Shadow of Turning
by Joan L. Savage
I have searched for my son ever since the sorcerer stole him, a cooing toddler, from
beneath my apple tree. So long ago now, my son could not possibly remember me.
I have searched anyway.
I set my peddler's pack beside my door, ready to go out again.
"You've only been home a day." My wife clasped my hand. Her hands were so
cold, as if the life slowly ebbing from her was withdrawing its warmth. "Stay with
me, Thomas. Stop looking for him. After twenty-five years he's surely dead."
I cleared my voice. It was rough, unused to speech. But she understood the curse
that had been placed on me, so with her I tried to talk. "I'll find a nowhere I've
My wife wiped at her eyes. "You've been everywhere. You've probably walked
every road a hundred times. He's lost to us. Accept it. Grieve, like I've grieved
. . ."
I could not. I pulled my hand from her grasp, shouldered my pack, and stepped
through the doorway. Behind me, I heard her crying. I wanted to weep too, but
instead I laughed, as those who are cursed must laugh, as those who are mad.
My son could be anywhere; one path seemed just as likely to lead to him as any
other. I wandered towards the mountains and, on the last morning of spring, chose
a track that went up the mountain. It was so rough it would bounce the wheels from
any cart that tried to traverse it. Because I had walked so many years barefooted,
my calloused feet barely felt the stones. Grass fawned at my knees. From its
depths, the occasional shadow-form of a snake darted across the road, eager to
reach whatever now fed its insatiable hunger.
Me, the snakes ignored. I have heard that grief gives off no scent. Maybe that made
me invisible to them. Maybe they ignored me because I had no place left in their
schemes. Either way, it didn't matter.
I approached a village I had visited often before. A young mother pulled her baby
closer and watched me with wary eyes. An old man stopped hoeing when he saw
me; the mad are always feared by the sane. The old man clutched his hoe so tightly
I could see his knucklebones through his tanned and weathered skin.
The old woman who lived at the edge of the village pushed through her gate and
shuffled towards me. Her one wooden leg scuffed back and forth as she walked; it
made a pattern in the dirt like a snake's-track. The other villagers made the sign of
warding against her because of it, but they still bought the wares from her that she
dared to buy from me.
"Peddler!" She clutched my arm with a hand deceptively strong for its boniness
and pulled me towards her cottage. I went eagerly. She never needed me to speak.
Despite my silence, she told me every scrap of gossip about her neighbourhood. It
was why I always came to her.
"You know how I figured out, last you was here, that you was looking for a boy
you lost in the Snake Wars?"
My heart lurched in my chest.
"Well, just the other day, Mandy came down off the mountain. I ain't seen her in,
oh, thirty years. Not for such a long time, not since we was girls together."
I tried to smile, and tried not to hope. This would just be another story from her
childhood -- precious to her, but useless to me.
"Mandy said a man and a babe came to the mountain, near on twenty-five years
ago. No one knows where they came from . . ."
Twenty-five years. The time was right. But hope was too hard a thing. Each time it
rushed over me it broke me a little more, when the whispers turned out to only be
whispers. When the man turned out to be someone else's child. I had to fight hope.
Not let it take root. I shook my head.
She ignored me. "The man, he was a sorcerer. Here! So close to the snakes' lairs,
where sorcerers never dared to come, even during the wars."
I would never have dared to come here, either, even now, if I had still had my
power. Even though the snakes were now banished into shadow forms and made
"And the babe -- well, he's a man now -- but guess what about him!"
I held my breath.
"Mandy says," she paused and lowered her voice, "the boy's eyes . . ."
I tried to nod encouragingly, though my heart pounded against my ribs.
"They're green like a snake's. Like yours. That's a sure way to know a sorcerer, or
someone as used to be one. They don't always go together, green eyes and power.
But often as not --"
I caught her arm then, forced out of my habitual silence. My voice, unused to
speech, cracked. "There?"
