After a lifetime of training, Liath was proud to have passed her final challenge and become a true mage, ready to journey the land of Eiden Myr and find a Triad to bond with as an Illuminator. But the very night of her triumph, her light fails her: She can no longer see the magical illumination guiders, and thus, despite the mage's badge upon her breast, can no longer call herself Illuminator.
Refusing to accept a lightless future, Liath travels to the city and petitions the senior mages of the land for help and a cure. They set a task for her to fulfill: She must find and capture the rogue Dark Mage, and bring him to them for justice; only then will her light be freed.
So begins the most important journey of Liath's life...
About the Author
Terry McGarry has been a bartender on Wall Street, an English major at Princeton, a street trader in Ireland, and a Page O.K.'er at The New Yorker. Her short fiction has appeared in more than thirty magazines and anthologies. She lives on Long Island, New York.
Read an Excerpt
Sunset through the high, round window draped the attic in shadows. Liath, tracing invisible designs on the floor with the feather end of a quill, had lit no lamp. Where the feathers brushed, they left a faint, shimmering blue trace. The darker the room grew, the clearer the traces.
If this were a casting, with binding materials, the phantom light would blaze around the quill. It would guide her hand as she painted kadri and inked borders along the blocks of wordsmith's marks inscribed on vellum of sedgeweave or parchment. As the filled in her lines with pigments, the blue guiders would be absorbed into tangible saffron, ochre, verdigris. When she could no longer see the patterns in her mind's eye, the illumination would be complete.
There dim echoes of her guiders were a new thing. Each movementof hand, or foot, or quillleft a trail through the dark air as if through still water.
Every motion has a consequence.
Through the floorboards she could feel the vibration of life: tavern life, village life. Cottars and crafters, traders and herders, gathered from miles around to drink and game, gossip and dance. She had gone to sleep to the sound of sorrow and celebration each night for twice nine years. The first roll of beater on drum out front, the laughter of children scattered by the broom whisking the road clear for dancing, called her down to her celebration. For once, at least, she wouldn't be on duty; there'd be no hauling fresh kegs in from the coolhouse or negotiating the slippery cellar steps to fetch a cask of some ancient sweetwine.
When she reached for the pull string on the trapdoor a muffled tide of laughter surged up. She eased back on her haunches. Go, then, it seemed to say. Go on your journeying, as you long to. But every motion has a consequence. You will be leaving Keiler here.
Memory cast another kind of light against the gathering shadows: the flickering of the fire in her local triad's cottage. She had sat there last night, sipping valerian tea after her three-day trial. Hanla, the illuminator who'd trained her, had left to bring news of Liath's success to her family. Hanla's son Keiler had gone to replace materials in the bindinghouse out back. Graefel had sat with her in silence for some time, but of a sudden he'd said, "I'll tell you a wordsmiths' secret. About your name."
An illuminatortrail-proven or notshould be told no more of scribing than anyone else in Eiden Myr. Song was for binders, painting for illuminators, scribing for wordsmiths. Graefel's triad was ever mindful of tradition. Yet his blue eyes, cold and flat as an animal's, held no remorse.
"The ciphers inscribed during a casting form words," he began. "And names are words. Words that can be spoken."
This seemed a strange thing for him to point out. Wordsmiths scribed in the Old Tongue, everyone knew that. A tongue was a spoken thing, by definition. Why did he look so stern?
"Your name, unlike most, has extra ciphers in it. One might call them shadow ciphers, because they don't sound when 'LEE-uh' is said aloud. You carry them with youa hidden part of yourself, like your innermost thoughts. Were I permitted to tell you which ciphers they are, still I could not tell you what they signify?"
He was looking at the fire, not at her. Its glow carved the planes of his vulpine face, glinted in his russet beard.
"Perhaps there will be an extra portion of pain in your life, or perhaps it will be luck, or joy," he went on. "Whatever it is, Liath, you must meet it head-on. Ciphers are the strongest power in the world … and those will be with you the rest of your days."
Liath had followed his gaze, as if this mysterious future could be glimpsed in the embers' running, molten depths. But suggestions of pattern slipped too quickly into chaos, leaving only warmth and brilliance.
The attic trapdoor thumped open. "Why are you sitting up here in the dark?" Hanla's swarthy face was lit by lamp-glow from beneath.
"I see guiders without a casting," she answered. "I was trying to understand."
"Ah." The illuminator's chunky frame briefly shut the light out as she squeezed through the opening, then sent rhythmic, crazy shadows dancing on the angled ceiling when she sat on the edge and swung her dangling legs. "Second thoughts about your journeying?"
Liath blinked at the Khinish woman, at the brown eyes she had bequeathed her son and bindsman Keiler, while Graefel, his father and wordsmith, was the source of his red hair and angular face. Keiler had been a second brother to her, a brother who shared her magelight, as her birth brother Nole did not; a brother who understood magecraft, as her family could not. How could she tell his mother, her teacher, what lay heavy on her heart?
"You think I didn't feel the same way when I took the triskele? I knew the cost. I remember my trail every time I look toward Khine." Hanla's expression had softened, but her voice was brisk. "You will learn magecraft we don't know. You'll bring home skill we cannot teach you. It's the reason plants go to seed on the winds, the reason we breed stock in other towns. Magecraft stays healthy only as long as we journey. Eiden Myr is a body, and we are the blood flowing in it."
Liath refrained from mouthing the last words with her. "You settled down," she said.
"Yes, and far from home, just as you fear. The Neck is my home now, not Khine."
They could have been sitting in the cornfield doing lessons in the rich soil. Those sun-soaked days, the golden nights of stories and camaraderie in the tavern below, already seemed a world away.
Liath glared at the tear-blurred shapes of stores clothing, blankets, tools; a spare cot, a two-legged stool, a crate of pewter goblets they never used. Always tongue-tied and stupid about anything but tavern business, she could not speak.
