Magic in the Weaving: Speculation

Kit Ryan, 2010

The year is 1036KF and a mage has been scouring the country for four children--all very different and yet forced to work together, becoming strangely familiar in the process. Originally conceived for the au_switcheroo challenge on years back, but now very much its own thing.


One

The Mire—by Mummer's Close; Summersea, Emelan:

Dark eyes narrowed, Paraskeve Aygry peered at the bunched, knotted seam in front of her. She bit her lip. "It'll tear," she whispered to the woman who pressed in close to her small space in the street. "I won't be able to make it even."

"Lakik's teeth, I could've had this done ten times over if I didn't have to watch you and your gawping. If it tears, you answer for it."

If she had any sense, thought the girl, she'd unpick her own clothes! It was a hot morning in Summersea's Mire, and Paras' hands were shaking. Her legs, curled up under her in the stone niche she'd claimed as her own, ached fiercely. What she desperately wanted was a moment to stand and stretch; walk over to the public fountain on Potter's Lane and risk a drink, but that was impossible. If she moved, even for half a second, Paras knew that there would be a dozen other rag girls fighting over the precious space. She didn't dare try and fight them off, she'd lost one of her best needles up the arm of another girl the last time she'd had to. And the wheezes'll start again if I run, the morose thought crept into her head, loathsome and familiar. She glared at the dingy fabric in her small hands. Useless, overworked and over-worn stuff, not good enough even for dusters.

Sighing, she spread the cloth over her knees; running a finger gently along the seam and fishing around in her pockets for a large enough needle, only to find that, suddenly, she didn't need one.

The fabric was parting in the wake of her finger, as if there hadn't been a seam there at all.

Paras blinked. She drew her finger back up again—slowly, very slowly—and the now almost-separate pieces of tired cotton-weave came together again. She could see tiny threads moving industriously, tickling her nose as she brought her face down close enough to touch her knees.

The threads, all as one, stopped when she did that. Paras felt as if they were standing to attention, like the soldiers she had seen once, by Gyongxe. They stood there and somehow it seemed as if they—as if they were questioning her.

Paras whimpered and jerked back, hands flung apart to brace herself as her head cracked against the stone behind her. Hot, pricking lights flashed again and again behind her eyelids. Dimly, she could hear the old housewife swearing at her, and something that felt like a well-placed kick to the spot just under her ribcage.

"Fits now, is it? Useless trash!"

Paraskeve Aygry moaned as the woman walked away, leaving two pieces of cotton behind, where before there had been one.

In a farmstead in Anderran:

Niva Magnusson knew her family were happy and proud that she had magic, and that was where all the trouble started.

It had first shown itself when she was nine, coaxing a rose to furl and unfurl with a gentle touch, to show that she grew them better than Elsa Nearsridge. That day proved that she could, because she had the greenness inside her, and after that there was talk of temples and education, and Mila's blessing, but only between harvest fairs, because her father always needed Niva to come along to those now, no matter what else was going on. Niva loved knowing why she always made things better on the farm, after that day. She loved the reason, and it excited her. She loved snatching lessons from every passing Dedicate on his or her way to Winding Circle. She prayed to the Green Man every day to let her grow until she was magnificent, wide and strong like growth itself.

Sometimes the other children laughed at her when she prayed, but after Niva broke Dolan Matheson's nose and his little finger they left her alone.

But most roses have thorns, and there were big ones here.

After Niva found out about her magic, the raiders came.

They smashed up houses and trampled land. Elsa's favourite nasturtium plant was crushed under heavy boots and skinny horses, until it was an orange smudge in the dirt, still faintly fragrant.

Elsa was found by Niva's doorstep, pathetic and small, but still too big to be a smudge. She was a body, the scars on her face reopened.

When they came for her, to 'take the little mage home', Niva found herself at the centre of family members and very angry runner beans.

By the end of it, and after Elsa, the death toll went as follows:

One brother.

Five raiders.

Three runner plants.

It had been nearly a year and Niva still remembered it, and cried when she thought no one was looking.

