a year in stories::twenty six

These days roll away like mountain rivers.

Give me a life, she said

 

It was summer but it was winter: cold winds blew and crops grew too few. They blamed her, the villagers. She heard it when she walked through the market or the forest. Words blaming her, calling her magic a curse from the gods, a curse for them all. Others blaming her for not using it to change the weather, make the sun shine brighter, the winds blow warmer, the crops grow stronger. The days were long but cold and they came to her cottage and complained to her wife. Her wife made excuses for her, saying she did all she could and that she had foreseen a generous change in the weather. She listened to her wife lie, to the door close and latch, to the screams that followed when the villagers were sure to be far away.

What use is your magic? We’re in a crisis and many may starve and you, what can you do? You tend the fields like a peasant but none of your croptalk makes them grow. What good is it? Why not just be done of it and live a normal life. Do something useful. Learn a true skill.

Like a merchant, she said, her head down, floating dust between her hands, forming it into a miniature cyclone.

Stop that, her wife slapped her hands and the dust flitted away by the change in air. Her wife then took her hands, the ones she slapped, in her own, You have the head for it. You could bring trade here. Food and the like. We could start a guild between the neighboring villages and maybe even trade with the City.

She held her wife’s hands, squeezed, then let them go.

 

She talked to the trappers and farmers, those with livestock to spare, which were few. She talked about traders who came from far and wide but rarely this far north. The men listened, arms folded, faces stern, but as she continued, talking of bridging the gap between the neighboring villages and even the city, their body’s softened. When she finished talking the sun had arced across the sky and the men simply nodded and said they would think about it.

Every day of that week, she journeyed from town to town and gave the same talk to men similar in disposition and demeanor, but by the end they had all nodded and said they would consider it.

Her days filled this way, leaving before her wife rose and returning when he wife slept, she walked half in a dream, borrowing the horse of a friend to make the journeys. As she rode from town to town she listened to the birds who sang of long gone years of short winters and long summers. Her horse said little and when it did speak it was unkind. She caught leaves from trees and juggled them in the air around her, her face relaxed, slack, but gaunt, eyes darkened by scant sleep. There were days when children followed her for a few miles begging her to show them some magic. She would look at the sun, measure its place in the sky, and stop, tell them only a quick one. Sometimes she brought birds to her, who landed on her head or shoulder, or squirrels came and stole the coin from the pocket of one of the children who had one, or she drew up the sand to make a golem, only a few inches tall, who danced until one of the children touched it, at which point it collapsed back into a pile earth.

Invariably, she was late to every meeting as one trick turned into three or ten. In this way her work of one week became the work of three and then five.

She returned home at the end of the fifth week, she found her wife asleep, a candle yet burning on the sidetable. From the doorway she watched her wife sleep, tracing the curve of her shoulder, the shapes of her face. Memorising every inch of skin she saw, the way she lay so peaceful beside the flickering flame. Watching her wife, she took the flame from the candle. It danced across the room to her, flickering through the air. She held it in her hands and closed her eyes, diving into the memory of the flame, seeing the reflections of her wife’s light caught by the flame. She watched as her wife lay down alone, cold, but smiling: happy. Tears welled in her as she froze the image, the memory, and stared at that smile.

When she opened her eyes, she closed her hands together, the flame gone. She lay beside her wife beneath the blanket and pulled her close, feeling the warmth of her sleeping body. She smiled, then it cracked, and she whimpered silently beside her wife in the darkness.

 

You’ve saved us, the man, old gnarled by years, said while drinking thin amber ale.

She sipped water, There are time when I wish I could get away from here. Go off into the forest and start again. Make a little farm with a sheep or two, maybe a cow and a few cats. I think I’d be happy.

We all want to escape, he said, That’s part of living: wishing it were different. But you know what they say: where there’s a village, there’s a wizard. You’d never be able to stay away. Your kind are drawn to us.

People remember so little, even you, dear friend. You came here as still a child and there were others here before you, so perhaps you’re not to blame.

He drank long from his ale, nodded to the barkeep for another, Blame for what?

She leaned on her elbows, shoulders slumped, Not like that, she shook her head, But it’s not wizards who come to you, but you who build villages and cities around wizards.

Maybe the hen and the egg you’re playing.

I wish it were so, she tilted her glass in a circular motion watching the water climb up the glass then roll back down, always even. She said, But I remember. I came here long ago. Long before you were yet born, if you can believe that.

I do, he said and took the new glass from the barkeep, nodding in thanks.

I came here to be alone, away from the City. It’s different being a wizard there. Everyone loves and respects you, but there is also a deep fear and suspicion. We are unwanted everywhere even as we are desired everywhere.

You all do dress, talk, and act funny.

She snorted, a slight smile, There’s that, but there’s more. Your memories are short and the only wizards you care for are the court wizards. Those whose names become songs, who live in grand houses, in palaces. The rest of us squabble and fight for the merest attention from the smallest audience. More often than not, we sit amongst ourselves, playing magic to impress one another, growing more and more abstract and disconnected from what reality demands.

