A Clear Sort Of Craze
By King Xia
Nathan leaned down onto the wall, sighing. Dish duty was the worst work he could be assigned. The ennui caused by the task was second to no other, and the nuns knew it, doling out the task with none of the generosity or kindness they should have held. Nathan was not the best worker, nor was he able to force his thoughts to tarry on any given task for too long. Surely it wasn’t his fault there were things of greater interest in the world! But the nuns stated it his fault, and here, their word was the final word. Unless the nobility saw fit to say otherwise, but they stayed out of such tedious affairs.
Now, it couldn’t hurt to quit this task, could it? There was that cove he had just discovered yesterday, and the castle had dishes in excess. These dishes wouldn’t be needed, at least not for weeks! In fact, Nathan figured, the nuns would be glad to have one less servant underfoot, at least for a little bit. It couldn’t hurt. Not in the least.
~ ~ ~
Lynn tried, she really did. But there was no ending the boy’s gallivanting, nor his willful behavior. One could only wait for such things to fade. But Nathan did not have that luxury. He had been taken in as a forsaken child, and Lynn had only just convinced the castle to allow the boy to stay. He had to be useful around the castle, and after thirteen years, the nobility was considering throwing Nathan out, along with a great deal of the other servants who were not carrying their load. The other servants Lynn did not carry such great relation to, but Nathan…she had raised the boy since he was naught but a baby, taking Nathan as her own as she could not truly have her own child. Her faith denied her that choice, she willingly gave this right away when she was first inducted, not knowing how it would affect her later on. But regretting what has already occurred would not change the future. So Lynn took Nathan as a consolation of sorts, though he was of greater significance than that now.
Lynn cursed to herself – or nearly did so, catching herself just before the event – when she found Nathan, or rather an absence of Nathan, cleaning dishes. That boy was off getting into trouble again…How would she win over the head of staff this round? She could attend to that later. For now, where in God’s wrath was that blasted boy?
~ ~ ~
Lynn had given Nathan quite the chewing out when he finally ran out of the cove. It was such an excellent site, though! Lynn hadn’t found the location until he was tricked into shouting out. The verbal lashing which he was given after was little cost for this discovery. Of course, he would be given another task, what a bother. The dishes couldn’t have been that great a loss though!
To Nathan’s delight, the task given in rebuke to his actions was nothing at all! Just a delivery. That was nothing at all! He’d quickly finish that and go continue to excavate the cove today. If only all these tasks were this easy-looking.
~ ~ ~
Rale was crazy. Bonkers. Totally, utterly nutters. Everybody but the king knew it, but the king was convinced of his ability as a sorcerer, though for the twenty-odd years Rale had resided at the castle, he had yet to ostend even the least sign of bearing such skill. Things had gotten better as of late, at least. The king had transferred his quarters to the northern tower, at the beleaguered requests of his advisors and the castle’s inhabitants alike, and now things were quieter. Before, when his quarters were on the ground, there would be fires every fortnight, and a the “lab” would give birth to a variety of noises – quiet as unnerving hissings, or as loud as deafening outbursts – all through the day, and all through the night. Occasionally there would be a yell – whether it was of agony or of delight, nobody knew, and nobody bothered to find out. The king would never tell anyone, but the treasury had felt the brunt of rebuilding Rale’s shack of a hovel again and again. A tower of stone would be a good deal tougher to wreck…and to rebuild. (Though the king did not let his thoughts dwell on this last though for very long.)
The only downside to this tower of Rale’s was the necessity of food and Rale’s own indulgences. The stairs stretched the furthest of any in the castle, yet food was necessary and so were (as Rale solicited) the ingredients which the crazy requested. This service was given to whichever servant could be tricked or bribed into the task. Nobody looked forward to ascending the tower, yet one servant or another had to act as a courier for Rale. The tower had a good one-thousand stairs, the legend went. Nobody had ever bothered to count, or those who did quickly lost either track or interest.
