1: A Death
The day before my fortieth birthday, my employer killed himself.
It was expected, naturally. No ship owner could lose his entire fleet to the waves without paying the price of failure, no matter that the fleet comprised a single ship. Master Krend had to do what was proper, or lose all his rank, leaving his family destitute. It wasn’t his fault his only ship had foundered in a storm. He didn’t deserve to die, but that was the way things were done in the Port Holdings.
Everything had been prepared. Master Krend had already sent his younger children away. He had been measured for his shroud. He had dictated the notifications of his death to me, my last and most distressing duty as his recorder. Now he had carried out his own last duty. The only person at all surprised was the kitchen girl, who came up from the basement to begin her chores and found the body hanging from the beams amongst the hams and herbs and strings of onions.
Master Krend’s son, Brin, took charge. He was younger than me but already portly. Grey-faced but calm, he dispatched the servants to their quarters in the basement. They belonged to the house and would transfer to the new owner.
No such surety for me. I was out of a job and a home, resigned to the prospect of a miserable few quarter moons in a rooming house, cold and hungry, eking out my savings until I could find work again.
Dragon’s teeth, I could hardly believe this was happening to me again. Just when I’d got comfortably settled, too. Had the Goddess cursed me? Here I was, hammering on the doors of middle-age, a woman without family or wealth or any useful talent, once more forced to scratch around for work. I wasn’t born for this uncertainty, but I wasn’t going to let it grind me to dust, either. I still had my dignity.
I waited, hands clasped in front of me, as Brin dealt with the servants and then turned slowly to me. He looked at me across the hallway, the closed kitchen door at his back. Behind it, his father’s body still hung, waiting for the shipping registrar to agree that he was indeed dead, and initiate the required processes. At my back, the solid front door of carved mahogany, imported all the way from the northern coast at vast expense by Master Krend’s grandfather. Soon it would open and close for another family.
Brin coughed. “Do you have somewhere to go, Fen?”
“I know a place. I have a little money put by. I won’t starve.” True enough, but soup and stale bread was only one step above starvation. “May I leave my things until…?”
“Of course, of course.” He twisted his hands helplessly. “Fen, I’m so sorry. Throwing you out like this, it’s despicable.”
“It’s the law, so there’s nothing more to say about it.” I shrugged. It was pointless to rail against the edicts of the Holders. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
He trod across the hall and hugged me awkwardly. I hesitated, arms at my side, but there was no harm in it now, so I reached round his ample frame and gently patted his back. He hugged me a little tighter and then released me. I cast a final, regretful glance around the hall at the thick rugs and rich furnishings, a brazier warming the air. Then, with a sigh, I opened the door and stepped through, leaving the Krend house forever.
Outside, I was shocked to find it still dark. It seemed hours since the maid’s screams had dragged me from sleep, yet the horizon was only just lightening. None of the port offices would be open yet. I fastened my coat, pulled woollen gloves and a battered hat from my pockets, and strode briskly towards the lamps of the highway.
The port town of Carrinshar Holding sat in the bowl of a valley, and there was hardly a level street anywhere. Master Krend’s house was high on the western side. My steps took me down the hill, away from the secluded walled estates and broad, paved roads, into narrower winding alleys where my boots slid on damp cobbles and I had to feel for the guide ropes in the darkness.
Eventually I came out in the market square on the level area of ground fringing the sea, where the wind poked icy fingers through my coat. If only I had a good thick cloak, but it wasn’t proper attire for someone of my station. Ahead of me lay the harbour, a forest of jostling masts. To my left, the squalid docks and warehouses and sailors’ boarding houses. On the right, a road paved with pure white slabs led up the cliff to where the great stone Hold maintained a brooding watch over us all.
The market stallholders had barely begun to set up their goods. Lights from soup houses and bars glowed in some of the tall buildings edging the square. I picked one at random, but they were all the same: dark and warm, smelling of yesterday’s fish stew, the air heavy with the smoke of cheap lamp oil. Eyes gleamed in shadowy corners.
“Want a brew, ducky?” asked a round serving woman at the counter. “Two bits.”
I nodded, and passed her the coins. All the coastal folk drank hot brew by the bucketful, and each Port Holding had its own favoured recipe. Carrinshar’s was dark and thick, but very sweet. And cheap, a great virtue.
I took my mug to a seat near the only window, wrapping my frozen fingers around its warmth, and watched as the first trawlers bobbed out of the harbour and the market gradually came alive. Other customers came and went, but no one took any notice of me. A mousy woman dressed in drab skirt and coat attracted no attention.
Two more brews and a slice of bread filled with cheese passed the time until the sun was up. At the harbour-master’s office, the boy came out to scrub the step. A man appeared on the roof, scattering protesting gulls, and slowly hoisted the first hour flag. The working day had officially begun, and at last I could go to the employment registrar.
It was not far to walk. All the important offices clustered around the harbour, solid stone buildings three or four storeys high. They were large but plainly decorated, eschewing the porticoes and pillars and statuary favoured by the wealthy merchants and ship-owners. The employment office’s main entrance was crowded with hopeful packers and sailors, carpenters and fish-gutters looking for day work. I went in through a discreet side door to the office for lettered applicants.
“Fen!” The voice boomed from the far corner of the room.
“Master Tylk.” I waited for him to weave through the score or so desks dotted haphazardly about the room. Only a few were occupied. I recognised a couple of faces, and nodded to them before Tylk reached me.
He was a big man in every sense: tall, and broad, lavishly dressed, an imposing figure with a foghorn voice to match. His beard was small, as befitted his rank, but the ends of his moustache trailed almost to his waist. “Fen, my dear girl! Here you are. So he finally did it, eh? But don’t tell me you’ve been wandering the streets all night?”
“Only since just before dawn. I found a soup house to skulk in.”
“You could have come to me, dear girl, whatever the hour.” He leaned closer and took my gloved hand in his. He probably thought it a tender and intimate moment, but his words echoed off the walls. “I would always look after you, as you well know.”
“That wouldn’t have been seemly.” I couldn’t help smiling, though, as I retrieved my hand. I’d been fending off such proposals from Tylk ever since I’d arrived in Carrinshar.
“Tsk! What does that matter? Fen, I am astounded by your ill fortune. I never knew a recorder be out of work so often, for one reason or another. Ah, but this is the worst reason. To lose the entire business! This must be… what, the fourth time this has happened to you?”
“The fifth! Goddess preserve us! Remember the woman who did the deed at midnight, on the coldest night of the year? It’s so uncivilised, to throw you out just like that.”
“You know the rules, Tylk. Everything that belongs to the house is locked in, and everything else is locked out. It’s worse for the servants, cooped up in the basement for quarter moons on end.”
