Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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Wood, Mud, Blood

by Mark Ward


Dusk at the Low gate. The sun dodged below the battlements like a thief, surrendering the city to shadows. A tattered ribbon of crimson crowds curved toward the horizon like the pennants of horsemen pursuing the vanishing light.

Edmund Farrier walked toward the Ostler's Arms tucked by the arched gate, carrying hope like a stone. For once the difference between his humble origins and the sons of the rich at The College might work in his favor. He would bet that none of those well-favored fools knew about it or its popularity with the ranks.

Master Sinjon had sent the apprentices into the city to find Captain Carter. Sinjon promised that whoever found him would get the task of sorting out the trouble the Captain had created on his last patrol. The scent of advancement in the hall after his words fell on the gathered apprentices was ripe. It would be far, far better than helping with a demonstration or copying occult sigils. It would mean proper work, wizardry. If he was right. If.

The inn door banged open. Light and a soldier spilled on to the cobbles. The man bounced off the door jamb, muttered an apology, then lurched up the street. Edmund stepped aside as he stumbled past. The bandy legs pegged him as a horseman. The azure fess on the surcoat was Milord Southam's device and, glory, the 56 and winged horse stitched high on his right shoulder showed he rode with Carter. And there were more in the tavern if the tumult rumbling from it was any guide. Carter himself?

Edmund slipped in the door and stood by the jamb. The noise beat on his face like heat from a fire. Drunken soldiers stood, sat, staggered and sang everywhere in the low-roofed room. Then Edmund saw, beyond the shifting curtain of men, in the corner, Carter, a jug of wine and clay cup on a table before him.

For a moment Edmund wondered if he should use the wrap of flash powder in his pocket to stun the soldiers to silence, then remembered Master Sinjon's words about the appearance of magic working better than a spell. About the respect the office of magus drew forth and how it could make subjects of kings. "Or Captains," Edmund muttered as he stepped forward.

At every step he waited until the soused soldiers in his way noticed him staring at them. They fell back and cleared the route to Carter. Edmund approached, feeling like he was stepping into the maw of some huge beast.

"You there! What do you want?" said an officer seated close by Carter.

Edmund fixed his gaze on Carter: "I -- no, not I. Master Sinjon has sent me to ask, no, to tell Captain Carter to justify his actions while on patrol. To explain how he has managed to set the North Country in such a state that they petition the Master for aid."

Carter's gaze swung round. Edmund winced as it fell on him.

"And why would they send a boy to do a man's job?" said Carter.

"Because the last time they sent a man on an errand, the artless idiot made an utter dog's arse of it."

Carter cocked an eyebrow. Then drew his sabre and laid the ringing blade on the table. Every other soldier in the room did the same. They glittered in the firelight like teeth.

Edmund stepped forward, heavy hope making his feet drag, and ran a thumb along Carter's blade. It was blunt in three, no four, places and had a nick toward the point.

"Ludkin," Carter said. "More than I've ever seen gathered together. We met them, cut them up, used them for target practice. They were in pieces when we left."

"They didn't stay that way. Some powerful magic kept them alive. Sent them crazy. Master Sinjon fears a renegade magus is at work. The rebellion came out of the north last time too. Where did this happen?"

"In the old forest, near Trowthwaite. We turned off the main road on the last ridge before the valley holding the village. You know the way?"

"No, the Shire reeve has sent a deputy, I'll take him with me."

"With you?"

"Aye. It's my task to sort out the mess.

"Be careful then lad. Be sure they are not sending a boy because no man will go and take a chance."

"Take a chance on what?"

"Making an even bigger dog's arse of it than I managed."

####

"Magus! Magister! Here, hoof prints, lots of them."

Edmund spurred his horse.

"We're getting close," Edmund said. "See, the tracks are regular, well-spaced because they were riding in formation. Well-trained troops too. Carter's patrol. Walk on."

When they found the site they stopped, left speechless by it. The slope on the far side of the ridge looked ploughed so much soil had been exposed. Ribbons of turf like flayed skins had slid down the incline. Soil, stones and scalps of yellow grass lay in a drift against the trunks of the trees spread about the hill.

Edmund stroked the horse's shoulder to calm him, then dismounted and unhooked a canvas bag from the pommel. He crooned to it as he set it down.

With the drawstring loose, Edmund squatted and let the bag pool around the lump of grey clay within. With a thumb he poked two eyes and a shaky grin near its top then leaned close and breathed on the eyes until they wept tears milky as cataracts.