Aye, there’s much of magic and wizard talk that sounds, to be frank, ridiculous.

It is ridiculous, her voice quiet, far away, she drank the rest of the water and ordered a wine. That’s why I left, she said. I came out here to reconnect with the earth. My magic was never one of abstraction or flair. My magic is of craft. I can make it so your nails will never loose or your boat will never sink, or your fire will stay through the rains and the cold, but I can’t put on grand displays that attract fame or fortune. There are many who can, and some who have the subtle magic that seeps in and all around you. It’s only those with a combination of the two that make it. But I’m a simple woman imbued with magic that few care about. And so when the weather comes disagreeable I suffer through it as all others do. There are wizards who change the weather and the City remains always beautiful there, but a true wizard must find balance. If you change the weather in one place from rain to sun, that rain must go somewhere, and often it comes here, to the outskirts, where wizards like me live. She drank the glass of wine all at once and ordered a bottle.

He eyed her drinking, Friend, don’t give to sorrow. It doesn’t suit a wizard to be drunk and sad.

Nothing suits a wizard, she said. I can change the weather, you know. I can do a great many things. I can make the crops grow, even.

He looked around, Keep your voice down if you’re going to speak so. There’s some around who hate you for not doing so. The only thing that keeps them at bay is believing that they’re stuck with a weak and useless wizard.

They are, her voice was light, agreeable, but her face crashed hopeless into the words. My wife hates me for this magic. And I could do these things they ask but it only turns away disaster. They don’t understand. If you suck all the few nutrients from the soil this year to make it through the cold there will be nothing next year to grow, even if the weather is kind. I could turn the weather away but then somewhere else winter would never end and then next year it would crash back harder and even this brief cold summer would be lost to us. The world is in a tight balance and to kick it off kilter the way they do in the City is to sew disaster elsewhere.

He drank his ale nodding. Placing a hand on her shoulder, You’re doing it right, friend. They’ll love you again, next year. When weather improves.

No, she said, That’s not how people are. All faults are blamed on wizards and all rights are blamed on the gods. My wife has forbid my magic. She pushed me to this trading. A merchant.

And you succeeded. They do love you for that.

She waved her hand, The trappers and farmers have soaked up all that gratitude, and they can have it. What my wife doesn’t realise, what no one realises, is what magic means to a wizard. She drained her glass, filled it again. A wizard can’t simply not do magic. It courses through us like water through a river and to deny it is to deny ourselves. To forsake the deepest and most beautiful and most true part of ourselves. I try not to blame her. I love her and she loves me. And she’s so young. I often think we wizards live too long to understand you or for you to understand us. She looked at him for the first time in many minutes.

It’ll get better. She’s just frustrated. We all are. It’s hard for me to hear that you could make this all better with a bit of those ancient words strung together.

She nodded, I know. I’m sorry to burden you with the worries of a wizard. Your lives are too short for these weights.

We’re friends, he squeezed her shoulder, massaging the tension there. We’ve been friends a long time, and if part of repaying all you’ve given me is that I need to listen to you whilst drunk and sad, then I say I’ve made the best deal of my life.

She smiled weakly, You’re a kind man. A good man.

Blushing, he took back his hand from her shoulder.

Do you think I should?

Should what?

Give up magic.

He drained his glass, wiped his mouth, and exhaled loudly. I’m just a man. A simple man who raises a few pigs and hares when I can. I grow what I can and do what I can to make a life. Who am I to say what a wizard should and shouldn’t do.

She opened her mouth and he held up his hand.

I’ll tell you, though. Because we’re friends, and because you don’t ignore the questions of wizards. You need to make her happy, your wife, but you need to be happy too. If it’s always one but not the other, then that’s no life. That’s no love.

I can’t simply give up magic. It’s like trying to give up seeing color. It’s in me. It is me. It’s why I live long, see deep, speak, breathe. It’s all that–

I know that, he raised his hand again, I know all that. But ever since you’ve married her, you’ve bound your life to hers. Your lives are now one, and that’s no easy coupling to crash apart. It may be all that you believe you are, but she’s a great part of who you are. You’ve told me many times since you two came together that she’s the only one. The only one in, what? Two centuries? The only one in all that time to cause you to stop and give yourself to love. You gave yourself to the village and always have, but this was the only time you’ve been happy. Now, don’t say anything to that. You told me those things, and a wizard never lies. You told me that too, and I believe it still, even if you don’t, even if a wizard can tell the truth in such a way that it sounds like a lie. You love that girl of yours and so you’ll do what you have to. She’ll understand what you need to do. It’s a hard time, these summer months without summer. She loves you, deeply. She will stay, magic or no, but consider what she’s asking and why she’s demanding a wizard, of all things.

Thank you, friend. She stood, pushed the half bottle of wine in his direction and left the tavern.

 

Her wife sewed by candelight and she stole the light from the candle, closed it in her palm.

Sighing, her wife stood, What in the–

In an instant she was across the room, holding her wife, their lips pressed against one another. Her wife struggled for a moment, then threw her arms round her.

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