From the author: What price are you willing to pay for power? This story originally appeared in ELECTRIC WINE, one of the first ever on-line magazines.
by Steven Harper Piziks
The door to Bedlam was heavy and imposing, with a big bar to hold it shut. Mina stared for a moment, noticing how the individual grains in the dark wood fitted together to make up the boards. Then she flung back the bar and lifted the great brass handle. The metal was oddly warm.
“Wait!” Larice cried, and put her small, cold hand on Mina’s. Larice’s other hand twisted her sloppily-spun smock. “What if there’s a trap or something?”
Kit snorted caustically. “We’re supposed to go in, Larice.” He was a stocky, muscular boy of about fifteen, with dark hair and a handsome face that seemed permanently schooled into an intense, studious expression. Larice, in contrast, was small and quick, with sandy hair and tiny hands that darted about like nervous butterflies.
“Kit’s right, dear,” Mina told her soothingly. “The sorcerers told us to walk through Bedlam. I don’t think they’d try to keep us out.” And she hauled the door open.
Sounds and smells washed over them in a heavy wave. Inhuman moans and cries wailed through the entry way, and the stink of unwashed bodies mingled with the clinging stench of human excrement. Larice blanched and Mina’s stomach turned. Even Kit faltered.
Mage-lights shone softly on a set of descending stone stairs, but the comforting glow did nothing to ease Mina’s apprehension. A tendril of gray hair fell across her forehead. Mina forced herself to brush it briskly away.
“Well,” she said, “no sense in putting it off. We can do this. Ready?”
“I’ll go first,” Kit said, almost elbowing Mina out of the way. He paused at the first step, then marched downward, burying his nose in his sleeve to ward off the smell. Mina watched his retreating back, noticing the stiffness in his knees and elbows, the clenching of his hands, the bunching of his shoulder muscles.
A tapestry stretched too tight on the loom, she thought.
“I’m frightened,” Larice whispered, though Mina could barely hear her for the noise. A single howl rose above the rest, making Mina’s skin crawl.
“They can’t hurt us, Larice,” Mina reassured her. “They’re in cages.”
“And they’re all insane,” Larice said softly, but her feet carried her forward.
Side by side they descended the stone blocks that made up the stairs. They fit together beautifully, with no mortar that Mina could see. The air that wafted up from Bedlam was cool and damp like Mina’s root cellar, though the cellar beneath the house she shared with her son and daughter-in-law was dark and quiet. She wondered briefly what Kory and Tilda would say if they knew what this portion of the test was about. It certainly wasn’t something you imagined your aging mother going through.
Not that Mina was old. She hadn’t even reached her sixth decade yet, and the closer she got to it, the younger even that seemed. Her hair had long ago faded from burnished auburn to a rather distinguished gray, and her middle had thickened considerably, but she wasn’t old. When Gareth, her oldest grandson, stopped sticking his tongue out at the girls and gave her a great-grandchild, then she would be old.
Still, after her husband Mikal died five years ago, Mina had grown increasingly restless. The weaving and cloth-making that had been her family’s trade for generations wasn’t enough anymore. Then the town crier had announced the yearly sorcery trials. Those who passed were allowed to begin studies in sorcery, and something had leaped within Mina’s chest.
Mina had Talent. She could manipulate things on a subtle level, tightening the weave on cloth or forcing candles to flare. On a good day, she could weave without touching the shuttle. As a girl she had dreamed of taking the trials, but then she had met Mikal with his golden hair and gentle hands, and within a season they were married. The stresses of setting up a household and becoming a full part of the family business forced her to put off her dream for a year, at the end of which she was pregnant, meaning it would have to be next year. And then the next. And then the next.
Well, she thought, carefully descending the stairs, I guess this is the year of my dream.
The noise--the bedlam--grew louder with every step. At the bottom, the stairwell widened into a hallway lined with small stone cells faced with iron bars. The rancid smells grew more intense. Pale hands grasped black iron, white arms reached into the corridor like pale, writhing sausages. Moans and cries echoed and spun around the stone chamber, and Larice’s ice-cold hand tightened in Mina’s. Ahead of them, Kit was walking down the passage between the cells. Some hands reached for him, others snatched themselves away in fear. Kit looked neither to the left, nor to the right. At the end of the corridor were three hooks, each bedecked with a Sorcerer’s token.
