A Sorcerer grants a petitioner's wish (Ironwood series world)
|Jed shifted nervously from foot to foot as he waited outside the audience room. The guard had let Jed in, but kept looking at him like he was the dog come in from the lake with muddy feet and a bloody rat in his jaws. Jed leaned forward, to say he was sorry, even if he wasn’t sure why. The guard in his shiny set of rings and leather just wrinkled his nose and took a step back, knuckles white on that big stick and ax thing of his. Jed started to clench his fists, but then let them go. It wouldn’t do no good, and it never did. Maybe if Jed had something other than his dirty, sweat-stained tunic, the guard wouldn’t look at him like that. He’d took a bath just last week, for Heaven’s sake! Or maybe not. He’d got used to feeling like week-old-fish at a banquet, but he’d never been anyplace as nice as this.
There were wool carpets, and silk tapestries, beeswax candles in jeweled gold candlesticks, and the locked room with the laughter ahead smelled like wine, steak, and spring. Hell, even the servants here wore more money than he’d ever seen in silver. He was half-minded to ask if they’d take him, once he got fixed. He didn’t know no servants from a castle to ask, but he was damned sure there was worse lives than that.
The frogs is his belly kept right on hopping, but they didn’t scare him none. He’d never felt so much like a striped bass in a bucket, but that only proved he’d came to the right place for help. Folks back in the village hadn’t looked at him too much better than the guard. They were meaner about it too, for being familiar with him. They didn’t like his purpled dented forehead, his half-missing greasy hair, or his eyes that didn’t match. They didn’t like the sounds when they looked at him funny, and the words came out wrong, repeating each other when they struggled to get out of his mouth. If Jed wasn’t bigger’n most of them, they’d be mean with more than words, too. But Lord Roderick was a Sorcerer, and he’d fix all that.
Lord Roderick was new here. He’d kicked out old Count Tilly, and good riddance everybody said. He’d come in with his army and beat up the old army - scattered ‘em like geese on the wing. What tales said though was the Sorcerer hisself had looked to his own wounded. Men that had followed him had lost arms and feet and noses and such, and old Roderick had just stuck em back on. He even did that for some of the men what lost, too! Edie said her husband Ruddy had got the nose cut clean off his face and his cheek bashed in, and bam - Lord Roderick had just stuck it back on and fixed him better than new. Ruddy didn’t even squint like he used to see things far off, and he was proud as a stud about it, like he’d fixed his own self. That’s what Jed wanted more than life, and his Lord could give it to him. If he wanted to.
Some folks who lived nearer that castle were right scared of the new Lord, and said he was something fierce too. Well, wasn’t that like it’s supposed to be? When you had a weak Lord, that’s when you got armies marching in and taking the place. They’d had four Lords in the past five years, and now they finally had a winner, maybe. Some folks made crazy tales about him drinking blood or stealing souls, but everybody knew Socerers didn’t do that. Some also said he was cold, and cruel, but was that a man who healed the men he had just conquered? Everybody said Roderick was wicked smart and tough as rocks, with a power no man could stand, and that was fine with him.
Jed rocked back on his heels and wiped his nose on his sleeve, waiting forever. It made the frogs hop worse at first, but they wouldn’t make him wait if they weren’t gonna help him. That meant he was gonna get fixed, almost certain. It made him want to burst out whistling, but he knew better than that. If he was rude, they might still send him away.
That was when the doors opened. The guard on the right, with the wrinkled nose and the shiny hat, gestured him forward. “You, supplicant, go in. Lord Count Roderick the First will see you now. Be on your best behavior.”
“R-r-r-r-r-right. On my h-h-h-h-honor.”
The mustachioed fellow in the armor shook his head, and waved his big stick. “Just go.”
Jed’s jaw dropped as they let him into the party. Least it looked like a party letting out - there was fancy food everywhere, and gold, and jewels, and tapestries, and more silk and velvet than he’d imagined in the world. Rich merchants, knights, and landowners stepped away to their servants as he walked in, but he didn’t care. He was in the land of beauty and riches. Nothing dirty or foul could live here. If they let him in, the foulness would have to leave without him. Straight ahead, a tall and dark-haired man with slanted western eyes sat on his throne, and he beckoned Jed forward. His heart near beat itself to death as he walked forward and dropped to his knees, awaiting his Lord’s permission to speak.
“Your audience is granted. What is your name, fisherman?” the Sorcerer drawled, his hand toying with a crystal goblet of red wine. “What is it you have come to ask your Lord?”
“J-J-J-J-Jed,” the fisherman replied, cursing his tongue and keeping his words short. They sounded fine in his head like usual, and then they came out all stumbling and fighting for the door. “I need your h-h-h-h-h-help. Can you h-h-h-h-heal me, my L-L-Lord?”
Roderick winced, and waved to a man in fancy pale robes, a merchant who Jed had seen passing through the village a time or two. “Jhogan, Does anyone in the Lake village know this man, Jed? How did he come to be injured?”
