The Stone Mages rule the huge deserts of red sand. The vast coastlines are ruled by Sky Wardens. Magic is everywhere, but not all have the power to control and direct it. Any child found to have magical ability is sent to the Haunted City to be trained in the Change.
On the coast of the Strand, Sal and his father arrive in the small, apparently normal town of Fundelry, where the locals are suspicious of newcomers and of anyone who stands out or appears different. Sal and his father are on the run from an unnamed someone . . . or something. When a local bully attacks Sal, he is rescued by Shilly and her teacher, Lodo. Lodo is marked with mysterious tattoos and seems to know a lot more about Sal than Sal knows about himself. Sal’s father wants to stay, but the Sky Wardens will be coming and Sal needs to learn what connection Lodo had with his mother and what fate seems to have been chosen for him before he was even born.
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The Stone Mage & the Sea
The Change Series: Book One
By Sean Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Sean Williams
All rights reserved.
"Light on the Sand"
Father and son were on the run when they came to Fundelry, a small, coastal village on the stretch of the Strand known by its ancient name of Gooron. The sun was low in the sky, shining wanly through a spattering of wispy clouds. Kneeling on the front passenger seat, Sal clutched the roll bar with one hand to keep his balance as the buggy bounced along a winding path through the dunes. Its engine grumbled when his father tapped the accelerator; prickly grass and scrub crunched loudly under its wheels. He couldn't hear the sea over the racket as he supposed he should by now.
His father didn't like being this close to the sea and, although Sal didn't know why that was so, some of that nervousness rubbed off on him, too. It was impossible to avoid. Tension showed in the way his father drove. His knuckles were white around the wheel, his movements quick, almost curt: accelerating sharply when a wheel lost traction, then braking just as quickly when a slope turned out to be steeper than expected. His gaze flicked restlessly to the fuel gauge, to the gear lever, to his son, to the scrub whipping by, and to the way ahead, as though he were uncertain about which way he was going.
Why he had brought them so, deep into Sky Warden territory, Sal had no idea.
"How much longer?" Sal asked. The dunes around them were too high to see over, even standing on the seat. If Sal had ever been so close to the sea before, he couldn't remember it.
"I'm not sure. Have you been counting the milestones?"
"Yes. One hundred and thirteen."
"The man in Gliem said less than a hundred. He must've been wrong." Sal's father shrugged. "Still, we should be there by sunset. If it's light, we can have a look around and see what's on offer. Maybe grab something to eat. And then ..."
His voice trailed off. Sal knew what usually would have followed: find a room for the night, or for a few nights perhaps; the next day, find a job to help replenish the buggy's alcohol reserves; locate another destination--the next town along the Strand, or even the next region--then move on. The most important thing of all was to stay hidden from the Sky Wardens.
And that was how it normally went as they traveled across the Strand together: they arrived, they stayed briefly and unremarkably, then they left. Only this time, Sal was coming to suspect, was different from the others.
The sandy road doglegged sharply, took them back almost the way they had come. Through a gap between two particularly large dunes, Sal saw the sky as it would appear closer to the horizon, a markedly lighter blue than it was overhead. Gray specks wheeled over something in that new distance. He thought he could hear the harsh cries of birds he had read about but never seen before.
The path joined a worn but sealed road before entering town. Its waysigns were faded; clearly, the road saw few travelers. Fundelry promised similar facilities to the thousands of other towns along the Strand, and these included a hostel, a bath house, a school, a fishery, a grain silo and an ironmonger who doubled as a mechanic. No surprises there, apart from the last: engineers of any sort were rare this far from the Interior, where metalworking was common. But that knowledge was welcome; the buggy had clocked its odometer limit many times over and could always use a proper service. The last had been four months and a thousand kilometers away, in Nuud.
They followed the sealed road southward at speed, relishing the relative smoothness of the ancient tarmacadam and the wind sweeping through their hair. Sal whooped, forgetting his uncertainty in the joy of the moment, and his father smiled at the sound. Few ancient roads had survived the ravages of time, and they rarely saw any other motorised transport so close to the coast. Sal and his father were alone on the entire length of this road; it was theirs to enjoy, for the moment.
Then they hit the edge of town and they were forced to slow down, because the road disintegrated immediately, as though an ages-lost machine had run out of tar at that point and never returned to finish the job. With sand once again under their wheels, and acutely conscious of the sound of the motor breaking the sleepy silence, they trundled slowly into town.
The ironmonger-cum-mechanic wasn't far beyond the municipal border. At the familiar sign of crossed spanners, they drew off the road and under the shelter of a low, rusted verandah. With a crunch of gears, the buggy jerked to a halt. Sal's father climbed out and removed his hat in order to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
A dark-skinned man in heavily patched overalls stepped from the shadows under the verandah. Young but careworn, as though he had always endured life rather than reveled in it, he wore a charm of polished brown stones threaded on a thong tied around his neck.
"That's either a Comet or a fair copy," he said, indicating the buggy.
"A copy," Sal's father replied, "but it serves us well enough."
"That's all that matters. You've obviously looked after it." The mechanic strode forward, holding out his hand. "Josip."
