The Wish Cycle
Table of Contents
My mother has been waiting for my father to drop dead from unnatural causes since he was sixteen. He’s an Artist, you see.
Perhaps you don’t know what an Artist is, so I’ll tell you. An Artist is a person who can do amazing creative things that a normal person can’t. They’re born, not made. Some call it magic, others call it a gift from the Muse. And some call it a curse.
If any other mother had found a piece of paper shoved under her daughter’s bed, they probably would just have given a lecture on throwing things away when finished. Or a lecture on wasting expensive resources. But not my mother. She had to look at it first. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except for what it had on it.
“This…what is this, Mizna?” she asked, smoothing the paper. “And why is it under your bed?”
I kept my mouth shut. She would see soon enough; no point in hastening the inevitable.
She flattened it against her hip until it was smooth, and then lifted it up so she could see. I realized I was holding my breath, and slowly let it out as she held it up to her eyes. If her eyesight had been any better, she would have realized much sooner what she held in her hand. As it was, she dropped it like she had been scalded, and took a step back, an expression of horror on her face.
It wasn’t anything bad, I promise. Just shocking to my poor mother.
“Mizna, why didn’t you tell me?” she asked in a whisper. She had gone completely white, and her hands were shaking. I didn’t answer, and I didn’t look at the paper on the floor. I didn’t want to see it. I’d known what it was, and what it meant, almost since I’d first put pen to paper. And I wasn’t any happier about it than she was.
It was a drawing, done in ink. It was a face; a face I’d never seen before, but imagined. When I first started drawing, it was just because I wanted to know what the face would look like in real life, not just in my imagination. I got the paper, a scrap, from old man Gort, the bookmaker down the street, and started to draw.
The face came easily, and in great detail. Some things didn’t turn out quite right, but I was able to fix them. After the first few lines, I knew.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” my mother asked again. She couldn’t even say the word.
“Because I don’t want to be an Artist any more than you want me to be,” I said.
My mother has been waiting for my father to drop dead from unnatural causes since he was sixteen. He’s an Artist, you see.
Perhaps you don’t know what an Artist is, so I’ll tell you. An Artist is a person who can do amazing creative things that a normal person can’t. They’re born, not made. Some call it magic, others call it a gift from the Muse. And some call it a curse.
An Artist has natural talent for most art forms, like painting, drawing, dancing, music. But in order to hone that talent, a young Artist has to be taken to the Academy, far to the north. It’s in an abandoned country, a lonely place, bitter in the winter and brittle, like old ice, in the summer. At the Academy, there are lots of teachers, all of them Artists. Some leave in the summer, to find people like my father and bring them there for study.
Once a young Artist is found and taken to the Academy, they’re trained by all the teachers in the many arts. Sometimes there’s a teacher for the art of war, sometimes the sword, sometimes choreography. But an Artist learns from them all.
And then, one day, an Artist will feel a burning desire to do something. There’s no telling what that something will be before they begin, but once they start, there’s no turning back. It is always a piece of artwork, be it a book, a painting, or winning a battle. But the Artist’s Masterpiece is always their final work. They expend their life-force in the making, and once it’s completed, they die.
My father is an Artist. I’ve known it since I was old enough to understand. But it wasn’t until recently that I first realized that my father was different from all the other Artists.
I’ve seen some Artists before. Every once in a while, one will pass through our town looking for young Artists to take to the Academy. I’ve always been struck by how young they all are. And they’re young because most Artists complete their Masterpieces before they reach their thirties. The few who don’t are the teachers. Their Masterpieces are their students, and some have even died from old age, rather than life-force expenditure.
My father is different. He is not a teacher, but he’s still alive. He is the oldest Artist in the world that does not claim teaching as his Masterpiece.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me when I undertook my first creative process. Maybe I should have expected it to be easy. I don’t know. But as soon as I saw the finished drawing, I crumpled it up and hid it. Not very well, obviously, or she wouldn’t have found it, but I didn’t want to look at it. To be an Artist is a sentence of death. To die for your Masterpiece is a great honor, but it’s an honor I don’t want.
I stared at my mother as she looked back at me, her great eyes haunted by what she’d found.
“I need to tell your father,” she said softly. “But I hate to do it. You know he’d hoped you would escape it. And so did I.” A tiny sob escaped her, and she put a hand to her mouth as she fled the room.
I bent and retrieved the paper from the floor, and turned it over so I could see it. His face stared back at me. To this day, I don’t know who it is, or who it was supposed to be. All I knew was that I hated him. He had changed my life. If he had never come into it, I would have lived out a long, happy life with a natural end. Maybe married and had children.
I crumpled up the drawing and threw it at the wall. Then I sank to the floor, and looked under the bed. Thank goodness she didn’t find the others. If she had found the others…
I cut off that line of thought, and crawled for my drawing. I snatched it from the floor, and stared at it for a moment, thinking. Then I spread it out as my mother had done, and set it tenderly under the bed. I hated him, but I couldn’t throw him away.
The others, the drawings that had poured from my pen like water ever since, seemed to welcome him with their eyes, eyes I had drawn, that looked strangely and eerily alive.
I knew it was only a matter of time before my father came home. I sat on the floor, looking at the pictures I no longer needed to hide, until I heard the opening and shutting of the door. It was followed by low voices.
I set the picture in my hand aside, and listened.
It could only have been my father, coming home from his work in the book shop with old man Gort. No one else ever just walked in except for me and my mother, and my mother hadn’t left the house. I would have heard the door open if she had.
No, it was Father.
I listened as hard as I could, but strain as I might, I could hear only muted mutterings.
They must have known I would be waiting for this, I thought bitterly. They knew perfectly well how easy it was for me to hear what went on in the kitchen from my room. They had never tried to keep their voices down like this before.
I stacked my drawings up like I’d had them before, and set them under the bed, close up against the wall. Then I stood up, shaking my skirts so they would hang straight, and walked to my door, which was closed. I pressed my ear against the wood and tried to listen.
The voices had stopped.
I frowned. Why had they stopped? Surely there was more to discuss than a few words could cover. But I heard the door open, and then close once more. The voices did not pick up again, and I could only assume someone had gone out.
What was going on? I wanted to go out and see who had left, but the thought of facing either parent didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. They might want to talk about my impending journey to the Academy, and I didn’t want to think about that, let alone talk about it.
So I sat down on my bed again, and stared out the window. It didn’t face onto the street, so I couldn’t see who had left that way, but I could stare at the cloud formations while I waited. It seemed like I had been waiting for the inevitable to happen all day. First it was the picture, then it was my father coming home, and now it was for whatever was going to happen next.
I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but I had the distinct and unpleasant feeling that it was not something to look forward to.
The scene outside the window was the same as always; the pine trees swaying in the wind, the hard, dry earth waiting for the rain that had been threatening all afternoon. The dark clouds piled up in the sky like a stack of dirty laundry. The wind picked up again, and the tall pine bent; if I’d been outside I would have been able to hear the creaking, and the rushing of the wind.
The cold season was just around the corner; the weather had been cooling for weeks, though the sky had yet to dump any moisture. The ground was still dry and cracked from the summer. The past few days the ground had been coated in frost, and the air had turned cold. Not cold enough for snow; not yet. But it was cold enough for me to start wearing the scarf and knit hat hanging on the peg at the end of my bed.
It was almost time for the Artist to arrive.
