I was sure I’d come to the right place when I saw the hands nailed to the doorpost. I sighed. It shows the right spirit, I suppose, but there’s no actual need for it.
There was no door-board. I walked in. Naturally, coming in out of the bright sun, I was as blind as a bat. “You sent for me,” I said, to nobody in particular.
There was a disconcerting silence. “You’re him,” said an old man’s voice, querulous, thin.
Just as well snakes have better night vision. She saw him, a little fat old man with a ridiculously abundant head of fine white hair.
I turned in his direction. He was looking me over. “I know,” I said, “I’m very young. But we’ve all got to start somewhere.”
He was frowning, so I thought I’d better do a trick quickly. If you can’t grab their confidence straight away, it makes it all so much more difficult. So I sent the snake. There was a big earthenware jar in the far corner, covered with a cloth. She crawled in under it, and I saw the jar was half-full of cornmeal. Not a lot to go on, so I told the snake to burrow deep, on the off-chance. It’s depressing how many old people keep their valuables buried in the corn jar. We, I mean thieves, know it’s the first place to look.
Then I smiled. “I wouldn’t keep it there if I were you,” I said.
He gave me a sour look. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“Let me see,” I said. “It’s ivory, about a finger and a half long, quite old, carved in the shape of a leopard sleeping on the branch of a tree. Worth about ten oxen. There’s marks on one end, I’m not quite sure what they are. No, hang on, they’re teeth-marks. A kid got hold of it at some point and chewed it.”
Ah. I’d got him. “My father,” he said. “When he was four years old. His mother hit his head so hard he was always slightly deaf in one ear, the rest of his life.” He paused. “Sit down,” he said.
There was one stool; three-legged, crude work. I sat down. The snake wanted to explore behind the jar—mice, presumably—but I called her back; she slithered up my arm and in through my ear.
“Thank you for coming,” he remembered to say. “Can I get you some beer?”
I shook my head. “Not when I’m working.” The snake was looking round. It saw—well, the usual. Nothing helpful, at any rate. “Well,” I said, “you’re not being haunted, and you’re not ill. What’s the problem?”
He grinned. “I was wrong about you,” he said, “you’re a good lad. Honest,” he added, incorrectly, as it happens. But he wasn’t to know. “I think I can trust you.”
I shrugged. “You do what you like.”
“Have some milk.”
I don’t like milk, but the snake does. “Thank you.”
He got up, tipped some milk from a jug into a little gourd. It was quite fresh. “What’s the problem?” I repeated.
“My daughter,” he said, not looking at me. “She’s bewitched.”
Not another one, I said to the snake. She ignored me. “What makes you think that?”
“She won’t do as she’s told.”
You can see the difficulty, can’t you? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the daughter in question is no more bewitched than my left foot, she’s just that age, or she’s fed up with being bossed around by her bloody stupid old father. So; she’s not bewitched, therefore I can’t unbewitch her, so I do nothing and the father goes around telling people I’m useless. Unscrupulous members of my profession deal with situations like that by sending their snakes in the poor girl’s ear and messing with her head, making her helplessly obedient. Sorry, but I won’t do that. I don’t know, maybe they’re right and I’m just too young; I haven’t started thinking like an old man, who’d see nothing wrong with it. “In what way?” I said.
“I found her a good husband. She wants to marry this young piece of shit.” He shrugged. “She’s never been difficult before. It’s his family. They’re none of them any good. They must’ve got a doctor to bewitch her.”
I nodded slowly. “What other explanation could there possibly be?” I said.
I got a stare for that. “Well,” he said, “what are you going to do about it?”
“The young piece of shit,” I said. “How many oxen has he got?”
“Twelve.” A world of contempt crammed into one little number. “Why?”
I smiled. “A doctor capable of bewitching a dutiful girl into disobeying her father, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do, trust me, would want at least ten head. I was just wondering how the young piece of shit could have afforded that.”
Scowl. “Maybe the wizard is one of his relatives, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised. They’re all garbage, the lot of them.”
My smile broadened. It was lucky for the old man I don’t practice my trade for free, or he’d have spent the rest of the day rolling on the floor clutching his guts. “If one of them was a wizard capable of performing that level of enchantment, he’d be a rich man,” I said. “Stands to reason.”
He peered at me through the smoke, which was making his eyes water, and I could tell he’d caught me out in the fallacy. Namely; that all competent wizards are rich. You claim to be a competent wizard, his eyes said, and look at you. True enough. But then, I’m still young.
Off you go, I said to the snake, and off she went.
“Anyway,” I said. “I suppose I’d better see your daughter.”
That made him laugh. “You’ll be lucky,” he said. “I don’t know where she is. I shut her up in the hut this morning and put an old woman outside to keep her in, but she cut a hole in the reeds and climbed out the back. Like I told you, she’s bewitched.”
I yawned, to give the snake a chance to crawl in through my mouth. “There’s a little lean-to shack,” I said, “next to the shed where you store your shields. Inside the shack there’s a pile of old furs and pelts, the ones your wives told you had been eaten by ants and were ruined, but they’ve put them aside to sell to the trader for beads, which you’re too mean to buy for them. She’s lying under the furs, waiting for midday, when everyone’s in the shade and she can sneak out without being seen. She’s having a real job not sneezing, because of the dust.”
He looked at me. Respect. Why is it I only ever get respect for the trivial stuff?
We sleep a lot, in our profession. We have to. For one thing, living with the snake—just being alive, with the snake inside you—is exhausting, like carrying a six-gallon pot on your head wherever you go. I feel the weight of her whenever I stand up, it’s a sort of shock in the knee-joints. No wonder so many of us are cripples by the time we’re thirty.
Mostly, though, we sleep so we can dream. My old master—a fool, actually, but he’d heard a lot of wise things from his peers, who weren’t fools—used to tell me that a doctor is asleep when he’s awake and awake when he’s asleep. I take this to mean that to us, the world you people live in is as insubstantial and illusory as the places you go in dreams are to you, while our dreams take us—well, home. Not sure I’d agree with that, but I’m too young to have an opinion.
It’s in our dreams, though, that we meet and talk to our own kind. There’s actually nothing particularly special about that, we do the same as you but in a different way, but at least we have the advantage that we can consult or spend time with any of our kind, regardless of the trivial constraints of geography, or indeed whether they happen to be alive or dead.
It’s the dead, of course, who give you the best advice, and why we’re so very reluctant to take it, I really don’t know. Take this business with the bewitched girl and the young piece of shit, for example. Only the night before, I dreamed of my old master’s old master—for some reason he’s taken a liking to me, though we never met, of course, he died before I was born; but I guess it’s like the bond you often get between grandparent and grandchild. His own pupil, of course, was a bitter disappointment to him.
Anyway, there he was, sitting on a stool beside my head. “No good will come of it,” he said.
“You always say that.”
“True. And aren’t I usually right?”
I sighed and rolled over onto my back. “Usually isn’t good enough,” I said. “You’re supposed to know everything.”
