Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 14
Stories
On Horizon's Shores
by Aliette de Bodard
Shadow of Turning
by Joan Savage
For Want of Chocolate
by J. F. Lewis
Hunting Lodge
by Jon Crusoe
Folk of the Fringe Serialization
The Fringe
by Orson Scott Card
Bonus Audio Play
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Shadow of Turning
    by Joan L. Savage

Shadow of Turning
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

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 always seen."

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.

"Peddler!"

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 powerless.

"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 grieve.

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 understand.

"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 you."

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 back inside.

"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 never knew.

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."

"What?"

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 from it.

"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 him well?"

"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 disgust.

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 anything magical.

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 from."

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.

Into chaos.

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 was.

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 sight.

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 free.

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 their lair.

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 son's torment.

The snakes saw the opening in their cage and surged towards me, frantic for light, for food.

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.

I collapsed.

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 land.

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 the boy.

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."


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