It was easy to say sorry to the runner beans, which didn't need words, but apologizing to her father was difficult, especially when Niva hated apologies and papa, even when wearing black for his oldest son, didn't think there was anything to be sorry for. "You're my pride, and the pride of the farm," he would say.

By the time Niva Magnusson was ten-years-old, and Longnight had left a bleak, thick carpet of cold over everything, apparently even snowing-in the pass to Olart, Niva's nightmares were choking her like weeds and she knew she had to leave.

By the time Midsummer came around again, all she and papa could do was argue.

"You are not packing yourself off to a temple while you're under my roof, young lady."

"I'm not going to be under your roof, papa. That's something like the point!"

Papa's hands clenched and he rocked forward in his chair. "The temple was for when you were sixteen, if you wanted it—"

"—It was," Niva snapped. "But that was then. I need to go now."

"Now, now—why, now? Even if I accept for one instant that ten summers is old enough for any vocation, which, Niva-girl, it isn't, I need you to be—"

"I am not your pet mage, papa!" This shrill announcement had both of them silent for a moment, and Niva breathless. "It's my magic, and I need to do more with it than win your fairs and bulk up the maize harvest. I need out. You show me off too much, you talk too much, if you ever stopped then maybe the rai—" Niva's speech ended in a rattling gasp as papa leapt from the chair and started to shake her. Not too hard, but certainly hard enough.

"You are not," he said, red-faced and furious, "too old, or too powerful, for me to pick you up and hang you by your ungrateful ankles in the well, my girl."

Suddenly, glass shattered.

"Oh, she could stop you if she tried hard enough, I'm sure."

There was a chubby, red-headed woman standing in the now-wide open doorway, and there were winds everywhere.

"Don't look now, farmer Magnusson," said the apparition, "But your creeper appears to be upset over something. Put Niva down, if you please."

Niva, released from her father's now slack grip, gasped as she saw the wreckage of three of the back windows. Thick, rope-like vines, belonging to the wisteria that had lived happily for years clinging to their house's east wall, had forced their way through and were now bare inches from papa's head and shoulders. One smaller tendril had wrapped around the strange newcomer's ankle—visible under dusty blue skirts kilted up in the heat—in what looked like a warning sort of way. The air was thick with the scent of blossom. It nearly made Niva's eyes water. It had made the stranger's water, behind a pair of immaculate brass-rimmed spectacles; their lenses tinted an odd shade of blue.

"If you would be so kind as to call off your defender, girl?"

Niva jumped, and glared at the woman. "I didn't know…" she trailed off. It was impossible to speak. Hesitant, she walked over and laid a hand on one of the larger vines. "Thank you," she whispered. "I think." Slowly, the plant retreated, glass tinkling as more of it fell. Niva was left shivering.

Papa's face was grey. "Who are you?" he demanded, though his voice was faint. The day was hot, heavy and still, but breezes seemed to be fluttering in the house, plucking at things, moving the redhead's skirts. It had large white streaks in it, her hair, Niva noticed. Dead white, though she seemed young for that, and it was dressed in a series of complicated braids.

"Y-you know our names," Niva said, proud that her voice only trembled a little, and glaring hard to counteract even that. "How?"

The woman smiled thinly. "I'm good at knowing things," she said. "My name is Tris Chandler. I am a mage from Lightsbridge."

Niva sniffed, trying to tear her eyes from the broken windows. "'Chandler' isn't a proper mage name."

"It is my name, and names are important," said Tris Chandler. "Farmer Magnusson?"

Papa flinched, but then stepped forward. "I don't know what you mean by it, ma-am," he said. "Coming in here and—"

"—Niva must come with me to Winding Circle." Tris interrupted the man easily, stepping forward. "This shouldn't be so surprising, since it appears that your daughter has known this for quite a while."

"But…" Niva breathed, "Winding Circle, that's in Emelan! I wanted to go to—"

"You would find Sage Circle," began Tris, naming the main Living Circle Temple in Anderran, "less than able to fulfil your needs. Winding Circle will be better equipped." Briskly, the woman drew out a small, round token that shone oddly from around her neck, and some papers tied with ribbon. "My Mastery accreditation," she said to Papa, and she smiled again—a very dry smile. "I'm no raider or charlatan. Other things, but never those."

