Chapter 15: Elias

Chapter 15: Elias

Elias’ earliest clear memory was of the chill morning air and lush green vista that greeted his blue eyes when he stood on tiptoe to peer through the balistraria in the highest turret of Ingroff castle. 

His early boyhood had been spent in gloomy candlelit chambers and dark narrow corridors, but some part of him knew instinctually that there was more to the world—to get there meant going up stairs.

As soon as he could walk, he took every opportunity to trundle away and explore the feel and taste of anything he could grab hold of. How his mother would yell at him. He had no idea, of course, that many of the objects surrounding him were dangerous or even deadly. 

Stairs were his favorite. There was a set of inviting steps that beckoned him in the open corridor off the chamber in which he and his mom resided. Putting his pudgy little hands two steps up, twisting and placing the inside of his bare knee on the first step, and hoisting himself upward, was pure thrill. He rarely got very far, though, before the air would close around him and he would sail backward, limbs flailing, to land unceremoniously at his mother’s feet.

It seemed she was always mixing things. Mixing things or reading, with her thin lips barely moving as she processed the words. When he landed sprawling at her feet, she would admonish him crossly without even looking up from her work.

His mom frequently went through the Big Door on the other side of the room. When his mom went through the Big Door, Maud would watch him, standing with her hands on her hips, or sitting and sewing, but always with the sourest of expressions. Maud was quick to whack Elias if he misbehaved or tried to go exploring. She never took her eyes off of him, the way his mom occasionally did. So he learned to behave whenever Maud was around.

But the Big Door opened by itself one day, and a huge man in a scary black mask rushed in. He wore studded black leather pants, but no shirt. Instead, a patchwork of scars peeked through mats of thick dark hair that swirled around his flabby chest and belly. He was shouting something Elias did not understand, and his mom raced out of the room without so much as a glance behind her. The heavy door slammed shut, and Elias found himself completely alone.

There were so many steps. More than he could have imagined existed in the whole world. And after he finished with one set, he discovered another around a corner not far away. Laboriously taking one at a time, he rose higher and higher, the air changed, the light changed, and the boy grinned with eagerness for more.

It was all worth it.

The effort of the ascent, the swift punishment and the stricter rules that followed, were nothing compared to those few glorious moments looking through the slit in the thick stone walls at the world beyond. The sight would fuel his ambitious imagination for years to come.

As he grew up Elias came to understand who Carlton and Bertrand Ingroff were, and the role his mother played in their precarious rule over the Southern Plains. Privileged boys, the Ingroffs spent their adolescent years toying with swords and bows, avoiding their lessons, and chasing after the daughters of their father’s subjects.

Their father, Theodor, was not a generous man, but he had a combination of basic decency and dim wits that led slowly to the erosion of the Ingroff fortune. When the old man died, the spoiled boys, now young men, found themselves with deteriorating coffers and increasing irrelevance throughout the plains. They had inherited their father’s dim wits, but had not one ounce of his decency. Instead they had lavish tastes, and one fateful night, they set a course that would bring misery to the region for years to come.

Estela was a powerful witch.

Snatched as a girl by the self-proclaimed Southern Sorcerer, she grew up watching cheap tricks of light and smoke dazzle villagers who, so distracted, missed the real magic trick: their disappearing wallets. As soon as she was old enough, Leopold the Southern Sorcerer took her for his bride. But it was no wedding of mutual consent, love, or commitment. 

Instead, her wedding went like this:

They had made camp near the beach. The old man had taken to getting drunk after each show, and he had begun to hold her close to his foul, sunken body when he slept. His breath was rancid, and she hated being near him in every way. Luckily he would pass out quickly, and she could push out and away from his bony clinging grasp.

One night Estela decided to kill Leopold the Southern Sorcerer. He had stolen her from her family, made her roam the countryside with him, and lately had forced her to share his stale breath at night. She visualized the murder clearly. She crept quietly away from him and located the hunting knife he kept in a leather bag on his push-cart. Fierce resolve in her eyes, she stalked back to his wheezing, snoring body and braced herself to draw the big blade deeply across his jowl. 

But her plan did not unfold the way she hoped.

With the knife inches from him, his body simply disappeared. This was a far better trick than the cheap charlatanism he usually trotted out for the townspeople they stole from night after night. Instantly trembling, Estela dropped the blade, which stuck in the earth and wavered accusingly at her feet. She looked fearfully around her.

Leopold was floating upright, about five feet away, hovering in a bluish light. He looked younger somehow: more vibrant, more powerful. In spite of herself, Estela found herself actually drawn to him for the first time since her abduction.

He did not yell at her. He was not even frowning. He said many things before the light dimmed and he sunk back to the ground. But the only one she could remember was, “If you’re old enough to murder me, Estela, then you are old enough to marry me.”