She frowned. "What? Oh, you mean, where? Mandy says he lives in a hovel beside
a fork in the path, where the path turns to Last Hamlet, and --"
I didn't wait to hear more. I knew the hut. I had passed it. The hovel was a poor-looking place, crouched on rocky land that bore thin crops. The thatch was often
torn. A few scrawny chickens pecked bugs from the dust of the yard.
I had stopped there my first time past, when the boy had been maybe twelve. The
man had met me at the gate. He said he was the boy's father, and that the boy had
been born there. There had been nothing about the boy, nothing, to make me guess
that the man lied. I had not noticed that the boy's eyes were green. I had been
looking for it -- how could I not have seen? Heaven forgive me.
Though I noted that the boy grew from child to man, that he left his childhood
perch on the step, where he watched the path, to heave stones out of the rockyfields, I had never wondered what had become of the mother I never saw, or why
the boy seemed so often alone.
I rushed from the old woman's yard so quickly that I left her gate swinging wildly.
At the edge of the village lay a monument to the Snake Wars: the last remains of
the devastation. At the end of the wars, in every hamlet, the villagers had gathered
every board from each trampled house, every broken piece of furniture, each
garment that had belonged to one of the snake-touched, and mounded them to
moulder into dust as a remembrance, and a warning. Every time I passed such a
mound, in every village and at every crossing of paths, I stopped to remember, and
This time I would have hurried past, but a beggar sat beside the monument. He was
a withered-looking man, one of the snake-consumed, with a hunched back and his
legs twisted under him. By his look, he'd probably been barely out of childhood
when the snakes sucked away his magic and left his body weak and twisted.
He held up a copper mug as I passed. The clink of the few pennies inside sounded
hollow. "Alms for a beggar?"
I stopped and fished in my pouch for one of the two coins I had left. I dropped one
in his cup, partly for him, but mostly for myself; for how my part in the wars had
been untimely cut off, for how the war had left me, in my own way, as helpless and
as futile as he.
"My thanks." The beggar clutched the cup to his chest. "Such a kind man. Bless
you. You were in the war, too. I see it on you." He pointed to my twisted legs.
I nodded but did not dare to speak. Besides, what was there to say?
The beggar shook his head. "There ain't no running from what's been done, is
there? There ain't no changing it."
I turned and fled, as fast as my old legs would propel me. I must have been a
comical sight: an old peddler half-running down the road on his twisted legs, with
bare feet and his pans banging against his thighs.
I did not care. My son. If only I could find him, at last, I would find peace.
The sun was near to setting on my second day out from the village when I
approached the hovel. A broken gate leaned against the fence. A man sat on the
cracked stone that served as his step, with a sharpening stone and a scythe in his
heavily callused hands.
I wondered how I had been so blind. I had never noticed the long curve of his
forehead, so like his mother's, the arch of his nose. If only I had seen his eyes, all
those years ago.
Yet even now, when he raised his gaze at my approach, I could not see their colour.
My heart was too full; I did not give it any thought except to put it down to the
slant of the evening light.
Here, I must speak. When a father first meets his son -- that must be a place of
speech for that is how people greet each other, how they tell of hardships and joys,
how they touch, if they touch at all, in a brief spark of communication. I cleared
my throat and braced myself.
"Morning," I called, though evening light lay across him in long golden embers
that burnished his face to bronze.
He straightened. "Hello."
At the sound of his voice, my heart lurched. When a lost thing is found, a lost
penny beneath a cot, a lost chick beneath a woodpile, a lost son in a stranger's hut,
the joy of it is a fire, a flood. I wanted to weep.
Instead I laughed, as all men who are cursed must do. As do the mad.
He frowned, instantly wary. "I can't afford to buy from you, peddler, and Lost
Hamlet is a long ways up the road. You'd better hurry if you want to reach it
before dark. There are wolves here-abouts."
I did not try to say that wolves never bother me; grief gives off no scent. Instead I
said in a rush, and hoped that this once the words would come out right instead of
backwards, cursed, futile: "When I was an old woman a friend took my father."
A look of pity crossed his face. All gentle souls get that same look when they
realize they are speaking to the mad. Yet even though they pity, they also fear. He
stood as if to go into his hut.
