WINTER IS A SLOW time of year for a traveling troupe, but Abenthy put it to good use and finally got around to teaching me sympathy in earnest. However, as is often the case, especially for children, the anticipation proved much more exciting than the reality.
It would be wrong to say that I was disappointed with sympathy. But honestly, I was disappointed. It was not what I expected magic to be.
It was useful. There was no denying that. Ben used sympathy to make light for our shows. Sympathy could start a fire without flint or lift a heavy weight without cumbersome ropes and pulleys.
But the first time I’d seen him, Ben had somehow called the wind. That was no mere sympathy. That was storybook magic. That was the secret I wanted more than anything.
Spring thaw was well behind us and the troupe was riding through the forests and fields of the western Commonwealth. I was riding along, as per normal, in the front of Ben’s wagon. Summer was just deciding to make itself known again and everything was green and growing.
Things had been quiet for about an hour. Ben was drowsing with the reins held loosely in one hand when the wagon hit a stone and jarred us both out of our respective reveries.
Ben pulled himself more upright in his seat, and addressed me in a tone I had grown to think of as Have-I-Got-a-Puzzle-for-You. “How would you bring a kettle of water to a boil?”
Looking around I saw a large boulder by the side of the road. I pointed. “That stone should be warm from sitting in the sun. I’d bind it to the
water in the kettle, and use the heat in the stone to bring the water to boil.” “Stone to water isn’t very efficient,” Ben chided me. “Only about one part
in fifteen would end up warming the water.” “It would work.”
“I’ll grant you that. But it’s sloppy. You can do better, E’lir.”
He then proceeded to shout at Alpha and Beta, a sign that he was in a
genuine good mood. They took it as calmly as ever, in spite of the fact that he accused them of things I’m sure no donkey has ever willingly done, especially not Beta, who possessed impeccable moral character.
Stopping midtirade, he asked, “How would you bring down that bird?” He gestured to a hawk riding the air above a wheat field to the side of the road.
“I probably wouldn’t. It’s done nothing to me.” “Hypothetically.”
“I’m saying that, hypothetically, I wouldn’t do it.”
Ben chuckled. “Point made, E’lir. Precisely how wouldn’t you do it?
“I’d get Teren to shoot it down.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Good, good. However, it is a matter between you and the bird. That hawk,” he gestured indignantly, “has said something uncouth about your mother.”
“Ah. Then my honor demands I defend her good name myself.” “Indeed it does.”
“Do I have a feather?” “No.”
“Tehlu hold and—” I bit off the rest of what I was going to say at his disapproving look. “You never make it easy, do you?”
“It’s an annoying habit I picked up from a student who was too clever for his own good.” He smiled. “What could you do even if you had a feather?”
“I’d bind it to the bird and lather it with lye soap.”
Ben furrowed his brow, such as it was. “What kind of binding?” “Chemical. Probably second catalytic.”
A thoughtful pause. “Second catalytic…” He scratched at his chin. “To dissolve the oil that makes the feather smooth?”
He looked up at the bird. “I’ve never thought of that,” he said with a kind of quiet admiration. I took it as a compliment.
“Nevertheless,” he looked back to me, “you have no feather. How do you bring it down?”
I thought for several minutes, but couldn’t think of anything. I decided to try and turn this into a different sort of lesson.
“I would,” I said casually, “simply call the wind, and make it strike the bird from the sky.”
Ben gave me a calculating look that told me he knew exactly what I was up to. “And how would you do that, E’lir?”
I sensed he might be ready to finally tell me the secret he had been keeping all through the winter months. At the same time I was struck with an idea.
I drew in a deep breath and spoke the words to bind the air in my lungs to the air outside. I fixed the Alar firmly in my mind, put my thumb and forefinger in front of my pursed lips, and blew between them.
There was a light puff of wind at my back that tousled my hair and caused the tarpaulin covering the wagon to pull taut for a moment. It might have been nothing more than a coincidence, but nevertheless, I felt an exultant smile overflow my face. For a second I did nothing but grin like a maniac at Ben, his face dull with disbelief.
Then I felt something squeeze my chest, as if I was deep underwater.
