Maps in a mirror, p.63

Maps in a Mirror, page 63


Maps in a Mirror

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  For five minutes more Cer’s father lived, his chest heaving in the agony of breath. He may have died of pain, but Cer did not think so, for his father was not the kind to give in to pain. He may have died of suffocation, for one lung was gone and every breath was excruciating, but Cer did not think so, for his father kept breathing to the end. It was loss of blood, Cer decided, weeks later. It was when his body was dry, when the veins collapsed, that Cer’s father died.

  He never uttered a sound. Cer’s father would never let the Nefyrre hear him so much as sigh in pain.

  Cer’s mother screamed and screamed until blood came from her mouth and she fainted.

  Cer stood in silence until his father died. Then when the captain, a smirk on his face, walked near Cer and looked in his face, Cer kicked him in the groin.

  They cut off Cer’s great toes, but like his father, Cer made no sound.

  Then the Nefyrre left and the uncles came.

  Uncle Forwin vomited. Uncle Erwin wept. Uncle Crune put his arm around Cer’s shoulder as the servants bound his maimed feet and said, “Your father was a great, a brave man. He killed many Nefyrre, and burned many wagons. But the Nefyrre are strong.”

  Uncle Crune squeezed Cer’s shoulder. “Your father was stronger. But he was one, and they were many.”

  Cer looked away.

  “Will you not look at your uncle?” Uncle Crune asked.

  “My father,” Cer said, “did not think that he was alone.”

  Uncle Crune got up and walked away. Cer never saw the uncles again.

  He and his mother had to leave the house and the fields, for a Nefyr farmer had been given the land to farm for the King of Nefyryd. With no money, they had to move south, across the River Greebeck into the drylands near the desert, where no rivers flowed and so only the hardiest plants lived. They lived the winter on the charity of the desperately poor. In the summer, when the heat came, so did the Poor Plague which swept the drylands. The cure was fresh fruits, but fresh fruits came from Yffyrd and Suffyrd and only the rich could buy them, and the poor died by the thousands. Cer’s mother was one of them.

  They took her out on the sand to burn her body and free her spirit. As they painted her with tar (tar, at least, cost nothing, if a man had a bucket), five horsemen came to the brow of a dune to watch. At first Cer thought they were Nefyrre, but no. The poor people looked up and saluted the strangers, which Greetmen never do the enemy. These, then, were desert men, the Abadapnur nomads, who raided the rich farms of Greet during dry years, but who never harmed the poor.

  We hated them, Cer thought, when we were rich. But now we are poor, and they are our friends.

  His mother burned as the sun set.

  Cer watched until the flames went out. The moon was high for the second time that night. Cer said a prayer to the moonlady over his mother’s bones and ashes and then he turned and left.

  He stopped at their hut and gathered the little food they had, and put on his father’s tin ring, which the Nefyrre had thought was valueless, but which Cer knew was the sign of the Cemreet family’s authority since forever ago.

  Then Cer walked north.

  He lived by killing rats in barns and cooking them. He lived by begging at poor farmer’s doors, for the rich farmers had servants to turn away beggars. That, at least, Cer remembered, his father had never done. Beggars always had a meal at his father’s house.

  Cer also lived by stealing when he could hunt or beg no food. He stole handfuls of raw wheat. He stole carrots from gardens. He stole water from wells, for which he could have lost his life in this rainless season. He stole, one time, a fruit from a rich man’s food wagon.

  It burned his mouth, it was so cold and the acid so strong. It dribbled down his chin. As a poor man and a thief, Cer thought, I now eat a thing so dear that even my father, who was called wealthy, could never buy it.

  And at last he saw the mountains in the north. He walked on, and in a week the mountains were great cliffs and steep slopes of shale. The Mitherkame, where the king of the High Mountains reigned, and Cer began to climb.

  He climbed all one day and slept in a cleft of a rock. He moved slowly, for climbing in sandals was clumsy, and without his great toes Cer could not climb barefoot. The next morning he climbed more. Though he nearly fell one time when falling would have meant crashing a mile down onto the distant plain, at last he reached the knifelike top of the Mitherkame, and heaven.

