Chapter Five: Magic
Magic, rising, swelling into many voices. It filled the air around Gair and time slowed. Tiny details became sharply, painfully clear. Gorse-flowers blazed bright as flames on the viridian bushes. A billion motes of dust spangled the air. Hooves rose and fell as if through treacle and each hoof-beat boomed round his head like the fall of empires.
Oh Goddess, help me. Sunset burned his eyes. All he could see through it was red – red as roses, red as blood, drenching the Knights and tipping their lances with gore. Goran’s captain swung his arm to urge his men forward and the cords flew like spatter from an opened vein.
Alderan opened his mouth to yell, but there were no words. There was no sound at all now but the song inside him and the tingling rush of it along his limbs.
Hail, Mother, full of grace, light and life of all the world. Blessed are the meek, for they shall find strength in you. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find justice in you. Blessed are the lost, for they shall find salvation in you.
Sparks spat from the chestnut’s shoes as Gair wheeled him round to face the way he had come. Muscles bunched in his hind- quarters and his ears snapped back; the granite stair was steep, but the horse leapt forward. The landing jolted Gair in the saddle but he kept his seat and somehow the chestnut gathered himself for another leap.
Trust the horse. He had to trust the horse. Trust the horse trust the horse Holy Mother Goddess I don’t want to die. One more leap and Gair was back on the road. Dust swirled around him. Sensa- tion thrilled along every nerve. The magic filled his entire being; he was bloated, potent with it, an overfilled wineskin about to burst. And it sang to him. Everything he’d been taught shrieked out the wrongness of it, but it was too late to fight: he was helpless in its grip. He had to use it before it consumed him. He would fly apart, explode into lightning and— It was gone.
Normality crashed back down on him, hard enough to knock the breath from his body. Slumped over the horse’s neck, he sucked air into his lungs and broke out coughing with the dust. He smelled sweat, heard jingling harness and restive horses and, oddly, a skylark, sweetly clear from invisibly far above, but the music was gone. It had never done that before. Dazed, he spat on the road to clear his mouth and straightened up.
Alderan seized his shoulder. ‘What in all hells did you think you were doing?’ he hissed.
‘I don’t want to die, Alderan. I won’t let them take me back.’ The old man leaned forward until his face was level with Gair’s.
His fearsome brows knotted and he spoke quickly as the Knights gathered in, his voice pitched low. His grip did not relent. ‘Listen to me. No one is taking you anywhere today, do you understand? You have my word on it. Now stay calm, stay quiet and for the love of the Goddess keep a check on it. Do you understand?’ He shook Gair’s shoulder. ‘Gair, do you understand me?’
Gair nodded, spat again. The music was gone, but dread still had his heart clenched in a mailed fist. The grip on his shoulder became a pat.
‘How long until sunset?’ he asked.
‘A little under an hour. The parish boundary’s only a mile or so from here. We’ve ample time.’
Knights formed a ring around them, lances at the ready. Gair dropped his sword back into its scabbard and became aware of just how much his branded hand hurt. Bloody fluid stained the band- age and pain stabbed through his palm. He let it rest upturned on his thigh as the captain took off his helm and nudged his horse closer.
‘By order of Elder Goran, I am placing you under arrest,’ he declared. ‘Throw down your weapons.’
The witchfinder’s face appeared between the captain and the Knight next to him, pale eyes swimming from one captive to the other. His features sharpened into a grin, all narrow jaw and pointed teeth like the skull of a fox.
‘Arrested? On what charge?’ asked Alderan.
‘Trespass and theft.’
‘Trespass?’ The old man’s brows lifted. ‘This is a public thorough-fare.’
‘I did not say you were trespassing now.’ The Knight smiled, or at least showed his teeth. ‘You trespassed on Elder Goran’s private estate, five miles back.’
‘We went ten yards off the road to water the horses!’ Gair protested. ‘You can’t call that trespassing!’
The Knight gathered up his squad with a look. ‘I rather think I can call it what I like.’
‘And I suppose the theft relates to the water the horses drank?’
‘Of course not. Water is the Goddess’ bounty, freely given to all men and beasts.’
‘Then to what does the charge relate?’ Alderan’s tone was short.
‘I presume you are going to tell us?’
The sandy-haired captain bared his teeth again. ‘The charge relates to the disappearance of a small object from the Elder’s personal apartments. It is a trinket,nothing more, but one of immense sentimental value. We shall have to search your baggage.’ He shrugged. ‘It could take some time.’
