The wind was blowing fiercely from the south quarter, a dark presence made full by the rolling lead-lined clouds that drank the light and chilled the air, smashing the surf against the beach like a smith’s hammer against a plough shear; the sparks, the foam and spray.
He stood at the top of a large dune, leaning into the wind to stay erect, hair streaming behind his ancient wizened face, eyes shut tight against the onslaught, towards the south, towards the vortex of dark clouds. The sand blew mercilessly against him in concert with the wind and the sea spray; minute cuts were already criss-crossing his face, hands and legs as the sand and sea grass slashed against him. He was the Watcher; his line has always been Watchers. Eyes weren’t necessary and Morgan could see all, feel the evil on the wind; smell it in the ground.
His staff, crafted centuries before from the oldest of Mage trees, shaped by the Masters of the Inner Set and blessed with all the good they could muster, started to vibrate and glow with a pure white hue. Morgan pushed with all his strength, sent a message on the wind; a harbinger.
The Mage light glowed and flew from him like an arrow from a twenty-hand bow. As if in retaliation the wind screamed around him and a lightning bolt flew from the heavens hitting the staff, smashing it to pieces, the bolt was black blue not white and it danced around the Watcher like a court fool.
Morgan screamed as the tendrils of evil attacked his very soul. He fell forward, smoke rising from his body, his eyes now scorched sockets, blackened from the fire that had boiled them away; every opening of his body smoked from the fire that had scorched him to a husk.
Morgan was gone, the Sou’ Watcher was no more and Old Herron, the staff of legend, was now just charred splinters on the wind.
* * * * *
The storm screamed across the Sou’ Reaches, blowing topsoil away and replacing it with sand and salt. It had been doing so for days. Old Magla sat in front of the fire hearth that formed the south wall of the hut. A smoky haze filled the room. Some of it the domestic woods from the cooking fire and the rest, a combination of Huzewood, Castleweed and Cowspaw; all powerful shields.
For years she had realised that her powers were weakening. Admittedly, by Inner Set standards, they were simple peasant magic, but to the plain folk of the Reaches, they were as much a part of their lives as the day and the night.
Every man, woman and child accepted and expected the Gifteds; no unrealistic demands were ever made, everyone understood the Rules of Changing. At most Old Magla, and the people like her, was there to offer comfort and help in simple ways when people or animals were sick or crops thin on the ground.
Be that as it may, the Gifteds were people of special powers and these powers, in Old Magla’s case, were weakening. This she had put down to being an old woman. Most Sou’ Landers lived to about two hundred and thirty years and Old Magla had done that five years back. Just lately she had felt a pressure building, a heavy dark feeling, attacking her conscious mind. She had grown so fearful that she had started the shielding and all her strongest magic could do was offer but a few hours broken sleep. She was scared. She stirred the pot with an old wooden spoon; green vegetables rose and sunk in the whirlpool left behind. Soon Jano would be back; she would breathe safer when he returned.
The room exploded with a light so bright all shadows disappeared. It took the old woman by complete surprise; she reached for the talisman around her neck and thrust it out towards the centre of the room; the jewel, a piece of Lock Stone, shone like it had never done before.
Just then she felt the power of the light, it pushed away the weight she had grown to accept as a part of her day and, for the first time in months, she felt safe. She listened to the words that danced around the walls of her dwelling, bouncing off the walls of clay and powdered Lock Stone. She heard and understood. The light started to dim and it seemed that the darkness that replaced it was even stronger than before. She sat back against the corner of the hearth, sweat on her lip dripped into her mouth, she licked it away.
It was clear to her now. For many years the people of Sinterland had grown complacent, had strayed from the ways more and more. She hadn’t been losing her power, the antipathy of hers were gaining theirs. She had to pass the message on. She pondered this for a while. Here she was a fourth power Gifted in a position where she would have to approach the Inner Set, the Grand Masters of the Sinterland and try to warn them of the dangers they faced. Surely they would know, after all, her level of understanding was insignificant compared to the wisdom of the teachers at the School of the Right at Mandor. Why had she, a simple village Gifted, been charged with this task?
The rain smashed against the shingled roof and Magla absent mindedly sprinkled more of the shield on the Candara roots of the cooking fire, white and yellow sparks and flames danced around the cooking pot. Jano would be home soon, Jano would be able to offer an insight to this. For such a young man he had a level of understanding that went beyond her years.