I tried to draw a breath but couldn’t. Mildly confused, I kept trying. It felt as if I’d just fallen flat on my back and had the air driven from me.
All in a rush I realized what I had done. My body exploded into a cold sweat and I grabbed frantically at Ben’s shirt, pointing at my chest, my neck, my open mouth.
Ben’s face turned from shocked to ashen as he looked at me.
I realized how still everything was. Not a blade of grass was stirring.
Even the sound of the wagon seemed muted, as if far off in the distance.
Terror screamed through my mind, drowning out any thought. I began to claw at my throat, ripping my shirt open. My heart thundered through the ringing in my ears. Pain stabbed through my straining chest as I gaped for air. Moving more quickly than I had ever seen before, Ben grabbed me by the tatters of my shirt and sprang from the seat of the wagon. Landing in the grass by the side of the road, he dashed me to the ground with such a force that, if
I’d had any air in my lungs, it would have been driven out of me.
Tears streaked my face as I thrashed blindly. I knew that I was going to die. My eyes felt hot and red. I raked madly at the earth with hands that were numb and cold as ice.
I was aware of someone shouting, but it seemed very far away. Ben kneeled above me, but the sky was getting dim behind him. He seemed almost distracted, as if he were listening to something I couldn’t hear.
Then he looked at me, all I remember were his eyes, they seemed far away and filled with a terrible power, dispassionate and cold.
He looked at me. His mouth moved. He called the wind.
A leaf in lightning, I shook. And the thunderclap was black.
The next thing I remember was Ben helping me to my feet. I was dimly aware of the other wagons stopping and curious faces peering at us. My mother came away from our wagon and Ben met her halfway, chuckling and saying something reassuring. I couldn’t make out the words as I was focused on breathing deep, in and out.
The other wagons trundled on, and I followed Ben mutely back to his
wagon. He made a show of puttering around, checking the cords that held the tarpaulin tight. I collected my wits and was helping as best I could when the final wagon in the troupe passed us.
When I looked up, Ben’s eyes were furious. “What were you thinking?” he hissed. “Well? What? What were you thinking?” I’d never seen him like this before, his whole body drawn up into a tight knot of anger. He was shaking with it. He drew back his arm to strike me…then stopped. After a moment his hand fell to his side.
Moving methodically he checked the last couple of ropes and climbed back onto the wagon. Not knowing what else to do, I followed him.
Ben twitched the reins and Alpha and Beta tugged the wagon into motion. We were last in line now. Ben stared straight ahead. I fingered the torn front of my shirt. It was tensely silent.
In hindsight, what I had done was glaringly stupid. When I bound my breath to the air outside, it made it impossible for me to breathe. My lungs weren’t strong enough to move that much air. I would have needed a chest like an iron bellows. I would have had as much luck trying to drink a river or lift a mountain.
We rode for about two hours in an uncomfortable silence. The sun was brushing the tops of the trees when Ben finally drew in a deep breath and let it out in an explosive sigh. He handed me the reins.
When I looked back at him I realized for the first time how old he was. I had always known he was nearing his third score of years, but I’d never seen him look it before.
“I lied to your mother back there, Kvothe. She saw the end of what happened and was worried about you.” His eyes didn’t move from the wagon ahead of ours as he spoke. “I told her we were working on something for a performance. She’s a good woman. She deserves better than lies.”
We rode on in an endless agony of silence, but it was still a few hours before sunset when I heard voices calling “Greystone!” down the line. The bump of our wagon turning onto the grass jostled Ben from his brooding.
He looked around and saw the sun was still in the sky. “Why are we stopping so early? Tree across the road?”
“Greystone.” I gestured up ahead to the slab of stone that loomed over the tops of the wagons ahead of us.
“Every once in a while we run across one by the road.” I gestured again to the greystone peering over the tops of smaller trees by the roadside. Like most greystones it was a crudely hewn rectangle about a dozen feet tall. The wagons gathering around it seemed rather insubstantial compared to the stone’s solid presence. “I’ve heard them called standing stones, but I’ve seen a lot of them that weren’t standing, just lying on their sides. We always stop
for the day when we find one, unless we’re in a terrible hurry.” I stopped, realizing I was babbling.