"Gershom," said Sal's father, his voice economical, wasting no energy. They shook hands firmly. "This is Sal. Short for Salomon."
"But getting taller by the day, eh? How old are you, boy?"
"A good age."
Sal nodded politely, fascinated more by the mechanic's charm necklace than by anything he had to say. Like the man's trade, it was an oddity along the Strand, where people used Sky Warden charms made of crystals and feathers instead of stone. Even odder was the fact that Josip didn't have the fair skin of someone from the Interior, as Sal did, to explain the charm's origins. Sal couldn't imagine how Stone Mage lore could have made it so far south.
"Are there rooms near here?" his father asked. "We'll be staying the night."
"See Von. She runs the hostel on the main square. It's not much, but she's reasonable and you look like you could use that."
"Harvest is over, but ..." Josip the mechanic thought for a moment. "Come back tomorrow.
I'll see what I can rustle up."
Sal's father nodded his thanks and put an arm around Sal and together they headed back to the buggy.
The mechanic's call followed them: "You can leave that in here, if you want." He was pointing at an open shed full of boxes and tools next to the verandah. "I can make space, and you'll keep the keys, of course. It'll be less obvious than parking in the open."
Sal's father hesitated for a second, automatically reluctant to trust a stranger too far. But ...
"True," he said. "Thank you."
The mechanic smiled as though they'd bestowed an honor on him, and moved off to find room for the buggy.
Sal studied the town as they walked along the main road, still heading south. It felt the same as all the places he had visited over the years; in some ways, though, it was very different. There was sand everywhere he looked: underfoot, piled in drifts against buildings, filling up corners where it hadn't been swept away. The air smelled strongly of salt. As well as crumbling stone structures rarely more than a single story high, they passed shanties leaning in hollows by the road, as though made of driftwood deposited by a freak storm that might return at any moment to sweep them away again.
Having spent his entire life on the move, Sal quite liked Fundelry's air of impermanence. It made sense to him. Its proximity to the sea, though, was another thing entirely.
Few people came out to watch them pass. He supposed the others were working: fishing, or repairing nets, or teaching children, or doing whatever else the villagers here did this late in the day. The ones he did see were darker in color than his father, whose skin was light brown rather than black, and they were much darker than Sal. The villagers stared openly at them as they passed, making him feel uncomfortable. They stood out as strangers in every place they went, but they rarely encountered such open curiosity.
When they reached the local census building, they stopped to check in. The Strand administrators were as strict about procedure as they were about democracy, and the Sky Wardens imposed stiff penalties on those who failed to declare their movements. The forms Sal's father completed were yellow with age, giving the impression that such formalities were rarely needed here.
"You just passing through?" asked the young woman behind the counter with an air of distrust.
"Maybe." Sal's father's false signature entwined around itself like a snake. "Is there much to see or do around here?"
"It's lovely weather, anyway."
"It can change overnight."
Sal's father smiled, but said nothing.
"Do you know where you'll be staying?"
"We're looking for a hostel run by someone called 'Von'."
This only seemed to confirm the woman's poor impression of them. "Up the road, on the far side of the main square."
"Thanks." Sal's father made to leave, then stopped as though a thought had just occurred to him. "I don't suppose you know a man named Payat Misseri?"
"He was an old friend. I heard he passed through here at some time or another."
"If he's not from here, I don't see how you can expect me to have heard of him."
"I thought it was your job to know these things."
She sniffed. "I'm only filling in for Bela. She's gone home."
"Well, maybe we'll come back in the morning."
"We're closed tomorrow."
His smile didn't falter. "Another day, then. Goodbye."
When they emerged from the office, the sun was setting. For the first time, Sal consciously noted the sound of the sea. He recognized it instantly, even though he had never heard it before. It hissed like an asthmatic giant trying to sneak up on them.
His father stood on the steps of the office for a moment, looking around. "Now where? Bed or browse?"
Sal shrugged, tired from the long drive but too nervous to sleep. He didn't think a third option--to leave--was open to him, even though their reception so far had been far from welcoming.
"It'll be dark soon," his father said, answering his own question. "We should at least find a room before they close their doors."
Sal shifted his pack into a more comfortable position as they walked along the street. Everything they owned, apart from the buggy, rested on his and his father's backs. It would make a pleasant change to sleep indoors, if they could find somewhere to take them. Part of him hoped they wouldn't.
As they headed deeper into town, the buildings became more solid, as though the outer fringes were an afterthought, and a temporary one at that. Nothing appeared to be open. The main square was instantly recognizable, even though it wasn't a square at all. It was a large, circular space of densely packed sand surrounded by shop fronts and storehouses. A water pump at its center marked the focus, several low benches gave it character, and eight metal poles taller than a person and topped with glass globes delineated its edge. Well-worn lanes issued in every direction from the square.
One of these lanes led south to the sea. The end of the road, Sal thought. Through the growing gloom he could see a gray mass of water heaving and shifting barely a hundred yards away, with little but a stretch of low dunes to keep it at bay. It looked dangerous. The sight--or perhaps just a sudden chill in the air--made him shiver.