‘Would you mind telling us what this object is? Forgive me,’ Alderan said,‘but I’d rather know now, before you find it in my saddlebags.’
Another of the Knights stared down his nose at them.
‘Confessing your guilt, old man?’
‘Me?’ Alderan spread his hands. ‘I’m sorry, my friend. I’ve had a long and interesting life, in the course of which I have undoubtedly been guilty of many things, but sadly,none of what you think.’
The captain frowned and motioned some of his men forward.
‘Search them! Search everywhere!’
Five Knights dismounted. One held the horses whilst the others rifled through the saddlebags, clumsy in their thick gauntlets. Alderan watched the nearest Knight until the man became so perturbed that he glared back.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘I was wondering whether that was such a good idea.’ Alderan nodded towards the man’s arm, elbow-deep in spare clothes. ‘I mean, you never know what you’re going to find in a witch’s pockets.’
The Knight scowled and turned back to his task. Abruptly he yelped and snatched his hand back. He stripped off his gauntlets and rubbed his fingers. A moment later, the other three Knights were doing the same.
Gair flashed a look at Alderan and saw the old man shortening up his reins.
‘Ready?’ Alderan never took his eyes off the captain, who was shouting shrilly and pushing his men back to their task. The remaining Knights watched them instead of their prisoners. It would take only a moment.
With a wild yell Alderan urged his horse towards the gap in the line left by the captain and his five men. Gair was only a second behind, the chestnut stretching into a gallop. As they broke the line Alderan laid about him with the flat of his hand on the rumps of the nearest horses, making them squeal and dance to add to the confusion.
‘Stop them!’ the captain bellowed. ‘By the Goddess, I’ll have your hides for boot leather! Move!’
Too late. Gair had clear road ahead of him to the crest of the rise. He dared a glance back over his shoulder. A handful of Knights had organised a pursuit, rowelling their greys ruthlessly, but they were a good way back. He bent low over the chestnut’s neck and urged him on.
‘A thousand yards!’ Alderan pointed at the ridge ahead, where the road wound up out of the deepening shadows. A stubby stone marker stood silhouetted against the ruddy sky. Once past that they would be out of Goran’s diocese, out of danger.
Gair set his heels and asked for one last effort from his mount. Five hundred yards on, the horse was tiring. At a thousand, sweat and foam curdled on his coat. Each breath rasped through nostrils stretched wide, but he kept running, and every stride brought safety closer.
A hundred yards more, Gair whispered to the horse. Just a hundred yards, less than that now, barely fifty, good lad, just a little further, come on now, there’s the stone, and then they were past. He sat up and reined the blowing horse to a halt, then swung down to walk the few yards back to the marker. Below the rise, the Knights milled around their captain, who crossed his forearms on his saddle-horn and glowered.
‘Goran won’t be pleased when he learns his hounds have failed,’ said Alderan, leaning down from his saddle to catch the chestnut’s reins. Gair plucked his shirt away from his sweaty back.
‘There were forty of them, Alderan. That’s a lot to send after just the two of us.’
‘And a seeker too.’
‘During the Inquisition, the Church called them seekers after truth. Most of the ones who call themselves witchfinders today are just prodnoses with nothing better to do than spy on their neighbours for a shilling, but there’re a handful with a genuine talent, like that fellow there.’
The Knights on the road had formed up to ride back to Dremen. A few yards behind them, an unremarkable man sat his pony and stared up at the ridge. The prickling across Gair’s forebrain was less intrusive now, but it lingered, even after the witchfinder swung his pony round and trotted after the retreating soldiers.
‘I can still feel him, in my head. How does he do it?’
‘Perhaps he has the ability to sense what you can do, somehow.’ Alderan shrugged. ‘I don’t know. But I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him, unless Goran does us all a favour and drops dead of an apoplexy – saints know, he’s fat enough.’
Gair stared, startled by the old man’s venom. ‘What?’
‘Let’s just say I’ve heard a few stories about Elder Ignatio Goran. If even half of them are true he’s not fit to wear the scarlet. Come on. We should find somewhere to rest up.’
‘He believes what he’s doing is for my own good.’
‘Then Goddess spare us from believers like him! Preserving your eternal soul from damnation by purifying your body with fire? Do you really think She wants that?’ Alderan handed Gair the reins to his horse.
‘I was raised to believe that no one is so far gone that they cannot be redeemed.’
‘But the same people who taught you that locked you in a cell for three months and put a red-hot iron to your hand.’
