Only in Tananen do people worship a single deity: the Deathless Goddess. Only in this small, forbidden realm are there those haunted by words of no language known to woman or man. The words are Her Gift, and they summon magic.
Mage scribes learn to write Her words as intentions: spells to make beasts or plants, designed to any purpose. If an intention is flawed, what the mage creates is a gossamer: a magical creature as wild and free as it is costly for the mage.
For Her Gift comes at a steep price. Each successful intention ages a mage until they dare no more. But her magic demands to be used; the Deathless Goddess will take her fee, and mages will die.
To end this terrible toll, the greatest mage in Tananen vows to find and destroy Her. He has yet to learn She is all that protects Tananen from what waits outside. And all that keeps magic alive.
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The body was beechwood, smooth and bronzed with age, of perfect balance. Silver girdled it, worn plain and tarnished, quickly warm to Maleonarial’s fingertips. The pen had been an extravagant gift, from a father with neither coin to spare nor generous nature until a son proved of marketable talent. He remembered how the silver had glittered in his hand, that long-ago day, like some cheap gaud on a whore. He’d done his utmost not to use the thing in front of classmates or masters. Such a garish object demeaned the lofty position of mage scribe‑to‑be.
Had he ever been so young?
The new nib was old. Bone, weathered wood-bronze, carved silver-smooth. Simple, like the now-plain band, but with remembered complexity and purpose. He’d found the piece on his wanderings, tucked among reeds by a busy, impervious stream. A deer once.
Or a man.
A good choice. Now for the next.
Three small inkpots remained. Each was stoppered with thick yellow wax, a tiny russet curl imbedded as surety. Baby curls. Inkmaster Jowen Hammerson had courage to mock his aging guest. And a remarkable abundance of russet-haired great-grandchildren.
The contents of one inkpot, sold at Alden Hold where mage scribes clung like leeches to their famous school, would feed those children for a year. Maleonarial had left Tankerton with five wrapped in linen and bound against his waist, bought with the only coin he possessed: words.
Not any words. Names. He’d written the names of the Hammerson family in his clearest script; no more official rendering could have been asked by any hold lord or The Deathless Goddess Herself. It had taken the best of a night, but he begrudged not a moment. As each callused hand received its precious strip of parchment, as eyes wondered at the letters that bloomed in ebon permanence under the warmth of living breath, toil-bent backs had straightened. The raucous babble of dogs, children, and clanging spoons had fallen to a solemn hush. The parchments would be treasured and kept close; more importantly, the letters’ shape would be practiced with care. None of them would again use a rude thumbprint to sign a document of importance, or be forced to wait on the uncertain—and expensive—arrival of a scribe. To write their own names was to gain respect and fair treatment from merchants and lawgivers alike.
The inkmaster counted himself well-paid. His kin whispered of marvels. But it hadn’t been magic, other than that of skill.
Magic must be intended.
The night’s breeze snapped and billowed the canvas overhead, a token against the pending rain. He slept in the open by preference. The fresh air and privacy of wilder places were a boon to his spirit; a shame they couldn’t feed or clothe him. Not that he needed more than a stew or porridge under his ribs. Maleonarial plucked his threadbare, much-mended cloak. It would do another season.
His fellow mage scribes, having discovered his lifestyle—an unfortunate coincidence of storm and crowded inn, followed by a collision in a narrow hallway with a round bulk of rich velvet and gilt that had exploded in ire until he’d lifted his face to the torchlight and the other had stammered something aghast and apologetic—had sent along a beautifully penned and rolled parchment, levying a fine for inappropriate attire, unbecoming his high station.
Kind of them to overlook the dirty hair and sweat as well, not to mention bad breath.
Folded, the parchment made a fine lining for his right boot. They’d be aghast if they knew. Not that he’d apologize. As if he’d scrape it clean to reuse even if those were only words, however mean-spirited.
Magic required purity.
Though soaked, then left in heated sand to harden, the bone nib remained brittle and unforgiving. His gentlest touch would coax a smattering of words at best from it. Words and how many months from his life?
