's role would be less certain, and dependent mainly upon his reaction. Lora wondered if anything, even something as momentous as this, could shake him out of his state of emotional lethargy.
     Also interesting would be the reaction of Heltala and its rulers. It would come as a shock to them that one whom they had branded as an outcast was the village's most valued citizen. They would require proof of Eya's authenticity, of course, but Lora didn't think a demonstration would be difficult to arrange. Once that was accomplished, none of them would ever again have to fear starvation, thirst, or other deprivation. The outcasts would become the rulers. There was a measure of sweetness in that not only for Eya, but for all of them.
* * *

     Dav had gotten into the habit of taking long walks. He left every morning shortly after sunup, headed north until the sun was at its zenith, then returned home before the curfew. His mood determined how far he went. On those days when he was less gloomy, his gait was easier and his northward progress might only take him ten to twelve miles away. When his disposition was grimmer, however, he covered nearly fifteen miles, bringing him close to his old habitation of Vastok. Once or twice, he had almost yielded to curiosity and sought out the place where he had passed the happiest years of his life, but a fear of what he might find held him back.
     Having no desire to become dwarf fodder, he never traveled deeper into the mountains, and his northward path was chosen as a route along which he was unlikely to encounter others. Dav valued solitude on his walks. He got little of it at home.
     Despite her protestations that he must raise Mora, Lora was doing most of the day-to-day caring for the baby, for which Dav was grateful. He couldn't hold the child up without feeling a surge of revulsion. He was trying not to hate the baby, but it seemed a task he was not equal to. Perhaps the love of her mother and half-siblings would be enough for Mora to overlook her father's antipathy.
     Dav had been planning his future, and that of his family, as well. It seemed certain that his time in Haven was limited. The elf elders would soon declare him and outcast. He was as adamant now as he had been upon leaving Vastok not to return to city life. Rumor had it that there were a number of thriving, all-human colonies across the Halcyon Meadows. The trip would take several days, but Dav thought that a likely solution to the problem of where to live. But he vowed not to leave before taking revenge on at least one of those who had mistreated him during the past few years.
     The Southern Plains were lush this autumn, the product of a rainy summer. The waist-high grass bowed gently under the prompting of a breeze. Dav stopped for a moment and closed his eyes, letting the wind wash over him, temporarily carrying away his cares. But the respite was brief and by the time the zephyr had died away, he was trudging his way southward toward a life that had become a burden.
     Haven was abuzz when Dav reached it near dusk. It was apparent that something unusual was going on. Normally, at this time of day, people would be wrapping up outside activities and rushing inside. Today, however, the opposite was happening. Men and women, humans and elves alike, were emerging from their houses and rushing in the direction of the center square. Curious, Dav joined them.
     A crude gibbet had been erected in the middle of the square and from it hung two twisted, dirty bodies - the corpses of dwarves. It was obvious that neither had died of hanging - the wounds in their chests testified to this - so apparently the nooses around their necks were a symbolic gesture. A plaque was mounted above the dangling forms, but it was inscribed in elf, which Dav couldn't read.
     "I wonder what this will mean to their alliance," whispered a familiar voice into Dav's ear.
     He whirled find himself face-to-face with a grinning man he hadn't seen in over a year. A little older, a little balder, and a little wider around the middle, but it was still the same Jod. Momentarily forgetting what had driven the wedge between them, Dav threw his arms around the older man and embraced him.
     "I hardly expected that kind of welcome back," noted Jod when the two had separated. His features appeared stern but his eyes were laughing. "You must have missed my brew."
     "I could have drunk more kegs than you could have made in the past year," admitted Jod. "So much has happened. Where did you go?"
     "Vorti. Last time I left there, as I told you, I left some unfinished business. When you decided to lock yourself behind your door, I thought it might be a good time to go back and settle old scores."
     "And did you?"
     "Not really. The man I went back for died two years ago of some plague. His daughter, the one I fell in love with, was married to a fop and had five squalling brats. I hung around for a while, but things weren't like they once were. With King Sor having no heir, everyone's worried about the succession - not that he's near to death. Being an Apath, he'll probably outlive everyone. But his lack of wife and child have put the city on edge. So, even though when I left here, I'd intended it to be for good, I came back anyway. And now it seems I've walked into a hornet's nest of trouble. I could have wished for a more welcome sight than two dead dwarves."
     "Why?"