He laughed. He has this way of drawing back the corners of his mouth when he laughs, like a dog baring its teeth. It gives me the creeps, but I rather like it. I’ve tried it myself, but it makes me look silly. “I’m an old man,” he said, “I forget things.”
“Things that haven’t happened yet?”
“You were about to say something useful,” I reminded him.
He sighed. “I wish I’d had someone like me when I was your age,” he said. “To do all my work for me.”
“Balls,” I said, smiling. “You just complicate the issue.”
“Watch out for the broken spear-blade in the sand,” he said. “And remember, in this case, your worst suspicions will be justified. All right?”
“Why do you have to be so damn cryptic? Why can’t you just tell me straight—?”
“You’re going to wake up now.”
“About my fee,” I said.
Maybe the old man was going deaf. “I warned her,” he said. “I told her, if I catch you one more time sneaking out to wipe the axe with that worthless little turd, I’ll kill you. She just doesn’t listen. It must be witchcraft.”
I felt the snake wriggle uncomfortably inside my head. I know, I told her, but what can you do? “I was thinking,” I said. “I imagine you were looking for a dowry of, what, thirty, thirty-five head, which is what you stand to lose unless I can get rid of the spell. So in the circumstances, I’d say five head was perfectly reasonable, wouldn’t you say?”
Other doctors don’t negotiate. Other doctors are, of course, older, with impressive reputations. “They’re taking a long time,” he said suspiciously. “Are you sure she was in the shack?”
Fortunately, that was her cue to arrive, escorted none too gently by two of the herdsmen. We were sitting outside by now, in the sun; I’d had enough of the smoke and the smell of curds, so I’d told him it’s easier to smell witchcraft outside in the fresh air. Which is true, incidentally.
“You see?” he said. “Just look at her.”
Which I proceeded to do. That didn’t take long. She was just an ordinary girl, nothing special; it made me wonder why the young piece of shit was bothered enough to risk a spear in the back on a dark night, but presumably it was love or something like that. She was nice enough, if you like them round-faced and flat-chested. I was rather more interested in the two men with her.
“Well?” he said to her. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Where’s the point?” she replied; she had a deep, pleasant voice. “You wouldn’t listen.”
Not the two guards, they were just a couple of herdsmen, unmarried men in their early fifties, of no account. I’m talking about the two dead men.
“Shut up,” he said, thereby proving her point. “This is the doctor. He’s come to sort you out.”
“I’m young,” I explained. “Give me twenty years, I won’t need introducing.”
One of them, of course, I recognised. The other one, a boy of about seventeen, was in fact slightly the more impressive of the two. They wore grey fur karosses, as though they were on a journey, and each of them held a spear and a kerry. The younger man’s spearhead was broken. I don’t think they realised I’d seen them. That’s an advantage of being young and not looking the part. Go on, I told the snake, and she slipped out of my ear and down my arm.
The girl was giving me a mildly hostile stare, as though I wasn’t really important enough to be worth hating. “He’s wasting his time,” she said to her father. “There’s nothing wrong with me, except I’ve got a pig for a father.”
The snake crawled up her leg—I saw her shiver slightly, which was interesting. Likewise the information, on which the snake was quite definite, that whatever her relationship was with the young piece of shit, it hadn’t reached the axe-wiping stage, or anywhere near it.
“You father says you’ve been disobeying him,” I said. “Is that true?”
She grinned at me. “You tell me,” she said.
The snake came back and whispered inside my head, and I thought; Oh dear. This is going to get unpleasant quite soon, and I’m not going to get paid. I’ll confess that I did consider lying for a moment or so, until the snake started hissing furiously and making my head hurt. Fair enough. The truth it would have to be. Unfortunate for the girl and the old man, but that wasn’t my fault. And if they’d wanted to me to tell lies for them, they should’ve shown me a little more respect.
So, as soon as the snake had quietened down enough so that I could hear myself think, I turned to the old man and said, “I’ve got some good news for you. First, she’s not carrying on with the young piece of shit, no matter what impression she’s been trying to give you. The young man—” I was guessing a bit here, but I knew I couldn’t be far out—“is in fact a friend of her brother, and he’s been pretending he’s screwing your daughter as a favour to his friend’s memory. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing they were in the same regiment, and your son was killed. Yes?”
No reply, therefore no contradiction. Fine. “The young piece of shit,” I went on, “is acting in this noble and honourable fashion so that you’ll believe that the child she’s carrying is his. It isn’t, of course. I’m sorry to have to tell you that the child’s father was your late son. However,” I went on, raising my voice over the low moans that everybody started making at once, “the other good news is that this girl is not guilty of incest, since she and your son had different mothers, and you aren’t her father.”
As I said the words, a little spark of intuition lit up inside my head, and I realised what the dead man I’d recognised was doing there.
“Her true father,” I went on, “is the one we aren’t allowed to name, who died on the river-bank, among the tall reeds. So you see,” I went on quickly, “there hasn’t been any witchcraft here, so there’s nothing for me to smell out or put right, so in the circumstances I’m prepared to waive my fee and say nothing more about it, and I would suggest you do the same. I think I’ll go now,” I added, getting to my feet. “Have a nice day.”
I don’t know why we human beings profess to place such a high value on the truth. First of all, we don’t. Value it, I mean. In fact, we all lie through our teeth all the time, we’re the only animals that practice deceit with anything like that level of sophistication, which I guess is why the snake gets so upset whenever I’m tempted to bend the truth a little. Second; in my experience, nine times out of ten the truth only makes things worse, sometimes disastrously so. As in that case. And yet we profess to believe that the truth is the most valuable thing of all, to the extent that the king is always called Heaven-Thunders-The-Truth; we call him that, to his face, because of course we aren’t allowed to say his name.
Mind you, I think the old fool was completely unreasonable. If I’d been him, I think I might have taken a degree of pride in the fact that my daughter —all right, my adopted daughter— was of royal blood, even if her father was a traitor who got what he deserved, and not a moment too soon. Also, my professional ethics and a ridiculously conscientious snake in my head may oblige me to tell the truth, but he and his people suffered from no such burden. The whole thing could’ve been hushed up easily enough, and no harm done.
I was talking to my great-great-great-great-grandfather about cures for eye infections in cattle when something woke me up. I didn’t have to see it to know what it was.
“On your feet,” said a voice above me.
Here’s a curious fact for you. Nothing in the world feels quite like the two coils of flattened wire they wind round the base of a spear-shaft, presumably to stop the wood splitting as it dries. Maybe it wouldn’t be so distinctive applied to your hand, say, but when you feel it on your neck, just below the ear, you know immediately what it is.
“I said,” the voice repeated, “on your feet. Are you deaf, wizard?”
You also have a pretty good idea what’s going on. It means the king wants to see you. “All right,” I muttered through a mouthful of sleep, “I heard you the first time.”
They made me run, seven miles in the pitch dark. I hate running.