"Ruh," he said.

In an eyeblink the lump became a pillar. In another a seam climbed from its base and others formed in each side. The seams pierced the pillar to form legs and arms. The top chunk wobbled as a high band narrowed to a squat neck and the crude features slid down to become a face. The creature looked at its arms as fingers formed and occult symbols swam into view all over it. The pot-bellied homunculus looked up at Edmund, its eyes glowing like banked coals, and croaked out a guttural phrase.

"I know," Edmund said, "much too long, but we were travelling and for that need I beg your pardon and salute your patience. But now, clever Ruh, I ask your aid. Take your exercise and tell me, in your wisdom, what is at work here." He gestured down the slope.

Ruh nodded, stretched and, with a swagger, started down the hillside.

"Is that a...,"

"Yes," Edmund said, "That is a...; now be quiet and let it work."

"What's it doing?" Dummock whispered, then ducked as a clod of earth tumbled past. Down the hill Ruh hissed.

Edmund hauled the fat man away. "Finding out what happened. There's no sorceror registered for this valley, for anywhere near. I want to know what we're up against. See to the horses."

The homunculus traversed the slope gathering narrow lengths of wood into a pile. When it settled next to the heap, Edmund strode down the hill. The jagged splinters it had stuck in its back made it resemble a homespun hedgehog. As Edmund approached, Ruh reached round, grabbed a chunk and jammed it in its crude mouth. When the wood cracked its eyes glowed deep red.

"So many?"

Ruh nodded and showed a mouthful of splinters. "Lots. Trouble. Big trouble. Powerful magus." It cocked a finger. "More than you."

From the pile Edmund picked part of a broom handle. A sabre slash had split it and one of the sigils carved on it. He handed it to Ruh who held it next to its left forearm which bore a whole copy of the same symbol.

"Dummock!"

"Meister? Magister?" He stumbled down the slope, skidded, and ended up on his arse at Edmund's feet.

"What do you know about the folk of Trowthwaite?"

He thought for a long moment, then said: "They're trouble."

It wouldn't take much to trouble you, Edmund thought, remembering how long Dummock took to spell out coins at the inn when settling their bill.

Ruh stood, pointed and spat like a cat.

"Where?"

"What is it?" Dummock scuttled through the mud to get behind Edmund and Ruh.

The bushes quivered where Ruh pointed. A heavy something dragged itself through the undergrowth. A chain clanked. Then the bushes quivered again further across the slope.

Edmund strode down the hill. "Ruh, prepare yourself."

He scanned the low bushes, tumbled sods and piled soil, seeking what lurked in the gloom beneath the trees. Still watching, he directed Ruh to his left. As he started to fold the fingers of his outstretched hand Ruh began chanting. Symbols on its chest glowed as its voice rose.

Edmund darted forward and heaved a brown shape on to the earth between him and the homunculus.

Shrieking, Ruh raised its left hand, then stopped. The symbols upon it faded and it coughed splinters on to the twisting figure. "Bah. No fun. Just ludkin."

Half a wooden man lay on the bare earth. It had no legs and sabre cuts scored its symbol-covered torso. One arm flailed as it sought a hold to haul itself forward. Its other hand held a bucket half full of watery mud, stones and broken bracken. The ludkin paused and lifted its blank face.

"Stop it moving," Edmund said, walking away.

Ruh rubbed its hands together.

"Don't destroy it, I'll need it to show the good folk of Trowthwaite what real magic is all about. To flush out the power behind this sorry mess."

Ruh scowled, then jumped on the ludkin's back while it tried to haul itself up the hill. The homunculus jammed a hand in a sword cut that almost divided one symbol on the ludkin's torso. It made a fist; the cut split open with a crack and the ludkin shivered, lifted a hand toward the sky then slumped and lay still amid the bowed weeds.

####

Edmund stood in the stirrups and peered down the road seeking Dummock in the crowd gathered in the centre of Trowthwaite.

"Come on, come on you fat fool," Edmund muttered, "any longer and they'll spot me and all this preparation will be for nothing."

Then, in the fading light, he saw a figure rise above the others, like they had stepped on something. Dummock? The fat figure gestured up the road and the top of the crowd turned pink as people turned to look.

Dummock.

A roar and bright white light bloomed behind Edmund. His horse reared, Edmund clung on wincing as Ruh's fingers pinched his neck.

