I leaned forward, Tokani’s mane flicking against my face. Sand swirled, wind shrieking like demons. I let out a scream of joy. I was free, out on my own in the sand and sun and wind and burning sky.
Revall had warned me not to get lost. Here in the desert, I could never be lost.
Tokani bucked; I gripped her mane and the saddle horn, just barely able to hang on, the muscles in my thighs jolting.
“Easy, little one,” I said.
Tokani slowed, dancing sideways, tossing her head. She loved the desert as I did; she’d been born here. I was a mere transplant, though I felt more home here than anywhere.
Beyond the hills loomed a dark mass—a sandblast. My heart flipped. Sandblasts could scour flesh from bones.
“Let’s go, girl.” The mare turned of her own volition. We both knew firsthand about sandblasts; she and I had been caught in one when I was five and she was a foal, and gotten half-buried in sand. We’d been lucky; the Kasi tribe had found us the next day and taken us in. I’d lived there ever since, with a brief, foolish foray into the Magic Academy.
As we turned, though, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and tugged on the reins, turning back to see what it was. Three black dots flew ahead of the storm, like flies trying to escape a rakla. Birds? As they neared, they looked larger than any bird could possibly be.
Dragons? Thrills flooded across my skin, although I knew that the last dragons had died centuries ago.
The things floated nearer. Huge, wingless, oblong things—black bullets against the scarlet sky—
A blast of wind hit me and nearly knocked me from the saddle. I couldn’t stay to watch, couldn’t help these things, whatever they were. I could only hope they’d fly to safety—or, if they were dangerous, that they’d be buried in sand come morning.
I tapped my heels against Tokani’s sides and she leaped into a gallop, tearing as swift as an eagle over sand and rock toward the oasis.
By the time we reached the River Dribble, the sky had darkened, erasing all trace of the flying creatures. Maybe they’d just been a mirage, or a figment of my imagination. Tokani trotted along the river, the palm trees not much of a shield from the raging wind. My hair swirled, tangling in front of my face; sand gritted in my mouth. Tiny grains pricked my cheeks. The house loomed up ahead, a silhouette in the reddish darkness, a small, flickering light like a beacon bringing me home. Near the shed, Tokani slid to a stop and I jumped off. I slipped off the bridle and pulled off the saddle, tossing them both inside the shed. I could properly care for them later. I patted Tokani’s sleek golden neck and she trotted into the shed. After I bolted the door, I dashed to the house, my kafal over my mouth, trying to keep the sand from smothering me. The light flickered from beyond waves of red sand. I ran into the doorway of the adobe house and slammed the door. Revall stood there in his long cream robe, silver-streaked red hair falling to his shoulders, a bloom of fire hovering in his palm. He whispered to the fire and it vanished in a puff of smoke. I flipped the kafal off of my head, little showers of sand pouring onto my shoulders.
Revall grasped my arm. “Fralenn, what were you thinking? The desert isn’t something to be trifled with.”
“I know. It just came up so quickly.”
I followed Revall through the entryway into the library. A wave of book-smell hit me, the musty, dusty scent of old kai paper and parchment. It filled me with such a home-feeling that for a moment I forgot everything and just stood there, immersing in it.
Revall smelled of books too, even when not with them. Books and desert and something foreign, like the sea I’d never seen….and a forest long-forgotten….
“I don’t want to lose you.” His voice broke a little. Ten years ago, he’d lost his wife and children in a flamesoothing accident. I’d become his surrogate daughter of sorts; at sixteen, I was about the age his own daughter would have been had she not died.
His brow furrowed as he looked at me and I realized that testing my limits like this hurt him. I was his family now and he didn’t want anything to happen to me.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to be more careful. It’s just that—“ I didn’t want to make excuses, but I had to explain. “I saw something. Riding ahead of the storm.”