“Thank you,” the king said gravely, “for finding the time to see me.”
You genuinely don’t know if he’s trying to be funny, or whether he isn’t actually aware of how a royal summons is carried out. He must know, surely. But in that case, why pretend otherwise?
Actually, I quite like him; the Great Elephant, Heaven-Thunders-The-Truth, He-Who-Eats-Up-The-World. He has shrewd, sad eyes and he speaks quite quietly. He’s the sort of man who, if he was someone else and you met him at a wedding or a clan meeting or something, you’d think, here’s someone worth talking to. Everybody he ever meets is scared stiff of him, of course—me included, it goes without saying—and with very good reason. I imagine he’s equally terrified, all the time. On the whole, I’d say he copes better than most people would.
“You came quickly.”
“Yes, Lord. I ran all the way.”
A faint smile. “Such energy. You must be exhausted.”
Another trick he has is saying something like that and then shutting up, dead quiet, and sitting there perfectly still, looking at you. Naturally, you feel you’ve got to say something just to break the silence, before it drowns the entire world. And anything you say will, of course, be tactless, disrespectful, wrong and held against you for the rest of your painfully short life. But I was dog tired—the snake bounces about in my head when I run, and it feels like it weighs as much as a grown man—and I couldn’t be bothered. But then, I have the inestimable advantage of not fearing death. Well, not much.
“You sent for me,” I said.
“Did I? Oh yes. I almost forgot. I’m very angry with you.”
My throat locked solid. “I’m sorry to hear that. What did I do?”
He covered his mouth with his hand. “I gather my late brother had a daughter.”
“Several,” I said, without thinking. He looked at me; mild surprise, more than anything else. Several—six, to be precise, and he had them all killed. And quite right, too.
“One I didn’t know about.”
“And now she’s dead.”
I chose my words carefully. “I believe so.”
He nodded slowly, as if what I’d said was the crucial deciding factor in a momentous decision. I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye and quickly identified it with my peripheral vision. Then I woke up the snake and told her to get busy.
“The same woman who bore my brother a daughter bore him a son,” he said quietly. “Is that true?”
What a question. How was I supposed to know? Incredibly fortunate, therefore, that the king’s dead brother was now standing behind him, looking over his shoulder, with a look of mild disdain on his face. I lifted my head and caught his eye. He nodded.
“I believe so, Lord,” I said.
“So I have a nephew,” said the king. “Still alive.”
Another nod. “I don’t know, Lord.”
“Liar.” He said the word gently, the way a dog puts a dead bird in your hand. “He’s still alive. I want you to find him.”
Behind his shoulder, a brisk shake of the head and a ferocious scowl. I risked a wink. “Of course. Straight away. I’ll do my very best.”
There were two of them now; his late majesty the prince, and his wretched daughter, who of course I’d seen before. She was nursing a baby in her arms, as if to drive the point home. The snake, of course, was no help. She’d curled round the girl’s ankle and was rubbing her head against her leg. Sometimes I swear that snake thinks it’s a dog.
“When you’ve found him,” the king went on, “come straight here and tell me. You’ll be admitted right away, any time, day or night. You will not tell anybody about what we’ve talked about.”
A statement of fact rather than an order. I called back the snake. “Lord,” I said.
“Thank you so much for your time. I won’t keep you any longer.”
You back out of the king’s presence, keeping your eyes fixed on him until he can no longer see you. As I retreated, I heard something scuttling overhead in the thatch. The other royal personage nodded to me just as I was about to heave myself out through the door-hole. I left the two of them together. Enjoy, I thought.
The guards outside, who’d brought me there, gave me a cold stare as though they’d never seen me before. I walked home, quickly. My feet hurt.
There are worse lives, believe me. Shorter lives, too. I had six brothers, and now there’s only me. My brothers went off when they got their call-up, and I never saw them alive again. They tell me they made a good end, in a splendid battle which we won, and they’re quite happy and satisfied. Don’t feel sorry for us, they say, we’re sorry for you, stuck behind there in that rotten place. They, so they tell me, are soldiers in the army of Heaven. Fine.
The snake found me when I was eight years old, bathing in the river. She must’ve been lying on the bottom, dead still, pretending to be a root or a stick; I didn’t see her. She glided up through the water and slowly coiled herself around my trunk—I remember, I was so scared I couldn’t move or struggle, all I thought was, I hope it won’t hurt too much being crushed to death. You can tell I was never very bright, even as a child.
Hello, she said in my head. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to be your friend. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
(Three lies, one after another)
It was only then that I figured out what was happening. Hello, I said, can you hear me?
Loud and clear, she said.
Am I going to be a wizard?
At that age, of course, you don’t know how to keep your thoughts separate from talking-to-the-snake. I don’t want to be a wizard, I thought. I want to be a soldier like my brothers.
Fool, she said kindly. In ten years’ time all your brothers will be dead. So would you have been, without me. I’ve saved your life. You should be grateful.
Oh, I thought; and that was all, really. I accepted my brothers’ deaths, then and there, and I never said anything to them. Will I have to go away and live with a smelly old man in a cave?
It wasn’t getting any better. I’d seen a doctor once, and I’d been terrified—as intended, naturally. Suddenly I had a picture of me as a terrifying, smelly old man, with bits of bone and skin and bladder sewn into in my tangled hair. I was grinning, and everybody was scared to death of me. All right, I thought, I can be that.
Fool, she said again. It’s not like that at all. I’m going to make you clever and wise. Don’t you want to be clever?
As I said, I was a particularly stupid child. Half-wit, my mother called me; here, Half-wit, fetch the water, wipe your nose, stir this. It’d’ve been much better if I was clever.
Yes, she said, much. Instead of being stupider than everyone, you’ll be smarter. Wouldn’t that be fine?
But wizards don’t marry and have wives and children, I thought. That’s a bad thing. I’m not sure why, but it is.
I could feel her shifting round in my head, like a dog making a nest in a blanket before it goes to sleep. Are you afraid of death? She asked.
I suppose so. I haven’t thought about it much.
Are you sad when people die? People you love.
I don’t know. It’s never happened.
She sort of flexed her coils, and I could feel them pressing against the inside of my skull. I probably made some sort of whimpering noise, but she ignored me. It will, she said, believe me. Listen, I’m about to start making you clever. Death is nothing, it isn’t important. It only matters because the people who are left behind, the people who love the person who dies, are very unhappy. In fact, it’s the worst unhappiness there is. But a wizard can see and hear dead people just like seeing and hearing the living. You can talk to them any time you like. That’s the most wonderful thing, love without loss; because love should be the best thing in the world, but because you lose the people you love, love is the worst thing; it hurts more than anything else, it’s an enemy to be avoided at all costs unless you want to spend most of your life in pain. Except for wizards. That’s why being one is the best thing of all, better than being strong or rich, better even than being king. And that’s what I’ve just given you. Isn’t that wonderful?
I suppose so.