"Yes!" I cried and rushed towards him, hampered by my twisted joints, by my
bulky pack as it caught on the gateposts. Silently, I cursed sorcerers and their
curses. My son must understand my futile speech. His mother needed to see him
before her racking coughs stifled her last breath.
Brave soul, he did not run from me. I loved him for that, even as I cursed him for
being as deaf as all people were deaf. I had hoped, prayed, that with him it would
be different. That he would hear my backwards words, and by some miracle
"What do you want here, old man?"
I pointed at my bare feet and tried, as I had tried for so long, to speak backwards so
my words came out forwards. But curses read intentions, not deceptions, as I had
learned to my misery. My voice said, "I have worn these shoes ever since I found
He stood his ground. "Good shoes they must be, then."
"Yes! Yes! I speak forwards because a good man blessed me so."
"May we all be blessed." He seized the latch on his door, opened it, and started to
"Be deaf to me!" I cried, and ran to seize him. His four chickens squawked and
scattered as I staggered across the tiny yard. On the cracked stone step I tripped,
lost my balance, and fell against him. With the weight of my peddler's pack and
my momentum combined, I knocked him off balance. He staggered backwards into
the hut. I fell to my knees, frantically clutching at him, and he pulled a knife from
its place at his belt.
For one flickering second I thought, I should go. I can only do harm here. He does
not know me. Maybe he does not want to know. Maybe it would be better if he
But I did not leave. I could not plod home to his mother and sit by her bed,
laughing, laughing, and tell her I had succeeded again, succeeded again. I could not
watch the tears roll again down the creases they had worn in her aged skin, could
not watch her turn her face to the wall because she could not bear my hysterical
laughter any more than I could bear it myself.
I crawled towards my son, on my knees, with my arms outstretched. The hut stank
of the chickens that must share it with him at night.
"I don't want to hurt you, old man," he said.
"You don't misunderstand me."
I tried to get to my feet, and looked for something to help me drag myself up from
my knees. The only furnishings were one chair beside the open fire-pit, one table,
and two beds against opposite walls. One bed was rumpled. The other was dust-covered and had obviously not been slept in for some time. I could not look away
"The good man woke there."
"My father died five years ago. Did you know him?"
I could not move. Five years. All the years I had trudged past this hut without
knowing the truth, and now it was too late. No sorcerer left to undo his curse on me
and make my words straight again. No sorcerer to explain to my son who he really
was. I bowed my head to my knees and tried to stifle the laughter, but it burst
through me and made my shoulders shake.
My son must have thought I was crying. I heard his feet approach. "Did you know
"Yes," I muttered into the dust of the floor.
"You were friends?"
"I loved him."
"Figures," he muttered, with bitterness in his voice. "The only person who cared
for the bastard was a crazy peddler."
I lifted my head. "Didn't he hate you?"
"What kind of a question is that? Did he hate you?"
"He blessed me."
My son's eyes narrowed. "What did you just say?"
"He blessed me, blessed me, blessed me." I rocked back and forth. "And now I
came in time to make it begin, I came in time."
"In time for what?"
I barely heard him over the pounding of my heart. "And you will always know how
much I hate you."
"What? Why? What did I ever do to you?"
"The good man left you behind."
His eyes were round in the gloaming. Fading sunlight began to hide him from me
as surely as ignorance and miscommunication had hidden him all these years.
As I struggled to push myself to my feet, he caught my arm in a hard grip. "What
are you saying? What do you know about me and my father?"
I closed my eyes and repeated the words I had repeated over and over again, to
countless strangers, for countless years, to no response. "When I was an old
woman a good man took my father."
"No. You said I came with the good man. Where did we come from?"
Hope, that brutal companion, had driven me here. But it was more agony to see
him and not be known than it had been to not know where he was. I whispered,
"When you died I hated you so little."
He ignored me and grabbed my arm. "Where did we come from? He would never
tell me, but I remember a house, before this hovel."
I nodded, impotent.
