8: A Good Soldier
“Why did you join the army? You said you weren’t a good soldier.”
That wasn’t what Iliya had said at all. Was the Keeper trying to wind him up, or was that really what he had heard? “No, I was a good soldier,” Iliya corrected him.
Cornelius raised one flawless eyebrow. “Oh? I thought you said you were not suited for the army?”
So he did remember. This was their third meeting, and Iliya was in better health than he had been for a long while. They had tossed a blanket into his cell yesterday. It seemed like such a luxury to him that it was hard to imagine ever sleeping in a bed. “Yes,” Iliya said. “I did. But that does not mean I was a bad soldier.”
“No? What does it mean, then?”
“It means … It means that I fought very well indeed. A little too well.”
The Keeper’s eyes narrowed. “A little too well? Is that what you call it? Raising the dead is a matter of fighting too well in your opinion?”
Iliya took a deep breath. “In a way, yes,” he replied. “I was trained as a soldier as well as a wizard. And I was a good soldier if a good soldier is one who follows orders, stays alive, protects his comrades when he can and kills the enemy. What I did was not right or good, but it served a purpose.”
“It certainly was not following orders,” commented the Keeper.
Iliya couldn’t argue with this. Technically, it was not orders he had failed to follow, but the moral and ethical rules ingrained in the mind of every wizard and witch. “I was a good soldier because I did my job. I was not suitable for the army because I had the ability to do what I did and abused my powers.”
The Keeper’s lips formed a perfectly polite and mirthless smile. “Well, you won’t ever have to worry about that again. Your military career is clearly over. But you still haven’t told me why you joined the army in the first place. Did you believe you were suitable then? Did you want to be a hero?”
“I wanted an education.” Iliya gave a short, dry laugh. “And along the way, I suppose I became an idealist.”
Borelle died at the end of Iliya’s first school year. Iliya didn’t only grieve for the loss of his first mentor. His parents did not have the means to let him stay in Markandberg, so it was back to helping his father. Some of his fellow students had never worked in their lives. They would have objected strongly to the sudden change. Iliya didn’t. He liked manual labour, but there was something missing now. Something which had become such big part of him that he felt almost empty or lonely without it. At home there was no thrill of magic around him, and nor was there the excitement of being taught a new spell or competing with other students to perform it perfectly.
But he did practise. The old witch had left him some of her books. Iliya picked them up as the house was emptied by people he didn’t know and who looked at him accusingly when he took his legacy.
Iliya read the books methodically and more than once. They contained a lot of spells that he had already learnt at school and even more that he had never heard of. One of them had a section dedicated to the description of forbidden magic. Iliya read this one too, at night when everyone was asleep as if it were a crime to even read about the subject. Those parts of the book had no spells in them. Shivers ran down his spine when he read the chapter on death speaking and the theory of how some wizards evoked corpses and made them stand up and walk. There were stories of one particular wizard who had killed a lot of people and manipulated the corpses to look alive so that no one would suspect his crime. Iliya quickly turned the pages until the story was over, and afterwards his heart was pounding with fear and excitement. Magic was supposed to be good. You used magic to help people or to do good things. It was a scary thought that someone would do those horrible things. Yet, there was something enticing about the forbidden magic that made him return to the book later to read the stories again.
It took longer to learn spells on his own than with proper training, but Iliya did not give up. One day he would become a real wizard, even without going to school. But he would have to be apprenticed by a witch or a wizard, and for the time being, there was no one to take him. The new wizard in Dallend already had an apprentice.
At that point, it hadn’t occurred to Iliya to join the military, and even if it had, he was still too young. But after a few years, the wizard, who did know of Iliya even though he didn’t become his apprentice, told him that he had talked to a wizard in another village who was in need of an apprentice.
Iliya’s master was a young man who had never before had an apprentice, but was eager to teach him everything he knew. At first, that was. Iliya settled in, had his own room in the wizard’s house and began every morning making tea. The wizard had a fiancée whom Iliya liked very much. But then the two were married, and there was talk of children, and gradually Iliya’s master had very little time for him. It was not that bad to begin with. Iliya himself was pursuing a few romantic relations with the young women and men of the town during that time. But after a while, he grew weary of being more of a servant to the couple than a student in the house. How was he ever going to call himself a wizard at this rate? There were tests to be passed before he could get work anywhere. And even more importantly perhaps, Iliya knew he was gifted. Borelle and his teachers in Markandberg had said so. Even the Seekers had said so. He deserved better schooling.
That was when he saw the poster. It was plastered on a wall in town, a big sheet of paper with lavish writing on it, stating that the army needed magically inclined young people who would fight for their country. Wizards and witches couldn’t just be drafted, and there was often a shortage of them in the military. Iliya decided to try. With the education the army promised, he would be able to call himself a wizard after a few years.
Military training turned out to be quite different from going to school and from living with a wizard. The discipline was strict, and Iliya was trained not only as an infantry wizard, but as a soldier as well …
The Keeper cocked his head slightly. “Yes, yes. I am familiar with the nature of military training,” he said. “So you joined the army for quite normal reasons, I’d say. But that was years ago. You could have left, couldn’t you? To become whatever kind of wizard you wanted to be.”
“Theoretically, I could have,” Iliya admitted.