Ever since my father had been found here by an Artist that had gotten lost on his way back to the Academy, the other Artists on rotation had made a point of stopping by once a year to see if any of the local children had evidenced budding artistic talents. But they always came late in the year, on their way back to the Academy for the winter, when it was too cold and dangerous for travel.
We had been expecting the representative to arrive any day now. And now, there was every chance in the world I would go with him.
My hands clenched into fists as the pine outside bent again, blown sideways by a particularly violent gust of wind. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be an Artist. I didn’t want a Masterpiece, and I didn’t want to die when it was completed. But now I wouldn’t have a choice.
I heard the slamming of the door once more, and the murmur of voices. Then footsteps.
I scrambled to my feet, in the grip of some plan to face my fate standing. It didn’t make much sense, but it seemed a far better way to face something I hated than sitting.
I stood like a statue; a strange, demented statue, as if preparing for a battle. I was quite sure the expression on my face was fatalistic, as if I was expecting whoever came through that door to kill me and I wasn’t planning on going down without a fight.
The door opened, and my father stepped inside.
He was hunched over from his long hours in the book shop with Gort, and his eyesight was quite as bad as Mother’s. He had a perpetual squint from looking at the tiny print of books that needed fixing, and he had scraps of paper stuck to his trousers. In one long-fingered hand he held a book.
My eyes were drawn to the book at once; could he have left home and gone back to the shop for that? And if so, why?
He motioned for me to sit down. Now that he was facing me, I could see that he was as unhappy about it as I was, and the sense of staring down a monster determined to eat me faded. I sat.
He remained standing, and shifted the book from one hand to the other.
“Mizna,” he said, and then paused to clear his throat. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“That you have to live with this, too. I know it’s…not what any of us wanted. But now that we know, it’s best to face it. Over the years we’ve only ever really talked about the bad there is in being an Artist.”
I briefly considered tuning him out, but decided against it. It sounded like he had thought long and hard about this, and he looked as uncomfortable as I felt. So I listened. He moistened his lips with his tongue, and continued.
“But there is good, too,” he said. Now he sounded eager, as if he wanted very badly for me to believe it. “Artists are great people, mostly. They do things that can change the world, inspire people. And their Masterpieces last forever in the Academy.”
“Do you want me to be happy about this?” I asked incredulously. “How can I ever be happy with this? Look at what it’s done to you!”
He sighed, and rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Mizna, I’m not telling you to be happy about it. I’m trying to tell you that there are good things about it, too, and there’s no reason for you to…to worry about it, or be unhappy because of it. There are good and bad sides to everything in life, and I feel like you’ve only ever heard the bad about this particular one.”
I looked away from him, out the window at the tossing pine. What could I say to that? I was sure there were good things. But could they ever make the bad ones disappear? Or easier to bear?
“Anyway, I just wanted to give you this.” I turned back to him, and looked at the book in his outstretched hand.
“A book?” I asked.
“Yes. The…the Artist will be here soon, to take you to the Academy. And…you’ll be one of the older students.”
He didn’t say it, but I knew what he was talking about. Most artists were found relatively young. I would be in a class with children half my age. But what did that have to do with this book? I met his gaze with a question in my eyes.
“I wanted to give you a chance to start your training early, so maybe you won’t feel like you’re starting so late. So that you’ll – maybe – be a little ahead. It’s part of an exercise the Artists have you do to work on your writing,” he explained. “Here.” He flipped the book open, and showed me the blank pages. “You write in it. Anything you want.”
He closed the book again, and held it out to me. I stared at it for a moment, and then held out my hand. He set it in my palm.
“I’m sorry,” he said again before he left.
I took the book, and flipped it open in the middle. For writing? I couldn’t write. The only person I’d known that could write was long gone.
His name was Yent, and he had been the only other Artist living in our town. He’d been a famous author, but he hadn’t liked the bigger cities further south. He had moved here when I was sixteen, and bought a house to live and write in.
Yent had told the most wonderful stories. But the only one I could remember was the one he’d told me about the Academy. Father was right; they had given similar assignments to the one he’d just given me. Yent had told me about it.
“They give you an empty book, Mizna,” he’d said, a sparkle in his eye. “And tell you to write anything you want. Anything. A story, a poem. When they first gave me mine, the teacher told us all that everyone has a story worth telling. But I didn’t know what mine was, so I went to him after class was over, and asked about it. He laughed, and he told me that every person has at least one story; the story of their life. And then he said that if I wasn’t sure what to write, I could write about myself. My story, my feelings, my experiences. So that’s what I did. It’s the only book I’ll never let anyone read,” he’d finished with a laugh.
I turned the book over in my hands. Well, maybe I could do what Yent had done. Write about what was happening to me. But not now. I bent over and slid it under the bed next to my drawings. I didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t feel much like anything.
I went back to watching the pine tree waver through the window.
It was only a few days later that the Artist came.
I was turning my new, empty, book over in my hands again. It was like the blank pages of a person’s life before it had been lived. I labeled it an Artistic idiosyncratic habit; the desire to not put anything in there that wasn’t worth the paper and ink it would take to write it.
I could feel the words in my mind, waiting to be written. They roiled like herbs in a pot of boiling water, not ready to be written, not even ready to be thought out in an organized fashion. My fingertips touched the tooled leather cover, following the designs. My father and Gort had worked together to make it, though I doubted my father knew the purpose to which it would be put.
I picked up the waiting pen, and dipped it into the bottle of ink. Then I held it over the blank page, waiting for something to come out. Something that made sense. Maybe something life changing, although the thought that anything I could write might fall into that category made me smile.
The pen hovered over the page, waiting for me to make up my mind.
Before I could work up the courage to blot the paper, a flash of motion caught my attention.
I was in the sitting room, one of two rooms in the house that looked onto the street. The hard, wooden chair I sat in was beneath the window, and I turned to trail the splotch of color dancing down the street. It was a child, I decided. Too small to be an adult, or even a teenager. My book lowered into my lap, and I set the pen back down on the angled desk. I craned my neck to see where the youngster was going. It was a girl, surely. No boy in town would be caught dead in such a color. She was running as fast as her short legs could carry her.
I brushed the lace curtain out of my way, and she suddenly resolved into the neighbor girl, Marsa. Her braids were flying out behind her, and she was running toward…
My hand faltered, and the curtain slipped back into place. I hurried to catch it again, for what good reason I couldn’t have said. I really didn’t want to see.
He was standing in the middle of the street, his flamboyant clothes bright in the gloom of an approaching winter, standing in stark contrast to the naked, black trees on every side. His cap, a fat, useless thing, was tipped off to one side, and his cloak was thrown back over his shoulders so his clothing could be clearly seen.
I snorted in disgust. Any article of his clothing could have been sold to feed to excess my own family for months. He was young, like so many others that had come through over the years. He couldn’t have been much older than me. Twenty-five, perhaps.
As I watched, a crowd of young children gathered around him, bouncing up and down and tugging on him. He took it with a smile, one point in his favor, and even picked up one of the smaller ones, who promptly pulled the hat down over his eyes. This made me smile, as unwilling as it was.
This man would take me away. He would take me far to the north, away from my mother, my father, my home. Perhaps he would even be one of my teachers. My fingers felt suddenly cold, and I released the curtain. It fell back into place over the window, not quite blotting out the riotous color of the Artist in the street.