* * * *
Five miles from the village on the road to the port of Talmi was the house and farm let of Elder Tance, his wife and their daughter Tandia. The farmhouse was set off from the road about seven paces and hidden behind a stone wall the height of a man and then some. The farmyard, established by this wall, corralled the livestock of the Tance family with most cowering in the shelter of the barn.
A light shone through the gaps in the tightly bolted doors of the old barn; the rain thundering just as hard here as elsewhere. The far stall was the scene of all the activity; soft dry straw filled the aisle and formed the flooring on which a mare lay in difficult birth. Long since had she lost the strength to stand and her breathing was rapid and shallow. Elder Tance stood beside the young man, his sleeves rolled up and the leather vest tucked into his serge trousers.
Mother Tance was not to be seen but Tandia was in attendance, rinsing the cloths Jano was using to wipe the horse. Elder Tance spoke with authority but with respect. Jano was a junior and Elder Tance would be expected to speak to him in the authoritative tense but, because of the boy’s gifted status, a parody of terms worked its way into the exchange.
“Not that I would know but it would seem that she’s through.”
Jano continued to bathe the mare.
“Perhaps, Elder; perhaps. The foal is crossed and she is staying so and the mother is exhausted beyond limits.”
Jano had tried to turn the foal to no avail. Part of his Gift was an awareness of all animals. Old Magla had often told him that his strength in this and all others went beyond anything she had seen, he didn’t really consider this one way or another, it was, so it was. He had tried to use conventional methods and the first Law of Changing, the first of over four hundred, stated that “a man’s hand must try before a man’s mind”. If he didn’t do something soon then she would certainly be through. Jano turned to the Tance’s.
“Elder, would you fetch me my bag and, Tandia, some more hot water”.
These requests would seem on the surface very straightforward but it illustrated the folklore and awe surrounding the craft. First, the request for the bag really meant the bag and the staff beside, and second, the water gathering would guarantee that no maiden was near when the Changing was performed.
The unbridled power of a virgin was documented and some of the greatest of the Changings require the presence of same but for this type of enterprise, the effect on the focus would be unpredictable and the law was there to guarantee that no unexpected results would be experienced. Tandia blushed as she turned and left for a refill from the great copper in the house.
Elder Tance gathered the kid-leather bag and, after hanging it over his shoulder, gently lifted the staff from against the wall. He walked back to Jano holding the staff away from his body, almost at arm’s length. Jano took it and knelt beside the mare.
He rubbed her neck and whispered to her. Elder Tance could not make out the words. They were old speak, that he knew, not for the words, but for the sounds. Jano closed his eyes and soothed the foal. For the first time in hours the mare’s sides stopped moving. For minutes the group didn’t move at all.
The staff started to glow ever so slightly, warming the air like a draft escaping from the kitchen door. The mare closed her eyes and her sides moved again, this time much more gently, much more slowly. She started to breathe and push. Elder Tance took a little of the salve from the bottle Jano had offered him and rubbed the mare’s hind-quarters now dry and chaffed from the affair.
Slowly the foal showed. The glistening hoofs first and then, in almost no time she was there, as gently as you like. The mare turned to look at the bundle and tried to get up. Jano touched her again and she steadied. He moved down and picked up the foal carrying her to her mother. He stood and stepped out of the stall. Tandia was standing at the side door of the barn and her Father called her over.
Jano took the bottle from Elder Tance and placed it back into his bag. He offered instruction for the care of mother and foal but did so in respectful tense as Elder Tance was a kind and good farmer, he needed little instruction when it came to the care of his charges. Jano washed and slipped his over cloak on.
“I’m sure that daughter would be most disconcerted if I didn’t ask you to eat with us, Young Jano.”
Elder Tance reverted to the simple tense now that the work was done; Jano was once again the handsome gangly youth, not the Gifted of a few moments back. This is not to suggest that Elder Tance’s respect for the boy changed, it was just that the rules of etiquette controlling such things were quite strict in these matters.
These rules were quite pronounced and for such a simple society seemed complete beyond their needs. Consider naming, the concept of first names and last name was not applicable. Each person was given a name at birth and until they married would be known as Young.
Once married the husband became Elder and the wife simply Wife, with the birth of the first child wife became Mother; unmarried or widowed men Master and women Mistress. The term Old was saved for the true village elders. If any more exact identification was required then the addition of the village name may be used or more local features if needed. For example, Elder Tance could be known as Elder Tance of Truewood or Elder Tance of Upper Farm at Truewood.