Maleonarial shrugged, shaking the tiny bells knotted in his hair. Mage scribes marked their lives by them, the quiet tinkling a constant reminder of magic’s toll, collected by The Deathless Goddess. A bell for each intention. The first twenty or so accumulated quickly; schooling spent half—or more, for those prone to mistakes. The next thirty or so were reasoned, deliberate, considered. These earned what a mage judged of greater worth than time. Wealth. Security. The touch of a woman.
The moment came for every mage when that balance shifted, when the bells whispered: “Life’s short enough, fool.” A hundred-bell mage could write anything and make it live—or a fee to make even a heartland hold lord reconsider.
Having tied his three hundredth bell this season, Maleonarial counted himself fortunate to still have teeth.
He ran his tongue along their tips.
Most of them.
Enough for chewing.
To write with intent was, for those with Her Gift, an expenditure of life. A mage scribe used ink and pen, needed a surface on which to write, would study years to master stroke and technique, would above all else learn as many words of the Goddess’ unspoken language as possible since those words were the means by which magic could be summoned.
To bring life.
At life’s cost.
What matter the price? said those new to Her Gift. To the young, life was the deepest well, always full. When students gathered in hallways to gossip, it was of how their masters were timid, grown inept with age . . . that this was why mage scribes worked so little magic after the first wrinkle and ache . . . it couldn’t be because those masters had been young once too and squandered the time they’d had . . . that they’d strutted from holding to holding to work magic, sustained by their confidence that the bells sang praise, not warning. Until too late.
The young believed their elders were indeed old.
They learned better. Come twenty years, each would find himself like a man of thirty. At thirty, more like forty-five. They would finally understand that no mage scribe escaped magic’s toll. That they too aged not as nature but as each set of words intended, paying Her price for power. Until they too became masters, to hoard days, begrudge minutes, and scorn the young.
Until they refused to write magic again.
Rain on canvas echoed Maleonarial’s bells as he bent to his task. Young once. Master once.
Fool, he hoped, no longer.
Cil was his name.
“Silly-Cil.” Thick lips, bent teeth, twisted the whisper. They thought he didn’t understand, thought him slow and stupid, but he knew what they meant. “Silly-Cil. Think me dumb. Think me meat.”
With practiced ease, he stabbed the hollow tube into the calf’s pulse, sucking warm rich life into his mouth as the creature bawled its torment. He was supposed to knock it dead with the hammer before bleeding it. The knacker would cuff his malformed ears, make his head ring. But the knacker was glad enough to have an apprentice, let alone one eager for the work.
Work no one else wanted to see.
Replete, he took another mouthful. Held it. Turned, his knee on the calf’s neck, holding it down.
Spat at the plastered wall.
The blood flew through the air, a spume of death and anger.
Cil considered the result on the wall. The calf struggled, a distraction. He silenced it with a hammer blow. Wiped his lips on his sleeve. Admired the artwork of red on the wall’s lime- plaster and rough-hewn wood.
It was something. But what?
There . . . an eye.
Lower down, where blood rilled along a crack . . . a foot.
The closer Cil looked, the clearer the image became. The eye blinked. The foot’s clawed toes flexed. A sowbug popped free of the wood, bounced as it hit the floor, curled into a tight ball that rolled. Afraid.
He gave his laugh— the heavy snort and wheeze made others look as if they wanted him gone— and squashed the tiny thing flat with his bare foot.
Lantern light caught on a razor- edge. A tooth. There were more. Cil couldn’t count, but he knew more.
He laughed again and moved aside to give it room. “Silly-Cil think them meat now.”
Domozuk fussed with an uncooperative belt tassel, muttering under his breath. Saeleonarial stood still on the pedestal and waited, though he curled his toes within their ornate slippers. No hurrying his servant of these many years. His mouth quirked. A tassel askew or absent made no difference to him. It made every difference to the company surrounding this hold lord. He might as well wade with an open wound and expect leeches to ignore his blood, as that lot miss sloppy dress.
“I should write them something with spines. Something to climb inside their smalls,” he murmured, fingers hovering over the generous beard Domozuk despaired of keeping silken smooth. Saeleonarial couldn’t help him with that—he’d been born Sael Fisherson and men of that name sprouted wiry growths of red from chin and cheek to rival seamoss for twist and toughness.
And went bald.
