Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Magic And The Heart

Part One of Four

by McCamy Taylor


Chapter 1

“I’ll have a pint of your best autumn ale,” the stranger told the barmaid.

The locals at the next table snickered.

“Wouldn’t you rather have a pint of our best mother’s milk?” one of them called.

The traveler answered their ribbing with a friendly grin.

“Join us,” suggested the biggest of the three, a raw boned man with red hair and freckles. “If your mum won’t mind you being out so late.”

The stranger pulled up a chair. On closer inspection, his face was not as baby smooth as it had first seemed. Pale stubble covered his cheeks and chin. Tangled hair the color of gilt silver brushed shoulders broad enough to pull a plow or swing a battle axe. His eyes were an unusual shade of blue, with shifting patterns of light and dark. He had a few scars, an old one on the chin, a more recent one below the left eyebrow. Though he wore coarsely spun woolen clothes and scuffed boots, the ring on the third finger of his left hand was made of pure gold set with a blood red ruby.

His drinking companions did not object when he offered to buy the next round.

The oldest of the three stared long and hard at the stranger. “Have we met before?”

The young man shrugged. “It’s possible. Have you been to Suunweiss?”

“The capital? Not me. I was born and raised on Guuld Mountain.” He gave it to local pronunciation. “Goddess willing, I’ll be buried here, too.” He offered a libation.

The visitor followed suit. He drained his mug and handed it to the barmaid for a refill. After two pints of the potent local ale, his hands were still steady and his speech was clear, another sign that he was not the babe he had first appeared to be. “Then you must be thinking of someone else. I’ve lived in Suunweiss all my life.”

The three locals exchanged glances. “A city gentleman,” said the woman with a slight sneer. She wore her black hair short, like a man. Her clothes were identical to those of her drinking companions. However, she had a slight bluish tinge to her skin that suggested native Pryytan blood.

If she meant to give offense, the young visitor did not take it. “Or the servant of a city gentleman,” he suggested lightly.

The old man leaned forward. “What brings you the mountain? If you’ve come to prospect, you might as well go back. There was a landslide last month. Blocked the mines. Until they clear the rubble, you’ll find more gold in the King’s coffers in Suunweiss, than you’ll find here.”

Casually, “I’m not here to prospect. I’m looking for a mage.”

The three locals eyed him warily. It was the old man who finally spoke. “Magicians are a penny a piece in Suunweiss. Why come all the way out here to find one?”

The stranger met and held the old man’s piercing gaze. “Not a magician. A mage. An elde-mage.”

“An elden mage? What makes you think you’ll find one here? Are you an elden mage, Rusty?”

“Not me, Paddy,” replied the red haired man. “What about you, Brion?”

The blue skinned woman appeared to consider the question. “I can turn ale into piss. Does that count as magic?”

Her companions chortled.

The fair haired traveler smiled good-naturedly. “His name is Sammual. Or it might be Sammuelle.”

The silence was broken by Paddy. “It’s Sammual. It’s been Sammual for the last twenty years. Since the summer that girl came to draw pictures of birds and flowers. As pretty as one of her pictures, she was. And friendly. Not like the usual nose stuck in the air, my shit doesn’t stink like your shit tourists from the city.

“All the local lads were in love with her and half the lasses, too. But none of them stood a chance against the elde-mage, Sammuelle. Not after she changed to he. Quite a scandal it was. The two of them living together in that cave of his, like man and wife, and she promised to another.”

“Not just any other.” Brion lowered her voice. “The son of the old King. Came here himself to take her back to Suunweiss. Married her, too, despite her being used goods.”

Paddy sighed. “It’s hard to imagine Morgany a Queen. She never wore shoes, couldn’t abide corsets, wore boy’s clothes more often than not. Hair like moonlight . Eyes like a stormy sea---” He slammed his palm on the table, causing the mugs to jump. “Now I know where I’ve seen you before! You’re the spitting image of Morgany!”

“I’ve been told that I resemble my mother,” the young man said quietly.

“Your mother! But that makes you---”

“Please. Don’t say it aloud. If you must call me something, call me Marc.”

Paddy was the first to swallow his astonishment. “Traveling alone, are you?”

“The matter is urgent, and I travel faster this way. Can you recommend a local man to guide me to the elde-mage ‘s cave? I’d like to leave at dawn, if possible.”

“Will a local woman do?” Brion asked

Marc smiled gratefully at the blue skinned woman. “If that’s an offer, I accept.”

“It’s half a day’s journey from here to Sam’s cave. Assuming he’s in the mood for visitors. If he wants to be left alone, you might as well try finding a pin in a haystack.”

“I realize that.”

Her expression hardened. “Do you realize how much Sam loved your mother? Near broke his heart when she left. Why should he want to see the son of his enemy?”

Though his expression was still amiable, a hint of stubbornness appeared around his jaw. “Because I’m also the son of the woman he loved. I’m sorry if it sounds cold blooded, but this is a matter of life and death. “

“Life and death?” Her eyebrows rose. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind, if I discover you’ve lied to me, I’ll take my revenge on whatever part of you is left after Sam gets through with you.” She drained her mug. “If you’re going to tackle the mountain tomorrow, you’d better get a good night’s rest. Bring water and enough food for a day and then some.”

“A day? It’s that far?”

“The journey shouldn’t take more than half a day. The extra provisions are in case we run into trouble. You never know what will happen when you’re dealing with the elden. I’ll meet you in front of the inn at dawn.” She rose.

Marc stood. He was half a head taller than her, and she was a big women. “Thank you.” He offered his hand. His palm was calloused. It was the hand of a working man, though in his case, the rod straight back and alert gaze suggested military training rather than manual labor.

She nodded curtly. “I won’t say you’re welcome, since you may not be thanking me this time tomorrow.”

The handsome young traveler smiled and gave her a courtly bow that made her heart skip a beat, even though she was old enough to know better.

She lingered in the tavern after Marc left. “Did you hear what he said, Paddy?”

“I heard. ‘Please.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Strange words coming from a prince.”

“Not so strange if Morgany is really his mother.”

“After seeing his face do you doubt it?”

She shook her head. “The real question is who is his father? How old would you say he is?”

The old man considered the question. “At first glance, I would’ve guessed fifteen, sixteen at most. Now, I’d say he‘s closer to twenty.”

“Morgany left to marry the king twenty years ago. That means---”

Paddy silenced her. “Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. I’ve seen men lose their heads for less.”

***

At half an hour before dawn, Prince Marcellus, son and heir of King Kel of Suunland was pacing back and forth in front of the only inn in a mountain town too small to have a name. He had brushed his hair until it gleamed like gold, then carefully pulled it back with a silver clip. His boots were freshly polished. He had changed into his only remaining clean white shirt. There was nothing he could do about the one inch scar above his left eye, but the redness was fading, and he hoped it would not be too noticeable. On his back, he carried a pack containing his most important possessions along with food and water for half a day, the length of time Brion estimated it would take to reach Sammual’s cave. There would be no failure, no turning back. He would speak to the elde-mage today or die trying.

Brion arrived as the first rays of light broke through the pine trees. “You look like you’re dressed for a party.”

Marc blushed. “I want to make a good impression.”

“You’ll make an impression all right, looking so much like your mother. Whether it’s a good impression or a bad impression will depend on Sam. Let’s get going.”

For the first two hours, they made good progress. However, when they veered from the mine trail, the going got rough. It was late summer, and the undergrowth was thick. Marc discovered that if he followed too closely behind his guide, he got slashed in the face by swinging branches. If he kept a safe distance, he lost sight of her.

At midmorning, they stopped to rest. “How much longer?” Marc asked. It was the first time either of them had spoken in over an hour.

“Two, two and a half hours if we keep up this pace. You’re not a bad climber. Most city fellows would be winded by now.”

“I exercise regularly.”

“Exercise what?”

“My body. I run three miles every day.”

“Three miles? Where to?”

“Nowhere. There’s a trail around the barracks. The entire circuit is three miles. Three point one miles, to be exact.”

Brion looked at him as if he were daft. “You run three miles to get nowhere? You should hire yourself out as a messenger. Then you’d get paid for your time.”

Marc laughed politely at the joke.

Brion gave him a dark look. ”What’s so funny?”

He flushed and changed the subject.

The next part of their journey took them across a meadow of waist high grass sprinkled with blue thistle . The sun was high, and the air was sweltering. Brion stripped off her shirt and tied it around her waist.

Marc tried not the stare. He knew that Pryytan women thought nothing of baring their chests. He would have liked to have done the same, but he never undressed before strangers. They always asked embarrassing questions.

It was a relief to enter the woods again. After a hour of steady climbing, Brion stopped beside a stream . “If we follow this up the mountain, we should find Sam’s place. Stick close to me. This is where people get lost. If he wants company, visitors find his cave. If he wishes to be left alone, the stream takes them back to the valley. Don’t ask me how he does it. He’s a magician.

Marc listened attentively, hungry for any information about the mage. “Are the stories true? Can he make the earth shake? Can he change his enemies into dogs and toads?”