The horse dug in his hooves, hit his stride and arrowed toward Trowthwaite. Ruh, feet planted on the horse's broad back, began a chant. Edmund glanced back to check the broken ludkin was being dragged behind and flash powder spilled from the bags pinned to it.

He crushed the tellstone in his hand and fire flared as the counter-stone ignited a can of flash powder. Flames danced down the powder trail, following their progress. Edmund bent over the horse's whipping mane to enjoy the ride.

Ruh, wearing the wind like wings, spread its arms wide to make the tall trees flanking the road sway like maidens.

So it wasn't all magic, thought Edmund, but it didn't matter. The result was the same. Every time the villagers blinked for the next half hour they'd see him silhouetted on his steed. He'd show these yokels what a man of The College could do.

The crowd scattered as the horse pounded into the cobbled square, hooves striking sparks from the stones. He slowed as he rounded the stone Dummock had climbed upon. Edmund dismounted, let Dummock take the reins and left the ludkin to Ruh. The magus strode over to a butcher's shop as flames roared up around the rock. He grabbed a hunk of red meat from the counter, levered a cleaver free from the chopping block then leaped through the smoke on to the stone which he, now saw, was the weathered remnant of some ancient statue. The coughing crowd shuffled closer as he knelt by the ludkin draped across the rock. Squatting at its head, Ruh gouged clay from its belly.

"What's he doing?"

"Leave it be!"

"Let it alone!"

Edmund ignored them. He nodded at Ruh which slapped the clay across the ludkin's chin. With his left hand, Edmund wrung the meat to spatter blood on the dark clay. Ruh chanted as Edmund stilled the ludkin's head. As the chant deepened he raised the cleaver. The syllables rolled over the ludkin, making it look like it was under water. Edmund tensed. Ruh nodded. When the last syllable flickered like a fish across Edmund's vision he whipped his arm down to cleave through blood and clay into heartwood. The solid blow left the cleaver ringing and his fingers tingling.

A shriek from the crowd. Edmund looked up to see the mob hold back a young boy. Edmund looked down, braced a foot on the torso where Ruh had pulled it apart and tore the cleaver free. The ludkin wrenched itself upright and screamed: "BRIIIIIING WATERRRRRR. BRIIIIING WATERRRRRR. BRRRIIIIIINGG WAAAAATTEERRRRRR."

Edmund grabbed the ludkin by the throat, leaned over and hissed: "Tell me, who is your master? Give me his name." He shook the ludkin till it rattled. "Give me his name!"

The ludkin writhed, the white wood in its slash of a mouth flashed. "JUUUSST WAAAAATTEERRRRRR. JUUUUSSST BRIIIIIING WATERRRRRR."

"Tell me," Edmund raised the cleaver. "Tell me, or you die by inches."

"Enough!" The voice rang round the village square. Edmund flinched and dropped the cleaver. The ludkin slid off the rock, head bowed like it was sobbing. Edmund turned. A broad-shouldered, middle-aged man in a carpenter's apron stood before the crowd.

"Enough," he said. "There's no need to torture that poor creature, to wring words from it with magic. Just ask if you wish to know its creator."

Edmund straightened, squared his shoulders, and said; "Tell me, then, who is its master? You owe me no less." He looked round the crowd. "I travel with the authority of Master Sinjon of The College to root out whatever rogue magic or magus has taken hold here. I warn you, I have power at hand, greater than my age would suggest."

"Even though your manners haven't left the schoolyard," said the carpenter. The villagers laughed and elbowed each other. "You don't need anyone's authority. Courtesy will do. Just ask."

"Tell me then, milord." Edmund bowed. "Who does this creature answer to? You? Who has such knowledge of animation that they can conjure so many ludkin? Let them be seen. Test themselves against me."

"I'm no lord of yours. You might be young but I doubt I'd pass as your dear old daddy. But anyway, you asked who breathed life into this ludkin. I did. I, Adam Wright, gave it life. And I'm not alone in knowing the trick." He gestured at the crowd.

For a moment, Edmund felt like he was in a seminar at The College as all the villagers wore the same half-amused, half-mocking expression. Then he forgot everything and stumbled against the rock as a score of ludkin stepped to the front of the crowd. No wonder the source of the power had been hard to find. They were all part of it.

"I bid you welcome to Trowthwaite," Adam said, as the ludkin advanced. Edmund scrambled on to the rock, grabbed Ruh and threw himself on the advancing crowd. The ludkin staggered as they caught him. The thick sticks of their arms beat Edmund's shoulders and back, forcing him to the cobbles, Ruh's hands felt slick on his neck. Edmund knelt, the rattling crowd pressed in and everything faded to black.