You suppose so. Now be quiet, I need to go to sleep.
My life has always been a sequence of impossible tasks, and this latest one was entirely in keeping with the trend. Go away and find a boy whose name and location nobody knows—nobody living, at any rate; normally, that wouldn’t be such a problem. Between them, my invisible friends and the snake would be able to handle a job like that. The impossibility comes in because the dead man who knew the answer to the question obviously wasn’t going to tell me; more impossible still, because if I did find the wretched kid, the dead prince would be seriously angry with me. Between death by impaling for failure to carry out the king’s orders and death by haunting for succeeding, there wasn’t a lot to choose. I’ve said I’m not afraid of death, and that’s true. Dying, though, is another matter. Dying slowly in great pain is something I actively try to avoid.
I slept badly that night, which was enormously inconvenient. When I finally managed to nod off, there was nobody there but my old master; a terrible sign, because although he’s responsible for me, in this world and the next, he never could stand the sight of me.
“The king said, find this boy. You live to serve the king. You serve the king as the sandal serves the foot, it has no other purpose. Therefore you must summon the prince, against his will if needs be, and force him to tell you where the boy is. You have no choice in the matter.”
Stupid old fool. “Yes,” I said, “and if I do that, I’ll have the prince’s face inches from my own for the rest of my life, scowling and yelling at me. How long will I last? Ten days?”
He shrugged. “You don’t matter,” he said.
He was like that when he was alive. “There must be another way,” I said.
“There is not. When I clap my hands, you will wake up.”
“No, don’t do -” Too late. I sat up and found I was soaked in sweat. The snake shifted unhappily in my head. She doesn’t like the heat, which is really strange, for a snake.
Why me? I asked her. Because you’re young, she replied. That’s typical of her. Factually correct and completely unhelpful.
I thought about it for the rest of the night and most of the following morning, and the more I thought, the more obvious it became. I was going to have to kill the king, and set up this unknown boy in his place. No other way out.
I really didn’t want to. The kings of the House of the Spear, Great Elephants, Eaters-Up-Of-The-World, have been a pretty useless lot, but His current Majesty was one of the better specimens, and since he’d come to the throne, life hadn’t got much better but it hadn’t got spectacularly worse. This made him a Good King, and the odds were pretty overwhelming that this kid I was proposing to replace him with would be a complete disaster, like his grandfather, great-uncle, great-great-grandfather, and so on back into the cloudy realm of faint memory.
Furthermore, although I could think of half a dozen powerful lords who’d want him dead, all of them would also want to take his place, not see the royal spear and mat pass to some gawping brat of no relevance. Also, killing a king isn’t easy, which is why we still have kings. In all probability, it’d go horribly wrong and I’d be killed. But that was a probability rather than a certainty; two certainties, as I explained earlier. It really didn’t help one little bit that I liked the man. Oh, and I had three days, four at the most, before I’d be deemed to have failed in my task and executed. No pressure.
To kill a king (please listen carefully; I’m only going to say this once) you need three things: opportunity, the forbearance of others, and a weapon. Opportunity doesn’t come much better than come straight here and tell me, you’ll be admitted right away, any time, day or night. The forbearance of others can take many forms, from active conspiracy to a guard falling asleep at his post; some you can plan for, others the snake can arrange, some are pure luck. The weapon? Spoilt for choice. Of course, you need one other thing. You need to want to do it.
Meanwhile, I had a job to do.
The snake has her own way of doing things; she doesn’t tell and I don’t ask. This time I let her go, then climbed up the mountain and spent the day sitting in a cave, my back, thinking hard about how to go about murdering the king.
Just as it was starting to get dark, she came back. She’d found the boy. He was in an army camp about a day’s walk away to the south. Simple as that.
Like so many people these days, I never knew my father. He went off to war, my mother told me, and that was the end of him. Of course, she wasn’t my mother, though she never told me that. But the snake told me, bless her malicious heart, when I was nine years old. The subject came up in a discussion we were having about my future. We still talked occasionally then.
I don’t want to go away, I remember telling her. I don’t want to go and live a long way away, in a cave with a smelly old man. I’d miss my mother and my sisters.
She’s not your mother. They aren’t your sisters.
Liar, I said, and the snake hissed inside my head and swelled her coils until I was sure my skull would burst. Liar, I repeated. It’s not true.
You know it’s true, she said. Everything I tell you is true. Even if I wanted to deceive you, I couldn’t. We’re too close.
Even at that early stage, I knew that. So who’s my real mother?
She lives a long way away. The man she’s married to is not your father. She doesn’t want to see you, ever. The woman who looks after you was given twenty head to take you away. She’s fond of you, but she’s not your mother. You have nobody, except me.
The snake doesn’t lie, that’s the thing. The snake doesn’t love me. Love doesn’t come anywhere near it. Love compared with what the snake feels for me is a rabbit standing next to an elephant. I am her soul, and she is mine. Unfortunately.
There; she didn’t like me saying that. She tells the truth but doesn’t always like hearing it.
So, one dark night, I took an old rusty spear-blade that had belonged to my grandfather, my mother’s father, the father of the woman who wasn’t my mother, and very quietly I sawed a hole in the reeds and crept out of the hut, across the cattle-pen, through a gap in the thorn hedge and away. I walked for three days, with nothing to eat and no sandals on my feet (I’d never been more than an hour’s walk from home before) until I reached a high mountain standing on its own in the middle of the plain. The snake showed me a kloof whose mouth was almost hidden by thorn-bushes and scrub. It was just before mid-day, and the shadow of the mountain made the kloof as dark as midnight. Well go on, the snake told me. So I threaded my way in past the bushes and called out, “Hello?”
My master was sitting on a stool in the middle of the cattle-pen; just sitting, his hands on his knees, his head a little to one side. He was a big old man with white hair in braids, and there were bits of things I didn’t like to look at stuffed or caught in the weave. He must’ve seen me but gave no sign.
“Hello,” I repeated.
He can’t hear you, said a voice, and another voice laughed. Another one, a woman’s, said, You must be the boy. Well?
“Yes,” I said out loud, “or I think so. I’ve come to learn to be a wizard.”
Several other voices laughed; a man’s voice said, Not a wizard, a doctor. That’s your first mistake.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know.”
That’s no excuse, said the voice, and the female said, Leave him alone, don’t pick on him. A lot of voices laughed at that. You need to learn, said the nasty male voice. If we’re kind and gentle, you won’t learn anything. But this—and something slapped the side of my face so hard I staggered—will make sure you don’t get it wrong ever again.
“Thank you,” I said.
They found that hilarious, but I’d said the right thing, and from then on, they were mostly on my side. Gradually, of course, as time went by, I got to know them all, though some were more friendly than others. Mostly they were doctors, long dead; they hung about the kloof the way old people hang about the smithy in the cold weather, for the company and to keep warm. Some of them never told me who they were, who they’d been, or even if they’d ever been human, and it’s not the sort of thing you ask about. Mostly, like I said, they were good to me, and when they weren’t, I probably deserved it.
