This was written for another SF&F World contest whose theme escapes me at the moment. But the monster was created many years before that, as part of a fantasy setting I was working on. I still have the hand-written notes I wrote on it, taking up both sides of a piece of college-ruled notebook paper, tucked away in a notebook with pages of other characters and creatures just waiting to see the light of day. What I like about this story is how it’s self-contained, but hints at being the beginning of a longer tale. Always leave ’em wanting more, as they say.
“A cloud was my mother, the wind is my father.”
He sat rocking gently before the fire, speaking to no one in particular. As he’d been doing for nearly a month now. No one in the tavern paid him much notice anymore, save to steer clear of him. They hadn’t even been able to get a name out of him. Old Brisin had called him “tetched in the head,” so to everyone at the Yoked Ox, he simply became Tetched.
“I am the torment of man!” Tetched hugged himself, tears rolling down his face.
“Why don’t you run him off?” Hughrys asked.
“I haven’t the heart,” Beredict said as he re-filled the big farmer’s tankard. “Lords know where he’s been or what he’s seen to end up in such a state. And he isn’t that much of a bother.”
“Bah,” Hughrys said, setting his tankard down after a long pull. “You’re too soft a touch, Beredict. He’s got to be putting a fair bite into your coin, what with you feeding him and all.”
Beredict shrugged. “He barely eats. Just enough to keep from dying, it looks like. And to keep mumbling that nonsense of his.”
“A rainbow is my bed, the earth my final resting place,” Tetched said, his gaze darting with the flames.
“I heard Brisin say that wizards got him,” Hughrys said. “Says they’re all about the Gralen Wood, casting spells and such.”
“Why in the name of Lastdark would a wizard cast a spell like that?” Beredict said.
“Why does a wizard do anything?” Hughrys replied. “However he got that way, you can’t let him stay here much longer. Sooner or later he’s going to hurt someone.”
Beredict shook his head. “I don’t think it’s like that. It’s more like –”
“He just wants someone who will listen.”
Neither of them had noticed the stranger approach the bar, let alone enter the tavern. A thick beard framed his sun-darkened face. His boots were dark with long-dried mud along the soles. A sturdy cloak hung from his broad shoulders, and a simple scabbard held a sword at his side.
And then there were the books.
They peeked out from inside the large bulging pack on his back, which looked ready to burst. Several small ones hung along his belt from looped leather straps. More draped over his shoulder, held by a heavy thong. A pouch strapped to his thigh contained several scrolls. “You sell those?” Hughrys asked.
“No. I fill them.” Grinning, he held up ink-stained hands. “My name is Rothen.” He looked at Tetched, and his smile melted into a look of pity. “I believe I can help.” He moved towards the fire.
“Mind you don’t get to close to him,” Beredict warned. “Once you get his attention, he’ll never stop.”
“I’m counting on that,” Rothen said. He took a chair across from Tetched and shrugged off his pack. Immediately Tetched turned to him. “My son is the cool stream!” he said, his hands grasping at the front of the man’s shirt. But instead of pushing him away, Rothen simply placed both hands on Tetched’s shoulders. An ornate question mark was tattooed on the back of his right hand.
“Speak what you have been given,” Rothen said softly, almost a prayer.
Tetched’s eyes widened. Then the words poured out. “A cloud was my mother, the wind is my father, my son is the cool stream, and my daughter is the fruit of the land. A rainbow is my bed, the earth my final resting place, and I’m the torment of man!” He collapsed with a sob. “The torment of man…”
Rothen nodded. “He is Riddled,” he said.
“Riddled?” Beredict asked.
“Touched by a queteshad,” Rothen replied, lifting a book from his belt. “It means ‘riddle-wisp’ in the Elvish tongue. Just the barest touch, and your mind becomes nothing but the riddle the wisp places within it, there until the riddle is solved.” He read the title, then dropped the book back to his side, turning to rummage through his pack. “My order roams the lands, seeking the answers to as many riddles as we can find, so that we may help those the wisp touches. This sounds like one of Espor’s…” He stacked more books, until finally he pulled out a slim tome with a lavish ‘E’ embossed on the cover. He opened the book and quickly leafed through it. “Two days north of here, I heard of a madman in a tavern. I followed the stories here.” He found the page he was looking for, reading carefully. “Ah yes,” he sighed. Then he lowered the book, and pulled Tetched back to his seat. Their eyes met.
“You are rain.”
Tetched sat up as if he’d been struck. His skin, which had been as pale and cold as stone, flushed with life again. “It’s gone,” he whispered, then rose to his feet and shouted. “It’s gone!” Other patrons turned from their drinks to watch as he danced with joy before the hearth. He laughed, then saw Rothen laughing along with him. He stopped and grasped Rothen’s hands, kneeling before him. “Oh bless you, sir, bless you!”
Rothen shook his head and pulled Tetched to his feet. “Now, now, none of that! I’m no king seeking homage. Just a Quester doing his duty. If you have gratitude to offer, give it to this innkeeper who kept you fed all this time.”
Tetched collected himself and looked towards Beredict. “Your stew is quite good, even if I barely touched it.” Beredict simply nodded, too stunned to speak. “And my name is Kendrick. Not Tetched.”
“Well, we were never really given a proper introduction,” Beredict stammered when he’d finally found his voice.
“Where are you from?” Rothen asked.
“Galahorn,” he replied.
“All the way from the Southern Kingdoms?” Hughrys gasped.
“We have a long journey ahead of us,” Rothen said warmly, offering his hand. “Let’s get you home.”