  For of a sudden the stone gave way to soil. Not the pale sandy soil of the drylands, nor the red soil of Greet, but the dark black soil of the old songs from the north, the soil that could not be left alone for a day or it would sprout plants that in a week would be a forest.

  And there was a forest, and the ground was thick with grass. Cer had seen only a few trees in his life, and they had been olive trees, short and gnarled, and fig sycamores, that were three times the height of a man. These were twenty times the height of a man and ten steps around, and the young trees shot up straight and tall so that not a sapling was as small as Cer, who for twelve years old was not considered small.

  To Cer, who had known only wheat and hay and olive orchards, the forest was more magnificent than the mountain or the city or the river or the moon.

  He slept under a huge tree. He was very cold that night. And in the morning he realized that in a forest he would find no farms, and where there were no farms there was no food for him. He got up and walked deeper into the forest. There were people in the High Mountains, else there would be no king, and Cer would find them. If he didn’t, he would die. But at least he would not die in the realms of the Nefyrre.

  He passed many bushes with edible berries, but he did not know they could be eaten so he did not eat. He passed many streams with slow stupid fish that he could have caught, but in Greet fish was never eaten, because it always carried disease, and so Cer caught no fish.

  And on the third day, when he began to feel so weak from hunger that he could walk no longer, he met the treemage.

  He met him because it was the coldest night yet, and at last Cer tore branches from a tree to make a fire. But the wood did not light, and when Cer looked up he saw that the trees had moved. They were coming closer, surrounding him tightly. He watched them, and they did not move as he watched, but when he turned around the ones he had not been watching were closer yet. He tried to run, but the low branches made a tight fence he could not get through. He couldn’t climb, either, because the branches all stabbed downward. Bleeding from the twigs he had scraped, Cer went back to his camping place and watched as the trees at last made a solid wall around him.

  And he waited. What else could he do in his wooden prison?

  In the morning he heard a man singing, and he called for help.

  “Oh ho,” he heard a voice say in a strange accent. “Oh ho, a tree cutter and a firemaker, a branch killer and a forest hater.”

  “I’m none of those,” Cer said. “It was cold, and I tried to build a fire only to keep warm.”

  “A fire, a fire,” the voice said. “In this small part of the world there are no fires of wood. But that’s a young voice I hear, and I doubt there’s a beard beneath the words.”

  “I have no beard,” Cer answered. “I have no weapon, except a knife too small to harm you.”

  “A knife? A knife that tears sap from living limbs, Redwood says. A knife that cuts twigs like soft manfingers, says Elm. A knife that stabs bark till it bleeds, says Sweet Aspen. Break your knife,” said the voice outside the trees, “and I will open your prison.”

  “But it’s my only knife,” Cer protested, “and I need it.”

  “You need it here like you need fog on a dark night. Break it or you’ll die before these trees move again.”

  Cer broke his knife.

  Behind him he heard a sound, and he turned to see a fat old man standing in a clear space between the trees. A moment before there had been no clear space.

  “A child,” said the man.

  “A fat old man,
said Cer, angry at being considered as young as his years.

  “An illbred child at that,” said the man. “But perhaps he knows no better, for from the accent of his speech I would say he comes from Greetland, and from his clothing I would say he was poor, and it’s well known in Mitherwee that there are no manners in Greet.”

  Cer snatched up the blade of his knife and ran at the man. Somehow there were many sharp-pointed branches in the way, and his hand ran into a hard limb, knocking the blade to the ground.

  “Oh, my child,” said the man kindly. “There is death in your heart.”

  The branches were gone, and the man reached out his hands and touched Cer’s face. Cer jerked away.

  “And the touch of a man brings pain to you.” The man sighed. “How inside out your world must be.”

  Cer looked at the man coldly. He could endure taunting. But was that kindness in the old man’s eyes?

  “You look hungry,” said the old man.

  Cer said nothing.

