On Festival Road
by Jonathan Olfert
The Festival of Forbidden Arts came every seven years to Allsoulsanchor, that most diverse and liberated of cities. Aalem couldn't quite remember the last time caravans of aloof, argumentative magicians passed his family's roadhouse. And yet when the pale man in black robes tied his stallion to the hitching post, the terror that gripped Aalem was utterly familiar, as though the last Festival's pilgrims had planted seeds in his dreams.
On the way inside, the man in black tossed Aalem a penny, so cold that the boy dropped it in the dust. The door closed with a bang that shook his heart. Once he was sure the man in black wouldn't come back outside for some reason, he sagged against the railing.
"He's a Pakorul Walker," said a guest, a tired young man who smoked his pipe on a rough-hewn bench by the door. "Loves to scare people." His bags were packed, his boots tight-laced and propped up on the porch railing. He had stayed only one night.
Aalem shivered. "Didja read my mind, mister?" he asked, all belligerent fear.
"Not sure I'd want to." The young man tapped out his pipe and slipped it into one of the pouches on his belt. His right hand ended at the wrist, and when he stood he favored his left side. He winced and leaned against the cedar-shake wall to catch his balance. "Just think about this, though. Why would a 'Walker' ride a horse? Eh? Grown-ups are stupid." He grinned and ruffled Aalem's hair, then slung his bag over his shoulder. The knapsack rattled like a chained-up skeleton.
And unsettling as the bag was, the Pakorul Walker eclipsed it. Aalem glanced at the roadhouse door. "You going already?"
"So whatever scares you less is your friend? Careful with that one." The man with one hand descended the stairs and prodded the penny with his staff. It barely merited the name: chopped from a tree, shaggy with bark, splintered at both ends, it didn't light up or shoot sparks. It disappointed Aalem bitterly. "Gotta be moving on to Allsoulsanchor. That Pakorul didn't recognize me on the way in, but his kind doesn't like me much. Your folks treated me decent, and I'd hate for something bad to happen on my account." He picked up the penny and squinted at it, then handed it to Aalem.
"But you're a wizard, right? On your way to the Festival? Can't you stop him?"
"From what, inspiring fear? Here." He rested the staff in the crook of his elbow and pulled a straight knife from his bag. "I'm a passable enchanter, according to some. Solid horn handle, drop point, steel blade -- balanced for stabbing or throwing. Don't go using this, now. It's not that kind of knife. It won't take away all your fear, but enough so you can get a grip on it."
Aalem scowled. "It's just a knife, isn't it."
The young man's eyebrows climbed his forehead, and he grinned. "Yeah, nothing special about it. Guess you're a little old for that one. But hey -- every kid needs a knife." He tossed Aalem a two-fingered salute and limped onto the road. Aalem watched him until he went around the bend. It made as good an excuse as any to delay going in.
Inside, the roadhouse was deathly silent. A couple of shapeshifting harlots had dominated the main room for the last couple of days, their dresses scandalous enough to make Aalem's whole family blush. Their jokes made him laugh, even if he hadn't quite figured out why. But they looked old today, and their fear had a scent.
Aalem watched the room shift. The guests -- a pedlar, a wandering priest of the Quiet God, and some dirty hedge-witches -- chose new seats or went up to their rooms. The priest refrained from continuing last night's sermon against the Dark Arts. The man in black was the eye of a silent storm of undisciplined emotion. He sipped tea at the table nearest the fire, his face rigid with discontent.
He raised a hand and snapped his fingers, pinning Aalem's mother to the wall with his eyes. "I asked for tea," he said, and the corner of his mouth turned up just slightly. "This is not tea."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," said Mufid Innkeeper, emerging from the kitchen, "that's the house tea, and the lord himself doesn't mind a cup when he passes this way." He set his jaw and flexed his shoulders, the way he did when guests got out of hand. As if the deadly and the unknown could be contained by putting them in familiar terms.
Even Aalem understood how foolish that was.
The man in black lofted an eyebrow. "Then I shall educate your lord when next I see him. In the meantime, I would like either my money back or something to drink that doesn't remind me of the last time I drowned a man in a marsh."
Mufid Innkeeper's eyes took on a new cast, as if he was trying to spot the white marks that differentiated a Tantaran king snake from a common yellow-belly. "There's wine," he said, voice flat. "Spring water, too, and good beer."