####

Edmund awoke bathing in memories of the sun. It had been a constant companion through all the years he had slept in his attic room. From the day he moved out of a cot to the restless night before he left for The College, the sun had been like a friend -- albeit a moody one. Late to rise, watery and weak in winter. Golden, full and tapping at his eyelids far, far too early in summer. But always there. First sensation and final memory every day. Fully awake he wondered about his bloody fingers. Yesterday roared back. Adam Wright. Laughter. Ludkin. A viper's nest of magii.

"Ah, gods."

He sat on the edge of the bed, knuckles white as he gripped the bedframe and choked back bile. He muttered a grim thanks to Master Sinjon for sending him on this errand.

Standing, he cocked his head to avoid the strapping oak beam spanning the attic. He clenched his fists. Wright alone he could tackle, with Ruh's help, he could defeat him. Leave him a smoking wreck. But he couldn't take on the whole village alone. Could he?

The smell of fresh bread and the buzz of chatter drew him downstairs, feeling hungry he wondered if he should be glad he had not woken in a cell or on the rack.

He hesitated in the hall outside the kitchen door wondering if he should just open the front door and leave. To get help, he told himself, not run away. The latch clacked and decided the issue. He stepped in to the fug of the kitchen.

Adam sat at the head of a long rough table talking to a man bent over his porridge. A motley collection of empty chairs flanked the table though most had used plates and dishes before them. The boy who had called out the night before sat next to Adam.

The porridge-eater looked up and froze, spoon halfway to his mouth.

"Dummock."

The spoon clattered into the bowl and the Reeve's man stood, head bowed, cheeks blazing.

"I was..., porridge. Breakfast." He coughed. "Maestro? Magus?"

"Dummock, saddle the horses. We're leaving."

"Ah," Adam said, wiping his lips with a cloth as he stood. "Our other guest. Come, there's no need to leave. Sit. Eat. Break bread with us." He picked up a cup and offered it with two hands to Edmund. "You must be famished. Please."

"No," Edmund said, ignoring the traditional welcome. "I've had a bellyful already. I must leave, I need hel..., I must report what I've seen." He half-turned toward the door.

"What have you seen? Really? You know nothing of us, what we do here."

"I've seen, and felt, your welcome once." Edmund rolled his shoulders and winced. "I've no wish to be welcomed twice."

"How many scholars are there at The College?"

"What?" Edmund looked back. "What do you know of The College?"

"How many? If you won't eat with me, though I gave you a bed, stabled your horse and looked after your mudkin, you can at least answer my question."

"I've no time for this." He held the door for Dummock.

"Is it 200? So many? There are that many in Trowthwaite who can conjugate a spell, who can set a ludkin working. Even my son here." He stepped towards Edmund. "We all help each other. Look over the spells we weave. Make them better. This is another college. It wouldn't take long to see for yourself, though our work is of a more practical bent than yours, I'd wager."

"Do you seek to tempt me? With what?" He gestured round the kitchen. "It's clear you don't know what you're meddling with, the risks you're taking with all these people."

"There's no danger for them or me. We're no threat to the greater powers. All we're trying to do is make our lives better. Easier."

"Then you've failed. Your lives are about to get a great deal harder. I will make sure of that. Your arrogance will be your undoing. I must go."

"Go then, if you must. All we want is to be left alone."

"You cannot stop me, I can call on powers, with Ruh, I am a formidable foe despite my..."

"Your youth, yes, you said. That's the second time you've said that. Which makes me think... but, anyway." Adam sighed. "Look. If you must go we won't stop you. We could, but we won't. We choose not to."

"Is that a threat?"

"Take it as you wish. Whatever happens we will, ah, cope." To the slamming door, he said: "I'll ask my wife to prepare some vittels for your journey."

####

Edmund's horse welcomed him with a whinny and bumped him in the chest with his long nose when the magus stepped in to his stall in the barn.

"Hello, fella." He scratched the horse's cheek and ears. "They treated you well?" It snorted. "Yeah," Edmund said, "me too."

Leaving the horse munching in a nosebag, Edmund stepped out of the stall. Above, Ruh shambled about in the hay loft. At the barn's far end Dummock sorted out the tack. His pony was in the neighbouring stall. It shuffled in the straw as Edmund walked past to keep its broad arse pointed at him. The third stall had weathered tools hanging on the walls and parts for ludkin stacked on shelves or in buckets and bins. Notebooks heaped on a rickety table in its centre overflowed with papers.