And now, Nathan faced this task, ignorance of how tough it would be altering his feelings. That ignorance was soon to fade, like the echoes of Nathan’s heavy feet as he ascended the tower. That dish of sandwiches had not been quite this heavy when he had first started, Nathan was sure of it. It was slowly gaining weight – was it an enchanted dish which created sandwiches? No. There were still four sandwiches on the dish. Why was it so heavy?
Nathan’s belly slowly began to overflow with nothing, and the sandwiches began to entice the boy. It would both give energy and reduce his load! But he could not eat one, he knew that. So he toiled on, footfall by footfall by lead-footed footfall…
~ ~ ~
Nathan was heaving as he finally knocked on the dry wood of Rale’s door. Barely calling the strength to raise his hand, he hit the door with the flesh side of his fist. Once…twice…the sound echoed hollowly through the lodging beyond. No answer.
Exhaustion began to turn to anger. Had he seriously just ascended these accursed stairs only to have Rale absent? Nathan cursed, loudly, beginning to turn back down the stairs. At least he could eat the sandwiches on the way down.
“Hey now, don’t be using that sort of language here!”
Nathan nearly fell down the stairs in shock at this sudden voice. The sandwiches shook, but did not fall. “Y-yes sir!” Was this Rale? The voice sounded far too energetic. And young!
“And don’t be a laggard either! The door, quickly, quickly!”
Nathan shoved the door ajar with one shoulder, only to be shouted away by Rale. “No, no, no! Not you!” He closed the door in fright. “No boy, that wasn’t at you. Get in here.”
Nathan walked in, now quite unsure of anything.
~ ~ ~
Rale was nothing like the tales Nathan had heard. He was no short dwarf with a beard as long as a horse, and neither was he a tall giant, with legs thick as haystacks. His eyes did not burn with the fury of Hell, and his fingers were not lined in silver. Instead, he looked to be a cleanly sort of being, and his clothing was not stained, charred, or eaten away by acid.
“Well?” He asked of Nathan in an irritated fashion. “What do you want?”
“Your food, sir.”
“I have none, so, off with you!”
“No, I bring your food!”
“Oh, good. Enter, quickly! ‘Ware the rug!” Nathan was already in, and the floor was quite bare, but Nathan did not contradict Rale. Better to get this over with, even though none of the tales rang true. Save for the lunacy.
“Would you like one?” Rale offered Nathan a sandwich.
“Oh no, I just ate. I should-” Nathan’s hunger betrayed itself with a low growl.
“No, I insist. Salt?”
“No, that’s fine.” Nathan grudgingly took the food, quickly biting into it.
“Good lad. Can’t stand the stuff.”
There was no talk for a second or two, the sound of concentrated chewing filling the area. Then, “So you’re a servant? Where did the last one get off to?”
“Don’t know.” Nathan said around a bite of bread.
“I wonder if the alligators got her…”
“Oh, don’t worry. They can’t fly yet, so you’re quite safe here.”
Nathan hadn’t the foggiest idea what an alligator was, but unsolicited thoughts of terrible flying creatures belching fire hijacked his attention. Curiosity got the better of his senses. “Do they breathe fire?”
“Are you crazy, boy? Of course not! Why do you think that?”
Nathan nearly laughed at this lunatic calling others insane, but caught and strangled it before it could conjure itself into existence.
“Well, I only thought…”
“No, you wouldn’t have known what they are. It’s a sad, sad thing, though. They haven’t been teaching you, have they?”
Nathan blushed. It wasn’t a lack of effort on the teacher’s behalf, nor a fault of their own. Their lessons were just so….tedious! The boy voiced this.
“Oh, good! Bunch of blathering idiots, they are. Don’t let their senseless jabber get to you. But you still should be taught in one way or another.”
Silence was sovereign once again.
“I know! I’ll take you in!”
“You will?” When did I agree to such a thing? Nathan wondered.