All this may seem complicated but it isn’t considering that the average Sou’ Reacher would be lucky to travel beyond his village once or twice in his life and such identification would surely find the person they were talking about. This birth name was the public name. At the feast of the thirteenth year, each person would be given a true name. This name was kept secret and the only people likely to know it was the person them self and the Gifted performing the attachment ceremony.
Knowing a person’s true name gave absolute power over them as the true name was required for most magic both good and bad. Old Magla would have known the true names of most of the village folk. Jano had yet to reach manhood and hadn’t received tuition in the ways of the attachment ceremony and, as such, he wasn’t privy to any but his own. Jano’s true name was Hue. Only he and Old Magla knew this.
Both Jano and Tandia blushed and the farmer put his arm on the boy’s shoulder leading him back along the aisle towards the door, Tandia was following carrying the buckets and cloths.
“Daughter’s spent the morning making sweet cakes and Mother has hot buttered tea on the hearth”
Jano, more composed, accepted the hospitality and glanced at Tandia for a fleeting moment, seeing the look he had come to dream about. Being gifted didn’t mean that a person was no longer human. Elder Tance acknowledged Jano’s acceptance with a clap on the shoulder.
The boy buckled slightly under it as Elder Tance stood a horse and a half’s height and had the weight of one and a half men. He was an honest farming man, such men were the principals of the Sou’ Reaches and these people were known far and wide as the “Big Ones”. Jano was on the path of being a big one and with the right food and work he would be a match for Elder Tance one-day. Not today though and Elder Tance laughed a fit and healthy laugh as they walked through the door and ran across the path to the kitchen door.
The room was warm and smelt of the spices from the Mid Lands, sweet and pungent. Mother Tance wiped her hand on her apron. She bowed to Jano in the way of the Sou’ Reaches and he returned the salutation. The formalities done, they all sat at the table by the hearth and Mother poured hot buttered tea into large clay mugs as Tandia removed the cloth from the sweet cakes in the centre of the table.
The group ate and drank. The storm blew on.
“Tell me, Elder, do you feel this storm is unseasonable?” Jano asked between sips of the steaming brew.
“Aye, I feel that this is bad for all, Young Jano”. Elder Tance made the sign as he said this as is the custom when talking of such things.
Jano had placed the staff beside this hearth. At that moment it shone so brightly is looked to be on fire. Jano drew a breath and sat bolt upright, the Tance’s stared in awe. As quickly as it came, it went. Jano sat trance like for a few moments then dropped his mug. The hot liquid spilling snapped Jano out of it and the rest followed suit.
“What in the Maker’s name was that?”
“A message, Elder” Jano touched the staff, answering as an aside. “My apologies for being the cause of this in your house, I must go immediately, Old Magla needs me.”
Jano stood, the others followed suit. He bowed and then started for the door. Elder Tance nodded to his daughter with the softest of smiles passing his lips. She ran across the room to catch up to Jano. The parents sat down again, discreetly turning their backs on the young couple. Jano turned and smiled to her, she looked down, another custom, and smiled in return.
“Must you go so soon, Jano?”
“Would that I could stay longer, Tandia, but I am needed.” He smiled again and this returned the smile to her face. He reached his hand out and touched her on the cheek, she blushed again, Jano said goodbye and walked out into the storm, pulling the hood of his over cloak over his head. Tandia watched as he walked out of the yard. Her mother walked up to her and put her arm on her waist.
“Now my love, time to do the dishes.” She kissed the girl on the forehead and wiped the smallest of tears from the corner of her eye.
* * * *
Sinterland from Nor’ Land to Sou’ Land stretched from the Arctic latitudes to the Antarctic. As a country it was really an infinite number of Principalities with all the political intrigues attached to such a fragmented structure. At the heart of the nation was the Mid Lands consisting of four main island groups, Mainland, Ceric, Ule and Wasan and over three hundred islands surrounding, here the nation’s capital Mandor was located.
An emperor, a direct descendant of the first chief of the Sinter tribe, ruled the land. This position was largely ceremonial as the true control lay in the houses of the High Tribunal. This consisted of a left and right house and the members of these, over four hundred in all, controlled all aspects of Sinterland life. Membership of the tribunal was either inherited or won at battle, but since there had been no wars in the land for over one hundred and fifty years, the membership was established and conservative; some said corrupt.