"I brought you some breakfast."

Adam's son stood a pace away holding a steaming bowl.

"Did your father send you?"

The boy looked down, lips tight, and said: "If you don't want it, just say so."

Edmund almost refused then noticed the boy's fingers twitching where they touched the bowl. He owed him something for what he'd done to the ludkin and, anyway, he might prove useful. "No, thank you. I am hungry. Very. Forgive me, I'm tired. I left my manners in bed today." He took the hot bowl, then put it down as he turned over a bucket and sat.

"Do you have a...? Thank you." He took the spoon. "I'm Edmund."

"I know. I'm John." He looked into the stall. "My dad doesn't like me using his workshop."

"Mine was the same," Edmund said, around a third spoonful.

"Was he a carpenter?"

"No, a smith but one that did fine work not just shoe horses. Goblets, cutlery, some jewellery. But he wouldn't let me tinker in the forge." He gestured with the spoon. "I'd have loved a place like this when I was your age. It's a fine place for study."

"But you're at The College! You're a magus. You use magic all the time. That must be, well, I can't..., well, grand. It must be grand."

"Something like that," Edmund said, remembering all the mornings he had woken in his tower bedroom with frost on the eiderdown. The way the sons of earls had treated him, had laughed at him. What had they sung? "You can take the boy out of the bog but...

"I'm going to go one day." John stood tall and prodded his chest with a thumb. "My father says I'll show them a thing or two."

"I'm sure you will. You must know your lessons, though, and study hard. It's not easy to get in." He set the empty bowl down. "Show me what you do here, what work you do."

John gawped, then beamed.

"I look after the ludkin. Though dad helps. I build them, repair them and write spells to make them move."

"You must be careful though, John, magic is not a plaything. The power can be useful, even fun, but there is danger there too. There's a good reason sorcerors must be licensed."

"Power is no good unless it does good for a lot of people, that's what my..."

"Father says. Yes, and I'm sure he means what he says but magic is slippery stuff. Get it wrong and it can be unforgiving. Think of the flood and how the ludkin caused that."

John bounced the toe of his shoe on a table leg a couple of times. He scowled, then said: "But that was the soldiers' fault! Silly beggars. If they'd not chopped the ludkin up they'd never have multiplied. And anyway, we stopped them. Takes a lot to stop a spell. But we did it."

"Magic always fails in interesting ways. There was a school of magii called the catastrophists..."

"Was that a class for folk who liked to cause trouble?"

"Kind of," Edmund said, "they made spells fail just to see what could happen. By school I just mean they were like-minded. They said the failures showed up useful information about how magic works and would reveal new words of power."

"Did they?"

"Not really. Most suffered terrible accidents or learned that there are far more ways of getting spells wrong than right."

"I think we've gone through most of the wrong'uns by now," John said, then he stopped and recited: "All mistakes are obvious when enough people are looking. That's what my dad says. See?" He got one of the big notebooks, opened it on the table then pointed to the rows of syllables spread across the page.

As he looked Edmund's jaw dropped. Alongside the basic animating phrases were syllables, calls on minor powers he would never have used with a ludkin. That, he'd bet, no-one had ever used with ludkin. The more he saw the more sense it made, his stomach clenched at the bravado, the sheer elegance of re-using some incantatory phrases for similar tasks and applying others in parallel to guide what ludkin. So it could react, not just repeat what it did. It made him giddy, to think what you could do, the possibilities. What these people had done. Then he realised John had spoken. "What did you say?"

"I said that's an old one. We've been through lots of trials. We use a few more syllables now. For most of the ludkin. We've got much better at it. Now."

"Really? And this is your work?"

"Yes." John preened. "Mostly."

"Can you show me?" An idea dawned. How to use this, what they knew. "Can you show me how you come up with new ideas, if, say, I give you a starting point."

John gaped. "Really? You want me to show you how we do magic. In Trowthwaite. Right? You want me..."

"I do."

"Yes, err, I can. Yes. I. Can." John looked around the stall, closed the book, picked it up, put it down, picked it up again, staggered over the upturned bucket and ran toward the barn door. "Stay there!" he said as he disappeared into the bright sunlight.

Straw and dust fell across Edmund. He looked up. Ruh stared down from the hayloft, the scaly tail of a rat dangled from its mouth.

