In the land of Wildemount, where such things as genies and curses and seven-league boots really do exist, it is considered quite a misfortune to be the eldest of three. That misfortune might explain how Caleb Widogast came to be here, dressed in rags and tags on a barren hillside, watching the snow begin to fall and seriously considering whether this would be his last night alive.
He had never foreseen himself coming to such a pass. One year ago at this time he had been boarding a carriage with a handful of other young people, students headed home for the end of term, grumbling bitterly about having to stand in the cold for long enough for the carriage to arrive and having to travel in such dismal conditions. One year ago at this time he had been a student, a wealthy merchant's son, an older brother, a tradesman's apprentice.
One year later he was nothing at all, and it was all thanks to the curse of the Witch of the Waste.
It was truly impressive how little time it had taken him to make the transformation from a prosperous merchant's son to gutter trash. Not even the full ten months. Within the first few weeks of leaving home, sleeping in alleyways and under bridges and in gutters, he'd very quickly learned that the Crownsguard who would nod and tip their helms respectfully on the way to the market were the same ones who would roust him and those like him out from under the bridge with jeers and kicks and blows of the nightstick.
He'd learned not to stand on his dignity to survive. He never got good at begging -- his appearance and manner didn't seem to stir the heartstrings -- but he learned where to go to pick up just-barely-rotten food after the markets and restaurants closed, how to keep warm on a cold night from the heat of a compost pile, how to sleep in the daytime when it was relatively safe, which street kids to avoid and which to befriend. Most of them, or at least the ones that stayed around for long, were to be avoided.
The only companion he'd made and kept in his time on the street was Frumpkin, an alley cat he had befriended six months into his exile, at the tail end of summer when the first of autumn's chill had been stealing in. He had been woken from an uneasy doze by the crash and clatter of something falling over further down the alleyway, pulling him to the brink of fight or flight instantly. Peering down the alleyway he'd slowly relaxed when he saw no one, and a little investigation towards the back of the building revealed the source of the noise to be a ragged orange tomcat.
The cat had been pawing insistently at a locked metal container; when Caleb stepped closer to examine it it looked like the sort of bin that in his hometown had been used to keep out bears. It was not exactly locked, but had a sliding metal mechanism that could only be opened by someone with hands. He obliged, and the cat jumped into the bin as soon it was opened, followed by the sounds of ripping paper and furtive eating.
The bin had provided Caleb's dinner that night as well as the alleycat's, and when he'd moved back to the wall to sleep, the cat followed over to sit beside him.
Caleb was not quite sure what to make of the cat. The way he'd come right up to Caleb and let himself be petted, even held, seemed to imply that he had been a housecat once. But he was clearly savvy and clever enough to keep himself alive for long enough to grow thin and ragged, his ears scarred and his fur matted. Still there was an alertness in his brilliant green eyes that Caleb admired, almost envied at times.
When he'd moved on from that alley, the approaching sound of a Crownsguard patrol making it impossible to stay put any longer, the cat had followed after him. And kept on following him, voicing increasing complaints the longer they went and the more tired the cat became, until finally Caleb had given in, crouched on the ground and let the cat climb up his arm to sit on his shoulders.
The extra weight made him stagger when he stood back up again, but at least the cat was warm; and as the cat settled into the rhythm of Caleb's walk, a low purr sounded from his chest and went all the way down Caleb's spine.
That had been four months ago. It had been ten months that he'd lived on the streets but the winter was coming on fast, now, and there was nowhere he could go to escape its cruel teeth. There had been a few bad nights in the early spring, but he had survived them… then. He didn't have the stamina he had back then, he was too worn down, too broken. He didn't have the strength.
This might be the night that killed him. Or maybe the weather would turn in the night, the cold would lessen, and he'd still be alive in the morning. But if this night didn't kill them then maybe it would be the next, or the next, that one day dawn would break and he just wouldn't be moving any more. What was the point in fighting it, when it seemed so inevitable?
The face of the Witch of the Waste floated hazily in front of his mind and in a numb, almost abstract fashion he thought about how much he hated her. How badly he wanted revenge for what she had done to him, to his family. But it was a hate with no heat to it. He would never see her again and if he did, what would he do? He would be as helpless in the face of her magic as he had been the first time. Might as well swear vengeance on the sun.
He buried his nose in Frumpkin's ruff, letting the cat's fur -- just for a moment -- block out the biting cold. Frumpkin purred strongly, pushing up against his cheek with his furry head, before he wriggled out of the hold and ducked back into the gap between Caleb's legs and his coat. He did not begrudge the cat for seeking shelter and heat in his coat -- the night was bitter, and Frumpkin smaller and even less protected from the elements than he was. If he went to sleep here and did not wake up -- if his body eventually stopped producing heat at all -- would Frumpkin leave him to find shelter? Was there any shelter for him to find?
"Let's give it one more try, hmm?" he mumbled to the cat, who chirped back at him.
No, he couldn't lay down and die tonight. Not tonight. Frumpkin still needed him, after all.
The thought was enough to stir him from his apathy but it provided no heat nor food nor any other useful resource. Caleb climbed to his feet and looked about him wearily.
The landscape about him was withered and sere, a hillside covered in long grass that had mostly died back for the winter interspersed with sharp blocks of bare black stone. It had been a long time since he had consulted a map, but he at least knew with heartfelt certainty which way was north and how many miles he had come: he was on the outer fringes of the Empire now, hardscrabble hamlets that kept a wary defense against bandits and raiding parties from Xhorhas. Somewhere away to the east from here, up against the mountains, was supposed to be the lair of the Witch of the Waste.