I’d been expecting this, of course. My bags had been packed for some time, with the new winter clothes my mother had paid for from her savings so I wouldn’t freeze on the journey. I had little else to bring with me. But now that he was here, I wished they could stay on the floor where I had dropped them, and gather dust. The thought of donning the new fur-lined cloak and pulling on the heavy winter boots made me feel nauseous.
I turned away from the window, and noted with some surprise that the book had slipped through my fingers and fallen to the floor. Had I let it go? I bent to retrieve it, and while I was bent double, I saw my mother’s feet come into view, the leather of her shoes worn and darkened with age.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“The Artist is here,” I said, straightening.
I saw her throat work as she swallowed. “Oh,” was all she could manage. Her hands clasped in front of her, and she turned her eyes down to the floor. I looked away. A moment later, I heard her retreating footsteps.
I rested my elbow on the desk, and stared at the house across the street. How long would it be before I could do this again? The Artists rarely stayed for more than a day or two. They would ask around for talented children, tell stories or sing songs all night, and then leave in the morning. Just enough time for the new Artists to gather their things.
I rested my forehead on the upward slope of the desk, and shut my eyes. The cool of the wood seemed more real than the thoughts tripping through my head.
We went to the bonfire, of course. Everyone did. Everyone always did. Ever since Yent had died, the only Artist in town had been my father, and he never told stories. He refused to play an instrument, and only ever sang at home, when he was happy. They got no entertainment from him.
We walked down the main street, dressed in our warmest clothing, a string of three spread across the road among the other families. The sun was nearing its resting place below the horizon, sending the last few slivers of warmth out over us as we neared the bonfire clearing.
The houses, made of logs, looked dreary in the half-darkness, and the woods lurked behind like creatures with long, twiggy fingers. A few people carried lanterns, making the shadows dance in the dark. Dead leaves crunched under my boots, and skittered away in the cold breeze.
My parents said nothing, and I didn’t break the silence, either. We had been a quiet family for as long as I could remember. Perhaps other Artist families didn’t feel the Masterpiece looming over them like we did; perhaps they had more laughter in their homes. But for us, my mother and I, we knew that one day my father would die. And now, I knew I would die as well. Probably before I could fall in love, marry, have a family. Someday, perhaps sooner, perhaps, later, my mother would be a widow, and her only daughter would leave her, too.
I pulled my hood closer about my face. If it was possible for my thoughts to be clearly seen there, I didn’t want anyone reading them. But I had other reasons for not wanting my face seen.
I had seen my father emerge from the shop and beckon to the Artist shortly before leaving for the bonfire. They had spent a few minutes in conversation, and the Artist had nodded before walking off to prepare for his performance. My father would have told him about me; he would know who I was.
It was irrational, I guessed, since he would be seeing me every day for quite some time. But I didn’t want him to see me. I wasn’t ready for him to see me. I wanted one more night of anonymity. One more night before I had to face it all.
I fell behind my parents as we walked to the clearing, until I was following a few steps behind. Perhaps it was an unspoken desire to take as long as possible to arrive, a futile hope that if I delayed it long enough it would fade away to nothing like a dream. Whatever the reason, I still stepped into the clearing only a few heartbeats after them.
The bonfire had already been lit, and the orange light flickered on the branches of the sleeping trees. It showered warmth on those close enough to feel it, and turned pale faces red with heat and expectation.
We found a place on the edges of the gathering, and chose a seat on a log felled for the purpose. The fire was ringed by such logs, and many were filled with other cloaked figures; families, like ours, out for a night of performance by the visiting Artist.
I huddled between my mother and father, like I had every year, and waited. There was chatter all around, laughter, and I could even smell the scent of freshly popped corn. Someone had brought a snack with them. It smelled as if it had been scorched, and I wondered if a younger daughter had had her first try tonight. But there wasn’t just popped corn; I saw barrels of soup and steaming tea. The housewives had been busy. The meager basket of bread on my mother’s arm seemed very small.
Someone had brought bowls and spoons, and many of the townspeople were fetching their supper from the communal barrels, steaming in the cold.
It was a slow process, getting the town settled. There were lines to the food that had been brought, and much moving around as friends and family vied for seats together. But, at last, everyone was seated. There was a long moment of silence. It stretched from seconds into minutes, until I saw him.
He was just beyond the ring of light from the fire. I had missed him before, because he was no longer dressed his finery from earlier in the day. He wore all black, and the only sign of his obvious riches was the silver clasp at his throat. His ridiculous hat had gone, to be replaced by a more practical hood.
He was standing out of the way, nearly hidden behind a tree, as though waiting for a hidden signal. I stared at him, wondering why he was hiding. After a few moments, my mother and father turned to see what had captured my attention.
Whatever signal he was waiting for seemed to have arrived, because he stepped swiftly into the light. The questioning murmurs faded at once. He gave an elaborate bow much more in keeping with his previous costume, and surveyed his audience with a serious expression.
“My name is Merwent,” he said. He had a deep, rich voice that was surprisingly pleasant. I thought he would be an excellent singer, and wondered if that was his preferred method of performance. “To entertain you tonight,” he continued “I’ve chosen a story to tell.”
I felt a pang in the vicinity of my heart. That was how Yent had begun his storytelling sessions. Maybe all storytellers from the Art Academy began this way; but whenever I heard it, I would always hear it in Yent’s voice.
“Some artists would choose a bright, merry tale,” he went on. “Something to make you laugh. Something to help you forget the coming winter and its hardships.” He began to pace as he spoke, and I felt my interest quicken. This sounded different. “I’ve chosen something else.”
Here, he paused. I’d seen such a ploy before. It was a dramatic pause, for effect. But rather than tell us the title of his tale, he launched right into it.
He spoke far into the night, the firelight dancing on his face. He became the Muse, the dark spirit, and the martyred hero. He lived their lives, he feared their fears, and, toward the end, died their deaths. The people forgot the soup they held in their hands; the housewives’ labor was wasted as it grew cold. Young children stilled their fussing to watch as he prowled around the fire, weaving his spell. Adults became so absorbed that the fire began to die for lack of fuel.
When he rose from the ground at the end of the story, I discovered that tears had spilled over onto my cheeks. He looked once around the circle, and bowed before vanishing into the darkness. The crowd was silent after his sudden departure, but when they came to themselves, as if waking up, they began to cheer. Many stood up, clapping phantom hands together in the darkness left behind by the dying embers of the fire.
I stood in silence, and realized my hands had gone numb from cold.
“The gift of an Artist,” my father murmured as he led us home.
Yes, I agreed. A gift for others. Never for us.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I heard his voice in my dreams, saw his animated face as he acted out the last moments of the martyr. And I heard my father call it a gift. I saw my pile of belongings, mocking me, waiting for me to gather them up and leave.
When I awakened, I didn’t feel rested. I felt as if I had fought off my personal demons all night, and my knee ached when I stood up. I must have slept on it wrong.
I slipped into my warmest clothes, shivering in the cold. My breath plumed out in front of me like smoke, and I fancied I could see my future play out in it. When I had put on my old boots – I left the new ones in their place, set in a corner like a child in time-out – I left my room.
I went down to breakfast, dreading what I would find. I wondered if my mother had fixed a special breakfast for my last day with them. She did things like that sometimes, like when I was little. My father had taken me out in the woods for an ‘adventure’ as he called it, and we were to be gone for two weeks. My mother had fixed a special breakfast the morning we left. When I was younger, I had thought it wonderful; a special beginning to a special day. But I knew it now for what it was: a way to say goodbye.