Other things had been done to him too, in the name of truth and redemption. Not all of them had been painful. Some had been designed instead to humiliate, to debase, to break his will. Alderan was right. It really did not make any kind of sense.
Abruptly Gair felt exhausted, more utterly spent than he could ever recall being in his life. ‘I believe the Goddess forgives,’ he said at last. ‘It’s just the Church that doesn’t.’
Not far from the marker they found a hollow in the lee of a craggy tor where a stream danced down to the river below. After watering the horses, they stripped off the saddles and whilst the animals cropped, rubbed them down with handfuls of grass.
‘Are you still sure you don’t want to turn south a ways?’ Alderan asked over his horse’s back.‘It’s not too late.’
‘I’m sure. There’s nothing there for me.’
‘One day you might be surprised.’
‘Maybe.’ Enough had happened on that one day without look- ing for old wounds to pick at. ‘Alderan, what did you have in your saddlebags?’
The old man straightened up, tossing the wad of grass to one side. ‘Mouse traps,’ he said.
‘Have you not heard about the problems with slitpockets in the cities these days? You can’t trust a soul.’
Supper was cold pork and pickles, washed down with hot sweet tea. Afterwards, Alderan produced a clay pipe and tobacco pouch and settled back against his saddle for a smoke. Stretched out on a blanket, Gair tried to sleep. In spite of his weariness, the heavy aching in his limbs, his eyes would not close. The stream chattered constantly. Small things scampered in the tussocky grass and night birds called to each other. Loudest of all was the sound he could not hear, the song of the magic within him.
Part of him wished it would never come back, even as his belly hollowed at the thought of never hearing the music again, never experiencing the sweet rush of its power. Not that it would make any difference if it did stay silent; he was already damned. He had spurned the Goddess’ teachings the instant he had surrendered to temptation, and it had cost him everything except, somehow, his life.
He turned onto his back and folded his arm behind his head.
Above him, stars glittered like holes in the curtains of heaven. He counted the constellations he knew, from east to west: the Pilgrim, rising now – by midwinter he would be gone; the Chariot; Amarada on her throne; the Huntsman and his Three Hounds; Slaine’s Sword with the Pole Star on the cross-hilts, bright as a diamond.
The first moon, Miriel, fat and golden, hung low on the shoulder of the Archen Mountains. Behind her, the tail of the Dragon was just visible above the luminous peaks as he chased the remains of the day.
‘Can’t sleep?’ Alderan asked from the far side of the fire.
‘I can’t hear the magic. It feels like something’s missing.’
‘That’s a strange kind of a lullaby.’
‘I’ve been hearing it for so long, I’ve got used to it being there. It’s gone away before, but that felt different. Like it was sleeping. Now I can’t hear it at all and that feels . . . wrong, even though it shouldn’t.’
‘I don’t know how to describe it. Every sermon I’ve ever heard warned me against sin. Every prayer I’ve ever learned was meant to steer me away from it. But when I heard the music it felt so good, so right, I didn’t fight it. I opened myself to it even though I knew it would cast me out of the Goddess’ grace for ever.’ He fingered his breastbone through his shirt, where the tiny silver St Agostin medallion had once rested on its chain, before the marshals snatched it away. Not even the Knights’ patron saint had kept him in the light.
‘You were a child then.’
‘I was old enough to know the difference between sin and virtue,’ said Gair, ‘and I did it anyway.’
‘Because you were curious?
‘At first, and then I couldn’t help myself. Even though I knew it was forbidden, I had to let the music in. It was . . . glorious.’
‘So what happened back there on the road? When you set my poor horse at a pack of Suvaeon Knights and gave me a fright to take five years off my life?’
‘I just had to get away. The magic was breaking free and I felt as if I had to do something with it or I would burst. I’m sorry about the horse.’
‘Don’t worry about it, he came to no harm. Does it often happen like that? Where the magic seems to take over?’
‘Sometimes.’ Talking in the dark was easier, like confession.
‘More often than not, lately, although it wasn’t like that at first. Each time I’m scared I won’t be able to control it. That something awful is going to happen.’
‘More awful than eternal damnation?’
‘I meant something that might hurt other people.’ It wasn’t as if he could make it any worse for himself.
Across the fire, Alderan’s pipe-bowl glowed as he drew on it.
‘That is a danger faced by all who can touch the songs of the earth,’ the old man said slowly. ‘With guidance and strength of will, you can learn to control it. In time, you could ride your gift as a bird rides the wind.’
‘But how? Who is going to guide me, show me how to master it?’ A long moment of silence. ‘Alderan?’