Which way to go? The town below the foothills had made it clear in their last scuffle that he had worn out whatever welcome a vagrant like him could expect in that town. He would have to keep moving if he wanted to reach another town tonight -- or more likely, tomorrow -- but there was a long reach of empty heather between here and there.
The sun had sunk below the ridge, but there was still light in the western part of the sky. It took him a while to notice another light -- a strange, sourceless glow at the very edges of his perception that seemed to line the sharp edges and corners of the rocks and leave the grey grass in shadow.
Frumpkin gave an anxious meow and jumped from the ground to his arms; he held out his hands to catch the cat and transfer him from hands to shoulder in a practiced, unconscious motion. It took a while more to pin down the source of whatever was upsetting the cat: a low-pitched, faraway roaring sound that made pebbles rattle on their beds of bare stone.
A gust of wind threw a blast of smoke into his face; he turned and then he saw it.
Cresting the ridge to the south, a lumbering, shuddering pile of metal and stone, was a walking castle.
Caleb stood and stared. And stared. It took a while for his brain to comprehend what his eyes were seeing, straining against the failing light and his own disbelief. But there it was, a motley assortment of buildings -- watchtower, warehouse, turret and spire -- all thrown together like a small child carelessly jumbling his toy houses in a bin. What held them all together Caleb could not fathom, as the disparate pieces lurched and shuddered against each other with each step. The bundle of building-pieces perched precariously on top of a dark platform supported by sharp-angled, spindly legs. His eyes moved to count them, automatically, as each one rose and fell in a shambling unsteady gait. One, two, three… four…. Five? Or was that just the third leg again? No, it was five, and what kind of gait was that supposed to accomplish?
At last his wits caught up with his stunned eyes and he realized what he was seeing. This could only be the infamous walking castle of the Wizard Molly, the mysterious sorcerer who had been plaguing the border towns of the Empire for months. Often spoken with in the same breath of the Witch of the Waste, the two seemed to be akin -- two rogue magic-users who had broken the laws of the Empire regarding magic usage and fled to the fringes of society, hoarding their illicit powers for selfish gain.
Caleb had never met the Wizard Molly, unlike his fateful encounter with the Witch of the Waste -- but he had heard all the rumors. That Wizard Molly was the spawn of the devil, that he made pacts with demons and consorted with goblins, that he stole the souls of innocents and bathed in the blood of virgins to keep his youth and beauty and ate beautiful women alive.
By all means, anyone with any sense would steer far clear of the Wizard Molly and his infernal castle. But Caleb was tired, and hungry, and cold, and all he could think in the last moments of twilight was that all the foul smoke those many chimneys belched into the sky must surely indicate the presence of a fire somewhere in that mess of architecture.
So he gathered up the last of his worldly possessions about him, wound his cat around his neck, and took off across the heather after the walking castle.
Caleb realized quickly that catching up to the castle was going to be easier said than done. Its seeming ponderousness was only a function of its size -- though it seemed to move slowly, it was actually covering a great deal of ground. Caleb's stride, though determined, was shortened by the cold eating into his muscles and the long months of deprivation.
He tried to push himself further, feeling a shooting pain from his chest as he did; his pace sped up a bit, but he could feel a dangerous burn in his lungs that meant he could not keep up the pace for long.
In the failing light he tried to judge the distance between him and the castle, the angles, and changed his course for the best hope of intercept. Frumpkin seemed a lump of lead around his neck, dragging him down, and his feet stumbled and dragged over the uneven ground.
He was not going to make it. Already the castle, with its lurching gait, was beginning to mount the slope ahead. Caleb stumbled down the rocky slope towards it, desperately hoping he did not trip and break his neck, or even an ankle, which in this barren land would kill him just as surely. "Wait! Wait for me!" he shouted, heaving for breath. He had no idea if anyone in the castle could hear him, or would have any reason to stop, but he had to try. "Langsamer, bitte!"
It had been months since Caleb had spoken in his native tongue. Even when he was alone with only Frumpkin for company, he tried to avoid reverting to his mother language so as not to get back in the habit. At school, he had been scolded by teachers and mocked by peers for speaking a 'funny foreign' tongue; at home, he had practiced hard so as not to offend customers with his accent; on the street, he had quickly learned that the only thing less welcome in an Empire town than a vagrant, was a foreign vagrant.
So he kept his first language locked in the back of his throat as much as possible, even when no one was around. In times of stress, though, it still tended to creep out -- like now, where the Zemnian words echoed and reverberated from the stones around him.
And just like that, obligingly, the castle began to slow.
Caleb did not have the time or breath to wonder why. He staggered up the hill towards the castle, heaving for air, and squinted into the gloom to try to find a way in. There must be a way in, right?
The castle had slowed but it was still moving; he had to do some scrambling in among its mismatched metal legs to circle around it. There, at the back, set into a dirty plastered wall that seemed to belong to a tiny hut, was a plain wooden door. Leading down from the door was a short, black staircase that swung ponderously over the hills and rocks, never quite touching the ground.
Caleb paced alongside the castle as he eyed the stairs, wondering how anyone was meant to get up them. Then there was a warning growl as some unseen engine revved up inside the castle, and it began to speed up again.
No time for finesse. Caleb leapt for it, Frumpkin digging claws into his shoulder as he jumped, and grabbed hold of the doorframe for dear life as his feet found purchase on the stairs.
The castle quickly built up to full speed again, leaving Caleb clinging to the doorstep as the dried grass and sharp rocks flowed by beneath them. Slowly he regained his breath and straightened back up again, petting Frumpkin's head for comfort. His or the cat's, he couldn't really say.
Caleb considered knocking, but what would he do if Wizard Molly answered? What would he do if the door was locked?
Well, he was committed now.
It wasn't locked. The wooden door opened to a yawning darkness beyond, and Caleb stepped inside.
~to be continued...