Oba, feeling fashionable in his cap and brown wool jacket, walked down the sides of the narrow streets, humming a tune he had heard played on a pipe at an inn he'd passed. He had to wait for a rider to go by before he turned down Lathea's road. The horse's ears swiveled toward him as it passed. Oba had had a horse, once, and liked to ride, but his mother had decided that they couldn't afford to keep a horse. Oxen were more useful and did more work, but they weren't as companionable.
As he walked down the dark road, his boots crunching on the crust of snow, a couple came past from the opposite direction, from the direction of Lathea's place. He wondered if they had gone to the sorceress for a cure. The woman cast a wary look his way. On a dark road, such a reaction was not undue, and, too, Oba knew that his size frightened some women. She sidestepped clear of him. The man with her met Oba's gaze-many men didn't.
The way they stared reminded Oba of the rat. He grinned at that memory, at learning new things. Both the man and the woman thought he was grinning at them. Oba tipped his cap to the lady. She returned a weak smile. It was the kind of empty smile Oba had often seen from women. It made him feel a buffoon. The couple melted into the dark streets.
Oba stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and turned back toward Lathea's place. He hated going there in the dark. The sorceress was fearsome enough without the walk down her dark path. He let out a troubled sigh into the brisk winter air.
He wasn't afraid to confront the strength of men, but he knew he was helpless against the mysteries of magic. He knew how much misery her potions inflicted upon him. They burned him going in and coming out. They not only hurt, they made him lose control of himself, making him seem like he was just an animal. It was humiliating.
He had heard tell of others, though, who had angered the sorceress and suffered worse fates-fevers, blindness, a slow lingering death. One man had gone mad and run off naked into a swamp. People said he must have crossed the sorceress, somehow. They found him snakebit and dead, all puffed up and purple, floating among the slimy weed. Oba couldn't imagine what the man had done to earn such a fate from the sorceress. He should have known better and been more cautious with the old shrew.
Sometimes, Oba had nightmares about what she might do to him with her magic. He imagined Lathea's powers could lance him with a thousand cuts, or even strip the flesh from his bones. Boil his eyes in his head. Or make his tongue swell until he gagged and choked in a slow, agonizing death.
He hurried along the path. The sooner started, the sooner finished. Oba had learned that.
When he reached the house he knocked. "It's Oba Schalk. My mother sent me for her medicine."
He watched his breath cloud in the air while he waited. The door finally opened a sliver so she could peer out at him. He thought that, being a sorceress, she should be able to see him without having to open the door for a look, first. Sometimes when he was there waiting for Lathea to mix up medicine, someone would come and she would simply open the door. Whenever Oba came, though, she always peered out first to see it was him.
"Oba." Her voice was as sour with recognition as her expression.
The door opened to admit him. Cautiously, respectfully, Oba stepped inside. He peered about, even though he knew the place well. He was careful not to act too forward with her. Harboring no fear of him, she swatted his shoulder to spur him to move deeper into the room to give her the leeway to shut the door.
"Your mother's knees, again?" the sorceress asked, pushing the door closed against the frigid air.
Oba nodded as he stared at the floor. "She says they're aching her, and she'd like some of your medicine." He knew he had to tell her the rest of it. "She asked for you to… to send along something for me, as well."
Lathea smiled in that sly way she had. "Something for you, Oba?"
Oba knew that she knew very well what he meant. There were only two cures he ever went to her for-one for his mother and the one for him. She liked to make him say it, though. Lathea was as mean as a toothache.
"A remedy for me, too, Mama said."
Her face floated closer. She peered up at him, the snaky smile still playing across her features. "A remedy for wickedness?" Her voice came in a hiss. "That it, Oba? Is that what Mother Schalk wanted you to fetch?"
He cleared his throat and nodded. He felt puny before her thin smile, so he looked back down at the floor.
Lathea's gaze lingered on him. He wondered what was in that clever mind of hers, what devious thoughts, what grim schemes. She finally moved off to fetch the ingredients she kept in the tall cabinet. The rough pine door squeaked as she pulled it open. She set bottles in the crook of her other arm and carried them to the table in the middle of the room.
"She keeps trying, doesn't she, Oba?" Her voice had gone flat, like she was talking to herself. "Keeps trying even though it never changes what is."
An oil lamp on the trestle table lit the collection of bottles as she set them there, one at a time, her eyes lingering on each. She was thinking about something. Maybe what vile brew she might mix up for him this time, what sort of sickly condition she would inflict upon him in an attempt to purge him of his ever present, unspecified, evil.