The kitchen was much warmer than my room had been, dominated as it was by the large stove. It was going full blast, and hit me with a wave of delicious heat. I hadn’t realized I had been bracing against the cold until that moment, when my muscles released.
My mother was there, like she was every morning, bent over the stove. I watched her for a moment, puzzled.
I had expected a breakfast of flapjacks, or some other food we rarely had, like bacon or eggs. But she was stirring a pot of our usual hot cereal. By the smell, she hadn’t even added cinnamon or milk. I frowned, but schooled my face to blankness as she turned around at the sound of my footsteps.
“Good morning, Mizna,” she said.
“Good morning, Mother,” I replied.
Before I could phrase a question properly to find out what had changed, why she was fixing our usual breakfast, the door swung open. My father stepped inside, and closed the door on the chill. The cold seeped across the room, and then vanished, vanquished by the heat of the stove and my mother’s industry.
“Smells delicious, Kii,” my father said, crossing the room and dropping a kiss on my mother’s forehead.
“You say that every morning,” my mother replied, smiling to show the dimple in her right cheek.
“And I mean it,” he said “every morning.”
I looked from one to the other in confusion. Where had the melancholy from the night before gone? Had they really adjusted to this so quickly? I felt a flash of indignation. How could they have gotten used to the idea of me leaving before I had even accepted that it was true?
“Mizna, can you get the bowls?” my mother asked.
I moved to do as I was bid, feeling cold despite the warmth of the room. Had they decided they were glad to be rid of me? No, no that couldn’t be it. Could it? I set the bowls in their places at the worn table, and then went after spoons. I aligned the spoons carefully with the table’s edge, focusing on that, and trying not to think of the figurative storm cloud swirling above my head.
My father sat down, and motioned for me to do the same. I did so, sinking into my chair, which rocked back and forth on the one leg shorter than the others. By the time I had settled it so it wouldn’t wobble, my mother had dolloped my bowl full of the cereal, and had moved on to Father’s bowl. I stared at my father through the steam, and waited. If there was something he wanted to say, he would say it soon. I’d never known him to delay things.
He waited only until I had lifted the first bite to my mouth.
“You’re not going with the Artist,” he said abruptly. I’m sorry to say I nearly spewed my mouthful across the table at him. By the time I had forced the scalding slop back where it belonged, he had continued.
“I spoke with him last night and this morning. He says the passes north should still be open for another week, and I plan to take you myself in three days.”
I found my tongue, discovered it was burned, and spoke anyway.
“Why?” I asked. “Why am I not going with him? Don’t you have work here?”
“You’re not going with him because it would be just you and him all the way north,” my mother said firmly. “And your father’s already spoken with Gort.”
I took her meaning at once, and leaned back in my chair, making it wobble alarmingly. So there were no other Artists in town this year? No wonder they weren’t letting me go with him. A young woman, alone with a young man? And a man none of us knew, at that. I raised anther spoonful to my mouth, taking care to blow gently at it to cool it first, the memory of my first bite seared across the tip of my tongue.
At first, all I felt was relief. They weren’t glad to be getting rid of me after all. Then my anxiety returned. I would still have to go. My journey was delayed, not removed. And only for three days. Three more days until I left my hometown for the Artist Academy.
I ate my breakfast in silence, down to the last scrape of spoon on wood. Then I shoved back from the table.
“May I be excused?” I asked. My father nodded his consent, and I left the table.
I fled to my room, and sank onto my bed. I was unsure what to think of my temporary pardon; to be relieved that I didn't have to go right then, or unhappy that I would have to endure looking forward to it for three more days.
I stayed in my room for a while, but the air grew too close and stuffy, in spite of the cold, and I had to leave. Being locked up with myself for too long was the kind of self-inflicted punishment I couldn't endure. So I went to the sitting room, my new, and still untouched, book in my hand. Maybe I could think of something inspiring to put on its pages. I snorted. Unlikely.
But still, I sat on the hard bench by the desk, and set it out before me with my pen and ink. I would probably be staring at empty pages to the end of my days. They mocked me, like my stack of belongings waiting to be taken on their first journey. I rested my elbows on the surface of the desk, and cupped my chin in my hands. Some of the heat from the kitchen had seeped into the sitting room, and the cloud of my breath was gone. So I focused instead on the curtains.
It took me a moment to realize what was happening on the other side of the window.
"Are you certain about this?"
I refocused, and suddenly the image on the other side of the window loomed up, rather than the curtains. I recognized the bent figure of my father at once, but the second was amorphous, like a statue seen through the fog. It didn't turn into a recognizable shape until the voice spoke again.
"The passes through the mountains might close up by the time you get there."
It was the Artist.
I leaned forward. I was aware that eavesdropping wasn't an ideal occupation for a young lady, but at this point I was hesitant to claim that particular title for myself. I certainly didn't feel like a young lady. And, I realized with a twang of guilt, I wasn't acting like one either. But I pushed my better judgment aside and listened.
"I'm aware of that," my father said in a low voice.
"You could both come with me; I'm willing to wait another few hours."
"I understand, and I'm grateful to you for that. But I need to do this myself. There's not much I've been able to do for her; she's lacked a lot of things growing up that the other girls had. I just...I need to do this for her. I know she doesn't want to go. And I don't want her to go, either. But I think it might be easier for us both to have each other for that little bit longer."
I put a hand to my mouth, and blinked away tears.
For my thirteenth birthday, I had wanted a new dress. There had been a new fabric in the cloth shop; it had been a dark blue, my favorite color, with threads of gold and silver worked in leaves. I wouldn't have cared about the dress pattern, if only that cloth had been used. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had told my mother how much I loved it; how much I wanted a dress from that material. When my birthday came, I wished, I hoped. I knew the fabric would be expensive, but I had so much faith in my mother's ability to scrimp and save that I mistakenly believed she could do it with what we could afford.
When my birthday came, there was no dress. But my mother had known what I wanted, and had dipped into her savings to buy a single strip of the material. She had worked hard on that little strip, hemming the edges with as pretty a stitch as she could manage, with thread that almost matched. It was a very pretty hair ribbon, and I loved it. But I couldn't hide my disappointment. I knew better than to say anything, but I knew they could tell. I had tucked that cloth away, never worn it. It was still in my room, pressed between the pages of my favorite book.
I had never asked for anything for my birthday again.
I wiped a stray tear from my cheek.
"I see," the Artist said. I saw him duck his head. "I may not ever get to have a daughter, much less meet her, so I can't claim to understand. But I think I have an idea. I wish you the best of luck, and weather. I hope your journey is safe, Fortez. I'll see you when you arrive."
"Thank you," my father replied. They clasped forearms, and the Artist inclined his head to my father. With a swirl of his cloak he was gone, leaving my father alone in the cold.
I scooped up my book again and scurried for my room. I didn't want to be in the sitting room when my father came in.
The sky was slate gray when I said good bye to my mother. The first flakes of snow floated down, spots of white swirling overhead, as I kissed her goodbye. I pulled my hood up over my head, and stepped out into the cold. I went to the end of the walk, and turned back. In the somber gray and brown, the open door of my kitchen glowed welcoming reds and oranges like a beacon. My father held my mother in his arms for one brief moment before leaving the warmth behind.
As he joined me at the roadside, he turned to wave once. My mother raised her hand in farewell. We turned, and walked down the street toward the edge of town. We passed homes with windows alight with the fires inside. I saw no shadows at the panes, watching as we went. No one had come to see us off, but this didn't surprise me. It was cold. I pulled my gloves higher up over my wrists, and followed as my father took the lead.