Brion chuckled. “I’ve seen him make a man think he was a dog. A tax collector, it was. Got down on all fours and howled at the moon. Tore off his clothes, ate his own shit then tried to mate with a spaniel bitch. She took three fingers off his left hand.”

“Why?”

“Because he tried to mate with her out of season.”

“I meant why did Sammual make the tax collector think he was a dog?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe Sam was in a bad mood that day. Maybe the tax man looked at him wrong. Though he’s been a man these twenty years, he’s still a woman in many ways. Changeable, like the moon. Vain about his looks, though he won’t admit it. Very particular about his clothes. “

It was difficult to reconcile her description of the man with his notion of what an elden mage should be. “He lives alone? No wife? No servants?”

“There was a woman a while back. Shirazian. She stayed a while then went home to her family. Sam didn’t seem to mind greatly. As for servants, there’s nothing a cleaning woman could do that he can’t do with a snap of his fingers.” She stopped in her tracks. “See that bend up ahead? Once we round that, we’ll find his cave. Or find ourselves back where we started. You said you’d pay either way.” She held out her hand.

Marc gave the woman five gold marks.

Brion whistled. “It must be true what they say. The streets of Suunweiss are paved in gold, and pound notes grow from the trees like leaves. Watch out for the hole---ah, we’ve found him!”

To Marc, it looked like a dead end. “I don’t see anything.”

“The door’s over there.”

Marc squinted. “Where?”

“That bit of green that looks like moss. It isn’t.” She cupped his hands and shouted

“Sammual. It’s me, Brion. You have a visitor.”

Marc fixed his eyes on the slash of green and waited.

The man who emerged from the cave was so slender that he gave the illusion of great height, though in fact he was shorter than the prince. His waist length hair was coal black, straight and smooth as silk. His skin was the color of ivory. He wore a high necked, knee length forest green tunic over fitted silk trousers. The jewels on his earlobes and hands appeared to be real emeralds, though Marc had never seen precious gems so large. His almond shaped eyes--all three of them--were also green.

The mountain woman and the elde-mage spoke quietly. Finally, Sammual looked up. As he focused his gaze on the young prince, he caught his breath. “Morgany!”

Marc cleared his throat and stepped forward. Goddess, he thought, don’t let me make a fool of myself. “I--I’m not Morgany. I’m her son, Marcellus. Marc. Please, I’ve come--I’ve come--” His reason for undertaking this journey escaped him.

Sammual’s nostrils flared. His two ordinary eyes narrowed. The eye in the middle of his forehead widened. The ground beneath them began to shake. It was not a violent earthquake, but it was enough to loosen gravel from the cliff face. Pebbles rained down upon them. Several struck Marc, but he hardly noticed. The world had ceased to exist, except for the part which was the elde-mage. What did the curl of his upper lip mean? What was the third eye seeing? Marc held his breath.

“You’ve come for nothing,” the mage said finally. His voice was quiet but absolutely inflexible. “Brion will lead you back to the village. You had better hurry before the rain starts.” He turned his back on them and vanished into the cave.

The breath left Marc’s chest in a rush, as if someone had punched him in the gut. He closed his eyes and forced himself to concentrate on the ground beneath his feet. It was firm, again, as immovable as the elde-mage , who had just dismissed him as if he was an unwanted peddler.

Brion looked at the sky and tested the wind with her index finger. “It doesn’t feel like rain, but if Sam says it’s going to rain, it’s going to rain. Hurry up.”

Marc took several slow, deep breaths. The first time he tried to speak, all he produced was a high pitched wheeze. His second attempt was more successful. “I’m staying.”

“For what? Sam won’t talk to you.”

“He’ll talk.”

Hands on her hips, the mountain woman exclaimed, “You may be used to lording it over the citizens in Suunweiss, but an attitude like that won’t get you anywhere with Sam.”

Ignoring her, Marc examined the spot where the elde-mage had disappeared. There was a fissure in the rock wide enough for a man to pass. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? He took a step forward.

“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” his guide warned.

Pain shot up Marc’s leg. It was all he could do to keep from screaming. Clutching the injured foot with his hands, he hopped to a tree stump. He sat down and tugged off his boot. There was no obvious sign of injury, but his foot felt as if it was on fire. He looked around for water, remembered the stream and limped towards it. The water eased the burning only slightly.

“The door to the cave’s warded,” the blue skinned woman told him.

“You don’t have to look so pleased about it,” Marc muttered through clenched teeth. How could anything hurt so badly and yet leave no mark? “Am I going to lose my foot?”

“What a question! Sam can be moody, but he’s not a butcher. You’ll be able to walk again in a few minutes. If we hurry, we can make good time going back down the mountain, and maybe we’ll miss--”

He folded his arms across his chest. “I’m staying.”

With that stubborn expression on his face, he looked just like his mother. Brion’s heart softened. “I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing, but I warned you this might happen. Come along. We can try again later in the week. Maybe he’ll be in a better mood.”

Marc shook off her hands. “No! If I leave now, I’ll never find the cave again. He’ll make sure of that.”

They argued for several minutes. Finally, Brion threw up her hands. Muttering something about “death from pneumonia” and “wolf bait,” she stalked away.

***

Inside the cave, the elde-mage tried to concentrate on the calculations he was performing. He was attempting to locate the precise time and place when the seventh astral plane of the third universe would be in alignment with this, the third plane of the seventh universe. However, his third eye kept showing him the boy who was sitting on a tree stump outside the cave, arms folded across his chest, chin high, expression determined. Damn him, how dare he show up here, looking so much like Morgany? That hair. Those eyes. The curve of his cheek. The tilt of his head.

Sammual gnashed his teeth.

Two hours later, Marc was still sitting on the tree stump, and Sammual still had not solved the mathematical problem. He threw down his pen, pushed back his chair, and began to pace. There was an electric charge in the air. The storm was close. The tension in the atmosphere intensified his internal turmoil.

Damn the boy!

Soon, his third eye showed him a burst of lightening followed by a crash of thunder. He watched in satisfaction as the rain began to pour in sheets. The boy did not look like Morgany now. He looked like a drowned rat. A stubborn drowned rat. He had not moved an inch, not even to seek shelter from the storm. He was shivering from cold, but he was too stupid--or proud-- to try to keep himself warm by walking.

Sammual gave up on his calculations. Though he did not require food for sustenance, he fixed supper-- hot soup and fresh bread. He could have used his magic to conjure the food from the ingredients in the kitchen, but he cooked in the ordinary way, because it gave him something to occupy his thoughts. By now it was dark outside. Unfortunately, his third eye could see as well in the dark as the light. The foolish child was still there. Fatigue and cold had finally gotten the better of him. He was huddled on the ground with his arms wrapped around his knees.

Briefly, the earth mage considered taking supper to his uninvited visitor. He vetoed the idea almost as soon as it popped into his head. Such a sign of weakness would only encourage the fool. Resolutely, he forced his third eye shut.

After supper, he undressed and slipped on a jade silk robe. Sitting beside the fire, he brushed his hair. Since he was not sleepy, he sipped a glass of dragon blood wine and read a few pages of an ancient manuscript about the medicinal properties of the fungi of Strailyte. Soon the wine, heat and boring book had the desired effect. He yawned. Time for bed.

Here is where he made his mistake. With his two human eyes closed, the magic eye could not be suppressed, and he saw Morgany. He knew it could not really be her, for she was eleven months dead, a victim of child bed fever combined with the complications of a late pregnancy. However, his third eye saw her very clearly. She was standing outside his cave. The rain had stopped. Moonlight illuminated her pale face and silvery hair. She was dressed in some kind of semitransparent garment. Her hips had widened with age, and her breasts sagged a bit, and those long, coltish legs had grown thick around the ankle.

Dear Goddess, he thought. She is even more beautiful than I remembered.

The ghost leaned over the boy. Being a spirit, her hand had no substance, but at her touch, her son stirred and muttered something in his sleep. He looked younger than before. Little more than a child--

Cursing under his breath, Sammual threw off his blanket. The warding spell which guarded the entrance of the cave dissolved at his touch.

The world outside appeared to be made of quicksilver. Moonlight illuminated water droplets on leaves. Puddles shimmered like freshly polished mirrors. His senses told him that the air was cold, but things like chill and damp were irrelevant to an elde-mage, even one who was barefoot and lightly dressed. When he reached the boy, he stooped and lifted him as easily as a kitten. Weight was a function of the earth’s gravity, and elde-mages of the earth were not constrained by natural forces.

Marc stirred. His eyes opened. “What--? Where---?”

“Sleep until first light,” the earth mage murmured. It was a simple but effective spell. Marc closed his eyes. He would not wake again until dawn.

Sammual carried him into the cave, where he stripped him of his wet clothes and laid him on a pile of furs beside the fire. Just before dawn, he would dress the boy again and carry him back outside. Marc would wake with no memory of the time he had spent inside the cave. Convinced that his quest had been a failure, he would return to the village and from there to the capitol, and Sammual would never have to see or think about him again.

