Grunt, Chapter 65: Wagons West

GRANT HOWARD, TEN MILES WEST OF THE WESTERN JEWISH STATE

“You ready to die, boy?”

I was too far gone already. Not enough for even a small butterfly in my belly, dusky-blue wings a-fluttering.

Death would be a release.

Nothing to eat for days. River after river after river to cross, every one threatening to drown the scrawny fugitive who dared test its waters. Dogs barking fiercely when I strayed too close to the last Great Nation I’d passed in the dead of night. My shoes, hardly of high quality when new, were nothing but tatters surrounding great holes in the soles. Hole in me, Soul. Soul cannot be pierced, wronged, drowned, or stolen. I’d read that once, in an ancient Before book somewhere. Bodily misery can make it hard to maintain belief, though. My feet were blistered, oozing pus, scratched, bleeding. And after all that, after making it past the last of the great cities, to end like this? I supposed it really didn’t matter. I’d been wrong, fatally wrong. The CCP had found among its members a wizard bold enough to track me down, braving the elements, slipping past the settlements.

Surprise, surprise.

Still, I would meet my destiny on my feet. With great effort, I forced my dying body to uncurl from its fetal position beneath a cluster of bushes I’d chosen as my shelter for the night. Forced my caked-shut eyes to open. The Master Wizard himself stood over me, judgment incarnate, silhouetted against the just-risen sun. His official robe fell to his ankles, loose-sleeved his arms, hooded his evil head. In one hand, he held his seven-foot Staff of Office, solid oak carved tip to tip with mystical runes. He could burn me to a cinder with that thing, and he was no doubt tempted. Beside him, his great tamed wolf stood silently, also silhouetted, regarding me not as a meal but as something…worthless. I recognized the spell. Make the victim feel bad enough about himself and he will not resist arrest. Usually.

What a joke. I couldn’t resist a stiff breeze in my present condition.

He repeated his question. “You need a ride, boy?”

What?

Either there was something wrong with my hearing or…not my persecutor. No wizard at all. Not even a hood; the man’s bald head shone in the sunlight. A staff, yes, but no wizard-work. Just a plain quarterstaff. Which he held as if he knew how to use it. No robe, just a belted overcoat…with a Star of David embroidered over his heart.

A Jew, then. With a dog, not a wolf. Admittedly, the dog was big enough to be a wolf. Maybe bigger. But definitely a dog.

I rubbed the back of one hand across my chapped lips, thinking fast. A little late for brain-speeding, but one does what one can. “Depends on where you’re headed, sir.”

“Sir, eh?” The man’s blue eyes twinkled. A blue-eyed Jew? How not stereotypical. Culture shock over here. I couldn’t tell how old he was. No youngster; that much was sure. “We’re headed west.”

How far west, I wanted to ask, but I was too busy struggling to my feet. The dizziness hit me and I swayed. He didn’t move to help me. Thank goodness. “West is good. I’d appreciate it, sir.”

“Can the sir and sell it to suckers. My name is Moss.”

“Pleased to meet you, Moss. I’m Grant.”

Moss’s wagon was like none I’d ever seen. For one thing, it was freaking huge. Twenty feet long if it was an inch, with a bed a good four feet above the ground. The cargo box was at least six feet wide with sidewalls a similar six feet in height. Domed canvas covered the apparition. Rear wheels were wide and what, eight feet high? With fenders, no less. Front wheels ridiculously small in comparison, presumably to allow their rims to swing beneath the cargo box for super-tight turns. Which would be essential for such a long wheelbase, no doubt. Most curious of all, the freight box seemed to be made of metal, not wood. It didn’t exactly gleam, but the dull, silvery color bespoke metal of some sort. Dead center on the side, a big Star of David was painted a deep gold color on a midnight blue field.

So. Jews.

Wandering Jews. Heh.

A lot of Jews. Moss’s conveyance appeared to be the last in line of a long wagon train, stretching forward into the distance. I blinked, not certain what I was seeing. That whole train had passed my hiding spot without me hearing a thing? Talk about dead to the world. And a good way to get dead for real. How many horses were pulling each wagon was hard to tell. From this perspective, the wagons appeared identical but the teams powering them did not.

My rescuer’s hitch of six jet-black steeds was one of the shorter ones, though. That seemed obvious. It also seemed obvious that his load was lighter than some. Six draft animals, no matter how magnificent–and they were all of that, weighing at least 1,800 pounds each, with gentle yet proud eyes, flowing manes, flaring nostrils, hooves the size of platters, and muscles up the ying-yang.

How on earth could a man throw harness over those massive backs? I glanced at Moss with growing respect.

