Subject: The Hard Way (johnb)
From: (John Benson)
Date: 18 Jan 1998 09:17:59 -0800

The Hard Way

Enough was enough, dammit. I was tired of waking up in the middle of the night all trembly and needy and with thoughts of Billy Sorenson on my mind so I had to touch myself just to relieve the tension and get back to sleep. This was going to interfere with my training if it didn't stop. I was supposed to maintain a spiritual purity. I had to do something. I know. I'd use the cards. Even though Marta had warned me not to.

Why not? I understood the precepts, and I knew they would listen to me. I had to do something. Anyway. Marta didn't have to know. She was out in her beloved garden pulling weeds while I was supposed to be meditating on the mysteries. So I'd just move from the theory to the practice for once. So what?

I took the cloth bag down off the mantle and took out the cards. They warmed in my hands, eager to do my will. I sat at the table and shuffled, keeping my central question in mind: what was this Billy Sorenson thing anyway? Maybe if I understood it, I'd know what to do about it. I dealt the Wheel quickly without looking and then took in the pattern with a sinking heart.

Failure. Pain. Shame. A loss of innocence. A long tricky path to redemption. This was an unmitigated disaster. With my pulse pounding in my chest I gathered the cards and put them away, then got back down to ponder. What could I do? The boy was going to be my downfall if I didn't do something.

Now what? I couldn't tell Marta, because she had forbidden me the use of the cards. I'd have to fix this one myself. Gods curse Billy Sorenson for getting under my skin. Hmmm. Well, I suppose I could curse him.

You're never supposed to do that, of course. The only reason they taught you about it at all was so you knew where the line was and didn't cross it by accident. But damn. What else was there? Just a little curse. No point overdoing it. I could always add more later if the first dose didn't do the trick.

So I built this little curse in my mind real careful. Details are important. I had it maybe half constructed, when Marta bustled in from the garden and I lost concentration and it snapped back on me, giving me an awful headache. I moaned.

"Serves you right," Marta snapped. "I could feel it all the way outside. Cruelty and selfishness. Enough to make me sick at my stomach. What in Hell did you think you were doing child?"

"Solving a problem," I evaded. "Billy Sorenson was going to get in the way of my advancement."

"And how did you ever get that idea?"

I had the good sense to be ashamed. "I asked the cards, ma'am." My cheeks were burning red. Almost made me forget the headache for maybe half a second.

"That's why I didn't want you to use them," Marta said. "You didn't know what you were doing. Ask the cards if Billy could be an impediment to you, and they'll find a way to answer yes. They want to please you, girl. So you have to be very careful how you ask the question so as not to contaminate the results."

"You mean Billy wouldn't have been a problem if I didn't touch the cards? But I keep thinking about him all the time. Even when I'm supposed to be asleep."

Marta chuckled. "The usual way to solve that age-old problem would have been to have an affair with him, dear. You have plenty of skill to stop a baby from coming. But cursing? Never."

"But I'm to maintain a spiritual purity," I whined. "I can't do that if I'm fucking some boy."

"And just why not?" Marta said. "Spiritual purity is about honesty and generosity and kindness, which isn't at all incompatible with nice friendly sex. But it sure is incompatible with cursing."

"But Pa always said," I argued.

Marta sighed. "Yes child. Your family does have these rigid ideas about chastity, and I do have to take a certain amount of blame for not disabusing you of them. But I'm afraid it's much too late for that now. You've crossed over the line and I'm just not able to teach you any more. So I'm packing you off to live with Old Mallard."

Ick. "I could just go back home," I said.

"No. A half-trained practitioner cannot live among normal people. Too dangerous for all concerned."

"Well I guess I'll just go off and live in the woods by myself then," I said miserably.

"You wouldn't last a fortnight," Marta said. "All your protections were anchored on your spiritual purity, so they are all undone. The night things would eat you."

My heart sank. To have to live with Old Mallard. I suppose he was so disgusting that even the night things didn't want anything to do with him. Old Mallard smells of stale tobacco and sweat and has yellow teeth. He also has old fashioned ideas about discipline centering on a big nasty leather strap.

"I suppose you think he's just what I deserve," I said, terribly sorry for myself.

"Let's just say he's what you need, after a bit of willful stupidity like that," Marta said. "Now get going. If you're still on the road after sundown, your impure soul will attract things. Hungry things you don't have the skill to fight. Go. And the Gods be with you."

She gave me a hug. I don't know, maybe to soften the blow. All it did was bring tears to my eyes and make my headache worse. I walked all the way to town with my eyes leaking so bad I could hardly see, and my head pounding with the slight jar of every step.

Old Mallard doesn't really live in town of course. He's a loner, and lives kind of after the town leaves off but before the forest takes over. He was outside on his wooden porch in his wooden rocker, smoking that damn smelly pipe. He looked almost as if he expected me.

"Uh, hi," I said uneasily through my tears.

He pulled the stem of his pipe out of his mouth and stopped rocking. "Fucked up, didn't you?" he said tersely.

Gee. Word sure did travel fast. Now how was I supposed to answer that? "I, uh, would have got in less trouble if I did fuck," I said.

The old geezer smiled. "Yup. Well, you're in for it now, kid. The strap on your bare ass once a week at bedtime, and every time I'm not satisfied with your progress in your lessons."

I looked at him blankly. "Lessons? What lessons. I already know how to read and write and cook and sew."

"Yup," he said. "But you sure got a lot to learn about magic. And now you'll have to learn it the hard way."

"I thought I'd lost my chance to learn," I said in wonder. "When Marta turned me out, I thought that part of my life was over."

"Nope," Old Mallard chuckled. "Can't have a half-taught practitioner running around loose now, can we? But it's going to be harder now. You need wisdom instead of purity to anchor your spells, and that don't come so quick. Meantime, since you didn't listen when people talked at you nice, well that's what the strap is for."

The door to the cabin opened, and I started at the unexpected sound.

"Come here and apologize," Old Mallard said.

My heart sank anew. It was Billy Sorenson, but he stepped out shy and uncertain. I opened my mouth to apologize, but he beat me to it.

"Sorry," he said. "I oughta known better. If I wanted you, I shoulda just courted you like normal folks. Not used that stupid love spell. It more'n half backfired, too, and now I need you more'n anything."

Oh ye Gods and little fishes. Truth washed over me in great big waves. I'd been stupider than I knew. I asked my question of the cards so vaguely that they had probably shown me his future instead of mine. Until I chose to share it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

So now we live with Old Mallard, and learn magic the hard way. And the strap is never far from our minds, because either we're getting it for our weekly reminders, or for something one of us did or didn't do. Don't laugh. That strap is nasty, and he's strong for such an old man. Makes sense now that we know he's a Wizard.

But for all his hardness, there's a soft spot inside the old duck, and it's enough to make our lives worthwhile. There's more to life than magic when you're young, you see, and our master is not cruel. He lets us sleep together, and when things get a little heated, when shared shame and shared punishment lead us by some quirk of magic into shared lust, he is kind enough to pretend that age has made him just a little deaf.