That was the plan. However, as he removed Marc’s clothes, Sammual made a discovery that piqued his curiosity. Perhaps he was being rash. Why not listen to what the boy had to say?


Chapter 2

Marc woke in a strange bed, one made of furs rather than a mattress. The ground beneath the bedding was rock hard and not particularly smooth. On the other hand, it was dry, and the nearby fire was welcome

He rolled over. His eye were drawn to a pencil sketch in a silver frame--was that one of his mother’s?

“Morgany gave it to me. I was with her the day she drew it. It rained that afternoon. We found shelter under an overturned wagon and made love. For the last time, as it turned out, though I didn’t know that then. ”

Marc turned. The dark haired elde-mage was staring down at him in a way that made him self conscious. “Where am I?”

“In my cave.”

“How did I get here?”

“I carried you.”

Marc eyed the elde-mage’s slender wrists.

“I’m stronger than I look. Are you hungry?”

Marc was halfway through a bowl of porridge, before he realized that beneath the blanket, he was naked. “Where are my clothes?” He managed to keep the panic from his voice.

“Drying by the fire.”

The young man flushed and ducked his head. He waited for the inevitable question.

“Is something wrong with the porridge? Too much salt?”

Could the elde-mage have failed to notice the scar on his chest? “No. It’s delicious.” He cleaned his bowl. “Is there more?”

While Sammual’s back was turned, Marc tied a sheet around his body toga style.

As the prince worked on his second bowl, the elde-mage sat on a stool beside the bed, watching him. The third eye was closed. Having no brow or lashes, it would have been easy to mistake it for a skin crease, if not for the fact that his face was completely unlined. Long hair, as smooth and black as Shantuunian silk was pinned back behind each ear with a jade comb. A silver jewel dangled from his right earlobe. He wore a pale green silk robe green loosely belted at the waist with an embroidered sash. His forearms and calves were smooth as a baby’s. Did he shave his body hair as desert dwellers were said to do? No, hair that dark would leave a stubble, and Sammual’s skin was flawless.

“What are you thinking?” the elde-mage asked.

The question was so unexpected that Marc blurted out the first thing that popped into his head. “I was thinking how beautiful you are. Too beautiful to be a man.”

Sammual smiled like a contented cat. “What a discerning eye,” he said lightly. “Are you a painter like your mother?”

“Me? I couldn’t draw a recognizable face to save my life.”

Sammual took the empty bowl. The silk of his robe rustled. Marc smelled musk and violets. “I’ll tidy up the kitchen while you get dressed. Then, we can talk.”

Marc hurried into his clothes. The elde-mage confused him. He had expected a gray haired man with a beard, ink stained fingers and spectacles. He had imagined that the sorcerer’s cave would be musty and dark, cluttered with books, herbs, potions and magical devises. However, Sammual’s cave looked like an elegant hotel, and the mage looked like a high priced nussari courtesan from Shantuun , one of those who cater to clients of both sexes.

“You are Sammual, aren’t you?” he blurted out when his host returned from the kitchen.

“Not what you expected, hmmm? That’s because you’re used to human mages. By the time they have acquired enough kill to be worth their salt, they usually have one foot in the grave. Elden mages are an immortal race.”

“Are they all so....?”

“Pretty?” Sammual gazed at his own reflection in a nearby mirror. A single strand of hair was out of place. With a slight frown, he fixed it. “By the standards of my kind, I’m average looking. Water mages are the most seductive--and the most fickle. Fire mages love with a passion, but they seldom associate with humans. Their mortal lovers tend to spontaneously combust.”

“Which are you?”

“I’m an earth mage. Sensible, practical---for an elde-mage. Constant. Very down to earth, pardon the pun.” He crossed his arms across his chest. Somehow, he managed to make it appear that he was looking down at Marc, though the prince was the taller of the two. “There’ s something you want to ask me. Don’t be shy. It’s the questions people are afraid to ask that cause the most trouble.”

“Are you--are you my father?” Marc had not intended to ask this question. It just popped out.

A hint of a smile touched the elde-mage’s lips. “There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? No, I’m not your father.”

“How can you be certain? I was a seven month baby. Seven month babies are supposed to be small and weak. I was big and strong.”

“As you are now. Nature is wiser than humans. Wiser than most elde-mages, too. If a baby is going to be too large for its mother to bear, the child may come early.”

“That’s one explanation.” Marc looked Sammual straight in the eye. “The other is that my mother was already pregnant when she married my father.”

“If she was pregnant, it wasn’t by me.”

“You said yourself you were lovers.”

Unexpectedly, Sammual chuckled. “You should have done some reading. It would have saved you a journey. Love and procreation are linked for humans. They have to be, otherwise the dear, sweet fools would forget to make more of their own kind, and their race would quickly vanish. The elden are different. We live for a very, very long time. Therefore, we make very, very few children. For a female of my kind to conceive, she has to undergo months of purification while consuming a special diet that consists mainly of a flower that blooms once every ten years on a single island in the North Sea. Immediately before conception, she gorges herself on sea dragon’s blood. Do you have any idea how rare sea dragons are and how difficult it is to persuade them to part with their blood? And even then, her chances of conceiving are only one in six. One in two if she takes a human lover. For the males, it’s even more difficult. Had I wished to impregnate your mother, it would have taken me nine months of fasting, meditation and abstinence. I knew her for less than two months.”

The prince appeared to be in shock. “But my mother said---did she know this?”

“Certainly. She was no fool. As far as she was concerned, her affair with me was a final fling before she became Queen of Suunland. She had no intention of settling down with me in my cave and raising a litter of magelings.” His tone was only slightly bitter. “She never made any promises. I managed to delude myself, as only a love stricken earth mage can.“ A single tear spilled from the corner of his right eye and sparkled like a jewel on his cheek. Marc blinked and stared. The tear was a jewel, a tiny, perfect diamond.

The earth mage brushed the precious gemstone away with a flick of his hand. It fell to the floor, forgotten. “I really did love her. As much as I’ve ever loved a woman.”

“She spoke of you often,” Marc said softly. “Always with affection.”

Sammual was even more beautiful when he smiled. “Bless you, child. I’m sorry I left you out in the rain. You’re welcome to rest here a few days, before you return to Suunweiss.”

Marc recalled the real reason for his journey. “I didn’t come here to talk about my mother. It’s my baby brother. He’s missing.”

One expertly plucked black eyebrow rose. “And---?”

“And no one knows where he’s gone.” He choked on the last word.

The elde-mage placed his hands on Marc’s shoulders. “Calm yourself. Has there been a ransom demand?”

“Three of them. All hoaxes. Kelvin wasn’t kidnapped. He vanished right before our eyes.”

“Ah. Now I see why you came to me. Sudden disappearance of a mortal. Your brother is mortal, isn’t he?”

The question startled him. “As far as I know.”

Sammual crossed the room to a bookshelf. He took down a small, cloth bound volume. “Here it is. ‘There are twenty-three documented ways in which a mortal man or beast can vanish suddenly or appear to vanish suddenly.’”

“Twenty-three?” Marc’s face was ashen.

“Twenty-three is nothing. There are over three hundred ways a person can spontaneously combust.” The elde-mage sat down at the desk and picked up a quill. “Describe the circumstances of his disappearance. Don’t leave out any detail, no matter how insignificant it may seem.”

“We were outside in the garden---”

“Was it day or night?”

“Day, of course. Kelvin’s only eleven months old.”

Sammual wrote something on a scrap of paper. “We’ve just ruled out ten possible causes. Go on.”

“Kelvin was playing with a ball.”

“What kind of ball?”

“What difference----?”

The elde-mage gave him a stern look.

“An ordinary rubber ball. Red with white stars. It was--it is his favorite toy. He had just learned how to walk. He kept trying to pick up the ball, but every time he got near it, he kicked it away. At first, he found this funny. Then, he started to cry. Father and I were standing nearby. We both looked up to see what was wrong. His nurse stooped to pick up the ball. ‘Here you go, pumpkin,’ she said. She held it out to him. He reached for it and tripped over his own feet. It was while he was falling that he vanished.”

“Did he actually touch the ground before he disappeared?”

Marc closed his eyes. He tried to visualize the scene. “No. The ground was unmarked.”

Sammual made a few more notes. “Did you hear any strange noises?”

“I heard a sound like metal rubbing against metal. Father heard it too.”

“The sound of chains, perhaps?”

Marc considered this for a moment. “Chains? I don’t think so. More like a metal door with rusty hinges. ”

The quill scratched against paper. “Did you hear any other unusual noises?”

“I don’t remember. People started shouting almost at once. I thought he had fallen into a sink hole. I ran to the spot where he disappeared, but I found no hole. Not even a depression. The ground was solid.”

“Was it damp? Scorched? Was there a strange odor? Was it unusually warm or cold?”

“Not that I remember. I searched the ground carefully. All I found was a coin someone had---”

“A coin? Do you have it with you?”