Anything even vaguely like an education or training, I got from them; my master was pretty much useless, as the voices didn’t hesitate to point out when they thought he couldn’t hear them. He’d forget about me for weeks at a time, then suddenly remember and try and teach me something—but usually it was garbled or no use for anything or just plain wrong. The voices wanted me to kill him and take his place; as is only fitting, they used to say, which I didn’t understand. I could see their point, but I’m not a natural killer; it’s something I do rarely, and then only when I have to, usually when it’s too late. That, they assured me, is a weakness that would hold me back and ultimately bring me to grief. I hope they’re wrong, though I have to say, they’ve always been right about everything.
But they taught me to see, and to listen, and how to make the snake do what I wanted. They told me the things the snake could do and the things she couldn’t, and how to summon the dead and the other spirits. Does this mean I can order you about now? I asked, and because they couldn’t lie they said nothing. They taught me how to herd the clouds and make lightning, how to smell for poison and witchcraft, how to heal injuries and illnesses, and how to hurt people. All useful stuff.
Then, when I was sixteen, my master died suddenly. It shows how useless he was, and how much the spirits disliked him, that his death came as much of a surprise to him as to me, and all the rest of us. He was sitting outside in the sun one morning, and a big lump of rock crumbled away from the side of the mountain and fell on his head.
No great loss, they told me, but I was sorry for him, even so. He was one of those people who shouldn’t have been born with the gift but was anyway. He thought he was a much better doctor than he really was, and was therefore continually disappointed; needless to say, he blamed everybody and everything else, and so went through life in a constant state of anger and resentment. I buried him under the door of his hut, and then it actually sank in. All this was mine now, I was the wizard of the Black Kloof, and I was on my own.
Which is why, as people are forever reminding me, I’m young to be a doctor. I’m ten times better at it than he was, and he never liked me anyway. But I miss him, even so. The snake told me once that the spirits loosened that rock and made it fall when it did. I choose not to believe her.
My snake led me to the army camp where, I have to say, I was not made welcome. Members of my profession, even young ones who don’t wear all the get-up, aren’t popular with the military. This may be because unscrupulous kings over the years have used doctors to get rid of over-mighty generals with spurious accusations of witchcraft. If so, I don’t blame them one bit.
I hadn’t got the faintest idea who I was supposed to be looking for, let alone his name or a description or anything like that, but she slipped out of my ear and bustled along in front of me, and I followed. She led me to the smithy. It was going to be one of those days.
Smiths are another section of the community who don’t like us. I can see why; we’re too much alike. We say that a smith is a wizard without the talent. They don’t say what they say about us to our faces, and nobody wants to tell us, but we can guess. This particular smith was a big fat man, about fifty years old, with a headring gleaming with sweat and burn-scars all over his arms and chest. He stood in front of the anvil, wiping his forehead and holding a half-done spearhead in the red coals. Behind him, a lad of about my age was pumping a double bellows. “What do you want?” asked the smith.
A very good question. Fortunately, the snake was back inside my head and spoke for me. “You had a sister,” I said.
He froze, then turned and scowled at the boy. “Go away,” he said. The boy let go of the bellows handles as though they were red hot and ran out. “You,” said the smith, “make yourself useful and work the bellows. I don’t want to lose the heat.”
Anything to oblige. Needless to say, I don’t know the first thing about blacksmiths’ work. Curiously and fortuitously, the snake does. I got a nice smooth rhythm going. “I asked you a question,” I said.
“Who the hell are you, anyway?”
I smiled, took one hand off the handles and drew it round my head, like a coiling snake. Everybody knows what that means.
“A bit young, aren’t you?”
“So I gather. Well?”
I could see he was considering his alternatives, of which he seemed to feel there were two. The first, which I could see he favoured, was bashing me on the head with his hammer and shoving my face in the fire. Reluctantly, he opted to go with the second.
“What about her?”
Behind him, I could see three women; one old, one middle-aged with a baby on her hip, and one young and very beautiful. “She’s dead.”
“I know. What’s it to you?”
“Your mother had a long nose and a pointed chin, and a scar just above her left eyebrow. You had a brother, but he died when he was a baby. But you loved your grandmother best, and she loved you.”
He winced. “All right,” he said, “you’re a wizard. What about my sister?”
Sometimes you just have to guess. “She had two children,” I said. “Their father wasn’t her husband.”
He grinned at me. “She had two sons and three daughters.”
And sometimes you guess wrong. “Her lover was the prince,” I said. “The one we can’t talk about.”
He looked at me, then down at the spearhead, which was starting to show white round the edges. Slowly he lifted it out and laid it on the ashes. “You can stop pumping,” he said.
I was glad to hear that. Bellows are more work than they look. “She married a man over by the White River,” I said. “He died recently, along with his daughter and all his household.”
The smith shrugged. “I heard he was a traitor,” he said.
“Maybe,” I replied. “It’s one of those words, the more people use it, the less it means. Now,” I went on, “the prince’s daughter stayed with her mother, but not the boy. What became of him, do you know?”
He wiped sweat out of his eyes. “No idea,” he said. “The boy was the older of the two, by a year or so. Because of who his father was, she sent him away as soon as he was born. Then the prince started the war and got killed, so none of us wanted to know any more about anything, if you get what I mean. Who else knows about this?”
“Nobody,” I said. “Just you, me and the snake. She won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
“How about you?”
“Oh, I do as I’m told.” That made him grin, in spite of himself. “Why should I want to tell anybody, anyway? You don’t know anything, you just said.”
He’s lying, of course, the snake told me. Yes, I told her, I’d guessed that.
“I haven’t heard anything about the boy since he was born,” he said firmly. “I wouldn’t know him if I met him in the road.”
“Quite,” I said. “And how could the boy be a threat to the king if nobody knows him and he’s got no way of proving he’s got a claim to the throne?” I paused for a moment. “Some people might say that’s a pity,” I said.
He stiffened, like a splash of hot lead falling into water. “Don’t talk like that,” he said.
“Why not? Nobody here but us and the rats in the thatch. There’s some people who might say, no matter how bad this boy is, he couldn’t be worse. Pointless, of course, if he can’t even be found.”
There’s something unnerving about the sight of a huge man, strong as a bull, terrified. “Now who would say something like that?”
“Oh, people I’ve talked to. Quite a lot of them, actually. They’re saying, nobody wants another civil war, not like the last one, and there’s not many who’d be willing to march out and fight in one, and who’d blame them? But if, heaven forbid, the king was to fall down dead, through illness—“ I paused, and smiled. “Or witchcraft, even. He’s got no sons, he’s always been very careful about that, no brothers, no living relatives of any sort, so who’s going to take his place? The country needs a king, someone’s got to do it. And if there’s a nephew—“ I shrugged. “I think a lot of people would rest easier knowing there’s an heir to the throne, don’t you?”
He looked at me like a drowning man. “What did you say your name was?”
