“Once when I asked the Worldwielder about this he smiled, gave me a pat on the head, and hinted, “non-Euclidean,” before climbing the great big staircase to the places above.”
The man we call Wordwielder lives in a curious little cottage, far enough outside of town to eat a whole apple before you arrive. It’s a bit taller than the oaken forest that surrounds it, made up of rickety stories that taper smaller and smaller, up to a tiny little belfry. It’s a bit like a witch’s hat. When I first saw it, I was afraid it would fall over, with the way its different floors cantilever outwards in so many directions.
I know better now, though. I can walk across the little grove, along the cobbled path, up to the stone steps. If I knock three times, not two, or four, but three times — bap bap bap on the door — then the Wordwielder will let me in. Inside, there’s a grand foyer, with a ceiling way above my head with chandelier stalactites. It seems bigger than it should be.
Once when I asked the Worldwielder about this he smiled, gave me a pat on the head, and hinted, “non-Euclidean,” before climbing the great big staircase to the places above. And oh, there are so very many places above. A bathroom like the Romans used to use, with caldarium and tepidarium and frigidarium and all. A labyrinthine library, so tall it echoes. A steamy greenhouse, lush with plantlife. An ornate dining room, with a great big table always laden with every food I could ever dream of and so many I can’t. A dormitory of guest rooms, separated by strange paper doors painted with beautiful scenes. And at the very top, a spiral staircase that leads back outside, to the peak of a minarette higher in the air than a mountaintop.
Sometimes, the Wordwielder sends me on errands. He tells me I should go into the woods and find just the right rock, one I like the best, and take it back to him. He’s never satisfied with the first one I bring though, or the second one, either. Only the third or the fourth will he accept. When he does, though, he lifts it up to his lips, and whispers, “Auriferous” to it like a lullaby. When he hands it back to me after that, it’s much heavier, and shiny, and dull yellow. He tells me to take it to the village’s market, and gives me a list of things to trade it for.
The merchants recognize me – the butcher, the cobbler, the tailor, the farmer and the blacksmith. One of them takes the heavy yellow rock and looks and my list, and talks to the others, and they all give me whatever the Wordwielder asked for. No matter if it’s the meat of the fattest cow, the most ornate silken raiments, the most masterfully forged steel, the best-tanned leather shoes, or the oldest wine. They hand it over with a smile, no questions or haggling. If there’s too much for me to carry, they even lend me a wagon and a horse.
I asked my grandmother why they do that. Whenever I come with her to the market, all the merchants will bargain for hours over the price of something as simple as a loaf of bread, let alone their finest wares. Her answer was cryptid, simply stating that: “With the debt that everyone owes to that man… they’re amazed that he pays them at all. If they gave him their whole stock, a hundred times over… they might just barely be even.”
One day, something strange happened. I left the cottage to run the Wordwielder’s errands, and when I came outside, I found a great formation of knights standing on the lawn, taking up the whole clearing around the house, and filling far into the forest as well. The leader, a fat man with a crown, sat upon a horse, barked at me to fetch my “master.” I started to go back inside, and ran right into the Wordwielder; I stuttered to him about what was happening, panicked, but he only smiled and patted my head in silent consolation, before gently positioning me behind him. The kingly man mounted on the steed addressed him, commanding the Wordwielder to come with them, and be indentured as a warrior in their army. The Wordwielder clearly showed the man three fingers, extended into the air, then curled down one of them, and sung, “Begone.” And so, the knights went away, for the rest of that day.
The next day, however, they were back, and I thought I saw more of them. This time Wordwielder told me to stay inside. No matter – I climbed on up to the greenhouse, and looked down at the scene from above, through its tinted panes. The leader of the army seemed more adamant today, his face growing red as he shouted, but I could not hear what he said. Whatever the conversation was, the Wordwielder showed him the same three fingers, and this time bent down two. Then, he spoke, and I heard through the walls and the air: “Nosferatu.” With that word an infectious terror gripped the hearts of the many knights, and they scattered and fled away from the cottage.