  “If you care to follow me, you may. I have food for you, if you like.”

  Cer followed him.

  They went through the forest, and Cer noticed that the old man stopped to touch many of the trees. And a few he pointedly snubbed, turning his back or taking a wider route around them. Once he stopped and spoke to a tree that had lost a large limb—recently, too, Cer thought, because the tar on the stump was still soft. “Soon there’ll be no pain at all,” the old man said to the tree. Then the old man sighed again. “Ah, yes, I know. And many a walnut in the falling season.”

  Then they reached a house. If it could be called a house, Cer thought. Stones were the walls, which was common enough in Greet, but the roof was living wood—thick branches from nine tall trees, interwoven and heavily leaved, so that Cer was sure no drop of rain could ever come inside.

  “You admire my roof?” the old man asked. “So tight that even in the winter, when the leaves are gone, the snow cannot come in. But we can,” he said, and led the way through a low door into a single room.

  The old man kept up a constant chatter as he fixed breakfast: berries and cream, stewed acorns, and thick slices of cornbread. The old man named all the foods for Cer, because except for the cream it was all strange to him. But it was good, and it filled him.

  “Acorn from the Oaks,” said the old man. “Walnuts from the trees of that name. And berries from the bushes, the neartrees. Corn, of course, comes from an untree, a weak plant with no wood, which dies every year.”

  “The trees don’t die every year, then, even though it snows?” Cer asked, for he had heard of snow.

  “Their leaves turn bright colors, and then they fall, and perhaps that’s a kind of death,” said the old man. “But in Eanan the snow melts and by Blowan there are leaves again on all the trees.”

  Cer did not believe him, but he didn’t disbelieve him either. Trees were strange things.

  “I never knew that trees in the High Mountains could move.”

  “Oh ho,” laughed the old man. “And neither can they, except here, and other woods that a treemage tends.”

  “A treemage? Is there magic then?”

  “Magic. Oh ho,” the man laughed again. “Ah yes, magic, many magics, and mine is the magic of trees.”

  Cer squinted. The man did not look like a man of power, and yet the trees had penned an intruder in. “You rule the trees here?”

  “Rule?” the old man asked, startled. “What a thought. Indeed no. I serve them. I protect them. I give them the power in me, and they give me the power in them, and it makes us all a good deal more powerful. But rule? That just doesn’t enter into magic. What a thought.”

  Then the old man chattered about the doings of the silly squirrels this year, and when Cer was through eating the old man gave him a bucket and they spent the morning gathering berries. “Leave a berry on the bush for every one you pick,” the old man said. “They’re for the birds in the fall and for the soil in the Kamesun, when new bushes grow.”

  And so Cer, quite accidentally, began his life with the treemage, and it was as happy a time as Cer ever had in his life, except when he was a child and his mother sang to him and except for the time his father took him hunting deer in the hills of Wetfell.

  And after the autumn when Cer marveled at the colors of the leaves, and after the winter when Cer tramped through the snow with the treemage to tend to ice-splintered branches, and after the spring when Cer thinned the new plants so the forest did not become overgrown, the treemage began to think that the dark places in Cer’s heart were filled with light, or at least put away where they could not be found.

  He was wrong.

  For as he gathered leaves for the winter’s fires. Cer dreamed he was gathering the bones of his enemies. And as he tramped the snow he dreamed he was marching into battle to wreak death on the Nefyrre. And as he thinned the treestarts Cer dreamed of slaying each of the uncles as his father had been slain, because none of them had stood by him in his danger.

  Cer dreamed of vengeance, and his heart grew darker even as the wood was filled with the bright light of the summer sun.

  One day he said to the treemage, “I want to learn magic.”

  The treemage smiled with hope. “You’re learning it,” he said, “and I’ll gladly teach you more.”

  “I want to learn things of power.”

  “Ah,” said the treemage, disappointed. “Ah, then, you can have no magic.”

  “You have power,” said Cer. “I want it also.”