The oak logs in the hearth had checkered in the wavering yelloworange glow of the fire, throwing good heat as well as light into the room. In the middle of their room, Oba and his mother had a pit for a fire. He liked the way the smoke in Lathea's fireplace went right up the chimney and out of the house, rather than hanging in the room before eventually making its way out a small hole in the roof. Oba liked a proper fireplace, and thought that he should make one for him and his mother. Every time he went to Lathea's place, he studied the way her fireplace was built. It was important to learn things.
He also kept an eye on Lathea's back as she poured liquid from bottles into a wide-mouthed jar. She mixed the concoction with a glass rod as each new ingredient was slowly added. When she was satisfied, she poured the medicine in a small bottle and stoppered it with a cork.
She handed him the little bottle. "For your mother."
Oba passed her the coin his mother had given him. She watched his eyes as her knobby fingers slipped the coin into a pocket in her dress. Oba finally let his breath go after she turned back to her table, to her work. She lifted a few bottles, studying them in the light of the fire, before she began mixing his cure. His cursed cure.
Oba didn't like speaking with Lathea, but her silence often made him even more uncomfortable, made him itch. He couldn't really think of anything worthy of saying, but he finally decided that he had to say something.
"Mama will be glad for the medicine. She's hoping it will help her knees."
"And she's hoping for something to cure her son?"
Oba shrugged, regretting his attempt at casual conversation. "Yes, ma'am.»
The sorceress peered back over her shoulder. "I've told Mother Schalk that I don't believe it will do any good."
Oba didn't think so, either, because he didn't really believe there was anything needing curing. When he had been little, he thought that his mother knew best, and wouldn't give him the cure if he didn't need it, but he had since come to doubt that. She no longer seemed to him as smart as he had once believed her to be.
"She must care about me, though. She keeps trying."
"Maybe she's hoping that the cure might rid her of you," Lathea said, almost absently, as she worked.
Oba's head come up. He stared at the sorceress's back. He had never considered such a thought. Maybe Lathea was hoping that the cure would rid them both of the bastard boy. His mother sometimes went to see Lathea. Maybe they had discussed it.
Had he ignorantly believed the two women were trying to do good for him, to help him, when the opposite was actually true? Maybe both women had hatched a plan. Maybe they had been conniving all along to poison him.
If something happened to him, his mother would no longer have to help support him. She often complained about how much he ate. Time and again she told him that she worked more to feed him than herself, and that because of him she could never put any money away. Maybe if she had instead put away the money she'd spent on his cures over the years, she'd have a comfortable nest egg by now.
But if something happened to him, his mother would have to do all the work.
Maybe both women just wanted to do it out of simple meanness.
Maybe they hadn't thought it all through, as Oba would. His mother often surprised him with her simplemindedness. Maybe both women had been sitting around one day and had just decided to be mean.
Oba watched the flickering light play over the thin strands of the sorceress's straight hair. "Today Mama said that she should have done what you always told her to do, from the beginning."
Lathea, pouring thick brown liquid into the jar, glanced back over her shoulder again. "Did she, now?"
"What did you say from the beginning that Mama should do?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
Icy realization prickled his flesh.
"You mean that she should have killed me."
He had never before come out and said anything so bold. He had never once in any way dared to confront the sorceress-he feared her too much. But, this time, the words had just come into his mind, much like the voice did, and he had spoken them before he had time to consider whether or not it was wise to do so.
He had surprised Lathea even more than he had surprised himself. She hesitated at her bottles, watching him as if he had changed before her very eyes. Maybe he had.
He realized then that he liked the way it felt to speak his mind.
He had never before seen Lathea falter. Maybe it was because she felt safe dancing around the subject, safe in the shadows of the words, without having them brought out into the light of day.
"That what you always wanted her to do, Lathea? That it? Kill her bastard boy?"
A smile pushed its way onto her thin face. "It wasn't like you make it sound, Oba." All the low, slow, haughty intonation had evaporated from her voice. "Not at all." She addressed him more like a man than she ever had before, rather than an evil bastard boy she tolerated. She sounded almost sweet. "Women are sometimes better off without a newborn babe.
It isn't so bad, when the babe is newborn. They're not such a… such a person, yet.»
"You mean, it would be easier."
"That's right," she said, eagerly latching on to his words. "It would be easier.»
His own voice slowed and took on an edge that he didn't know had been in him. "You mean it would be easier… before they got big enough to fight back."
The range of his latent talents amazed him. It was a night of new wonders.
"No, no, that's not at all what I mean." But he thought it was. Her voice, reflecting a fresh respect for him, quickened, became almost urgent. "I only mean that it's easier before a woman comes to love her child. You know, before the child comes to be a person. A real person, with a mind. It's easier, then, and sometimes it's best for the mother."