And flinched inwardly when he gave my shaky body a boost up the side-ladder so I could reach the wagon seat without falling.

He clambered up after me, easy as pie, stepping over my bony knees to reach the driver’s seat. “You’re the brakeman now, son,” he said. With a click of his tongue and a simple “Hyah!” we were off. The team had to trot to catch up to the others; he’d lost time stopping to assist a fugitive under a bush.

Without a word, he handed me a canteen and a long strip of jerky. What kind of jerky? I had no idea. It was food. Slow, tough chewing, which was good. I hadn’t had anything to eat since the apples ran out a good seven…eight days ago? Whatever. My strength began to return, gaining with every swallow. By the time the last bit of jerky was gone and I’d licked my fingers clean, then wiped them on my ragged brown robe, I was ready to believe Life had not given up on me after all. Moss remained silent, leaving the next move up to me. I appreciated that.

“Thanks.”

“De nada.”

Day nodda? Not sure what language that was…wait a second. It sounded vaguely familiar. No matter. The context was obvious. “Would it be okay to talk?”

“Why not?” The driver didn’t turn his head, but the corner of his mouth lifted a little. “We’re not Weps.”

Wepps? “What are wepps?”

“Ah.” There was real pleasure in his voice. I noted the grizzled stubble along his jaw, the spotless clothes he wore, earth-colored shirt, darker pants, with a wide belt holding things together. Couldn’t have seen all of that at first, but the morning was already warming. He was healthy, with great circulation evidenced by the unbuttoning and unbelting of his coat. Sturdy boots on his feet, which reminded me of the pain in my own battered dogs and raggedy shoes. He was built solidly. Not fireplug solid. More like ash solid, a tough, resilient axe handle of a man. I knew about axe handles. “Would you really like to hear about Weps? Because the telling will take a while.”

“Uh.” Did I? Was he really asking? I had no idea what I’d gotten into yet. Oh, well. In for a penny…. “Yes. I would. But I’d feel, uh, less awkward if I explained myself a little?” Blast it; I hadn’t meant to tack a question mark onto that sentence.

“Hey, hey, explain away. Haw, Buck!” For a split second I thought “Haw!” was laughter. Hey, worn-out fugitive here, let’s not be talking smack about his mental faculties, okay? But that wasn’t it at all. Buck was apparently Moss’s lead horse who’d started to stray from the trail for some horsey reason known only to himself. Moss had just instructed him to hook back to the left a little. When he didn’t utter any more horse-commands, I got on with it.

“First thing…how did you spot me when none of the others did?”

He chuckled. “Midget.”

“Huh?”

“My dog.” He flicked a thumb toward the monster canine striding beside the team, matching the draft horses step for step.

“Oh. Sure.” Duh.

“Plus, I’m the designated stray magnet. Some of the others maybe did spot you but didn’t care. They’d know Midget and I would make the call.”

“Oh.” An ugly thought occurred to me. “And if you or…Midget…had deemed me unworthy of salvaging, then…” I didn’t need to finish that thought. The war dog would have torn my throat out, or Moss would have bashed my head in with his quarterstaff. I’d collapsed no more than ten miles past Jew City, whatever they really called it. Far too close to be left alive if I might be a spy. Or a potential raider with an I.Q. of zero. Come to think of it…yeah. I swallowed past the sudden lump in my throat. I might not be out of the woods yet. Maybe these New Israelites were going to torture me for information, then discard my husk of a body like so much Cuya County white trash.

Paranoia? It ain’t paranoia if they’re really after you. I started talking.

“Do you know what the robe means, Moss?” Use his first name. Make him your buddy. Or else.

“My wisdom is only exceeded by my ignorance. The Cuya County wizards wear robes, but I’ve only heard of white or black until now. Never that shade of muddy brown.”

“Ah.” The words came in a rush. “And there’s a reason for that. No one wears the brown robe by choice. It’s forced upon those who have committed unforgivable crimes against the state, meaning any sort of behavior the ruling COW, the Council of Wizards, decides it doesn’t like. And no, those sanctimonious power addicts do not see the humor in the acronym they’ve chosen for themselves. Believe it or not, they recently decided to elevate themselves to little tin godhood and expanded the title. They’re now officially known as the Holy COW.”

The old Jew lost it. Horses flicked their ears back, curious to know what his rolling belly laugh was all about. Midget turned to look up at us. I held in a grin. That wasn’t the real acronym, but hey, it was a perfect tall tale.