The position of supreme power of the tribunal was that of speaker and Kule of Mandor, the patriarch of the Trull dynasty held it. In the current history of Sinterland three family groups figure, these are the Lamors, the Cupins and the youngest and most ferocious, having gained power of the tribunal during the war of the six years, the Trull.
The naming law of the Mid Lands was a little different to the Reaches. Because of their increased sophistication, each person there had the option to align themselves with one of the thirty-seven family lines that formed the nobility of this nation. Each of these families could trace their roots to the original tribe.
In point of fact each and every Sinterlander could claim a heritage in the same way as all were related to one of these thirty seven although this only seem relevant in the Mid Lands, most other people had more important things to worry about than this esoteric nonsense.
Most common Mid Landers didn’t bother with this naming, as it had become an unwritten law that only the true nobility could and Maker-help any common man whom tried.
The thirty-seven families had all formed under one of the three power groups and, politics being what they are, there was a continued movement of allegiances. To date, due partly to their strength in the physical sense, the Trull had maintained control.
* * * * *
He found the old woman sitting by the fire, the room heavy with the fragrance of the shielding.
“Old Magla what was it?”
The woman looked at him and for the first time he noticed the weight of her years.
“A message Jano; born on the Mage winds from the Sou’ Watcher.” She made the sign and uttered the blessing of the dead. “A message sent with all his force, a portent of evil to come”.
Jano had heard stories of the Watchers, dedicated Gifteds of the tenth or eleventh level that watched the lands for danger at all the points of the compass, living hermit like existences only leaving their vidual to marry.
The Sou’ Watcher roamed the Lans’ End peninsula, over fifteen hundred miles south, Jano stood in awe to think that the man’s power could send the message over such a distance.
“What marvellous power that Watcher must have.”
Old Magla smiled and shook her head sympathetically.
“Jano, that message should have reached the Mid Lands, not some old fourth level Gifted and her apprentice in the Sou’ Reaches”.
Jano walked across the room and sat on the bed beside the old woman’s chair. She turned to face him.
“Hue.” She whispered his secret name. “We must let the Inner Set know of these things, our Gifts are weakening and our lands are vulnerable. You must go my young one, you must approach the Great School of the Inner Set, tell them the story, repeat for them the message.”
Jano was dumbstruck. Until a few hours ago this sixteen year olds only aspirations were to learn the skills of a fourth level, court and marry Tandia and serve the people of Truewood as their Gifted, hopefully bearing a child with the sign and starting a new line. Now, his world appeared to have been turned upside down.
It was as if Old Magla could see his very thoughts, she took the metal box of the mantel piece, opened it and removed a scroll wrapped in kid-leather.
“At the time of your birth I saw the sign.”
Each Sinterland child was delivered in the presence of a Gifted, those born with a caul were deemed to be “signed” and thus, marked for possible training. At the time of the attachment ceremony, at the giving of the name, the Gifted would decide whether the powers were established and grade them accordingly. If the subject was deemed to be “fine stock” then it was automatic that the child would become the apprentice of the Gifted. Jano had been born with a black caul, not the transparent membrane commonly associated with the sign.
During his childhood he had exhibited such strong power that it was only a formality to perform the attachment ceremony. Jano’s family had known since the birth of their second born son that his time with them was limited to his childhood. The family of Elder Showen was proud of their son as the family of a Gifted was deemed to be lucky and luck had surely followed them.
Elder Showen was one of the largest land owners in the district; the Showen Farm on the flat lands prospered and kept Jano’s family busy and well fed. Mother Showen had grieved her son’s thirteenth year as she knew that she was to lose him although, with the distance between the farm and Truewood being less than a day’s trek, she found comfort in the knowledge that he would be able to visit regularly which he did with the devotion of any Sou’ Reaches son to his mother.
Old Magla unrolled the scroll. She handed it to him.
“This is an introduction to the gate keeper of the School of the Right of the Inner Set at Mandor. Many years ago, in the leaf fall of about your second year a great teacher on a wandering came past.
I had occasion to spend time with him and he showed me some high-craft Changings for stock, I told this man of your black caul and he visited your parents with the view to observing for himself what, if any, powers you may have had. Jano stared at the parchment
“I remember that vaguely I remember his face, his eyes, they were different; he was a kind man.” The old woman nodded.
“Yes, the Master said you would, he told me a lot about you, he wrote this introduction. I asked him whether you should be sent to Mandor at the start of your apprenticeship but he told me that you would do better to find your own way there, I didn’t understand what he meant until now.”