Hanla gestured at the forgotten quill, still twitching in Liath's hand. "A dozen years ago we caught you doodling with a stick in the dust. Now your guiders shine without a casting, begging to be used, though you've scarcely recovered from three days of trail. That is what you must reckon with, my dear. Consider Roiden."
Liath thought of Roiden, a bitter man, hunched around a flagon of Finger wine, eyes tracking her as she did her chores. He'd lived in the village all her life, but she avoided him, ashamed of her own light; she ducked away from those eyes when they caught her listening, rapt, to rovers' tales of the wild placesthe plains below the Belt, where the wind spoke in eerie song, the dark wet woods and marshes of the Legs, where weird lights burned and weeping trees were older than memory. The places she could not wait to go.
Spirits take Roiden, she thoughtangry at his pain, at the guilt he'd caused her. "I've considered him," she acknowledged. Then, levelly, "I remember Pelkin."
Hanla nodded. "And your sister doesn't. That's a sadness on you, is it?" When no answer came, she said, "Your mother will bear this, Liath. As she bore it before."
All the old words, the same words, and none of them "Keiler."
"Let's go down," Liath said abruptly, rising. The quillnot a true quill, since those were stored by binders, but a she feather from some pigeon trapped in this attic long agodropped to the boards in a soft blue sparkle. Liath ignored it. "An ale and a dance or two will set me right."
The greatroom was full of strangers, unfamiliar faces and garb amid the wrights, the hillwomen, the cowherdsall the folk her eye picked out with recognition. Lately there had been more travelers than usual, all going toward the Ennead's Holdingall but one runner, a slight, pale lad of no more than nine-and-five who'd come from there. His cloak, unlike the wool of ordinary folk, shifted and shimmered in the lamplight. Nine velvet colors, sewn in triangles so expertly that they seemed one piece of cloth. Weather-warded, so the cloak was untouched though the boy looked tired and travel-worn. He sat shyly by himself, watching the celebration with dark blue eyes. He was too young to be a reckoner, the eyes and ears of the Ennead. Not far from him, Liath was surprised to see Lowlanders, Southers from the look of themthin build, dark hair, horsehair vests over shirtless brown skin, soft breeches not suited to this climate. Come up all the way from the Weak Leg? No Southers had been through in some time.
Old man Marough roared at the sight of her. "There's our little mage now!" He bulled his way through the crowd to slap her too hard on the back. "Hanla, where's that triskele? If she hasn't earned it, no one bloody has."
Hanla forced a tolerant smile. "When it's time, Marough," she said. "We have our traditions."
He snorted: There's no countenancing mages. But relief had made him expansive. Liath had saved him a great deal at her trail. "Drinks on me until the triskele is taken, then!" he said to the room. "You'll get that sorrel for it, Danor, that one you've been eyeing since Sweetbriar foaled. Meira's just done shoeing her."
Marough's sons and nephews left their stones games and their ales to cluster round her, clasp her arm; she stopped them before they lifted her on their shoulders to parade around the room. They were a rough lot, always headed for trouble. Liath had broken up more brawls with them at the center than that cared to count. Still she couldn't help but smile.
Then, the locked eyes with her mother, standing by the pantry door. Geara n'Breida I'Pelkin, Geara Publican, stout and blond, had drunk all comers under the table in her youth. This had been her mother's tavern when she pledged Danor. The Petrel's Rest was a legacy of daughters; Liath would be the first to break the chain. Her sister Breida, who loved horses and Galf n'Marough with all the passion of her nine summers and two, might or might not be the second, though she was namedcontrary to customfor a grandmother, the Breida who had passed the tavern to Geara. It was Nole who had inherited the inclination for affable hosting. By rights he should take over when the time came, instead of helping Megenna run her family's craftery in Orendel. He would make a grand master of the house: his big frame would fill out as he aged, his beard would come in thick and red, he would be Danor all over again. Plump Breida, flirting unsuccessfully with the Ennead's runner boy when she should be collecting cups, was a gentle, fearless child who would mature into a comely woman. Liath would stay as she waswhip-thin, too tall, all gangly limbs, her only graces a pair of thoughtful gray eyes and the pictures in her mind.
Geara had not been there for the trail, though there'd been plenty of gawkers, folk hoping the prentice's luck would rub off on them. Danor had brought their youngest the first day, but thereafter they'd stayed in the taven. Liath had seen neither of them since she stumbled home at down, bleary after dozing off in her chair in the triad's cottageonly Brieida, snuggling close to her in their bed. Drowsily she'd demanded a full account; all full light, she'd thumped Liath as she'd gotten up, for letting her fall back asleep before the end of the tale.
Marough's middle son pushed a cup of wine into her hand. "Anything you ever need!" he said. "I owe you, Liath Illuminator!"
"Not 'Illumiantor' yet," she said. "Not till I take the triskele." Geara seemed to be listening. Was that pride on her face? Acceptance, after all these years?
"But everyone knows your magelight's special. Sarse and Aunt Sharra heard Graefel say so."
Geara turned on her heel and disappeared into the pantry.
"Aunt Sharra said"
"Tarny, your brother's won two more rounds at stones." Hanla smiled innocently, slipping in beside Liath. "You'll have a snail's time catching up."
Tarny's thick lips pursed. He looked across the room, then back at Liath, and with a cry of frustrated petulance he launched his rangy horseman's body into the crush of people.
Hanla followed Liath's gaze toward the pantry. "It's love that's broken her heart. She doesn't hate you."
"Only my talent."
"Yes." There was no more to say; there was no mending this. "Now, have you ale, eh?"
Dance rhythms drifted in from outside, local drummers joined by logbeaters from the next valley and a gourdsman from Drey. Oriane and Taemar, Danor's feisty parents, pinched her cheeks and insulted the ale, to remind her she was both child and publican still; they made ribald jokes because someone had to, they said, with Geara's merchant sisters away. Danor's brothers ran the brewery in Iandel now, They had carted their parents in late that afternoon, laughing and shouting loud enough to rouse Liath from exhaustion, and then taken over in the cookroom. Oriane and Taemar cherished all their Clondel grandchildren though Nole resembled them most, and Breida was their sentimental favorite. They tried hard to make up for what was missing.