“Well, let us be thankful that you are out of that house now, and free to look about for a new position at last,” he said, moving briskly from commiserations to business.
That suited me, too. “So who’s looking for a recorder just now? Anyone interesting?”
“Well, that’s just it.” He scratched his head thoughtfully. “There’s nothing at all going on. I’ve been keeping my eye open for something for you, since we heard… but ever since last year, when we allied with Bennamore—”
“Allied? Ha! That’s a new word for it. I thought we were subjugated in a humiliatingly brief and decisive war.”
“Hush, hush, dear girl.” He flapped his hands at me. “If the Holders choose to call it an alliance, who are we to question their wisdom?”
I snorted. “Wisdom? You know perfectly well—”
The hands flapped harder. “Fen, Fen! Let’s not start the day with one of your orations. Come, sit down, have a brew. Morn, fetch a brew for Fen, will you?” A plump girl no more than twenty nodded and scuttled away.
My day had started many hours ago, and my stomach revolted at the thought of more brew, but I let him fuss around. I needed his help to find a new job, so I smiled and waited obediently for my brew.
“So you have nothing for me?” I asked.
“Only old Master Trall, and I wouldn’t dream of letting you go back there.” He shuddered, while I tried not to smile. He’d been more traumatised by Trall’s lecherous attempts on my virtue than I ever was. “Everyone else is waiting until things calm down before they take on the expense of a new employee. The new taxes have been so unsettling, and now there’s some sort of delegation coming from Bennamore. To help us, they say.” He lowered his voice a fraction, leaning closer. “To spy on us, more like. Making sure we do what we’re told.”
“Naturally they want to keep an eye on us,” I said sharply. “That’s common sense. And honestly, the taxes are not very different. People grumble too much.”
He eyed me speculatively, as if wondering whether my waspishness was due to more than just losing my job. He’d suspected Worker Brin of having designs on me, and he wasn’t far wrong, either, but I’d never been tempted. Nor was I interested in Tylk. My heart had been lost many years ago.
I made my way through chill drizzle to my new home. Mistress Jast’s rooming house was small and unassuming. It huddled between two bigger buildings like a poor cousin trying not to be noticed at the family gathering. Inside, the furnishings were shabby and no meals or laundry were provided. However, it was on the quieter, western side of town, with a bathhouse round the corner, and high enough up the hill to escape the worst sewage and fish smells that pervaded the harbour area.
“I guessed I’d be seeing you soon, deary. Come in, come in.” The door opened wide, and I squeezed by Jast, an enormous mountain of flesh with eyes so dark they looked like currants pressed into her doughy face. “You can have the blue room at the top this time, if you like. You won’t mind if I don’t show you the way? I have a batch to go in the oven.”
“Of course not. I know where it is.” Jast never did go upstairs, but she liked to pretend that she still could, if she wanted to.
My room was tiny, tucked under the roof, but it had a shelf for my books and a window with a wide seat overlooking the street. I would be able to read at brightmoon without wasting oil on lamps. The only thing blue about it was the door. Inside, every surface was dull brown or grey, coated with dust. The girl didn’t get up the stairs too often, either, by the look of things.
I went back downstairs and into the big kitchen at the back of the house. Jast lolled in a rocking chair fanning herself, while the girl did something involving a lot of flour, and the boy shuffled around with a broom. Jast always had a girl and a boy working for her. They changed pretty often, but it didn’t much matter. They were all the same; fifteen or thereabouts, sulky and lazy, pretending to work when Jast was watching, but stopping the instant she left the room or fell asleep.
I gave the boy five bits to fetch my boxes from Master Krend’s house, and offered the girl ten to clean my room. I knew she wouldn’t agree to that, but it was a game they all played. Well, I knew how to play that game, too.
She pretended to consider it. “Well… I dunno, see. I got to get the batch in the oven, see.”
“I could do it for a bar, mebbe.”
Now I had her. “Never mind. I’ll get the girl from the laundry to come round.”
“Well… I s’pose twelve’d do.”
“If you make the bed up as well, and leave a basin of hot water for me, I’ll round it up to fifteen.”
She smirked, and took off with surprising alacrity.
Jast’s eyes twinkled. “You were always clever at getting yourself a bargain, Fen. She’s a lazy sow, that one. I didn’t think she’d settle for less than a bar.”
“No point paying that much,” I said. “She won’t do the work any better.” I’d learned over the years just how much to pay; too much and they think you’re a soft touch, but too little and they get their revenge one way or another. I’d never forgotten the dead mouse.
Jast sighed with exaggerated energy, her chins wobbling. “And now who’ll finish my batch?” She waved a languid hand towards the flour-strewn devastation. Jast, or rather the current girl, made several batches of brinies each day, which Jast’s sister sold along the wharves.
“Don’t look at me! I’m a recorder, Jast, I don’t dabble with pastry.”
She sighed again, resigned this time. “Drape that cloth over the mess – yes, that’s the one. It can wait until the girl gets back. Now…” She patted the chair next to her, eyes gleaming with excitement. She leaned across and whispered, “So… tell me all about it. How did he do it in the end?”
I was expecting to be questioned. Even so I was unprepared for the rush of grief that assailed me. There were even tears prickling behind my eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words, so I mimed the noose.
Her face fell. “Well. The traditional ways have a certain style, I suppose. But let’s have all the details. Who found him?”
I stumbled through the tale. The words were surprisingly hard to say, but I held back nothing. It was how the ports dealt with their tragedies, by telling and retelling the tale to each other in glorious minuteness.
When even her vast curiosity was fully sated, it was my turn. “So what else is going on in the world?”
“Well, deary, let me see… Mistress Tranna had her baby, although…” She lowered her voice and shielded her mouth with her hand, even though we were alone. “They say the little one isn’t a bit like her husband. Quite different colouring.”
I smiled dutifully, but Mistress Tranna’s adventurings held no interest for me.
She chuckled, setting the chins awobble again. “You heard about the trouble at the wharves? The new taxes…” A heavy sigh. “Nobody likes paying more, do they? But the Holder was there yesterday talking to the packers, and it’s all settled down again.”
The Holder was a mild-mannered man of learning, clever enough to argue his case with armed Defenders at his back; I wasn’t surprised the packers had gone back to work.
“Oh, yes,” she went on, “and Mistress Sella’s two youngest have been asked to help out at the Holder’s guest house again.”
That was more interesting. “Someone special coming?”
Jast shrugged. “Some people from our new masters, it seems, come to inspect their possession. But Sella’s properly upset about it, because there will be wizards or some such in the party, and she doesn’t want her little ones fried or turned into toads or such like.”
It was an effort not to laugh. “Wizards? You mean mages?” Now that would be interesting.
