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CHAPTER 51 ~ PAST
You have listened to me talk for quite some time now. Would you like a cup of tea?
No, no, it is quite all right. I merely noticed that your eyelids were drooping somewhat. Although I have extended time for you to be with me and listen for so long there is little I can do about mortal stamina. I think a cup of tea is in order.
A cup of tea, that is, and a few questions. Perhaps some explanations,too, for your head is busy with wonderments and curiosity: about me, about Gunther, about our relationship, about the Veil, about Esther, about witchcraft... Well, where to begin?
Perhaps we should begin with a little history lesson. You know by now that I was born in what is termed the Medieval era; a little before that era began, in fact. You understand, too, that I did not know my father. Oh, I know of him, that is undeniable. I have undertaken enough research to understand his name and his true nature. And that, in turn, explains much of my own nature, as well as my abilities. I carry so much of him with me, including his name, which he insisted I have as my own middle name. So, perhaps, while we drink our tea we shall stretch our legs, walk around my home, and I shall tell you a little more about my life.
My father, it turns out, was an extremely powerful user of magic. More powerful than any who had come before him. I cannot even begin to list the powers he had, but he could control everything. Weather, mortal emotions, even time itself. He boasted that he could live forever, but like all men, he grew older over the years. It just did not show on his face, but he felt it in his bones. The terror of death ate at him until any kindness that was in him had been consumed by it.
It is not by mistake that the term 'Warlock' is one that raises my hackles, for I am descended from one. My father, Athanase Fulcanelli, was indeed a waerloga—an oath-breaker—and he was greatly feared among the local community. If crops failed, it was because he was angry. If cattle died, it was because their owners had not paid tribute enough to him. Although he could conjure more food than he would ever need, the people of surrounding villages left spare crops at his door, to appease him.
As a child I knew nothing of this, for he was dead before I left my mother's belly. The irony of this is not lost on me, for avoidance of death was the reason I was born. Confusing, non?
He studied for decades. His hair remained red and his back remained straight, and his pride and anger marched on, insisting he could defy time's ultimate grasp. And then, one day, he met with Death. The Lords came for him, and he laughed at Them. He told Them he could defy Them, that They could not have him.
The Lords were amused by him, and granted him three months more of life. Three months to prove he could evade Their grasp. And on the very first day, very early in the morning, he walked to my mother's poor cottage on the edge of the village.
As soon as Maman saw him stride into her house, she was struck with fear. There was not a villager for miles around who didn't recognise that red hair and live in terror of it. She offered him every courtesy she could: a mug of ale, or a meal from the meagre stores she had, but he wanted only one thing.
He bewitched her, I know that now. For centuries I thought he had forced himself on her, but no. He gave that kindness to her, for which I suppose I must be grateful. Kisses aplenty he had for her beautiful face, even as he drew her toward her bed.
*sigh* You must understand, those were different times. The niceties of today did not exist. A woman living alone and unmarried was an unnatural state of affairs. Maman truly thought he loved her, and... indeed he might have done. For a while. At the very least, he loved what she could do for him.
She proved with child; scandalous enough in that time for an unmarried woman. But for the father to be the man whom all around her feared? Nobody spoke to my mother after that, too frightened of what my father might do to them should they approach her in a manner he did not approve of.
He visited her daily, bringing her food and drink to keep her strength up. She truly thought he cared for her, but he cared only for what she carried. And so it was that almost three months after he had first walked through her door, she put a hand to her belly as he placed meat and ale on her table, and called him to her. Her child had quickened.
That child, of course, was me. The son of a warlock and a peasant. *sigh* My father was undoubtedly relieved, as the Lords would soon return, and here—at last—he had a way to escape them. Had I been a lazy child, he might not have had time, and I might have been mortal.
He placed a hand on Maman's belly, and I am sure she thought only that he was delighted to feel his son—for a son was what all families wished for in those times—kicking against his hand.
But then... ah. He began to mutter and chant, and a red glow filled the air between them, focused on his hand and my mother's belly. And in this moment—stare at me in disbelief, if you wish—I became aware of the world. Yes, my friend; my awakening to consciousness was still in the womb, as I was surrounded by red light.
I was unknowing for but a few moments after that, and then power and rage and desperation flowed through my not fully-formed body. Maman tells me that I went still at that moment, then I gave one great kick as my father was utterly enveloped in light... and then he vanished. His life, his power, his very essence... now lay within me. He had cheated Death through me; true to his name, for 'Athanase' means 'immortal' in the Greek tongue. He gave me all of his power and all of himself. All children are formed of their parents; I practically am one of mine. And, because of this, the Lords are unable to touch me.