  “Oh, indeed,” said the treemage. “I have the power of two legs and two arms, the power to heat tar over a peat fire to stop the sap flow from broken limbs, the power to cut off diseased branches to save the tree, the power to teach the trees how and when to protect themselves. All the rest is the power of the trees, and none of it is mine.”

  “But they do your bidding,” said Cer.

  “Because I do theirs!” the treemage said, suddenly angry. “Do you think that there is slavery in this wood? Do you think I am a king? Only men allow men to rule them. Here in this wood there is only love, and on that love and by that love the trees and I have the magic of the wood.”

  Cer looked down, disappointed. The treemage misunderstood, and thought that Cer was contrite.

  “Ah, my boy,” said the treemage. “You haven’t learned it, I see. The root of magic is love, the trunk is service. The treemages love the trees and serve them and then they share treemagic with the trees. Lightmages love the sun and make fires at night, and the fire serves them as they serve the fire. Horsemages love and serve horses, and they ride freely whither they will because of the magic in the herd. There is field magic and plain magic, and the magic of rocks and metals, songs and dances, the magic of winds and weathers. All built on love, all growing through service.”

  “I must have magic,” said Cer.

  “Must you?” asked the treemage. “Must you have magic? There are kinds of magic, then, that you might have. But I can’t teach them to you.”

  “What are they?”

  “No,” said the treemage, and he wouldn’t speak again.

  Cer thought and thought. What magic could be demanded against anyone’s will?

  And at last, when he had badgered and nagged the treemage for weeks, the treemage angrily gave in. “Will you know then?” the treemage snapped. “I will tell you. There is seamagic, where the wicked sailors serve the monsters of the deep by feeding them living flesh. Would you do that?” But Cer only waited for more.

  “So that appeals to you,” said the treemage. “Then you will be delighted at desert magic.”

  And now Cer saw a magic he might use. “How is that performed?”

  “I know not,” said the treemage icily. “It is the blackest of the magics to men of my kind, though your dark heart might leap to it. There’s only one magic darker.”

  “And what is that?” asked Cer.

  “What a fool I was to take you in,” said the treemage. “The wounds in you
r heart, you don’t want them to heal; you love to pick at them and let them fester.”

  “What is the darkest magic?” demanded Cer.

  “The darkest magic,” said the treemage, “is one, thank the moon, that you can never practice. For to do it you have to love men and love the love of men more than your own life. And love is as far from you as the sea is from the mountains, as the earth is from the sky.”

  “The sky touches the earth,” said Cer.

  “Touches, but never do they meet,” said the treemage.

  Then the treemage handed Cer a basket, which he had just filled with bread and berries and a flagon of streamwater. “Now go.”

  “Go?” asked Cer.

  “I hoped to cure you, but you won’t have a cure. You clutch at your suffering too much to be healed.”

  Cer reached out his foot toward the treemage, the crusty scars still a deep red where his great toe had been.

  “As well you might try to restore my foot.”

  “Restore?” asked the treemage. “I restore nothing. But I staunch, and heal, and I help the trees forget their lost limbs. For if they insist on rushing sap to the limb as if it were still there, they lose all their sap; they dry, they wither, they die.”

  Cer took the basket.

  “Thank you for your kindness,” said Cer. “I’m sorry that you don’t understand. But just as the tree can never forgive the ax or the flame, there are those that must die before I can truly live again.”

  “Get out of my wood,” said the treemage. “Such darkness has no place here.”

  And Cer left, and in three days came to the edge of the Mitherkame, and in two days reached the bottom of the cliffs, and in a few weeks reached the desert. For he would learn desertmagic. He would serve the sand, and the sand would serve him.

  On the way the soldiers of Nefyryd stopped him and searched him. When they saw that he had no great toes, they beat him and shaved off his young and scraggly beard and sent him on his way with a kick.

  Cer even stopped where his father’s farm had been. Now all the farms were farmed by Nefyrre, men of the south who had never owned land before. They drove him away, afraid that he might steal. So he snuck back in the night and from his father’s storehouse stole meat and from his father’s barn stole a chicken.

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