Doe was humming to herself, a habit that she had tried to learn to avoid, as she wound the woolen hairs into the mass of the grubby string.
The late afternoon was starting to slowly colour the mountains with shadow, though the sun was far from reddening the sky. The air was moist and a bit cold, mirroring the wet earth that was being uncovered from its cloak of white. Rivulets of water ran here and there, randomly spurred downward by the unpredictable topography of the valley, and ended up in pools of brown water or, more likely, as a trampled mush of mud patterned with hard four-toed foot-prints.
There was a single hair for each snow-fawn in the flock, a small enough number not to give the string any more girth than it had before she unwound it. The last hair in place, she tied a small metallic weight to one end, and showed it to the herder.
"Doesn't look like much, does it?" she asked.
The herder didn't bite. "Does it go back into the bell?"
"That's the whole point," Doe said, "the clapper goes into the bell, and the bell goes with you."
Words to deeds, she took the clapperless bell and, through some arcane means, the herder supposed, knot the clapper within its confined interior. She handed it to the herder, who took it carefully, as if it might bite.
"Now put it on your staff," she said, and the herder followed.
Doe waited. The herder looked lost.
"And now, ring it," she offered patiently.
"Oh... Oh, yes!" the herder realised, and hit the ground with the staff's end.
It rang a trill, not quite as deep or full as the sound of a true cast bell, or the thin and weak sound of a tin-bell, but something in between.
The mass of gray and brown and golden fleece that surrounded them stirred. The herder shook in panic, as if he had never seen snow-fawns move around before, and the flock slowly coalesced around him in an unconsciously moving spiral pattern. The snow-fawns themselves concerned with the hay and the little grass there was available. The bell shook and rang in a self-feeding pattern, as its effect became more and more clear to the hapless herder in his shaking state.
Doe had moved away from the flock, and was sitting on a rock nearby. Let me describe her.
She wore her neck-length hair free. For those unfamiliar with the customs of the peninsular clans of the southeast, an explanation: this is a sign of power. The hair of more mundane people -- men, women and children alike -- were either covered in cloth or braided in some way.
Its colour was something that could be described as brown in one light, and red in another. When Doe had been a child, the clan had come together to determine whether she was a witch or not. But because there hadn't been one in the family for a long while, it boiled down to a row over what colour her hair really was. In the end, the result was determined by a vote, which, in turn, was split even between the voting parties, and the final result had to be determined by lot. It was generally agreed that her eyes were the proper green colour for a witch.
When she was later introduced to her new potential Master, the clan was berated for such foolery. They were really lucky she really was someone who could be anointed to the mysteries of the otherworlds, or there would have been trouble.
The traditional colour of the Sealer is white, with black trimmings and high-lights. She wore open robes, and a short elbow-length cape around her, in the aforementioned colours, patterned with black bracken and spiral forms. On her belt were two daggers -- of different kinds -- a small key-ring with an assortment of keys, exotic and strange, and by her side she had a bag.
Observant readers, note (everyone else, ignore this paragraph): though the circumstances of spring were at their wettest and muddiest, her clothing was spared from dirt, and even her boots were devoid of spots. This is a common show-off trick amongst all Sealers, which most other people of the Secret Arts resent them for.
"Chin up, remember, never show a sign of weakness," she said, mock-seriously, "or they will hunt you down." The herder chuckled nervously. That was a joke, right?
"So, all I have to do is ring the bell, and the flock... Comes to me? All of them?"
"It's something like that," she said, and her voice took a lecturing turn. "The purpose of the string is not to actually collect stray fawns, or even gather them closer, but to act as a hypophorical extension of the collective's sum-rim itself, and keep the boundary between the flock and the outside... world... well-defined..." She stopped as the herder's eyes glazed over and smile stiffened. "It keeps the flock together as one. No strays will ever leave it as long as the spell is intact." The herder relaxed and started to nod sagely.
"You said your spell would also keep them from harm," he ventured.
"It will. A slight effect of the whole boundary-reinforcement done here is that these fawns will be less affected by weather, temperature, predators and diseases that come from outside the flock. Anything and everything, in fact."
The herder was laughing now, the excited sound of a child who had been given a new toy. He rang the bell again.
"This is great magic, Sealer!" he told Doe. "I can feel it... It's like they are in the foreground of a play, and everything else is just the scenery."
Doe nodded, and said: "This spell will hold as long as there is a flock. When a new foal is brought to the world or when an old ewe leaves it, the flock will change, and the spell will change with it. You'll not need to change the spell, or buy a new one, except if the string is broken."
She continued: "And now, the matter of payment."
* * *
Somewhere else, a giant blue and white crescent dominated the heavens. The eternal night-sky devoured its light while the steady and clear stars burned their slow path onto an unseeing retina. There was not much to do but sleep and dream, and in those dreams to speak and hope.
The stone beneath was warming in the light of the passing day-month. The red of the rock beneath was cut at the black horizon. The dreams were elusive.
There was nothing that there hadn't been before, and most of it was waiting.
The dreamer was tired of waiting.