All but choking on the thick air, Mina stepped forward while the words of a young sorcerer echoed in her head. Stay close to the center where they can’t reach you. Under no circumstances should you open a cage. If you talk to them, do not mention that you are a potential sorcerer. Walk to the end, take a token and walk back out.
Mina had intended to do as Kit was doing--walk quickly without looking to either side, but when she and Larice came to the first cell, Mina couldn’t help but glance inside. An old woman crouched on the floor spinning a tin plate. She cackled gleefully until the plate stopped spinning, then raised her head and screamed like a wild animal. Larice shrank away. The old woman abruptly stopped screaming, spun the plate again, and went back to cackling. The woman was missing at least three teeth and her fingernails had been chewed down to the quick. Her hair was thin, and large clumps were missing. Although there was a chamber pot in the corner, the condition of the cell floor made it clear the woman didn’t use it.
Mina realized she was shaking and her breath was coming in gasps. This was not what she had been expecting.
Stop it, she told herself firmly. Every single inmate is here by choice. Not one was coerced. They were all shown Bedlam before signing the sorcerer’s contract. They were paid well.
To prove her point, Mina reached out with her Talent and tweaked the threads in the old woman’s dress, making them shed the filth they had gathered. The garment twitched once, then brightened as the dirt fell away. The old woman didn’t seem to notice.
“Mama!” bellowed a voice, and Mina jerked her head around. The inmate in the cell across from the old woman was standing with his back plastered against the far wall, a look of wild fear on his boyish face. His clothes were in rags, but Mina’s Talent told her they weren’t worn thin--they had been torn long ago. “Don’t hurt me, Mama! I didn’t mean it. I didn’t!”
“Is he talking to us?” Larice asked, tightening her cold grip on Mina’s again.
“Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me,” the man cried. He was about Kory’s age, with disheveled brown hair and smooth cheeks. A pair of shoes, pristine and new, sat in the corner of his cell, toes pointing toward the wall. “Don’t hurt me, you slut!”
He shot forward and slammed into the bars. His arms reached out of the cell, stopping inches from Larice’s face.
Larice screamed once and bolted for the stairs. Mina found she had leaped backward against the cold bars of the old woman’s cell.
“Slut slut slut!” the inmate screamed after Larice. His eyes were wild, and a trickle of blood ran unnoticed down his face from a cut on his forehead. “You’re a slut, Mama! A slut!”
But Larice was fleeing up the stairs. The moment she was out of sight, the inmate stopped shouting and slumped to the floor. Mina edged sideways until she was sure she was out of the inmate’s reach and forced herself to continue forward without Larice. Kit was already at the far wall and was removing a token from its hook.
You can do this, Mina told herself, trying to calm her pounding heart by sheer force of will. You can. Remember--they’re all here by choice. They’re all insane by choice. Just don’t look into the cells when you pass them.
Mina made her feet move forward. Her mouth was dry and her palms were sweaty.
At the other end of the hall, Kit had lifted his token from the hook and turned on his heel to walk back toward Mina, still looking neither to the left, nor the right. Someone threw a bit of food--it looked like mashed peas--and it spattered Kit’s face. He flicked it away without breaking stride.
He may be young, Mina thought, but he knows what to do.
“Congratulations, Kit,” she said, stepping aside as he approached. He didn’t acknowledge her presence, but passed right by as if she weren’t there. His dark features were set with rigid concentration.
Mina pursed her lips at his rudeness, but then shook her head. They were here to pass a test, and Kit had done it. If that’s what it took, she could do it, too.
Mina turned and forced herself to ignore the cries and shrieks and smells. She turned her attention to the hooks on the far wall and strode forward.
The people here deserve their fate, she told herself with every step. They chose it because they can’t face the reality of their lives.
But the details of Bedlam tugged at her senses, caught her eye, slowed her down. This inmate was curled up under a pile of rough woolen blankets, showing nothing but a single foot, small and delicate. That inmate barked like a dog and howled like a wolf. An older man ran round and round in his cell, screeching and flapping his arms. The smells of rotting food and human waste clogged Mina’s lungs, but try as she might, she couldn’t bring herself to imitate Kit’s ground-eating pace. She walked slowly toward the back wall.
