The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Four - The Western Peak

Alida sat at the table in the inn. It wasn’t often that she or Kasall got the day to themselves, but Jere and Catherine had decided to give everyone a break, to be close to each other and remember Sim. Her parents, however, were gone from the inn. They’d told Alida they would be back by nightfall, but said nothing more than that.

Kasall sat with her, staring blankly at the table. Lor was there too, for once outside the kitchen. He’d brought much of the wine and mead from the kitchen out with him, though, and was drinking at a rapid pace.

“If either of you want any just let me know,” he joked. He clearly wasn’t serious in his offer, but after the previous night’s dinner, Alida was sure her father would have let her.

Alida had never liked Lor. She thought he was a stupid person and a waste of her family’s money. Unlike Kasall, he gave nothing of value to her, besides his cooking. She thought that if she was given enough time in the kitchen she would figure out how to cook better than him. She hoped that her father would let her and that she could replace Lor.

Kasall stood up from the table and walked to the door, Alida followed him close behind.

“Where are you going?” she called to him.

“I don’t know, probably just around the road – see if there’s anything out in the woods.” He replied. After a brief amount of time for the information to connect he called back to her, “you can come too, if you want.”

She did. She quickly slipped into her sandals and walked through the woods. It was very rare that she was allowed to enter the forest. Her mother had always told her horror stories about the forest consuming people, and she told her that going away from the main road leads to nothing but more forest. After a few years of hearing these stories, Alida began to doubt their legitimacy.

Over the years, she often overheard guests speaking of fishing towns and logging communities on the east and west coast, disproving her mother’s old stories. Alida appreciated that her mother was concerned enough to lie, however, and was sure that in time she’d have told her the truth of the coast.

They walked west of the inn for a few minutes. Looking back, she could hardly see the stacked logs that made her home. The two of them stood at the peak of a large hill, spread in front of them was a thick, dark forest.

“I like it here,” Kasall told her. “I like to stand on this hill and look into the depths of the forest. I don’t know what lies in it, and I believe that nothing lies after it. Alida, do you want to climb down?”

“Is there a way back up?” Alida asked him.

“I don’t know, probably. Maybe not, though, but isn’t that the thrill of it? Your mother doesn’t seem to know what’s in here, Jere never talks about it. What if the only way to know is to fall in and –“

“And what? Die? I want to know what’s in the forest, I want to know what lies outside of the inn, but this isn’t the best way to learn.” Alida reasoned with him. Once again, his reference to your mother cut her deeply.

“Sim is seeing what else the world has to offer.”

“Sim is marching with an army, along the main road. He isn’t seeing what’s in the woods or what lies to the east. His path is north.”

“Why go north? We know what there is to the north, but what is there to the west? How can you consider taking a road to be the same as exploring?”

Alida didn’t truly understand Sim’s desire to leave either. Kasall’s reasoning was strong to her. “I’m sure we’ll see what lies to the west, Kasall. Not today, though. Do you want to go back to the inn?”

“I want to stay here.”

“You can’t, Kasall.”

“For a bit, at least. Sit with me, Alida.”

She did. They both sat at the peak of the hill and stared into the crescent of trees formed before them. Alida wore her ring on her left hand. She glanced at it occasionally, seeing the swirling mists within it and admiring how they twisted as the wind blew. The only sound to be heard was the blowing of wind through the leaves, and the occasional cry from a cicada, or the sounds of chipmunks desperate to procreate.

“Alida,” Kasall began. “What was it you were saying about Inge’s face?”

She sighed and repeated herself, “It was covered in dark, jagged streaks. Our mother saw it, too. I could tell she saw it.”

“I didn’t. Neither did Lor and we were both staring at the new people.”

Alida was confused by this whole thing. She couldn’t understand why they hadn’t noticed too. She thought about it for a while, and concluded that it must have been something only women could see.