In the dim moonlight he strode toward her. The hunting blade leapt from the earth into his outstretched hand. Without hesitation he drew a deep crimson line in his left arm that dripped all over her when he reached for her to do the same. She screamed and squirmed as the blade bit, but his grip was like iron. He was muttering now. He dropped the knife back to the ground and pulled powders and bits of mysterious things from his robe and sprinkled them on her oozing wound one at a time. Smoke and sparks issued from her sliced arm as he added things and muttered louder and louder and finally, he pressed his own wound to hers.

Estela never stopped hating Leopold. But in that moment she came to understand him, and their spirits were locked together in that loveless, bloody marriage. She came to know that, whatever rite he had forced upon her, took away her ability ever to harm him again.

But two good things came from their marriage. The first was his knowledge. He freely and eagerly taught her everything he knew. He was a fountain of wisdom, and though he lacked drive and ambition, and was far too fond of mead and ale, he had impressive powers and a desire to pass along his skill.

The second good thing to come from their marriage, about five years later, was Elias.

Estela and Leopold began performing together, and their travels took them to the Southern Plains. They performed at Ingroff Castle at the invitation of two princes, and gave an impressive display of exploding lights, fire in the shape of great serpents, and chairs animated to walk all by themselves.

But the brothers, Carlton in particular, were far more enchanted by Estela than by the magic tricks she and the Southern Sorcerer had cast for their enjoyment. The performers were invited to stay the night in the castle. After much revelry and mead had put Leopold in a dazed stupor, Estela was offered a tour of the grounds.

 “Kill him,” she said simply. “Kill him, and I and my power are yours.” Blood-red powdery smoke puffed faintly from her eyes and nose as she spoke.

The Southern Plains were slipping away from the Ingroffs’ dominion. The brothers had just been hoping for a little entertainment this night, but what they got instead was so much more.

She saw the hunger reflected in their eyes. She saw how desperate they were, how helpless. “The people are deserting you,” she said, trying not to betray how desperate her own situation truly was. “They are worshipping their own gods, trading their wares, looking away from their old allegiances.”

Estela rose dramatically from the ground in a bluish glowing light; Leopold had taught her that one, too. “Kill him for me, and I will help you bring the flock back to its shepherds.”

The bond transferred that night. It trickled down the shaft of Bertrand’s sword, out of Leopold’s shocked and convulsing body, and snaked its way into Bertrand instead. And through all the blood and agony of the years to come, all the torment and torture of the purging of the plains, Estela stayed by the Ingroff brothers as their faithful servant, strategist, and sorceress.

As soon as Elias was old enough, his mother Estela had begun transferring knowledge to her son. He had learned to recognize parts of plants and animals, and became expert in the drying, cooking, extracting, and distilling of components of all kinds. By this time, of course, he knew what was happening behind the Big Door. The anguished screams, that earlier he had accepted as just part of the world around him were now intelligible to him, and he knew that they belonged to the terrible men and women who had betrayed the benevolent princes of Ingroff Castle and who worshipped false gods.

Only once did Elias witness his mom create a being from dead material. A long and dreadful process, the conjuration began on a very, very bad day.

Carlton had been murdered. Bertrand staggered down the steps to their apothecary in a wild state of panic. He carried Carlton’s limp body in his arms, his brother’s head almost completely severed at the neck. Blood was everywhere.

Bertrand had yelled and moaned, he’d begged Estela for her help. Elias recalled her cautioning him, her careful and reassuring tones morphing into insistence and finally into desperate pleading. But Bertrand would not listen. He demanded his brother be resurrected. He demanded she start immediately.

And so she had. She had no choice. She could not betray the bond.

Estela’s morbid sorcery had taken weeks to accomplish. The body, even covered in poultices and bandages, began to putrefy after just a few days. After a week it was nauseating even to be in the corridor outside. But Elias’ mother never left the corpse. She sat in vigil, focused on what would be the most complicated series of incantations of her life. Elias brought her food, drink, and any components she required, and tried not to vomit whenever he approached the bloated sack of flesh that had once been Carlton.

There had been an uprising in the Southern Plains. Without Carlton’s tyranny, and with Estela’s power diverted to his resurrection, the resistance in the fiefdom was strengthening.

The only thing worse than Carlton’s bloated and seeping remains was Carlton’s resurrected flesh. No less putrid, the monster finally awoke one day. Elias’ mother collapsed from exhaustion as the beast arose and looked vacuously at the stone walls surrounding them.

The monster did not live for long. None of them did. As soon as she had the strength to move, Estela ordered the reanimated corpse to the main castle where Bertrand waited. Not five minutes after their macabre reunion, the main gate was breached and ragged townspeople stormed inside to butcher everyone within and avenge their dead. Drained almost completely of her power, Estela put up no fight at all.The last Elias saw of her, she and her monster were being smothered and destroyed by the ravaging mass. Elias raced frantically back down the stairs, pushed through the Big Door, hustled down to the crypt, and picked his way across the pile of tortured remains before slipping between the rusted bars of an ancient iron drainage grate to a secret escape into the forest beyond.

READ CHAPTER 16

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