I SAT IN THE back of Abenthy’s wagon. It was a wonderful place for me, home to a hundred bottles and bundles, saturated with a thousand smells. To my young mind it was usually more fun than a tinker’s cart, but not today.
It had rained heavily the night before, and the road was a thick morass of mud. Since the troupe was not on any particular schedule, we had decided to wait for a day or two to give the roads time to dry. It was a fairly common occurrence, and it happened to fall at the perfect time for Ben to further my education. So I sat at the wooden worktable in the back of Ben’s wagon and chafed at wasting the day listening to him lecture me about things I already understood.
My thoughts must have been apparent, because Abenthy sighed and sat down beside me. “Not quite what you expected, eh?”
I relaxed a bit, knowing his tone meant a temporary reprieve from the lecture. He gathered up a handful of the iron drabs that were sitting on the table and clinked them together thoughtfully in his hand.
He looked at me. “Did you learn to juggle all at once? Five balls at a time? Knives too?”
I flushed a bit at the memory. Trip hadn’t even let me try three balls at first. He’d made me juggle two. I’d even dropped them a couple of times. I told Ben so.
“Right,” Ben said. “Master this trick and you get to learn another.” I expected him to stand up and start back into the lesson, but he didn’t.
Instead he held out the handful of iron drabs. “What do you know about these?” He clattered them together in his hand.
“In what respect?” I asked. “Physically, chemically, historically—” “Historically,” he grinned, “Astound me with your grasp of historical
minutiae, E’lir.” I had asked him what E’lir meant once. He claimed it meant “wise one,” but I had my doubts from the way his mouth had quirked when he said it.
“A long time ago, the people who—” “How long ago?”
I frowned at him in mock severity. “Roughly two thousand years ago. The
nomadic folk who roamed the foothills around the Shalda Mountains were brought together under one chieftain.”
“What was his name?”
“Heldred. His sons were Heldim and Heldar. Would you like his entire lineage, or should I get to the point?” I glowered at him.
“Sorry, sir.” Ben sat up straight in his seat and assumed such an aspect of rapt attention that we both broke into grins.
I started again. “Heldred eventually controlled the foothills around the Shalda. This meant that he controlled the mountains themselves. They started to plant crops, their nomadic lifestyle was abandoned, and they slowly began to—”
“Get to the point?” Abenthy asked. He tossed the drabs onto the table in front of me.
I ignored him as best I could. “They controlled the only plentiful and easily accessible source of metal for a great distance and soon they were the most skilled workers of those metals as well. They exploited this advantage and gained a great deal of wealth and power.
“Until this point barter was the most common method of trade. Some larger cities coined their own currency, but outside those cities the money was only worth the weight of the metal. Bars of metal were better for bartering, but full bars of metal were inconvenient to carry.”
Ben gave me his best bored-student face. The effect was only slightly inhibited by the fact that he had burned his eyebrows off again about two days ago. “You’re not going to go into the merits of representational currency, are you?”
I took a deep breath and resolved not to pester Ben so much when he was lecturing me. “The no-longer-nomads, called the Cealdim by now, were the first to establish a standardized currency. By cutting one of these smaller bars into five pieces you get five drabs.” I began to piece two rows of five drabs each together to illustrate my point. They resembled little ingots of metal. “Ten drabs are the same as a copper jot; ten jots—”
“Good enough,” Ben broke in, startling me. “So these two drabs,” he held a pair out for my inspection, “Could have come from the same bar, right?”
“Actually, they probably cast them individually….” I trailed off under a glare. “Sure.”
“So there’s something still connecting them, right?” He gave me the look again.
I didn’t really agree, but knew better than to interrupt. “Right.”
He set them both on the table. “So when you move one, the other should move, right?”
I agreed for the sake of argument, then reached out to move one. But Ben stopped my hand, shaking his head. “You’ve got to remind them first. You’ve
got to convince them, in fact.”
He brought out a bowl and decanted a slow blob of pine pitch into it. He dipped one of the drabs into the pitch and stuck the other one to it, spoke several words I didn’t recognize, and slowly pulled the bits apart, strands of pitch stretching between them.
He set one on the table, keeping the other in his hand. Then he muttered something else and relaxed.
He raised his hand, and the drab on the table mimicked the motion. He danced his hand around and the brown piece of iron bobbed in the air.
He looked from me to the coin. “The law of sympathy is one of the most basic parts of magic. It states that the more similar two objects are, the greater the sympathetic link. The greater the link, the more easily they influence each other.”
“Your definition is circular.”
He set down the coin. His lecturer’s facade gave way to a grin as he tried with marginal success to wipe the pitch off of his hands with a rag. He thought for a while. “Seems pretty useless doesn’t it?”
I gave a hesitant nod, trick questions were fairly common around lesson time.
“Would you rather learn how to call the wind?” His eyes danced at me.
He murmured a word and the canvas ceiling of the wagon rustled around us.
I felt a grin capture my face, wolfish.
“Too bad, E’lir.” His grin was wolfish too, and savage. “You need to learn your letters before you can write. You need to learn the fingerings on the strings before you play and sing.”
He pulled out a piece of paper and jotted a couple of words on it. “The trick is in holding the Alar firm in your mind. You need to believe they are connected. You need to know they are.” He handed me the paper. “Here is the phonetic pronunciation. It’s called the Sympathetic Binding of Parallel Motion. Practice.” He looked even more lupine than before, old and grizzled with no eyebrows.
He left to wash his hands. I cleared my mind using Heart of Stone. Soon I was floating on a sea of dispassionate calm. I stuck the two bits of metal together with pine pitch. I fixed in my mind the Alar, the riding-crop belief, that the two drabs were connected. I said the words, pulled the coins apart, spoke the last word, and waited.