“I’ve known them by a different name. Waystones,” Ben said quietly. He looked old and tired. After a moment he asked, “Why do you stop when you find one?”
“We just always do. It’s a break from the road.” I thought for a moment. “I think they’re supposed to be good luck.” I wished I had more to say to keep the conversation going, his interest piqued, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
“I suppose they could be at that.” Ben guided Alpha and Beta into a spot on the far side of the stone, away from most of the other wagons. “Come back for dinner or soon afterward. We need to talk.” He turned without looking at me and began to unhitch Alpha from the wagon.
I’d never seen Ben in a mood like this before. Worried that I’d ruined things between us, I turned and ran to my parents’ wagon.
I found my mother sitting in front of a fresh fire, slowly adding twigs to build it up. My father sat behind her, rubbing her neck and shoulders. They both looked up at the sound of my feet running toward them.
“Can I eat with Ben tonight?”
My mother looked up at my father, then back to me. “You shouldn’t make yourself a nuisance, dear.”
“He invited. If I go now, I can help him set up for the night.”
She wiggled her shoulders, and my father started rubbing them again. She smiled at me. “Fair enough, but don’t keep him up until the wee hours.” She smiled at me. “Give me a kiss.” She held out her arms and I gave her a hug and a kiss.
My father gave me a kiss too. “Let me have your shirt. It’ll give me something to do while your mother fixes dinner.” He skinned me out of it and fingered the torn edges. “This shirt is wholly holey, more than it has any right to be.”
I started to stammer out an explanation but he waved it aside. “I know, I know, it was all for the greater good. Try to be more careful, or I’ll make you sew it yourself. There’s a fresh one in your trunk. Bring me needle and thread while you’re in there, if you’d be so kind.”
I made a dash into the back of the wagon and drew on a fresh shirt. While I rummaged around for needle and thread I heard my mother singing:
“In evening when the sun is setting fast, I’ll watch for you from high above
The time for your return is long since past But mine is ever-faithful love.”
My father answered:
“In evening when the light is dying My feet at last are homeward turning
The wind is through the willows sighing Please keep the hearthfire burning.”
When I came out of the wagon, he had her in a dramatic dip and was giving her a kiss. I set the needle and thread next to my shirt and waited. It seemed like a good kiss. I watched with a calculating eye, dimly aware that at some point in the future I might want to kiss a lady. If I did, I wanted to do a decent job of it.
After a moment my father noticed me and stood my mother back on her feet. “That will be ha’penny for the show, Master Voyeur,” he laughed. “What are you still here for, boy? I’ll bet you the same ha’penny that a question slowed you down.”
“Why do we stop for the greystones?”
“Tradition, my boy,” he said grandly, throwing his arms wide. “And superstition. They are one and the same, anyway. We stop for good luck and because everyone enjoys an unexpected holiday.” He paused. “I used to know a bit of poem about them. How did it go…?
“Like a drawstone even in our sleep Standing stone by old road is the way To lead you ever deeper into Fae.
Laystone as you lay in hill or dell
Greystone leads to something something ‘ell’.”
My father stood for a second or two looking off into space and tugging at his lower lip. Finally he shook his head. “Can’t remember the end of that last line. Lord but I dislike poetry. How can anyone remember words that aren’t put to music?” His forehead creased with concentration as he mouthed the words silently to himself.
“What’s a drawstone?” I asked.
“It’s an old name for loden-stones,” my mother explained. “They’re pieces of star-iron that draw all other iron toward themselves. I saw one years ago in a curiosity cabinet.” She looked up at my father who was still muttering to himself. “We saw the loden-stone in Peleresin, didn’t we?”
“Hmmm? What?” The question jogged him out of his reverie. “Yes. Peleresin.” He tugged at his lip again and frowned. “Remember this, son, if
you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can’t sing. Words have to find a man’s mind before they can touch his heart, and some men’s minds are woeful small targets. Music touches their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.”
My mother made a slightly unladylike snort. “Elitist. You’re just getting old.” She gave a dramatic sigh. “Truly, all the more’s the tragedy; the second thing to go is a man’s memory.”
My father puffed up into an indignant pose but my mother ignored him and said to me, “Besides, the only tradition that keeps troupes by the greystone is laziness. The poem should run like this:
“Whatever the season That I’m on the road I look for a reason Loden or laystone
To lay down my load.”