My mother heard something clatter to the floor, and she bent with difficulty to pick up the ring that had fallen from his finger; the same ring that I wear to this day. It is the only relic I have of him.
It seems fantastical, yes. I suppose it is, to someone of this secular day and age, but back then? Well, magic was a known entity. Of course, witches were burned if they were discovered, but not a villager existed who didn't visit the local wise woman, as she was called, for potions to cure a sick child. And the midwife of the area employed certain herbs to both prevent and end pregnancy almost as often as she ushered babes into the world, though the church frowned upon such interventions. But with so many families having too many mouths to feed, what else was to be done? Many unwanted children grew up as monks or nuns after being left on the steps of the monastery.
But back to my tale. My birth was a healthy one, though the attending midwife was horrified when she saw my hair colour. She told my mother that she could dispose of me; humanely, of course. Such a creature, a child of that man, should not exist in the world. My mother paid her with a meal and a copper coin, and told her that she would love me and raise me, no matter what the village thought of her.
My father was never seen again, but I was a constant reminder of his presence to the villagers. My mother was stared at when she went to market with me swaddled against her belly, but—true to her word—she loved me unconditionally. I learned both to walk and talk quickly, prompting yet more gossip that I was a magical child. I was a rosy, pink-cheeked little thing at first, but I grew paler as I grew older; the opposite of most peasants in those times, who were browned by the sun that they worked under all day.
My earliest childhood was filled with poverty, this is true. But it was also filled with love and a lot of laughter. I would sit and play in the dirt as my mother weeded and sowed the farm's small crops, and sometimes I would 'help' by tearing up dandelions as she threw them out of the way into a heap. *chuckles* Oh, those were such blessed times, my friend.
As I grew older I realised that none of the local children would speak to me. They would huddle in corners together and stare at me, whispering to each other. I tried to ignore them, but it hurt to be the focus of such childish gossip. I understand something of what both Gunther and Mortimer have gone through as children: the finger-pointing and laughter, the cruel names and taunting because you are 'different'. And, worst of all, the backs turning when you try to make friends. Ah, children can be so cruel.
I helped Maman more around the farm as I grew, making myself useful wherever I could. A few good seasons saw us able to sell enough spare produce to buy a cow, and then another. The strange boy with the red hair became a regular curiosity in the market place as he silently handed over fruits and vegetables in exchange for copper coins. I spoke but little back then, knowing I was not wanted in that place.
And then, one day, just as I entered my sixteenth year, William Black turned up on the doorstep, and my life changed yet again.
He brought with him a cart and my father's last will and testament. My father had remembered us in his legacy? For a short while I felt that Papa might actually love me, and I regretted never knowing him. I knew he was the cause of the stares and pointing fingers, but I had always wondered if he'd loved and wanted me. Maman had told me he loved her, and he'd seemed happy that I was to be born. But she didn't tell me what had happened the day he vanished. I found that out much later, from the Veil.
William Black. Ah, now there was a face to be detested on sight. In his cart he had an alchemical table, piles and piles of magical books, and a long, thin box that he told me was my father's legacy to me. When I opened it, I found a beautiful onyx and silver wand.
Just as I had learned to walk and talk so quickly, my letters also came to me swiftly, and I began the study of alchemy. I worked hard at it, day after day, but William Black was never satisfied with my efforts.
I studied every day outside the cottage under a makeshift awning. Rain or shine, day or night, lit by the sun or the candles above the table, I pored over magical tomes, recited spells, learned alchemical recipes... and yet never was I good enough.
I worked so hard with that wand, learning to control the power that was now surging through me. I had my share of... mishaps. Explosions, puffs of strange-coloured smoke; I am certain that the villagers would frequently stare in the direction of the cottage, see the sparks and the smoke, and mutter to themselves.
Always I would look for approval. Never did I receive it. My mistakes were met with scowls and yells of, "Imbecile boy!" and I would try again, again, again. I grew more courageous, controlling my magic and aiming for bigger spells under those watchful, hooded eyes.
On very, very rare occasions I would be granted a grudging nod when I performed a spell correctly. That was no faint praise from him, I can tell you, and I was determined to work harder and earn more of those nods. In my naïveté I was as eager to please William Black as Gunther is to please me, though I don't think William Black had it in him to love anyone the way that I love Gunther.
