I’d like to make a brief digression, if you’ll allow.
I do not like violence. I have never believed that we ought to rule over each other with mere might. In practical terms, we create better lives for each other if we live in a more peaceful sort of society. But it is also Ae’s teachings. It is a matter of right and wrong. She has given us words for those who those who dominate others with violence, unrestrained by anything but the practical limits of their strength: cruel. Cynical. Unjust. Evil.
But a Court Wizard is a ruler’s source of general wisdom (hence the name), and ultimately, no ruler, just or unjust, rules but for some strength of arms. And so, war is a wizard’s domain as much as astronomy and alchemy are. Blood, fear, and passion are as important to our work as lunar cycles and soil nutrition.
I have learned a few important things from my study of war. Among them: in the heat of the moment, strike first. Battles can be turned by the smallest, pettiest, and stupidest of circumstances, and if surprise might tilt one of those circumstances in your favor it must be gained.
Piear was going to see the child, he was going to see horns and a tail, and he was going to try to kill me. He had armed himself for a reason, and it wasn’t to have tea. So while his eyes panned over the little room over my shoulder, I practically shouted the words of power in his face, and I held in the center of my mind the relative positions of six stars in the night sky and their meaning. I extended my right hand, fingers inches from his nose, and brought into being a circular boundary of force.
The Shield spell is an abjuration meant to repel spears, clubs, and arrows and the like, but it can abjure human faces almost just as well. Piear let out a staccato grunt, staggered three paces backward, and fell as if a horse had kicked him in the chest.
He fell just past Jan, armored in a similar vest of chain. She, too, held a steel sword, this one chipped and dented by years of use, and advanced in a low fighting stance.
I yelped and held up the shield, which would protect me for another few seconds. I shot a glance over my shoulder. I was looking for Mal, but I saw only a blur behind me. A battle cry and an echo of a scraping sensation felt on my palms cued me that Jan’s blade had slid down across my shield, and I was forced to face forward to meet a possible upswing.
As I did, Jan swung a fist around the shield, turning on the same momentum she had used in the failed sword stroke. I did the only thing that made sense. I hunched behind the little disk of force and barreled forward into Jan, making her hooked punch miss behind me. The invisible shield contacted just below her ribcage, and we both started tumbling toward the trees.
I landed on top of her in a clink of chain, my magic shield spent. Behind me, I heard indistinct shouting. I was worried that it might’ve been Mal casting a spell, but I had no time to give it any more thought. I flailed my left hand, trying to pin down Jan’s sword arm and maybe wrest her weapon from her. Instead, the hilt suddenly came up and smacked me in the forehead. I saw stars. Rather than let that happen again, I threw a forearm sloppily into Jan’s face to blind her, and in an awkward tangle of limbs and robes I scrambled to my feet while trying to protect my face and abdomen from my adversary’s kicks and thrown elbows.
By the time I was on my feet, Piear was, too. He was wiping blood from his lips with the leather cuff of his chain sleeve and leveling a hard, malevolent stare on me.
“I knew you were hiding something, wizard,” he growled.
I met his eyes, and I took two measured steps away from Jan as she rolled up on to her feet.
“Piear, it’s rude to show up on a citizen’s doorstep with bared steel,” I deflected.
I took stock. I had forced the fight out of the doorway. But that might have just served to allow them to better surround me. I didn’t have any weapons. I could manifest the shield again, but they’d seen it now and, worse, they could just cut me apart from both ends. Talking was good. It bought me time to think. And to listen.
“I had good reason to, wretch!” he bellowed. “You’re in league with the witch. You’re in league with the demon!”
I made a vaguely appeasing gesture with my open hands. “Piear.” I paused, listening. “Jan. I was surprised, is all. We can talk about this.”
Piear lowered his voice to a dull thundering. “I don’t trust you.” He seemed to consider for just a moment. I strained my ears ever harder. Jan shouted over. “No! Kill him. We can’t.”
I sensed an opportunity, and I wedged into it. “Piear, arrest me if you have to. We’ve both acted rashly, but we can settle this and laugh about it later.”
Jan cut in immediately. “Absolutely not! You’ll just work some of your demon magic again.” But she did not advance. There was a silence.
I took that to be good news.
Piear opened his mouth to speak, but I beat him to it. I slipped my hand into my satchel and my fingers found a tiny sparrow’s feather. I filled my mind with the rushing wind, and mentally swept the feather into the maelstrom, shouting into the woods a full sentence of ancient words first recorded well over a millenia ago.
I had taken the wind for my own.
I shot out from between Jan and Piear and practically tumbled head-first into the tree line, my legs thundering along faster than any athlete’s. I swatted branches and webs and bushes out of my way in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy. I hooked around an ancient maple tree and nearly flew down a leaf-strewn hill. I mean it. I barely stopped my fall at the end, which would’ve broken bones and rendered the entire exercise for naught.
After that, I slowed down. A light jog was still fast enough to outrun most anyone, to say nothing of my pair of winded adversaries wearing armor and toting swords. And at a light jog I could pick over the terrain a little bit more safely.