‘There are people who could teach you,’ he said at last. ‘If you could find them, and if they were willing.’
‘They call themselves Guardians of the Veil. There’re few of them left now, thanks to the Church, but there are some. They could help you.’
A jolt of excitement ran through Gair and he sat up. To never again be alone with the magic, to never have to fear what it might become – could it be possible?
‘Where can I find the Guardians? Do you know?’ he asked, but Alderan shook his head almost before the words were out of Gair’s mouth.
‘I couldn’t say. They keep themselves quietly, for fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention. The Inquisition may be long gone, but there are still many in the Church who have the means and the will to do them harm.’
So he would be as alone as he had ever been. The brief hope that had kindled in Gair’s heart dwindled to an ember, not extinguished, not entirely, but neither was it enough to keep him warm at night. He leaned back on his elbow as the breeze sighed over him. Overhead, the stars wheeled infinitesimally closer to dawn.
‘I don’t understand how you know so much, Alderan,’ he said. ‘I can do things that I’ve only read about in storybooks, children’s tales, yet you talk about it as if it’s something normal.’
‘But it is normal. It’s the most normal and natural thing in the world. The Song is part of the very fabric of creation. People have simply forgotten how to hear it.’
The red eye of the pipe sputtered and went dim. Alderan knocked it out on the heel of his boot, then scraped out the dottle with his belt-knife and repacked the bowl.
‘I’ve made something of a study of the Song,’ he said. ‘It’s a hobby of mine. It’s quite well documented, if you look in the right books – the ones the Church did not destroy, at any rate.’ He kindled a gorse-twig in the fire’s coals and puffed his pipe back into life. ‘Did you know that one of the greatest libraries in the Empire is locked away in the vaults below the Sacristy, never to see the light of day? Thousands upon thousands of books, lost to all knowledge save the keepers of the Index.’
‘Aren’t they heretical?’
‘What is heresy but an alternative point of view? Books are meant to be shared, Gair. They should be open to all, not put away out of sight because they might, heaven forfend, encourage free thought.’
Gair frowned. ‘But the Index was created to keep us from sin.’
‘And what sin was that?’ the old man retorted.‘The sin of philosophy, of astronomy, of medicine? No, the Index was drawn up to control knowledge and keep people in ignorance, keep them believing that the ague came about from an imbalance in the bodily humours, rather than from digging the latrine too close to the well.’
‘That’s not what I was taught.’
‘And the Church taught you what it wanted you to know.’ Alderan harrumphed and sucked fiercely on his pipe. ‘You’ve been led around with blinkers on, lad. Trust me, you’re better off out of that place. The Church still has the dead hand of the Inquisition on its shoulder.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know your history, yes? How the Empire was founded? A dozen petty dukedoms squabbling amongst themselves, too suspici- ous of each other to stand together but none of them strong enough to stand alone when the Nimrothi clans came down through the passes. It took the Church to forge them into something that could halt Gwlach’s advance.’
‘The Grand Rede declared a crisis of the faith. They had to fight together or face excommunication.’
‘And afterwards, of course, Mother Church had the Emperor in her pocket. He ruled only at the whim of the lectors. Anyone who challenged the Church’s sway or spoke the wrong word in the right ear found black robes at their door come the morning.’
‘That’s not how the Master of Novices tells it.’
The old man snorted. ‘Well, he wouldn’t, would he? The Church keeps too many secrets.’ Alderan stretched his legs out towards the fire and crossed his ankles. ‘We live now in an age of reason, with clocks and manufactories and broadsheets to tell us the news. But because of the legacy of the Inquisition, we have lost something extremely precious. We have almost no one left who can hear the songs of the earth.’
‘And the others like you, yes. I’ve met several in my travels, all over the Empire. Most were like you, misunderstood, confused, lost. I tried to help where I could.’
‘Is that why you helped me get out of Dremen?’ Gair looked across the fire at the other man’s shadowy form. ‘Who are you, Alderan? You know almost as much medicine as Brother Infirmarer, and more about this gift of mine than I do. What is it? Where does it come from? What am I going to do now, with my life? With this?’ He held up his branded hand.
‘So many questions, I hardly know where to start!’ The old man chuckled. ‘Well, what I am is a scholar, a collector of books, the older and rarer the better. There is much to be learned from the past that deserves not to be forgotten. As for where you can go, that’s up to you. There are places where that scar won’t be such an issue.’
