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A Darker Magic

By Rosemary Cole All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Blurb

When his beautiful bride-to-be disappears on the night before their wedding, Durras must search for her alone in a strange land, where his kind is not wanted. To make matters worse, he suspects that she has been taken by a powerful evil mage. He’s a simple highland boy, but he won’t rest until he has found her.

Novella

Durras woke up on the morning of his wedding day with a splitting headache. Last night the men had dragged him into old Kelias’ house, the dirt-floored main room of which served as the village pub, and made him drink until he could barely walk.

He groaned and sat up carefully in bed, pressing his hands to his head and fighting a wave of nausea. Something had awoken him, a sound. There it was again—shouting, the kind that meant trouble. He pulled on his trousers and ran outside.

His best friend, Bertis, was hurrying towards him, his face dead serious. “I was just coming to wake you. Mallie seems to be missing,” he puffed as he drew up.

Durras looked at him blankly. “Missing? What do you mean?”

“She wasn’t in her bed this morning. Her kin said she’d had some trouble getting to sleep, what with the excitement about the wedding and all, but they swore she did go to her bed. We’ve been searching for her for hours, since first cockcrow. She’s not anywhere.”

Durras rubbed his aching head. He couldn’t believe this was anything serious. The thought occurred to him that it might be a practical joke, but he studied Bertis’ expression and dismissed the idea.

“Maybe she’s gone out gathering cort leaves or something. Have you checked the orchard?” He turned toward the fruit trees as if ready to run off and search them that very instant.

“All those places have been checked, Durras. Unless… she’s not at your house, is she?” Bertis’ face colored slightly as he said this.

Durras huffed. “No, of course not!” He stalked off toward the orchard to search, still shirtless. But after spending an hour or so spent struggling through the trees, getting scratched and dirty, the missing bride-to-be still had not turned up.

Breathing heavily, Durras sat on a rock and rested his pounding head in his hands. What did this mean? What could have happened?

He stared up at the sky, always unpredictable over these craggy highland hills. The roiling clouds reflected his inner turmoil perfectly.

That day at the Harvest Festival came to his mind, when Mallie had made clear her feelings for him. He had been sitting with Bertis and the other boys when Mallie had walked over to them, bold as brass, and planted herself right in front of Durras, holding a pitcher of cider and a cup. She’d been dancing and her cheeks were flushed, her hair in slight disarray. His friends immediately started to hoot, but he had looked up into her dark, steady gaze and suddenly he just knew. She was the one.

He’d known her all his life—they had grown up together—but that day Mallie was different somehow from the young girl he’d known before, and the child he’d known before that. She poured him some cider, making sure their fingers met when she handed him the cup. A faint smile curved her lips and her dimple flashed briefly in her smooth olive cheek. Then she was gone, moving off to serve others. The feel of her hand lingered where she had touched him.

After that day, he waited for Mallie in the orchard every night after supper. They sat under a stunted fruit tree, holding hands and talking for hours. She told him of her dream of seeing more of the world, tales she’d heard from the mummers about plains wider than the eye could see, cities bigger than ten villages, wide rivers with roads built right across them.

Durras never said much; mostly he just listened. He didn’t want to admit that his only dream was to marry her and raise a family together right here in Balaben. When he framed the words in his head, they made him seem stodgy and boring, compared to her fanciful dreams. But eventually he worked up the courage to tell her how he felt, and they pledged themselves to each other. She told him she wanted to be his wife, wanted to have his children. He knew then that her talk of the lowland world was just daydreaming.

He knew that Mallie loved him. If she was gone, she must have been taken. But how? And by whom?

For the rest of the Season of Buds, Durras ate next to nothing and slept very little. He talked only when necessary and smiled not at all. About Mallie, the villagers whispered “runaway” to one another, but Durras refused to believe it.

The mummers came as they did every year in the Season of New Leaves, announcing their arrival with singing that could be heard echoing throughout the dells as they approached. They brought garlands of flowers for the villagers’ doors, then set up their stage and began practicing their performances.

Durras avoided them. All he could think of was how much he’d been looking forward to the mummers this year, with Mallie as his wife. Now it made him feel sick just to look at them. He stayed out in the moors as much as possible, herding the long-necked, furry nellies. In the village in the evenings, he would slip into Kelias’ dank house and sit drinking letha with him. Laughter and revelry filtered in from outside, but Durras ignored it.

One evening after the festivities had ended, one of the mummers came to Kelias’ house. He clapped his hands outside the hide door and Kelias shouted him in. The mummer sat down at the rough-hewn table, took the mug of letha Kelias poured for him and took a deep draught.

“Whatsis then, ent we good enough for yer entertainment?” he asked, looking at Durras with flashing, mischievous eyes. “I can understand it with this old dad here, but what about a strapping boy such as yerself?”

Durras thought about saying something rude, but remained silent, hunching over his letha and scowling.

Kelias said, “Leave off, man. He lost his girl this spring. ’Twas the very day they was to marry.” He gave a belch for emphasis.

The mummer’s eyebrows rose and he sat back, sucking in a breath. “Oh, now I do understand. Sorry, darlin’ boy. So do I take it that she just up an’ disappeared, no note, no plans, no nothing like it?”

“True and correct,” Kelias said, sounding surprised.

“So,” the mummer said, murmuring as if for his own ears alone, “it’s happening even up here.”

Durras straightened up and turned to the man. “What do you know of it?” he asked sharply.

All traces of mischief had fled the mummer’s expression. “Why, it’s happened in some of the lower villages, don’t you know? Girls have disappeared, young ones about the age of yer own love.”

Durras stared at him. It had never occurred to him to check with any of the other villages. How could he have been so stupid? He began to pepper the mummer with questions, badgering him well into the night, but there was little more information forthcoming. Durras believed the man when he said he had told all he knew.

In the morning, Durras got up early and went to find Bertis. He told his friend of his plan to travel to the villages where other girls had disappeared, to see if he could learn anything further about what had become of Mallie.

Bertis nodded. “I’ll come with you,” he said. “I haven’t told anyone yet, least of all my kin, but I’ve decided to study magery.”

Durras stared at him. “But why? Will you leave Balaben forever?”

Bertis shrugged. “I guess I’ll find out about that when the time comes. As to the why, I only know that ever since I heard about it from the mummers, I’ve had a terrible curiosity. I’ve just got to see if I can learn, maybe someday become a mage. To do that, I’ve got to find a teacher, and if there are any in the highlands at all, they’ll be in the lower villages. So, if we’ve both got to go there, we might as well go together, don’t you think?”

Durras grasped his shoulder and smiled for the first time in weeks. “Yes—we’ll travel together,” he said.

It was well into the Season of Full Leaves before the boys actually set out, leading a nelly loaded down with supplies. Durras felt a pleasant tightness in his chest, and his heart beat a little faster than usual. Neither of the boys had been further from Balaben than the next village. It was slow going at first as they picked their way down through the highland crags and gullies. They drank from clear streams and shot rabbits with their slings to roast for dinner, in order to conserve their supplies.

They were greeted with a great deal of friendly curiosity in each highland village they visited. The girls flirted madly, which made Bertis grin, but Durras just looked away. The villagers fed the boys well and told them all they knew about the girls who had disappeared from amongst them. Like Mallie, every one of them had been discovered missing in the morning. Some had been betrothed, some even married, but all had been young and comely.