“Maybe it’s a gender thing,” Kasall said jokingly, at the same time she’d come to the conclusion. She looked into his gentle eyes with a smile upon her face. They were full of hope and whimsy, but after a time, both sets of eyes returned to the trees before them.

After what could’ve been hours, they saw a deer walk out of the woods. It stood still for a few minutes before a loud growl startled it. The growl frightened Alida as well. She was sure Kasall was afraid too, since he quickly suggested returning to the inn. They walked back far faster than they walked to the hill, and entered the inn again.

“Where were you two?” Lor said, with an empty pitcher beside him. He was drunker than before, fatter too. Kasall made up some lie about gathering firewood. Alida quickly expected to have to explain their lack of firewood, but Lor accepted Kasall’s words.

“Lor, isn’t it almost dinner time? It’s getting dark out, darkness leads to dinner, doesn’t it?” Alida said patronizing the lowly cook.

After a few grumbles and angry words, Lor stumbled into the kitchen and the sound of knives and mallets filled the air. Before he could bring any food into the other room, Jere and Catherine burst through the door, their arms full of odd ingredients. It looked like one of them had some stones, and the other had some vials of water.

“Alida, dear,” her mother called to her. “Come into the backroom with us, if you would.”

Her mother never spoke to her in such a passive manner, so she responded quickly. Kasall got up to follow her but Jere told him not to.

When they got into the backroom, Catherine asked her to sit down.

“Alida, could Kasall see the marks on the man’s face?” her mother asked her bluntly.

“No, mother. He said he looked normal.”

Alida’s mother looked disappointed by this response. “My daughter, I fear you may have inherited a rather unfortunate trait from me. There was a reason that man had those jagged veins. He wasn’t in a battle – well, he may have been, but that was a lie on my part. I fear, too, that you have the same sort of markings – veins – lying deep within your face, Alida.”

Alida was confused by her mother’s tone. In all her years, she had never seen her speaking so seriously about a matter. Usually Catherine would joke about uncomfortable matters, but in this case, she seemed to be as afraid as she was making Alida.

“What do the veins do? Why couldn’t any of the men see it? Is it something only women can detect? Why do I have them?” Her mind was racing, and the questions were pouring out of her.

“I had them once, too, Alida,” her mother said. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the faint scars across my face. The scars grow fainter over time, it’s only at first that they are as jagged and violent as Inge’s.”

She was still confused about the whole matter of veins, but for some reason the question that sprung to the forefront of her mind was, “what colour were your veins?”

“They were sort of purple, sort of black,” her mother smiled. “I lost them when I lost my family, I fear. It was a tragic day.”

Alida was slowly becoming reassured. She’d never heard her mother speak about her family. She always referred to them as being lost and Alida had always wondered what she’d meant by that.

“What colour are my veins?”

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out now, dear.”

Catherine lined the ingredients up on the shelf in the small room. There were four ingredients in total – water, a chunk of rock that Jere was chipping behind them, a pile of ashes and a small vial with what looked like finely ground rocks, very dark in colour.

“I hope you’re thirsty, my sweet,” Catherine began, back to her joking way. “I’m going to brew you some tea.” She tried to muster a smile, but half her face resisted.

They returned to the main room where Kasall was sitting, confused. Jere called for him to go downstairs, but Alida resisted and told him to stay.

“Let him stay, Jere,” Catherine said supporting her. “There’s no reason to leave him out, and it might make Alida more comfortable.”

The first brewed concoction she drank was made with the vial of water. As she drank it she quickly found herself unable to continue drinking it. As the water entered her mouth, it multiplied and she had to fight to stop it from dribbling out onto her chin. Eventually she managed to swallow the salty, putrid concoction. She felt no different after drinking it, and her mother let out a sigh of relief.

“No change just as I’d hoped,” She said. “Alida that was seawater. If your veins had reacted to that, you would’ve been the same type of… you would’ve had the same trait as the Inge man. Give her the coal next, Jere. See if she’s like me.”