"He said we lived there together before my mother died. He would never talk about
her. Did you know her?"
"No," I breathed, as I would have breathed in the lavender of her hair, like silk
across my face.
His face fell in disappointment.
"I hate her, hate her with all my head," I said.
"You just said you didn't know her, you old fool." He turned away from me in
It was then, in the failing light of evening when all worlds touch for the briefest of
moments, that I saw it. As he turned, a shimmer fell from him, like dust shaken
from his tunic, like water stains left behind by his shoes.
I stared. He had inherited my power. More than my power, for I could tell from the
quantity of dust that fell from him that he was stronger than I had ever been. This
must be why the sorcerer had taken him. The knowledge that a stranger had seen
the power in my son before I had recognized it burned in a knot under my heart.
Had my eyes been too close, blinded by love, that I had not seen?
I knew from the careless, wasteful arc as it fell from him, that my boy did not
know the power he held. Some spell must bind his power from awakening.
That was good. If his power awakened, the snakes, shadows though they were,
could feast and draw enough strength from it to break whatever enchantment had
held them as shadows for the past twenty-five years.
His power reached towards me, as if sensing my own power that had been twisted
inside me and made useless. I could not stay if my presence was going to wake in
my son that which must never be woken.
I backed towards the door, but could not leave. Twenty-five years of searching,
only to see him for a brief moment? Never to be able to take him to his mother, to
know him but not be known -- that was torment.
Though I had lost my power, I had not lost my ability to see. As I hesitated, a
shadow-snake slithered in through the open doorway behind me. Its tongue flicked
eagerly towards the dust of power left behind on the floor; it snatched up that dust
like a starving dog would snap at crumbs.
I turned and fled.
It was the wrong thing to do. My father repeatedly warned me -- before the curse
bound my power fruitless inside me, before my father could not bear to look at
what I had become, turned away, and died -- he had warned me, never run from
There was nothing left in the land more magical than my boy. He caught me just
before I reached his gate. The power in him roused like the hackles on a cat. To my
trained eyes he appeared twice his normal size. Then the sun slipped beneath the
horizon and the illusion faded.
His grip on my arm tightened. "Why are you afraid of me? Who are you? What do
you know about my father?"
Only the frantic need for him to know me had driven me to speak in the first place;
now I retreated into silence and merely shook my head and bobbed it in the
acquiescent way that makes strong men have pity and weak men turn away in
disgust. I bowed my body in submission, subjection, a poor creature not even
worthy of his contempt, and tried to pull away from him.
His hand only tightened, and his eyes searched my face. "No. Don't leave. I'm
sorry. I was inhospitable."
I tried to shake my head, but he ignored the motion.
"Come in and stay for dinner. You'll never make it to Lost Hamlet before dark.
There are wolves. Stay with me tonight. Tell me where my father and I came
I would sooner have walked to the hamlet with the wolves and the snakes than
spend a night with his unborn power. Its fire rubbed against my twisted power like
sparks from a bonfire. So I shook my head again and tried to back away.
"I'm sorry I frightened you. Please, come back inside."
While he spoke, he looked into my face as if he were trying to peer past the
madman to whatever human soul might lurk within my twisted shell.
That undid me. To be looked at like that by a stranger -- from that I could barely
walk away, although I had done so by sheer force of will twice during my
wanderings. To be looked at like that by my son . . . That was more than I could
bear. So I bowed my head and let his tug on my arm draw me into his cottage.
The transformation from day into night had done more than reveal a brief glimpse
of his hidden power and bring the four chickens in to roost on the rafters. Snakes of
every size and description writhed across the floor in their shadow-forms. My son
walked through them, oblivious to their presence, and they slithered away from his
feet. Though they were drawn here by his power, they did not dare to touch.
Not, at least, while he was awake.
On the sorcerer's bed lay a shadow-snake so large it would have made the bed sag
if it had been truly present. It watched my son with such lust in its hooded eyes that
I stumbled back and almost tripped over another snake that hissed as it slithered
away from me.