As they traveled, Bertis inquired in each village about a magery teacher. The villagers scratched their heads. “There ain’t much call for that up in these parts,” they said. “You’d best go and see Gamrie; he’d know about them things.” They gave the boys directions to Gamrie’s cottage, where he lived alone in the forest further down towards the lowlands.

After many days following scant trails through brambly meadows, slogging through fens and pushing their way deep into the Lethen Wood, the boys finally arrived at the hermit’s cottage.

Durras knocked on the rough-hewn wood door with the butt of his slingshot. The sound echoed through the clearing all around, but there was only silence from inside the hut. They waited a respectable interval, then knocked again.

“Turn around real slow,” a gravelly voice said directly behind them. The boys jumped and spun around. Behind them stood a man who was small, but lean and hard. His dark face seemed chiseled from granite and was lined with deep creases. Graying brows jutted out, casting his flashing eyes into deep shadow. In his hands the man held something the boys had heard about, but never seen. It was made of metal and was long and narrow except for the end facing them, which flared like the mouth of a trumpet. It was a blunderbuss.

The boys stood there, paralyzed.

“Well? Speak yer business!” commanded the gray-haired man.

Durras found his tongue and managed to stammer out their story, explaining about the missing girls as well as Bertis’ search for a magery teacher.

As he listened, Gamrie put down his blunderbuss and leaned on it, making Durras wonder if the thing was even loaded.

“Well then,” the man said, his voice sounding much friendlier, “reckon we’d better talk on this some more. I’ll fix us a bite. Go on inside, door’s open.”

Relieved, the boys opened the door, which had apparently been unlocked all along, and stepped into the cottage. A second later, Durras gave a loud, whooshing grunt and the boys were catapulted back out through the door, Durras landing sprawled on top of Bertis. Behind them, Gamrie started to laugh.

The boys untangled themselves and stood up painfully, Durras rubbing his midsection. A heavy block of wood swung from a rope in the open doorway.

“There’s a lesson,” Gamrie said. “Any place ya haven’t been before, where ya don’t know the folks, expect anything. And don’t trust nobody.”

But he was true to his word and fixed them a hearty meal. Afterward, they talked while Gamrie smoked a pipe. “Heard tell it were a mage takin’ these girls, one o’ them what pays homage to Kalatur,” he said between puffs. “Heard tell this mage lives in the lowlands, outside a town called Fowliss.”

Durras wondered where he possibly could have “heard tell” these things, but he said only, “I reckon we’re going to the lowlands, then.”

Gamrie took his pipe from his mouth and looked at him. “That so,” he said. “You two know how ta fight?”

The boys looked at each other, then shook their heads.

“Didn’t think so,” Gamrie said. After a while he knocked out his pipe and stood up. “Reckon I’d like to see them girls back safe, too. You ain’t got much of a chance, but I’ll teach ya fightin’ and other things you’ll need ta know.”

Durras asked what they would owe him for such services, but Gamrie merely shook his head and strode outside. The two boys looked at eachother, then got up and followed.

For the next month and some they lived with the old man. He was tough and demanding, but fair. Their muscles hardened as they worked and trained in hand-to-hand combat. Durras learned to wield a long staff, which was weighted with lead on the ends. He practiced with it for hours every day until his arms were numb with fatigue. Bertis refused this part of the training, as well as Gamrie’s offer to teach them knife-fighting. In the latter, Durras joined his friend.

“We follow the Lady of Light,” Durras explained, wondering how it was that Gamrie, who was after all a highlander, apparently did not. “No sharp or pointed weapons, nothing designed to spill blood. We’ll fight in self-defense only, with blunt weapons.”

“That so,” Gamrie said. “I can assure ya, them down below have no such constraints.”

“No, they’ll be followers of Kalatur, won’t they?” asked Bertis.

“Oh yes,” Gamrie said. “They ain’t like us. Lowland mages ain’t interested in blessing the crops and healing the sick. They practice a darker magic. And while it’s been many turnings since the god Kalatur and his skirlings imprisoned the Lady and ran our forebears outta the lowlands, they’d still run a spear through the likes o’ you two soon as look at ya.”

“Skirlings?” Durras asked. He’d heard the term before, but wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

“His fanatical cult o’ followers,” Gamrie explained. “Sometimes they soldier, but most o’ the time they just scour all Aberneth, raising hell.”

One night they sat at Gamrie’s table after a long day of hiking and learning woodcraft, eating a supper of cold rabbit stew while Gamrie gave them some basic instructions about traveling to the lowlands.

“You can stick together until ya hit the border, but then ye’ll have ta split up. Ye’ll be headin’ in different directions.”

“Where will I go?” Bertis asked.

“You’ll both travel north, down outta the highlands, keeping to the edge of the Lethen Wood, ‘til ya hit the Great Road. Then you, Bertis, will turn left and follow the Road west past Woodhall and farm villages, all the way to Skene. There lives the only magery teacher I know of—not that I know of many—what doesn’t call on the dark gods.” He looked at Bertis. “Unless the dark gods are what you’re wantin’?”

“No, no,” Bertis said hastily. “As we’ve said, we serve the Lady.”

Gamrie snorted and muttered something about the futility of serving an imprisoned goddess.

“Now you, Durras,” he continued, “will turn right and follow the Great Road east. After a short way you’ll come to a fork with a branch leading north. That’ll be the Forden Road. Follow that to the river, then cross the river to Fowliss. North o’ Fowliss lie the lands of a dark mage who goes by the name o’ Varde. That’s the one you want.”

Durras suppressed a shiver, but nodded his understanding.

All right then,” Gamrie said. “Ye’ll leave in a week, no more’n two. Season’s gettin’ on; ya don’t want to be stuck travelin’ in the winter.”

The boys nodded, but Durras felt suddenly reluctant to leave the not-so-tender mercies of their teacher.

Gamrie worked them harder than ever, determined to give them every chance of surviving. The time went by in the blink of an eye, and finally the morning of departure arrived. The boys would carry their supplies on their backs, as it had been decided that the nelly would stay with Gamrie.

They packed up the last of their belongings, and Durras strode to a corner and picked up the tall, weighted staff Gamrie had made for him. The boys looked around for their teacher to thank him and say farewell, but he had disappeared soon after breakfast and was nowhere to be found.

“Where could he have gone?” Bertis asked.

“Guess he doesn’t care much for farewells.”

The two boys walked out of the cottage, through the Lethen Wood, and on coming to its edge after some days they turned north, moving always downhill.

A few days later, they emerged from the last bit of highland woods to a stunning sight: spread below them as far as the eye could see were miles of flat lands, disappearing into the hazy distance. Far to the north could be glimpsed the peaks of a distant mountain range. The lowlands were an immense checkerboard of farmlands, divided neatly by rows of hedges and trees. Patches of woods, villages, and occasional meandering rivers were all that broke the sameness. The boys gazed in wonder, then moved on toward the border, their hearts heavy at the separation that was coming. They came to a wide road, lined with deep ruts made by wagon wheels.

“This must be it,” Bertis said. “The Great Road.”

Durras looked up and down the empty road and gave a sigh. “Now you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine,” he said sadly.

“Yes,” Bertis said. They stood there in silence for a few minutes, then clasped each other’s shoulders and touched foreheads.

“Go, and may the Lady’s Light shine on your path,” Durras said.

“And you, my friend. I pray She lets us meet again.”