"What do you think?" Edmund said.

"Risky."

"True. But it might work."

"Might not."

"What else do we have?"

"Nothing."

"So?"

"So, it had better work," Ruh said, then shuffled away.

Edmund turned. Dummock stood in the body of the barn holding the reins of the saddled horses.

"What're you doing Dummock, you fool? Unsaddle those nags, rub them down and stable them. We're staying."

####

"John's not coming down to tea," Adam said, taking a seat at the head of the kitchen table. "He wants to work on this problem you've set him and the other boys."

"It's good that he's so, ah, dedicated to learning." Edmund said. "He's a bright boy."

"Take him up something, will you Jane?" Adam said to his wife. "I don't want him falling asleep across his books without eating something."

She looked round from her place at the range, stared at Adam for a moment, saw how he looked at Edmund then bustled out with a plate of cheese, bread and apples.

When the door had shut behind her, Adam said: "What are you trying to prove, magus?"

"Not sure of your methods all of a sudden?" Edmund said, around a mouthful of apple pie.

"No," Adam said, "I know what we can do, it's you I'm not sure about. I'm, ah, suspicious of your sudden conversion to our cause, your interest in seeing how we work. John and all his school friends have been working all day on what you set them. They've even got the ludkin going through the syllables."

"What?"

"Some people use ludkin to remember things, lists, and they used that spell, with some changes to go through all the permutations."

"Hmm."

"We don't waste what we know," Adam said. "Often a spell made for one purpose can be used for another with little change."

"That's a wise way to go at it," he nodded. "I'm glad they're taking it so seriously. More than you, it seems." To conceal a grin, Edmund got up and put his plate in the sink.

"I know how serious this is, believe me. But this morning you were all for leaving, handing us over to the authorities, sending in the troops. Then, after five minutes chatting to John, you're singing our praises, keen to test us out."

"But surely you know the worth of your ideas, what you're doing here, the power they have to sway critics? How attractive they might be to someone seeking power."

"Such as you?"

"Such as me."

"Hmmph. I'd guess your idea of power is at odds with mine. I see what you say, I suppose. It's just that you're such a product of The College that I'm...,"

"Let me tell you something." Edmund faced Adam. "I was once a boy like John, the son of a farrier rather than a carpenter, but brought up in a village just like this. Before my parents met and married, my father worked in the capital, Luddon, but an accident made him look elsewhere for his living soon after his wedding day."

"Was he badly hurt?"

"It was more political than physical. But though he left Luddon some of his friends remembered him and came to visit. Some after I was born. A couple of his friends were magii. They got me curious about the powers, magic. I've had the itch ever since. So, perhaps I've more in common with you than you think."

"I'm worried about my boy. There's no hidden risk in the syllables and phrases they're working on? It looked like proper magic to me."

"Magic is always risky," Edmund said, "but, no, in their hands what I gave them is safe enough."

Adam sat back, fingers drumming on the table. He leaned forward to speak but stopped when Jane came through the kitchen door with a baby on her hip.

"Robert! Here he is!" Adam's face lit up. He lifted the child toward the ceiling and jiggled him back and forth. Robert's laughter made everyone smile.

"Time he was in bed," Jane said.

"Care to help us?" Adam said to Edmund as two older girls entered the kitchen. They had their mother's honey-coloured hair and their father's shoulders. "With John so wrapped up in your little task we're down a voice."

"I don't, I'm not familiar, I've never...,"

"Don't worry," Jane said, "You'll soon pick it up. That's part of the fun."

Edmund shook his head.

"No? Very well, then. Just the four of us."

They formed a square facing each other and crossed arms to make a cradle. As Robert wriggled into its centre they began singing. The words were syllables of power, Edmund realised, cantrips for the most part, he recognised one for sweeping, but the harmony went round and round to form a chant like nothing he had heard. It was beautiful -- the girls' light voices counter-pointed their father's rumbling bass and their mother's trilling soprano. All the sounds tumbled together. Robert shrieked as they dropped their arms to leave him floating on an oily haze of magic formed between them. They clapped hands in time and Robert shook his chubby fists as the small choir, baby bobbing at its centre, headed upstairs.

Edmund watched them leave, then he got up, blew out the oil lamps and climbed alone to the attic, passing all the busy rooms where Adam's family were settling down to sleep, shielding the guttering candle flame lighting his way through the dark.