Once he got himself under control, I continued in a more serious vein. Sort of. “From early childhood, I was groomed toward the goal of someday joining the COW. You know, like any ambitious bull calf would be. My father was a serious Talent, I took after him, and all was well. Peachy keeny hunky dory. Flowers and butterflies. Until I was twelve years old. Three weeks after my birthday, the wonderfully wise wizards of Cuya County decided Dad was too much of an independent thinker. They had him arrested, convicted him of heresy–which is the worst crime according to Cuya County law–put him in a brown robe, and then at high noon after a week of drumming up hatred against him in the sheeple populace, burned him at the stake along with his three best friends. Mom and I had the dubious pleasure of mandatory invitations to the executions. I didn’t get to sleep at night for two months after that.”

“Mom took it much harder than I did. She’d idolized her husband. He’d left behind a sizeable estate, enough to easily maintain the family until I, as the eldest child, could begin building a new fortune. In Cuya County, enlightened white folks that we are, women cannot hold title to property. So Dad had willed everything to his brother with a provision that all was supposed to be administered for the good of our family. Sort of a family trust. Except it turned out uncle Thad was not trustworthy. He stole every penny, had us turned out in the street so that for a time we were beggars.”

I had to interrupt my recitation long enough to swig down some water from the canteen. Moss gave me an encouraging look but said nothing. I continued.

“One day, Mom–she was bitter and mean by this time, mind you–spoke to me privately, saying it was my duty and my honor to rake revenge upon my uncle. To do that, I would need to apply myself to the study of Black magic exclusively, with unremitting zeal and fervor, until I gained enough power to take him out. In Cuya County–I don’t know if you knew this, but White and Black magicians are equally respected. It’s believed that White is necessary for healing and prosperity, while only Black can defend us from our enemies.”

It occurred to me that I was speaking as if they were still my people. Old habits die hard.

“So, duty to Mommy dearest and all that, I applied myself. The Council was delighted, believing I’d seen the Black Light, never once worrying about me growing up to surpass them, because what was I, a punk kid? But just like that, I was back on the right path in their eyes.

“It took me three years to master the spell I’d chosen. It wasn’t in any grimoire published by the COW, but rather a modification of one used in an ancient Before translation about the life of a high spiritual master known as Milarepa. As a boy, he’d faced eerily similar circumstances to my own, right down to the avaricious uncle. So I knew he’d done it, though he’d paid a terrible price. As a teenager, I didn’t think much about the price. What teenager does?

“Came the day. Or rather, early evening. Uncle Thad was not a wizard but was a ranking member of the civilian corps that executed many of the directives of the COW. In other words, he was a glorified bureaucrat, kind of like a Before city mayor for life, never facing an election. There were ten or twelve men in session that evening. I never counted exactly and didn’t care. Didn’t care about the innocents, the so called collateral damage. Thad was there and that was all that mattered. That, and getting away with it. Milarepa did not get away with it; his village figured out who’d done it and hounded him out of town, looking to kill him for what he’d done. But I was smarter, right? At fifteen, you think these things. I had a false trail already laid, a spell that would point the finger not at me but back toward one of the COW members who’d condemned my father in the first place.” It occurred to me that I needed to let Moss know I was kidding about the COW acronym. But really, who could pass up something like this? “In other words, I really was going to stick it to the COW.”

“Milarepa’s spell brought horrible things forth from the earth, including scorpions as big as horses. I had to update things a bit. Because, remember, fifteen. Ego rampant. Monsters are only limited by man’s ability to imagine them, and having studied the world wars and virtual reality games of the 23rd and 24th centuries, I could imagine quite a lot. Side-hooked reptiles big enough to swallow Anacondas for light snacks. Aliens with tentacles and zombies with a craving for brains. Machete-wielding genocidal maniacs. Ravening werewolves. Every movie monster I could think of. Several Mutation Soldiers and half a dozen clones. Basically, the works. Overkill.

“It worked. The entire senior civilian administrative corps was destroyed, along with their clerical people. Between them, the COW and my uncle had orphaned and impoverished one woman and three children. In that single act, I had destroyed nearly two dozen families. I hadn’t yet studied karma and reincarnation as such, but something in me knew. As I viewed the carnage by the light of a full moon, I could think of only one thing to say.

“Oops.”

I’d never told this to anybody. Not anybody who was still alive. Mom had taken the secret to her grave, leaving the undertaker to wonder at her death mask of pure, unadulterated joy.

Mom was just a wee bit messed up in the head.

Overhead, a flying wedge of noisy, happy Canadian honkers arrowed past us, almost directly in line with the caravan. Late travelers, those geese. The morning frost was off. A murder of crows gathered in the branches of several dead cottonwood trees near the trail, some peering down at us with their beady black eyes but most ignoring us altogether. Bring a weapon out and they’d be gone. Crows always know.