Marc hung his head. “Sorry. I was going to bring it with me, but when I looked for it, it was gone. One of the servants must have taken it. I should have hidden it better, but I assumed it was safe in my room.”

The elde-mage shook his head. “Don’t assume anything.” His expression softened. “You did well for someone without any magic training. Most people would have lost their heads and run around in a panic, trampling evidence. Describe the coin for me.”

“It was made of gold. The edges were smooth, except for one portion where there was a tiny nick or dent----”

“As if someone bit the coin to see if it was counterfeit?”

“Yes, that could explain it. On one side there was a picture of a claw.”

“Bird or reptile?”

“Sorry. I didn’t notice. The other side had a number.” Marc closed his eyes, trying to visualize the coin.

“The number 3?” Sammual suggested.

Blue-gray eyes widened in astonishment. “That’s it! How did you guess?”

“Three gold weights is the price prisoners of the Darkhall must pay to buy their freedom. Unfortunately for them, there’s no gold in the Darkhall. There is, however, plenty of gold on earth. The person or creature which took your brother left the coin as payment for his soul.”

“The Darkhall? You’re saying demons took my brother?” Until now, his greatest fear had been that rebels had stolen Kelvin.

“Please, stop pacing. You’re going to break something.” Sammual indicated a chair.

Marc sat.

“If your brother is somewhere in the nine known universes, I can find him. If he’s in the Darkhall, I can find him. If he’s in one of the celestial cities, I know an elde-mage of the wind who can find him.”

The prince gripped the edges of his chair. “You mean you’ll do it? You’ll help me find my brother?”

“Did you think I would say no?”

“You wouldn’t even talk to me yesterday.”

“You took me by surprise.”

“How do I know you won’t change your mind again?”

“If I say ‘Cross my heart and hope to die’ will that reassure you?”

Despite himself, Marc grinned.

“That’s better.” In a more sober tone, Sammual added, “I can’t promise that you’ll be happy with what you find. Not knowing seems unbearable, but sometimes it’s better not to know.”

“As long as there is a chance he’s alive, I must try.”

“It would be easier if I had something that belonged to the child.”

“I have the ball he was playing with when he disappeared. Will that do?”

“Will that do?” Sammual took the prince’s face between his hands and kissed him on the forehead, the way that his nurse, Nanna used to kiss him when he said something precocious. “You amaze me. Have you been studying magic?”

Marc flushed. “Certainly not! I don’t have any power, and even if I did, members of the royal family aren’t allowed to dabble in magic.”

The earth mage’s expression was skeptical. “What about your grandmother, Lady Joland? I hear she does more than dabble.”

“Step grandmother. And that’s different. She’s a royal by marriage.”

“So Suunian kings aren’t permitted to be mages themselves, but they can marry them. What a convenient loophole. Where’s the toy?”

“In my backpack, wrapped in a--”

Before he could finish, Sammual had the pack open and its contents strewn across the table. He snatched up the red and white ball. Holding the toy cupped in his hands, he squeezed his two ordinary eyes shut and opened the third wide. The air around him began to shimmer.

Marc held his breath.

“I see him,” the mage murmured. “He’s many miles away, but I can feel him clearly. He’s alive. Afraid, hungry, but otherwise healthy. The fear is a good sign. His soul and consciousness are still his own. I wish I could see through his eyes. They’re keeping him someplace dark. Not a dungeon. He’s is in a cart of some sort, moving over a bumpy road. Strange. I don’t hear any hoof beats. I wonder what’s pulling the wagon?”

Marc watched him, eyes wide with awe. “You can really tell all that, just by holding a toy?”

“Any elde-mage of the earth could do the same. So could a competent human sorcerer. Magic is much simpler than people realize.” The third eye focused on the prince, boring through the layers of skin, bone and brain, laying his soul bare. “I’m curious. What did your father say when you told him you were going to ask for my help?”

Marc was so startled by the question, that he blurted out the truth. “I didn’t tell him. “

“Why not?”

“He---I was afraid he would forbid it.”

“If he had said ‘no’, would you have obeyed him?”

He considered the question for a moment before replying, truthfully, “No.”

Sammual threw up his hands. “If I study for ten thousand years, I will never understand you mortals. If you had made up your mind in advance to go, regardless of what he said, the sensible thing would have been to ask permission. That way you would have had a fifty-fifty chance of getting your father’s approval. Does anyone in Suunweiss know that you are here?”

“I left a note. My father should have received it by now.”

“When he discovers where you are, will he send someone after you to drag you back home?”

“I’m not a child!” Marc protested. To prove it, he stood up. He was two, maybe three inches taller than the elde-mage and at least fifty pounds heavier.

Sammual was not cowed. “Maybe not, but you’re still a subject of the king. Answer the question. Do you think he’ll send guards after you?”

“I---I don’t think so. He wants to find Kelvin as much as I do. It’s just....”

“Ah ha! Now I understand. He’s too proud to beg for my help. So you decided to beg for him. Your filial devotion is admirable. “ He touched the scar above Marc’s left eye. “This is new, isn’t it? How did you get it?”

“This?” Marc rubbed the spot. The numbness was beginning to give way to itchiness, a sign that the wound was mending. “I was in the library. There was a draft. The breeze kept turning the pages of the book I was trying to read. I went to close the window, and an arrow flew in the room and struck me. I don’t remember much about it, thank the Goddess. The healer says it’s a miracle I didn’t lose the eye.”

“It’s a miracle you didn’t die. “ The earth mage examined the wound more closely. ”Did you catch the assassin? There might be a link between the attack on your life and your brother’s kidnapping.”

‘Unfortunately, no. I was struck unconscious, and by the time I woke and called for help, the archer was gone.”

“A pity. Still, there may be something I can do. If you bring me the arrow, I can tell you who fired it and why.”

“I wish I could. The arrow was enchanted. When the doctor pulled it out, it turned to ash and vanished.”

The earth mage grimaced. “If you Sunnians weren’t so terrified of magic, you wouldn’t be so vulnerable to magic attack. Speaking of scars, you have another one---“

Marc tensed. Here came the inevitable question, the one everybody asked.

“---one on your chest. If I were to ask you how you got that mark, would you tell me the truth?” All three green eyes were fixed on the prince’s face.

There was no point in lying, not to an elde-mage. “No.”

“Then I won’t ask.” Sammual wrapped a strand of Marc’s golden hair around his finger, admiring the way it shifted colors in the light. “Your hair is just like your mother’s. The same color. The same texture. Were the two of you very close?”

“She was my mother.”

The mage’s voice was smooth as silk. “It must have been hard for you when she died giving birth to your brother. Many sons in your situation would have felt resentful.”

What was he trying to get at? “It wasn’t Kelvin’s fault. Mama was too old to have another child. The doctor said so.”

“Was the baby her idea or your father’s?”

“Both, I think. They had been feuding for years. When they finally made peace, they were like newlyweds. Newlyweds want children.”

“What kept them apart? Me?”

“Not you. Not directly. Please, I ‘d rather not talk about them any more.”

The elde-mage stepped back. “Sorry. It’s my training as a magician. It makes me curious about everything, even things that are none of my business. The next time I start prying into your personal life, tell me to fuck off.”

This was so unexpected that Marc gaped. “I--I couldn’t do that!”

“Why not? Are you afraid I’ll turn you into a frog or curse you with a wart on the end of your handsome chin? ”

Marc burst out laughing.

“That’s better. Hold on to that sense of humor. You may need it in the days to come.”


Chapter 3

The journey down the mountain was shorter than the journey up. When asked about this, the earth mage smiled enigmatically and murmured something about there being many paths to the same goal.

“In other words, you’re using magic. Isn’t it tiring?”

Sammual shrugged. “I’m an elde-mage. What you call magic is as natural for me as eating, sleeping and breathing are for you.”

“Are you saying you don’t eat, sleep or breathe?”

“Not if I don’t want to.”

They stopped in the village to settle Marc’s bill at the inn and to collect his horses. His mare, Sally Ann was delighted to see him. She nuzzled his neck, then sniffed at his pocket, where he had hidden an apple.

The black gelding in the next stall was a different matter. He was a temperamental beast, which Marc had chosen for speed and endurance rather than social graces. “Watch him,” he advised the earth mage. “He bites.”

“Nonsense. No horse has ever bitten me.” Sammual stroked the animal’s flank. “An extra horse and camping gear for two. You must have great confidence in your powers of persuasion.”

“It’s always better to be prepared.” He noticed the earth mage’s frown. “Is something wrong?”

“Wrong? How would you like to have some creature cut off your balls to make you docile?”

Marc had never thought if it that way. “There’s a mare in the field behind the stable. If you object to riding a gelding, maybe I can persuade the innkeeper to exchange--”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The mare’s half lame. I rescued her from a tax collector who believed that the cure for a torn ligament was the liberal application of a whip. ” He murmured something in the gelding’s ear. It responded by nuzzling him. “What shall I call you?”