The robed merchant bowed deeply, and replied in a cutting voice. “He is the village idiot, my Lord. His mother has five children, each stupider than the last, but they say this one was dropped on his head as a child, and he has the dented skull to prove it. He is slow and clumsy with a net, and he works alone, since no fishing crew will have him. No doubt he practiced a week to put two sentences together just for you.”
Jed flushed a deep red and looked down at his crooked knees, clenching his fists again, but it was no good. Men with money and fancy talk didn’t need to make fun of him, but they did anyway. He could hear them behind him. They were just like the people in his village, only meaner. Women behind him joined in too - they laughed all high and tinkly like glass, and it turned in his heart just as sharp. They just brought him in for their jokes, and then he’d be out on his ear.
The Sorcerer, though, he tapped the arm of his throne, like he was thinking hard. He looked down and saw Jed’s fists curling, and Jed was ashamed. But Lord Roderick, he didn’t seem to mind that none, cause he wasn’t threatened by it. His voice wasn’t warm or cold, but just like a man talking to himself as he figured where to throw a line, and didn’t mind being others hearing. “I think I may have a use for you, after all. I know you want me to heal you, but it will not be a simple task anymore. You must have labored for over twenty years in that insulted body, since your accident, and your soul has adopted the injury. Your limp, your stutter, and your dented skull are all very much a part of you now, and it won’t be easy to make your body forget them. To fix you, I would have to change you entirely, and that will take a great deal of trust from you. I can more easily bring out of you what is already in your soul, but even that will take your acceptance, your faith in what I would do. You take a great risk. For that reason, I ask you: why? Why do you need me to change you so badly that you risked ridicule here?”
Jed looked up and met the dark and piercing eyes of the Sorcerer dead on. “I, uh, I c-c-c-can’t st-st-stand the l-l-l-l-laughing, m-m-m-my Lord.”
The Sorcerer nodded slowly at that, and Jed should have felt better, but the light in his eyes was so strange and intense. “That I can fix. You will no longer need fear the laughter of men. Come, kneel at my feet.”
Jed stood slowly, and almost crawled to his Lord. This was it, the answer to his prayers finally granted! Why did he feel that something was wrong? Didn’t he deserve this?
Roderick slowly placed his hand on the fisherman’s greasy hair, and Jed let his head fall forward, all the frogs hopping again in his belly, and rattling away in his head. He fought back tears as he realized this was it, he was going to finally be strong, finally be whole, finally be someone everybody would respect. He didn’t look up, but he started to feel the a change on his skin as his face begin to mold, his head began to change, and even the broken piece of his brain that kept the words in started to shift and mend. In place of shame, he felt strength, and in place of fear, he began to feel a warmth and a new driving anger at all the years wasted, when he was pushed around by little men and their sharp words. It was painful, this re-arrangement of skin and bones, like fire within. But it was welcome too. He felt the power burn through him, and he felt strong, as the fire cleaned out all that was small, and weak, and broken.
“There,” Lord Roderick murmured, and removed his hand. “Jhogan, would you care to show the fisherman a mirror? Oh, and I'd advise you to be gentle about it.”
Jhogan chuckled, and pulled a small mirror from his purse. He bowed slightly, then moved beside the fisherman, and raised the silvered glass for Jed to see.
Jed looked into the glass, puzzled. It didn’t show him at all. Instead, there was a hulking brownish-green thing with huge muscles, and fierce, angry eyes. On its temples were small, sharp horns, turned back like those of a goat. The broad, ugly face in the mirror looked back at him - and blinked.
Jed roared. “No! What have you done to me?! I did not ask you to make me a beast! Everyone will hate me!”
He dropped to the floor, hugging his swollen, muscular legs, and quivering in despair. Jhogan, surrounded by stunned silence, watched on, and laughed cruelly. “You idiot. Did you think the mighty Lord Roderick owed you mercy?”
At that, the thing that was Jed rose from his heap, chest heaving with anger, clawed hands raised, burning eyes turning from Jhogan to Lord Roderick.
The Sorcerer shook his head slightly. “Tsk, tsk, Jhogan. Jed, I have only let out what is most useful in your heart. Did I not say you need no longer fear the laughter of men? No men serve me who will not hear me. You may kill him, if you like.”
Jed’s rage utterly consumed him. The merchant’s eyes were the size of dinner plates, and his mouth broadened into a wordless scream, as the green and brown skinned beast shredded him to pieces: his arms and claws running red until there was nothing left but a gory heap and the strangely tantalizing smell of blood. Only then did the red mist fade from his vision. His large, clumsy hands slowly lifted the mirror he had dropped to look into the face of what once had been a man, and now was doubly a monster. Behind, and throughout the room, rich men and nobles stepped away, but he no longer saw contempt in their eyes, or laughter, only fear. His heart was full at the sight, with horror, and with satisfaction.
“Very good,” Lord Roderick noted in a soft, deep, cruel voice. “Rise, ogre, and join my army. Unfortunately, Jhogan only served himself, but I always look after my own. You are mine, aren't you?”