“It’s not a very interesting name,” I told him. “Even if I told you, you’d have forgotten it a moment later. Talking of names,” I added.
He looked away. “He didn’t have one,” he said. “I told you, they got him out of there practically as soon as he was born. What he’s called now I have no idea.”
“But the people you sent him to,” I said. “They had names. Most people do.”
“I don’t remember.”
I smiled. I didn’t want to. I quite liked the man. “I’m a doctor,” I said, “I have medicines for a poor memory. And other things too, of course.”
He’s going to say it, I thought. He said it. “Are you threatening me?”
They never expect you to say that. He actually shuffled back a step or two, as if that’d do him any good. The sight of so much cowardice made my skin crawl. “Leave me alone, will you?” he said, raising his voice (but it came out as a rather louder whine). “I don’t know anything.”
I hate doing this sort of thing. “Maybe not,” I said. “But it’s all right, I’ll know if you’re telling the truth. I’ll send my snake into your head, and she’ll tell me if there’s anything in there or not.”
I can’t do this, of course. Nobody can.
By now he’d retreated so far he was backed up against the anvil stand, with nowhere to go. “Please,” he said, “it’s my sister’s boy, if they find him they’ll kill him. He’s all that’s left of her. Please.”
I’m not sure I’d have had the heart to carry on if he hadn’t made a spectacle of himself by grovelling. But all I could feel was contempt. “That’s enough,” I said. “Now, the more you can hold still, the less damage she’ll do. You really do need to co-operate if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life sitting against a wall somewhere.”
“All right,” he said. I could hardly bear to look at him. I wanted to squash him, like a nasty insect. But he told me a name. It hit me like—well, like the rock that had fallen on my master. It crushed me flat. Like an idiot, I said, “Are you sure?” or “Say again?” or something like that. He repeated the name; also her father’s name, and where they lived. I think I said, “Thank you, I’m sorry,” or something of the kind, and then I stumbled out into the light, not looking back.
Well, so much for that idea.
The thing is, I don’t go looking for trouble. Some people do. Some people delight in the thunder and the stamping and the shouting and the screams of dying men. Some people can only find peace in war; without fighting and conflict, they’re like newly-planted seedlings in dry weather, drooping and parched. Some people can only live if there’s death all around them. I guess it must be the thrill. I’m not like that.
So all the stuff that continually pounds down on my head and in through my ears, like rain after thunder, is wasted on me, and I think that’s a shame, when there’s so many people out there who’d really appreciate it. I’d much rather stay home in the kloof and cure oxen with fly-bites and redwater fever. A man could get old and fat doing that, and people would be pleased to see him. But I think she’d be bored stiff. I think she likes the other stuff. It’s the only explanation I can come up with, at this moment.
I had to abandon the plan because the name the smith told me was my mother’s, sorry, the name of the woman I used to think of as my mother, and the place he named was where I grew up, before I came to live in the Black Kloof. Ridiculous.
I’d been living back in the kloof about three months when I had a dream. I was lying curled up on my mat, and all these terrifying old men came again and stood round me in a ring, looking down at me and frowning, as if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe I was true. At first I was scared of them, but they kept on staring and muttering, and I knew that sort of thing was rude, so after a while I stopped being scared and got annoyed. “What?” I said.
One old man, who seemed really put out about something, said, “So you’re him, then.”
“Me?” I said. “I’m nobody. I’m not important. Please go away.”
They looked at each other, and one of them said, “Are you quite sure? He looks so—“ He didn’t finish his sentence, and the others just shrugged.
“What?” I repeated. “What are you talking about? Is there something wrong with me, or something?”
Then one of them laughed, but it wasn’t a funny laugh. “You know what, son,” he said, sounding as though I’d just spat in his beer, “it’d have been better for everybody if you’d never been born. Come on,” he added, to the others. “There’s nothing we can do about it, that’s for sure.” And then they all started to walk away, and I woke up.
I couldn’t kill the king and put the prince’s long-lost son on the throne because that long-lost son was apparently me. So the plan was out of the question; for many reasons, but principally because I’m a doctor, a wizard. No wizard has ever been king, it’s unthinkable. For that to happen, a king would have to have a son born with the talent, and send him away to learn the craft under some master, and no king would ever do that. No wizard born outside the royal family could ever usurp the throne, because all his fellow-wizards would band together to stop him, and then there’d be a spirit war which would stamp the land flat. All the cattle would die, all the children would be still-born, there would be so much lightning and no rain— So that’s that. The People of Heaven wouldn’t stand for it, either. If I was to be king, they’d tear me in pieces, or die in their thousands trying.
So; right back to where we started.
“You did say,” I told him. “Any time, day or night.”
He grunted like a pig. “Did I?”
He sighed. It was the middle of the night. He’d been with his youngest wife, not sleeping. “I must have meant it, then. So, you found him.”
I tried not to look at the faces crowding round us, but it was hard. I recognised some of them, but most were unfamiliar, though the family resemblance was quite strong in some of them. The huge, grim-faced man with the wild eyes could only have been the Black One himself, the Lion, He-Stamps-Them-Flat, the founder of the kingdom; is there anyone living who wouldn’t give his right arm for a chance to see Him, find out what He really looked like? But I didn’t dare, I could only peek at him on the very edge of my vision. My ancestors, I realised; what an extraordinary thought. The Black One was my great-great-great-great grandfather.
“Are you sure we’re alone?” I said.
He laughed out loud. “Oh, quite sure,” he said. “I don’t want to share this with anybody.”
Me included. I wasn’t at all sure I knew what to do about that. Still, I’d run out of options, so what could I do? Think of something, and quickly. “No rats in the thatch, even?”
He looked at me for a moment; then, with a degree of speed and power remarkable in someone so fat, he stood up and drove the little red-handled spear he always carried into the thatch above his head, right up to the socket. He pulled it out, drove it in again about a foot to the left, and so on about a dozen times. Then he sat down again. “No rats,” he said. “Go on.”
The show of violence had unnerved me, and I had to pull myself together before I could speak. One thrust of that little toy spear, so very quick, not upwards this time, was all it would take, and all my troubles would be over. I’m not afraid of death, remember. Even so.
“Very well,” I said, and I told him a name. It was a lie. It was the name of the son of a very big important man, commander of five regiments, loved by all the people for his fairness, his generosity, his wisdom, his courage. Either of them, father or son, would have made a good king. A stable kingdom with a not-quite-so-good king and a standing army can do without men like that.
I felt the snake swell her coils in rage, because I’d just told a lie. The pain was unbearable. I didn’t dare breathe, for fear of crying out. The pressure kept on building, and I felt my eyeballs bulge.
“Are you sure?” he said.
I couldn’t speak, so I nodded.
He looked at me. “Are you feeling all right?” he said. “You look awful.”
“I’m fine,” I croaked. “Thank you.”