"Let me see," Niva snapped. The adults had forgotten she was in the room. "I'm the one you're uprooting."

"Suspicious," Tris murmured. Was that mild approval in her light, sharp voice? Niva snatched at the papers.

"Careful, Niva," said Papa. He sounded shaken, overwhelmed. "You might rip them."

Niva shrugged, eyes already scanning the document. "If she's a mage worth her feed she'll have witched her papers." Her eyes widened. "What aren't you a master of?" she asked, in a completely different tone of voice.

"Glassblowing," said Tris, straight-faced. "Now, as you've discovered that I am 'worth my feed', it's time to pack your things. There's a storm brewing."

"What—now?"

"Yes, now. Pack light, your father can send things along later. I'll be waiting outside."

"But—I…"

"Come here a minute, Niva."

Reluctantly, Niva stepped forward, and the mage bent to speak in her ear. "Take the time to patch things up with your father, girl," she said, pulling away. "Family's important."

With that, Tris stepped outside, and Niva Magnusson was left staring.

In a village of Mbau, northeast of the Pebbled Sea:

Kiam Ngaire ran.

Heat made the air shimmer, and fine red dust stuck to the sweat that poured from his lean, wiry body until it looked like paint. He was bare-foot, his hands were in tight fists by his sides and his stride was liquid and long. The low, makeshift huts he passed were a blur—he dodged goats easily, though his eyes were half-closed. His body moved forward, legs working, thumping the ground and his heart burnt in his chest, echoing in his spine and his thighs and his long, callused feet. Even with the burn, his lungs worked, drawing in air while he ignored the dust, his mouth dry, though there was blood in it. He had bitten his tongue.

He ran, and he ran, and he stopped only when it was dark and the night air turned cold, cooling his sweat and making his bones ache and feel brittle like an old woman's. He ran until he reached his home tent, and then fell to his knees, hands slapping the ground until he was prostrate in the dirt, shaking so hard his teeth rattled.

"Ey, moody one! Have a run today, did you?"

Kiam didn't look up, didn't try to answer so stupid a question. The mchowni was standing over him. Even with his eyes full of dust, Kiam could see the man, with his straggled dirty-white beard and three teeth, his tiny head and even more wizened body—the strange, yellow-hot eyes that glowed with some unholy vigour. "Good, good," said the mchowni, laying a bony hand on Kiam's equally bony shoulder. "Running makes you strong."

Kiam flinched, eyes shutting tighter. The mchowni's hands were always cold, and made the strange brittleness in his bones feel worse. The old man was coughing now; he spat a gob of phlegm expertly to the ground just next to the boy. "You're a good boy, moody," he said, very quiet, before walking off.

The boy shuddered in disgust, and slowly got to his feet.

Ualin was waiting for him inside, smiling. "Long run, brother," she said, narrow brown eyes crinkled up at the corners as she laughed at him. She was sliding carved ebony beads up and into some of her thin braids, the same colour as her skin, and her brother's. Other braids, some hennaed until they were a dull red, others threaded through with copper beads or pieces of polished bone, were bundled up out of the way.

Kiam nodded, managing a smile of his own. "Father still in shuq?

Ualin nodded. "Still in shuq. You need a wash, Kiam. You're covered in dust and there's a handprint on you."

Kiam shrugged.

"Don't you shrug at me, moody one." Ualin stood slowly, walking over to the fire-pit to tend it. Her brother glared at her. "Don't call me that," he said. "The mchowni calls me that."

"Wise man, our mchowni," murmured Ualin. Kiam watched as she knelt, leaning on her left hand and arm to compensate a leg that was a touch shorter and considerably weaker than the other. He had always marvelled that his sister had found so many ways to balance. "No more scowling," she said. "He's part of why we get to eat more than bean soup."

"You always make bean soup out to be the worst thing in the world. I've eaten bean soup."

"Not like I have, you haven't, and pray that you never will."

Kiam sighed. Nothing made him feel less like being grateful than being told that he had to be so.