They started off, Durras going east and Bertis going west, stopping often to glance back, until each was no more to the other than a tiny speck in the distance.

Two weeks later, Durras stood on the edge of Varde’s lands. On his journey he had managed to avoid most contact with the lowlanders, ducking off the road to hide whenever he thought someone was approaching. Occasionally he was caught out, but while he attracted stares for his small stature and his staff, no one stopped him. Aberneth hadn’t been at war for a very long time and people’s guards seemed to be down. At night, Durras made his way deep into the woods to camp, allowing himself no fire. The weather was still warm and it seldom rained. When he realized he was approaching Fowliss, he had cut across country, taking the long way around the large town to get to his current vantage point.

Durras shaded his eyes to better see the mage’s lands. There didn’t seem to be any gates or barriers, but when dealing with a mage, the unseen was more worrisome than the seen. What sort of magical traps might Varde have laid? He stepped gingerly onto the grass, noting that it was overgrown and untidy, and the rows of shrubs marking the border were badly in need of trimming. Venturing further, he passed dry fountains and overgrown topiary whose shapes were no longer recognizable. The mansion sat on the crest of a low hill overlooking the grounds. Off on the western side, the sun flashed off the glass roof of a small building set into the gardens. He listened, but heard nothing except birds chirping and bees buzzing.

Durras decided to scout the perimeter of the grounds before approaching the house. Gripping his staff, he started off northwest toward the little house. As the small building grew nearer, Durras realized the entire thing was made of glass. This Varde must be very rich indeed, he thought. He could see directly inside; there was nothing in the house save two opposing rows of shelves lined with what looked like large glass jars. He couldn’t tell yet what was in them; they didn’t look like any plants he knew.

Durras looked around and listened intently. There still didn’t seem to be anyone about. He walked up to the open doorway of the glass house and looked inside. His heart stopped for a moment, then began to pound heavily in his chest. He couldn’t quite believe what his eyes were seeing. In each glass jar sat the disembodied head of a woman. The ones nearest him twisted slightly in his direction. Their eyes were moving—they were looking at him!

Durras let out a yell and scuttled backwards out of the doorway, moving so fast he lost his balance and sat down hard on the grass, his staff bruising his fingers. He scrambled back to his feet and looked around wildly, listening to see if his shout had alerted anyone. But the only sound was the breeze rustling the tall grasses.

He licked his dry lips and approached the door again. Taking a tighter grip on his staff, he stood in the doorway, forcing himself to look. Now all of the faces were turned towards him. Their lips were moving, but their voices were muted within the jars. He saw that they were all the heads of beautiful girls, lining both sides of the aisle at about eye level like some kind of macabre art collection.

“A darker magic indeed, Gamrie,” Durras muttered. Peering closer, he saw that the heads were fixed into silver or gold collars built into the bases of the jars. The containers weren’t jars at all, but rather tall bubbles of some clear material, each with a flat base fashioned out of finely grained, polished wood.

Most of the girls, he saw, were dark-haired and olive-skinned, which meant they were highlanders. A horrible realization settled on him and he forced his gaze down one side of the aisle, then the other. About halfway down the right side, he saw Mallie.

Shock paralyzed him for a second and then he cried out. He lunged down the aisle, skidding to a stop in front of her jar. She looked at him calmly, her dark eyes shining. Her lips formed a smile and her dimple blossomed. She was saying something; he leaned closer to hear.

“Hello, my love,” she said, her voice sounding faint and distant from inside her magical, hellish prison.

Durras breathed deeply, trying to gain control of himself. This wasn’t about him; he had to be strong for her. He forced a smile and brought his face closer to hers.

“Oh, Mallie,” was all he could manage before his throat closed.

“I knew you’d come for me,” she said in that tiny, faraway voice.

He swallowed, struggling to control his emotions. “Of course,” he said. “We’re to be married, after all.” He chattered on in what he hoped was a soothing manner while he carefully inspected the jar. Mallie’s neck was fitted tightly into a high silver collar, scalloped prettily around the upper edge.

“Is it all right if I touch this thing?”

“Oh yes, you can touch it and you can pick me up,” Mallie said. “He does it all the time.”

Durras gritted his teeth at the thought of Varde handling her thus, but he reached out a finger and touched the jar. It wasn’t glass; it was warm to the touch and had a slightly giving texture. He shuddered; it was unnatural.

He brought his face close again. “I’m going to get you out of this, Mallie. I’ll find a way to undo it, I promise. Everything’s going to be all right.”

She smiled at him and nodded stiffly, blinking away a tear.

Durras took his winter cloak out of his pack and fashioned it into a makeshift satchel, stringing the edges together with some rawhide laces. He tied the arms into a loop and slung it across the front of his body.

“I’m going to pick you up now,” he said to her, then carefully lifted the jar and placed it in the satchel. It was unnerving, watching her trusting face disappear into the bag. He picked up his staff and had taken a few steps towards the door before he noticed the faces of the other girls. Their eyes were wide and their lips were moving frantically. He could faintly hear the cacophony of their voices, pleading with him to help them.

“I’ll come back for you,” he called out to them. “As soon as I find a way to undo this, I’ll come back for all of you!” He hurried out of the glass house to get away from the eerie sight. As he walked, anger built up inside him until he could barely see where he was going. Grinding his teeth and gripping his staff, he made a beeline for the mansion, striding up the hill towards the grand set of double doors. By the gods, Varde would undo this, or else he would pay!

He stomped up the wide steps and stopped. One of the two huge oaken doors was hanging open a few inches. A musty smell came from inside the dark interior, tinged with a hint of rot that made his skin crawl. He put his ear to the space and listened—not a sound from inside. With a long, loud creak the door swung open to his light push, and he stepped in.

There was a little dim light from small round windows set high above in the two-story foyer. The railing of a mezzanine could be seen above him, accessed by a grand stairway to his right. Multiple passageways opened off the foyer. Everything was coated in a layer of dust many months old.

Durras whispered to Mallie, “Are you all right in there?”

“I’m fine,” came back the faint reply.

He decided to proceed down the main passageway leading straight off the foyer. The long, dark hallway was lined with closed doors on either side. The opposite end opened into a large room with no door; he could see bright sunlight streaming through large windows. He approached the room, moving as silently as possible, though he didn’t know why. The place was quiet as a tomb. The smell of rot grew stronger as he drew closer, and he pulled his kerchief over his nose and mouth and peered in.

A great table in the center of the long room was heavily laden with what was once a fine feast, but everything had been eaten by small wild creatures long ago, leaving only bones and dried rinds. Bowls had been overturned and plates lay smashed on the floor.

Presiding over the whole mess at the end of the table, in a carved wooden chair much like a throne, sat the mage. His fine robes hung on his emaciated frame. Somehow he had remained sitting upright all this time, but his head sagged forward, chin resting on his chest. Durras tried not to look at his eyeless sockets or the way his cheekbones and teeth showed through gaps in his decayed flesh. In one hand, skeletal fingers gripped the stem of an overturned brass wine cup. A dark stain spilled from his mouth down his front and onto the table, where the contents of his stomach must have splattered.

Poisoned, thought Durras. And be damned to you.