(As I said, I quite like him. Just occasionally, there are these flashes of humanity through the clouds of Heaven. Just occasionally. If he hadn’t had to be a king, he’d have been all right. He didn’t have the choice, of course. Not like some—)
“You’re sure,” he repeated. I nodded again. My head was about to crack open, like an egg hatching. “It seems so unlikely,” he went on. “Of all the people, why him? In the war against my brother, he was on my side. Really on my side, I was sure of it. I can’t believe he’d have taken in my brother’s son. It makes no sense.”
“Rich men like to collect weapons,” I said. Luckily I’d learned the speech by heart beforehand. “They don’t necessarily plan on using them, but they like to own them—you know; fine spears, ironwood kerries, axes with rhinoceros-horn handles. And maybe a man might get to thinking, if ever I had to defend myself against the king, I’d need a pretty special weapon, something practically unique. And maybe a clever tactician, an experienced soldier or someone like that, might feel the need to start defending himself before the attack comes.”
He thought about that for a long time, and I could see him slowly getting angry—not the sort of anger he does for show, because it’s expected of him, with shouting and arm-waving, but the quiet, tight-lipped kind that comes from being hurt and frightened and betrayed. Meanwhile, the pain in my head wasn’t getting better, but it had stopped getting worse.
“Are you sure?” he said.
I nodded, and this time I couldn’t stop myself, because the snake swelled alarmingly and I had to cry out. He looked at me. “What’s the matter?” he said.
I managed to grind out the words. “My head hurts, Lord.”
“You chose a strange time to have a headache.” He frowned, then looked past me towards the doorway. “Apart from me and you,” he said.
He rubbed his lower lip with his thumb. I don’t know anybody else who does that. “There’s an argument for saying that letting you live would be weakness.”
I was distressed to see a couple of my ancestors nodding their heads behind him. “No, Lord,” I said, “with respect. Letting the boy live would be weakness. Letting me live would be enlightened self-interest. Killing me would be a waste. If your father was here now, he’d agree with me,” I added, untruthfully.
“You’re bleeding,” he said. “There’s blood coming out of your ear.”
I gave him a weak grin. “It does that sometimes,” I said.
He frowned and peered at the side of my head. I could feel the blood trickling down my neck, like a snake crawling. At last he said, “There’s no point killing you. You’ll be dead anyway inside a week. You’ve been bewitched. There’s maggots in your brain or something.”
I really wanted to laugh. I managed not to. “That would explain it,” I said.
Even now I’m not sure why the snake didn’t kill me for telling lies. She wanted to, I know. She said so. Her story is that she tried to do it, but my skull was too thick to pop. She always tells the truth. I don’t believe her.
It was touch and go, though, for a day or two. I got out of there and back to the guest hut, where I fainted half in and half out of the doorway, on my knees, with my ass in the air. When I came round, I couldn’t move my left arm, and the left side of my face was frozen. It makes talking difficult, as you’ve probably gathered. I sound like I’m drunk, which is so unfair.
For weeks, apparently, I talked nothing but drivel. I find that odd, because I can remember having a lot of long, intelligent conversations during that time; with many of the great names in my profession, with interesting spirits I’d never come across before, with people I used to know, with my relations. I even got to talk to the Black One himself.
He came and sat beside me, or rather he squatted on his heels, perfectly balanced. He was much younger than I’d expected. He was frowning. I didn’t dare speak. He scratched his ear, then looked at his fingertip. My mouth was as dry as shield-leather.
“Hello,” he said suddenly, and his voice was much higher than I’d thought it would be. “You don’t know me. I’m your great-great-great-grandfather.” He grinned awkwardly. “Silly, really. I don’t feel old enough to be anybody’s grandfather, or anything like that. But I died young, you see.”
He sounded almost apologetic, as though he’d been inconsiderate. “Lord,” I mumbled. “Great one, Eater-Up-Of-Elephants.”
He gave me a look. “Yes, all right,” he said. “I don’t actually like that stuff. I used to,” he added with a little grin, “and look where it got me. My brothers killed me, you know.”
“So.” He put the tips of is fingers together, aligning each one precisely. He had long, slim hands, like a girl. Everything about him was precise, delicate, elegant, even though he was so big and broad. He hadn’t lived long enough to run to fat, of course. “You’re the last of the family, then.”
“Am I, Lord?”
He nodded. “My children and my children’s children have seen to that,” he said sadly, “slaughtering each other till there’s nobody left. I don’t know why they had to do that, it’s stupid. You’d have thought, the first duty of a king is to make sure he’s got a son to take his place. Not our lot, apparently. Too scared of being murdered by their own kids. I ask you, what kind of way is that to live? No,” he went on, “you’re the last of us, and you won’t have any children, being a wizard and all.”
I’d been figuring it out in my head. When he died, he’d been just six years older than I was at that moment. He’d started young, of course. Won his first major battle when he was fifteen years old. “I wish I’d been a wizard,” he said.
“Never had the talent, of course,” he said. “I’ve always felt bad about that. A wizard’s got it all, hasn’t he? Power, cattle, everybody’s scared stiff of him, even kings; you can make people do what you want and they’d never dare try anything with you. Wizards are so much better than kings.”
“Well, it’s true,” he said. “I mean, look at our family. You know how many of us lived to be thirty? Four, out of fourteen. You know how many of us died natural deaths? None, that’s how many. Not one.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Is that true, Lord?”
“Are you calling me a liar?” For a moment, I thought lightning was going to strike me and burn me up. Then he grinned sheepishly. “Sorry,” he said, “force of habit. I always made a point of taking offence at pretty much everything. It made people scared of me, you see. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
He shrugged, then went on; “Wizards, now, they all live to be old men, respected, looked up to, and the older they get, the more people respect them. Opposite of what happens with everyone else, when you get old, nobody bothers with you, you’re just a nuisance. Even kings. Your sons sit there watching you, waiting for you to die, and it’s them people talk to and listen to, because you won’t be around much longer and they want to be in with whoever’s going to take your place. No, wizards are much better than kings. Well, you know that. You had that idiot eating out of your hand.”
“It didn’t feel like it, Lord.”
He frowned. “Really? I thought you handled him really well. Smooth as butter, I thought.”
“I was frightened, Lord. I was very frightened.”
That made him laugh. “Well, of course you were,” he said. “That’s natural. I mean, look at me. I was scared stiff most of the time. Absolutely petrified.”
“Oh yes.” He nodded seriously. “Oh, I yelled and roared and carried on like I was wrong in the head; people respect that, they don’t dare answer you back, even if you’re doing something bloody stupid. And I went on about how being brave is so wonderful, and if anybody did anything that even looked like cowardice I was down on them like a leopard, no second chances, nothing. You do that, people think ‘he must be really brave.’ But I wasn’t. The number of times I pissed myself down the leg just before we started fighting. But nobody saw, I don’t think, so that was all right.” He shook his head. “Wizards are better. You don’t get to marry and have kids, but that’s probably one of the good things about being a wizard, I don’t know. Really, you’ve got everything. You people aren’t even afraid of death, isn’t that right? That must be wonderful. Like being, I don’t know, free.”