“Mages? I don’t know… they can do spells and such like. That’s a wizard, isn’t it?”
“In Bennamore they call them mages, and they say they can do spells, but who knows? I suppose it’s some kind of trick, but it would be fun to watch, wouldn’t it?”
She looked at me in horror. “Fun?”
“Of course! But I don’t suppose ordinary people like us will get to see them perform. I wonder why they’re sending them here?”
She shrugged, uninterested, and went on to talk of something else, but I was lost in thought. Bennamore was so protective of its mages, yet some had been sent to each of the three Greater Holdings. Now we, the smallest and least significant of Holdings, were to have our share of magic, too.
It was puzzling. I couldn’t think of a good reason for it.
2: The Mages
When I went back to Tylk’s office the next day to formally register my desire for employment, I found him in a lather of excitement.
“My dear girl, have you heard? Mages! Mages from Bennamore! So astounding, don’t you think?”
“I agree.” We were sitting in Tylk’s private office, so that I could complete my application in private. I scratched away with my pen, while he strode up and down, arms waving. His booming voice rattled the ink pots on the shelf.
“What did we ever do to qualify for such attention, eh?”
“Who knows?” I answered absently, trying to remember dates and addresses. “Tylk, don’t you have all my earlier papers?”
“Of course, dear girl, but you have to start anew, you know.”
“But if you have the old ones, I could copy the details. I can’t remember all the people I’ve worked for over the years. I don’t even remember how many there have been.”
“Fourteen altogether, I believe, and it will be twenty years come the autumn equinox since you arrived here.”
It was flattering to find his memory so exact. He was an irritant, of course, but I could never be cross with him.
He opened drawers, apparently at random, until he found my file. “There you are, dear girl.”
The box was embarrassingly full. Three and a bit years was the longest I’d ever stayed with anyone, and the shortest was two days. Some recorders stayed a lifetime with one employer, whereas I returned time after time to Master Tylk. If I were superstitious, I might think that the Goddess didn’t want me to be a recorder at all.
I settled into my new home with Mistress Jast, as I had so many times before. I paid the girl a half bar each quarter moon to bring me a jug of hot water every morning and deal with my linen, and the same amount to the boy to clean and lay the fire. I came to an arrangement with a brother and sister at the nearest laundry rooms to wash my clothes. Each evening, I went to a cheap soup house for my supper, and in the mornings I could usually pick up brinies to eat, unsold from the day before. Twice each quarter moon, I went to the public bathhouse, grieving for the loss of the indoor bathing room I’d enjoyed at Master Krend’s house.
I spent my days at Master Tylk’s office, interviewing those looking for employment, and matching them with suitable openings. It was copyist’s work, and paid accordingly. It wouldn’t cover my expenses, but I would be the first to know if anything suitable became available. Nothing did.
The mages arrived. Although all sorts of rumours flew about them, reality turned out to be rather more mundane. There were only two men, a father and son, looking just like normal people, so it was said, apart from garish tattoos on their foreheads.
But they were not alone. Tylk leaned down to whisper in my ear one day as I sat at my desk. “You will never guess what I’ve heard!” His voice was loud enough to rattle my teeth. “They are looking for a house to rent, and they have brought a whole household of servants with them!”
I burst out laughing, then whispered back, “Oh dear! But why do they need a house? They could stay in the Holder’s guest house indefinitely. I daresay they could move into the Hold itself, if they felt the desire.”
“They are starting a business, it seems. Although I can’t see what. Do you think they will buy a ship and go whaling?” He chuckled.
“Oh, they’ll be selling love potions, I expect. Or telling fortunes.” I lowered the tone of my voice portentously. “‘You will undertake a long journey across water…’”
He spluttered with laughter and walked away shaking his head at the ways of our foreign masters.
There was much speculation on which house the mages would take. The popular theory was a small place in the merchant quarter, so they could conduct their business on the ground floor, and live upstairs. After all, there were only two of them. If they wanted something more substantial, there was Master Krend’s house in the ship-owners’ quarter.
The mages astonished the population by taking the Red Hold. It was easily the largest private house in Carrinshar, a vast echoing pile half-way up the western cliff, with a fine view over the town and harbour. It also had a high wall all round, which apparently clinched the deal. The mages had a desire for privacy, it seemed. They had even brought their own guards with them from Bennamore.
For a few days all was quiet, but one morning when I arrived at the office, Tylk was waiting for me with barely suppressed glee. “At last! Work for you, my dear girl!” He rubbed his huge hands together, and the long tails of his moustache shivered in sympathetic delight.
“Oh? Something decent?” I hung my coat on a peg and went to get my first hot mug of brew for the day, hugging it to my chest as if it could warm my bones. I was always cold these days.
Tylk followed, bending over to grin into my face. “Very decent. You’ll never guess!” But he didn’t pause long enough for me to try. “It’s the mages. There! What do you think of that?”
The mug of brew stopped half-way to my lips. I stared at him in disbelief. “What do they need a recorder for? Don’t tell me they’re selling their illusions for rounds?”
“They certainly are.” He chortled with delight. “As if anyone would pay silver for their little tricks. But that’s what they charge in Bennamore, it seems, so we are expected to pay the same. It will be dreadfully boring for you. You won’t have many transactions to record.”
I didn’t care two bits about being bored. If they would pay me the regular fee to sit by their fire and eat their food and sleep in a decent bed, with laundry and a bathing room for good measure, I would willingly be bored at their expense.
“I have to send my best five candidates,” he went on, “but three already have work and can’t give notice until next quarter day. The other is Rive, so you’re a certainty.”
I laughed. Rive was a drunkard who hadn’t worked at all for years. Tylk was a good friend to me.
I wore my best clothes for the interview. They weren’t any different from my second or third best clothes, just a little less shabby. My finest sealskin hat and gloves came out for the occasion.
Outside, a wind heavy with sleet whipped around me, and I cursed my thin coat, which preserved my middle ranking respectability, but left me to freeze. If only I could spare the silver for a winter one.
From Mistress Jast’s house, I cut through the winding lanes of the lower cliff, an odd mixture of merchants’ houses, craft shops and the occasional grander residence. As the way steepened, the houses became smaller, crammed in, a hodgepodge of styles, with windblown bushes instead of solid hedges or walls.
I emerged on to level ground with a fine view over the town roofs and the bay beyond. Up here, the wind was fierce, lashing my coat around my legs. My hat was firmly pinned, but I put a hand to it anyway.
A wide ledge had been carved out of the cliff half way up, and the Red Hold took up most of it. The building and its high wall were made from the same stone as the cliff, and were hard to see from below. It was easy to understand why a previous Holder had abandoned the unobtrusive spot for a new, more imposing, residence. A narrow path squeezed between the cliff edge and the wall, and then zigzagged up to join the shining road to the new Hold on the cliff top above.