My son frowned as I seemed to trip over nothing in the middle of his floor.
That meal was the longest I have ever eaten. I barely tasted the thin soup and hard
bread, for candlelight revealed what daylight had hidden. My son's shoulders
hunched as if he crouched against some chronic pain. There were dark hollows
beneath his eyes. He favoured his left ankle -- the ankle where snakes always fed.
But snakes no longer fed from men. Since the end of the snake wars, when all the
snakes mysteriously vanished from untrained sight, the snakes no longer slid
through cracks in walls to feed on the magically gifted. No one had been able to
explain why. But since the snakes had seemingly left humans to their own devices
and retreated into their own lairs, why did they still congregate here?
As I ate, snakes slithered around my ankles and across my lap. One came, rested its
head against my chest, and taunted my helplessness with its obsidian eyes.
If I had still had my power, I would have been able to banish the snakes from this
hut, maybe even from this mountainside, as close to their ancestral lair though this
As I was, I could do nothing.
When my son blew out the candle and went to sleep, I stayed awake and watched
in helplessness and horror as the snakes came to him. They latched onto his left
ankle with their hollow fangs and drank and drank from him while he writhed in
his sleep. His blankets became a tangle of knots. In the moonlight falling through
the window, I saw sweat bead on his forehead. It was only his dregs they drank
from him -- only the dust shed from his unawakened power -- but they could still
drink until they were satiated.
Unable to lie still and watch, I toppled from my bed, fell to my knees beside his,
and heaved at the snakes. My helpless hands passed straight through them. They
were shadows; I could not touch them, and no knife or stave would harm them.
My son slept on, oblivious. Any normal sleeper would have startled awake at the
snakes' first touch. Once awake, his skin prickling, he would have been unable to
move, for fear, because he could not have told if the danger was present or just the
vestige of an unremembered nightmare. Not even the snakes' touch on his bare
skin woke my son.
As I struck futilely at the snakes, I cursed the sorcerer. He had stolen my boy,
hidden his identity, hidden the power that was his inheritance, and then abandoned
my son to torment. I imagined the sorcerer lying in his bed, watching the snakes
drink but doing nothing to stop them.
I flung myself away from the cot. The snakes had to be getting in somewhere. I
must block the hole. Then convince my son to come away with me, to somewhere
safe. Then, maybe then, I could teach him who I was.
Hope flickered dangerously close to my heart as I searched. Out on the pale road,
no snakes moved. There were none in the yard, either. Only here, within the hovel,
did the floor seethe with them.
So I began to crawl across the floor. Though I had lost my power, I had not lost my
On my hands and knees, I found the hole by a shaft of moonlight. The hole lay
beneath the sorcerer's bed, and was hidden by weavings of illusion so it would
look, in daylight, like any other part of the floor.
Snake after snake slithered up through the hole while others slithered down again,
their bellies full of my son's power
As I watched, I cursed. What kind of madman would do that to a child?
I wriggled under the bed until my head was above the hole. Though I had no
power, the weavings were plain to see; little grey strands of the spell, of all
different thicknesses, held the hole open. Other strands held the illusion of
concealment across the hole. They were simple spells, and easy for me to see each
strand and where it went.
No steel or weapon can snap a magical thread. Only the force of a man's will, of
his intensions, can break it. In such a way some great sorcerers found their deaths
at the hands of ordinary, sighted men. If I had still had my power I could have
snapped one strand and the whole spell would have unravelled. It would have been
a mere matter of intention, of knowing the shape of the weavings of which all
things, both real and illusion, were made.
As I was, powerless, it took me the entire night, pulling with my hands. Slowly,
painstakingly, I tugged at one strand. I thought, if I could stretch this one strand far
enough, the hole might sag and become too small for the snakes to pass through.
Then at least they would have to find another way into the cottage. Hopefully it
would slow them down long enough for me to get my son away. Who knew what
they would do when I tried to take their source of sustenance from them?