I stared at him. “But Lord,” I said, “you were the greatest king of all time. You conquered the world, you stamped out the tribes like the embers of a fire—“ I stopped. He was giving me a sad look and shaking his head slowly. “Lord?”
“You’re smart,” he said, “you should know better. I wasn’t smart, like you are.” Suddenly he laughed. “Believe me,” he said, “I wouldn’t lie to you. Heaven-Thunders-The-Truth, remember?”
“Heaven thunders the truth,” I said. But it didn’t mean anything any more.
Five years later, when the king was dying, he sent for me. I replied that I was too busy, which was true. He commanded me to attend on him. I didn’t bother to reply.
A lot had changed in that time. The People of Heaven had fought a bitter war against an alliance of their most powerful neighbours and had lost badly; we’d managed to patch up a sort of a peace, but it wouldn’t be long before they’d be back to finish us off. The king’s army was mostly dead; of the survivors, five regiments had crossed the northern border and kept going, until nobody knew where they were, and the king was only still alive because his three senior generals were still trying to decide which of them was going to kill him and take his place. There weren’t enough soldiers left for a civil war, so they were having to talk it through instead.
Meanwhile, the king’s illness, which he’d suffered from on and off for the last five years, had finally broken his will to resist, and he was about to save his loyal people the job. I, on the other hand, had prospered. I’d cured a plague. More to the point, I’d accurately predicted each crippling defeat, with enough circumstantial detail to convince even the most sceptical observer. I was turning away any job that didn’t interest me, and asking for (and getting) ridiculous fees for the few I condescended to take on. I think it’s fair to say I was the only doctor in the country who hadn’t messed up at some point in the war. I was universally respected, and if I’d wanted to, I could’ve chosen who was going to be the next king, and everybody would’ve accepted my decision. But I chose not to. I was, I gave them to understand, above things like that, who cared only for wisdom. And truth. Heaven no longer thundered it. I did.
So he came to see me instead; unannounced, uninvited. But he still had a bodyguard of two hundred picked veterans; I had about seventy men minding my cattle and doing odd jobs for me, but even if I’d had notice and mustered them to fight, they wouldn’t have lasted very long against the guards. So, when two guard captains burst into my cave late one night and said the king was paying me a visit, I just yawned and said yes, I’d been expecting him.
He’d changed. It was a particularly unkind sort of illness. He’d swollen up like a body that’s been in the water. His arms and legs were like tree-trunks, and his body was grotesque; his head, though, was more or less the same size, which made him look ridiculous. He couldn’t stand or sit, so he had to be carried on a stretcher, with trestles to rest it on. They brought him in, and I didn’t look up. “Go away,” I said. A moment or so later, I heard them filing out of the cave. Only then did I lift my head and look at him.
“Hello, uncle,” I said.
His puffed-up cheeks had almost closed his eyes; they were narrow almonds of white, glaring balefully at me. “It’s true, then,” he said.
“Oh yes. How did you find out, by the way? Oh,” I added, because my father was standing over him. He was grinning.
“Is he still there?” asked the king.
He sighed. “I can’t see him all the time, but I know he’s there, I can feel him.”
My father shrugged and pulled a face. He’s a jolly man, with a good sense of humour. I like him. I wish I’d known him.
“The illness,” I said, “is incurable. You have about five days to live. Then the weight will get too much for your heart and you’ll die. I’m sorry,” I added.
“Was it you?”
Inside my head the snake shifted ominously. All right, I told her, settle down. “Yes,” I said. “I put a spell on you, the night I lied to you. I had to, I’m afraid. It was the only way the snake would forgive me. I’m sorry, you can’t possibly understand that. The point is, I didn’t want to. But there was no other way.”
He nodded as much as he was able to, an inch or so. “The war?” he said. “Did you do that?”
I wanted to look away, but I reckoned I owed him eye-contact. “Yes,” I said. “I bewitched you into arrogance and stupidity. You were half-way there, but the other half was all me. I’m sorry for that, too.”
“You’ve destroyed the country.”
“I know,” I said. “We’re this close to being stamped flat. But it had to happen. The kingdom began with our family, and it’ll end with it. And frankly, no great loss. What did we ever do, apart from kill people?”
He closed his eyes. “If I tell my guards to cut your throat, I wonder if they’ll obey me.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “Would you like to try yourself? You can if you like, though the effort will probably kill you. I’m not bothered, one way or another.”
He was exhausted. Just talking, moving his head a few times, had drained all his strength. “What’s the point?” he said. “It’s all over now.”
“It will be,” I told him, “soon. Was there anything in particular, or did you just want to hear what you know already?”
His breathing was slow and shallow. Maybe I should’ve said, five days if you don’t exert yourself. “Do one thing for me.”
“It depends what it is.”
“Make him go away,” he replied, very softly. “Please. It’s only for a short while, and then he’ll have me forever. Can you do that?”
I looked at my father, who shook his head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “He wants to stay till the end.”
“Then give me some poison,” the king murmured. “I can’t stand him any more.”
“You should have thought of that before you killed him.” But I was already mixing two powders together in a little gourd of water. He couldn’t see that, of course. Neither of them could. “Drink this,” I told him, and he managed to get his lips apart a tiny crack. “It’ll make you feel better.”
I lied, of course. The war was nothing to do with me. My snake let me tell the lie because it counted as part of the king’s punishment. In fact, it was her idea. But I do think the war has been a good thing, broadly speaking. It’s put an end to the line of kings that began with the Black One, and I don’t think the People of Heaven will have kings after that, just some sort of governor answerable to whoever conquers us. Whoever that turns out to be, they can’t possibly be worse for the people than my family. Can they?
You have to ask yourself the question; does the snake choose you because you’ve got the talent, or do you have the talent because the snake chooses you? Everybody’s always told me it’s the first one—wizards, spirits, the snake, everybody who ought to know.
But take me as a case in point. Before she found me, I was stupid. I can just barely remember what it was like. You know when you’re sitting inside, and outside there’s two people talking, you can hear the voices but you can’t make out the words. After the snake found me, I could hear all the words. I think that if ever the snake left me, which she can’t do, she’d die; me too probably—but if that were to happen, I’d go back to being stupid again. Does that sound like the talent to you? I think the talent is the snake, and the other way about. I think that’s why the snake chose me; because my father was the prince, and someone somewhere decided that making the last lost surviving son of the royal house into a wizard would have interesting results, which would facilitate some larger strategy. Otherwise, the whole thing’s just one damn coincidence after another, and I don’t believe it. The snake says otherwise, of course, and she’s incapable of falsehood.
But I lied, yes. That makes it twice now that Heaven, as embodied in me, hasn’t exactly thundered the truth. I don’t care, and I don’t suppose anyone else does either. Not even the snake.
After all, why not? Heaven should tell lies from time to time. Everybody else does.