In his other bony hand, the dead mage still gripped what looked to Durras’ untrained eye like a wand or rod of some sort. It appeared to be made of gold and encrusted with precious stones. Durras slowly backed out of the room without touching anything. The man obviously had not made an appearance for quite some time, yet none of the villagers had dared set foot on the grounds or disturbed anything in all that time. He would take it as a guide for his own actions.

He hurried back down the long hallway towards the doors, eager to get out of this tomb, but then he stopped, realizing he couldn’t leave yet. Reluctantly, he turned and began a meticulous search of the mansion. He had to find out if the girls’ bodies were hidden here somewhere. He searched every room, every floor, every nook and cranny, expecting at any moment to be caught by some magical trap.

He dreaded going to the cellars, and sure enough when he got down there and held up a torch that he’d found in a wall sconce, all manner of horrid things loomed out of the shadows. It appeared to be some sort of magical laboratory. Things that looked suspiciously like organs and other body parts floated in jars of cloudy fluid on the tables, among a clutter of books, papers, beakers and vials.

When the entire mansion had been searched to no avail, Durras hurried outside, sneezing away the dust. He walked across the lawn, glancing back over his shoulder as if expecting some monstrous undead thing to appear in the doorway, waving a magical wand at him. But nothing of the sort happened and he gained the southwest corner of the estate without mishap. He made for the long copse of woods he had followed to get here, not stopping until he was under the trees’ protective cover. There he stopped and hunkered down, breathing hard. He watched and listened for a while; all was still.

He pulled the jar out of the makeshift satchel and settled it in his lap so he and Mallie could see each other and converse comfortably. She told him of her experiences, of the unbearable periods of boredom when no one came and nothing happened. She had only been able to hear her immediate neighbors and they had talked until they ran out of conversation. The girl to her left seemed to go insane, screaming and ranting; then she had fallen permanently silent. The mage used to come often to gloat over his collection, but he had stopped coming a long time ago. The girls tried to keep track of the days and nights, but it was difficult. The snows had not fallen since she woke up in the jar, so she knew it hadn’t yet been a turning. Some of the girls had been there for many turnings, she said.

Durras listened, clenching his fists until the nails bit into his palms. He told her the mage was dead and she nodded, but said nothing more.

“Well,” he said finally. “Let’s go and find a way to put you back to rights.” She didn’t answer and he tucked her jar back into the bag, trying to push away the thought that was doubtless occurring to her as well: with the mage dead, likely there was no way to undo this. And what had become of her body?

For days, Durras haunted the outskirts of Fowliss, looking for someone who might help him. His idea was to find another mage who might be powerful enough to undo this. Finally it occurred to him that such a mage would not share the same territory as Varde, but would likely be far away from here. So he returned to the Forden Road and followed it east until some weeks later, he came to another large town. A sign on the road announced that this was Boddam. He began prowling the footpaths on the outskirts of the town, waiting for an opportunity.

At last it came; a girl about his own age came walking along the path, carrying a flat basket of mushrooms which she apparently had gathered in the forest.

Durras scurried back into the woods before she could spot him and cut back across a small rise, around which the path looped. He started walking back along the path, whistling casually. The girl rounded the bend, saw him, and stopped.

“Hello, miss,” Durras said, sweeping back his hood and bowing. “Those are some fine mushrooms you’ve got there. A good morning’s work for you, I’d say.”

The girl’s hand drifted towards a small knife on her belt. Her plain, freckled face was serious, her blue eyes narrowed. She was taller than he by a few inches and looked quite strong. “Where did you come from, stranger? I can hardly understand your outlandish speech. Don’t think of taking my mushrooms—you’ll lose a finger at the least if you try.”

Durras had a difficult time understanding her, as well. He tried to keep his words simple. “I come from the highlands,” he said, pointing vaguely south.

Her eyes widened. “A highlander you say? By the gods! No wonder you’re so odd-looking with your dark skin. My ma and fa say you’re a lot of savages up there, and you smell.” She sniffed. “You seem all right to me. What are you doing here in the lowlands, then?”

“I need a mage. Can you tell me where to find one?”

“A mage? There ent many of them about these days, not since the skirlings started rounding them up and taking them to the City.” She shifted her basket, thinking. “There is one who is said to live in the Alashiel Wood, off yonder,” she said, pointing northeast towards the thick forest. Beyond it, further to the north, the sun lit the tops of distant mountain peaks.

“A she-mage this is, wild and uninterested in the doings of ordinary folk. Perhaps she could help you.” She was obviously curious about why he needed a mage, but she politely refrained from asking.

He bowed elaborately again, making her giggle behind her hand.

“I cannot thank you enough, miss. May the Lady shine her Light on your path.”

Her smile disappeared abruptly. “I wouldn’t speak of the Lady in these parts, mister. He has forbidden it, and always His followers are ready to enforce His will.”

By He, Durras assumed she referred to Kalatur, the god of war worshipped throughout Aberneth. He nodded and thanked her again for the advice.

She told him to make his way east until he came to a river that flowed out of the forest that clothed the feet of Alashiel Mountain. He should turn north and follow the river into the forest. Somewhere near the source of that river, rumor had it, the she-mage made her home. The girl then tied up some mushrooms in a kerchief and handed him the parcel with a charming, slightly gap-toothed smile.

“Good luck to you, highlander,” she said, and then walked on past him, swinging her broad hips.

Durras smiled and waited until she was out of sight, then hurried off in the direction she had indicated.

“We’re in luck, Mallie,” he said to the bag. “This she-mage might know exactly what to do.”

In the following days, Durras made his way to the river and then began to follow it upstream into the forest. The weather turned chilly and it started to rain more often. He was cold, wet and hungry, and his progress was slow through the thick, trackless forest. He had to stop often to hunt and search for roots, berries and nuts, for his supplies had dwindled alarmingly. He thanked Gamrie silently for his survival training, without which he surely would have starved. He encountered various streams emptying into the river and he had to make his best guess as to which course led to the source.

At last, the watercourse he was following seemed to dwindle away completely, and he fought his way clear of the thick growth that choked its banks. Reaching a small clearing where thin shafts of weak sun made it to the forest floor through the canopy, he sank down onto some dry pine needles. “Just going to take a little rest, Mallie,” he mumbled to the bag. “I’m done in.” He propped his back against a tree trunk, stretched out his legs and gave a huge yawn. His eyes drifted closed…

A shadow fell over him and he awoke. Blinking, he sat up and found himself looking straight into the face of a woman who was crouching before him. From the easy way she straightened up, she seemed young, but the long braid hanging forward over one shoulder was gray. Gray eyes glittered from a face that seemed carved from ivory, a face with no smile in it anywhere. She leaned on an ornately carved walking stick.

“I believe you are looking for me,” she said in a smooth, strangely accented voice that was neither young nor old.

He scrambled to his feet and gave a deep bow. “If you are the she-mage of Alashiel, then yes, madam, I am. Durras of Balaben—an honor to meet you.”

She surveyed him silently.

Durras flushed a bit under her piercing gaze and began to stammer out an explanation of why he had come. The woman held up a hand to silence him, then said, “Follow me, young man.” She turned and walked away, moving with speed and agility.

Durras hastily grabbed his staff and pack, checked that Mallie’s jar was safely inside the bag he still wore, and hurried after the mage.

It was full dark by the time they came to the woman’s house, which seemed to be deep in the heart of the forest. She cast a charm, causing a pale light to glow on the end of her stick to light her path, but walking behind her Durras couldn’t see much and kept stumbling. Suddenly she came to an abrupt halt, and Durras almost ran headlong into her back.