“I was half-right in thinking I’d get away with it. The other COW members did trace the spell back to my wizardly target. He had serious skills, though, and was able to prove to his peers that somebody was trying to frame him. I’d like to think my magical defenses were never penetrated, but truth be told, it’s more likely the Council simply couldn’t believe a child–as they saw me–could possibly have unleashed that much power. Those old boys are really, really good at denial.

“Nervous and worried, I was looking over my shoulder for months after that, and yet, no sign of suspicion on anyone’s part. My Mom seemed happier in a petty, nasty sort of way, but she was a woman and women didn’t count. I kept studying Black magic with my teachers for a full year, carefully hiding my ability. In a fair fight, I could have taken out half the COW single handed, but of course Black magicians don’t ever fight fair.”

I certainly hadn’t.

“On the first anniversary of my Death Deed, I filed the necessary paperwork, petitioning to change my path from Black to White. While not exactly common, this was not unheard of, nor was it proscribed. In due course, my application was approved. The years went by. I learned to remove cancers from the human body with a simple incantation. Draw power lines around fields that would kill weeds while growing bumper crops of healthful produce. Brew love potions that, if taken by both parties, guaranteed lifelong devotion in marriage. I didn’t have to hide my White ability. As a result, I was praised and promoted and by my late twenties was written up regularly in the Cuya County Chronicle as a Wizard to Watch.

“If they only knew. I already realized the Council members were not infallible. Heresy #1. The love potions in particular puzzled me into wondering, hey, why is it Black magic if a single dose of Love Potion #9 is applied to a party without his or her knowledge…but White magic if that same potion is ingested by a potential couple who thereafter show every sign of being Soul mates? I slowly became convinced that Something Was Wrong. Heresy #2.”

One more sip of water. My throat didn’t need it, but we were coming to the final turning point. I shuddered inwardly, knowing it was not going to be fun, revisiting what had come next. I thought about mentioning Milarepa’s later horrific struggle as he sought, and finally achieved, God realization. But no. My abridged version was more than long enough already.

Moss still didn’t say anything, but he was absorbing every word. I could tell.

“On the worst or best day of my life, depending how you look at it, I happened to meet a small, really old man with a long white beard and sharp dark eyes that squinted in humor, as if he knew a great cosmic joke to which I was not privy. He had a message for me, just four words: [“ALL MAGIC CREATES KARMA.”] I was at a produce stand, selecting an apple to go with my lunch. I hadn’t asked him a question. He was just there one moment, laid it on me, and then he was gone. I didn’t see him arrive. I didn’t see him leave. But I knew he was a messenger from the Creator, or at least from Spirit. Ignoring his words? Unthinkable.

“Besides, this information fit what I’d already begun to suspect, at least subconsciously. I hit the library the next day. Found a definition of karma, and that led to a treatise on reincarnation. And soon realized my former oops had become a heartfelt fooey. Not long after, I turned away from all magic and began walking the middle path. The razor’s edge.”

For the first time since I’d begun my dissertation, Moss spoke. “The razor’s edge, eh?”

“Yeah. Although…not so much walking it as trying to find the blasted thing. Do you have any idea how near-impossible it is to abandon all magic after being totally immersed in it from cradle to age thirty?”

“Oh, I can imagine quite a bit.”

Huh. No respect for the repentant former wizard over here, eh? I’ll teach him–I caught myself. See what I mean? This path is hard.

“So, I take it your COW didn’t appreciate your newfound spirituality?”

I snorted, unwittingly blowing a wad of snot out of my right nostril. It landed on my robe. I folded the cloth, rubbing the booger into the filthy garment so it wouldn’t be so obvious. “You could say that. Heresy #3. Worst of all, when you have Magical Studies of one sort or another, six days out of every week, there’s no way to hide yourself. By abandoning their most precious practice, in fact the arts that structure their entire society, I had directly assaulted the self image of every wizard, warlock, and witch in the world. Heh. Alliteration.

“Anyway, to make a shaggy dog story slightly less shaggy, I took exception to the idea of being burned at the stake. Or hung, but probably burned. So I escaped. And yes, before you ask, I escaped without using magic. A few sneaky, passive, defensive skills and a crazy plan only a desperate man could conceive, but no magic.”

There. I’d said it. But had I helped my case or not? Now that I thought about it, letting the man know he was harboring a fugitive who had the ability to do what I’d done…man. Maybe I’d just signed my own death warrant.

Again.