Oba was learning something new, but he hadn't put it all together, yet. He sensed that all his new learning was profoundly important, that he was on the cusp of true understanding.
"How could it be best?"
Lathea stopped pouring the liquid and set the bottle down. "Well, sometimes it's a hardship to have a new baby. A hardship on both. It's best for both, really, sometimes……
She walked briskly to the cabinet. When she returned with a new bottle, she stepped around to the other side of the table so her back was no longer to him. Most of the ingredients for his cures were powders or liquids and he didn't know what they were. The bottle she brought back contained one of the few things he recognized, the dried base of mountain fever roses. They looked like brown, shriveled little circles with stars in the centers. She often added one to his cure. This time, she poured a pile in her cupped hand, made a fist to crush them, and dumped the fine brown crumbles in the cure she was mixing.
"Best, for both?" Oba asked.
Her fingers seemed to be looking for something to do. "Yes, sometimes." She seemed like she didn't want to talk about it anymore, but couldn't find a way to make it end. "Sometimes it's more of a hardship than a woman can endure, that's all-a hardship that only endangers her and the rest of her children."
"But Mama had no other children."
Lathea went silent for a moment.
He listened to the voice, the voice that had become somehow different. Somehow vastly more important.
"No, but all the same you was a hardship on her. It's difficult for a woman to raise a child by herself. Especially a child-" She caught herself, then started over. "I only meant that it would be hard."
"But she did it. I guess you were wrong. Isn't that so, Lathea? You were wrong. Not Mama-you. Mama wanted me."
"And she never married," Lathea snapped. Her flash of anger had put the flame of haughty authority back in her eyes. "Maybe if she… maybe if she'd married she would have had a chance to have a whole family, instead of only. ."
"A bastard boy?"
Lathea didn't answer this time. She seemed to regret having taken a stand. The spark of anger left her eyes. With slightly trembling fingers, she dumped another pile of the dried flower buds in her palm, hurriedly crushed them in her fist, and dumped them in the cure. She turned and busied herself studying the flames in the hearth through a liquid in a blue glass bottle.
Oba took a step toward the table. Her head came up, her eyes turning to his.
"Dear Creator she whispered as she looked into his eyes. He realized she was not speaking to him, but to herself. "Sometimes, when I look into those blue eyes, I can see him.
Oba's brow drew down above his glare.
The bottle slipped from her hand, thumped on the table, and rolled to the floor, where it shattered.
Oba. Surrender. Surrender your will.
This was new. The voice had never before said that.
"You wanted Mama to kill me, didn't you, Lathea?"
He took another step toward the table.
Lathea stiffened. "Stay where you are, Oba."
There was fear in her eyes. Little rat eyes. This was definitely new. He was learning new things almost faster than he could note them all.
He saw her hands, the weapons of a sorceress, lifting. Oba paused. He stood cautiously, at attention.
Surrender, Oba, and you will be invincible.
This was not merely new, it was startling.
"I think you want to kill me with your 'cures, don't you, Lathea? You want me dead."
"No. No, Oba. That isn't true. I swear it isn't."
He took another step, testing what the voice promised.
Her hands rose, a glow of light coming to life around her clawed fingers. The sorceress was conjuring magic.
"Oba"-her voice was more forceful, more sure-"stay where you are, now."
Surrender, Oba, and you will be invincible.
Oba felt his thighs bump the table as he advanced. The jars rattled and clanked together. One of them wobbled. Lathea watched it teeter and almost right itself, only to topple and spill its thick red liquid.
Lathea's face abruptly twisted with hatred, with rage, with effort. She cast her clawed hands forward, toward him, cast the full force of her power at him.
With a thunderous clap, light ignited, the flash making everything in the room go white for an instant.
He saw a flare of a yellow-white light knife through the air toward him-deadly lightning sent to kill.
Oba felt nothing.
Behind him, the light blasted a man-sized hole through the wooden wall, scattering flaming splinters out into the night. All the fire fizzled out in the snow.
Oba touched his chest where the full force of her power had been directed. No blood. No torn flesh. He was unharmed.
He thought that Lathea was even more surprised about it than he. Her mouth hung open in astonishment. Her wide eyes stared.
All his life he had feared this scarecrow.
Lathea quickly recovered, and again her face twisted with effort as she drew her hands up. This time an eerie blue hiss of light formed. The air smelled like burning hair. Lathea turned her palms up, sending forth her deadly magic, sending him death. Power no person could withstand shrieked toward him.
The blue light scorched the walls behind, but again he felt nothing. Oba grinned.