     "Because, alliance or not, do you think the tribe is going to stand for an outrage like this? They'll come after Haven now, and they won't stop until all of us or all of them are gone. That's the way dwarves are."
     "You don't know the whole story," said Dav. He outlined the earlier disappearances.
     "So that's how it is," noted Jod. "I'd say we're about to be caught in the middle of something very big and rather unpleasant."
     "You picked the wrong time to come back."
     "I'm not sure about that. When the dust settles, those of us who don't get involved could have what's left of Haven to ourselves."
     "That's a dangerous 'could'. I'm not sure I can risk my children's lives on the hope that the elves and dwarves will destroy each other."
     "It's an unrealistic hope," agreed Jod. "The dwarves will come against Haven with more numbers than our 'protectors' can handle. As a result, elves and humans will be obliterated. But if we stay in hiding, we should be okay. You think an army of dwarves is going to conduct a house-by-house search with that much raw meet bleeding away on the streets?"
     "I don't know," admitted Dav. "It sounds damn risky to me."
     Jod shrugged. "Then I'll take what's left of Haven for myself. If you're leaving, you'd better hurry. The dwarves aren't going to take long to mobilize after what our tactless elders have done there." He inclined his head in the direction of the gibbet.
     "So that's a declaration of war," said Dav.
     "Oh no. It's an invitation for a massacre. Imagine five-hundred of those dirty animals swarming out of the mountains tonight. Elves are good fighters, but there aren't enough of them, and the human populace of Haven will be lucky if they can take down one dwarf for every ten men. I can't see the dwarves losing more than a third of their forces."
     "If I only lost a third of my men, I'd make sure I finished the job - that no one was left alive," observed Dav. He wasn't a military man, but such a course of action blossomed out of common sense.
     "Ah! But you aren't thinking about getting two-hundred bodies underground before they start to spoil. This will be the biggest feast a dwarf tribe has seen in decades. They won't give a damn about pockets of humans here and there."
     "I assume that means you're staying."
     "Yeah. But then, I'm all by myself. As you said, you have your children to consider." At that moment, Jod's eyes narrowed as he asked. "By the way, exactly how many children do you have?"
     Dav realized that the question wouldn't have been posed unless Jod had heard something.
     "I have three. A half-breed daughter was born to the elf Lora."
     "And that's why you broke off contact with me before I left?" demanded Jod, although he displayed evidence of neither anger nor disgust.
     Dav nodded. "I was having enough trouble coping with it myself. I didn't see how you could understand."
     "I'm afraid we didn't have very good communication, then. Just because I despise elves doesn't mean they don't have their uses. I was bedding one of them for two years before you came to Haven. There's a price to pay since you never want anyone else again, but the sex is great while it lasts and an elf never denies you. I sometimes thought of her almost as a...pet."
     Dav was speechless. "Did you rape her?" he finally asked.
     "Oh no. She wasn't an outcast. They never would have stood for a rape of one of their own. No, it just sort of happened. I enjoyed dominating her and she liked being dominated."
     "So what happened to her? Aren't you bound for life?"
     "She died in childbirth, and the baby was stillborn. Good thing to, or I would have had to strangle the bastard. I've never wanted any children, especially not a half-breed. I can't see how you can bear to be around such a repulsive...creature, and know that you're responsible for its existence."
     "I despise it. I wish Lora and her child had died at birth," said Dav.
     "Then do something about it," urged Jod. "Lora's an outcast. If something happens to her, no one's going to question it."
     "But the child is considered a member of the community. One of the elves practically demanded that I hand it over to them."
     "After tonight, or tomorrow night at the latest, there isn't going to be a community for anyone to be a member of. You'll be the law then - or, more precisely, we will. If you stay here, that is. A settlement of your own. That's what you used to have on the plains, isn't it? Don't you miss the power? After the attack comes - and it will come - there won't be many left here, but those who survive will be so terrified that they'll do whatever we demand. Consider that before you run away."
     Dav nodded, considering and remembering. It wasn't the first time he acknowledged how much he missed the position of prestige he had held in Vastok.. He said, "We might be staying after all."
     "Keep an ear open," advised Jod. "Especially after dark. If you're still in Haven, I'll be in touch. Whatever happens though, don't let your guard down and if the dwarves attack, stay inside."
     "Don't worry," noted Dav. "I'll do what's necessary. Whatever is necessary, about everything. It's just that with my other two children, who are fond of Lora and the baby, certain...acts...have to look like accidents."


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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