“Come in,” she said, and then disappeared down a hole, or so it appeared to him. When he followed, gingerly feeling his way along with his feet, he encountered what felt like steps. Just then the woman lit a lamp inside the house. Its light spilled through the open door and he saw that he was indeed on a steep stairway with uneven steps formed of tree roots, leading down into a cave underneath a huge tree. The earth had been hollowed out and the home enlarged with rooms that radiated out from the base of the tree in several directions, forming earthen humps between the tree’s massive roots.

Durras went down the remaining steps and passed under a curved lintel, ducking his head. He straightened and found himself standing in a cozy sitting room. Crude shelves lined the walls. On one side was a table and some cooking things. The ceiling was formed of the underside of the tree, with great roots branching off in many directions. Its center was gnarled and hairy with many tiny roots hanging down; strung among them were copper pots and strings of onion and garlic. He caught a pleasing scent of potpourri coming from somewhere.

Durras blinked. This wasn’t at all what he had expected; he had been imagining a repeat of Varde’s mansion maybe, only smaller.

The woman poked the end of her walking stick into the stack of wood laid on the hearth, and the wood immediately burst into flame. She then swung a pot hanging on a hook into the fireplace so that it hung over the flames. Durras saw that the flue went up through the earth between two great roots; a tin stack that must be poking up out of the ground above. She placed a kettle on the fire as well, then went to the sideboard and began slicing some bread.

“Sit,” she said, nodding to a wooden rocker. Durras felt uncomfortable taking the best chair, but he put all of his things down in a pile, along with Mallie’s bag, and sat.

The woman brought the bread to the table along with some greens and then went over and stirred the pot, which gave off a tantalizing, meaty aroma. She went to a small bench opposite the rocker and sat down, propping her walking stick between her legging-clad knees. She was wearing a hooded sleeveless jacket of fine, supple deerskin over a long-sleeved tunic. He could see now that her face was lightly lined, but her white skin was quite supple. He couldn’t make a guess as to her age.

Durras cleared his throat. The woman had an annoying habit of just being there, and not talking or interacting. “I thank you kindly for your hospitality, madam. Er—I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name…?”

She looked at him a moment longer before answering. Another annoying habit, he thought.

“You can call me Ailis,” she finally said.

“I guess you’re wondering why I sought you out, Ailis. The best way I can explain is by showing you something.” He got up and started for the bag with Mallie’s head in it.

“The girl, yes. I saw while you were sleeping,” said Ailis. She got up and stirred the pot, then filled two wooden bowls and set them on the table. “We’ll eat first, then we’ll discuss your problem.”

Durras froze, his thoughts racing down several tracks at once. He was ashamed of how poorly he had guarded Mallie; it felt wrong leaving her in her bag while he dined with Ailis; and he was becoming deeply irritated with the woman’s abrasive manner. He went to Mallie’s bag and loosened the binding, pulling the fabric down around the jar so he could see her face.

She saw the food-laden table behind him and gave him a little smile. “Go and eat, I’m fine,” she said faintly.

His heart swelled with love for her. He nodded back and went to the table, feeling better. Suddenly profoundly famished, he wolfed down everything Ailis offered him. She made no comment, just kept filling his plate. Finally he could hold no more. He got up and stacked the plates on the sideboard, noting with a twinge of embarrassment that the stew pot was nearly empty.

“I must thank you again for your very generous hospitality,” he began.

She waved off his thanks and poured out some kind of liquor into two small wooden drinking bowls.

Durras picked up Mallie’s jar and brought it to the table, where he set it down. “Do you mind?” he asked Ailis. “She gets terribly bored looking at the inside of the bag all the time.”

Ailis shrugged and sipped her drink, and Durras sat back down.

“Mallie, this is Ailis. She’s going to see what she can do for us.”

Mallie smiled at the woman, her lips forming the faint words, “Pleased to meet you, madam.”

Ailis didn’t respond—rather rude, thought Durras—but merely studied Mallie and the jar with her sharp gray eyes, taking her time. Durras took a sip of his liquor and found it quite pleasing.

“I can give her a new body,” Ailis said abruptly.

He sat up, his eyes widening. “Really? I didn’t think—well, I just didn’t know if—how?”

“Before we get to the how, let’s discuss the payment. What can you offer me?”

Durras blinked. Somehow, he hadn’t thought about that aspect of it. An image of Varde’s jewel-encrusted wand rose in his mind. I should have taken it, he thought. How stupid. Of course I’ll need to pay.

“I don’t have any money, nor anything of real value,” he said in a small voice.

Ailis gave a small sigh and said, “Of course you don’t. What can be done then, hmm?”

“I can work,” Durras offered eagerly. “I’m a hard worker and have lots of useful skills.” It occurred to him belatedly that most of his skills were only of use in the villages of the highlands, not in a lowland forest.

As was her wont, Ailis said nothing, but he could feel her gaze moving over his body appraisingly. Durras was approaching his seventeenth winter and he was aware that his body had changed, both from maturing and from his hard life of wandering. His shoulders had widened and filled out, and the lines of his face had sharpened. He was small of stature, as were all of his people, but well-made.

Ailis nodded and said, “You will serve me for one season.”

“Serve—?”

“You will serve me in all ways, including warming my bed at night. You will do anything I ask of you during that time. You will be a companion for me.”

Durras’ mouth opened, but no words came out. A deep flush rose in his skin, heating his face. He glanced at Mallie in her jar; the girl’s face was frozen.

Ailis followed his gaze. She stood up, taking her stick, and said, “This is my only offer. I will leave you to discuss it.” She went out.

Durras jumped up and peered out the window; the dim glow of her walking stick was disappearing down the path. He returned to the table, sat down and put his head in his hands.

After a time, he said, “Mallie, I’m sorry. I tried. We can keep looking. If she can do it, there must be another mage who can, too.”

“No,” came Mallie’s faint voice.

“No?” Durras asked, looking up.

“I want you to take the deal she’s offering,” Mallie said. “We both hate it, but what’s the alternative? I can’t stay like this much longer, Durras. I just can’t.”

Durras folded his arms on the table and lowered his chin onto them so he was eye to eye with Mallie. “Are you absolutely sure?” he asked. Ever since they’d first pledged their love that night in the orchard, they’d been saving themselves for each other alone—for their wedding night. In highland culture, a man’s virginity on marrying was just as important as a woman’s. Now it looked as if his would be taken by Ailis first.

Slowly, Mallie nodded. She blinked and tears overflowed, spilling down her cheeks.

Durras put his fingers to the jar’s strange, warm surface, longing to wipe her tears away. He felt his own throat thicken. “I’ll never love anyone but you, Mallie.”

“I know.” He could barely hear her voice now; it had dwindled to a mere whisper.

The door opened and Ailis came back in. She walked to the fire and poked at the burning logs with her stick. Without looking up, she asked, “So what will it be?”

Durras sat up straight. “I have a counter-offer for you.”

Mallie’s eyes turned towards him, wide with surprise.

“I’m listening,” Ailis said.

“What if I could obtain for you something extremely valuable? Something magical? Something that might be… that might give its wielder a great deal of… power. Maybe.” He cleared his throat.

Ailis looked at him skeptically. Durras explained about the mage Varde, who had done this to Mallie and some other girls, and who was sitting dead even now in his dining room, still clutching his jewel-studded wand. Ailis’ level eyebrows shot up at this.