The homes faded into pine and cedar as we left the outskirts of town, and despite the hour it was dark as twilight. It was not yet noon, but the angry clouds overhead blotted out the sun. In the first hour, the snow increased. Soon I could feel it piling up in the folds of my winter gear, and stacking up on the pack I wore on my back. I thought of the warm fires at home, and the silhouette of my mother in the doorway. I was heading into a wintry freeze for a future I didn't want.
I huddled in my hood, watching the laboring back of my father a few steps ahead. His foul-weather gear was old, unlike mine. It was a remnant of his own journey to the Academy; he had taken care of them, and worn them only rarely since his return home. They were worn, nonetheless, but he seemed to think they would be sufficient. Either that, or the purchase of materials for my own gear had so depleted their funds that they couldn't afford anything more. This brought another sigh. All of this effort and sacrifice for something I didn't want — would never want. It seemed such a waste. All the things my mother and father could have done with the money that had gone into this stupid journey.
I stumbled, and fell to my knees with a grunt.
"Mizna?" My father turned around. "Are you all right?"
I struggled to a half-kneeling position under my burdens, and brushed off what snow hadn't already melted and soaked through my trousers. "I'm fine," I called back. "Just tripped."
He turned to come back. "No, I'm fine, don't worry about me," I said, waving him off. He ignored me, and trudged through the snow to offer me his hand. I took it with a sigh, and he hauled me upright with surprising strength.
The wind blew in a gust, tossing up the snow in a cloud as I found my footing. While I had been ruminating over my situation, the storm had increased its fury.
"It's getting pretty bad," my father said, squinting skyward. "Maybe we'd better stop soon."
"We haven't gone very far," I said. We had to yell to be heard over the wind.
"If it gets any worse we'll get lost, and that won't do us any good," he replied. "We're a few miles from town. Even in this, if we can find our way, we should be up in the pass tomorrow or the next day."
"So you want to wait and see if it clears up?" I asked. "What if it doesn't?"
"Then we find our way tomorrow, snow and wind or not."
The wind screeched in the silence before I answered. "Where are we going to stop?" I asked, defeated.
"We'll go until we find somewhere a little more sheltered," he answered. "Then we'll set up camp."
I nodded, and he turned to continue on up the road to the pass. If that's what he wanted to do, then I wasn't going to argue. I might complain a little, though. We had been climbing a gentle slope, and the snow had deepened to such an extent that snow had managed to work its way down into my boots from my fall. It had melted there, making my feet damp and cold.
"Will we be able to light a fire?" I asked.
"Maybe," he said. "If we can find some wood that's not too wet to light."
Not too wet to light? I looked around. There wasn't a dry twig in sight. I sighed. There wasn't anything I could do about it now.
I huddled in my jacket, watching my father work.
We had stopped by the side of the road and gone a few yards into the trees so we would be sheltered from the driving wind and snow. The snow was still thin enough that he was able to shove it to one side, and he was currently stacking the wood we had gathered in the center of the depression. He was bent over the stack and working with his flint and steel. He had ripped a few pages from a book in his pack, and was trying to light them.
I had offered to help, but he had set me to work clearing space for us to pitch our tent. I had already done this, piling the snow in a semblance of a wall to offer some sort of windbreak in addition to the trees. I had even struggled alone through the pitching of the tent. And still he bent over the unlit fire.
So I had crawled inside the low tent and set up our brazier, ready and waiting for solid fuel and flame.
My fingers had gone tingly when he let out a shout of triumph. A tiny tongue of flame was eagerly devouring the paper as he added a few leaves, and then small twigs, to fuel it. The mound of snow around the fire protected it from the wind, and it continued to grow.
With a sigh of relief, I stood up and walked closer. He shifted to one side so I could join him, and I held my hands out to the tiny glow. The heat was barely perceptible from that distance, but any heat at all felt like a boon to my fingers. I curled and uncurled them as my father continued to add wood in larger and larger chunks.
"We should be all right for a while," my father said, looking at the trees above, screening the gray sky with dark green and brown patterns.
"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" I asked.
"At least until the snow slows some," he answered. "Getting lost in this would be a fatal mistake."
I nodded I understood.
The snow continued all day, which I only realized was ending when I could no longer see my own hands when I held them away from the glow of the brazier. When I opened the tent flap a crack I could see that snow still spiraled from the sky, but the wind had lessened, so that it landed like feathers rather than spinning like hailstones. The wind had died completely now, and the moon could be seen through patches of cloud as they moved across the sky. The pale light illuminated the fallen snow and trees, making it look like a surreal painting done in black and white. I felt the stirring desire to put the image down on paper, and promptly released the flap of the tent. I didn't want to draw. Not really. A tiny voice in the back of my mind whispered that I wanted to capture the moment because it was beautiful. I huddled in on myself, thinking that the warmth of my mother's fire was far more beautiful than any frozen thing, but the tiny voice continued to whisper.
The next morning dawned bright and cold, and we left before the gray of the sky had fully faded to the pink and gold of sunrise. We cleaned up our campsite and packed our tent with chilled fingers, and then set off down the road once more. The storm had stopped, leaving the forest looking as if it had been dusted liberally in sugar.
I don't know how long we trudged through the snow, only that I wished we were going in the opposite direction — home. My clothes grew damp again quickly, and they chaffed at my skin. My boots were heavy, the soles uneven with snow clumped to the bottom. I had to pause every few steps and shake the ice loose.
We ate a quick, cold lunch around noon, and pressed on toward the pass. When we finally stopped, my nose had gone numb, my hands were shaking in my gloves, and the moon had risen. I had been so studiously not looking at the snow and moon, and ignoring the desire to capture the images on paper, that I ran into my father.
"Are we stopping?" I asked, catching myself on his coat.
"Yes," he said, a ghost of a smile flitting across his face when he saw my relief. "Let's go this way," he added, pointing to one side of the road.
As I turned to follow him, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and I stopped.
We had been climbing into the mountains steadily for some time, and I could see the village spread out below. My breath caught. The mountains circled the village like protective arms, and every tiny house within was alight. Golden beams fell from each window so that the valley looked like a crowd of gleaming fireflies.
I stared for a moment, forgetting my determination to completely ignore anything that might inspire artistic expression.
"Mizna?" my father asked, his eyebrows cocked in a question.
"Coming," I said, turning from the sight. As I tore my eyes away, it was like a physical pain. But as I followed my father into the trees to set up camp once more, I could see it in my head, every tiny detail. I knew that if I wanted, I could replicate it exactly. I could almost feel the pencil in my hand as I pitched our tent.
I caught glimpses of the village through the trees as I worked; it was framed by snow-covered branches glistening in the moonlight. Even when my face was turned away, the image seared like a brand, and I knew I was lost.
The instant camp was set up, I sought out a mostly sheltered place under a tree, scraped the ground clear of snow, and fished my blank book from my pack. With numb fingers I retrieved my ink, and set it by the fire.
My father watched in silence as I waited for the ink to thaw.
When it was ready, I flipped the book open, and began to draw.
The image in my head leaked out onto the paper, bit by bit. It was rough, I could see, but it captured what I had seen. It was no more than a sketch, and something that hadn't occurred to me before appeared in my mind as a half-formed thought. At the university, they would teach me to perfect this. My hands stilled after completing the final tree. At the university, I could learn to paint. To use colors. I bit my lip. If I could just add some deep blue to the night sky...no!