Burly, red-bearded Danor banked the fire against the nighttime chill through the open door, and a sweetness of birch smoke filled the room. The crowd grew boisterous as full dark came on. Demick the smith juggled winter apples while his sister played the spoons. Children crawled under tables, untying boots and goosing stonesplayers. Porl the carpenter, never easy at rest, attempted to pull a wobbly stool out from under Naragh Cobbler, who threatened to dump her lentil stew over his head if he didn't leaver her in peace. The weavers, just as bad, were arranging a trade with a downriver tailor. Iandel dairyfolk complained of weeds come over from the Clondel water meadow, giving their butter a foul taste, and was Graefel's triad too busy with their prentice to see to important matters? Galf and the millers' younger son, trying to impress Breida, batted a bean sack around the room until Geara chased them out; Drey folk laughed uproariously over some mishap in Orendel. All celebrated the end of sowmid planting, the hard days of ploughing done and only warm weather ahead of them now.
Liath sat in the close, smelly tavern, and let them toast her, and raise her on their shoulders, and howl when Hanla said it was still not time for the triskele; and drank sips of the wine they pushed on her, and listed to their speeches, and table-wrestled all corners as she'd always done, with her wiry arms muscled from lifting barrels and her hands rough and strong from mopping and brewing, hands that followed the blue guiders in her mind when her tall Norther body had been bred for this, the keeping of a public house at the base of the Aralinns, where winters were hard and friendships easy, where no one ever forgot the magecraft that spared them illness and fire and drought, the Ennead that kept them safe from the Great Storms.
Old Drolno Teller told the story, from his choice spot by the hearth. At the first sound of his voice, pitched in ritual tones, the drummers fell quiet and the dancers clustered in, sinking cross-legged to the floor or clearing space to sit on tables. Youngsters were pulled into parents' laps. Liath sat outside with her teaching triad, on the bench below the sunrise windowlistening with them, as she had done since she was six, to the story of their craft's founding. Of how sea and earth and sky, once united, could no longer abide together, and separated into three parts, begetting sons and daughters of their rage and love: fire, cloud, wind. Where skyfire met earth, the barrier between sea and sky, Galandra was bornthe first mage, the peacebringer, who could soothe the contentious spirits. Earth loved her for her justice and her beauty, and fashioned itself in her image, that they might be pledgedand became Eiden, the figure of a man spread on the waters. All folk were Galandra's children, born of her by Eiden. Those who took after Eiden became caretakers of the ground and the creatures on it. Those who took after Galandra became mages, arranging themselves in threes, after the first spirits. Their charge was to keep the spirits in harmony: settle the earth when it had had dreams, persuade the sky to release hoarded water, calm the winds when they grew rambunctious or cajole them when they grew torpid. Whenever three mages worked together, the spirits were united once more. "And three become one," Drolno finished the time-honored words.
Hanla echoed "And three become one" as she draped the triskele-heavy chain over Liath's head and called her Illuminator. Keiler winked at her over his mother's shoulder. Graefel bowed low. hanla gripped her arms, hand to elbow, forearms tight, in the sign of friendship and respect around the Neck.
"Make us proud," she said.
When they announced that the thing was done, there in a private moment off to the side, Liath took another thumping from Breida, and had to dance with nearly everyone as consolation for the spoiled show. When she'd had enough, breathless and footsore, one more tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to see her brother's beaming ruddy face, petite Megenna on his arm.
"You've done it," he said, unnecessarily, and gave a tug on the tuft of hair at her nape, all that was left of her long auburn braid. "And now the pea will leave the pod."
"I'm sorry, Nole." Journeying, she would not be here to illuminate at his pledging, to raise the first ale.
He shook his head with a smile. "We'll still be here, pea."
Shyly, Megenna handed her a battered cup. It was the pledgeware, she sawthey held its mates.
"To your future, then," Liath said, raising the cup.
"To all your shining days," Nole said, raising his.
"May you come safe home to us." Megenna touched her cup to theirs.
Three toasts given, they drained the cups. This was good ale of their own, none of that smoky yarrow-gruit stuff the Curlew in Orendel had traded them. A sweet taste of home to carry on her tongue through the days to come.
Breida slipped out, in a nightshift under her cloak, and hugged them all. "Galf's promised me a ride," she murmured into Liath's shoulder, "and Mother's making me go to bed."
Liath's smoothed red-gold hair from her sister's face. "Then dream of Galf, and riding, and perhaps tomorrow the dream will come true."
Breida smiled, started to go, then faltered. "Don't leave without saying goodbye to me," she said, and ran inside.
"Never," Liath whispered to the empty doorway.
In a set formed by her parents on one side, Keiler and the millers' daughter across from her and Nole, and Graefel and Hanla on the other side, they danced a figure as complex as a kadra, the paths of their bodies ringing and intertwining each other to the intricate cadence of the drums. Rounding with the women in the center, Liath grasped her mother's callused, sweaty hand in her left and Hanla's broad, smooth hand in her right; she danced hard, fueled by jealousy at the way the eyes of the millers' daughter lingered on Keiler. She was swung by her bearlike father, who danced as if on air; by her tall, solid brother, who delighted in spinning her hard and fast; by Graefel, polite and precise; and by Keiler, who held her too loosely. The wine and the incessant beat, the sweet night air and whirling dance, wove together in a binding older and brighter than the stars.
The drummers took a rest, sitting on the blocks and logs that were their instruments, and the dancers trickled back inside. Sweat cooled on Liath's flesh, and she shivered. The pewter triskele lay heavy on her breastbonecool when she was hot, it seemed, and warm when she was cold. Three arms radiating from a central point, curving into a shared periphery: three in one.
