Prologue to the Story To Be Named Later, II
Brusen, thick-limbed and of middle years, sat heavily at the rough table. His hands, battered and scarred from rough stone and years-old tavern brawls, gripped the heel of yesterday’s bread as his mind, slowly but inexorably, awakened to face another day. The still air of the apartment was already hot in his throat, promising another brutal day of sun beating on him like Bas’ own foreman. It had been a week since the sea breezes had refreshed the city of Goredock, let alone stirred the foul air of the Gutters, the district of laborers, beggars, and whores. Sails hung limp in the harbor atop stranded ships and the tempers of the sailors and cityborn alike were shortening by the day.
He barely registered the sounds of his wife Sahra stirring herself from their bed as the unchanging ritual of morning continued, even as his mind dutifully catalogued their movements and rhythms. The splashing of water in chamberpot, the rustle of Sahra’s dress donned, the cooing voice waking their prize and delight, a son both thought themselves too old to have. Next, the babe would either gurgle and laugh, or snuffle and cry, depending on the whim of the gods.
Sahra’s shrill scream lanced into his skull. Brusen stood to see his wife clutching their child against her bony frame as her inarticulate wails and shrieks wrenched from her throat. The boy’s face, stiff and waxy, stared sightlessly at his father. Parted blue lips would not suckle at the breast thrust against them. Undeterred, Sahra desperately offered her body as nourishment for a child well past needing it as her husband stood like the stone walls he assembled.
Neighbors ebbed and flowed around the wall as time passed. The screaming woman refused to give up her child, raving and biting at those that tried, until old Meedra managed to force a mouthful of some elixir down Sahra’s throat. Shortly after, the wise woman gently wrapped the child in his blanket while the other women guided the now docile mother to the bed. Later, when the once-mother seemed asleep, the womenfolk gathered to whisper of demons and curses, ignoring the man still frozen mere steps away, one hand still clutching a hard crust of bread.
Brusen’s mind, like a millstone, turned slowly as the events swirled around him. His eyes rested on the form of his wife, skin drawn cruelly over her bones, glimmering eyes still open providing the only sign of life in her. Undaunted, his mind turned, taking in the words and world around him while pulling images from the past. Damned wizards his mind caught from the whispering woman, demon lovers in their tower, like stones dropping into a slow-moving river. The ripples spread through his thoughts and produced an image of an event – a day past? A week? A swaggering group of youths, brash, soft-handed, wearing cloaks held shut by silver pins shaped like a tower. Loud, sneering voices, words which meant nothing sprinkling their speech. Exclamations of disgust and anger as a barrow of squared stones tipped carelessly, sending dust and grit along their finely polished boots. Words of scorn and warning dripped from unshaven lips shadowed by curled nostrils. One set of green eyes fixing on his, mouth forming silent words, punctuated by pursed lips and a gob of spit.
Brusen’s thoughts ground on to the tales being told by flickering candlelight, of the exile of the Mad Wizard who still stalked the torchlit streets, stealing the life from the innocent. The stoneworker thought of Dessie, a prostitute but sweet nonetheless, dead at that insane conjurer’s hands years ago. His exile had been reported by the shouting newsbearers on their stands three hard winters ago, but the stories multiplied like lice. Just last night, Brusen had heard a man mutter “Mad wizard? Like one a whit differin’ off the next.”
Damned wizards. Demon lovers in their tower. Like a millstone, which once set in motion will grind down whatever is given to it, Brusen’s mind completed its work. The huddled women paid no heed to the door creaking back and forth in the morning breeze, nor the half-chewed heel of bread on the floor.