Trying to get her mind off Bedlam, Mina cast her thoughts back to the mundane world. She mustn’t forget to tell Kory and Tilda that the mayor wanted to delay his daughter’s wedding, which meant the family wouldn’t need their order of white linen for another week.
Step step step. Each step was part of a whole that brought her closer to her goal. She hoped Kory found out why that shipment of flax hadn’t come in yet. And had Tilda returned the neighbor’s butter churn? Mina also had to send a message to her brother Bran. It had been almost four months since Mina had loaned him that money, and she hadn’t heard from him yet. Mina shook her head. Not that she minded loaning money to Bran. It was just unusual. Bran never had to borrow for debts before. Mina hoped everything was all right.
More careful steps. Out of the corner of her eye, Mina could still see the inmates in their cells. A young woman hunched on the floor of her cell, all her clothes bundled in her lap. She rocked the bundle like a baby. Every so often she would bring the bundle to her face, rip out a bit of cloth with her teeth, and spit it on the floor. Another inmate was chewing on her own arm, ignoring the blood that trickled scarlet to the floor. A plate of bread and cheese lay untouched in her cell. Beads of moisture gathered on the damp ceiling above. One dropped on Mina’s forehead, trickling cold water down her face until she wiped it away. More details woven together, more threads in the tapestry. Mina swallowed and firmly turned her thoughts inward again. Step step step. The token got closer.
I wonder if Bran’s debts have anything to do with Keeth getting sick last winter, she thought. Bran would certainly pay without a thought--they’ve been together for, what, almost ten years now? Maybe they had to pay a sorcerer to--
Mina froze, and the noise around her ceased to exist for a moment as a cold thought struck her, chilled her. What if Bran had gone so far into debt that the only way he could pay everything off was to sell himself into Bedlam? Was that the reason she hadn’t heard from him for so long?
Ridiculuous, Mina told herself. Bran knew better. The only people who sold themselves into Bedlam were convicts and people who couldn’t face their problems. They used madness as an escape.
But the possibility wouldn’t go away. It nagged at her, teasing at nerves already raw and tense. Mina looked down at the floor and forced herself to move forward.
Green light flashed in one of the cells and Mina’s head snapped up. The inmate inside stopped chewing on herself and slumped twitching to the ground. An emerald aura surrounded her body, pulsing like a living thing. Bedlam fell instantly silent. The aura grew brighter, then spun itself into a bright thread that snaked upward through the ceiling. Mina found she couldn’t breathe. A moment later the light vanished, leaving behind nothing but the eerie silence. The woman lay on the cell floor, eyes blank and staring. After a momet, she pushed herself into a sitting position. A tiny moan croaked in her throat.
As if that sound were some kind of signal, the rest of the inmates began to scream. Their howls tore through Mina’s head and she clapped her hands over her ears. Control deserted her and she bolted for the stairs, heart in her throat, tears in her eyes.
I have to get out I have to get out I have to get out I have
She flew up the stairs, lungs laboring for air, heart pounding in her throat. But her legs weren’t as young as they used to be, and she was forced to stop only halfway to the top. The noise wasn’t quite as loud up here. Mina leaned against the wall, panting, trying to draw breath into burning lungs.
It’s all right, she told herself. Nothing happened. That’s just the way magic works.
She sank to the cold, stony stairs to rest. This final test was turning out to be more difficult than she had imagined.
The others tests had been fairly simple. A kind-faced older woman and a solemn young man had checked her for Talent, had tested her ability to read and write, had told her to manipulate water, wood, and flame until she was dizzy. Her Talent was nothing next to theirs, of course. The Talented could only draw upon their own energies, but sorcerers knew how to draw upon the energies of others, and that increased their power dramatically. Sorcerers could stop an earthquake, halt a plague, destroy invaders, and more.
Most importantly, of course, they held back the ocean that threatened every single moment to batter down hastily-erected dikes and claim the land. No one knew why sea was rising. Some thought the ocean gods were angry. Others said the northern glaciers were melting. Whatever the reason, only the sorcerers could hold back the deadly waves, keep the dikes intact.