After drinking a large mug of water, Alida brought the second tea to her lips. It was surprisingly bitter and as soon as she tilted it to her mouth, she felt the viscous liquid course through her tongue, filling every crevice in her mouth before being swallowed. It seemed to grow in her mouth, and the bitterness left her as soon as the liquid did.

Her mother looked at her, surprised at the lack of change in her face.

“We’ll try the ash next, I suppose. This one will taste very hot, Alida, but that won’t change if you leave it to chill. Drink it as quickly as you can.”

Due to the flavor of the drink before, she plugged her nose before taking a swig of this new tea. She hoped that doing so would prevent the taste from filling her mouth, but to her dismay, this brew didn’t taste like anything. In fact, she was sure as she drank that she would ever be able to taste again, as a wildfire engulfed her mouth. Her eyes began to water and tear up, she heard Kasall calling out to her and to Catherine to stop feeding her these drinks. After a short time, Alida swallowed the tea. When it left her mouth, she found herself gasping for air.

“I truly hope there wasn’t a reaction,” she said to her mother. “I couldn’t possibly drink that again.”

Her mother shook her head. “No, no reaction. You must react to the granite.” She smiled a fake smile and left the room. Alida sensed that her mother was disappointed, though.

Jere called to her before she left. “Hang on, Catherine. We should at least test it, I still have the water boiling.”

Catherine was already gone from the inn, likely sitting outside.

“Granite makes you into a strong warrior, you drink it and it makes you strong, physically. Little more to it than that, I guess your mother just wants you safe.” Jere put on a smile for her, Kasall stared at them both in confusion.

“Pour it for her then, and give me a shot of it as well,” Kasall asked.

“It won’t affect you, my boy. I’m sorry to say it, I truly am. You’d make a hell of a warrior, especially with this in you. If I have any leftover water, I suppose you can try it.” Alida watched as Jere carefully filled half of her cup and half of Kasall’s. She smirked at her father as he handed them the drinks.

Alida poured the drink into her mouth and, once again, found her mouth reacting. Initially the fluid filled her mouth, but unlike the coal, the granite seemed to solidify. Had she not focused on swallowing it, she was sure that she would quickly lose the ability to. She looked over at Kasall who seemed to be having much the same problem she was. He seemed to find the power to swallow the tea, and so did she a short time after.

“Anything from you, Kasall?” Jere asked.

“No, sorry.”

“Alida, can you feel the veins growing out?”

Alida was sure that she could. She was sure she could feel them protruding. Her mother walked back into the room.

“Did it work?” Alida asked her mother.

“No, no you’re still the same.”

“I drank the granite tea, though, mother.”

Catherine’s eyes quickly perked up and she ran into the backroom. The sound of rummaging could be heard throughout the inn, and she returned to the room with a handful of pulp. It looked to be from some kind of plant.

“Boil some more water, Jere.” He did as he was told.

Catherine sat across from Alida and rambled about something that Alida couldn’t follow for a few minutes while the water boiled. When she heard the sound of bubbling, her mother stirred the pulp into the water and gave it to Alida.

“Sorry this one is kind of crude, Alida. We can figure out how to brew it better in the future.”

Alida drank the tea. Her mouth tasted like the forest. Her eyes closed, and she could feel blades of grass growing out of her tongue. Grass grew and vines sprung down from her teeth. Her mouth became the forest, and then she swallowed the tea and it was all washed away. Catherine stared in bewilderment at Alida’s face and quickly dragged her outside to the nearby stream to see herself.

“Come, come Alida you must see! You must!” Her voice was booming with excitement. Alida knelt by the water and saw the changes to her face.

Her face had many protruding veins, but unlike Inge’s haunting, icy veins, these looked like vibrant vines, embracing the curves of her cheeks and stretching down past her eye. They were lively, thriving and flourishing as she looked at her reflection. In parts, her hair hung in front of them, and the red of her hair blended brilliantly with the veins. For the first time, she saw that she was beautiful.

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