Liath acknowledged the drummer Lisel with a smileafter the events of her trial, they shared a bond nearly as strong as healingthen paused to ladle water from the barrel by the front door. When she straightened, Keiler was learning against the shingled wall, surveying her with wry amusement.
"You've held up well," he said. "Still on you feet and able to put two words together."
She smiled at the russet hair and brown eyes. Did he ever wish he could sing with the drummers, add melody to their rhythm? He would always sing alone. Did hearing the rousing drums and having to save his beautiful voice for binding ever make him sad?
She didn't know how to broach the question. At first light, she would be gone, time only to cut a stout walking stick, pack some food. It was too late.
"I loved my journeying," Keiler said, with that quick eagernessas if it had just occurred to him and he must tell someone or burst. "I'd do another, if we weren't the only triad in these parts. At least you didn't have to spend the last year preparing your journey truss. I never want to work that hard again." He laughed at her expression. "You'll love it too, and you'll come back and tell me all about it and make me jealous."
Tell my mother, she wanted to say. Perhaps he would, some late evening, resting from his bindsman's labors. Binding was the hardest physical work in magecraft, all the vellum to cut and soak and stretch and pumice, pigment to grind, quills to cut, ink to mix. So man times, she'd wanted to help him, stand by him with the sun on his muscled, shirtless back and ask how it was one, how she could help. So many times, she'd tagged behind him up the binder's road, pretending he wasn't pretending he couldn't see her, watching him collect catsclaw sap and goldroot, oak gall and pokeberry, bugs and clay. He was only two years her seniora year younger than Nolebut he'd taken the triskele young, trained by his aunt, his parents' binder, then journeyed till Befre stepped aside to make a second journeying herself. Would he walk with her, now, up the binder's road, if she asked him to?
They stood in silence, watching the moon's downward arc. Then, "I'll miss you, Li," he said, and kissed her, awkward and too quick, as if it was something he had been planning to do for some time and wasn't sure how to handle when the moment came.
Still on her feet and able to put two words together. She opened her mouth to say them: I'll stay
Keiler's eyes focused past her, and brightened, and he raised a hand and drew to his side the millers' daughter. Ferlin. Liath could smell her before she was her, that sweet dusting of new flour, and a hint of perfume, as if she washed her golden hair in blossoms.
Probably chrysanthemums, Liath thought. Probably has head lice.
"We're to be pledged at midsummer," Keiler said. His gentle smile made him look older than the boy she'd grown up with. It was nothing like the lopsided grin he wore around her. "We won't announce it till you've left. Didn't want to step on your celebration."
"It's not very big news anyway," Ferlin said. Too sweet, too demure. She knows, Liath thought. And she knows she's won. "Megenna and your brother are all the talk around here these days. And your trial, of course.…"
Liath's heart had known that she could not pledge him, not while he was triaded with his parents here. Liath's heart had known that she couldn't wait on him season after season, until Graefel and Hanla freed him to triad again; that she couldn't wish that their aging be speeded. Liah's heart had known all this. Now Liath knew it, too.
She gripped the ladle tightly so she wouldn't put a finger to her lips, searching for a memory of the last kiss she would ever have from him. Then she hung it back in the deep, cool water, and gently replaced the barrel's lid.
A tremendous crash shook the walls, followed by a roar of voices. She whirled, thinking, They've turned the great table over, and It's a brawl, but something's wrong. The tavern was a living thing. She could sense its moods. This wasn't high spirits or old surly grudges; this was something new and foreign and mean.
A jug smashed to dust against the doorjamb as she came through, and Growl the ginger cat streaked out, ears laid flat. He looked to have just escaped Melf n'Daughan's cruel hands; the boy looked up at her from a crouch, grinning wickedly. She would have cuffed him, but the greatroom was in an uproar. Marough's sons were at the middle of it, and his brother Daughan's older boys, but scuffles had broken out all around the central commotion. The great table was off its trestles, the benches toppled. Older men and women, hooting and jeering, had pulled stools, stones boards, and smaller tables off to the sides; one old couple still bent over their game. Meira and Sharra were taking bets on the outcome, but Meira swore, dumped tallysticks on Sharra, and waded into the fray. The young runner boy cowered in a corner. A sheepherd's dog braced on the floor beside him, barking. In the doorway, a grinning drummer struck up a frenetic beat on a handblock.
Straining to see who Marough's lot were fighting with, Liath made out long dark hair, vests over bare skin.
Geara was stretched up to pull sliding wooden slats down over the back shelves. "Mind yourself, Liath."
A standing lamp toppled; in the puddle of spilled oil and brandy, the flame flared up. it consumed the brandy and the oil, blackened the nearest rushes, and died away against the floorboards. The firewarding had held.
The biggest man in the central clump of bodies came stumbling backward out of it, reeling from a blow. He doubled up when he hit the wall: Danor, flung out like a rag.
Leave it, he mouthed at her, unable to get a breath.
Liath dove in.
Stop the wranglers and you usually stopped the brawl. Tarny was raising a stool over a Souther's turned back. Liath hugged him from behind and wrenched him around so that the stool came down through empty air and crashed to the floorsomething else for Porl to fix, that would make him happy. Tarny twisted in her hold and tried to land a blow, but she slid her arms up around his shoulders and locked her hands behind his neck, keeping her head low in case he made a grab for her h air. Just loud enough so he would hear her over his own elaborate swearing, she said, "Calm yourself, now, Tarny, it's just Liath."
All the fight left his body. "That's it, then," he sighed.
She released him and stepped away, looking for Sarse. The Souther had turned at the sound of wood splintering, slit green eyes burning in a brown face. Below that, with a snick that pierced the tumult of the room and a wink of barbed metal that cut the gloom, a knife came out of a side sheath.