“His name’s Rupert.”

The mage gave the prince a withering look. “Your name for him is Rupert. ”

“Silly me. What’s his real name?”

“You couldn’t pronounce it. “

“I’m good with languages. Try me.”

Sammual uttered a series of whinnies, snorts, and rumbles that sounded exactly like the noises a horse might make. He even looked a bit like one, with his long hair falling down his back like a mane and his lips pulled back from his teeth.

“Let me see if I’ve got this right.” Marc made a clumsy attempt to reproduce the sounds he had just heard.

Sammual's’ scowl gave way to a smile. “You just called him ‘Young turnip of the spotted dog tree.’”

The prince smothered a grin. “If we meet any horses on the road, I’ll let you do the talking.”

The elde-mage proved to be a skilled horseman. His magic was also a boon. He used his power over the earth to decrease the weight of the riders and their supplies on the horses’ backs to almost nothing. Once they left the mountain and its treacherous trails behind them, they made good time. Impossibly good time.

“You’re using magic again, aren’t you?” Marc asked when they passed a road marker well ahead of schedule.

Without batting a eye, Sammual responded “I told you, elden mages always use magic. It’s what we are. What we do.”

“The horses don’t seem to be going that much faster than usual.”

“They aren’t.”

“So how did we cover so much ground so quickly?”

“What if I told you that we didn’t ‘cover’ the ground, rather the ground fled from us?”

The idea made Marc feel slightly queasy. It was easier not to think about it.

Sammual’s single traveling bag was also an enigma. Though it appeared barely large enough to contain a change of clothes, over the course of the afternoon, Marc watched the mage take out several books, a wide brimmed hat, a selection of scarves, three different flasks and assorted tools for personal grooming.

“How can you carry that thing? It must weigh a ton.”

“Oh, it does,” Sammual confirmed. “But not in this dimension.”

***

They reached the Nobal Road in late afternoon. The first leg of the journey should have taken the better part of a day, perhaps two, but Marc was not complaining. If magic could help them narrow the distance between themselves and Kelvin’s captors, he would recite the spells himself, and Suunian law be damned.

The Nobal Road was a wide, stone paved highway constructed during the heyday of the Shavrian Empire by the Emperor Nobal the Second. The Empire had fallen long ago, a victim of drought, disease and invaders . The continent of Shavria had since been divided into the Seven Kingdoms. Suunland was the most southerly, with rich farmlands, densely wooded forests, gold mines and ample fishing. Shiraz, its neighbor to the north, was a desert which bred religious zealots and bandits. The other kingdoms were Shantuun, Sisilia, Scorrio, Strailyte and Sarahajuun. Of the Shavrian’s many achievements, the Nobal Road was one of the few which remained. This was ironic considering that the highway was instrumental in the downfall of the Shavrian Empire, since it provided invaders---like Marc’s ancestors, the Suunian’s--- an easy way to move inland from the southern ports.

Sammual brought his horse to a halt. Anyone who met the travelers on the highway would have assumed that the mage was a Shirazian lady returning home after a visit to the mountain hot springs. He wore the traditional women’s riding costume of Shiraz, a high necked, ankle length tunic slit up each side to reveal loose black trousers gathered at the ankles and tucked into short boots. His hair fell down his back in a single, thick black braid. The hairstyle was common to both men and women of the desert kingdom, but only women wove ribbon through their hair, and only women wore jewels on wrists, ankles, hands and feet.

The prince of Suunland looked like a servant in his dingy clothes. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing muscular forearms covered with thick golden hair and the strong calloused hands of a man used to heavy labor. His boots were encrusted with mud. There were smudges on his face. His hair was a tangled web of gold and silver. He was hatless, and his nose was beginning to turn pink from sunburn.

Sammual dismounted and returned his weight to normal. Once his feet were planted firmly on the earth, the source of his power, he took the young prince’s toy from the silk pouch fastened to his belt.

In Marc’s experience, mages liked to make their art seem as mysterious as possible. The elde-mage was the exact opposite. ”Currently, there are imprints of four separate life forces on this toy. Two are rooted here---these energies belong to you and me. The third is behind us, the nanny in Suunweiss. That leaves a fourth which must be your brother. Notice that I’ve chosen a silk pouch. Silk protects against contamination by foreign energies.” Holding the red and white ball in both hands, he closed two of his eyes and opened the third wider. It took him longer this time to establish a connection with the boy. Marc began to worry. What if Kelvin was too far away? What if--?

“He’s north of us,” Sammual said finally. “Asleep, I think. That would explain the weak link.”

“Would the link be weak if he were sick? Or...” The word almost choked him. “..dying?”

“He’s asleep,” Sammual replied firmly. “The wagon isn’t moving. They must have stopped for the evening. Taking into account how fast we can travel and how slowly ordinary travelers must go, we should catch up with them in two days, maybe less.”

“What if we ride straight through the night?”

The earth mage arched a brow. “Then we’ll be a day closer to finding him. If I had wings, we could get there even sooner. And if I possessed the mythical Stepping Stone of Yesterday, we could go back in time and prevent the kidnapping. However, the Stone doesn’t exist, I don’t have wings, and you need food and sleep.”

Marc mounted his horse. “I’m not sleeping until I find my brother.”

Sammual started to argue then changed his mind. “You know your own limits better than I do.” His expression was carefully neutral.

Except for an occasional stop to water the horses, they rode without pause. With the blue Suunian moon above them and the wide, smooth highway before them, it was almost as easy to travel by night as by day. Fatigue did not begin to set in until midnight. When it did, Marc forced himself to think about Kelvin, alone, hungry, afraid and at the mercy of kidnappers. That gave him an extra boost of energy. However, in the early hours of morning, the monotony of their journey began to take its toll. His eyelids grew heavy. His head began to nod.

“You should sleep,” Sammual suggested. His own eyes were wide and bright.

The prince shook his head stubbornly. He pulled himself up straight. “How far now?”

“Slightly more than a day’s ride, if we keep up this pace, which we can’t. I suggest we stop. The horses could use the rest.”

“The horses can rest after we find Kelvin.”

Sammual’s expression hardened, but he said merely, “As you wish.”

As they rode, the earth mage began to hum the melody of a lullaby almost as ancient as his race. Within minutes, Marc was nodding. Soon afterwards, he slumped forward in his saddle. He would have fallen if Sammual had not leaned forward to catch him.

“Don’t know why I’m so tired,” Marc mumbled, as he was helped off his horse. “I’ve stood overnight guard duty plenty of times. Never fell asleep.”

“There’s a big difference between--- no, you don’t.” The prince was trying to stand. “Whether you want to or not, you’re going to sleep.” Sammual lowered him to the ground. Soon, he began to snore softly.

The mage folded one blanket to serve as a pillow and covered the sleeping prince with the other. He lingered over him, tucking in the corner of the blanket here, moving a rock there. Moonlight softened Marc’s features, increasing his resemblance to his mother.

Abruptly, Sammual turned away. He stretched out on the ground. He had no need for pillows or blankets. The earth accommodated itself to him, creating a shallow depression for his head, filling the hollow of his lower back. Sighing, he let his arms and legs go limp. It was good to feel the earth beneath him again. Extended periods on horseback made him dizzy. Boat trips were even worse. Traveling by air was almost intolerable.

His teacher , Elice, an earth mage with cornflower blue eyes and snow white hair, had advised him to carry a small magnet when he traveled by air or water. “It will keep you centered,” she had told him. Or was Elice a man at the time? It bothered Sammual that he could not remember, and he so young for an elden. What would his memory be like when he was two thousand years old rather than just over two hundred?

In his left pocket, he carried the magnetic disc which Elice had given him. The charm helped. Still, he preferred to travel by foot, or better yet, not to travel at all. He liked to feel himself surrounded by rock, natural if possible, though a well constructed castle was almost as good.

“When you’re older, you‘ll become more adaptable,” Elice had promised. “Then travel won’t affect you so.” By “older” she meant five hundred years older. He had a long way to go. At two hundred fifty-seven, Sammual was a mere child among his kind.

Paradoxically, the youth which made him so sensitive to changes in his environment also gave him tremendous power over his birth element. There was nothing he could not persuade the earth to do. He could summon earthquakes, turn rocks to dust and living matter to stone. Solid objects spoke to him of the past, present and future. The skeletons of dead animals and men could be made to serve him, when necessary, though this was a bit too close to necromancy for his tastes. He had even mastered the art of turning solid matter into light, the most powerful and deadly of the earth magicks.

His skill with the other elements was less satisfactory. He had inherited fire magic from his paternal grandfather, a member of the Darkhall nobility, also known as the daema. Water magic still eluded him, and he suspected it always would. Demons had a natural affinity for fire, a necessity since their sunless world was completely lacking in heat and light. Like all fire creatures, they feared and hated water. Though Sammual had no objection to the element, his daema blood made it unlikely that he would ever master the aquatic arts.