A wooden gate in the wall stood open and I went through. The house was directly in front of me, a squat box of red stone two storeys high with small windows and an iron-barred door. On one corner a square tower loomed. How I longed to live at the very top, almost as high as the cliff behind, and look out over the walls at that glorious view every day.
A short path led to the front door. Before I reached it, I heard a commotion and the door crashed open. Two men in servants’ clothes appeared, half carrying and half dragging another man who shrieked in protest. Behind them followed a woman, drably dressed, head down. I recognised her, though, and the man being dragged.
“Blessings to you, Mistress ab Rive,” I murmured, as the raucous group passed me by. The woman glanced at me, nodded almost imperceptibly, and scurried after the others. I pitied her, going to all the trouble of getting her husband up here, only to have him thrown out. Drunk already, probably. Still, all the better for me. I was the last to be interviewed, and clearly none of the others had come up to scratch.
I stepped through the open door into a vast galleried hall, furnished in the ornate style fashionable a hundred years ago. Two staircases wound upwards, and several doors led off into the interior. As I stood looking around, bemused, a woman in the uniform of a cook bustled out.
“Ah! You be here about the geese?”
Without a word, she turned and vanished again. This was a strange house, but I supposed mages were strange people, so a little oddity was to be expected.
The two men who had thrown Rive out came back, entering side by side and almost getting stuck in the door. Then they both tried to close the door at once, each trying to push the other aside. It was all I could do to smother my laughter.
At last they turned their attention to me. Now that I could see them clearly, their uniforms were different. One was the house controller, but the other’s garments were the wrong colour, and more flamboyant. Bennamorian.
“Can I help you?” he said.
Before I could reply, the house controller said, “You must be Mistress Recorder Fen?” I turned to him in relief. At last, someone who knew the proper form.
“Yes. I’m here for an interview.”
“Come this way,” the two said simultaneously.
They marched side by side in front of me down a long corridor, and threw open the double doors at the furthest end. It was fortunate that there was a door for each of them, otherwise they might have had another unseemly scuffle over it.
The doors clicked shut behind me, and four faces looked up at me in surprise.
Two were mages, identifiable by the brightly coloured tattoos on their foreheads. The father was perhaps sixty, with a haughty look. His dark hair was only slightly sprinkled with grey. The son was around thirty, already stout, with a round, bland face. They wore their hair long, almost to the shoulders, and were clean-shaven. I’d expected colourful robes, but their clothes were more normal, although expensive and cut very full in the Bennamore style.
The other two wore the armoured leather and tabards of professional soldiers. One was as tall and sturdy as a tree, and just as expressionless. His rumpled clothes, shaggy hair and stubbled chin made me wonder if he’d just got out of bed. The other was a woman, shorter than I was, with broad freckled cheeks, and almost as muscular as the man.
All four of them stared at me as if I were something dredged up from the depths of the ocean.
The older mage coughed. “I beg your pardon, but we are expecting someone for an interview.”
“Yes, that’s me.” I fixed a cheerful smile on my face.
“Oh.” He picked up a paper, and frowned. “You are… Fen?”
“I am.” The smile was becoming rather a strain.
“Oh. I am not sure—” He glanced around at the others. “We were not expecting a woman.”
“I’m fully qualified.” The smile was definitely slipping now. They had a female guard, of all things, yet they were astonished at the idea of a female recorder? What kind of country was Bennamore anyway?
“I’m sure your qualifications are quite admirable… in every respect,” said the tall guard, looking me up and down with a distinct leer.
A joker. Wonderful. I began to wonder if I wanted this job at all.
The older mage tutted and waved me to a chair in front of a huge desk, seating himself behind it. The two guards moved round so that the woman stood behind me, while the tree was to one side. What possible threat they saw in me, I couldn’t say. The younger mage maintained his post by the window, his nose slightly wrinkled, as if he were offended by some foul smell. Or me, perhaps.
“I am Lord Mage Losh and my son is Lord Mage Kael. You are… Fen?”
I thought we’d established that. Maybe magic dulled the brain. “That is how you prefer to be addressed?” I asked, trying to smile pleasantly. “As Lord Mage?”
He looked astonished. “It is my official title, not a matter of liking, Fen.”
“Really? We don’t have lords here.”
“Well, we do in Bennamore!” he snapped. “It is a matter of courtesy.”
“Then perhaps as a matter of courtesy you would care to use my official title, Lord Mage. I am Mistress Recorder Fen, or just Mistress Fen.” I smiled a little wider.
The mage fell silent, eyeing me warily as if he wasn’t quite sure whether this was deliberately offensive or a clever joke. The younger mage looked at his father, his face a picture of bewilderment. The tree scratched his nose. No sign of intelligent life there at all.
I waited. It was just as well to begin on the proper footing, so they understood my position fully. It would be fatal if they mistook me for a servant. There was always the risk they would be insulted and throw me out, but they couldn’t conduct their business without me, so I felt safe enough.
Sure enough, the older mage decided to be amused by my presumption. “Very well, Mistress Recorder Fen. You are fully qualified, you say?”
“You have my details, I believe.”
“Oh, somewhere.” He scuffled paper ineffectually about the desk. “I have not had time to read everything yet. You are employed at the moment?”
“Not at present, no. I am free to begin whenever you wish.”
“And why did you leave your previous employer?”
“He – died.” Best not to confuse them with details. As foreigners, they might not understand the social niceties of the Port Holdings.
He made sympathetic noises. To my relief, he asked nothing more about it. We moved on to my years of experience, and I was trying to avoid revealing just how many different jobs I’d held over those years, when there were sounds of an argument outside the door. I guessed it was the two doormen again.
“Your servants aren’t quite settled, by the sound of things,” I said, with another cheery smile.
He sighed. “There are servants already here. It is most inconvenient. We are having trouble getting rid of them.”
“Oh, you can’t,” I said briskly. “They’re part of the house, like the furniture. Much better to send your own back to Bennamore. You don’t need them.”
“We can hardly do that, you know. We have always had our own people. Most awkward to live amongst strangers.”
“Well, that’s how things are done here. You can keep a few personal servants – a cook or two, a dresser, your bodyguards. But you don’t need two people to carry firewood, or pluck the geese, or open the door. If you leave everything to the house controller, the place will run as smoothly as a well-oiled wagon. You won’t even see the servants.”
The older mage nodded slowly, digesting this. “Fen — Mistress Fen, I should like to engage you as a recorder, but I hope you will also undertake some special additional duties.”
Dragon’s scales. Special duties? And we were getting along so well, too.
I rose smartly to my feet. “I bid you a good day, Lord Mage Losh. The law prescribes my role, no variation is permitted.” One or two had hoped for special duties from me before, but none had suggested it quite so blatantly.