“I was sent on my first campaign after initial training. Obviously the army doesn’t let anyone who knows a little magic sign up for the education and leave as soon as they can call themselves a wizard,” Iliya explained, “so I was on a contract for five years. It seemed like forever to begin with, and then like no time at all because I was young and had years ahead of me. We were sent to Durkhan to keep peace. There was an uprising, but it played out well with very few casualties. I felt … I felt that I was someone. That I mattered.” He paused. What he described would not be familiar to Cornelius. He had mattered all his life, even before he became the Keeper. Iliya was just a thatcher’s son who tried to become a wizard and failed twice. In the army, he felt accomplished in a way that nobody could take away from him. Children stared with envy at the sabre at his side. People greeted him in the street, treated him almost like a hero when they saw him in the blue and grey wizard’s uniform.
“I see,” said the Keeper. Icicles of impatience crept into his voice. “But that was not the only campaign you were sent on.”
No, the army paid well, better than most other occupations he could have found then. He made friends with other soldiers, those who didn’t mind wizards in the army, and it somehow became almost unimaginable for him to do anything else. Even when a young soldier that Iliya was starting to get close to was killed in battle. Yet, he always retained the idea that he wanted to be a regular wizard in a small town someday, but he was not in a hurry.
“Let’s return to your crime,” Cornelius said. He sounded a little bored now. He had taken it upon himself to find the right pieces of Iliya’s story, and clearly only he decided which ones were important to the bigger picture. “Who taught you?”
A frown creased Iliya’s brow. Did he expect Iliya to name someone who taught others how to raise the dead? Did he think that there was a dark witch or wizard on the loose who had books on forbidden magic with proper spells in them? Well, it certainly explained something. It would even explain why the Keeper was here, spending his time on a soldier who may as well just have been executed for his crimes right away. He was in Larkon in the hope that Iliya would name an even greater evil. It had to be at least part of the reason. Iliya cleared his throat. “No one did.”
The Keeper tapped his finger on the armrest of his chair a couple of times, then leaned forward. “Do you expect me to believe that you just pulled that spell out of thin air in the heat of the battle?”
“When you put it like that,” Iliya said, “I suppose not.”
“Then who taught you?”
“I am telling you the truth. No one taught me. I read about the subject. In books.” He had read the descriptions in Borelle’s book with an insatiable desire to understand why anyone would do it and how it was possible, but even reading between the lines did not yield much information. Later he read as much as he could in his master’s books. A few of them touched on the subject of death speaking. Again there were no spells, no instructions, but he found that in these books, there was really more to be found than met the eye at first glance. Accounts of crimes committed by death speakers said a lot about the situations in which they resorted to this kind of magic, and he could gather much from seeing which details were left out.
Later, the army taught him a very useful skill. To elaborate on spells and to create new ones. It was important to use the kind of attack magic that was taught in the military, of course, as it was designed to do the right amount of damage to the right amount of people or space. But sometimes a soldier would find himself in a situation that no one could prepare him for. At those times you needed to play it by ear if you wanted to live. You needed to be able to use whatever you had at your disposal.
“There is quite a difference between learning how to improvise a bit and becoming a death speaker,” Cornelius said. “You don’t mean to tell me that the army taught you that?”
“No. No, I don’t. The army taught me to keep my head in a crisis.” Iliya smiled wryly. “But if you’re looking for someone to blame for what I became, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I didn’t have death speaking lessons, and I didn’t read any books that are not available to other wizards and witches.”
“And I wouldn’t suggest entirely leaving out any information about dangerous or forbidden magic,” said the Keeper. Iliya realised he was speaking to himself.
“The books cautioned against the atrocities,” Iliya said. “I can’t say I wasn’t warned that I would lose all sense of humanity and become a walking dead myself.”
“I can imagine,” Cornelius said. As a learned man, he had probably read many of the same books. “But clearly that did not keep you from trying.”
Iliya felt his temper flare up and his hands clench of their own volition. “Consequences weren’t that prevalent in my mind when I was trying to save my own life and the lives of my comrades.”
Their eyes met. The Keeper’s expression was impossible to read. “Still,” he finally continued, “If it had been something simpler, it would not be surprising that you didn’t learn it from someone or have to try time and time again for it to work properly. But death speaking must be very complicated and extremely taxing.”
Iliya forced his hands to relax. The room felt a little to hot for comfort now. “It’s surprisingly simple,” he replied as evenly as he could. “I don’t think you realise how simple it is because you would never even toy with the idea of doing it. But taxing it is. I was trained to contain and use great amounts of magic, and I think … I think that still it could have killed me.”
“I see.” The Keeper seemed both disappointed and relieved that there wasn’t anyone else to blame. What did it mean? That he was going to dispose of Iliya now? “Well, it remains to be seen just how powerful you are, but I have no doubt you are right. It was quite a waste of your talent, really.”
“Yes. Thank you,” Iliya replied. It was a compliment, and quite a substantial one coming from the Keeper himself. Under different circumstances, Iliya would have been exuberant to be praised like that. Now he wasn’t certain whether it was good or bad.
“Well, I think that was it for today.” Cornelius looked down at his papers and picked up his pen. Was Iliya supposed to fetch the guards that would escort him back to the cell on his own? Before he could ask, the Keeper continued, “Oh, one more thing. Does your family know you are here?”
Iliya almost managed to stop himself before he cringed. “No,” he said. “They don’t.”
“Where do they believe you are, then?”
“They believe I am dead.”