As I pulled, I marvelled at my weakness, or the strength of this one small spell; I
could not tell which. Maybe the spell that rendered all of my speech backwards had
twisted my intent as well, without me knowing it. Maybe it had twisted who I
knew myself to be as well as what I tried to say. But at last the knot slid a little and
the strand, stained with my blood where I had tugged, began to pull free. It worked
looser, then more, and a little more.
The earth trembled. I stopped pulling. A kind of brightness began behind my eyes,
a brilliance like the shimmer of sunlight on water. My innards felt as if they were
turning into molten ice. No ordinary spell should feel like this as it unravelled. No
normal spell. For the first time since I lost my powers in the Snake Wars, I felt a
tingling of fear that started at the base of my spine and crept slowly upwards.
I jerked the strand free to make the hole collapse and bring the unearthly sensation
of melting inside me to an end. But as the strand came loose, the feeling
intensified. The hole did not close. Instead it widened to reveal a vortex of strands,
all intertwined, that extended down, down, into the snakes' tunnels. There was not
one tunnel but thousands. Not one spell, but thousands of spells. It must have taken
some sorcerer a lifetime of work.
He had bound them all: tunnels to snakes, snakes to spells, and spells to tunnels, all
to hold the snakes captive.
I saw it, in that instant the hole opened. He had bound them. I had just set them
For long moments I could not move. They writhed below me, not a handful, not
even hundreds, but generations and generations of snakes. They were not in their
shadow-forms, either, as they lay within the tunnels, but present. Here. Only as
they slid through the mouth of the tunnel did they fade into shadows.
Strands from the mouth of the tunnel stretched towards my son. With snakes
covering the floor, I had not seen the strands before. My son must have been used
as a lure to draw the snakes here. Then the sorcerer had tied him here. Tied him
here for the snakes to feed upon and keep them satiated so they would not roam too
far afield and find someone with awakened power they might drain -- someone
from whom they could draw enough power to break the spell binding them within
So the sorcerer had given them a human sacrifice to sustain them.
He had given them my son.
The sorcerer had protected the land and its people from the snakes. The cost: my
The snakes saw the opening in their cage and surged towards me, frantic for light,
Desperately, I tried to grab the other end of the thread and pull together the two
ends of the strand I had broken, but I had no magical power and the strands were
too far apart, now, for my physical strength to pull them together again. Not with
all the snakes that surged between them and out the hole, over me. Their cold
scales, as hard as iron, pressed against me as they rippled past.
I didn't know what else to do so I grabbed for a strand in the weavings that encased
the tunnel walls. This strand was almost as broad as my wrist. I thought if I could
pull the broken strand to it and tie them together, maybe it would hold for a while,
at least long enough for us to get away.
From the corner of my eye I saw my son. He moaned and thrashed as snakes
gathered on top of him, no longer shadows but real. They wrestled each other aside
to reach his ankle and feed. He could not survive all of them feeding at once.
Even as I hauled on the strongest cord with all my strength, I thought of the
calamity I had released on my land. In all the villages I knew so well, each child
with an ounce of magic in them would be drained and tossed aside as so much
detritus. Crops would be destroyed as the snakes trammelled through them. Cattle
would be eaten, and houses would be pushed over to reach those cowering inside. I
remembered doing almost nothing in the Snake Wars. And here I had caused it all
to start all over again.
I braced my feet and hauled on the strand with all my strength. Sparks burst before
my eyes and under my skin, like tiny jolts of lightning. I did not heed the warning
signs, but pulled harder, with more desperation.
And the strand pulled free.
Not out of the pit, as I expected it to. Inside me, something deep and anchored tore.
I felt as I imagined those did who had young snakes crawl down their throats and
rip out their bellies from the inside.
The cottage rocked and fell in a tumble of earth-and-wattle walls. Turf from the
roof fell on my legs. Only my head and arms, protected under the sorcerer's bed,
could still move. But the physical pain was vague and unreal next to how the
unravelling spells lashed me until I could do nothing but scream.
For I was the spells' starting point. I was its beginning, its creator. I was the man
who had shaped these spells and fixed them into place.