For months and months this went on, through the cold of winter, when I would wrap myself in a blanket and stand outside at the alchemical table, shivering as I studied and mixed potions, with William Black watching me through the window. There was no room in the tiny cottage for that table, but he insisted my studies must continue, no matter that there were six inches of snow on the ground.
In the spring of my nineteenth year, I attempted a difficult spell that involved conjuring the words into the air and threading them together to form the incantation. I was doing so well, until a breeze blew two of the letters around and the spell fizzled out...
"Fool boy!" William Black yelled at me, starting toward me so quickly that I dropped the wand and took a step back. He raised a fist as he berated me, and I remember so clearly lifting my own hands in mute supplication. I tried to apologise, to tell him about the breeze, but he would have none of it.
"Your father was mistaken. You do not have his talent, you useless pup!" he shouted. Oh, I have never forgotten, nor forgiven those words. He told me he'd regretted ever taking on my father's commission, but he'd had no choice. And here he was, stuck training a useless peasant boy who did not have the brains to put his skills into action. Mon Dieu, after all of my efforts! I was so hurt by his words.
But that was nothing. As I stared at him, trying not to cry, he lashed out. I was hurt by more than just his words, and as I lost my balance I heard him laugh at me. Maman came running out of the house, sobbing, but he yelled at her to go back inside. This was magical work that a woman could not understand.
All that Maman saw was her son on the ground at William Black's feet, winded and crying. But what could she do? He had taken over our house just as he had taken over my schooling, and upon my father's orders. Looking back, I am grateful that I did not know then what else he had taken over...
From that day on he corrected my mistakes with his fists, and I spent many painful, bruised hours picking myself up off the ground, nursing my pain and growing hatred and channeling it into my magic. Slowly, I gathered more control, mastered larger spells, earned the occasional nod amid the blows, but it came no easier to me when that fist flew at my face again and again.
One night, I huddled in front of the fire, warming myself after hours standing at the alchemical table. Inside my heart I held nothing but simmering rage; burning, fiery hatred for William Black. If I could, I would have gladly killed him, but he ensured that I was always too exhausted after a day tending the farm and a night studying. I barely had the strength to drag myself into my bed at the end of the day.
Maman came in and sat on the floor beside me. I shall never forget that conversation. She stared into the fire and we just sat in silence for the longest time, watching the flames.
"I hate him," I whispered. "I want to kill him."
"I know," she whispered back. "I see it in your eyes every day."
"He knows, doesn't he?"
"Yes, mon cœur, he knows. And he hits you all the more for it."
She heaved a great sigh and we lapsed into silence again.
Eventually, she looked at me, and said very softly, "If you leave, I will miss you, my darling. But I know you will leave soon."
I closed my eyes. So she had guessed. I had planned to run away, but the guilt of leaving her there with him had stayed my feet for far longer than I'd intended.
She stood up and held out her hand. I took it, going into her waiting arms. I told her I loved her, and she kissed my forehead.
"Before you leave—whenever you decide it should be—come to me first," she whispered. "Your father left something for you, and it must go out into the world with you. And I will have a kiss and a hug for you, for all I can send you into the world with is my love and my blessing."
"That's all I need," I whispered back, holding onto her tightly.
Two days later, alone in the house and without any effort whatsoever, I conjured an apple from nothing. I had vowed to leave when I could conjure from thin air, and the moment had come. But Maman's face was ever in my mind, and I couldn't leave her. Not with him.
I decided that I would ask her to go with me. We had nothing—a few copper coins saved from selling a good harvest—but I was young and desperate, and I had no idea how hard it would be to survive without a roof over our heads.
I walked into Maman's bedroom, and I finally saw what else William Black had taken over.
Maman watched in silence, offering help to neither of us, simply covering herself with a blanket while tears streamed down her face. I needed no help. Years of pain and cold, fist after fist in my face; all raged up within me. I did not even reach for the wand that was always tucked in my belt at that time. My hands were all I needed.
When it was finished, Maman gave me the ring that I wear to this day and told me she would clean up the blood. There was a pit at the edge of the farm where we burned weeds and the stubble from our small crops of corn. It was burning season anyway, and nobody would notice the odd smell of the smoke. If anyone asked, she said she would tell them she'd tossed a dead rat in there.
It was close enough to the truth.