The Pakorul's eyes crawled over Aalem's mother. "I'll take your word for it, Innkeeper, though perhaps I shouldn't. Once bitten, after all." She slipped into the back room, and Mufid sagged as if his strings had been cut. With a lifeless nod, he set to work on the Pakorul's drink.
Aalem ducked out the door and, once his feet hit muffling dirt, broke into a run. Snotty tears of humiliation parted company with his nose -- humiliation for his father, his mother, and his roadhouse. Trees blurred past, the pale birches and alders that covered the land from Allsoulsanchor to Kingsgarden. He turned a bend and saw the man with one hand, limping along, his shoulders hunched. To stop and wipe his face properly would take too long; deep in his sinuses, Aalem could feel that it would be a real production. He ran on, scraping his sleeve across his upper lip and snorting vociferously.
The man with one hand turned and waited for him. "That knife not good enough?"
"You were right. He's scaring all of them." Aalem wiped his face with finality. He got the tears under control by an effort of will.
The man rested his hand against a nearby treetrunk and sighed. "I'm tired, Aalem." Perhaps he'd heard the name during the day he spent at the roadhouse. Perhaps. "I've been walking for a long, long time, and the sooner I get where I'm going, the better. And I don't think any real harm will come of his grandstanding."
Aalem set his feet. The man with one hand needed to be convinced, and in his heart of hearts one detail eclipsed the rest. "I don't like the way he looks at my mum."
"Ah. Well, that's different. Is your father scared, too?" To confirm it would betray his father's dignity, but the man with one hand saw the lie forming in Aalem's eyes. He untied a leather pouch from his belt. "Don't look inside. Just put it in a dark place, as close to him as you can manage. Safely," he amended, an afterthought.
"Because I traded my muscles for brains. Take the pouch."
Little objects clinked and clacked inside, like polished wood or knuckle-bones. Aalem's imagination caught fire with desperate hope.
"Go set your people free," said the man with one hand. "I'll be right behind you."
A thousand shattered futures played through Aalem's mind as he ran back home. No fire danced above the roadhouse, nobody screamed, but fear put tension in his muscles, made him trip on the front steps as he passed the black stallion at the hitching post. He caught himself with one hand as he fell, clutching the pouch to his chest with the other. Back down the road, the man with one hand limped along on his splintering staff.
Aalem slipped through the door. The pale man in black sat in a corner chair, reading from a floppy leather-bound book that covered his thighs. The exposed pages seared Aalem's eyes; he looked away and found his parents engrossed in frantic busy-work behind the bartop. Otherwise, the room was desolate. Footsteps creaked upstairs -- the patrons were in full retreat.
The man in black looked up, and favored Aalem with a thin smile. "I went to get the Eighth Book of Kharonos from my saddlebags, and found my horse unfed and un-watered. I gave you that penny for a reason, boy."
"Aalem," said Mufid Innkeeper, voice tight with fear. "Go take care of our guest's horse. Give him the best oats, the good stall-"
"Naw, Dad." His voice didn't tremble; he blinked in surprise. "This fool wants to scare folks off, he'd better be payin' for it." The knife was in his hand -- when had he taken it from his belt?
"I already have," said the man in black evenly. "More coin than Mufid and Keilana here see in a month, for a few hours' blessed solitude. Your parents understand the monetary value of silence; you certainly have no reason to complain. Put that dagger away before it drinks your soul."
"I'll thank you not to threaten my son," said Keilana, her voice sliding through half a dozen tones, as if she could choose between her emotions but couldn't make up her mind. "Aalem, come here, love."
He didn't. Nor did he put the knife away. The man in black sighed and closed the book. "He wants to be a man. Well, he's old enough to learn a man's lessons." He set the book aside and rose. Firelight glinted from charms woven into his black robe: steel, crystal, beetle-shells, and the teeth of strange beasts. In the dusty daylight, Aalem had missed them. Now he shrank back -- only half a step, but that was enough. The man grinned and strode forward.
Aalem yelled, a full-throated roar, and threw the pouch in the Pakorul Walker's face. Tiny white bones fell to the ground, a blizzard of incomplete skeletons. The man's boot settled on a polished mouse-skull and daintily crushed it to powder; Aalem heard a distant squeak. He held his ground, warmth trickling down the inside of his thigh.