Currently, he was attempting to learn wind magic. Wind, being the opposite of earth, was usually the most difficult for earth mages to master, but his fire skill helped him here. For instance, by adjusting the air temperature at various heights, he was able to generate a breeze. A very slight breeze.

Petty magic, he thought in disgust. Any human sorcerer could do the same. In one respect, humans had an advantage over the elde-mages. Since they were not bonded to a single element, they had the ability to master all four.

He turned his head to the side. With his ordinary eyes closed and the third eye open, he saw his companion as a man shaped blue-white cloud which occasionally released a tiny spark of lightening. Every living creature had a radiance, more commonly known as an aura, but few had a radiance this bright. And only those with magic skills produced sparks. The light was brightest and the sparks were most numerous over the sleeping man’s left eye, not surprising since a life threatening illness or injury often lead to the release of magic powers as the body attempted to heal itself.

Did Prince Marcellus know that he had the potential to become a sorcerer? In the old days, magic power was highly prized in rulers. A benevolent queen with a gift for making things grow could ensure her people a good harvest, and a king with power over animals could bring his subjects success in the hunt.

On the other hand, a bitter, angry king with a gift for starting fires spelled trouble. The Suunians were the first to overthrow a violent mage king. Being a practical people, they also issued a proclamation designed to prevent the problem from arising in the future. Members of the Suunian royal family were forbidden, under pain for exile to study the magic arts.

Rather than spelling the end of their occupation of southern Shavria, as their enemies had predicted, the Edict of Separation of Powers had solidified the Suunian kingdom by encouraging the development of state craft and other useful arts. In the centuries which followed, the other kingdoms began to follow the southerners’ example. Queens were chosen for their dowries, rather than their magic skill. People were more likely to follow the leader with the most persuasive oratory style rather than the one who could make his enemies vanish in a puff of smoke. Thanks to Suunian military innovations, the ruler with the best army tended to win, no matter how many demons, mages or dragons his rival controlled.

Gradually, the mage-kings of the Seven Kingdoms of Shavria were replaced by rulers who were administrators, ambassadors, businessmen. Magic was now the exclusive domain of scholars, orcerers and elde-mages. The earth mage was comfortable with this division of power. He did not miss the marriage proposals from ambitious young kings who coveted Sammuelle’s magic. He certainly did not want to become a ruler himself and have a kingdom depending upon him for its well being. It was difficult enough keeping his children and an occasional lover happy and healthy.

He glanced at Marc. He should have left him outside in the rain. If he was not careful, he was going to get his heart broken all over again---

He banished the notion, before it could take root in his imagination. He told himself that he was drawn to Marc, because he resembled his mother. His feelings for him were strictly paternal. If they were anything else, he would have already begun the process of transformation from man to woman. An elde-mage could fool himself, but he could not fool his body.

As he watched, the sleeping prince began to dream. Though elde-mages did not dream, Sammual was familiar with the signs. The muscles relaxed, except for those around the eyes, which twitched. The life energy which surrounded the dreamer grew dim, occasionally fading altogether. Mortals thought that dreams were fancies of the idle mind, but they were much more. In order to live, humans had to spend a small portion of each day in the Darkhall, the sunless realm where all souls originated and returned after death. Most dreams were harmless excursions into that other land. A nightmare was a dream journey which carried the soul too far. The deeper one traveled into the Darkhall, the more chance there was that the dreamer would never find his way home. Or, if he managed to return, he might find himself so changed by his journey that he was no longer the same person.

Marc’s journey into dream was brief, just enough to fortify him for the waking journey ahead. In the next few days, the Crown Prince of Suunland would see things he had only read about in books. Would he return home to Suunweiss a changed man? Almost certainly.

What about himself? Would he change, too? Sammual hoped not. In his experience, change was a precursor to suffering.

Chapter 4

Shortly after dawn, Marc opened his eyes and found himself looking up at a face as remarkable for its beauty as for its third eye. “Where am I? The last thing I remember, we were riding--”

“You nodded off. I was afraid you would fall off your horse, so I decided to stop.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“A few hours.” Sammual had taken down his braid and was brushing his hair. “I fed and watered the horses. We can continue our journey whenever you’re ready.”

The prince sat up and stretched. His limbs felt stiff. His spine was bruised from sleeping on the ground. “A few hours? Did you get any sleep?”

Elde-mages don’t need sleep, remember?” His emerald eyes were bright. His traveling clothes were immaculate, and the hair which he was so carefully brushing was as smooth as silk.

“Must be nice.” Marc rubbed his chin. He knew he looked a mess, and he felt worse than he looked. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but I have to know. How’s Kelvin?”

“He’s awake. Hungry. But in no pain,” the mage added quickly.

Hungry? Had they bothered to feed him at all since he was kidnapped? “I wish I could feel his presence from a distance, the way you can. When you tell me he’s healthy, I believe you up here--” He pointed to his head. “But that doesn’t stop the rest of me from worrying.”

“Would you like me to teach you how to do it? It’s quite simple, especially in a case like this where there’s a blood tie.”

Marc laughed. “I don’t think so. As Nanna used to say, you can’t teach a cornerstone to bleed.” He rummaged in his bag until he found a loaf of bread, which he broke in half. He offered one piece to his companion, who declined it.

“’You can’t teach a cornerstone to bleed,’” Sammual repeated, frowning. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“It’s a silly expression, isn’t it? It means no matter how hard you try to teach me magic, it won’t work if I don’t have a gift for it.”

The mage set down his brush and tossed his hair back over his shoulders. The scent of violets rose around him. “How do you know you don’t have the gift?”

Marc considered this. “I guess you can never know for certain that you don’t have something. But if I possessed magic powers, wouldn’t they have become apparent by now?”

“Not necessarily. Some humans discover their magic potential as adults or even in middle age.” Sammual began to plait his hair, artfully threading a green velvet ribbon through the jet black braid.

Marc watched, wide eyed. “Forgive me, but I have to ask---”

“If I’m really a man? In the way you mean, yes. Shall I demonstrate?”

“I’ll take your word for it. Do you really think I might have magic powers?”

“I know it. You spark, like steel rubbed against flint. “

“Excuse me?”

“Your radiance. The aura of light that surrounds you. It contains sparks. Harness the sparks, and you have magic.”

As Marc ducked behind some bushes to relieve himself, he considered the mage’s words. He liked the idea of having unsuspected magic abilities. A magician wouldn’t have to worry about his children, because he would always know where they were and what they were doing. If his wife got sick, say in childbirth, he could cast a spell or brew up a potion to cure her. If his lover stopped loving him, he could make a potion to fix that, too.

Or maybe not. Why did Sammual let Morgany go? Was it possible he had no magic to make her love him? After she left, why didn’t he cast a spell to cure himself of his love for her? There must a limit to what magic could do.

Marc was still pondering this problem, when they resumed their journey. A small loaf of stale bread was not much of a breakfast for a young man his size. Soon, his stomach began to grumble loudly.

The elde-mage had very good hearing. “You won’t find your brother, if you are too weak from hunger to stay on your horse. We’ll stop at the next town and get something hot to eat.”

The next village was named Errlie. The fact that they arrived several hours earlier than expected did not escape Marc’s notice. He made a feeble joke, to which Sammual responded with a polite smile.

“I’ll be better company after breakfast,” the prince said apologetically.

The village inn’s dining room served food that was greasy but filling. Marc was amazed at what a difference sleep and some food could make.

The elde-mage barely touched his breakfast. “You appear to need this more than I do.” He pushed his plate in Marc’s direction.

“If you’re sure you don’t want it.” The prince speared a sausage and coated it liberally with egg yolk before popping the whole thing in his mouth.

Suppressing a shudder, Sammual neatly folded his napkin and stood up.

“Where are you going?” Marc mumbled around a mouthful of food.

“To freshen up”

To Marc’s eyes, the elde-mage looked immaculate. If anyone needed a bath it was the prince. He rubbed his chin. He had two days growth of beard. Did he bring his razor? He couldn’t remember. He tried to run his fingers through his hair, but his hand got caught in the tangles.

With a shrug, he turned his attention to his food and polished off a second breakfast. When he pushed his plate away, he realized that the traveler at the next table, a stocky man with a receding hairline and a full beard was watching him.

“Mistress or wife?” the stranger asked.

Marc was startled by the question. “Uh...wife.” Mentally, he kicked himself. Why did he say that?

“She’s a fine looking woman. But doesn’t it worry you having a three eyed mage for a wife? If you stay out late drinking and then come home with an excuse, no matter how good the lie is, she’ll know it isn’t the truth. And you can forget about having a girlfriend on the side. They say mages know what we humans are going to do before we do it. Imagine having your wife hit you over the head with a frying pan, because next week you’re going to have lustful thoughts about another woman.”

Marc smiled politely.

“On the other hand, they say after you’ve had a she-mage, no other woman will do.” The balding man leered. “Is that true?”

Marc stood up. “Excuse me. I need to go check on the horses.” He tossed some coins on the table. As he was leaving, he heard the balding man say something about “thighs like silk.” He hoped that Sammual was not in earshot.