He jumped up too, and rushed round the desk, his face filled with alarm. “No, no, no, I meant no insult, I assure you! I only hoped —” His hands waved about, as if to wipe out the perceived affront. “Mistress Fen, we are strangers here, alone in a foreign land. We know nothing of your ways. It would be most helpful if you could… advise us. Would that be contrary to your laws?”
Ah, that was all right. A surge of excitement raced through me, for this was working out better than I’d dared to hope. I allowed myself to think with satisfaction of a blazing fire in my room whenever I wanted, and three hot meals a day. And a private bathing room. Such bliss.
I inclined my head graciously. “I believe that would be permissible. I’m sure we can agree terms.”
“Terms? The fees are fixed, I am given to understand?”
“For my recording duties, Lord Mage. Any advice on local customs and so forth would be in addition, of course.”
“Ah. I see. Very well. When can you start work, do you think?”
“I can move in today, if you wish.”
I sighed inwardly. Had the man read nothing of the required terms? “A recorder always lives in the employer’s house, Lord Mage.”
For a moment I hesitated, but if I didn’t ask outright, they might not think of it. “Unless you have other plans for the tower, I should prefer a suite there. I shall take all meals with the family. If you admit clients to the house, I must attend as well. If you leave the house in your professional capacity, I shall accompany you. This is to ensure you transact no business without my presence. As required by law.”
His mouth flapped open like a fish.
I was tempted to laugh. “This is acceptable to you?”
He nodded, apparently unable to speak.
“Good. Perhaps you would like me to discuss the servant problem with the house controller for you? The sooner the better, you know. And have you given any orders for supper tonight? What do you like to eat?”
It was the son who answered. “Venison. And some pigeon or pheasant or some such. I am sick of fish.”
“I’ll arrange it. I shall see you at the noon table, Lord Mage Losh, Lord Mage Kael.”
And with that I swept out, triumphant.
3: The Tower
The house controller’s office was beside the front door, and it was the work of a few moments to pass on the mages’ orders. The house controller looked exultant. His Bennamorian opposite number bowed and withdrew stiffly without a word.
I asked to be shown to my room at the top of the tower. The controller bowed, and with no more than a score of words sent servants scurrying for linens, firewood, ewers of water and towels. He led the way with stately steps to a heavy wooden door with iron hinges, and up the narrow staircase beyond.
By the time we had progressed to the top, there was quite a long procession of laden servants behind us, including two boys carrying large vases of flowers. Such attention to detail was admirable, although I had no idea where they found fresh flowers so early in the year. It was apparent I would be very comfortable here.
The controller threw open the door, and I almost gasped in delight. With every new employer, I had asked for a suite, but they all had children and aunts and cousins, together with hordes of other hangers-on, making their houses as cramped as a beehive. The best I’d ever managed was a small dressing room off the bedroom. Once, just once, I’d had a private room for washing in.
But this was a proper suite with its own entrance hall, a large sitting room, a bedroom almost as big, a smaller second bedroom, a sizeable dressing room lined with closets, and – oh joy! – my own bathing room, with a tub and valves and hot water pipes wide enough to hang towels on. I walked from room to room in a daze, as dust sheets were whisked away, curtains and shutters flung open, fires laid in both the larger rooms and the bed made up. I was so overjoyed I couldn’t speak. It was perfect.
When I came back into the sitting room, now smelling of apple-wood and spring blossoms and beeswax polish, I found the tree-like guard lounging against the door post, idly picking at his teeth. He watched me with amusement.
“You must have a head for heights, wanting to live all the way up here,” he drawled, his Bennamore accent strong. “You’ll be like one of those fair ladies from the legends, locked up in towers by their fathers.”
His mouth quirked up at the corners. Was he flirting with me? What a nerve.
“Not very like,” I said repressively. “At least I shall be able to come and go as I please.”
“But alike in another way, I’d say,” he smirked. Was that a wink?
I rolled my eyes. “Have you no duties needing your attention, Master Guard? Or are you here to supervise the removal of dust sheets?”
He laughed and walked further into the room, plucking a small pink flower from a vase. “I came to see what the attraction was in this dank old tower, but now that the fires are lit, I begin to get the point.” One arm swept around to encompass the whole room.
“The attraction is over there.” I pointed to the window.
“The view?” He strode across the room, his long legs reaching the window in a few strides. “Ah! The whole bay. But what is that building there?” He beamed innocently at me.
I sighed. I knew what he was doing, of course, but I didn’t want to be rude to someone who could influence my employers. Not yet, anyway. “That is the light tower. It shines a lantern on dark nights to keep ships from smashing onto the rocks below. And now, even if you have nothing better to do than admire the ocean, I do.”
He made a deep bow, and ushered me towards the stairs. “Let me not keep you from your appointed tasks, fair lady.”
With a lascivious grin, he tucked the flower behind my ear.
It was all I could do not to slap him.
That day’s noon table was the finest meal I’d enjoyed in years. Master Krend had always kept a generous table, but not imaginative. We’d lived on fish, fish and more fish, with greasy pork stews and thin soups. Roast meat was only for festivals. The mages, bless them, liked a wider array of food, and plenty of it. There was boiled chicken, cold duck legs, potted and smoked beef, several kinds of eggs, cheeses and three kinds of bread. And fish, of course, but that wasn’t unusual enough to be interesting. It was all cold, since the kitchens were still in disarray, but I didn’t care about that.
There were seven of us at table. Apart from the two mages, the guards and me, there were two other men there. One was older, with stringy reddish hair, his attention all on the mages.
The other man was younger, perhaps my age, dark haired and wiry, and made straight for me. “The Blessings of the Goddess to you, Mistress.” He touched his chin respectfully.
“You are from the Holdings?” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice. He wore the same style of clothes as the others, his hair was long and his face as beardless as a child’s. He even spoke with a Bennamore accent.
“Yes, from Dellonar, but my family worked the trade routes and I settled in Yannitore when I met Lenya.” He indicated the female guard.
“The very pleasant town we all come from.” The tall guard appeared at my shoulder.
Somewhere in Bennamore, then. I wondered why they left it at all, if it was so pleasant.
While we ate, I said next to nothing, paying no attention to them. They were self-consciously cheerful at first, but after a while they forgot I was there and relaxed, and I learned something about them.
The older mage, Losh, was clearly the leader. The others quieted when he spoke and listened respectfully. No one disagreed with him. The younger mage said nothing and was ignored. The other older man seldom spoke, but Losh took notice of his opinions.