On the third day, the legion was already there in the early morning, before even I arrived. I could see monstrous catapults and bastillas at the back of the columns, and I was afraid for the Wordwielder. I snuck around the army, taking a long route to approach the cottage from behind. I arrived in time to overhear the bellow of the angry King; “-if you do not help us now, that Nordic bastard will defeat us. And once he does, you’ll be next!” The Wordwielder only raised three fingers to him, and clenched them all down into a fist. “Thermopylae” rang out from his mouth, and a great shade was laid across the whole army. I looked to the sky, to see what was casting it, and saw a swarm of arrows dropping from the clouds, like a rainstorm. They struck the knights, the stallions, and the trees alike – nothing was safe from them. When the last missile had fallen, the Wordwielder’s clearing was a graveyard, and the ground was sewn with broken shafts and blood.
The day after that, it was all back to normal. The corpses, the arrows, all the blood – it was gone, as though it had never been. The Wordwielder acted as though nothing ever happened. Perhaps he thought I didn’t know about the massacre. But I never pressed him about it, never brought it up. I understood better why nobody ever questioned him, from then on.
Time passed. Weeks, fortnights, years. I grew taller, and less naive. I was able to put the incident from that day behind me, to forgive the Wordwielder for what he’d done. I think I pieced together what was he was. A dragon. A dragon who’d gathered together a treasure horde, and who guarded it ruthlessly against anyone who might try to take it from him or him from it. The village, and all the people in it, was his horde. I didn’t like that, at first. I thought his greed was selfish… but, I came to realize that in many ways, it was selfless, too. In the end, I decided I did not mind the dragon who had claimed my village as his own.
That is, until the day another dragon came to visit.
I was in the market, as typical, ordering the typical list of atypical items. It was then that a snivelling young man made an appearance, a mop of snow-fair hair upon his head, and a battle axe across his back. He sought me out in short order, cuffing me about the neck, much the surprise and fright of the other townsfolk. I supplied them with a calming gesture, to let them know everything was alright, but the cutthroat hissed something that sent a chill down my spine.
I felt myself wholeheartedly compelled by the crude command, for I understood at once what he wanted. With a parting wave to my neighbors, I advanced out of the marketplace, beyond the edge of the village, and out into the forest. The Norseman followed, having produced a dagger that he held just between my shoulder blades. We reached the Wordwielder’s cottage faster than I ever remember reaching it before. He was already there, waiting outside it, leaning oh so lightly on an ebony walking cane.
When my captor caught sight of him, I felt an awful excitement grow inside of him, and he threw me to the ground and rushed forwards, towards the Wordwielder. The Norseman roared, “Burn!”, and the Wordwielder burst into a pyre of fire. I screamed in horror, and the Norseman cackled in triumph. My mentor’s corpse collapsed onto the ground, a smoldering husk. It crackled and popped and smoked for long heartbeats… and then, his voice rang out, from the sky and the forest and everywhere else, all at once: “Muninn.” And the world remembered him as he was moments ago, and he stood before us, unharmed and alive, looking displeased.
The Norseman stopped short, eyes wide as saucers – then he recovered, and shoved his hand forwards, and grunted, “Firebolt!” And undoubtedly, a gush of red heat spewed forwards in a wave at the Wordwielder. My mentor shook his head as though to deride his adversary and muttered “Babylon” under his breath, and an unseen wall swallowed the the flames before they reached him. The Norseman squealed in frustration, reaching back to draw his axe. “Sharp”, he threatened to its head, and then charged at the Wordwielder with his weapon poised to strike.
My mentor gave the handle of his cane a twist, and slid free from its shaft a thin, sleek sword, barely more than an overlong pen knife. He lifted it near to his lips and breathed upon its blade, “vorpal”, before drifting his feet into a simple fencing stance. The Norseman took a heavy-handed swing, but the Wordwielder parried it with a simple flick of his wrist, knocking away the axe and leaving a deep nick on its edge. It jarred the Norseman, and left him open for the canesword’s tip to carve a gash in his chest. He grit his teeth and hacked at the Wordwielder again, but a meager lateral block stopped that, and another counter-attack sent him wheeling backwards.