The othersthree men and a woman, there were five in allhad also drawn knives, and now backed into a circle, with a larger, ragged circle of Marough and Daughan's clan around them. The drummer's block scraped to a stop. All shouts and laughter ceased.
"Brawls are all well and good," Liath said quietly, "as long as someone helps clean up. But we don't draw blades in this tavern." She put herself just in front of Tarny, reaching back a fending hand but not quite touching him.
"They're the cheaters," Sarse n'Marough whined.
Two of his cousins started for the Souther, but Danor, recovered, grabbed each by the collar and hauled them back.
Voice pitched to reason with small children, Geara replied, "Well, we'll never know that now, will we, with your stones and tallysticks all over the floor."
"It was never a question of cheating," said the Souther facing Liath. Her eyes blazed with contempt. "It's a question of who are the shepherds and who are the sheep."
"I don't care what it's a question of," Liath said. "Put your knives away. You can kill people with those."
A grin spread slowly across the Souther's face, white against the sun-dark skin. "Yes," she said. "We can."
The moment balanced on the edges of those blades. Blades that were not made for shaving carrots or working wood. Hooked things, evilmeant to maximize harm. It would take only one more drunk, headstrong wrangler to set the lot of them on the strangers, knives or no. Behind her, a plank creaked.
Tarny's shifted weight drew the knifepoint upwardnot gut, but heart. But the Southers kept their circle tight.
The woman's brow quirked, and her gaze dropped to the opening of Liath's shirt. "You're a mage?" The knifepoint lowered a tad.
"I took the triskele tonight."
An unspoken signal rippled through the little circle. Liath raised a hand, catching Marough's eye: Hold them off, let this end. Two days ago, her tavern or no, he would not have heeded her. Now he swept sons and nephews back, clearing a path to the doorway abruptly vacated by the drummer.
Liath caught a glimpse of trim fox-colored beard outside. Flanked by Hanla and Keiler and a score of villagers, Graefel Wordsmith stood ready to intervene.
Good, Liath thought. Let Graefel sort this. It was what mages did: sort out disputes, settle troubles, heal bruised pride as well as broken bones. Let Graefel clean this up; leave her to clean up her tavern.
The Southers sheathed their knives and filed out in two pairs, their back guarded by the woman Liath had spoken to. She cast Liath a final look before she crossed the threshold: evaluation.
"Were they cheating at stones?" Liath asked when they'd reassembled the trestle table and the players were sorting through the wet debris for pipes, pouches, stones, tallysticks.
Sarse n'Marough scuffed a foot in the rushes. "Probably weren't, most like. But they said we were!"
"That's not exactly what they said," cousin Erl n'Daughan put in slowly.
Geara handed three of them brooms and gave rags to the rest. "You have all night to worry over who said what, but not unless I see a tidy greatroom in the next few breaths."
Liath set lamps and benches to rights, Tarny pacing her like a puppy. Danor drafted him and a cousin to fetch fresh ale, sending the millers' older boy down for wine and Liath with him for a cask of the fruit brandy Geara's mother used to make. Sarse followed his brother.
From the back of the cellar, Liath could hear the voices out by the coolhouse. Sarse and Erl were goading Tarny. He was a coward, they said. That Souther could have spit Liath like a pepper on a frystick, and Tarny just standing there like a fool. The Souther would come back for Liath in the night, didn't he know that? Didn't he see that look the woman gave her on the way out? And he just let her walk away!
The cellar shadows rubbed cold against Liath's flesh. She stood the brandy cask on end and shouldered past the millers' son. It was clear, now, who'd goaded this new brawl into life. Spirits take me for not seeing it sooner". She flew up the stone steps and broke through the storm doors in back to see Tarny just rounding the side of the building.
Erl and Sarse were snickering, not far behind him. She caught up, hauled them back much as he father had, cursed them, and continued past at a jog. "Tarny! Stop!"
The Southers' leader was just lifting her pack from where she'd braced it against a barrel in front. Looking past her, one of the men saw Tarny. He shouted a warning, intermingled with Tarny's shout of rage. In one smooth movement, like a dance step perfectly timed, the woman drew her blade and tuned. Tarny saw itbut he was too big, too lumbering to pull up once he had launched himself. The woman's eyes went wide; she saw that he was unarmed, she recognized a drunken lumbering fool when she saw one, but too late. Tarny ran up on the blade.
They stood for a moment, frozen, as if balking at an embrace. Then Tarny staggered back and sat down hard in a puff of dust. He stared at his belly, where the metal-banded grip protruded.
"You idiot!" the Souther cried. All arrogance had fled that voice; it spoke horror. As if she'd never meant to use that knife of hers. AS if she hadn't really know she could.
Yet she'd turned with the lithe coordination of trained reflex.
There were screams. Some people ran away; some people ran to Tarny. "Don't pull it out!" the Souther called, straining forward against the grip of her fellows. They dragged her off, surrounding her.
What Liath had witnessed struck home. The night went very pale. She could feel the crowd's shock bloom into rage, but she couldn't summon any words against it.
When vision returned, Tarny lay on the ground and Hanla was holding a red-soaked cloth around the base of the knife in his gut. The Southers stood off to the side; why hadn't they fled? Villagers and travelers milled around, staying well clear of mages and Southers, clearing off farther as Marough and Meria and the other tumbled out of the tavern.
"You can heal him," the Southwoman said. It wasn't a question. She was looking at Liath, though Graefel stood before her, his authority a barrier between them and the villagers.
Tarny turned his face to Liath, imploring. He opened his mouth. Only blood came out.
Our triad can heal him," Liath said. the spiritlorn fool
"No," said Marough. He turned to Liath, too. "You."
"I'm not the"
"You do it, Liath," Hanla said. Her dark eyes burned.