I shook my head, though fear pricked my heart at the name. If the Sedd I knew were fierce, they were nothing compared to the hardened warriors of the west, the tribe that survived as close to the Heart of Fire as anything could. They rarely raided the “cool” regions, though when they did, the eastern tribes banded together against the common enemy, the half-mad people with skin like leather and teeth like steel and eyes like fire…
“I’d never seen something like that before. Strange, oblong, black. Flying without wings.”
“Flying without wings….My father told me of such things before he died.”
My heart leaped. “Really?” Revall was half-Rajel, his father a soldier of the great Empire across the desert, Ardaynenn’s ancient enemy.
Revall nodded, memory and pain in his cobalt eyes. “He saw them at the Great Faire in Misk. A new kind of flying machine that could carry people into the sky.”
My heart flooded with wonder. I hoped the things had not been destroyed in the sandblast, which was raging against the house, roaring like a monster that wanted to swallow us whole, impotent against the reinforced adobe and the window-shields.
“What are they called?” I waited for the word, the bit of magic that would describe what I’d seen.
“Skyships….” I whispered, testing the new word, tasting it. It was a blue word, laden with tales of the sky; a calm, friendly word that also hinted the black prow of a sea-ship, a buoyant thing tossed by the wind as if by waves….and the three black shapes, heroically scudding in front of a sandblast.
A piercing longing to save them hit me, but I knew I couldn’t go out in the storm. Who knew how long it would rage. Perhaps an hour, perhaps a day…we might be digging our own house out of sand.
“I hope they’re all right,” I said.
“Me too,” said Revall, concern on his careworn face. He led me to the dining room where he’d laid out some supper. Lifting our heads and hands, we said a prayer to Father Blen and Mother Hiyel, the gods who sacrificed themselves to save us from the Great Burning and were reborn as the moon and the sun. We ate tora meat, kai bread, watercress and pineapple while the storm rattled the house. I felt a bit of apprehension for Tokani, wishing we could’ve taken her inside, like the Sedd took their horses into their tents. And I wondered how the Kasi tribe, the protectors of this oasis, were faring in the storm. They were usually well-prepared but sometimes a child or a foal wandered out unknown and was never found again…..
After supper we went in the library to read. The lamps flickered on the walls as if trembling from the storm; Revall whispered a few words, and they flared bolder. Tension showed on his face, as it always did when he made fire stronger; he never started a fire using magic, but would use matches just like any non-mage. Sometimes I’d start the fire, wishing I could speak to it like Revall could; even though flamesoothing was the most dangerous kind of magic, it was also the most powerful.
I walked along the shelves laden with books of all shapes and sizes and colors. Books of history, science, magic. Stories, tales, myths. Books from Oremo, Ganife, and even Nef T’Har, the island in the far south. A few that Revall had brought from Silverwood, where he’d been born, and a few ragged copies from Rajel, which would be burned if anyone in Ardaynenn found them. A yellow book caught my eye; I’d brought it with me from the Academy, at permission from my great-aunt Nola, the librarian. Full of myths of the Lost Isle, it thrilled me whenever I read it, even though I’d long ago given up the notion that any sort of land existed beyond Deathgate.
The books whispered to me, just below my ability to hear them, like magic always beyond my reach. But the Book of Magic thrummed with a chord that drew me, music in harmony with my soul. I couldn’t resist it, even though it pierced me with pain to know that I’d never be able to use these words the way they were meant to. Their power was denied to me.
I snatched the book from the shelf, nearly dropping its hefty weight. Cradling it in my arms, I sat down next to Revall on the couch. He was reading a book of the Golden Age before Ardaynenn tore itself apart.
When I opened the book on my lap, its musty scent filled the air. I touched the golden script with my fingers, magic humming through them. The words blurred before my eyes; hunger ate at my heart. I wanted to feel the full weight of their power instead of letting them languish on the page. It was torture to have this sensitivity, yet not be able to wield these delicate tools. I often wondered what kind of wordweaver I’d have been—flamesoother, wavetamer, windsinger, stonewaker. Probably a flamesoother like Revall, I thought wistfully.