"Where did you get that? Hm? Who gave you a bonewalker pouch?" The man in black crouched and picked up the empty pouch, shaking free a flurry of minute vertebrae. Clutching it to his chest, the man closed his eyes. "Oh, that is interesting. What did you do wrong, boy, to earn you Deadleg Tom's attention? Do your parents know you consort with necromancers?" He raised his voice, ignoring the innkeepers' shock. "Are you here yet, Tom?"
Between one heartbeat and the next, the man with one hand appeared just inside the door, his lumpy knapsack dangling by his knee. The contents shifted of their own accord. Aalem caught a glimpse of a skeletal face, pressed against the canvas -- like a human face with gigantic fangs. "I don't much like bullies, Aalem," said Tom, gaze fixed on the man in black. "It seemed like I'd escaped them when I learned to kill with nothing but a disciplined thought process, but it turns out that smart people can be bullies too. And they're better at it, because they're the only kind that survives in the real world. Growing up was... disappointing."
The Pakorul Walker dropped the empty pouch; his fingers formed surreptitious patterns. "I hired a room, demanded an acceptable level of service, and paid far too much for both. I fail to see how that makes me an object lesson for the boy. But is that it, Tom? Have you found a new protégé?"
"Shut up," said the man with one hand. "Aalem, back away from him."
I really, really want to, the boy thought.
Veins and tendons bulged in Mufid's neck. He levelled a finger at Tom. "Don't you tell my son what to do!" the innkeeper roared. He kept glancing at the man in black, eyes wide, nostrils flared. Aalem's heart sank as he realized that his father shouted at Tom because he couldn't shout at the man in black.
The man in black sneered. "Oh, you find your courage when dealing with a cripple, innkeeper? Tom, I fail to see how you're accusing me of anything more than the human condition."
Keilana's slim, strong hand gripped Aalem's shoulder and yanked him backwards into a protective embrace. Aalem squirmed, trying to see over her shoulder.
Without ceremony, Tom upended the sack. A pile of rune-carved bones clattered to the floor, like a human child's but longer. They writhed and clacked against each other, rising off the floor. A fanged skull took prime position. The ball joints grated in their sockets.
The man in black watched, his thin smile reasserting itself. He pushed back the sleeves of his robe. "Just remember, one and all. I was not the one who escalated."
The skeletal ape shrieked through spectral vocal chords and leaped for the Pakorul Walker's throat. The Walker waved one black-robed arm; a shard of crystal sparked on his chest, and an invisible force battered the ape aside, crushing it against the wall. But Tom was already moving, spears of light flashing from the stump of his right arm. The scorching rays punched into the Pakorul, pinned him sprawling against the armchair, and ripped at the walls. A soundless scream rose in Aalem's throat as his mother pulled him behind the bar. His legs and groin were shamefully wet.
Tendrils of darkness snapped out from the Pakorul's fingertips. Tom reeled back, his face and shoulder smoking. The young necromancer folded over the bartop, spitting profanity so vile that Keilana's hands clamped over Aalem's ears, the true threat forgotten. A tendril of darkness cracked over the bartop like a bullwhip; Mufid Innkeeper's forearm split open, and the big man tumbled to the ground beside his family. Another crack, louder, and the ape's bones flew clattering about the room.
Something wriggled against Aalem's belly: an undead mouse, a delicate cage of bones whose toes scratched through his clothing. It flailed and squeaked, tumbling in the folds of his shirt. With the practiced ease of a boy accustomed to hiding small, socially unacceptable pets from his mother, Aalem closed his hand around the skeletal mouse. Another scurried by, missing its head and a back leg. It ran over Mufid Innkeeper and vanished around the end of the bar.
Adolescence had yet to steal Aalem's grace. Boneless, he slipped out from his mother's embrace. The knife was cool in his other hand -- no, cold. Too cold. So Deadleg Tom had lied twice over, he thought, or told the truth once. The knife was enchanted.
Hard light struck a bottle, showering Keilana in broken glass. She screamed, uninjured.
Adults were fighting in his home, trying to kill each other, so far beyond a normal brawl that it shattered every rule. A sense of unreality came over Aalem, and fear of consequences slunk away. He came out from behind the bar as Tom shoved himself upright. The necromancer sighed, red bubbles foaming at the corners of his mouth. "Told you. Grown-ups are stupid." His eyes sank to the blade dangling from Aalem's hand. "You gonna be one?"
Aalem threw the mouse. It soared, squeaking, into the writhing mass of darkness in the corner of the common room. A grunt from the obscured Pakorul suggested a moment's surprise or pain. Aalem evaded his mother's reach and slapped the knife's handle into the necromancer's palm.