No, I thought. This was good enough.
"If you smudged this bit, here, it would look more natural."
I jumped, and the pen fell from my hand, splattering ink over the snow. My father was leaning over my shoulder, watching. How long had he been standing there?
"I didn't mean to startle you," he said, abashed. "I should have remembered..."
"Remembered what?" I asked quickly, turning my book so the picture was obscured.
"How easy it is to get caught up in your art, when there's an image begging to be made," he said. "Sometimes, a picture just sticks there, and it won't let you rest. It's a strange compulsion, and hard to resist," he added with a faint smile.
He returned to his place tending the fire, leaving me alone with my drawing. I checked to make sure he was thoroughly involved in the fire, and then held my book out at arms' length. The scene was spread over two pages, and smudged where my hand had rubbed the ink where it wasn't quite dry.
I sighed. It was close enough to recall what it had actually looked like, but it wasn't as close as I'd hoped. That branch was up too high, this one had too many needles. The snow didn't sparkle, and the moon didn't shine. The houses and their lights had no warmth.
I snapped my book shut, not bothering to make sure the ink was dry, and retrieved my pen from where I dropped it. I shoved all my things back into my bag, and huddled into my coat.
A tear trickled down my cheek, and I brushed it away impatiently. Stop crying, I ordered. It's a picture that didn't turn out the way you wanted it. It's not a tragedy.
Our meal that night was a silent one, like much of the journey so far had been. It weighed like a wet blanket; a secondary layer of quiet over the snow. I didn't break the silence, and wasn't certain I wanted to. So I made to curl up and sleep without saying a word.
"Mizna, would you like me to teach you some of what you'll be learning at the academy tonight?" My father's voice cut through the night.
"I...no. Not really," I managed, my back to him.
"Oh," he said. "Very well."
I thought I detected a faint sadness in his voice, but I did not turn to see if his expression revealed more. Instead, I wrapped myself up and closed my eyes.
"A chill swept down my spine. Is this how the Artists expired? My eyes widened, and I felt myself leaning backward."
My eyes flipped open, my body thrumming with adrenaline. I froze. Something had awakened me from a deep sleep, but I didn't know what it was.
My eyes met the dark weave of the tent, tinted red by the brazier. The faint glow of the fire was a dim, warm presence off to one side. I strained my ears for any sound, but nothing broke the frozen silence. I had just begun to relax, lulled by the warmth of my clothing and the fire, when a sound like a whipcrack in the quiet snapped through the air.
My body went rigid once more as I threw myself into a sitting position, looking toward the fastened tent flap, my heart pounding.
"Father!" I hissed. The dark lump on the other side of the fire stirred as he sat up, bleary-eyed.
"What is it?" he asked. I opened my mouth to answer, but the snapping sound repeated — and continued. My father turned wide eyes on me, and then struggled to his feet, picking up his gnarled walking stick and holding it across his body like a weapon as he unfastened the tent flap and threw it wide.
"Who's there?" he called out into the night.
The crackling intensified, and I recognized the rhythm of footsteps.
"Someone's coming," I said in a whisper.
"Who would be out in this weather?" my father asked, also in a whisper. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and point out that only people who were crazy, like us, would be out in this.
"Who's there?" he repeated.
I stood up slowly, wondering why I didn't have something to defend myself with. My hands felt frighteningly empty, so I clenched them into fists. I knew how to throw a punch, at least. I made to join my father at the tent opening, but he held his arm out to stop me. I could see the trees over his shoulder, and the gleam of the moon on fresh snow.
"Who...who is that?" came a weak voice from the western side of our campsite. An instant later, a figure shrouded in a ragged cloak stumbled out of the trees. He stood there for a moment, shivering. Under his hood I could see the shining silver of a beard, and a bulbous nose. He took another step closer, and his legs gave out.
"Please," he said, his voice breathy and cracking. "Please, I need help."
My father and I exchanged glances, and then my father left the tent. I noticed that, though my father wore a look of concern on his face, he neither relinquished his walking stick, nor relaxed his rigid stance. The man sounded weak, and though he wore a cloak, I could see that he was not dressed nearly warm enough for the weather.
My father helped the man to an upright sitting position — and let out a cry as his stick dropped to the snow.
"Mergall!" my father exclaimed.
"Fortez, my friend," the man replied, sounding relieved, holding tightly to a cloth-wrapped package in his arms. "I am glad I found you. Your wife — she said you had gone this way."
"Mergall, what are you doing so far north? You're going to catch your death out here — especially dressed like that!"
As he spoke, he ushered Mergall into the tent, brushing past me. He settled the elderly man near the brazier, and draped a blanket around his shoulder. I fastened the ten flap once more.
"I have already caught my death," Mergall said. He didn't touch the blanket my father gave him, only clutched the package in his arms more firmly.
"Father," I said. "What's going on?" I looked from one man to the other, my brow puckered.
"This is an old friend of mine from the academy," my father said. "Mergall and I were in the...the same year."
I looked closer at the portion of Mergall's face that was visible, and looked back to my father. "I don't understand," I said. Mergall's face was creased with wrinkles, and the skin of his cheeks and and jaw were sagging. His bare hands were veined and spotted with age.
"I'm an Artist," Mergall said with a wheeze. "I've almost completed my Masterpiece."
A chill swept down my spine. Is this how the Artists expired? My eyes widened, and I felt myself leaning backward.
"But that doesn't explain why you're here," my father persisted, unaware of my reaction. "I'll get you something warm to eat, but you should explain."
As my father bustled around the tent, gathering the various food items we had put away earlier, Mergall shrugged deeper into the folds of the blanket, and, without releasing his bundle, began to speak.
"Fortez, I need your help."
"It is yours," my father said. "Of course."
"No, Fortez, you don't understand," Mergall said. "I'm dying, and I need you to take my masterpiece to the academy. It can't stay in the south!" At these last words, he bent double, wracked with a cough that sounded wet and unpleasant.
"That's where we're going," I said hesitantly.
"Of course we can take it with us," my father said, setting a kettle and tripod over the fire. His voice was pitched like he was talking to a frightened child. I'd heard that tone before. But unlike when I was young, I could hear the undertone as well. His back was taut as a bowstring.
"No, no, you don't understand. You have to leave, Fortez. We're all in terrible danger."
Was he delirious? I glanced at my father, who was still calmly preparing warm food for his friend.
"All right, then, why don't you tell us about it, from beginning to end?"
The food set to warm, he settled next to his friend. I watched from the other side of the fire as the Artist loosened his grip on his bundle, and set it on the ground before him. As he unwrapped it, I realized that it had been better prepared for rough weather than he. As the various layers fell off, I saw a large tome, thick as my wrist and with covers of carved wood. It was huge. Opened, it would have covered my lap with an overhang of several inches to either side.
"A book, Mergall?" my father asked, drawing his brows together in confusion. "When last we met, you were a stargazer, an astronomer."
"To that I hold," Mergall said. "This is all the knowledge I have accrued in my time in the south. It has taken me many years, and I now have but the final pages to complete before I go to my death. I have delayed it as long as possible, but my fingers ache. I must finish either tonight or tomorrow. I cannot stand the fire in my bones. It consumes me from the inside out."
As he spoke, his eyes seemed to burn with fire and passion, but, the brief moment over, he slumped once more.