‘Where? The first lector who sees it will have me in irons.’ When Alderan had cleaned and dressed the burn again after supper the shape of the witchmark had been clearly visible, even with the swelling and the blisters. When they were gone there would be a scar that would be hard to hide.
‘Not necessarily. I know one or two who have a more flexible interpretation of the Book of Eador.’
‘It’s doctrine, Alderan. ‘‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’’ In his head Gair heard Elder Goran say those very words. The law was as black and white as the tiled floor of the Rede Hall. Panic stirred again.
‘Doesn’t that rather depend on your definition of witchcraft? I said before that I didn’t think you were a witch. I don’t think you have it in you to do that kind of harm.’
‘Then what am I?’
‘You’re a young man who can make of himself whatever he chooses to be,’ Alderan said. ‘You’re fit and healthy and good with a sword – they’d have sent you to the scriptorium if you weren’t – so there’re plenty of places you could make a living where that hand won’t occasion anything more than a raised eyebrow. You could be a merchant’s guard, or serve in the retinue of some landowner. The Imperial Army. You could even become a mercenary. It’s an uncertain sort of existence, but I hear it pays well. Kasrin of the Glaive is supposed to live like a prince.’
It sounded straightforward, the way Alderan told it, but Gair could see only obstacles. No money, no family to fall back on – hells, he didn’t even have his own horse. ‘I wish it was that easy.’
Alderan sat quietly for some time. Then he took the pipe from between his teeth and blew a long stream of smoke up into the night sky. ‘You could come back to the west, with me,’ he said. ‘I have a school on Penglas, in the Western Isles. You could study, maybe go on to be a teacher yourself, or learn a trade. You’d be free to come and go as you please. It would take you away from here, at the very least. I can’t help but feel that the longer we spend in Dremenir the more likely we are to run up against Goran’s men again, jurisdiction or no.’
‘That’s very kind of you, but with respect, I don’t know you. You’ve gone out of your way to help me out of the city, but I couldn’t ask you to do any more for me.’
‘Nonsense. It’s my duty as a good Eadorian to extend the hand of friendship to those less fortunate than myself and from where I’m sitting you still fall under that heading. I’d be glad to have you along, if only for the company. On a journey of a thousand miles, you quickly come to realise that horses are not great conversationalists.’
‘A thousand miles? For old books?’
‘I like to travel.’ A flash of teeth around the pipe-stem. ‘Besides, the rarer volumes are scattered across the twelve provinces and beyond. I’ve a hankering to visit Sardauk again next year. They have a fine library in Marsalis and their university is older than the Empire itself. For some reason the desert produces most excellent scholars – all that sand and heat concentrates the mind.’
Gair watched the ghostly shape of an owl drift overhead in pursuit of its supper. Alderan had done nothing but good by him since he had woken up in the inn and his suggestion of going out to the Isles appealed far more than the alternatives. He’d always loved reading, adventures, histories, even the epic poems of the Nordmen when the mood took him. The Motherhouse’s library had inclined towards the more ecclesiastical texts, but some of the early monks had taken great pains to record the history of the lands from the Founding onwards and there had been plenty to divert him.
‘What would I do, out there? In the Isles?’
‘Whatever you like. You could follow your own course.’
‘And what I am doesn’t matter to you? The magic, I mean?’
‘Not in the least. You and the others I’ve met have been almost without exception honest, decent folk who’re better Eadorians than many of the lectors I’ve known, including our dear friend the Elder. I tread lightly around Churchmen, as I said, and there’re only a few I’d choose to call friends.’
‘Is your parish lector one of them?’
Alderan laughed heartily. ‘He is indeed. A very fine fellow, who sends me a bottle of good Tylan goldwine every Eventide and doesn’t frown at me if I don’t go to confession. For the record, Gair, based on our short acquaintance, you would be welcome in my house.’
Welcome was a word he had heard all too infrequently. He had been sent out of Leah by the people who should have known him best and put out of the Motherhouse by those who should have forgiven him for his sins. The one person who had extended a sincere hand was the one he knew the least. He’d had his fill of being turned away. ‘How long will it take to get there?’
‘The rest of the summer, I’m afraid, but we can take a boat most of the way and spare our arses the saddle. Should I take it you’ve decided to come with me?’
‘I like books.’
‘I see. Well, there’s a good few miles to Mesarild yet and you’ve already had quite a day. Try to get some sleep.’
Gair pulled his blanket up round his shoulders. West. A new start, some kind of a life of his own, instead of one chosen for him. That could only be good, couldn’t it? He closed his eyes. Besides, it wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go.
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