No rush of power. No flash of hot or cold. No radiant beam of light struck
I was rather disappointed. At least as disappointed as I could be in the
Heart of Stone. I lifted the coin in my hand, and the coin on the table lifted itself in a similar fashion. It was magic, there was no doubt about that. But I felt rather underwhelmed. I had been expecting…I don’t know what I’d been
expecting. It wasn’t this.
The rest of that day was spent experimenting with the simple sympathetic binding Abenthy had taught me. I learned that almost anything could be bound together. An iron drab and a silver talent, a stone and a piece of fruit, two bricks, a clod of earth and one of the donkeys. It took me about two hours to figure out that the pine pitch wasn’t necessary. When I asked him, Ben admitted that it was merely an aid for concentration. I think he was surprised that I figured it out without being told.
Let me sum up sympathy very quickly since you will probably never need to have anything other than a rough comprehension of how these things work. First, energy cannot be created or destroyed. When you are lifting one drab and the other rises off the table, the one in your hand feels as heavy as if
you’re lifting both, because, in fact, you are.
That’s in theory. In practice, it feels like you’re lifting three drabs. No sympathetic link is perfect. The more dissimilar the items, the more energy is lost. Think of it as a leaky aqueduct leading to a water wheel. A good sympathetic link has very few leaks, and most of the energy is used. A bad link is full of holes; very little of the effort you put into it goes toward what you want it to do.
For instance I tried linking a piece of chalk to a glass bottle of water. There was very little similarity between the two, so even though the bottle of water might have weighed two pounds, when I tried to lift the chalk it felt like sixty pounds. The best link I found was a tree branch I had broken in half.
After I understood this little piece of sympathy, Ben taught me others. A dozen dozen sympathetic bindings. A hundred little tricks for channeling power. Each of them was a different word in a vast vocabulary I was just beginning to speak. Quite often it was tedious, and I’m not telling you the half of it.
Ben continued giving me a smattering of lessons in other areas: history, arithmetic, and chemistry. But I grabbed at whatever he could teach me about sympathy. He doled out his secrets sparingly, making me prove I’d mastered one before giving me another. But I seemed to have a knack for it above and beyond my natural penchant for absorbing knowledge, so there was never too long a wait.
I don’t mean to imply that the road was always smooth. The same curiosity that made me such an eager student also led me into trouble with fair regularity.
One evening as I was building up my parent’s cookfire, my mother caught me chanting a rhyme I had heard the day before. Not knowing that she was behind me, she overheard as I knocked one stick of firewood against another
and absentmindedly recited:
“Seven things has Lady Lackless Keeps them underneath her black dress One a ring that’s not for wearing
One a sharp word, not for swearing Right beside her husband’s candle There’s a door without a handle
In a box, no lid or locks
Lackless keeps her husband’s rocks There’s a secret she’s been keeping She’s been dreaming and not sleeping On a road, that’s not for traveling Lackless likes her riddle raveling.”
I had heard a little girl chant it as she played hop-skip. I’d only heard it twice, but it had stuck in my head. It was memorable, as most child rhymes are.
But my mother heard me and came over to stand by the fire. “What were you just saying, sweet?” Her tone wasn’t angry, but I could tell she wasn’t pleased either.
“Something I heard back in Fallows,” I said evasively. Running off with town children was a largely forbidden activity. Distrust turns quickly to dislike, my father told new members of our troupe, so stay together when you’re in town, and be polite. I laid some heavier sticks on the fire and let the flames lick them.
My mother was silent for a while, and I was beginning to hope she would leave it alone, when she said, “It’s not a nice thing to be singing. Have you stopped to think what it’s about?”
I hadn’t, actually. It seemed mostly nonsense rhyme. But when I ran it back through my head, I saw the rather obvious sexual innuendo. “I do. I didn’t think about it before.”
Her expression grew a little gentler, and she reached down to smooth my hair, “Always think about what you’re singing, honey.”
I seemed to be out of trouble, but I couldn’t keep from asking, “How is it any different than parts of For All His Waiting? Like when Fain asks Lady Perial about her hat? ‘I heard about it from so many men I wished to see it for myself and try the fit.’ It’s pretty obvious what he’s really talking about.”
I watched her mouth grow firm, not angry, but not pleased. Then something in her face changed. “You tell me what the difference is,” she said. I hated bait questions. The difference was obvious: one would get me in
trouble, the other wouldn’t. I waited a while to make it clear I had given the matter proper consideration before I shook my head.
My mother knelt lightly in front of the fire, warming her hands. “The difference is…go fetch me the tripod, would you?” She gave me a gentle push, and I scampered off to get it from the back of our wagon as she continued, “The difference is between saying something to a person, and saying something about a person. The first might be rude, but the second is always gossip.”
I brought the tripod back and helped her set it over the fire. “Also, Lady Perial is just a character. Lady Lackless is a real person, with feelings that can be hurt.” She looked up at me.
“I didn’t know,” I protested guiltily.
I must have struck a sufficiently piteous figure because she gathered me in for a hug and a kiss, “It’s nothing to cry over, sweet one. Just remember to always think about what you’re doing.” She ran her hand over my head and smiled like the sun. “I imagine you could make it up to both Lady Lackless and myself if you found some sweet nettle for the pot tonight.”
Any excuse to escape judgment and play for a while in the tangle of trees by the roadside was good enough for me. I was gone almost before the words left her mouth.
I should also make it clear that much of the time I spent with Ben was my free time. I was still responsible for my normal duties in the troupe. I acted the part of the young page when needed. I helped paint scenery and sew costumes. I rubbed down the horses at night and rattled the sheet of tin backstage when we needed thunder onstage.
But I didn’t bemoan the loss of my free time. A child’s endless energy and my own insatiable lust for knowledge made the following year one of the happiest times I can remember.