Only a day. It had been only a day. Yesterday afternoon they had stood like this, surrounded by gawking townsfolk, as the drummer deposited shattered heartwood in the middle of the casting circle, at the end of her trial. Broken by Tarny, who rushed headlong through the world, leaving a trial of debris behind him. Trial castings were considered lucky. Marough had not wanted her to do ithe hadn't trusted an untried mage. She was the publicans' daughter, a child beneath his notice. He'd never minded her and never would; he wanted the illuminator. His son could not afford to make reparation for this if it were not mended. But Lisel, their drummer, knew that the only hope lay in the fortune of a prentice's first castings. Then, as now, Hanla had stepped asidenot pushing Liath to test herself, but deferring to the brighter light.
Now Marough gave the order.
"You fixed his mess before," he said. "You do it again."
Keiler was running down the road from the mages' cottage, where he'd gone to fetch a sack of binding materials. He threw the sack down and with his hawthorn sick traced a circle in the dust around Tarny. it didn't matter to him who did the illumination. They must begin.
Liath walked to the near side of the circle. She sat down cross-legged. She closed her eyes to slow her spinning mind. When she opened them again, Tarny's wound was bound against the bleeding; the blade had not been withdrawn. Hanla was standing outside the circle. Graefel and Keiler sat on the dirt-scratch arc to form two points of a triangle, and Graefel was bent over a wood-backed sheet of vellumanimal skin, for an animal casting, as all flesh was animal. In the silence, his quill point scraped the leaf with the sound of a death rattle.
It was as if her trial had resumed after a brief hiatus. As if it had never ended. Perhaps it would never end.
"It was Tarny, on that blasted roan." Drummer Lisel, voice thinned by outrage. "He knows we practice down there, he knows there's no wardings!"
"He lost control." Cousin Erl, because Marough, the father, was too disgusted to bother speaking. "It's a bloody drum, is all! No one was hurt!"
Lisel laid the fragments on the casting ground. An assortment of fruitwoodspear, bayberry, apple, cherry. Shattered by the hooves of the hoarse that bolted, the horse Tarny shouldn't have been trying to ride in the first place, a horse kept for breeding but famously unbreakable. Liath knew his drum; Lisel had played it all her life. A masterly piece of work, the woods cut at angles and jointed painstakingly into an instrument of rich variety. It had been crafted by one of her forebears, passed down from mother to daughter. Generations of finger oils were rubbed into this wood. The drum had sounded at rituals and celebrations for as long as anyone could remember. It was irreplaceable; a copy might be made, if Lisel had the skill, but it would not be this drum. Even Marough knew it.
It was only her trial. They had made winter wheat grow high, cast fire without strikers, herded a raincloud overhead and persuaded it to release its burden of water. But no mend so intricate an object…it couldn't be done. The slightest flaw would ruin the timbre.
Hanla said, "With Liath, it can be done."
Liath backed away from the fractured wood, shaking her head. Lisel was fitting the pieces together, holding them in place. "I can'." Liath murmured.
"You can," Hanla said.
Tarny, still conscious, groaning past the bloody rag Meira had jammed between his teeth. The calm, determined scritch of Graefel's pen across the page. The rustling of Keiler preparing her brushes and pigments, the smell of linseed oil. the beating of her heart, too fast. Her fists clenched around their own trembling. The silence of a crowd too large to keep silent.
They had said she had the brightest magelight in these parts in memory. They had invested all their pride in her, all their hopes. After her trial, they believed she could do anything.
It was magecraft that made the wranglers so reckless. If they couldn't be healed, they wouldn't be so irresponsible with their bodies, with their horses. All the fights, the broken bones…Every motion has a consequence! she wanted to cry. Let Tarny bear the consequence of his!
It was an accident. She was a mage; she had been called.
Graefel passed the vellum on to her.
• • •
The grain of each wooden segment ran in a different direction. Each was a different size and thickness. Grain must be matched precisely to grain. The joins would hold, as they had done for countless years under countless poundings, if the grain was mended right.
Keiler handed her a selection of reed pens and the oakgall ink he'd provided Graefel. When the kadri were outlined as her guiders showed her-the symbols for growth, for depth, for smoothness and strength, resonating into a unity-he gave her cornsilk brushes and held out a palette of plant pigments bound by catsclaw resin. A bowl of water allowed her to vary the intensity of the pigment as she laid it down-first a wash, then the coloring for depth and shadow. Water pigments worked differently from those bound in oil or wax; the lay of the sedge showed through, both symbol and background visible, one illumining the other. It was like painting with light itself.
• • •
Keiler anticipated her needs: tallow-soot ink, a sharp goose quill, horsehair brushes, oil-bound pigment. This would be work more of intensity than complexity; Graefel had scribed only one large initial requiring historiation, and she would fill the border with a fine mesh for knitting together what was torn. She must work quickly, lest Tarny's lifeblood soak away into the dust.
Centering herself over her tools, shutting out the crowd, the smells, the scrutiny, she awaited the formation of the guiders. Her magelight would show the way to mend this horror and make a dying man whole.
• • •
Only the knotwork remained. All Graefel's ineffable words, whatever grace and power was building in Keiler's unvoiced song, would be for nothing if she did not weave true.
Her guiders led the pen. They burned so bright she feared she could not see the page; and yet she could. The world coalesced into a place of flux and stability, curve and line, the straight, strong pen and the fluid ink. In all those breaths, which were but a moment, Liath's training entered her completely, seamlessly, and she was herself no longer, but the vehicle and vessel for the patterns she completed.
• • •
Her guiders were gone.
She could not summon them.
• • •
The circular knotwork flowed easily, down one side, across the bottom, up again, and then into the interstices between the powerful words the ciphers formed, patterning them into a wholeness that would amplify the strength of their own connections. Woodflesh into woodflesh, all in its place. How could there be fear when aiding such a thing? It was no more than the wood itself wanted, to be whole, to be as it was. There was no simpler task to put things back as they were meant to be.
This is what I do, this is what I am, she had thought. This is what I take with me into the world.
• • •
She looked up at Hanla in a panic. I can't, she mouthed.