It had been tired for a very, very long time.
* * *
"I already hate you," she told the snow-fawn on the other side of the leash.
The herder had tried to convince her that it was the best he could muster, which was lost on Doe. She didn't want his best. She wanted his second-best.
"Your kind never give me anything but trouble," she muttered. The snow-fawn ignored her comment graciously.
It was the custom of herders all over the continent to have something they called the Sacrifice. It was a member of the flock that lived and ate and so forth just like any ordinary animal. The only difference was, that the Sacrifice was the best of the lot: the strongest, the meatiest, the most beautiful, the best milker, the most wooly one, and that they were usually marked in some otherworldly way.
The snow-fawn Doe was leading had blue eyes.
The Sacrifice was not, as might be thought from its name, actually killed as an offer to the gods. Herders were more pragmatic than that. A god who keeps a protection racket going on was just a bully, but a god who expected something in return of something, well, that's obviously just common sense.
In the end, this meant that the Sacrifice represents a random clump in the soup of religion, a parcel left standing around with a big sign reading: If You Take One, Please Leave Something In The Tin. This was usually realised as the Sacrifice dying, falling ill by itself, disappearing or something else mysterious happening to it. The herders supposed it was a price for averting some disaster, and picked out a new Chosen One.
A small tangential result of this arrangement was that of course the good priest who so nicely blessed the flock or the traveling charm-merchant who promised to rid them of the horse-pox would get the Sacrifice as payment. As far as herders concerned, the keepers of the secret arts were just a kind of underling god.
"I shall call you 'Dinner'," Doe said to the snow-fawn. "I will have you know that it is a name with a history and pedigree, and I expect you to live up to it."
* * *
There was one village in Pepper Vale. It had no name except for Village-in-the-Valley, which the locals pointedly would translate into whatever language they were speaking at the moment. Doe felt it rather strange that the village hadn't pearled itself a name of anything, for it was a very old village indeed. If people had lived in the vale itself for ages and ages, then the village itself had existed at least for one and a half ages, if not even two ages. She wasn't really sure, but somewhere along those lines.
The valley was a slightly sloping one, with its upper mouth lying between the low summit between Pepper Peak and some other, less significant mountain whose name Doe couldn't recall at the moment. Village-in-the-Valley lied quite near to the upper mouth, where the relatively low slope of the vale gave way to a higher one.
All over the vale, the slopes themselves were covered in firs and pines, and the bottom was strewn with the omnipresent rocks and boulders on top of the clear herding-lands and the ever-changing waterways that were created by the aggregation of a thousand small becks. Winter had cocooned the waters yet again, and the new spring was making them molt into intricate and unpredictable patterns.
To the trained eye, the valley was strewn with signs of historical age. From the path she was walking upwards with the snow-fawn in town, Doe had already spotted several tell-tale signs of ancient constructions and the bones of civilisation, hewn from black rock so unlike the natural grey of the mountains. The pips of age that littered the earth culminated at its acme, the great ruins of the Obsidian that overlooked the upper mouth from the summit between the peaks above.
At the University, classes in antiquaristics were required for students in the Faculty of Dark Arts, for reasons Doe had never really quite grasped. In an emergency, she could fake expertise in the area for some while, and she could reliably tell the age of anything less than a thousand years old, plus minus a couple of centuries. The ruins and the strewn boulders of black were older than that, which didn't really matter because she already knew how old they were.
She stopped by the path-side, stood before a small shrine and prayed for a few seconds. It was another relic of the ancients who had lived in the valley over one and a half thousand years ago, though its facade was so worn that she couldn't tell what it might have been originally. But like an abandoned nest, the alcove of stone had once been invaded by some sheep avatara or fertility god, who had then succumbed to the Good Lords of the East. The world of comparative theology was cruel.
Her prayer was a cursory and unfelt. The Good Lords of the East had never been very big back home, even though their seven statues had stood at the walls of the clan-hall. Even as a child she had preferred the less civilised gods that haunted the woods and the hills, and whom she occasionally worshipped to the chagrin of her parents.
The Good Lords were in comparison too agreeable. They were just people you prayed to because you couldn't bother with anything more lively. With the forest-gods, she had been able to have a good blazing row over some point of theology with the other kids, convert them, and then orchestrate a raid to the hen-house for a blood-sacrifice on the Old Boulder in the forest, which was how it should be with religion.
It hadn't helped that when she went to Coroban to study at the Small University, she had learned that they had really existed once. She'd read things they had written. What kind of god wrote things down? Any proper god would not be able to hold a pen because their hands would be hooves or bird feet or something!
Doe had only two soft spots in the sorry pantheon. The first was the Merciful Lady Balei, who had been the Sealer of the lot, and the eighth one.
At the reminiscence, she noticed something strange about the statues in the alcove. There were eight of them.
She smiled at the daring. Some rebellious little worshiper had defiled the seven statues of the Good Lords with an extra one, a crude man roughly carved out of a piece of rock. It had to represent the Lord of Treason.
