B

A Barbarian Muses About Magic

by Andrew Murrell
ft. Rothar the Old Bedine

Rothar looked out across the blasted sun-beaten hills and crags that had once been the grasslands of his birthplace. Two empires had come and gone since then, destroying all that stood against them, even, it seems, the land they stood to claim.

The old man tried to trace the paths he had wandered as a boy across the landscape, up this way, across that ridge, down that distant slope. But it was difficult, so changed was the land from his fading memories. He had used those same paths in his time as a warrior, an ambush readied here, a raid upon the camp there. But the war's toll had changed them. The villages had moved away or been destroyed. Even the animal paths were faded, the lands far too dry now for even the wild animals. And though the enemies who swarmed across these hills had also gone, the war had never truly ended, just moved elsewhere, leaving these bitter hills to their deep scars and silence.

A piercing caw cut then through his reverie and Rothar looked out across the crags.

"Must be a monster," Rothar said to the winds.

Several hours later Rothar returned to the spot hauling the aftermath of his most recent catch, the stacked skulls and assorted leavings of a pair of veserabs, the flying mounts of the Netherese, which deprived of riders by some cataclysm or catastrophe of battle, now roamed the deserts freely. The strange flying leech-bats had smelled horrible and tasted worse, but Rothar stripped their hides anyway and now stacked the bones on his ridge overlooking the barren and rocky desert. He leaned back, resting his legs upon a heap of stones and spine bones, and lost himself again in thought.

The warm months had been hot, and unseasonably so, even for the Anauroch. The rain had almost stopped altogether, and even most monsters had moved inland towards the sea.

Though war left scars upon the land, war alone was not enough to change a land so completely as this. The war couldn't change the weather. It was magic that had created this desert. It was magic that sustained the brutal heat and the scouring winds. It was magic that left the land to languish.

Rothar sighed, looking down at his ancient body. Though still quite strong by the standards of most men, and certainly of men his age, his body was not nearly strong enough to do battle against mages as he once had, surviving blasts that would fell a horse or pushing through a mage's armor by sheer force alone to see the surprised panic replace his quarry's overconfidence. No, he knew, whatever it was that caused powerful magic to stir throughout the land once again--this time, there was little he could do to stop it.

He cursed and smashed his fist atop a keeled monster sternum, shattering it into pieces and bloodying his hand. The bile taste of magic filled his mouth and he spat brackish juice that tasked wrong and sent his jaw shivering. The pain was sudden but abated quickly as he ground his teeth against the feeling.

Then as if in reply a dry, the pain dissipated as a coarse flow of magic lurched beneath his skin and traveled down his arm to staunch the bleeding. Within the next heartbeat the wound was gone. The unbidden magic had healed him completely, leaving not even a scar.

Not that he had a lack of any.

He rubbed his jaw but the unhealthy taste lingered. He spat again and then reached to touch his jaw idly, inspecting each of his ragged teeth in turn.

Over the years, Rothar had lost far more teeth than most had ever owned, and replacing them had become something of a hobby for him. He had replaced teeth with fakes in a menagerie of colors and materials. He had one tooth of a swarthy brown driftwood, one of polished mithral, one of dog bone, one real tooth--his own, probably the oldest living human tooth left in the world, he mused--and his favorite and long-time companion: a brilliant blue jewel he had found while adventuring and roughly carved to match the shape. It didn't fit with the others, but it glowed blue in the darkness and had been quite popular with the ladies.

Satisfied, he spat a third time and rinsed with a little moonshine from a haggard wineskin. His teeth burned all over, but with the comforting pain of whiskey, not of magic.

Magic. Rothar knew truly very little of magic, though in his time he had seen as much of it as any man and had felt more than his fair share of its sting. He knew of monsters and of men that could make fire and lighting, tell the future, and even open doorways leading to distant realms. He thought back to the wizards he had known, some he had traveled with for many years and some he had fought. Some had used their spellcraft to help others. Some used it to brave dangerous places in search of knowledge or adventure. With the aid of these, Rothar had saved kingdoms and toppled the plots of madmen. Their magic had saved lives.

But then he looked over the desert before him, and visualized the land of his youth. He could almost see the miles of pitched tents stretching out before him. He felt the wind and remembered how it had once carried the smells of cooking game and wildflowers. He heard the sounds of horses, of laughter, the songs and stories of his ancestors, and his people--all but forgotten--and he buried head in his hands.

Only magic can destroy so much. Only the work of gods or those who would think themselves fit to challenge them.

And since Rothar had long ago given up on waiting for the gods to restore his home, he knew only magic could rebuild it.

Rothar awakened from his reverie suddenly by another dry jolt of magic, this one angrier than the last. He must have been grinding his teeth. He matched the anger with his own and bit down so hard upon false teeth that he feared they might shatter.

So did the teeth.

A sense of panic rose in the back of his mind and an urgent cry of pain. He relished it and bit down harder.

His corded muscles only softened when a gentle voice from behind him inquired, "Uncle Rothar?"

Rothar let out his anger with his breath and let a smile curl the edges of his mouth and turned.

A child pounced on his back from behind and wrapped her tiny arms around his corded neck. "Uncle Rothar, 'nama says the garden needs another fountain!"

He turned around to look at the small but prosperous village he had founded on the cliffside. An oasis of health and vitality in the windswept and war-torn place.

"Then tell 'Nama' that she gets another fountain!" he bellowed.

He lifted her high above his head, her rough-spun flower-decked dress twirling out behind her, and set her down gracefully to run off in the direction of her mother's tent-house.

He then picked up a small shovel and moved towards a pile of loose dirt. He pulled up a few scoopfuls, tossed away the spade and then plunged his arm into the hole well past the elbow to extract the contents: an emaciated, and sputtering, decapitated head.

"Ptu! Stop that grinding! The Soul-Vessel can't withst--ack!" said the head.

Rothar shook it. Then lifted it up by its stringy hair and looked into its hollow eyes.

"Another gate."

"It's barely been a day since the last one! And being buried beneath a ton of sand is hardly condusive--"

Rothar shook the head again and it fell silent.

"Xymaxias, your excuses bore me. I'm sorry if your undeath is not going quite how you imagined it, but your people made this desert, so cast another gate or N'sar take me, I'll go back to that 'dentist' in Waterdeep."

Shuddering, the ancient Netherese lich eyed the shining blue tooth in the crazed man's smile and nodded.