My father had a dark glimmer in his eye as he moved behind her. “Old?” He spoke in a low voice as he began to rub her shoulders again. “Woman, I have a mind to prove you wrong.”
She smiled a wry smile. “Sir, I have a mind to let you.”
I decided to leave them to their discussion and started to scamper back to Ben’s wagon when I heard my father call out behind me, “Scales after lunch tomorrow? And the second act of Tinbertin?”
“Okay.” I burst into a jog.
When I got back to Ben’s wagon he had already unhitched Alpha and Beta and was rubbing them down. I started to set up the fire, surrounding dry leaves with a pyramid of progressively larger twigs and branches. When I was finished I turned to where Ben sat.
More silence. I could almost see him picking out his words as he spoke. “How much do you know about your father’s new song?”
“The one about Lanre?” I asked. “Not much. You know what he’s like. No one hears it until it’s finished. Not even me.”
“I’m not talking about the song itself,” Ben said. “The story behind it.
I thought about the dozens of stories I’d heard my father collect over the last year, trying to pick out the common threads. “Lanre was a prince,” I said. “Or a king. Someone important. He wanted to be more powerful than anyone else in the world. He sold his soul for power but then something went wrong and afterward I think he went crazy, or he couldn’t ever sleep again, or…” I stopped when I saw Ben shaking his head.
“He didn’t sell his soul,” Ben said. “That’s just nonsense.” He gave a great sigh that seemed to leave him deflated. “I’m doing this all wrong. Never mind your father’s song. We’ll talk about it after he finishes it. Knowing Lanre’s story might give you some perspective.”
Ben took a deep breath and tried again. “Suppose you have a thoughtless six-year-old. What harm can he do?”
I paused, unsure what sort of answer he wanted. Straightforward would probably be best. “Not much.”
“Suppose he’s twenty, and still thoughtless, how dangerous is he?”
I decided to stick with the obvious answers. “Still not much, but more than before.”
“What if you give him a sword?”
Realization started to dawn on me, and I closed my eyes. “More, much more. I understand, Ben. Really I do. Power is okay, and stupidity is usually harmless. Power and stupidity together are dangerous.”
“I never said stupid,” Ben corrected me. “You’re clever. We both know that. But you can be thoughtless. A clever, thoughtless person is one of the most terrifying things there is. Worse, I’ve been teaching you some dangerous things.”
Ben looked at the fire I’d laid out, then picked up a leaf, mumbled a few words, and watched a small flame flicker into life in the center of the twigs and tinder. He turned to look at me. “You could kill yourself doing something as simple as that.” He gave a sickly grin. “Or looking for the name of the wind.”
He started to say something else, then stopped and rubbed his face with his hands. He gave a great sigh that seemed to deflate him. When he took his hands away, his face was tired. “How old are you again?”
“Twelve next month.”
He shook his head. “It’s so easy to forget that. You don’t act your age.” He poked at the fire with a stick, “I was eighteen when I began at the University,” he said. “I was twenty before I knew as much as you do now.” He stared into the fire. “I’m sorry Kvothe. I need to be alone tonight. I need to do some thinking.”
I nodded silently. I went to his wagon, gathered tripod and kettle, water and tea. I brought them back and quietly laid them beside Ben. He was still staring into the fire when I turned away.
Knowing my parents wouldn’t expect me back for a while, I headed into the forest. I had some thinking of my own to do. I owed Ben that much. I wished I could do more.
It took a full span of days before Ben was his normal, jovial self again. But
even then things weren’t the same between us. We were still fast friends, but there was something between us, and I could tell he was consciously holding himself apart.
Lessons ground to a near standstill. He halted my fledgling study of alchemy, limiting me to chemistry instead. He refused to teach me any sygaldry at all, and on top of everything else, he began to ration what little sympathy he thought safe for me.
I chafed at the delays, but held my peace, trusting that if I showed myself to be responsible and meticulously careful, he would eventually relax and things would return to normal. We were family, and I knew that any trouble between us would eventually be smoothed over. All I needed was time.
Little did I know our time was quickly drawing to an end.