####

"Why don't we go round the class and the boys that found the useful permutations can say them loud," Edmund said from where he leaned on the desk at the front of the classroom. "John, you know everyone, so why don't you call them out in turn?"

"Right, yes. Hodgepig?" Laughter made the room ring. "Oh, sorry. Nicholas Hodgson?"

Edmund tried to relax as the boys spoke. If they missed one, this would have been for nothing. The desk shivered every time Ruh caught a useful phrase.

As the children chanted the school room got stuffy as a ripe magical haze gathered. Goose pimples ran in waves along Edmund's forearms. Sparks leapt between the hobnails on some of the boys' boots. A tiny tornado spiralled round the ceiling and rattled the windows.

The thick air made the last few children stumble over their phrases. Ruh whined as the pace of useful syllables slowed. Edmund looked up, but no-one heard. They all looked at the last boy taking time to say his phrase.

The air felt pregnant, syrupy and hard to draw into the lungs. Some children flinched as curls of the haze touched them. Others swatted it away like they would a gnat.

"Does anyone know what that spell does?" Edmund said when he had finished. The narrow school hall swayed as the charged air swirled around. "No?" Sweat trickled down Edmund's back. Heat pulsed against his neck. "Well, I'll let Ruh show you."

Edmund stepped aside and the children gasped. Ruh glowed. The symbols on its body pulsed with a light that hurt to see. The sizzle of burning wood beneath its feet could be heard in the ringing silence. Wreathed in smoke it lifted its arms, opened its mouth and freed the power.

The spell detonated like a cannon. Edmund was thrown aside. Children, desks and chairs tumbled about like autumn leaves. Shrieks mixed with the shattering of glass as the windows blew out. The doors at the far end of the hall flew open. One lifted off its hinges then fell back like a drunk.

For a long moment, silence reigned. Then the groans and weeping started. Edmund scuttled over to Ruh who lay behind the overturned desk. It turned its head. "Oof."

Edmund ignored his stiff arm and bruised hip as he helped children up or untangled them from chairs. No one seemed hurt, though all were shocked.

"What have you done?" Adam shouted.

"Stopped your little power games," Edmund said, helping a child. "Stopped all the ludkin and you'll find it hard to do any meaningful magic for a long while. Dummock's gone to rouse troops and now perhaps you'll realise that magic is not..."

"You cursed fool. This is what your scheme of magic gets you." He gestured round at the weeping children. "Power has corrupted you, it's something you only want to serve your narrow self interest. I'm more glad than ever I never went if this is what they teach. Well, regard your creation. Magus." He spat the word. "I'm not disappointed or surprised, I suspected as much, knew you were plotting something." He stepped close to Edmund. "It's not me you need to worry about. Remember what you told me last night, that you were more like me than I thought. No. We are nothing alike. If you want to look at the real damage you've done, look at John. The harm you've done. The harm you've done your cause. Last night he knocked himself out to impress you, but not now. He'll never want to be anything like you now."

Edmund looked and saw John, tears flowing, standing with his friends. The boy's scowling face stung Edmund like a blow. Seeing the magus, John dashed tears from his cheeks and ran for the broken doors.

"Wait!"

The flood of villagers pressing in to the hall held Edmund back and their calls for their children drowned out his apologies.

####

"Edmund! Wake up. Wake up!"

Edmund struggled towards consciousness, pushing Ruh's clammy hands from his face. Was he dreaming? The attic room was bathed in flickering orange light.

"The barn. Burning. Get up."

"Fire?" Edmund sat up. Too quick. He swayed, then braced himself on the bed. "Uh, how did it start?"

"Come down, find out," Ruh said, shuffling from the room.

Edmund stood, dopey with sleep then shook his head. What time was it? He looked out the window and recoiled from the fierce heat. The barn was swathed in flames. Below he saw someone dragging his horse across the yard.

"I hope no one's, oh, no...,"

On the roof, a figure, legs astride the roof peak. Someone short, small. Through the flickering flames and rising smoke, Edmund squinted and saw a familiar tear-stained face.

"John!"

Edmund crashed out of the door into the yard, not sure how he got there. Flames from the burning barn, alight to the eaves, painted the yard in elemental orange. The heat slapped him in the face and he reared away to where others huddled near the house.

He staggered again as Adam punched him. The crowd held the carpenter back as he lunged again.

"See?" Spittle gathered at the corners of Adam's mouth. "See what you have done?"

"Me? What?"