“I shall, I shall! It’s been since forever since I had a student! Or even since never! You like green, correct?”
Nathan found his head nodding along, as if he had lost all control of his body.
~ ~ ~
Nathan took Rale’s offer – it was an assertion, really, rather than an offer – seeing it as a boon of sorts. He would be delivering food and ingredients to Rale, so studying under Rale would at least give Nathan a little (however trivial the education) benefit for the arduous journey.
The weeks went by, and gradually Nathan took interest in what Rale had to offer. The so-called “sorcerer” was as insane as the tales said, but one could find a certain clarity to it all. Nathan’s friends thought that the insanity was contagious when he tried to reason his way through this. It didn’t further his case that he never succeeded in successfully backing the warrant. Lynn was glad that Nathan wasn’t off adventuring every day, and was tending to his tasks. He was also learning – though there were those who would call the obscurities Nathan was being taught not learning at all – which greatly astonished all who knew the easily-bored boy. Lynn was also concerned for the boy, not sure what he was getting into. Dealing with a lunatic was never safe, and those who believed they wielded abilities beyond the ken of the average being held greater danger.
Danger or no, Nathan was learning and growing. The saga that was the journey to Rale’s quarters had to be undertaken thrice a day, and that was if Rale had not received any deliveries. It was nothing short of a heroic feat to do it so often, but Nathan slowly built the required constitution. He soon found he was able to ascend the tower in its entirety without yielding to fatigue at the landing, to his joy.
Nathan’s hunger for knowledge of the “arcane” and the scholarly – which had bided in latency until now – was satisfied by Rale’s lectures, and on the days in which they weren’t quite enough, Nathan would take a book back to his quarters to devour before dozing off , face buried in the book.
Rale was a fraud; he had acknowledged this in the first lesson, but told Nathan in a hushed tone, as if telling a great secret, thinking his act to be flawless. Though he did not know any true sorcery, he knew the art of deceit, knowledge he gave to Nathan within the lessons, as well. Unfortunately, his insanity was not an act.
But the benefits Nathan gained in studying under Rale were not without their drawbacks. He found that he went gallivanting with friends far less often, electing to go off in search of strychnine, or safflower, or any other of the legions of herbs which were referenced in the arcane texts instead. Those servants who did not know Nathan so well began to doubt his sanity as well, or began to believe Rale actually had sorcerous ability. Why else would Nathan so willingly take on that crazy task? They did not know what to think, or what abilities Nathan wielded. And the unknown has always caused fear.
~ ~ ~
This all discharged one fine day. The sun shone overhead, not bearing any hint of what was to befall Nathan that day, laying a façade over the boy. A trio of boys – large, bulky boys, the sort who always sneak into existence – closed quarters with Nathan as he was delivering a crate to Rale. He was carrying a crateful of various ingredients and vials. One of the boys – the leader, in all likelihood – accosted Nathan.
“We heard you been ‘sortin’ wit’ th’ foe.”
“If what you intend to say is that I have been consorting with the foe,” Nathan nearly sneered at this horrid enunciation – though it was not unlike what he would have said not a few weeks back – but held that back, not wishing to instigate anything. “Then I do not know who you are talking about.”
“That bastard of a loon!”
“I feel obligated to tell you that he is no fraud.” This was a lie, of course, but if it drove the three away, then it would have served its intent.
Darro was the son of the king’s head advisor. Like his father, he shared an innate fear of the unknown, which vented itself as scorn, anger, and aggression. Of course, for Darro, “the unknown” covered a great deal of the world. He used his elevated status to get out of lessons when greater frequency than any other – even Nathan – but ignorance was no worry for the boy. He saw his fists and his father as enough to get through anything life would throw in his way.
While Darro was akin to his father in nearly every facet, he was different in that he truly believed Rale held unnatural ability. This ready belief in sorcery was due to an encounter with the lunatic when he was young, and nosing into what he should not have been. A burn to his rear was enough to get the boy running out of Rale’s shack, and he was quite convinced that was a real ray of fire, instead of a burning rod.