“One other thing,” Durras added.

Ailis waited.

“The mage’s lands are a long way from here and winter is coming. As part of this deal, you must agree to fix Mallie first, then I will give you my word that we will fetch you that wand or die trying.”

“And I have two conditions of my own, if I am to take that bargain,” Ailis countered. “First, you must take the Sigil of the Solemn Vow; and second, you must agree to fulfill the deal I offered you at first—to serve me for a season—if you fail to retrieve the wand.”

“Accepted,” Durras said. He rose and extended his hand to the she-mage.

Ailis took it after a moment, her lips twitching with amusement. “I’ll prepare the sigil,” she said, and disappeared through a half-round wooden door that led into one of the extensions.

“What is this sigil?” Mallie asked anxiously.

Durras sat back down near her. “I’m not sure, but it’s probably something that will bring a curse on me if I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain,” he said. “It’s not necessary—I always keep my word—but she doesn’t know that.”

Ailis returned and beckoned to Durras. He disappeared through the door with her and returned a short time later, his face ashen, cradling his left hand. In the fleshy area between the bones of the thumb and forefinger, a small round symbol had been burnt into the skin. The mark glowed an eerie red. Mallie hadn’t heard him cry out, but his jaw was clenched. Ailis poured him another draft of the liquor, which he gulped down.

“You’d better get some sleep,” Ailis said to Durras. She put blankets on the floor near the hearth for him and then picked up Mallie’s jar from the table.

“You’re going to start now?” Durras asked.

“Of course,” Ailis said, and started towards the extension door.

“Wait!” he blurted out. “May I have a few moments with her first?”

The she-mage hesitated, then pushed the jar towards him. “Bring her to me when you’re ready,” she said, and disappeared through the door again.

Durras sat in the rocker with Mallie’s jar on his lap. “I shall pray to the Lady all night that nothing goes wrong,” he said to her. “And I’ll see you in the morning, whole and sound.”

She nodded bravely, though she looked frightened, and told him she loved him. He stood up and brought the jar to Ailis’ workshop. This room did remind him a bit of Varde’s mansion, but nothing so sinister. It was clean and tidy, with small round windows to let in some light. Her magic, he thought, seemed to be related to nature and growing, living things.

Durras lay down in the blankets on the hearth and began to pray, cradling his burned hand carefully on his chest. A minute later, he was sound asleep.

The next morning he awoke late; the sun was already streaming in. He built up the fire and filled the kettle from the little spring outside. He kept glancing at the workshop door, but it didn’t open and there was no sound. He washed, ate, and then cleaned the dirty dishes. Then he swept the place. Still no sound from the workshop. Durras spent the next hour pacing the room, struggling to keep himself from pounding on the door and calling out, “What’s happening?” Finally, grinding his teeth, he burst out of the house and went for a long walk in the forest to vent his frustration. It was well past noon when he got back; the door was still closed and all was still. Durras sighed. He sat down and began to rock slowly, putting himself into a kind of trance, his gaze fixed on the door.

It was nearly suppertime when the door finally opened. Durras shot out of his chair.

“Come,” Ailis said. She had dark circles under her eyes and her face sagged.

Durras followed her back to the workshop, peering over her shoulder to catch his first glimpse of Mallie. The girl sat huddled on a stool, looking a little dazed. She was wrapped to her chin in a large blanket. She blinked several times and turned her head towards him, as if trying to focus.

Ailis stood next to her. “She’ll come out of it in a short time, don’t worry. Ready?” She reached over and released the blanket tucked around Mallie’s neck, letting it fall to the floor. A prickle of heat followed by icy cold swept over Durras. His skin broke out in sweat as shock rolled over him. For the second time in as many months, he couldn’t believe what his eyes were seeing.

Mallie’s head had been smoothly grafted onto a wooden neck, which flowed down into a willowy wooden body. Her trunk was slender and round, like that of a young tree, with her arms and legs branching off gracefully. The wood appeared to be ash, with pale creamy tones blending to a silvery gray in the joints, and smooth, supple bark for skin. She was moving her long fingers, which seemed quite nimble. They had no nails, but came to rounded points on the ends. Her feet were very long as well, with long toes and a woody heel protruding in the back for balance. Here and there, small twigs sprouted from her skin, some sporting tiny green leaves.

Ailis, oblivious to Durras’ dismay, had taken Mallie’s arm and was coaxing her to stand. The girl stood uncertainly and swayed a bit, but gained her balance quickly.

Durras’ voice had deserted him and it took him several tries, but he finally whispered, “What have you done?”

“It’s a wood golem,” Ailis explained. “I thought it the perfect solution. She’s stronger than any normal person. She’ll never grow ill and she’ll live for hundreds of years with this body.”

NO!” Durras shouted. The sound boomed through the small chamber. “That wasn’t the bargain. She was supposed to have a human body, a young girl’s body, like her own original one!”

Ailis looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “There was no such stipulation in our agreement,” she said coolly. “But if you’re so unhappy with my work, I’ll put her head back in the jar. Is that what you want?”

“No,” whispered Mallie. “No jar.”

They both looked at her.

“Mallie?” Durras asked softly.

The girl cleared her throat. “Mirror,” she said.

Ailis looked past Durras at a hand mirror lying on the table near him. He picked it up and reluctantly gave it to Mallie.

Her long wooden fingers wrapped firmly around its handle. She looked at her face first, which seemed quite normal, if a bit pale. She then tilted the mirror down to inspect her neck, then moved it lower still. Slowly she leaned forward, inspecting her lower half directly.

The mirror fell to the floor with a crash, and Mallie opened her mouth and screamed. The sound was so piercing they had to cover their ears. She lunged forward, knocking Durras aside, and tried to run, but couldn’t seem to move in a straight line. She blundered around the room, crashing into things and screaming until Ailis hastily cast a calming spell on her. Mallie slowly came to a standstill, her eyes glazing over.

Durras groaned and clenched his fingers in his hair. “Oh, my gods. Lady, help us.”

“She’s just going through an adjustment period,” Ailis said coldly. “You need to pull yourself together, boy. If you want me to undo my work, our deal will be off and you will owe me nothing, which I think is quite generous of me.” She rummaged through cupboard drawers until she found a large silvery-gray robe. She slipped it over the girl’s head and began to arrange it on her.

Durras said nothing, just sat on Mallie’s stool with his head in his hands.

“Just what did you expect?” Ailis continued. “You told me yourself her body is gone; I would’ve had to behead a living girl to give her another just like it. I didn’t think you’d want that. The body I’ve given her is better and stronger than any woman’s body. Frankly, I thought you’d be pleased.”

Durras gave a deep sigh. “I—I guess I expected you to find a way to regenerate her own body.”

Ailis looked at him. “You probably couldn’t be expected to know this, but there’s one, possibly two mages in all of Aberneth who are powerful enough to do that. And with Kalatur’s skirlings rounding up mages and taking them into the City, you’d have a hard time finding another mage at all. It’s only because I’m so remote that I’m still here.”

As she spoke, she finished adjusting Mallie’s robe. It was long enough to hide the girl’s hands and feet, and had a cowled hood that covered her neck.

“So. Do you want me to put her back as she was, or not?”

Durras sat up, but his shoulders were slumped. “No,” he said miserably. “We will keep to the bargain.”