Again, Lathea wheeled her arms, but this time she also whispered a chant of clipped words he could not understand-rattling off a menace of magic. A column of light bloomed, undulating in the air before him, a viper of extraordinary might. Beyond doubt, it was meant to kill, Oba lifted his hands to feel the snaking rope of crackling death she had spawned. He ran his fingers through it, but could feel nothing. It was like looking at something in a different world. There, but not.
It was as if he were… invincible.
With a howl of outrage, her hands came up again.
Quick as thought, Oba seized her by the throat.
"Oba!" she screeched. "Oba, no! Please!"
This was new. He had never before heard Lathea say please.
With her neck in his meaty grip, he dragged her across the table toward him. Bottles scattered, tumbling to the floor. Some thudded and rolled, some broke like eggs.
Oba closed a fist on Lathea's stringy hair. She clawed at him, desperately calling upon her talents. She spoke words that had to be a mystical entreaty to magic, to her gift, to her sorceress power. While he didn't recognize the words, he understood their lethal intent.
Oba had surrendered, thouah, and he had become invincible.
He had watched her unleash her rage; now he unleashed his.
He slammed her up against her cabinet. Her mouth grew wide with a silent scream.
"Why did you want Mama to get rid of me?"
Her eyes, big and round, were fixed on the object of her terror: Oba. All his life, she had delighted in terrifying others. Now all that terror had returned to haunt her.
"Why did you want Mama to get rid of me?"
A series of small panting cries were her only answer.
Oba ripped her dress from her body. Coins spilled from the pocket, raining across the floor.
He clutched the white shift she wore underneath the dress.
She tried to hold the shift to herself, but he stripped it away, sending her tumbling across the floor, bony arms and legs sprawling. Her wasted breasts hung like shriveled udders. This powerful sorceress was now naked before him, and she was nothing.
Her cries, full and round, came to life at last. Teeth gritted, he snatched her by the hair and hauled her to her feet. Oba rammed her against the cabinet. Wood splintered. Bottles cascaded out. He seized a bottle as it rolled out and broke it against the cabinet.
"Why, Lathea?" He brought the neck of a broken bottle up against her body. "Why!" She shrieked all the louder. He twisted it against her soft middle. "Why?"
"Please… A dear Creator… please, no."
"Because," she wailed, "you are the bastard son of that monster, Darken RAU'
Oba hesitated. This was stunning news-if it was true.
"Mama was forced. She told me so. She said it was some man she didn't know who fathered me."
"Oh, she knew him she did. She worked at the palace when she was younger. Your mother had big breasts and bigger ideas, back then. Poorly conceived ideas. She wasn't smart enough to realize that she was no more than a night's diversion for a man with a limitless supply of womenthose eager, like her, and those not."
This was definitely something new. Darken Rahl had been the most powerful man in the world. Could that noble Rahl blood flow in his veins? The heady implications made his head swim.
If the sorceress was telling the truth.
"My mother would have stayed there at the People's Palace if she carried Darken Rahl's son."
"You aren't his gifted heir."
"But still, if I was his son-"
Despite her pain, she managed to give him that smile that said he was but dirt to her. "You are not gifted. Your kind were vermin to him. He ruthlessly exterminated all he discovered. He would have tortured you and your mother to death if he knew of you. Once she learned this, your mother fled."
Oba was overwhelmed with new things. They were beginning to become a jumble in his mind.
He pulled the sorceress close. "Darken Rahl was a powerful wizard. If what you say is true, he would have hunted us." He slammed her against the cabinet again. "He would have hunted me!" He shook her to elicit an answer. "He would have!"
"He did, but he could not see the holes in the world."
Her eyes were rolling. Her frail body was no match for Oba's strength. Blood ran from her right ear.
"What?" Oba reasoned that Lathea was babbling nonsense now.
"Only Althea can. .»
She had ceased to make sense. He wondered how much of what she had said was true.
Her head lolled to the side. "I should have… saved us all… when I had the chance. Althea was wrong. ."
He shook her, trying to get her to say more. Red froth bubbled from her nose. Despite his yelling, his demanding, his shaking her, no more words came. He held her close, his heavy, hot breath lifting thin strands of her hair as he glared into her aimless eyes.
He had learned all he would from her.
He remembered all the burning powder he'd had to drink, the potions she had mixed for him, the days he'd spent in the pen. He remembered all the times he'd vomited his guts out and it still wouldn't stop burning his insides.
Oba growled as he lifted the bony woman. With a roar of anger he slammed her against the wall. Her cries were fuel for the tire of his vengeance. He reveled in her helpless agony.
He smashed her down against the heavy trestle table, breaking it, and breaking her. With each crash, she became more limp, bloody, incoherent.
But Oba had only just begun to rage at her.