Hanla pursed her lips. This was nonsense. Do it.
I can't! A blinding ache spread from her eyes into her head. There were no guiders. So often she had wondered if she had any talent at all, if the magelight wasn't some other Liath existing inside her, nothing to do with the artless publican she knew herself to be. But hadn't she mended what could not be mended? Hadn't Graefel himself, the one she'd always tried to please, stared gaping at what they wrought at her trial?
All proven, all tested, the triskele bestowed, the impossible acknowledged. All fled in one terrible moment.
She had not forgotten the kadri. She knew the symbols, their derivations, their resonances. Her hand knew how to draw the borderwork, the crossweave fillers. She was highly trained, the knowledge permanently embedded. But it was not enough. Without the magelight, she didn't know which of nonneds of kadri were the right ones, she couldn't feel her way to the appropriate borders or fills. Her art was not one of intellect. A guttering magelight might not cripple a wordsmith; she didn't know. But without that inner light an illuminator was helpless.
"Hanla, please" She broke off into a moan, sagging back.
Hanla shoved her from the circle, swearing, snatching the precious vellum from her, taking her place.
Bumped off to the side, Liath watched the casting continue. She did not know whether it could succeed, thus interrupted. Perhaps they should begin again-cast passage.
Her dreams seeped like spilled ale into the dirt.
• • •
They laid the sedgeweave on the broken drum and clasped hands over it, and Keiler voiced a tune so sweet and fulfilling that it seemed to bind their souls even as the inscribed, illuminated leaf turned to a breath of white smoke beneath their twined fingers.
As the sun set and her trial ended, the drum seated into a wholeness, and the awed drummer took it in trembling hands and brought forth a sound as resonant and true as any it had made through the generations.
• • •
Tarny did not watch as his flesh worked the barbed knife out and knit around the hole where it had been. He looked only at Liath. She looked away, at the midpoint between his terrifying face and the wound that should have killed him: where the vellum lay, vibrating to Keiler's hoarse, piercing bindsong, illuminated in another's practiced hand. The vellum became a fleshy, liquid thing, and knit into itself, tighter and tighter, until it seemed a small scab on Tarny's ribs, and knit again into nothing, and was gone. Tarny sat up, and the weapon fell into the dust. The Southers had long since slipped away.
• • •
Liath could scarcely believe it. That such intricate mending was possible with a casting, that such power could be brought to bear…why, they could heal the very spirit of Eiden Myr, should it ever fall ill.…
• • •
You healed him, thank the spirits, she tried to say, and I'm sorry, and I don't understand, but she could not speak past the ache in her head. Keiler's supporting arm would withdraw if she did, and she wanted to savor it, just for a moment, before her failure rose up to meet her.
• • •
"You are the strongest mage I have ever met, " Graefel said. Hanla beamed like a proud mother beside him. Keiler looked as if he'd never seen her before. "By rights you should go to the Ennead, not on a journeying."
Her stomach clenched. Her grandfather, Pelkin, had warned her of this. The Ennead demanded lifelong devotion. To go there, to ward against the Great Storms, was the highest calling. Few left the Ennead's holding again except as proxies, servants of the Ennead, and then they traveled for a lifetime. For nine years and three Liath had prepared for this trial, for the journeying to come. For nine years and three she had dreamed of the exotic lands she would see, the new castings she would learn. For nine years and three she had dreamed of that, and of the homecoming that would follow. She could not go to the Ennead's Holding, to that stony, windswept place at Eiden's Head. She could not spend her life in their service.
Graefel sighed. "But the Ennead call whom they will, and thus far they have not called you." The ghost of a smile might have touched his lips. "Your reprieve is secured, and you'll be on your way with our blessing."
The strongest mage he had ever met…His words had warmed away the fatigue of the three hardest days of her life. With Graefel's hard-won praise, she felt she could do anything.
• • •
"It wasn't perfect," Hanla said bitterly. "I could feel it. He'll always have trouble with his food now."
"We did what could be done," Graefel said, toneless. He did not look at Liath. "We'll try again, when he's stronger."
"What happened to you?" Hanla could be brusque, but she rarely angered.
"I don't know." Liath's voice broke. "It's gone. It's just gone."
"It doesn't go. It can't. The only thing that can cut you off from it is coring and sealing, and only the Ennead can do that. I can still sense your magelight, smell it. It hasn't gone anywhere."
"You abandoned a casting at a crucial time."
"You could have healed that boy properly!"
"He shouldn't have jumped on that knife!" Liath got up, staggered, shoved Keiler away. They were angry because she had failed to repeat the impossible, when she had lost the core of herself. Gone, just like that, without reason. She had only now come into her own. How could it just go?
Her eyes fell on the Ennead's boy, watching them wideeyed from the edge of lamplight. He must have come out to see the casting and not budged since.
Coring and sealing. Cutting the magelight's connections to the spirit and sealing it off, as if in a cask. It could not be extinguished or extracted, but it could be contained. No one knew what happened to a mage thus sealed. Some said you lived as a shadow, without feeling or volition. Some said you sickened and died. Some said you went on as if born a child of Eiden, perfectly able to take joy from tilling soil or tending bees or spinning wool. Some said it was a story to frighten naughty prentices.
If it could be done, perhaps it could be undone, no matter how it had happened to begin with.
She opened her mouth to address the boy, but Marough's clan chose that moment to gather themselves and head off home. Tarny struggled in the grip of Sarse and Erl. He stopped by Liath. They glared at her-she heard Meira say, from up ahead, "No thanks to that"and left Tarny to stand on his own.
"They said she was going to hurt you," he said softly. "I'm sorry, Li. On Eiden's breath."
Liath rubbed her face wearily. How could she mark him for a fool when he had meant to protect her? She didn't understand it-he'd never looked after her when they were growing up, in fact he'd bullied her-but she hadn't understood the wild idiocy that put him on the blue roan's back, either. It was their way to be headstrong louts, to goad each other into ever grander stupidity. Perhaps the only way to tame them was by healing them. Perhaps now he would be Hanla's pet.