Cold magic limned the weapon's edge; Aalem swore, in the instant before Tom threw the knife, that he could see through that edge, as if it was thinner than broken glass. Then the knife tumbled end over end, cutting the tangible darkness.
And the darkness faltered. Collapsed.
The man in black lay crumpled in the remains of the corner armchair. The Eighth Book of Kharonos sat forgotten and mangled at his feet. Tom staggered into the corner, resting on Aalem's shoulder. He pulled the knife from the Pakorul's robed chest. It dripped rich purple blood onto the floor. "Ahh," he said, well pleased with himself. "You can take the boy out of the streets..." He hawked and spat blood of a thoroughly normal color.
"Wasn't he human?" Aalem glanced back at the bar. His parents were bandaging their wounds, watching him and Tom alike. Terrified.
Terrified of everything.
And, to his shame, he knew that made him better than them, higher in some way, because he'd done something -- in the face of fear so strong he'd wet his pants.
Tom wiped the blade on his ragged shirt and gave it back to Aalem, who accepted it as a holy relic. "Magic changes people. The Thousand Paths have ten thousand symptoms, they say. It'll change you, if you have the Gift."
Tom broke away from him, shoved the Pakorul from the demolished chair, and threw himself down in the dead man's place. "I have no idea." He picked up the eye-searing book and began to read.
The ape bones rolled across the floor with a sound like distant thunder, and filled the knapsack to its former lumpy girth. The pouch lay nearby; skeletal mice climbed over each other in their rush to get inside. One, a damaged specimen stained with purple blood, climbed up Aalem's urine-damp leg. He cupped the jagged little mouse in both hands and felt something akin to love.
He screwed up his courage.
"Mister, can you take me to the Festival with you?"
Tom squinted up at him incredulously. "Are you insane? No man walks alone by choice. Make something of yourself first. Saints below, get some transferable life skills. And take care of your parents while you still have them. I have to turn away ten just like you, every single week." His eyes flicked over Aalem's shoulder, and he nodded fractionally. Aalem glanced back and caught relief stealing over his mother's face. The necromancer straightened a loose page as if he hadn't just betrayed Aalem for the sake of some conspiracy between responsible grownups. For the sake of propriety, as if that meant anything here and now.
The roadhouse no longer felt like home. The stars were out of kilter.
Perhaps the young necromancer caught some hint of Aalem's bitterness. As the guests ventured down from their rooms, cursing in the names of a dozen gods, Tom set the book aside and rested his lone hand on the boy's shoulder. The dead mouse quivered in Aalem's grip.
"Tell you what, Aalem," Tom said quietly. "Seven years should about do it. When the next Festival comes around, ask the pilgrims for Tom Baker, the Grimoire Thief, Deadleg, Sinister Tom -- seems I have a new name in every story. Saints below, by then some of those pilgrims might know the tale of the boy who killed a wizard. You can have this bit of dubious glory all to yourself."
Travellers swapped tales around the fire most nights, stories of everything impressive and worthwhile across the land. To be part of the real world -- that meant significance. Adulthood. Aalem's chest swelled.
A tired smile stole across Tom's face as he stuffed the book into the knapsack with the ape skeleton. He tied the pouch of mouse bones to his belt and stood. "Take care of my gifts. Everyone should have a good knife and a pet his mother hates."
Aalem grinned at this clear wisdom. The necromancer hefted the knobbly knapsack and chuckled, but his eyes were sad and far away. "And I guess that means I need a new knife."
Jonathan Olfert divides his time between international relations, martial arts, a Scout troop and a really excellent wife (not in that order). Behind her back, he flirts shamelessly with game design and pewter crafting.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Have the guts to ignore expectations sometimes. Write something unfashionable, and throw in as many layers of meaning as you can. That way, half the bad reviews just missed the point. (The other half are right. Learn from them.) Brandon Sanderson's online video lectures are a good resource, and so is Jim C. Hines' breakdown of how much writers actually make. Even if SFF is all you read and write, take a few generic English courses -- I was lucky enough to take one on the history of the novel that changed the way I see fantasy. I hear it takes about 10,000 hours in any sport or hobby to get Really Genuinely Good At It, so don't give up if you've only been writing for a couple of years and you feel like you're churning out crap. Write every day, no excuses.