The Norseman shook his head and steeled himself, readying for another charge, but the Wordwielder’s utterance of “coup de grâce” blew him off his feet and landed him on his rear a yard behind, his weapon out of his grip. He groaned as he got back to his feet, then out of the corner of his eye, he saw an opportunity. He saw me. “Captive” was spat from the Norseman’s mouth, and I found myself ensnared by invisible bindings, as he rushed towards me. The Wordwielder realized what was happening a moment too late – he was already putting me in a headlock. I could almost feel him, sneering right behind my ear, flicking his dagger out and pressing its edge against my throat.
“Stalemate,” he mocked at my mentor. And just then, I saw something claw across the Wordwielder’s features, something I had never seen before, and which to this day I hope no never see again. Contempt. Pure, utter, hatred, without reserve or regret. That raw fury, it flooded his throat and sank its fangs into his tongue and domineered him to seethe out: “Ibis!”
The Norseman’s body began to convulse, and he hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, releasing me. I turned around to see his limbs beginning to be torn off his body at their joints, and rope marks appeared upon his wrists and ankles, as though he were being drawn and quartered. I looked quickly from his writhing form to the Wordwielder, who was scowling at him with scorn. Then, I heard a loud, fibrous ripping sound, and squeezed my eyes shut.
“Stop!” I begged, starting to hear a chopping sound coming from the Norseman’s body. The Wordwielder seemed fixated upon this punishment, almost entranced by it. I grit my teeth and tried to ignore it for as long as I could, the sounds of mortification, of gruesome torture, but eventually, I could no longer stand it. I ran at my mentor, and smacked him across the face. He was caught off guard, teetering to the side, before bracing off his cane and standing straight again. When he looked back at me, his expression was changed completely: a countenance filled with surprise, and partial confusion.
A world away, the Norseman, released from his torment, was gasping, lying on the ground. Despite being half-dead, he managed to choke out, “rejuvenate” to himself, and his shattered body began to mend itself. Before I could confront the Wordwielder about his actions, my mentor was pushing me out of the way to chase after his quarry, for the Norseman had gotten back to his feet, and was beginning to retreat into the woods. When he looked over his shoulder to see the Wordwielder coming towards him, he winced out “winged”, and a bead of blood ran from one of his nostrils, and fluffy wings bloomed from his back, beating the air desperately to get him up, up, and away from this tenacious, powerful foe.
“Nevermore”, the Wordwielder decreed, and nightingale wings hugged his back, before unfurling to a mighty span, and bolstering him off the ground with one devastating flap. He shot past the Norseman, opening his wings to glide in place for just a moment, then reigning them in again to dive downwards and joust him with his canesword. The strike diced through one of the Norseman’s own wings, leaving him spinning out of control. The Wordwielder air-braked with a half-flap, improbably graceful, and swivelled in the air to again face his victim. With another burst of feathers, he cut past the Norseman again, and after that the canesword’s bloodridge was wetted, and the Norseman dropped straight downwards, hitting the ground with a thud.
After that day, I did not speak to the Wordwielder very often. I did not speak to anyone very often. I left the village, on a course to the North. I wanted to find the place that snivelling Norseman came from. To deliver condolences or to get answers or to enact vengeance, I didn’t yet know. And I never decided, either–for on the first night of my journey I slipped while skinning some game, and sliced my palm.
“God dammit!” I swore. And He did. My knife became briny, crystals spiking out from it at random angles as a cracking sound ripped through the air. I dropped the tool when one grazed my cut, feeling salt on a wound. It broke into glassy shards on the ground.
I didn’t know what to do, but I was scared – terrified – so I clamped both hands over my mouth, and I ran. I ran through trees, across creeks, over stone walls and between hills. I didn’t let myself stop until I’d reached the clearing of the Wordwielder’s cottage. And when I finally got to there my legs were lead and my chest aflame, and I faded to darkness just as my the shadow of my mentor dropped over me.
From then on, I learned. I learned so much that I believe some of what was already there was pushed out of my head, because I forget about what the Wordwielder had done for a time. He taught me the speech of fingers, known only to the deaf and the dumb. He trained me never to talk with my mouth, not ever, not even to curse or to cry out a warning. He made me read – oh, how he made me read – book after book after book. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, poetry young and old, play scripts and novels, biographies and histories. I came to know a hundredfold more about the world than my grandmother had ever informed me.