The energy, however, came dear. A sorcerer could forge a link with any willing person and thereafter draw off that person’s energy, regardless of distance or location. But the loss of energy eventually drove the source insane. By law, every Sorcerer had to maintain a Bedlam, a place for the poor souls who sold themselves for their power. A place where they couldn’t hurt other people.
Despite the price--or perhaps because of it--people slipped away to the sorcerers in a steady stream, trading sanity for silver. None of them could face living in the real world or in prison. They were weak and foolish. They were to be scorned or pitied. Everyone knew that.
Everyone also knew that the sorcerers were to be feared and respected. All her life, Mina had watched them with awe, able to taste the currents they made in the air when they walked, feeling the threads of their fine silver robes stretch and pull as they moved.
Mina could also sense something else. Something just beyond her reach that she couldn’t quite define. Sometimes at night, when the summer breezes were warm and sweet, Mina would go walking in the forest with her eyes shut, just feeling the world around her. The cool flutter of leaves, the creaking tendons in an owl’s wings, the crushing pressure of ocean on dike. And always there was the sense that there was more, that she could be a greater part of this, if only she could find the power.
All her life, Mina had known that the sorcerers could teach her what she was missing, show her how to reach her full potential, but all her life Mina had been forced to push her dream aside because other things got in the way. Husband, business, children.
Mina’s heart slowed and her breathing eased. Are you going to give up now? she scolded herself. All your life you’ve mooned and sighed about sorcery, and now the only thing that’s standing in your way is fifty feet of hallway and bunch of screaming ninnies that sold themselves into insanity. Why, Kory cried worse than that when he was teething.
After a long moment, Mina forced herself to turn around and head down the stairs. She marched downward, looking neither to the left, nor to the right, and walked the full length of the hallway with quick, firm steps. She ignored the screaming, the moaning, the reaching arms. If these people wanted to sell themselves to the sorcerers, that was their business.
It took no time at all to reach the end of the hallway. Mina lifted the sorcerer’s token from its hook. It was a plate-sized disk of simple red metal that felt cool and heavy in her hand. Briskly, Mina turned and strode back toward the stairs.
“Lady!” called a voice above the noise. “Lady, don’t leave!”
Mina turned in spite of herself. A pang shot through her, and one hand clutched at her chest.
Her brother Bran was in the cell.
“Lady,” he said. “Lady, you’re trying to become a sorcerer, aren’t you?”
The man had red-brown hair, startlingly green eyes, and a nose that was too long for his face. His arms were large and his hands were heavily callused, marking him as a laborer in his former life. Mina’s dread vanished and her breathing suddenly eased. The man wasn’t Bran--Bran was older, with darker hair--but there was enough of a resemblance to give her a shock.
“Lady, don’t do it,” the man begged. “Drop that disk and walk away!”
The howling quieted somewhat, though the stench still clotted Mina’s nose. Cautiously, she approached the man’s cell. A small voice told her to ignore him, to take the disk and hurry upstairs like Kit had done. But she was intrigued. This man wasn’t insane. Not yet.
“Why should I walk away?” she asked. “I’ve worked hard to get this far.”
“It hurts,” the man said hoarsely. “It hurts when the sorcerers take their energies. And I can feel my mind falling apart. I’m starting to hear voices late at night. They whisper awful things in my ears.” He fell to his knees and clasped the bars of his cage. “I want to go home. I want to see my wife again. I want to see my daughters. I beg you, Lady--let me out of this cage. I beg you!”
“The sorcerers imprisoned you against your will?” Mina said, horrified.
The man’s powerful shoulders slumped. “No,” he admitted. “I took their silver. It was my choice.”
“You abandoned your wife and daughters for Bedlam?”
“I had to, Lady,” the man said, his voice barely audible above the moans that echoed off unyielding rock. “I fell behind on my taxes after the drought. I couldn’t pay them for three years, and his Lordship’s collectors told me if I didn’t give them the money, they would sell us--my wife and daughters and me--into slavery. But sorcerers pay more than slavers. They paid me enough to let my family stay free.”