Jano noticed a small tear forming in the woman’s eye.
“My sweet boy, it grieves me to send you off like this, I have no sight of what awaits, a quest no doubt, but what the quest is, I know not, albeit there is no doubt that you must go.”
With that the old lady slapped her legs and rose.
* * * *
The next day Jano awoke with the earliest songs of the barnyard. The weather was calm by the standards of the last few days but the wind still sang in the eaves of the cottage. He performed his chores and made breakfast for the two of them.
“I will leave tomorrow, it will take many days to reach the Inner Set and I would like to start immediately.” he spooned another mouthful of porridge, Old Magla broke the silence.
“Jano, I have thought long on this, you will have to go the way of a normal person and not let it be known you are Gifted. I have bad feelings about this whole affair, it is important that you arrive with no fan-fair”.
Jano nodded, he had reached the same conclusion.
“I will take my leave of everyone today.” The old woman held her hand up to stop him.
“You will go now and tell no one, I will fabricate a story to cover your absence until such a time as you should take to reach the Inner Set. I feel it in my bones that you must be careful.”
Jano was about to continue when there was a knock at the door. He pushed the chair back from the table, stood and walked across. Opening the door, the morning light was blocked by the biggest man you could imagine. His face scared and weather-beaten, his hands the size of ham hocks, dressed in the vest and trousers of a “Roamer” with the two swords one long and one short stuck in the black silk cummerbund.
“Dannid!” Jano yelled with pleasure, the giant bowed elegantly, reached out and grabbed the young boy’s shirt roughly, with that Jano turned and dropped on one knee moving his arm in an arch across the giant’s forearm and breaking the grip with little effort. The big man laughed a booming laugh and ducked his head as entered the door.
“You haven’t forgotten the way of the unarmed.” He hugged the boy, lifting him off the ground. He turned to the old woman and bowed again, this time with reverence. Master Dannid the Roamer was a warrior. The warrior class was a level below the true nobility but above all others and many generations of warriors usually cast the line for the current generation.
Dannid was a Roamer, simply, at some time in his or his families past, the lord they served had been beaten in battle and they had elected to not serve the victor. Once a Roamer made such a decision, all warrior advantages were lost, all land taken and the only future walking the roads of the Outer Reaches performing whatever tasks were needed to keep the person alive.
Some Roamers, the likes of Dannid’s great great great grand-father, elected to settle and marry and take up a trade, in this instance sword-smithing. It was the prerogative of the father to pass on to the first born son. Thus a number of generations could be Roamers, if Dannid married and had a son, he could do the same, although Master Dannid was deemed to be beyond marrying age and it was likely that the man would take his line to his grave.
Dannid had spent most of his life working at his trade and was known to most of the Sou’ Reaches as a master sword smith. One of his swords had even been sent to the Inner Set by the old lord at the Sou’ Reach Castle in the county of Lans’ End and presented to Tully the brother of Kule of Mandor.
Dannid had also taken to Jano many years ago, Dannid was a good friend of Jano’s father, and had spent most of Jano’s childhood years teaching him the warrior skills of sword, arrow and naked hand. Jano was adept at all although, unlike Dannid, unblooded.
The giant turned and closed the door, the old woman offered him a stool by the hearth, Jano and she returned to their places. Magla spoke first.
“Jano, Master Dannid is here for a purpose.”
She paused as she poured the man a mug of tea; he took it and sipped quietly.
“The master took Master Dannid into his confidence and entrusted your safety to him, something that it would seem has been well affected. Master Dannid will accompany you to the Inner Set, you will go in the guise of apprentice to this humble sword maker from the Outer Reaches.”
She smiled at the boy; a glow filled the room shimmering around her body, her heart-light radiating a red-orange hue. A bolt of pure white light flew across the room and danced around Jano like lightening and disappeared.
With this Old Magla had sent her strongest spell, her gift of love to the boy. She had added strength to the boy’s powers at the expense of her own. She sat heavily as the glow lessened. Magla would take a long time to regain her strength.
Jano stood transfixed, understanding the gift she had just given. He moved towards her but stopped as she held up her hand.
“Don’t be sentimental now you young scoundrel, be off with you”.
Dannid opened the door, bowed once more to the old woman, turned and left. Jano gathered his haversack and followed, tears formed in his eyes.
Dannid turned and caught a glimpse of the sleeve wiping away the offenders. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and hugged him saying nothing, nothing needed to be said.