I was the sorcerer. I had done this to my son.
I heard my son roar as he woke to this hovel collapsing around him.
And as the spells unravelled, I remembered.
The snakes had been too many, far too many for one sorcerer. All the others who
had had any magic were drained or dead. I had seen the power in my son. He was
too young to help me -- an infant. If I left him, the snakes would drain him, too,
and take his power. Then there would be nothing left of us, and nothing left of the
The spell had taken all my strength, and more. It took all my language, it shredded
my power, as I had to twist and wring my strength until I could not even stand or
feed myself for days afterwards. And to bind a child -- that took extra magic.
Extra thought. I had bound myself backwards in order to hold the spell into place
-- in order not to remember it, not to know that my son was in torment and, unable
to bear it, come here to free him. But I could not make myself forget him. Not
altogether. I left myself memories of his babyhood so I could remember him, and
grieve. I had taught an ordinary man, my friend, how to take my son, how to bind
My son, my son. All those years I had looked for him, pined over him, all that
agony I had caused him, caused his mother, caused myself.
And now all for naught as snakes piled over me, as they dug holes through the
fallen turf to reach my ankle now that my power had returned. They would drain
what I could not yet control. My old abilities were too weak and too rusty with age
and disuse. My reflexes were too slow.
I heard my son cursing. Would he remember his mother, now that the spells were
unravelling? Would he know the father who had sent him to this fate? He would
certainly know his own torment, and his own power. But with no training, he
would not know how to use it.
He could certainly see the snakes. I heard the repeated whack of something
wooden striking their bone-hard scales. He would soon learn that weapons were
nearly powerless against them. I heard the wood thrown aside. The weight of turf
left my legs. I felt him dragging snakes off me. Their teeth, deeply sunken, tore
through my flesh and tendon, but pain was far away.
There is always a moment when you can turn left or right. A moment when you
chose between destroying a child's life and your own, or leaving countless lives
victim to the snakes' feeding.
The choice before me now was no better. It was too late to close the hole. Too
many snakes had escaped already; I did not have the power to call any of them
back into the shadow-forms in which they had been bound. I could try to repair the
spell and leave my son bound, leave him to writhe against the now-visible
restraints that held him while I went out through the countryside to try to round up
the snakes, an old man on twisted legs, his power rusty, himself weak, vulnerable.
Or I could stop trying to repair the shattering spell. Loose the bonds on all of them.
My son. The snakes. Set them all free.
"Old man! Are you all right?" My son grabbed my legs and began to drag me out
from under the bed.
Choice comes. Decide to pull glory back into yourself, to wrest it back even
against its will and go back to the fight you thought was over -- even though it
means leaving your child bound and helpless. Or you let go. Let the battle go to
someone younger, stronger, let him have his chance at life no matter how brutal, no
matter how hard, because it is still a chance at life and a battle fought. Because
sometimes the battle is where you discover yourself.
Sometimes, you find yourself in losing.
I let go of all the threads and watched the spell unravel.
I'm sure there was physical pain. I felt none. The agony deep in the core of me
overrode it all. I had left this unfinished mess for him. And I could not help him.
For the spells, as they unravelled, unravelled me. A lifetime's work took with it the
life that had given it birth. Power left my body; it ebbed away with the last of the
spell as its strands dissipated into the fog of memory.
My son hauled me out from under the bed.
In the glimmer of dawn, when worlds touch again for the briefest of moments, he
was a-glow with power. It fell from him like rain. He had no idea what to do with
it, or how to handle it. Now the snakes fled from him, afraid of so much strength.
But not for long. Soon they would return. He would have to battle them, for
himself, for this whole land, yet he had no idea how and I could not stay to teach
him. I tried to form words, to tell him all he needed to know about the battle that
was coming to him. But the world about me was becoming as grey and shadow-like as the snakes had been.
My son grabbed my shoulders and shook me a little. "Old man. Old man!"
I tried to clutch his sleeve, but my hand would not obey me. I said, "When I was a
young man, a sorcerer stole my son."