I clasped my hands together in my lap; they were shaking. Was that what it was like? Would I become a shell of my former self when the time came? Would I be reduced to a doddering old woman, prolonging the inevitable in the hope my life force would have been spent in a way that might benefit others?
"Why do you flee?" my father asked gently.
"Far to the south, in the cities of Marmoth-Tal, there was a religious sect who waited for a heavenly body to appear. Their legends state that it was powerful in ways our peoples have forgotten. It was said-" here he lowered his voice "-that when this heavenly body is in the sky, those who know how can harness its power and learn sorcery."
There was a moment of silence where all that could be heard was the crackling of the fire, and the falling of snowdrifts deep in the woods.
"Some of the ancient sects haven't died out," Mergall continued. "They are weaker than they were. They remember the legend, but don't know when it will appear. During the Southern Wars, that piece of information was lost to them. I was able to discover the time of its return based on other records — astronomical records. I've calculated it to within twelve hours. Somehow a sect of Marmoth-Tal discovered this, and I have been running ever since."
"Which sect?" my father asked. "Who's hunting you?"
Mergall stared at my father for a moment before speaking. "The Falye," he said at last. "The fallen kings of Marmoth-Tal."
"The people call them Marth," my father said.
"Death," Mergall translated.
The silence was filled with the crackling of the flames, and the rustling of bedding as I shifted uncomfortably. I seemed to have been forgotten. Mergall might not be aware that I had no idea what he was talking about, but my father knew all too well the shortcomings in my education. I recognized the name Marmoth-Tal, but Falye was strange to me.
Surely Mergall had come unhinged? He certainly looked mad, his bright, fevered eyes fastened on my father as his restless fingers plucked at his book.
"And you think they'll kill you for this piece of information?" my father asked at last.
"They will," Mergall said. "I have reason to believe that the accusations of witchcraft and spirit dabbling that ended their reign are connected to this heavenly body. Were they to learn a way to track it through the heavens, they would be returned to power."
There was another silence, filled with the crackling of the fire.
"The Falye wouldn't be hunting you in this, surely," my father said at last, waving vaguely. "They're a desert people. They have no experience with cold, or snow. Mergall?" The fading man was shaking his head.
"They will follow me," Mergall said. "Even through the snow. It might buy some time, but very little."
"What is it you want us to do?" my father asked cautiously.
"Take this book. When I've finished, take it to the academy. It will be safe there. I would take it myself and spare you the danger, but my time is running out in more ways than one." Mergall's lips twisted. "My fingers itch, Fortez. I won't be able to take it for much longer. I'll have to finish, and then..."
My father nodded quietly. Mergall clutched the blanket around his shoulders, and closed his eyes. My father looked up at me and cocked an eyebrow. 'Do you believe him?' he seemed to ask. I shook my head.
Surely his friend was raving? This couldn't be true. Why would some...sect...from the south be after a book? He had to have found the information somewhere, and that meant they would have been able to get it without hunting him this far north.
"We'll do it, Mergall," my father said. "Just finish it, and don't worry. We're going that direction anyway."
"You don't believe me," Mergall wheezed. "This is dangerous, and you don't understand."
“No,” my father said gently. “I don't. But we'll take your book safely to the Academy.”
Mergall stared at my father, and I wondered what he was thinking. He looked quite mad, and I wished my father would wave him back to the village. Someone there could care for him, and we could take his book, like my father had promised. I felt as if I was an intruder in a scene from a play to which I had lost my lines.
“You will be in danger,” Mergall said weakly, as if he couldn't understand my father's willingness.
“Finish your Masterpiece, Mergall,” my father said. “We'll see it gets safely where it needs to be. And if there are Falye pursuing you, then we should be able to shake them off this far north. I know the land, I know the weather, and we're prepared for it. They won't be. Rest easy, old friend.”
Mergall licked his lips, and then, slowly, he sighed. “Have you pen and ink?” he asked. My father nodded, and turned to me. I fumbled with my pack, thrusting my hands inside, looking for the smooth chill of my ink bottle. When my fingers found it, and the pen close by, I pulled them from my pack and set them in my father's waiting palm. The dying fire shone a red gleam on the bottle, and it looked like blood.
They thawed the ink by the fire as I stacked more wood atop the coals. Once it had thawed properly, Mergall opened the book across his knees, a reverent expression on his cragged face. He took my pen in his hand, filled it with ink, and began to write.
My father sat down beside me, and watched in silence as Mergall's hand traced words, sentences, across the parchment. He wrote so feverishly that the scratching of the pen sounded like sandpaper on wood, and I wondered how badly his handwriting would appear when he had finished.
I don't know how long we sat and watched Mergall write, only that I had to add wood to the brazier before he set down my pen.
“It's finished,” he said softly. “Fortez?”
“Will you help me outside?”
In only the last few moments, the wrinkles on his papery skin had deepened. His voice was weaker, raspy, and his hands shook like dead leaves in a chill wind as my father took them and heaved his friend to his feet. He opened the tent flap and the two men stepped outside into the darkness.
I appeared to have been forgotten, and laced my fingers together in my lap. I suspected Mergall was going to his death any moment, though, and decided not to follow. His glazed expression and aged skin haunted my memory as it was. I shook my head to rid myself of it, and my glance landed on the book my father had given me. I had dumped it on the ground in the search for pen and ink, and it lay now, open, with flickering red light dancing across its pages.
I picked it up, and looked at my drawing. The determined, crazed expression on Mergall's face as he wrote flashed in my mind's eye, and suddenly I felt sick. I ripped the pages violently from the book and tossed them into the brazier. Perhaps I acted too hastily, without real thought, but it was too late now. The spidery lines of the trees vanished in gold and red flame.
I was still staring at the curled, blackened paper when my father returned – alone.
“He's gone,” Fortez said softly.
“Why didn't you send him back to the village?” I asked.
“He never would have made it,” my father replied. He would not meet my eyes, though I watched him as he sank back onto the place where had slept. He looked at his hands, as though seeing them for the first time. “I was years older than Mergall when we took classes together,” he said to himself.
And at the end, I thought, he looked old enough to be your grandfather. I shivered, and the sparks from my burned drawing rose from the brazier. I fancied they were like my own pleasant memories, tiny bright flecks in the air, but ultimately their light extinguished by smoke.
“What are we going to do now?” I asked softly.
“We'll leave him here,” my father said, rousing a bit from his stupor. “When we arrive at the academy we'll send word to the village so he can be given a proper burial.”
Margall's book, still open, drew my eyes. “And that?” I asked, nodding at it.
“We'll take it with us,” Fortez said. My father sounded very tired, and there was a weary look in his eyes I had never seen before.
“What about the-the-” my tongue stuttered over the unfamiliar word “Falye?”
“We'll keep our word,” my father said, his voice stronger now. “Artists near the end of their life can hallucinate, especially if they try to delay the completion of their Masterpiece.” He paused here, frowning. “I don't think everything he said was madness.”
“He was raving,” I said. Perhaps the words were more hope, wishful thinking, than truth.
“He certainly sounded like it,” my father replied. “But why else would he have put off finishing his work? He would not have been mad before the delay. Something made him do that.”
“You think there really is some murderous religious sect after this?” I asked. My voice rose in pitch, and my father looked up at me.
“I think it's possible,” he said.
I stared at him. “Then what are we going to do?” I asked helplessly.
“We'll sleep through the night and leave early in the morning,” he said.