I turned to the flamesoothing chapters in the back, skimmed over the warnings of having this kind of magic. Then I read the words used for taming flames. The precious few words that had been handed down over the centuries. I whispered them, their flavor like the sweetness of sugar-rushes, the tang of blood-oranges, or the char of smoldering fire.
Never satiated, always longing for more, I slammed the book shut, bits of dust swirling into the air. Revall shot a glance at me. “Careful—that’s an old book.”
“Sorry. Could you teach me another Word of Power?”
“Those are the only kind of words that have their own magic. I mean, for people like me.”
“You’re not any less for not having magic.”
“I know,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely sure that was true. “I just—can’t help but want it. It’s like the gods made me for magic without giving it to me.”
“The gods know what they’re doing.”
“Maybe they want me to use the Words of Power.”
“Perhaps. But they are dangerous.”
“It’s not like I’m a mage. They’re not as powerful when I say them.” Even with the Words of Power, as a normal, a non-mage, a dull, I could never accomplish anything close to what mages could.
“But still, you must be careful. I have kept them to myself for a reason, ever since my father entrusted them to me.”
“I’ll be careful.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder. “I trust you more than anyone. You know the magic of words, their nuances and strength, that their meaning has power.”
Pride glowed through me at his words. He was like a father to me, even though I’d known him less than a year. As much fun as I’d had living with the Kasi tribe, I’d never felt totally at home, never totally part of them. And as much as I’d tried to fit in at the magic academy….that hadn’t worked out, either. Me and Revall, despite our disagreements sometimes, understood each other. We were both outcasts, for one, and we didn’t really fit anywhere, so we felt at home together. And we both had an affinity for words. We needed books like we needed food or air.
“All right,” said Revall, laying his book down and walking over to his desk to draw out some paper. He took out a sheet of kai paper and I followed him to the table. I sat down beside him and he dipped his quill in ink. He held it poised above the paper; a drop of purple-black splashed onto golden cream. His eyes closed, he took a deep breath. Then in a flourish a curved word swirled over the paper as if it had appeared by magic. It seemed to shiver, hum, blur as if not quite real.
I could already taste it: a word with the potency of salt, the mystery of the sea, the danger of fire.
Despite my desire to say it, a shiver of fear ran through me. Dare I try to tame such a word? How was I, a mere normal, worthy for its powerful, ancient sound to cross my lips?
I knew, in any case, I couldn’t treat it lightly and could only say it if I pondered its full depth of meaning and harbored no evil purpose in my heart. As a non-mage, I could never fathom it fully; part of it would always be beyond my reach, tantalizing me with its measureless wonder.
Revall slid the piece of paper slowly over to me. I traced the form of the word, considering what it would sound like in the foreign tongue. I said the word in my mind, trying to lose my awkwardly northern Ardayn accent. I mouthed the word, getting used to its form on my lips, the weight of it, its possible taste. It had a depth beyond any normal word in any language I’d learned. Almost as if no one should dare to use such a word. My flippant desires shamed me—who was I to wield such ancient power? It was a word meant solely for wizards and queens.
“Revall,” I said, “what does it mean?”
“But that’s so—“
“Mundane? Perhaps, but in the ancient language it had so many more connotations. It’s very versatile, one reason my father used it in the war.”
I closed my eyes and allowed myself to immerse in the nuances of the word in my own tongue, to let various pictures of “opening” flow through my mind. Then I flitted through the verb tenses and said the word “open” in Rajel, in Sedd, in Old High Ardayn.
I wasn’t ready. I never would be. But I had to try. I let the word flow from my mind to my tongue, allowing it to take hold of me, its meaning flooding me. It tasted like thunderstorms and rain and a single vibrant sunray.
“Good,” said Revall. “But remember, in the ancient tongue the “J” is soft, the “I” is strong, and the final “L” is almost like a click.”
“Jemanasolil.” This time, its power felt like a lightning strike, the scent of danger in the air. I shivered, more with delight than fear.