Lenya, the female guard, chattered incessantly to the Holdings man, who smiled and laughed at every little joke, leaning in towards her. The tree-like guard seldom spoke, occasionally asking how I liked the food, or reaching something for me. But when the meal was finished and the others drifted away from the table, he slid his chair nearer to mine.
“Would you like an apple, fair lady?” With a wolfish grin he twirled one hand and unfurled his fingers to reveal the fruit, wrinkled but enticingly red.
I didn’t want to encourage him, but the fruit was so tempting. “I — Thank you, Master Guard.”
“Mallaron. Or just Mal, if you prefer.”
I concentrated on cutting the apple. So white and juicy inside, so delicious. When had I last eaten fresh fruit? And at this time of year, too. I crunched each piece, then licked the juice from my lips, not wanting to waste a drop.
When I looked his way again, he was grinning inanely at me. I suppose my enjoyment amused him. I didn’t care. There is a simple pleasure in good food, and I wasn’t ashamed of my indulgence.
“So, fair lady, you have been observing us for an hour. Do you have us sorted out?” His voice was low enough not to be overheard.
I said nothing, mopping up the apple juice on my plate with bread.
He didn’t wait for an answer. “Lord Mage Losh and Corsell are lovers, I expect you spotted that. Corsell is also his dresser. They’ve been together for years. Lord Mage Kael is unattached, but I don’t recommend you try your luck there. He’s – strange.” He lowered his voice, although it was already low enough not to be overheard. “Fortunately for you, I am also unattached, and available for any kind of affair you may desire, short or long.” He grinned at me, but I ignored him. “And Lenya is married to Wornest, one of your people.”
That forced a response from me. “Hardly! He’s from Dellonar.” I wrinkled my nose.
His eyes lit up with glee. “Oh, tell me all! What’s wrong with the place?”
“It’s lawless, full of drunken miners. The civilised Port Holdings are from Shannamar to Greet Bay, and not beyond.”
“What about Bennamore? Is that civilised?”
“You rose against a peaceful ally with an army, Master Guard. You tell me.”
He smiled at me and nodded, but made no response.
I had no trouble settling into the Red Hold. I was allowed fires in my rooms day and night, and I woke each morning to find the girl had already crept in to build a good blaze. Once the kitchens settled down, there was hot food on the table for every meal, and roast meat in the evening. I bathed twice a day in my own tub. It was blissful.
There was no work yet for the mages. They had put out the word that their powers could be purchased for silver – healings and blessings, apparently – but so far there were no takers.
With no transactions to record, I had little to do. The two mages could read and write perfectly well, so I was not needed for secretarial work. I spent an hour each morning with them, educating them in Holding ways, or explaining our history and laws.
The younger one blinked at me vacantly. The older one listened and asked penetrating questions. He had read my details in full now, and wanted to know all about my time in Carrinshar. He asked about my previous life, naturally, but I closed down that line of inquiry very quickly.
I asked why it was that Bennamore had sent mages to Carrinshar, one of the smallest and least important Holdings. The older mage laughed at the question.
“There is a road that leads directly south from Riverbend to Carrinshar, one of the few paved roads between Bennamore and the coast. Never underestimate the importance of a good road, Fen.”
I couldn’t quite agree with him there. Give me a sturdy ship, and I’d take the sea and rivers over his good roads any day. Everywhere of importance could be reached by water. But I didn’t want to argue the point.
“There will be mages in every coastal town, in time, but we have to start somewhere, would you not agree?” He beamed at me, and I smiled obediently back.
He seemed a benevolent old man, but he was abrupt with the servants, and querulous when anything was amiss. Used to his own way, I guessed. He kept his claws hidden with me, but I was careful not to upset him. As to the younger mage, I wasn’t sure there was anything to hide. His habitual expression was bored blankness, varied by hand-wringing anxiety if anything out of the ordinary occurred. I set him down as simple. Hardly surprising in a man of thirty still trailing in his father’s wake.
Apart from these teaching sessions, my time was my own. I soon learned the routine of the household. The Bennamorians kept very regular hours, so it wasn’t difficult to predict where they would be at any given hour. The servants’ schedule was even more rigid. During part of each day, I was free to prowl around unobserved, exploring. It was the best part of a new job, finding out all the secret hiding places.
Some were obvious: the mages kept their money locked away in a cupboard built into the massive desk in the study, but I left that alone for now. The older mage had a smaller box in his bedroom. The lock yielded easily to my fingers, but the contents were disappointing. Only a few pieces of cheap jewelry, some letters, which I didn’t read, a feather and several dried flowers.
Surprisingly, the tall guard had a huge box in a corner of his bedroom, secured with a complex lock and screwed firmly to the floor. I couldn’t get into it, though. Not because the lock defeated me, but because he’d piled spare shields and armoured leather gear and mail and the Goddess knows what else on top of it, all haphazardly stacked. There was no possibility of opening it silently or quickly.
There was nothing else of interest to me in the Bennamorians’ rooms. Naturally, I never went near the servants’ quarters in the basement; only the wealthier inhabitants interested me.
Once I’d been all over the house, the only option left was the gardens, unusually extensive for a Holding house. This had been the home of the earliest Holders at Carrinshar, who had lived surrounded by their soldiers, the Defenders, just as now. The high walls had once sheltered an armed encampment, complete with slaughter herds and stables, brewery and bakery, armoury, smithy and barracks, all the necessities of a defensive existence. There were extensive cellars for storage, and the usual escape tunnels, in this case running into the cliff, so it was said. They were seldom needed these days, for the Port Holdings no longer conducted wars against neighbours, but every Hold still had its escape routes.
All the outbuildings were long gone, and now the house was surrounded by pleasant gardens, filled with herbs and aromatic shrubs and orchards. It was pleasant to stroll along the meandering pathways, sheltered from the chill southern wind, and imagine the beauty of the shrubbery in summer or the fruitfulness of the orchard in autumn.
Quite often my peaceful walk was disturbed by the two guards, who trained with fierce determination, chasing each other along the paths at great speed, or firing arrows at targets with focused precision. Occasionally the clash of metal betrayed their sword practice, and they would attack each other with surprising ferocity, as if they were mortal enemies. Afterwards, the helmets were hurled aside, and they clapped each other on the shoulder and laughed, the best of friends.
It was many years since I’d watched swordsmen training. I was surprised how much I remembered of the art. These two were less skilled than Defenders, of course, and they used a coarser weapon. Even so, they displayed surprising agility and speed.
“I saw you watching us training, fair lady,” the tall guard said one day as we sat down at table. “You pretended to be examining those bushes with the pink leaves, but really you were admiring my skill at arms.” He leaned close to me so that his words were barely above a whisper.
“Really, I was not.” I leaned away.
“Admiring your skill? No. You are quick on your feet, certainly, but you favour your right side too much. You’d be helpless against a left-handed opponent.”