"This is your doing. My boy, John, was trying to impress you, though the powers know why. Do another spell. And now, thanks to your little trick, he's trapped and there's nothing we can do, no magic we can use to get him down. Curse you, rot you and your..." He lunged again, then turned away to his wife, shoulders trembling as he wept. Jane shot him a look Edmund felt behind his belt buckle. Frantic, he crushed his hands together, turned and looked at the wall of flame.

At one side a line of villagers had formed a chain and handed buckets full of water along to douse the roaring fire until, as Edmund watched, the fierce heat drove them away. They dropped their buckets and ran patting at patches on their clothes.

All these people and they could do nothing, Edmund thought.

All these people.

All these people.

They could do something.

"Adam!"

The carpenter looked up and for the first time in his life Edmund felt another man's hate. He swallowed, waved his hands, and said: "That song, for Robert, when you sing him to bed. How many know it, can sing it?"

"This is no time for lullabies, magus."

"Shut up, you fool, I, this could save John. Just tell me, who knows it, how many?"

"It won't work, thanks to your..."

"It will, it should, my, that spell dampened greater incantations, not cantrips. Get enough people together and it should be able to lower him from the roof."

"Not quite your preferred method of..."

"Enough," Edmund said. "Get on with it and we can save your son."

Adam nodded then moved through the crowd giving orders. The villagers gathered in a tight circle near the end wall of the barn that the flames had not yet claimed. As John moved along the roof peak toward the circle, the villagers began to sing.

At first the voices stumbled over each other and only made a bucket in the circle clank against its handle. But, moment by moment, the voices gathered strength and the harmony grew. A haze of magic stirred the dust and ash at the villager's feet. Edmund looked at the towering end wall. Flames licked through knotholes in the wood and soon, he knew, the whole side would be consumed.

He looked up. Through the streaming smoke he saw John close to the end of the barn but the pillar of magic to support him remained stunted.

Edmund called Ruh and pushed into the circle. He nodded his head in time to the rhythm going round and then joined in, his voice wobbling as Ruh pushed between his legs and stood on his feet.

Tiles fell from the roof and shattered behind the circle.

The song was short but Edmund struggled to find his place in the round. Every time he thought he got close to the rhythm it slipped away and the roiling haze dipped below his waist. Then, instead of chasing the rhythm, he gave in to it, letting the syllables run together. Then he lost it again as he felt the surge of power running through the singers.

Flames had finished with the smaller timbers and started to gnaw the longer planks.

Edmund closed his eyes, put aside his fear for John, and found the rhythm again. The sudden surge of power felt like a horse hitting its stride. He joined in, stretching his shoulders to touch the villagers either side. The knot of magic pulsed and leapt.

Still they kept on. Edmund was lost in the words, fear gone, tongue finding a speed he never knew it possessed. The incantation was an endless string of sounds. He could almost see it racing round the circle, uniting all who passed it from mouth to mouth, faster and faster.

Charred planks crashed down revealing the roaring heart of the fire that roared toward the roof. Greedy flames leapt up and round the gable reaching for John.

Edmund exulted in the song, feeling the thick pillar nudge the eaves. In the song there was a unity, a consuming purpose, a strength and joy in creation Edmund had never felt at The College. This was magic. This was power. This was life. Everything else was just shadows and games.

Swept away by the song, Edmund opened his eyes to see John on the roof peak. The boy stood, staggered, righted himself and leapt.

The roof fell in behind him and a fireball swept up swatting the night sky with a baleful clout of flames.

The song went on, strong and steady as the boy fell into the thick haze. The villagers sang, a little slower now, as John sank to the floor, graceful, languid as a butterfly. By the time the boy's smoking boots touched the cobbles each word of the spell was distinct.

John ran to his parents who held him close, heads buried against his shoulders. The circle of singers collapsed into a communal hug.

Edmund looked down at Ruh, the clay on its front was much lighter than on his back.

"Drink," it said, then tottered to the horse trough and fell in.

"Thank you."

Edmund looked up. Adam and his family stood close by.

"I just joined in, we all did it."

"Yes, but, anyway, what happens now? What about the troops Dummock is bringing?"

"We'll deal with when they get here."

"We? You have come a long way."

"Really? I feel like I've never been closer to home."

THE END


© 2009 Mark Ward

Bio: Mark Ward is a resident of Surrey, England. His stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Everyday Fiction, Futurismic, and RevolutionSF.

E-mail: Mark Ward

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