“Better. You’ve got to put the accent on the last syllable, though.”
“It’d be easier if you’d just tell me the word.”
Pain flashed across his face. “I must never use a Word of Power again. It was enough to write it. It could’ve ripped a hole in the house and let in the storm.”
“You wouldn’t allow that. You’re too powerful.”
“No, Fralenn. It’s because I have great power that I must not use it. My strength and its strength would combine—and the word would take control and do its own will. Its ancient magic has so much meaning it’s almost as if saying the thing is the thing. The word would take control, dragging my magic with it. Without magic, the power of the word is muted.”
“Like with me.”
“Yes.” He laid a hand on my arm. “Magic can be a curse as much as a blessing. The more power you have, the harder it is to control it. But you must control it, or…hurt the ones you love.” Pain shot through his eyes; I knew he meant his family. He’d killed them by accident when using a Word of Power with fire. He’d lived alone for years, afraid of hurting anyone else. Only now was he allowing people back into his life—me and the Kasi tribe. But he was still cautious. I didn’t believe that he was as dangerous as he thought, but I wasn’t about to pressure him beyond what he was comfortable with.
I did long to see him do real magic. He was one of the most powerful wizards alive, and yet he kept his power locked inside him. I saw what it did to him at times—the inferno burning in his eyes, the pain wracking a body that wasn’t young anymore. And I saw his scars, the horrible burn across his cheek and down his left arm, which he usually kept covered.
Magic was nothing to be taken lightly, even though my longing sometimes made me ignore rationality. But once I had the word on my lips, I couldn’t help but treat it with reverence, as something to be safeguarded, rather than used for my own selfish desires. With the purity of the language handed down by the gods, I couldn’t help but treat it any other way.
Perhaps that’s why Revall entrusted the Words of Power to me. I had the sensitivity for them; I could feel every nuance even without magic, so I would never use them just like any other word.
In any case, since my experience with the first Word of Power I’d learned, I knew that, even with the power inherent in the word, I’d have an uphill battle just to get the word to do anything, much less cause damage with it. Even if Revall didn’t trust me with it, there wasn’t much risk in letting a normal have the word. The risk would be if a wizard actually discovered a Word of Power. And it wouldn’t be all that hard for a thoughtspeaker to wrest the words from my mind, even if Revall managed to train me all his tricks for resisting mental intrusion. There wasn’t much chance of that though; I wasn’t planning on going back to Ardaynenn anytime soon. I was content to live out here, even with the threat of sandblasts and punishing heat and hostile tribes. Better than living in a country where I could be murdered just for who my parents were….
“I’ll be careful,” I said, although I knew it’d be hard to make the word do much at all at first. But I would be careful; I wanted to do as much as I could to safeguard the word I wasn’t worthy of, but longed to let possess every fiber of my being.
I closed my eyes and cleared my mind of everything but a picture of “open”. A door was the easiest. When I had the meaning in my mind—though not as fully as a mage could’ve fathomed it—I said the word, letting its force storm through me, knowing that even letting it have its full power wouldn’t be enough to do much of anything at the first attempt.
The door creaked. I was so immersed in the word I hardly registered the sound. But then a gust of wind hit me and I opened my eyes. The door banged against the wall as sand swirled into the house. It was only the inner door but still the sand poured into the house as if we were inside an hourglass. Revall rushed to the door, pushing against the rapidly piling sand. Dazed, I didn’t react right away but then I jumped to my feet and ran toward Revall. It already felt like I was slogging through sand, the wind whipping against me from the open outer window, it shutter ripped open, banging against the outer wall like a manic hammer.
Kneeling, I scooped sand inside; it was piled too high to toss it out the door. Revall pushed against the wind and remaining sand and the door slammed shut. He locked it and leaned back against it, breathing hard. Then he looked down at me, a faint smile quirking his mouth.
“I think I’ll have to teach you the word for “close” next.”
Shaken, only now realizing the fact that the open door had anything to do with me, I couldn’t help but laugh.