Outside, he was distracted by the sound of angry voices. A crowd had gathered in the street. The phrase “child stealer” was uttered, along with “demon” and “devil”.

Heart thudding against his breast bone, Marc made his way to the front of the crowd. He would not allow himself to hope, but still---

His heart sank. Instead of a demon carrying an infant prince, he saw a bundle of rags cowering in the dirt. A man prodded it with a stick. The bundle moaned. A skinny hand emerged from the rags and pushed the stick away. A woman hurled a stone. The bundle cried out

“Leave me!” It was a girl’s voice, weak and shrill. “I do nothing!”

“Let her be!” Marc stepped forward. “Can’t you see she’s just a child?” He positioned himself between the girl and her tormentors .

“Child stealer, you mean,” an elderly woman hissed.

“Bugger off!” someone else shouted. “This is none of your business.”

In Suunweiss, this would never have happened. In Suunweiss, Marc would have been wearing the clothes of a gentleman and the insignia of the royal family. Here, in Errlie, he was just another dusty, sweat stained traveler.

He stood his ground, sheltering the girl with his body, even when they started throwing stones. Most of the projectiles went wide, but the mob got lucky a few times. A jagged rock opened a gash on his forehead. The cut bled profusely. Blood got in his eyes, making it difficult for him to see.

Automatically, his hand went for his weapon. He remembered that he was not wearing a sword. He decided to try reason. “If you think she’s committed a crime, call the magistrate.”

“I’m the magistrate,” replied a red faced woman. “It was my grandniece she stole.” In her hands, she held a large hunk of granite. She raised her arms over her head and prepared to hurl the rock at the girl and her protector.

With the crowd surrounding them, there was no place to run. Automatically, Marc shielded himself and the girl as best he could. However, before the magistrate could throw the rock, it crumbled into pink dust flecked with mica. The woman let out a little shriek of surprise and alarm, then began to cough as dust filled her mouth and nose.

In the confusion that followed, few noticed the elde-mage who pushed his way forward through the crowd. “Is this how you dispense justice in your town?” he asked quietly. He turned so that everyone could get a good look at his third eye. It was wide and faintly glowing.

The mob froze. Even farmers knew better than to throw rocks at elden mages and sorcerers.

“You.” Sammual gestured towards the magistrate. “What’s this about a stolen child?”

She bobbed a curtsy. “My grandniece disappeared, ma’am. Right before our eyes.”

“When?”

“Early yesterday morning. That creature over there was seen lurking around the house the night before. Examine her. You’ll see she isn’t natural.”

The mage knelt beside the trembling pile of rags. He pulled back a few layers, revealing a heart shaped face with prominent cheekbones, slanting eyes and long, pointed ears. Her skin was covered with grime. Her copper red hair was matted. The hand which clutched the fabric at her throat was small and slender, the hand of a child, except for one detail. She had razor sharp claws. The dark material crusted beneath them could have been either dirt or dried blood.

Sammual replaced the rags, then he turned to confront the mob. “I agree that her appearance is unusual. However, she isn’t responsible for the disappearance of your grandniece. I know, because the King has assigned me and my companion the task of apprehending the child thief. Using my magic I will now make you forget everything. Not you, Marc.” He slapped the prince lightly across the cheek. A few words whispered in his ear brought him out of his trance.

Blinking, Marc surveyed the scene. A dozen men and women were standing around them, as motionless as statues, their eyes vacant. One or two were drooling. “Did you do that? Why?”

“Because they annoyed me.” Frowning, he examined the wound on the prince’s forehead. “Just a scratch. Not worth the bother of a healing spell. Get the horses. I’ll bring the girl. We’ll meet in front of the inn.”

A few minutes later, they were on the road again. Sammual had used a sleeping spell to quiet the feral girl, so that she would not draw attention. The elde-mage held onto her with one hand while the other handled the reins. “That was bravely done, Marc. Foolish, but bravely done.”

Marc flushed. “I couldn’t just stand by and let them stone her!”

“So instead you let them stone you. If you had told them who you were in the first place---”

“They wouldn’t have believed me.”

Sammual eyed Marc’s wrinkled clothes, unshaven chin, and uncombed hair. “You’re probably right. Remind me to teach you a spell to win the trust of strangers. It’s a simple trick that requires minimal magic ability.” A few minutes later, he added. “When we’re well away from the village, we’ll stop, and I’ll tend to your wound.”

“You said it wasn’t worth the bother of a healing spell,” Marc reminded him, a trace of bitterness in his voice.

Sammual sighed. “If I apologize, will you stop looking at me like a puppy that’s been kicked by its master?”

“Do I really---? You’re joking. How’s the child? Do you want me to carry her for a while?”

“If you wouldn’t mind. She reeks like a barnyard.”

The sleeping girl was surprisingly light. There seemed to be little more than bones wrapped in the dirty rags. Marc peeked at her elfin face. She had an odd kind of beauty, at once fascinating and a little frightening. “She doesn’t smell bad. All things considered, she smells very nice.”

The elde-mage snorted. “That’s because you’re a mortal male. The ‘child’ you’re holding in your arms is a fully grown princess of the Darkhall. A great beauty, by the standards of her own kind.”

“A demon princess ? They have royalty?”

“Indeed. Distant cousins of the elde-mages. Don’t let them hear you refer to them as demons. Demons are servants and slaves. The nobles call themselves the daema. I wonder what she’s doing up here, in the World of Corruption?”

“’The World of Corruption?’”

“That’s what the Darkhall calls this world. There’s no death in the Darkhall, no change.”

“Because everything there is already dead.”

The mage smiled tolerantly. “You could say that. It’s true that the anima of mortal creatures pass into the Darkhall after death. However, there are other creatures who are native to the Everlasting World. They are born fully grown. They never age. They never die. When they find themselves transported to our world, where they feel hunger, fatigue and pain, it can drive them mad. I fear something like this may have happened to our princess. If she were in her right mind, she would have cast a glamour upon herself to make herself look like a human, so that no one would have suspected her of being different And anyone who dared to attack her would have been reduced to cinders with a wave of her little finger. I wonder why she is here, in this weakened condition.”

They stopped at the next stream. Sammual cleaned the blood from Marc’s face with a cloth dipped in cool water. Then, he pressed two fingertips to the wound. Warmth radiated from his hand. His lips moved silently. When he took his fingers away, the wound was gone.

Marc touched his forehead. “Can you teach me how to do that?”

“If you have a dozen years to spare.” The elde-mage turned his attention the princess. He reversed the sleeping spell.

Her eyes flew open. She lashed out wildly with her claws, but Sammual caught her hands in his.

“What is your name, child?” he asked softly.

The girl blinked. Her eyes were wide, amber in color with oblong pupils, like those of a cat.

“Do you remember how you got here?”

She pointed at Marc. “He make stop hurt.” She reached for the prince’s hand and pressed it to her cheek, which was hot, as if she was burning with fever.

“This is Marc,” Sammual explained slowly. “He is a prince of this world, just as you are a princess in your own world.”

“Princess?”

“Do you remember anything before the village?”

She blinked. “Door. Remember door. Falling. So hurt---” She shut her eyes, screwed up her face and began to cry, a soft whimper which gradually rose in pitch and volume until it became a shrill wail that made birds take wing and speed away. The hairs rose on the back of Marc’s neck.

“Cover your ears! “ Sammual commanded.

Seconds after Marc pressed his palms over his ears, he saw a sparrow fall from a tree, stone dead before it hit the ground.

In the end, Sammual had to put the princess to sleep again in order to quiet her. This time, it took several of his strongest spells. “The scream of a full blooded daema princess can kill. Or drive those who hear it mad,” he explained to Marc.

“So those villagers were in more danger from her than she was from them.” He watched the sleeping girl warily. “Do you think there’s a connection between her and my brother?”

“I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a link. Daema princesses don’t come to earth every day, nor do Darkhall creatures commonly steal mortal children. Which reminds me.” He took the red and white ball from the silk pouch. Frowning, he murmured “What’s this?”

“What’s the matter?” Fear gripped Marc’s stomach. “Has something happened to Kelvin?”

“Your brother’s fine. It’s his captor. He’s turned the wagon around and is heading this way.” He glanced at the sleeping princess. “I wonder...”

“What? What do you wonder?”

The earth mage shook his head. “Nothing. If we hurry, we should be able to find your brother before dark, assuming that his captor continues his present course.”

“You think he’s looking for her?” Marc nodded at the sleeping girl.

“It’s possible. A Darkhall princess, stripped of her memory and soul would be worth a lot to some people.”

“What kind of people are those?”

Sammual shrugged. “Sorcerers. Necromancers.”

Elde-mages?”

“There are a few unscrupulous members of my race,” the earth mage admitted grudgingly.

“So even your power may not be enough to save my brother.”

Sammual let his hand rest on the prince’s shoulder. “If you recall, I made no promises. I said I would do what I can. Which happens to be quite a lot, so I wouldn’t give up your brother for dead.”