There was only one hostel facing the square: a squat, two-story building that might have been the oldest in town. Its windows were shuttered. Sal's father strode up to the verandah and knocked once on the door.
It opened immediately. Light spilled out into the square, silhouetting a tall woman with wild, orange hair. The light behind her cast her face in shadow, giving her a threatening air.
"What do you want?" she asked with a voice like two rocks scraping together.
"Can you pay?" Sal noticed that her hand was firmly on the door, ready to slam it in their faces.
"That'd make a nice change." The woman's eyes seemed to glint although no light shone on them. "Show me."
Sal turned around. His father reached into his pack and produced a small number of toughened glass disks. Sal heard them sliding over each other in his father's palm; he could almost identify them by sound alone, they were so few in number.
They seemed to satisfy the woman. "Come in, then." She turned to let them into a low-roofed reception hall lit by gas lanterns and smelling of stale bread.
Pulling a thick book out of a drawer in a desk along one wall, she noisily cleared her throat and wrote down the answers to her questions.
"It'll be fifteen per room. One or two? It's not as if I have a shortage this time of year."
"Just one. Two beds."
"How long for?"
"As long as we need."
"No questions, huh?" She grunted. "I'm Von. Breakfast is included. You pay me one night in advance every morning and I'll let you stay."
The book slammed shut. Carrying a lamp, she showed them up a flight of stairs. Noticeable for the first time was a slight limp in her left leg. Sal wondered how she had come by the injury, and whether it had anything to do with the roughness of her voice.
At the top of the stairs were several guest rooms. Von led them to one in a corner of the building. Inside were two single beds, a chest of drawers, and a door leading to the floor's common bathroom. The air smelled of dust and starch. Through the sole window, Sal could see the sky turning from red to gray with the last rays of the sun. The sea was black, invisible, a hole in the world.
Something flew past the window with a glint of eye and feathers, and he jumped, startled.
His father touched his arm. "What?"
Sal shook his head quickly, feeling stupid. "Just a gull."
"I probably don't need to tell you to keep it down," Von said, less gruffly than before. "Just be aware that I do have another guest at the moment, and he likes his privacy. If you need anything in the night, use this," she said, showing them a bell-pull by the door. "Otherwise, I'll see you in the morning."
Sal's father nodded. "Thank you."
With a last, long look at them, the woman put the lamp down on the chest of drawers, closed the door and left them alone.
Sal picked the bed furthest from the window and hefted his pack onto it. His father sat down heavily on the other bed and removed his boots.
"It's not so bad," his father said, testing the mattress springs. "Better than the ground, anyway. See if you can get a breeze in here."
Sal nervously went back to the window, and confronted his own reflection: black hair vanishing into the darkness of the falling night; light skin standing out like parchment on a puddle of ink. Glinting on the left side of his face was the silver ear-ring he had worn longer than he could remember, its three tiny holes looking like flecks of dust.
The window had been painted shut around the edges. No gulls surprised him this time. Without turning, he asked, "Dad?"
"What are we doing here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you really looking for that man--the one you asked about at the office?" Although his father had described him as an old friend, Sal had never heard the name. "Is that why we've come here?"
"Misseri? Maybe." His father smiled. "If I say 'yes', you'll only ask me why I'm looking for him and I'll be no better off."
Sal was about to press his father for more information, when light flickering in the square below caught his eye. A lantern of some kind--although he could see no telltale flicker of flame--burned on one of the poles like a miniature yellow star. An oval-shaped pool glowed on the ground below it.
Another light flared to life, an eighth-turn around the square. This time Sal saw a dark figure stepping away into the shadows.
"There are some things you can't run from, Sal," his father went on. "It's time I faced them head-on. They would've caught up with us in the end, anyway, here or elsewhere ..."
"What sort of things?"
In a darkened corner of the window, Sal's father's reflection shook its head. Where Sal was all lightness and dark, his father was the pale tan of kangaroo leather. Hair and skin and eyes were the same color, making it hard to tell his age. His father said Sal had inherited his looks from his mother--most especially his eyes, which were many shades of blue mottled with white flecks. But Sal's father rarely spoke about her. He rarely spoke about anything important, these days.
Excerpted from The Stone Mage & the Sea by Sean Williams. Copyright © 2001 Sean Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPart One: Seeking,
Chapter 1. "Light on the Sand",
Chapter 2. "The Art in Her Eyes",
Chapter 3. "A Life Among the Stones",
Chapter 4. "The Eye of the Storm",
Chapter 5. "A Tear in the Water",
Part Two: Finding,
Chapter 6. "On the Surface of Things",
Chapter 7. "A Meeting of Sorts",
Chapter 8. "Voices on an Ill Wind",
Chapter 9. "Trial by Fire",
Chapter 10. "Night and its Secrets",
Chapter 11. "The Consequences of Desire",
Part Three: Changing,
Chapter 12. "Three on the Horizon",
Chapter 13. "Old Truths in a New Light",
Chapter 14. "A Bone from the Sea",
Chapter 15. "On the Point of the Sword",
Chapter 16. "The Art of Solitude",
Chapter 17. "A Heart Lost ...",
Chapter 18. "... An Eye Gained",
Epilogue: Glimpses of the Sky,