The wig was bulky, overscented, and essential. How else to carry a mage scribe’s weight of bells? Saeleonarial was in no hurry to don the hot, itchy thing. Domozuk humored him, letting it drape from its stand like a hide on display till the last possible moment.
“You won’t,” the servant said primly. He bent to snip an errant thread from a slipper.
“What—use magic on them?” Saeleonarial didn’t risk the delicate pleats at each shoulder with a shrug, not before his audience. Instead he scowled fiercely. “Think I wouldn’t dare?”
“I think I’ve enough gray to dye in your beard,” Domozuk, ever-practical, replied as he straightened. His eyes sparkled with mischief. “Unless you’ll let me commission something more modern.” “Modern” being the contraptions younger nobles had begun attaching to their beardless chins: ridiculous conflagrations of precious metal, exotic feathers, and whatever else was too costly for commons; some hung to the knees and required bracing at the table. Equally witless mage scribes spent months of their magic penning tiny birds and gem- eyed lizards to live within the curls of wire. Saeleonarial pitied the servants assigned to clean that mess. He crooked his finger for the damnable wig, quaint and sedate by comparison. “Point taken.”
Scribemaster Saeleonarial knew his own worth. His rise through the ranks of his peers had more to do with honesty, a good head for names, and modest ambition than brilliance. Oh, he’d written one intention of memorable originality. The result still swam in the temple fountain of Xcel, all grave eyes and mischievous whiskers, trilling its song by moonlight to bewitch even dry old men with lust. Gossamer.
Not an accomplishment to share. He’d hastily destroyed that pen and done his utmost to forget those words and its shape. Though he dreamed it. When the world grew drab by day, predictability more deadly than age, he’d wake in the dark, blood pounding. At such a moment, Saeleonarial would swear he’d heard a faint splash, smelled musk on a warm summer’s night. Been young and unafraid of the future again.
The Deathless Goddess wasn’t above irony.
Just as well such moments didn’t last. Someone had to keep his head. Magic wasn’t to be squandered on useless marvels. The world might be drab for their lack, but it was calmer, more reliable. Like him. Another reason he’d been voted scribemaster.
No more need to write magic. He had wealth. Prestige. Some hair left behind his ears and still- reasonable bowels. What more could he want?
Surely by now he was safe.
Surely safe from that maddening, bone-deep, skin-crawling itch to create only magic’s use could salve.
Surely now, he need no longer test his mastery of word and intention, waiting for the remembered and longed for and never- ever- enough climax of having those words take form and breathe.
He’d no need for magic. Knowing hands and a winsome smile would do him. The dimpled barmaid at . . . “Have done. It’s fine,” the scribemaster muttered peevishly as Domozuk fluffed the damned wig yet again. He was weary of standing. Weary of his own thoughts.
“It’s not. It’s flat on the side. You’re the one who let the stable cat sleep—”
A head thrust between the draperies around the dressing stage; by the abundance of tousled brown ringlets, it belonged to Harn Guardson. If the sincere young student could learn to hold at least two words in his mind, he’d write his first intention and be renamed Harneonarial, “Harn, Debtor to the Lady,” so all would know his life was now forfeit to Her and his masters could take a breath between lessons. If. To give everyone a welcome respite, the boy had come on this visit to Tiler’s Hold to carry loads for Domozuk. Not to intrude in the dressing room. “My L‑lord S‑scribemaster—”
“Be off!” Bustling forward like an offended goose—an image his girth and abused nose made regrettably apt—Domozuk waved his free hand in fury. “Be off, boy! You know bet—”
Face red, Harn stood his ground, his hands clutching the curtains for anchor, doubtless leaving ink and sweat prints. He threw Saeleonarial a desperate look. “The Hold L‑lord’s entered the hall, Master. He’s called your n‑name. He’s angry. He wants answers about the hermit mage. About Maleon—”
Domozuk’s fierce “Hush!” overlapped Saeleonarial’s no less forceful warning, “Have a care!”
Red cheeks paled before the tousled head dropped down. “M‑my l‑lord . . .”
Master’s and servant’s eyes met. Though blood fled his cheeks, Domozuk gave the slightest nod. He knew what to do. This wouldn’t be the first hold a mage scribe had to vacate at speed, though Saeleonarial would regret becoming the first head of that venerable order to run for his life.