“And how many of those are there in the world?”
“In the world? Not so many, perhaps. But here in the Holdings, boys who favour their left arm are specially selected for the Defenders, and make up half the numbers. Defenders train in groups of four, two left-handed and two right-handed. I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Master Guard.”
His eyebrows lifted, but he said nothing more. It would be nice to think I’d silenced him permanently, but I had no such expectation.
I was in the garden one day, when one of the kitchen boys raced out to find me. “Quick! You’re wanted right now, see!”
I found the mages in a fluster of excitement. A message had come from the harbour-master. A child of the household was sick, and could the mages come and see if they could do anything to help? I was almost as excited as they were. Finally, I would get to see them perform their little tricks. I was avid to find out how it worked. An incantation, I guessed, and maybe a bit of hand-waving. Dancing, even. Perhaps there would be smoke, or coloured scarves, or aromatic oils.
I went for my badge of office and recording box. When I returned to the entrance hall, the mages were dressed in flowing robes in a deep green colour. The older one carried a carved wooden staff, and the younger one had a heavy stone in one hand. Their magical accoutrements, I suppose. It was all I could do not to laugh.
Then the guards arrived, strapping on swords, with long knives attached to their belts.
“No, no, no!” I said, hands raised in alarm. “You can’t go outside like that!”
The tall guard raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”
“Swords – knives – you can’t walk round brandishing weapons like that.”
“We don’t intend to brandish them if we can help it, but we’d be fairly useless guards without them. It’s our job to protect the mages when they go out.”
“Protect them from what?”
The older mage smiled, eyebrows lifted. “I am sure our ways are odd to you, Fen, but this is how we do things. You will get used to the idea.”
I clucked my tongue at him. “It’s not a matter of getting used to it, Lord Mage. The robes – well, I suppose I may eventually get used to that. But swords— only the Defenders are allowed to walk through the Holding wearing a sword, or any kind of sharp weapon. Even the Watchers only carry a club. That’s the law.”
He shook his head sorrowfully. “And our law says that every mage must be accompanied by a guard equipped with a sword when outside the mages’ house. That is Bennamore law.”
“This is not Bennamore!”
He sighed. “Yes, it is.”
There was a long silence. I couldn’t believe they would be so brazen as to walk down to the harbour openly wearing swords. They could see nothing wrong with it. I suppose they were right, in a way. This was a part of Bennamore now, so their laws took precedence. Perhaps.
“Very well,” I said, fastening my coat tightly. “Let the responsibility be yours. I have advised you. I can do no more than that.”
The tall guard opened the door and led the way outside.
4: A Healing
A sleety wind nipped at us as soon as we left the shelter of the walls. The mages’ green robes were not the flimsy silk I was expecting, but they were not heavy enough to withstand the gusts. Since they were open at the front, they quickly flapped free and then tangled themselves like wet sheets. The mages made no complaint, walking in file down the path, one guard in front and one behind. I trotted along at the rear, envying the guards their armoured leather, thick boots and heavy woollen cloaks. The wind was no bother to them. I pulled my coat more tightly around me.
We snaked down the hill into the town, gradually reaching the larger houses, and onto the main road winding down to the harbour. Here, for the first time, we encountered others out and about, and our little procession drew some attention. Passers-by stopped to stare at us, and whispered behind their hands. A group of workers busily repainting windows set down their brushes and stood, arms folded, to watch us pass, their expressions unfriendly. The mages sailed on, taking no notice.
Sheep and goats filled the market square today. The farmers stopped their haggling to gawk as we skirted the packed animal pens and avoided escaped chickens. It was unfortunate that the herring fleet was in, too. The quays were busy and crowds loitered outside the bars and soup houses. One or two drunks jeered at us. “Go back to Bennamore!” one shouted. “We don’t want no wizards here!”
I will give the mages credit, they showed not the slightest nervousness or hesitation. They sailed through the confusion with great dignity, ignoring the rabble. Even so, I was very glad to reach the harbour-master’s house, and not just for the welcome warmth.
While the mages consulted with the child’s mother, the rest of us huddled round a fire blazing in the centre of the entrance hall.
The tree-like guard inched round to stand beside me. “You look blue with cold, fair lady. Don’t you have a cloak?”
Goddess, the man was annoying.
“I’m a recorder,” I snapped. “I don’t expect to trail round the streets. Only outdoor workers wear cloaks.”
“Perhaps you need a thicker coat, then.”
“How observant of you. I’ll be sure to consider that when I get my salary next quarter day. It might be enough for me to buy a sleeve.”
He laughed, thinking I was joking, but decent clothing was expensive. I hated handing over my earnings to a smug tailor who sat about with a needle all day, bitching about what an awkward skinny shape I was, and how difficult to clothe. And then they took forever to do the work they were paid for. Still, if the mages were going to make a habit of visiting their clients, I would need a winter coat, and that would mean plundering my savings.
“Mistress Recorder?” The harbour-master drew me to a quiet corner, looking askance at the guards with their swords. I’d never met him before, for he was far above my station, but he was much as I’d expected; a weather-worn, middle-aged man, with the waist-length beard of a sea captain.
“Can they do what they say, these people?” he murmured.
“I have no idea. I’ve not seen them perform yet.”
“It’s a lot of money. They want three rounds in advance, but they don’t guarantee anything. I mean, with the herbalist, at least you can see what you’re getting, even if it doesn’t work. These people – these mages – they just say some words… a spell, they call it. But anyone can say words, can’t they?” He stroked his thick beard. “We’ve been burning candles to the Goddess and saying all the healing prayers ever since the poor child took ill. I don’t see what these people can do that’s any different. But my sister’s distraught… her only child, and her husband went to the depths three years ago. We have to try everything.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. I had the same misgivings, the same suspicion of trickery. Expensive trickery, at that. Three rounds! That was a third of a year’s salary for me. A sailor would never have so much coin in his hand.
The harbour-master led us into his office to make the payment, just the two mages and me. He insisted that the guards wait in the entrance hall. He unlocked his coin box and placed three silver rounds on the desk, and three copper bits next to them.
“What are those for?” It was the first time the younger mage had spoken since we left the Red Hold. “Three silvers, that is the deal.” I’d never seen him so alert.
“The recorder’s fee,” the harbour-master answered patiently. “She gets one bit for every round.”
“That is so, Kael,” said the older mage. “It is all in the contract.”
“We pay her a salary. Why does she get a transaction fee as well?”
“That is just how it is. The client pays it, not us.”
Kael grunted, looking suspiciously at me, as if this were some devious scheme I’d invented. Then he swept the three bits off the table and dropped them into my hand, closing my fingers around them with clammy hands. The silvers were dropped into his own leather purse, deftly retied and tucked away again.