Eventually, I decided that I had gotten far enough away. I was in a thick, unremarkable slice of woodland, dense with trees and most inconvenient for human traversal. The ground was thick with gnarled roots, almost more wood than dirt, and the stars were invisible through the canopy. I picked a comfortable-looking tree and plopped down beneath it on the side opposite the one facing my approach. I rearranged my robe and satchel and then did my best to relax and sit still, at which point I became aware of how hard I was breathing and felt a painful rush of sensation in my limbs.
I forced my thoughts out of my now-aching legs and into my ears. Once more, I listened as night closed in around me.
I heard many things. I heard the breeze through the branches steadily build into a steady, firm easterly wind. I heard the dainty hoofbeats of deer browsing somewhere in the distance. I heard the whoosh of birds and the crackle of some kind of insect.
The rush of my flight soon left me, and I slid quickly into a long-overdue sleep.
I dreamt of running. Worry. Thrill. Fear.
Several hours later, I started, having finally heard what I had been listening for: a gentle, high-pitched hoot. My heart surged with relief.
The little owl poked its head out from within the tree above. Even in the deep darkness of the night the creature’s pale coloration was plain, framing its sharp little eyes.
“Hi, Spook,” I whispered.
Spook shot off with the abrupt grace that is unique to birds of prey. He returned, half an hour later, alighting atop one of my peaked knees.
“I’m glad to see you too. Here.”
I popped open my satchel, grateful that I didn’t have to move to open it, and I found an earthworm. I offered it to the little owl, which eagerly plucked it from my fingers. He gobbled it up and then tilted his little head as if to inquire further.
“Mal has gotten into trouble this time, hasn’t she?” I asked. “And she’s taken me with her…”
“Not that I mind. I mean, I mind it I suppose, but…”
“Look, it’s an inconvenience; I won’t deny it. But I’m always happy to help her.”
I heard crunching from nearby and turned a little to face it. Mal had arrived, leading Naht nimbly through the tangled foliage. Naht looked a little cut up, but it was just nicks and scratches from working through the deep woods.
Spook bobbed his head, and then he took off (well, more of an exaggerated bird-jump, really) and perched on Mal’s shoulder.
She crouched down beside me. “Are you hurt?”
“No. Either of you?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then we both began speaking at the same time.
“Looks like I’m coming with you.” “You didn’t need to do that.”
“Do what?” “Wait, are you?”
“You first,” I chuckled.
Mal took a quick look around and lowered herself fully to the ground, indicating for Naht to do the same with a gentle tug of the wrist.
“I knew to trust you in the moment, but I still don’t know why you sucker punched Piear like that.”
“Mal,” I pouted, “that wasn’t a sucker punch. It was a complicated abjuration that I really rather cleverly adapted in the moment into an offensive weapon. You wound me.”
She punched my shoulder. I snickered.
“Ow. Okay. Piear thought, specifically, you had brought a demon into his town. He had already told me he didn’t trust me. He had his blade in hand at the door. If he saw Naht… I didn’t want to take that chance.”
“You’re too unforgiving, Howe,” she asserted.
“Well, I was the one who was going to be cut down first if I was wrong,” I replied.
“At any rate,” she waved a hand in dismissal. “It worked, so I shan’t complain.”
“How did you get out?” I asked. “I was listening for you. Might’ve heard you cast a spell, but nothing afterward.”
“Oh! You wouldn’t approve.”
Spook gave a hoot.
“Hah. I’m just kidding. I used a wayfinding to take Naht and myself out through the back without making a ton of noise.”
I blinked. She had a strange terminology, but wayfinding wasn’t too hard to suss out. It was probably one of several spells that would let her move around the normal extent of space for a short distance. Which is to say, through walls. But I hadn’t ever seen her do it, nor had I imagined she could take someone with her.
“I’m good, right?” she beamed, sensing my surprise.
“You are.” I locked eyes with Naht and gestured lazily with my eyebrows. “She’s good. She won’t let you forget it, though.”
Mal swatted at me, and then her expression shifted. “One thing is still bothering me. Why a demon, specifically? I don’t think anybody has seen enough of Naht to mistake him for one.”
I frowned. I hadn’t actually considered that since meeting the child. “Hmm. Piear said they saw fires burning brighter when you were around. They had the courthouse boarded up so they could watch the candles rise and fall.”
Mal laughed. “Oh. Yes. I’ve had a warm breeze following me around since I tried a simple calling a month or so back. It has that effect on fires. Sometimes just blows candles out, though.”
“I had guessed,” I confirmed, but then I shook my head. “But that’s not all. Mal, have you been having bad dreams lately?”
Spook gave a hoot. Naht offered, “I… I have. I’m always running from something bad.”
Mal and I locked eyes. I began to scamper to my feet over the objections of my screaming muscles. Mal leaned down to speak to Naht, in the calmest voice she could muster.
“Naht, we need to keep going. Stay close, please.”