"It's all right, Tarny," she said. "You're all right."
Geara stepped out of the tavern.
"I know you would have done it if you could," Tarny said.
"But I couldn't." She watched her mother warily. "And I didn't. Leave me alone, Tarny." She winced. "Please."
He sulked off to catch up with his cousins. Geara moved over to stand by the runner boy. Nole looked out an upper window, rumpled and confused, roused from sleep. Graefel's crystalline eyes bored into her. Hanla said stiffly, "It will all come right. You'll be yourself in the morning."
"Come inside, love," said Geara. For a moment, Liath thought the words were for her. But it was the Ennead's boy she drew with her back into the warmth and the light.
Graefel said, "I do not accept this." He gestured to his bindsman, then to the casting circle still etched in the dirt. "A candle, Keiler. In the center. Now."
"Don't do this." Hanla's whisper carried clearly across the new distance between them. "We'll test her tomorrow. She's fatigued, or it's the drink." But it wasn't fatigue or drink. Hanla knew that. Hanla had seen her work when she could barely stand for exhaustion. Hanla knew her inherited tolerance for drink. "Let it go, Graefel."
He would not. He ordered Liath back into the circle, ordered Keiler to hand him fresh materials. The earliest casting of all: igniting a flame. Not the simplest, but the first taught, the deepest ingrained. Liath could feel the man's anger across the casting ground-it could have lit that candle by itself. But when he ordered her to receive the leaf, no guiders would come. He could not ignite the magelight inside her.
"Draw them anyway," he said. "Hanla, tell her which."
"She knows which."
Hanla let out an oath, but when she leaned close her words came in the measured tones of the teacher, coaching her to do what had been rote since she was nine-and-three. "What is the fire when the light has gone?" she said in Liath's ear. "What is the flame when there is no heat"
Liath drew the distillations, candle and flame, air and earth abstracted to their essences, rendered in a symbology that flensed from flame all but its intrinsic flameness, then joined it in a weave of other symbols, other distillations. Air when there is no wind. Lighting when there is no flash. Earth when there is no substance. She made flame of its constituent elements; she joined flameness itself to wick, to wax. The materials were correct, the kadri precisely rendered, the meditation clear in her mind. But there were no guiders. Keiler sang. There was no flame.
She tried again, and again, and again, until tears stained her cheeks, until the reeds bent in her cramped hand. Still there was no flame. Still Graefel said, "Again."
"There are no more sheets," Keiler said. He was hoarse.
"Then bring a tallow candle. Use vellum."
He would not relent. He would grind her into the ground beneath the boots of his icy rage, he would like her before he would see her fail.
Again, and again, until Keiler said "There is no more," and it was true, unless Graefel sent him to the bindinghouse. He seemed poised to do so. He looked at Liath as at a stranger who had kicked him in the road, without motive, without excuse. His crystal eyes burned red around the blue.
"Graefel." Hanla hauled him to his feet. He shook her off and stalked away with a gesture of profound disgust. Hanla started after him, then seemed to remember Liath, sitting in the broken circle. "Perhaps it's for the best," she said, patting her absently on the head as if she were still six years old.
For the best?
"It's my fault, really." The Khinishwoman watched her pledgemate up the road. "I loved him so much." Then she was gone, to follow him, comfort him, Liath forgotten.
It was madness. Her teaching triad had shattered into incomprehensibility. She got up, dusted off her breeches, looked to Keiler for support when dizziness swept her. He steadied her, but Ferlin's pure sweet voice rang out down the river road, calling him to the mill, calling him away. "I'm sorry, Li," he said. His voice wove into the echo of Tarny's, and was gone.
Her father was in the tavern, as always awaiting her return. Nole, embarrassed for her, had withdrawn from the windowa good brother, granting her privacy. Even the gawkers had drifted away. Liath stood alone in the road.
For a moment, the skin of her back itched, as if someone were watching her, and she turned, her heart racingIf it was him, if it was Pelkin, come back from nine-and-two years of exileBut it was only Roiden, bloody vindicated Roiden, grinning at her before he faded back into the shadows. Her grandfather had stayed a world away, as he was told to.
She looked toward the golden light falling through the tavern's open door as it had fallen all those years ago.
Geara stood in that light.
"Come inside," her mother said. This time the words were for her.
Liath walked toward the door, and turned: turned down the quiet alley, past the midden heap and the old copper vats, past the coolhouse and the croft; took the little path through gorse and thistle, into the trees, where it became the binder's road. Up into the hills the path went, branching off to this thicket or that one, where this binding plant grew, or that one. The way grew steep; exposed roots formed a rough set of steps. A faint breeze stirred the brush around her. She hiked hard, the triskele thumping against her breastbone, and at last came out at the small overlook that had been cleared when Clondel was a new village, with no triad to look after it, so long ago that only tellers knew the history.
She tucked herself into the choice spot at the base of a wind-bent tree, hugging her knees to her chest. Below her, the cluster of buildings along the road was growing dark as lamps were extinguished, the triad's cottage last of all but the tavern. Beyond it stretched pastures and orchards and fields new-tilled and newly fallow, bordered by the silvery Clon and wide Ianda, rambling sedately toward their confluence in the Heartlands. Behind her the hills shrugged into the Aralinn Mountains. At the end of those mountains was the Ennead's Holding. In good weather, it was a threeday's journey to the pass and through on horseback. The wind that brushed her face carried the chill of a new day. The winds had names, but no one remembered them anymore.
Perhaps the Ennead did. Perhaps they would teach her.
Liath looked out over the dark village, trying to burn into her eyes the contours of a place she knew every corner of in her heart, and saw the big lantern outside the Petrel's Rest go out, leaving only the little nightlamp over the door to light her way home.
Copyright © 2001 by Terry McGarry
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