Ualin's face softened. "I know he's strange, Kiam," she said. "But he does help us. He found a husband for Shar, and he…he says he's found one for me."

"You?"

Ualin bit her lip. "I know it's hard to believe, little brother, but you don't have to look so surprised."

"No! I mean, it's not that, Ualin—you're beautiful!" The boy knelt down by his sister and threw dusty arms around her waist, his cheek against her back. "I just…."

The young woman laughed, low in her throat. "You're sweet sometimes, moody."

Later, long after he had recovered from his display of affection, but not the news, Kiam sat outside the tent, drowsily listening to the voices of his parents and sisters inside. He had good ears, and could hear the mchowni's hacking cough from his tent, too, and the sound of the village blacksmith at work. He wondered what the big man was working on, and whether he would need help with it later. Kiam was the smith's most ardent follower and nail-maker, and did not care who knew it. He should be mchowni, the boy thought, rubbing his temples to ease a sudden headache. Even if he doesn't have 'magic' magic, his work is worth more than all that chanting.

One of the dogs started up, followed by another. Someone was heading toward the camp.

"You there, boy!"

Kiam blinked. Where there had been empty space before there was now a short, freckled white woman striding towards him, rust coloured skirts flapping in night air that had long gone still.

"Yes, you boy. I'm talking to you."

Kiam scowled, rising to his feet. At ten he was almost as tall as the stranger. "How'd you get past the dogs—the mchowni's alert spells?"

The woman did not appear to appreciate the interrogation. "If you mean the wards, then hidden talents, she snapped. "I'm searching for a Kiam Ngaire."

"I'm Kiam."

This made the woman draw herself up, and she managed to look down at him with a very long nose. "Young man," she said, icy. "One thing I do not have is a sense of humour. Don't try me."

He spluttered at that. "I don't know who you are, woman, but I'm Kiam, and you're on my father's property."

"I am Tris Chandler, and you can't be Kiam." Tris crossed her arms over her chest, matching Kiam glare for glare. "Come here," she said at last.

"What?"

"I said, boy who may or may not be Kiam Ngaire, 'come here'." With that, an arm shot out and she was holding him by the jaw with one hand. Kiam noted the incredible ugliness of her hands. They were small, square and, as he discovered to his disgust as a dry skin-fragment scraped his cheek, nail bitten. Then her cool grey eyes caught and held his, and Kiam forgot about her hands. He stared.

Tris let him go, and rubbed her eyes. She laughed, ruefully. "Dust-ridden hot air," she said, low. "Always clouds the vision."

Her listener shook his head, bewildered, as she went on. "No care for timing, as always…ah, I suppose I'm in for a wait, then."

Kiam, nervous, touched his jaw. "What do you—?"

"—She-Demon!"

Both Kiam and the stranger jumped, as the mchowni staggered into the open, pointing at Tris with a shaking finger. "Lightning witch—step away from her, Kiam."

Kiam could see that, as Tris looked at the mchowni, her face was becoming redder and redder, and that the brisk breeze he had been feeling when near her was beginning to pick up.

"Ah," said Tris Chandler, voice flat. "So this tickis the reason."

Somewhere in the Osart mountains, Karang:

Niko Smythe knew exactly what everyone was doing at his father's funeral, even though he was not there to see it.

Aunt Ariad was there, wearing faded silks and pretending that she had been back to their village during the twenty years that had passed since she had left it. "Such a tragedy, my love. So sad."

The tragedy was Niko's half-sister Liesel, with her two boy-children who were around his own age, ugly and competitive and mean.

Aunt Ariad was still speaking, now in hushed tones. "Is there…anyone from her family…will they be here?"

"Oh, no," said Liesel, thickly. "None of them. There aren't any, anyway, save Niklaren."

"Wretched boy! Did he really…?"

"Ariad, he really did." Niko had often heard his sister sound miserable, or angry, but seldom both those things together. "I won't have him in the house any more. He's packing now."

Niko shuddered, and all he could see was his own room at the top of the house, and distant specks out the window. His head ached, it was easier than most other tricks, to concentrate and see things far away up close, even to hear them, but it made him feel sick and weak after too long. The boy's eyes burned, too, but for very different reasons.