Ailis nodded. “Good boy,” she said. “Now I must sleep. She’ll come out of this slowly; wake me if there’s any more trouble.” She left the workshop and he heard her go through another door, presumably to her own bedchamber.

Mallie was much calmer when she came out of the spell. He started towards her, but she jerked back, overbalancing a little.

“No,” she said. “Don’t touch me.”

His hurt must have shown on his face, for she said more softly, “I’m not ready yet, Durras. Come, help me walk.”

She allowed him to hold her hard, thin arm through the robe and they slowly walked outside. The sun broke through the clouds as they stood in the little clearing, and Mallie turned her face into its warmth, closing her eyes.

After a moment the clouds closed over the sun again and Mallie opened her eyes and began to walk. He helped her with her balance, but soon she no longer needed it. It took Durras a bit of time to get used to her new silhouette, scarecrow-like with the robe flapping about her narrow body. She was slightly taller than he was now.

Mallie began to take long strides, forcing Durras to run to keep up. Gradually she drew ahead of him and he couldn’t catch her up no matter how hard he ran. She disappeared over a ridge and he stopped and bent over, puffing like a bellows. He tried to follow her trail, but she left little sign of her passing and after a while he gave up and went back to the house. Ailis was still sleeping. He sat down in the rocker and dozed off.

He woke to the small sounds Ailis made as she moved around preparing supper. Rubbing his eyes, he looked around. “She’s not back yet?”

Ailis’ look said she wasn’t in the habit of answering stupid questions.

“Go and draw some water for supper,” she ordered, handing him the kettle. He went outside and as he was filling it, a movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. Mallie slipped out of the trees in front of him.

He let out a sigh of relief and held his hand out. She came to him and took it, wrapping her smooth, hard fingers around his. They turned and went inside.

“Can she eat?” Durras inquired as Ailis set food on the table.

“This is for us,” Ailis replied. “She’ll get her sustenance from sunlight from now on. She could also get it from the earth, if she wants to sacrifice movement in order to put down roots.”

They both absorbed this information, still in shock from the strangeness of it all.

After supper Mallie folded her legs and sank down next to Durras as he lay in his blankets on the hearth. He’d had to move further from the fire, as Mallie didn’t care to be too near it. They talked for a long time, trying to come to terms with the situation.

“At least we can be together and you’re free,” Durras said.

“Yes,” she said sadly.

He knew what she was thinking: now they would never consummate their love, and she would never have his children. They wept for their loss and Durras clung to her hand. He stroked the smooth, hard skin. “Can you feel that?” he asked.

She nodded. “But it’s different. It’s not like… like before.”

He nodded and dashed away the tears that kept flowing down his cheeks. Finally he fell asleep, exhausted. Once or twice he awoke and saw her still sitting there, staring into the fireplace, although the fire had dwindled to mere coals.

In the morning, they made ready for their journey back to Varde’s mansion. Ailis made sure Durras had plenty of rations and cold-weather clothing. Mallie, of course, needed nothing but her robe. They set off, using landmarks Ailis had given them so they wouldn’t have to follow the river back out.

In due course they came out of the forest north of Boddam, where they could look out over its fields and pastures. Durras decided to keep to the footpaths north of the town, avoiding the Forden Road that he had taken to get here. They would travel west towards Varde’s place from here, even though it would make the journey much longer.

When the trees had thinned to scattered clumps, Durras turned to Mallie. “Maybe you should stay here and wait while I go on,” he said.

“Because I’m a monster.”

“No! You’re just… different now, and these people don’t like differences.”

“I’m coming,” she said flatly, and started out in her long stride, forcing him to hurry.

“Slow down, Mallie!” he called.

She did, and they walked on together.

The paths skirting the northern edge of the farmlands seemed largely unused, but a few hours later as they were cresting a small rise that obscured the trail beyond, they came abruptly face-to-face with three men coming from the other direction. The men had been walking quietly on the grassy path, not talking, so the pair had had no warning. Both parties stopped abruptly and stared at each other.

“Gods, what have we got here?” one of them said in the lowlanders’ slow, broad accent. He was a tall, beefy man of about middle age with a thatch of graying reddish curls. The other two looked younger and were likely his sons. All three of them were tall and powerfully built, Durras noted uncomfortably. They wore farmers’ attire, with trousers held up by suspenders and slouchy cloth hats on their heads.

“What are they, fa?” one of the younger men asked. He was rangier than the other and beardless. He held a pitchfork in one hand; its sharp tines glittered in the weak sunlight.

Durras tried his bowing-with-introduction routine, but the men just continued to stare.

“What sort of speech is that, then?” the rangy one asked. Durras saw him take a tighter grip on his pitchfork.

“See how dark they are, fa,” the other son said. This one was rather burly and had a short, dun-colored beard.

“They’re filthy highlanders,” growled the red-haired man. “Bitch-worshippers. They spit on Kalatur; that’s why we drove them out.”

As if on cue, the three men spread out, surrounding them. The beefy son reached out and gave a hard yank to Mallie’s robe. It fell open, revealing her wood-golem body.

“Abomination!” the man howled, and all three lunged at them. Durras’ training kicked in and quick as a blink he had his staff up, spinning it towards the head of the man wielding the pitchfork. It connected with a satisfying thwack and the man went down on the path like a sack of spilled potatoes. An instant later the big one piled into Durras, knocking the staff out of his hands. They both went down, rolling in the dirt. The big lowlander ended on top of him, crushing him with his weight. Durras felt a painful pressure at his throat and realized the man had seized Durras’ staff and was pressing it across his throat, cutting off his air. He clawed and kicked with all his might, but to no avail. His vision began to blur.

Suddenly the weight of the man was gone, as if he had been lifted up and away by something. Durras sat up, coughing and struggling to breathe through his bruised throat. He looked around, blinking his watering eyes.

Mallie stood looking at him, twisting her twiggy fingers together nervously. Beyond her, the rangy, beardless son lay unmoving in the middle of the path, his head resting in a wide crimson puddle.

I did that, thought Durras, and felt sick.

“Are you all right?” Mallie asked.

He nodded. “Where—?” he croaked, and she pointed. Off to the side of the path, crumpled in a heap at the base of a large tree, lay the red-haired man, not moving. Durras’ eyes followed her pointing finger as it rose to a spot above the man, where the beefy son hung entangled upside down in the branches of the tree. He wasn’t moving, either.

Durras’ jaw dropped. “Did you—?”

Mallie nodded, pulling her robe back into place. “I think we’d better move on,” she said. She effortlessly dragged the bodies of the two men still on the ground into some bushes well off the path, then helped Durras up and they hurried on their way. They didn’t encounter anyone else. Once or twice they had warning and were able to hide until the farm folk had gone by.

Mallie spoke little throughout the remaining journey. He tried to draw her into conversation, but she only grew more silent. She never seemed to get tired, and they stopped at night only so that Durras could eat and rest.

At last the pair arrived at the outskirts of Fowliss, coming out far to the north of the town. They worked their way south towards Varde’s estate, keeping to the woods as much as possible. A heavy cloud cover lay over the land and the air was chilly and damp.

Finally they arrived at the edge of Varde’s lands. The area still seemed to be deserted and the grass and bushes more overgrown than ever, but there was an acrid smell hanging in the heavy, still air. As soon as the mansion came into view, they understood why. Where the building had stood there was nothing now but a blackened heap of burnt rubble. The glass house had been smashed and the joists and struts were lying among heaps of broken glass. There were no jars with heads in them anywhere to be found.