While Darro was thick, he was not idiotic enough not to realize the significance of Nathan’s assertion. But this launched Darro into action. Aggressive action.
Darro snarled, and charged, one fist raised to strike. The other two flanked Nathan; he couldn’t run! The crate of Rale’s bought goods crashed to the ground as Nathan raised both hands to block the blow. He cried out as a fist struck his ribs, a strike which caused the ground to rush to the sky. Nathan ended laying on the earth, alongside the delivery. Nathan warded off another blow, but there was a devastating crack an instant later as a foot launched into his side. His shouts for aid were left unanswered; there was nobody around, or if there were, they certainly were not answering.
It was several shouts before Nathan realized this, shock turning to anger all of a sudden. But he couldn’t get off the ground. Every such try was turned away with a blow which would give his head another date with the dirt. He flailed out with fists, and grabbed one of his assailants down to the ground, socking the boy cleanly in the gut before rolling over to send his other flanker to the ground.
In a fair fight, Nathan would have easily beat Darro, for the countless journeys to Rale’s quarters had built excess sinew and brawn. But with Nathan flat on the ground, surrounded by three assailants – albeit two were only just recovering – Nathan wouldn’t be able to win without a few dirty tricks.
So he tried one.
Nathan’s hand stretched out for the crate. He knew there were, along with the now-shattered glass and various leaves and roots, dangerous acids and oils best left untouched. Ah! Shit! A kick to the head left his vision starry, and now the other two were on their feet, and kicking away again. Their cries of violence, too, were unheard or unanswered. So Nathan acted.
Seeking a slight window for action once again, he lashed out with one leg, knocking Darro to the ground. He lifted his leg to finish this action, then brought his foot down where it would hurt, all the while enduring continued blows to his sides. With any luck, the healing unguents in the crate wouldn’t have broken.
Nathan took this chance to roll to the side, his hand finally thrusting into a broken face of the crate. A frown, followed by a cry of agony. He had skewered his hand on glass. Blood hindered his efforts, turning the objects within the crate slick. Nathan beseeched any greater entity to ensure that the broken vials had not had anything – aha!
His hand grabbed ahold of a cluster of intact vials, and he rolled over, hugging the flasks to his chest. Liquid within sloshed back and forth. Good. The right vials. Around Nathan, the assailants were recovered, although Darro was still staggering. Nathan allowed an evil grin to cross his face before taking one of the flasks he was clutching, throwing it at Darro. It cracked on his brow satisfyingly, and the liquid within blended nicely with the head wound, causing Darro to howl in distress. Two flasks later, and all three of the cowards were gone, leaving Nathan behind on the ground, clutching his bleeding hand, wondering what he would do next. He would go see Rale about getting his hand healed, in all likelihood.
~ ~ ~
Nathan knelt before the king the following day. The king’s countenance hovered between stern and forgiving, as if not knowing what to settle on. True, Darro and his goons had attacked Nathan, but that reagent he had used – or that sorcery – had nearly killed Darro. Darro was overblowing the whole thing, no doubt, but he was the son of his head advisor, and he certainly could not get rid of the head advisor’s son! But one or the other had to take the fall for this. Nobody envied where Nathan stood. He had no ties in the castle, and had unsatisfactory work. Darro would, of course, be given a cuff to the head, but his lineage blocked anything further than verbal correction. So Nathan took the fall.
He was out of the castle before dawn, trudging with nothing but his clothes (and a goodbye gift courtesy of Rale hidden beneath) to ease his journey to wherever he would wander. A circle was burned into his hand. He was an outcast.
ENDNOTES: Well, this ended up as more of an into to a larger story than anything else. This (again, rough draft!) is awkward in places where words didn't quite work out the way they should've. No "him", "hope", "them", "someone", "something".....Grrrr. At least it showed me my dependence on "someone" and "something".