“I’m not giving up. What do we do with her?” Marc nodded towards the sleeping girl.

“Take her with us. “

***

They resumed their journey. The Darkhall princess slept through the afternoon. Several hours passed, before Sammual called another halt. Marc had no idea how far they had traveled. For all he knew, the deserts of Shiraz might be just over the next hill.

The earth mage dismounted and searched the ground. When he found what he was looking for, he dropped onto his stomach and pressed his ear to the earth. He spoke a few words, paused as if for an answer, then made one final reply. He rose. A single wave of the hand was all it took to make the dirt fall from his face and clothes. “Your brother is inside a wagon parked over the next hill,” he informed Marc. “There are at least four other children with him. A single spark gnome is guarding them.”

“The ground told you all that?”

The merest trace of a smile flickered across his face. “The earth is full of secrets. You merely have to know how to listen. We’ll leave the horses and the princess here and proceed on foot.” He wrapped the sleeping girl in a blanket and placed her under the shelter of an overhanging rock. “I case it rains. The daema hate water.” He glanced up at the sky. As the day had progressed, the clouds had gotten progressively darker. “Too bad I can’t control water. Rain would be a valuable weapon in a battle against a spark gnome. Secure the horses. We don’t want to get stranded out here”

“What’s a spark gnome. Are they dangerous?”

“Dangerous? A sewing needle can be dangerous if you stick it in your eye. A fish bone can be dangerous if you choke on it.”

“In other words, ‘yes’”

“Don’t put words in my mouth. Spark gnomes are the demon equivalent of school yard bullies. However, this one has hostages. I want you to approach from the road. Make sure he sees you. I’ll creep around from the back. If I can grab him before he notices me, he won’t be able to use his invisibility. If you see him point his finger at you, hit the ground. It means he’s going to shoot a ball of flame.”

Marc’s eyes widened. “Can’t you blast him with some kind of spell?”

“And risk hurting the children?”

“It was just a suggestion.”

“A poor one. Go on.”

Marc wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers and began to walk. As he neared the top of the hill, he glanced back over his shoulder. There was no sign of the elde-mage.

Just as Sammual had predicted, there was a wagon on the other side of the hill. It was a flimsy thing, made of random scraps of wood tied together with rope and wire. Though there were plenty of gaps between the wooden slats, the interior of the wagon was dark. There was no sign of a horse or mule.

Cautiously, he approached the wagon. When he saw a pair of glowing red eyes watching him from the shadows, he froze.

“What d’ya want?” demanded a voice rough as gravel.

Marc took a deep breath and threw back his shoulders. “I’ve come for my brother.”

“Your brother? The little yellow haired fellow? You can’t have him. He’s mine. I paid for him, fair and square, so just bugger---” The words were choked off.

Sammual emerged from behind the wagon, carrying a short, plump red haired creature by the neck. It was vaguely manlike, though the arms and legs were too short, and the head seemed unnaturally large. It had a snub, nose and fiery red eyes. Its expression was one of pure terror.

“You know what I am?” the earth mage demanded.

The spark gnome nodded its oversized head mutely. Its eyes were as round as saucers. Its feet dangled six inches above the ground.

“So you know that there’s no point in trying to lie to me. “ Sammual’s voice was cold and deadly. “I’m going to ask you some questions. Each time you give me a false answer, I’ll turn a part of your body to stone. I’ll start with the feet. If you try to escape, I’ll turn you into stone from the waist down. Have you ever seen it done? It’s a particularly nasty death. If you’re lucky, you’ll die of thirst and starvation. If someone takes pity on you and gives you food and water, you’ll swell up like a toad and die choking on your own piss and shit. Understand? Good. Why are you stealing children?”

“T--to sell.”

Sammual frowned. “Don’t try to deceive me with half truths. I’ll let you off lightly this time. Three toes on your left foot.”

Three of the spark gnomes hairy toes went from brown to white. He wiggled his foot, as if trying to wake up the dead digits.

“Let’s try again. Why are you stealing children?”

“The mage sent me.”

“Why does the mage want children? Think carefully before you answer.”

With an anxious glance at his feet, the gnome replied “He’s building a warded fortress. Needs virgin blood, I guess. Kids are more likely to be virgins.”

Marc clenched his fists. His face flushed with anger, an emotion which was quickly replaced by a sick, cold feeling in the pit of his stomach as he realized what would have become of his younger brother if not for Sammual’s help. Even now, he could not be certain that his brother was safe. He assumed that Kelvin was somewhere inside the wagon, but when he peered inside, he saw nothing. He reached through the slats and felt--nothing.

“A warded fortress? What’s its purpose?”

“D-don’t know. To make magic, I guess.”

The elde-mage’s third eye glowed, as he studied the spark gnome’s face. “You’re telling the truth.” He sounded almost disappointed. “Perhaps we can figure it out for ourselves. Is your master of this world?”

“Don’t know, sir.”

“Immortal or mortal?”

“I--I don’t know. “

“What kingdom is he from?”

The little man shook his head. “He’s in Shiraz now, but I don’t think that’s not where he is from. His people talk--strange.”

Sammual sighed dramatically. “So all you know about him is that he is a man--”

“Not necessarily, sir.”

“Do you know anything about him at all?”

The spark gnome closed his eyes tight as if expecting a blow. “He don’t tell me nothing except to bring him the children.”

Sammual surveyed the spark gnome with obvious disgust. “You’re useless. I should kill you now and save myself the bother of interrogating you.”

The spark gnomes eyes were as round as saucers. “I know things! Lot’s of things!”

“Really? Did you know you were being followed?”

“No.” Steam rose from the spark-gnomes trousers. In his terror, he had wet himself.

Sammual grimaced but did not release his hold on the little man’s neck. “Then why did you turn back?”

“Princess. I got a message today. Master told me to find a princess.”

“Ah, so there is a connection. What does he plan to do with the princess?”

“He-he didn’t tell me.” The gnome cringed, as if waiting for a blow.

“I’m not going to punish you for ignorance. Only for lying. Are there others stealing mortal children?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“Six. No seven, counting me.”

“All in Suunland?”

“There’s one of us in each of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“Are all of you spark gnomes?”

“One’s a dragon master. Another’s a sand sprite. There’s a mud waddler, too”

“The mud waddler must be working the swamps of Scorrio. The sand sprite is obviously in the desert of Shiraz. Why a dragon master?”

“To fly over the mountains between Shantuun and Strailyte.”

“Silly me. I should have thought of that. Now, the most important question of all. Where were you taking the children?”

“Shiraz. That’s where Master’s gonna build the fortress. In Shiraz.”

Sammual’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Shiraz is a very big country. Can you be more specific?”

The gnome’s mouth flapped open and closed a few times but no sound emerged.

“North? South? In a city? In the desert?” the earth mage prompted.

The spark gnome’s mouth clamped shut.

The elde-mage hook his head. “And we were doing so well. Left foot.” His voice was soft, almost gentle.

His captive groaned as his left foot turned to stone.

“You should reconsider,” Sammual suggested. “A gnome with one foot can move around fairly well with a crutch. No? Very well. Right foot.”

The spark gnome whimpered.

Marc was surprised to find himself feeling sorry for the creature. “He’s afraid of his master. Tell us where to find him, and I promise you’ll be protected.”

“Stay out of this, Marcellus!” the elde-mage hissed. “It’s up to you whether you live or die, spark gnome. Give me a location.”

The gnome glanced at the prince. “If I tell you, will you keep your promise? Will you protect me?”

“I always keep my word.”

“All right. I’m supposed to take them to----” His eyes turned red and steaming liquid began to pour from his mouth and nostrils. A drop struck the earth, which began to boil.

“Bloody hell!” Sammual exclaimed. Lava ignited his tunic. The earth mage dropped the spark gnome. “Stay back, Marc. He’s been cursed!”

The little man tried to run on his two stone feet, but he only got a short distance before an explosion ripped his body to pieces. One burning arm landed on the wagon. The dry wood caught fire, and the flames quickly spread.

Sammual grabbed a piece of burning timber with his bare hands and stripped it off. Then another, then another. Before he could put out one fire, another would start. “Don’t just stand there, Marc. Help me!”

The prince did not move. Sammual’s efforts were valiant but doomed to fail. All four sides of the wagon were now burning. All that stood between the children and the flames was whatever magic spell kept them shrouded in darkness. From Sammual’s frantic behavior, he guessed that would not last long. There was only one thing that could save his brother. Rain.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2007 by McCamy Taylor.

After a number of years as Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and occasional contributor of remarkable short fiction of her own, McCamy was sidelined by illnesses that made prolonged sessions at the keyboard impossible. But now, at last, she's ba-a-ack. She also tells us "I have been doing political cartoons for almost two years and then I started working on my first comic book, Drug Puppies. Only two chapters are done so far..."

And, beginning with the September 2007 issue of Aphelion, McCamy will take over as the new Serials Editor.

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