Mallie and Durras exchanged a glance.

Durras sighed and turned towards the burnt hulk of the mansion.

“Where are you going?” Mallie asked.

“We need to search the wreckage in case anything valuable survived the fire.”

They searched until dark, coming up with nothing except a lot of soot, which made Durras cough and sneeze. As they trudged back up the hill to the woods, the skies opened up and a heavy rain poured down. Durras rigged a small shelter for himself in the trees and they spent a silent, miserable night.

In the morning the rain had stopped and they set off back to Alashiel Wood. Durras knew he must now fulfill his promise to Ailis and “serve” her for a season. That would be until the end of the Season of Falling Leaves, he figured glumly. He didn’t know how the arrangement was going to work out with Mallie around, and tried not to think about it. Cutting back northeast towards Alashiel Wood, keeping once again to the footpaths north of the farms, they made good time until they entered the forest. The nights were getting cold and Durras was grateful to be back in the forest so that he could have a campfire.

One morning several days into their journey through the wood, Durras woke up and Mallie was nowhere to be seen. He had a moment of panic, but then he saw her approaching through the trees. He hastily gulped down a cold breakfast, shouldered his pack, and picked up his staff.

“Ready?” he called out to her.

Mallie had been standing in a small clearing nearby, trying to absorb a bit of weak sunlight.

She came and stood in front of him, looking directly into his eyes. “I’m not coming.”

Durras stared at her. “What—what do you mean?”

“Go back to her, fulfill the bargain. When that’s over, go back home to Balaben. Find yourself a highland woman, get married, make a yourself a life.”

Durras felt a stabbing coldness pierce him to his heart. “I can’t do that, Mallie. I won’t leave you. I love you. I’ll stay with you anywhere, even in the forest if that’s what you want.”

“No, you can’t stay with me. Don’t you understand, I’m not me anymore.” Her voice rose steadily until it became a shriek. “I’m not a woman! I can’t lie with you, can’t have your children. What kind of love is that, tell me!”

Durras blinked away tears, but said nothing.

Mallie started to turn away, then looked back at him. “I’ll always love you, Durras, but this isn’t right. It isn’t fair to either of us.”

With a sudden fury, she ripped off her silvery-gray robe and threw it on the ground. She spun and strode away into the woods, moving faster and faster until she was no more than a blur. Then she was gone.

Durras slumped to the ground. He knew it would be futile to try to follow her. He lay there for a long time, until his tears finally stopped, then slowly pushed himself to his feet and began to trudge towards Ailis’ house. He didn’t think, didn’t feel. At times his cheeks became wet with tears; at other times they stayed dry. He walked until he fell from exhaustion and rested wherever he lay. The cold rains came and went, soaking him to the skin.

When Durras finally got to Ailis’ house, she had to put him to bed and nurse him for pneumonia. He had lost a lot of weight and was as weak as a baby. Eventually he got better and began his period of service, but he was so dull and emotionless that after a while, she stopped taking him to her bed. He moped around the place doing small chores and wandering endlessly through the forest until she finally kicked him out.

“Go home, Durras,” she said to him long before the end of his service. “I’ve had enough of you.”

He arrived in Balaben in the early spring, strong and lean but pale. His mother was overjoyed, although her joy fled quickly. He knew he wasn’t the same Durras who had left this place last year. His mother knew him very well; she must know this. She probably guessed that that her son’s heart was permanently broken.

Durras never married. When his mother became a widow he took over his father’s duties, working every day from first light until dark. He kept their garden producing handsomely and their cottage well maintained, patching the roof every year before the winter rains. After his mother died, Durras lived on in the cottage alone.

In the early summer ten years after the two boys had first set out, Bertis returned. Everyone turned out to welcome him. He was a full mage now. He sat with Durras drinking letha and talking about the wider world.

The skirlings were combing through all the lowland villages, Bertis said, looking for anyone with magical ability to take back to the great City, where terrible things were said to await them. He said that his own teacher had been taken, but he himself had escaped by sheer luck. The army was being built up and rumors were flying around of plans to attack the neighboring land of Doune. In spite of this, Bertis was determined to go back to Skene, where his teacher had left him a hidden workshop with a priceless collection of books, scrolls and spell components. He planned to go soon, in the Season of Full Leaves. When the time came, Durras accompanied him a short way before he bid his friend farewell once more, then he turned back uphill towards Balaben and his solitary life in his parents’ cottage, where he lived on for many years alone.

One fine day in late spring, the villagers noticed that there was no smoke coming from Durras’ chimney. His neighbor went over and clapped outside the old man’s door, but there was no answer. He went in to find the cottage empty. Durras’ pack was gone, as well as his old staff that had stood in the corner for many years, gathering dust.

At that moment Durras was already miles away, working his way downhill. He couldn’t travel as fast as he had as a young man, but he walked steadily. He had to build a fire every night to warm his bones, so that he wouldn’t be too stiff and sore in the mornings. He passed the turnoff for the path that led through The Middens to Gamrie’s cottage and paused for a moment of respect for the woodsman, who had died long ago. Coming out of the Lethen Wood some distance south of The Great Road and keeping well clear of it, he worked his way east for many weeks, hugging the edge of the highland woods.

He finally turned north and approached the Great Road. Here, a narrow wooden bridge spanned the Great River just before the Alashiel River emptied into it. He crossed it and stepped onto a path that traced along the Alashiel River north to Boddam. Durras hadn’t known of this route when he had made his first journey, but he had studied Gamrie’s maps well since then. He traveled the river path north to the Forden Road, bypassing the town of Boddam where the farm girl had helped him all those years ago, and plunged into the forest that clothed the feet of Alashiel Mountain. For the rest of the summer and on into the Season of Falling Leaves, he wandered through the heart of the forest, looking for her. He avoided Ailis’ house, never knowing that she followed him at times to see what he might be up to.

It was late in the year, in the Season of Falling Leaves, when he finally found Mallie. She was standing in a deep hollow into which he had stumbled in search of a spring. For a moment he didn’t recognize her; she had put down roots and grown tremendously. Her human head was still at roughly the same height, but her arms had intertwined above her head and become a great trunk with many branches reaching into the sky. Her feet had turned into thick roots and disappeared into the earth. Her face was weathered and nearly obscured by masses of golden autumn leaves framing it.

Durras staggered to her and laid his hands on her smooth bark, and she slowly opened her eyes. Joy shone in her face when she recognized him, but she had forgotten how to talk. Durras sank to the ground at her feet, leaning against her trunk, and closed his eyes. He rested there while she sang to him softly through her whispering leaves. Small roots climbed slowly from the ground and gently entwined him.

Even after his death, Durras would not leave Mallie. His spirit lingered in her branches throughout the seasons that followed, murmuring in the breezes that blew through her tender young leaves in the spring, and moaning through her frozen branches in the icy winds of winter.

His body gradually sank through the rich forest loam, helped by thousands of tiny roots. He disappeared under the forest floor, and moss grew over him. Mallie slowly absorbed all that had been Durras into herself. In that little hollow deep in the forest Durras and Mallie were together at last, and there they remained for more than a hundred years, until the end of Mallie’s days.

End

Thanks for reading!

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