He was packing. Liesel wouldn't have him in the house any more. The one thing Niko hated more than his father's house was the thought of being thrown out of it.

Niko's father was dead.

The awful thing was that Niko's father was dead when he should have been alive.

Niko knew that he Saw things, even if no one believed him. If he concentrated, he could see the far away. If he didn't think, the past. If he looked into, well, anything for long enough—fire, water, glass, oil—he could see snatches of the present; random, disconnected things that had him staring for days, blinking away the after-images. His father had been a lesser mage, very excited to have someone who could scry for a son, but he always told Niko that he could not be seeing all off the things he said he did, because all the seers he knew could only look through one part of time. Never past, present along with the close-seeing. He had to be lying somewhere, he had to be making something up—leave an old man some peace.

To all of Niko's family, his father's word was law. This was why Liesel had always looked after her brother, when she resented him because he was the product of a much younger woman who had taken the place of her own mother. Both mothers were dead now, of course, Niko's catching the childbed fever a week after his birth.

The father's word was law, and so when he believed in Niko's close-seeing, and brought down his battered spell books to teach him meditation, Liesel too had believed him, telling Niko that if she ever found he was spying on her she would sell him for meat. Just as when his father voiced his misgivings about Niko having any other real scrying gift, Liesel laughed and called him a liar when Niko woke up screaming after reliving someone else's long-cold murder.

When father became sick and couldn't speak, Niko's world became lawless. He poured over the books his father had not fetched down for him, but while he learnt words like 'tintinnabulation' and something on the 'rudiments of magical projection', there was nothing in them on healing. All he could do was keep the old man clean, because Liesel, as he discovered first hand during these times, was never much good at that.

When Niko had a different sort of vision, he told her.

It was short, it was blurred, but Niko could make out a walking, living father leaning on his daughter, with a shape that he assumed to be himself reading in the background. Everything was hazy, but he knew that it was a week in the future. A future with father alive.

"He'll be all right, Liesel," he'd said. "He's going to live. I can see it!"

It showed how lawless their world had become, when Liesel gathered him up roughly and hugged him close, her eyes, black and heavily fringed like his own, over bright.

The two of them waited the week in truce, but then he died.

And that was the end of that.

Now, Niko was standing in the doorway, his skinny body bent under a pack full of all the books he could find.

Liesel, arms crossed, her face grimy with old tearstains, looked dully at him. "Did you pack food?"

He'd remembered an apple. "Yes, Liesel."

Something unreadable crossed her face, as she took in the flash of hatred that had come over his. "Well then," she said. "Nothing's keeping you."

She went back inside, and closed the door.

Niko shuddered, slowly walking away. "No, nothing."

He managed to walk about three miles feeling nothing but martyred anger, but by the fourth, with the mountain path moving steadily uphill, he regretted only packing that apple. Niko wasn't even sure where he was really going—Lightsbridge, probably. For years he had dreamed about that university where magic was fostered and brought to life, a place where masters were made, but Lightsbridge Mage University was at the foot of the Osart mountain range, and the only way anywhere even he could see was up.

I really should have brought more than one apple, he thought, eating it.

By the seventh mile it was long past dark and Niko was staggering. He found a ledge and settled under it, shivering and wincing at the thought of all the dirt and dust that would be over his clothes tomorrow. But he just had to sleep. "Curse it," he muttered, closing his eyes. "It's just not fair."

When Niko woke up he felt like something had died in his mouth, and there was a woman standing over him.

"Master Smythe?"

Niko groaned, trying to sit up. He hadn't taken the pack off. He could not believe that he'd managed to fall asleep wearing that pack. "Hate that name," he mumbled. "M'mother's name."

"Hate it or no, it is yours?"

The woman's voice was insistent, and Niko felt power radiating off her, somehow. He sat up straighter. "It's mine," he said, clearer now. "Who exactly areyou?"

"Someone who was meant to find you before you got so hopelessly lost," she said. "I loathehiking."

"Do I have to say I'm sorry?"