I would never have suspected he was the money man of the family.
It took a few minutes for me to write the transaction into my new book. The mage and I signed it, then the harbour-master added his mark.
Back in the entrance hall, the harbour-master indicated a door. “The child’s room is through this way.”
“You can wait here, Fen,” the older mage said. “Your job is finished now.”
“I have to observe the transaction in full. To ensure that the client receives the agreed item.”
He sighed. “Very well. But say nothing, you understand? This requires concentration, we cannot have distractions. None of you must speak once we are at work. Allow me to talk to the child freely, and do not interrupt.” His gaze swept over the harbour-master and his sister. They nodded, eyes wide. They’d just paid a great deal of money for this, they were hardly likely to disrupt the occasion.
The door led to a dark corridor, which, after several turns, brought us to a cramped rear quarter of the building. Several servants huddling outside the child’s room were shooed away before we went in.
It was a tiny room, stuffy and gloomy, for the curtains were shut fast. A brazier burned fitfully. Three low pallets lined the walls, but only one was occupied. All I could see was a froth of yellow hair and a curled-up lump under the blankets.
The older mage chased out three women weeping in a corner. He strode across the room and flung open the curtains. Next he opened the window. A gale howled in, bringing flurries of snow, so he adjusted it to stay open a crack. The sick child made a noise and rolled over to face the wall.
“The light is painful for her,” the mother whispered. She knelt down beside the child. “Lucinna? Lucinna, my sweet, someone is here to help you. He’s going to place his hands on you and then you’ll be all better. Won’t that be lovely?”
The child said nothing. The older mage knelt down on the floor and spoke to her with surprising gentleness. I’d set him down as arrogant, like all the Bennamore folk, not a man much used to lowering himself to be kind. But if he thought himself a healer, perhaps it was a part of the job. And who knew, maybe such gentleness was enough to effect a cure in some patients? That could be the source of his reputation.
After a while, the child turned onto her back, although her eyes were still screwed up against the light. She was pale as death, with the slick sheen of fever on her skin. With his staff in one hand, the mage laid the other on her damp forehead and sat motionless, head bowed, eyes closed, for many minutes. At length he rose again.
“Would you mind if my esteemed colleague tries too? He is learning the skill, and the experience would be most beneficial.”
The mother nodded her assent, and the younger mage, Kael, repeated the whole ritual, holding his stone sphere. The child lay unmoving the whole time. Nothing seemed to happen.
The older mage began a long chant. I couldn’t even tell what language it was. Some words seemed familiar, but there was a lot that I couldn’t get at all. And the rhythm was queer, oddly staccato. Then he knelt down and went through the whole eyes closed business again.
Getting to his feet, he smiled. “All done. She will improve now. Good day to you.”
Well, that was dull, to be sure. No lights or smoke or dancing. No indication that anything had happened at all. I could see the astonishment on the mother’s face as the mages left the room.
She rushed across to the child. “Lucinna? What happened?”
A sliver of a voice. “It was warm. Inside.” A tiny cough. But no sign of the fever abating.
I caught up with the mages in the entrance hall. “That’s it? Did it work?”
The older one nodded solemnly. “I believe there was some improvement, yes. Magic is not just fireballs and lightning, Fen. It is far more subtle than that.”
Of course it is, old man. Just keep paying me and I’ll keep going along with that. I caught a glimpse of the harbour-master’s face. He shrugged and rolled his eyes. He was as cynical as I was.
The harbour-master shuffled us outside as quickly as was decent, and shut the door on us. We stood on the step, blinking in the soft-falling snow.
At once I was aware of the change. The crowds were much thicker now, encircling us. All the usual market-day bustle had coalesced here, around the harbour-master’s house. Word of our presence had spread and the hostility was palpable.
As we emerged, a low rumble emanated from them, like thunder. The mages took a few paces forward, and then stopped, uncertain. The way we’d come, the road up the hill, was filled with people. The guards moved to the front, eyes scanning the mob. Lenya rested one hand on her sword hilt.
I tugged at the tall guard’s arm. “Up to the left. The Hold road is clear.”
“Can we get home that way?”
“There’s a path, yes.”
He muttered some instructions to the others and slowly we made our way towards the white-paved road. We had to pass a group of bars, their patrons spilling onto the road, but beyond that the way was clear.
At first it seemed we would be allowed to pass unmolested. The murmur rose to a roar. Amidst the tumult I heard, “Go back to Bennamore!” and “None of your trickery here!” But the crowd parted before us and closed in again behind. Step by cautious step we moved forward, although my thumping heart refused to quieten. The end of the buildings was in sight and beyond that the white road shone, empty and safe. I breathed a little easier.
The older mage was serene, as calm as if this were just a pleasure stroll, but the young one, Kael, was jittery, muttering under his breath and turning his sphere device round and round in his hands. The guards were stony-faced, eyes flicking back and forth, cloaks pushed back so they could draw their weapons with ease. I skittered along in their wake, blinking the snow out of my eyes.
I don’t know what happened, but something changed. Maybe one of the watching crowd took exception to something about us. Maybe they were simply spoiling for a fight. Whatever it was, one of them threw something and within seconds we were in the midst of a storm, as hurled gravel from the road rained down on us. The noise was deafening. A pebble caught my cheek, and I gasped at the stab of pain.
The guards drew their swords in unison with a blood-chilling yell, and pushed the two mages behind them. The crowd fell back a little, jumping out of the way of their swords as they prowled round, then closing back in after they passed.
In the confusion, I found myself outside the sweeping swords. Hands reached for me, pulling me into the crowd. Now the shouts and jeers were all around me, voices shrieked in my ear, elbows thumped me, I was pushed this way and that. I clutched my recorder’s box like a shield. I think I screamed.
Then the tall guard loomed over me, his face a mask. He yelled at the mob, waving his sword, and they jumped aside. Grabbing my arm, he dragged me over to the two mages. He shouted something at me, but I couldn’t make it out. He turned away to the mob.
Kael shook from head to foot, eyes almost popping out of his head. His father had hold of his arm, trying to calm him. He shook himself free and a great roar burst from him, louder and louder, until I thought my head would burst.
His arms shot forward, one hand clutching the stone sphere, the other outstretched, fingers wiggling.
“No!” shrieked his father.
Too late. Great sheets of flame shot from Kael’s fingers, leaping thirty feet or more, passing barely above the heads of the crowd.
Instantly, there was chaos. Screaming, smoke rising, arms frantically waving, the all-pervading smell of burning. The mob scrambled away from us, tripping over each other, men grabbing women, women pulling children, crying, yelling, running. They poured over the Hold road, blocking it, but for an instant the way up the hill was clear.
“Run!” yelled the guards in unison.