“That's it?” I asked.
“We'll decide what to do in the morning,” he said. “We can make better decisions after a good night's rest.”
I wanted to object, but I also knew he was right. We would make better decisions. But I had discovered a vat of simmering panic somewhere in the region of my stomach. He thought the Falye might be after Mergall's book. The Falye were an apparently dangerous religious sect that people called Death. And we had Mergall's book. Not only did we have this book that Mergall said they were willing to kill for, but we were just going to curl up and sleep while they hunted for it.
I, naturally, did not much like this plan. What if they found us?
I gave myself a shake. He was crazy, I told myself. But I must not have believed it, because my father curled up and fell right asleep, but I sat awake, staring at the walls of the tent, illuminated by moonlight, and jumping at small sounds. I finally drifted into an uneasy sleep sometime around dawn. I dreamed fitfully, an image of myself aging rapidly while I started at myself in a mirror was interrupted by my father shaking me awake.
“Start packing up,” he said in a whisper. “I'll get breakfast.”
I nodded, and he went to stoke the brazier for cooking. I gathered together my bedding, rolling it tightly and putting it safely in my pack. I hesitated when it came time to pack my pen and ink. These had last been touched by a man who was now dead. I pushed down the superstitious feeling and put them in my pack anyway. That left Mergall's book. It was lying, open, as he ad left it.
I picked it up, and the wrappings Mergall had kept it in fell off in pieces. It weighed
heavy in my hands, and I could feel the grain of carved wood against my skin. I closed it for a better look at the cover. It was a deep, rich mahogony, smooth as silk. It had a gleaming pearl in the center, and the wood around it was carved like ripples in still water. The gleam of the wood caught the firelight, making it seem to have depth, as if I could dip my fingers into it. I ran my fingers across the cover, and found myself tucking the tome into my pack with my bedding.
My father handed me a bowl of hot cereal a moment later. He saw the book in my pack, but said nothing.
“We're going to behave as if we're being chased,” he said as we finished our meal. “That way, if we are, there will be less chance of us getting caught. Better to rush and not need to than to take our time and be caught.”
I wanted to point out that we'd already lost hours of time in the delay it took him to choose this strategy, but kept my mouth shut. Instead, I moved about our tent, gathering our gear and packing it safely.
We set out as the sun peeked over the pine trees, casting a blinding reflection off the snow.
Our first few hours went without incident as we were finally able to make decent time. The sun, free from the clouds, warmed the air and earth enough that the snow began to melt, and we no longer had to brace against the wind.
We were nearly to the pass when it happened.
We had stopped for a brief rest before we pressed on through the pass and down the mountainside. My father was a little ahead of me, scanning the road ahead, and I was leaning against the rough bark of a towering pine. The melting snow had mixed with the earth and made a sticky mud that clung to my boots. I was scraping the mud from the soles with a stick when I heard a strange sound, like the buzzing of a very angry bee.
I looked up, puzzled.
“Mizna! Run!” my father yelled. In that instant something long and thin thunked into the wood inches from my face. I reeled away from the tree with a strangled gasp.
The forest erupted around me.
Figures cloaked in black rushed from the trees. One carried a long, curved staff – no – it was a bow. With a terrible lurch of my stomach I realized he had shot at me.
I, of course, couldn't figure out which direction was “away.” There were figures everywhere, holding flashes of light in their hands — knives – and grimaces on their faces. They swarmed out of the trees behind us. I saw a flash of color from the corner of my eye, but I could not look away from the archer. As if in slow motion, he pulled another arrow from the quiver strapped to his back, and fitted it to his bow. I could feel his piercing gaze on me, and I knew with chill certainty that I was his target. My father was further away – I would be the easier mark.
I wouldn't be able to get away in time. My breathing increased in speed until it sounded like a hurricane in my ears. I was going to die. I'd never get to see my mother again, I'd never even have a Masterpiece to show for my death -
Something hard fastened around my arm and yanked me backward. I stumbled over a fallen log as I struggled to right myself, tree branches flashing by as my feet sank into cold, wet puddles of melting snow. I fell awkwardly to my knees, spending up a splash of mud. I couldn't hear over the pounding of my heart as I was yanked to my feet.
At last, able to see where I was going, I could run. My father's hunched form hurtled through the trees, dragging me into the woods. His hand was clamped around my upper arm, ensuring I did not slow. Arrows whizzed through the air, and my father zigzagged through the underbrush, trying to avoid them.
Mergall hadn't been mad, I thought as I tried to keep up with my father. Mergall had been telling the truth.
My breath huffed in my ears like a bellows. My legs and lungs burned, twin pains informing me that my body had not been prepared for this. But the arrows still flew. If I slowed down or stopped, surely they'd be right on us. I pushed my legs harder, gasping for breath as my father's grip tightened on my wrist.
“Don't slow down,” he ordered.
A tree branch slapped me in the face, dumping slushy snow into my eyes. I tripped clumsily after my father and tried to swipe the snow from my face. My father's grip changed suddenly, and he started pulling me sideways.
“Turn, turn,” he said, a frantic tone in his voice. He grabbed my wrist with both of his hands and tugged.
That was when I noticed the ground giving way beneath my feet. My eyes flew open in spite of the snow. I looked out across an expanse of snowy forest. Below my feet – far, far below, ran an iron gray line – a river.
The world tilted.
My father cried out, and I dropped.
There was a searing pain in my shoulder, and for a moment I couldn't feel my father's hand on my wrist. The pain in my arm overwhelmed everything else. But I realized, through the haze of pain, that I was no longer dropping.
I was dangling by one arm down the side of the cliff, my father's hand wrapped tightly around my wrist. I looked up, and the motion radiated downward into my shoulder. I couldn't stop the groan.
My father was on his belly, his shoulders out over the ledge. He grimaced in pain.
“I've been hit,” he gasped. He looked down into my face. Don't let me fall, I wanted to say. I could hear the sounds of the Falye approaching through the woods, footsteps: the crunching of ice, and the soft sliding sound of displaced snow.
There was panic in my father's eyes.
“You have the book?” he asked in a whisper.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Mizna, they're coming,” he said. “I can't pull you up, I'm not strong enough.” He was speaking quickly, in a whisper. “There's a gentler slope, I'm going to try and swing you that way,” he said.
“What?” I asked, my voice a screech.
“Mizna, please.” I met his eyes. “I can't protect you up here. They'll kill you for sure. You'll have a chance, if I can just...”
I was shaking badly by now, my teeth chattering together. Was he going to drop me?
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
I stared up into his face for what seemed a very long time.
“Yes,” I said at last.
“You must try to land on your feet,” he said. “Keep your knees bent, and cover your head.” I nodded, a little jerk that sent pain through my shoulder. “I'll be swinging you to your right. Try to find a place to land.”
He didn't wait for my reaction. He started moving his arm, swinging it back and forth. I ground my teeth together to keep from crying out at the pressure on my arm, and looked instead for a place to land.
“Look for Merwent,” he said. “Follow the river. He shouldn't be that far ahead of us.”
I was swinging wider now, and the pain from my arm and shoulder were making my eyes water. I wiped the tears away, and saw the slope he'd mentioned.
“Try to roll further down,” he said. “So it looks like you've fallen. When they get here, pretend you've died from the fall. That should buy you some time.”
I heard a shout. My father looked over his shoulder, and when he turned back, I saw that a tear had streaked down his cheek.
“I love you,” he said.
Then he let go.