The woman sniffed. "You're remarkably lively for someone who hasn't eaten in a day," she told him. "I'm Tris Chandler, since that's the real question you're asking." Niko watched while she fiddled with a cord around her neck, drawing out a token. He gasped. "Lightsbridge mage," she said.

"But…how is Tris Chandler a mage name?" Niko was quietly appalled. He'd always heard that mages could change their names at university. "How could anyone take you seriously?"

The air cooled noticeably as Tris smiled. "I think you will find that there's no other way to take me," she said. "Though in full, it's Trisana."

In the Mire

Paras felt sick. She couldn't move from her niche. She felt like a big thread tacked down—one that was burning. Other people had kicked her, stepped on her, probably smeared her body and dark, short curls with all sorts of muck, but they could not move her, and she couldn't move herself. The housewife's jeering was ringing in her ears. 'Fits now, is it?' Was it? Did she suffer fits, along with everything else?

Hot tears coursed down her gold-brown cheeks. With the wheezes, she was already crippled, good for naught but scraping a living picking at rags, thrown from the performing troupe she had known all her short life, and hitting these pox-ridden slums instead of a net. From the corner of her eye, now that she could see again, she looked at the small cloth body and yellow dress and veil of the yaskedasu doll her mother had given her in Tharios two years ago. It was an expensive one—business had been good—with glittering embroidery all over the veil, forming tiny larks. It was like another lifetime. Mama and Da had died not long after the Tharios tour, both killed when a makeshift stadium had collapsed somewhere on an Ithocot island whose name she could never remember. After that, Paras hadn't much time for dolls. She'd kept working with the troupe because they were her family, and no one was as small and light and as flexible as she was. Time was, Paras could put her foot behind her ear and then stand on it.

But when the wheezes came, business wasn't doing so well, so the troupe had left her as soon as they could—they let her take the doll and her mother's sewing kit, though. They weren't bad people, Paras knew that. It was her body that was bad, succumbing to a stupid, stupid—and now there were fits?

Paras didn't want to die, most days, but now she wished she could, just to get it over with.

"Move. Now. Get out of my way."

A crisp, educated voice was not something Paraskeve or anyone else was used to hearing in the Mire. Paras felt the crowds thinning around her, and cold wind. She couldn't look up, she was still sobbing, and she hurt too much, crying out as someone—the owner of the voice—laid a firm but gentle hand on her shoulder. "You need to get up, Paraskeve," said the voice, gruff.

"No." Paras was almost past being frightened. "Need this spot."

"You'll never need this spot again."

That startled her. "No!" She managed to sit, crying out again as she felt an odd tearing sensation. "Leave me alone," she said, unseeing. "Who are you? I don't care. I need this spot—it's mine!" She started to cough, high and thin, and with that her eyes opened wide. The cough went on and on, reverberating through her and in her head and bringing in the redness and the black edges to come over her sight. She clutched at her chest. "M-mine…" she managed, but whoever was trying to lure her away wasn't listening to her. Something warm and sweet was being forced into her mouth. She tried to spit, but a hand had grabbed her jaw, was pinching her nose. She could breathe even less, now. Oh, Omini, she was going to die….

Paras swallowed, and the hands pulled back, the anguished cough eased.

A woman was kneeling on the cobbles, facing her, her freckled face flushed. She was wearing simple housewife clothes, but her glasses were tinted a strange colour and her white-streaked red hair was coiled and woven like a lady's. She had pale eyebrows, currently drawn low over light grey eyes. "…Have to see about that cough," she was saying.

"'scuse me?" Paras didn't recognize her own voice. It was croaky, like an old person's.

"My name's Tris Chandler," said the lady. "I've come to…" she was looking thoughtful. "To see if I can find someone to help that cough of yours."

"Never."

"Maybe not," said Tris Chandler. "But where we're going there are many people who can try. Can you gather your things?"

Paras laughed, and then winced. "What things?"

"Well," Tris said. "I can see there's a doll there, and you're wearing a pack of needles."

The girl blushed, reaching out for the doll.

Tris stood and held out a small hand. "Come with me," she said.