Mina’s heart twisted in her chest and she backed up a step. The man seemed to notice the effect his words were having on her, and he hurried to continue.
“I want to see my daughters again, before I’m too far gone to recognize them,” he said, still kneeling on the stone floor. “Perrin is almost five, but she’s already helping her mother so much around the house. She takes everything very seriously, you know, but all I have to do to make her laugh is swing her through the air. And Jenna is just starting to talk. She can say ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ and ‘pretty flower.’ Whenever she sees a butterfly, that’s what she says--pretty flower.”
He stared directly into her face, pinning her down with his green gaze. Tears stood in his eyes. “Please let me out, Lady. I want to see them one more time before before I start chewing off my own fingers or screaming for my mother. Please, Lady.”
Mina put her hands to her mouth, her breath coming in short, harsh gasps. This man was a person, a person with a family and a history, a person with his own stories. He wasn’t a weak-minded idiot who couldn’t face the real world. He wasn’t too lazy to work. He wasn’t a greedy fool, trading his sanity for the week of sybaritic pleasure he could buy before the sorcerers arrived to collect their end of the bargain.
“My name is Glenn,” the man said. “My wife’s name is Liya.”
He had a name.
“I can’t let you out, Glenn,” Mina croaked. Her throat felt thick. “Once the link is established, it can’t be broken, even if you’re no longer willing. And the sorcerers can’t chose a particular link to draw on. It’s random, once you join their power source. They would eventually use your--use you, and you might . . . you might hurt someone. Like your daughters.”
The howls rose again, crashing against Mina’s ears, raking her nerves. Glenn hauled himself to his feet, still clutching the bars.
“I wouldn’t,” he pleaded. “I would never hurt them. Not my daughters. Please, Lady. Please! I--”
A green halo surrounded his body. Glenn looked down at his hands. “No . . . “
He screamed. The energy swirled around him, snaked upward through the ceiling. Mina stared, rooted to the spot as the other inmates fell silent. Glenn’s shrieking echoed and bounced around her. He let go of the bars and slid to the floor, energy still streaming from his body. His eyes glazed over, went blank.
The halo winked out. The last of the energy stream sucked itself up into nothingness and vanished. Glenn’s screams ended. He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling for a long moment. Then, slowly, like a stiff old man, he pushed himself into a sitting position. He looked down at the brown homespun shirt he was wearing, then silently pulled it off, revealing a smooth, muscular chest. He put the tunic to his cheek and closed his eyes. After a moment, his thumb stole upward and into his mouth. Glenn rocked in place, sucking his thumb and holding the tunic to his face. His eyes were empty and he didn’t even look up when the bedlam of the other inmates roared back to life.
Mina stood rooted to the spot, unable to take her eyes from Glenn’s face. In her mind she could still see his piercing green eyes glaze over, go blank. She heard his wife explaining to their daughters that Papa wasn’t coming home again. Ever. Perrin wouldn’t swing laughing through the air anymore and Jenna would lose interest in chasing pretty flowers.
Mina’s throat closed and a hot tear ran down her face. She leaned her forehead against the cold iron bars of Glenn’s cell, all too aware of each howl and cry that rose around her. For a long moment she watched Glenn rock back and forth on the floor of his cell. Then she nodded once to herself. Deliberately, she opened her hand and dropped the red token. It hit the floor with the clang of metal on stone.
Without a word, Mina turned her back on it and walked unwaveringly down the hallway, up the stairs, and out the door. Outside, a warm, cheery sun shone down through a sea-blue sky. Birds chirped and twittered pleasantly to one another, and insects buzzed in a nearby meadow. The air smelled of sweetgrass and rosemary. The young sorcerer was waiting for her, his hands folded inside silver sleeves.
“What about your dream, Mina?” he asked quietly and without preamble.
Mina paused to look at him. “That’s the odd thing about dreams, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s best that they stay dreams.”
The sorcerer paused a moment, then nodded and stepped aside. Mina turned away and walked firmly down the hill toward town, taking care to note the blades of grass in the meadows and the individual leaves on the trees. Then, with a quick glance around to make sure no one could see, she put out a hand to let a pretty flower rest on her finger before she returned to her loom.