Hopefully he wouldn’t have to. “Well done,” he told the boy. “Stay with Domozuk. Help him. But in future, Harn, by The Goddess, keep your tongue.”
Stepping down, Saeleonarial grabbed the wig from his servant and stuffed it on his head. At Domozuk’s mute protest, he tugged it straight. Straighter. But didn’t pause. No time to waste. The others got out of his way. They’d be on their own.
“Hermit mage,” was it? Maleonarial had a new, unfortunate nickname. Old mage scribes tended to harmless eccentricity. They also stayed within the safety of the school, where no one else could notice and be alarmed.
Maleonarial might never be harmless, but he’d managed to fade from view well enough. What had he done to attract attention? Who had carried the tale? A spy in their midst? Or had one of the aging masters discovered secrets had a value loyalty did not?
Saeleonarial puffed as he hurried down the wide, too-empty hall. No one came late without consequence to an audience with a hold lord, not even the head of Tananen’s only magic casters. There was malice in the delayed summons. Well done, Harn.
In this part of the new wing, the floor was polished marble, so smooth he had to be wary of a slip. The walls were of the same material, midnight-dark and shot through with copper gleams, arched in ever- it openings that awaited treasure. Tiler’s Holding bred wily, watchful lords, a consequence of owning Tananen’s only deepwater port. The Lady’s Mouth, they called it, through which poured what couldn’t be grown, made, or mined within the lands under Her influence. Ships plied between Her Mouth and the strange countries across the Snarlen Sea, ships owned by those without magic.
The merchants and seamen who came on the ships were polite but curious, their heads stuffed with rumor and wild tales. It made matters worse that such had to linger here, waiting as much on the feet of made-oxen as the mercy of tides. All freight had to move by wagon past the rapids and falls of Her Veil, to where the mighty Helthrom widened and calmed, welcoming the barges that serviced the heartland. For this reason, Tiler’s Hold boasted streets of brick warehouses, always full, and always expensive. Warehouses and inns.
For freight was welcome up the Helthrom, but not foreigners. The Deathless Goddess admitted no strangers past Her Veil. Only the cobbles of Tiler’s Hold rang to their deep voices and booted feet. Only here did Tananen touch the wider world.
Tiler’s Hold Lords kept it that way.
The latest, Insom the Second, was more than watchful. Unable to abide empty space on his charts, he insisted newcomers provide him with detailed journals. His ever- bright halls had nothing to do with vanity; he distrusted shadows and abhorred the dark. Little wonder word of a mage scribe outside the normal scheme of things would disturb him.
He would indeed demand answers.
Saeleonarial’s hasty steps and puffing filled the space. His long sleeves lifted like wings, but his feet might have been stuck in mud for all the speed he could manage. Belt tassels and a wig doubtless askew were nothing compared to affronting a hold lord.
He was too old for this.
The bells around his ears laughed at him.
Words, once written, are free. They fly from their creator, bound only by limits set in syllable and phrase. A mage scribe can no more write magic for himself than magic write itself. The very act of writing sets him apart from his words’ intent.
As well try, Maleonarial thought, to be both sun and shade.
Too much time to think, this morning. But he couldn’t pass the abundance of galls in this meadow, full and ripe, their insects still inside. Crushed fresh, cooked in rainwater, filtered and let rest. A few of the beautiful green crystals from his dwindling supply to that infusion, plus a careful shave from his final small lump of desert tree gum, and he’d have a fine black ink.
Though the morning was chill and the meadow dew- drenched, he’d stripped to his clout. Easier to dry skin than clothing. His body reminded him how little time he had left. A dozen years ago— hundred and thirty bells less—there’d been taut smooth skin over bands of strong muscle. Now, each shivering rib had its pale loose flap, and what muscle laced his limbs was more wire than flesh. His knees and elbows were the only parts left of generous proportion, and they were knobbed and indignant, inclined to complain of the damp.
Time. He shouldn’t need much more. What he’d glimpsed as the merest possibility so long ago could become real with his next stroke of pen on parchment. He was that close.
Or that far. No telling what weakness corrupted him from within.
He would make his ink and find out.
If his ink- and age-stained hands trembled as they harvested the small, nut- hard galls, only The Deathless Goddess could judge it fear or cold.