She drew a rim around the statue hidden behind the others with her finger in the dust, and then continued her way. After a while, the figurine could be nowhere seen.
* * *
"Good day to you, Mistress Doe," True the Carpenter tipped his hat. "Our Restful sends his regards and says that the fingers you put back on are feeling mighty great."
"Tell him not to use them for two weeks after the seal falls off," Doe told him, "and let Mrs. Rosmarine see it as soon as it does. If he does something to screw it up, they'll fall off again, and you won't get your wheelbarrow back either, mainly because I already ate it."
"Right you are, Mistress Doe, I'll keep an eye on him." They parted ways.
For the past two months, when she had not been doing her measurements at the ruins, Doe had performed many small rites, spells, enchantments and sealings in the village.
Just like any other working thaumate, Doe tried to ply her trade wherever she could, a cause helped by the fact that the Villagers were, all in all, a very open-minded bunch when it came to magic. She thought it was probably because during the summer so many of people of the secret arts visited, and the mental image of the mage in the heads of the villagers had turned rather more amicable than that of most other people. And because the villagers were a pleasant bunch, and didn't mind if you did something extraordinarily strange every now and then, the visitors also learned to like the villagers in turn. It was a propitious circle. There was even an inn and stables, well-known in magical circles as Inn-in-the-Village-in-the-Valley, and it was where Doe was headed.
As a consequence of the many thaumates, mages, witches, wizards and sorcerers who came through, most of the Villagers who had talent in the arts were discovered, and they went out into the world to learn them; what went around, came back again, and many of the villagers had a magicians somewhere in their family-tree.
When she had studied at the Small University, the local market had been saturated with magic. The only niches she had been able to exploit were selling high-quality infecundity charms to the girls and boys in the curtain district and the old protective VD-charm for the women in the rougher parts of the city. In Village-in-the-Valley people didn't even know what vagina dentata meant, but during the spring, there was a seller's market anyhow, for anything magic related. Only later during the high summer would there be an influx of rivals for Doe's services. She liked her current monopoly; it gave her something to do between her research without having to run around ragged trying to find customers.
She noticed that the main-street running through the village was more muddy than earlier that day, marked with wagon-wheel patterns and horse-shoe prints, and so she wasn't particularly surprised to find the small caravan sitting at the inn-yard.
It was rather haphazard caravan, she thought. The mismatched wagons -- hay-wagons and larger wagons and all sorts of wagons -- were covered with tarps, and led by a bizarre house-wagon.
The caravan workers -- or that was what she supposed they were -- were a miscellaneous lot, as if someone had gone to the streets of the city and picked out random men by throwing stones into a mob. Most of them were milling around one of the wagons, where someone had rolled out a barrel of wine.
Doe's eyes returned to the strange house-wagon. It had a steep, four-sloped roof with an ornate ridge and eaves. Its walls were dark wood, carved with pretty, round plant-patterns, and it was rather big. By the side, there was a strange construction hanging under the window, which Doe realised was a foldable merchant's stall and an awning. The whole thing was a shop, storage and home.
She shook her head in bewilderment.
"What's a caravan doing in the village?" she whispered to the snow-fawn. "This place is on the road to nowhere!"
But nevermind that for now, she shrugged to herself. Her business was at the inn's stable, and so she continued her way there, though she couldn't but give the caravan a few last puzzled stares.
* * *
Doe petted the wisox on its hairy muzzle.
It was a small wisox, gray in colour. Several of its long fur-strands had been braided into random shapes (Doe had felt a bit bored), but she was already combing them away.
It was an Akamakian, a southern race of the riding wisox that is well-suited for cold and snowy travel. The Akamakian is marked most clearly by its thick gray or white fur, and the lack of the distinct twisting spiral pattern on the snail-shell horns that most other wisoxes have.
"I trust you are well, Eye-of-the-Storm," Doe muttered to it, as she stroked its fur. She had owned the wisox only since the beginning of the winter, and felt that they needed to be better acquaintanced, but for the last two months it had been cooped up in the stables.
She put her hand to its forehead, and took a slow breath. Doe did what she did, and felt Eye-of-the-Storm.
She knew the skin, the greatest barrier of the mammal body, and knew it was unbroken. She knew blood-vessels, felt how they were open and clear. She knew all the rims that defined the body before her, though less clearly than the skin and the arteries. They all seemed well, and she took her hand away.
It had become her habit to delve animals like this ever since a riding-hart she had used once died fifty miles from nowhere, and she had discovered, too late, that it had had a heart attack because of some masking-drugs the horse-dealer had given it. She knew it wasn't necessary to do the ritual every time... But it had been a very cold winter that year. The horse-dealer survived to regret it all.
"As paranoid as ever," Fala the stable master said. "Eye is just as well as she was in the morning, you know well that!"
The stable master of Village-in-the-Valley was not just the person who kept after the animals that were kept at the Inn. She was also the whole valley's veterinary, animal expert, and arbitrator when live-stock was involved. Fala was the type of old woman who, if she survived to fifty years of age, would continue marching on at the same, iron rhythm until she hit hundred.
She had been a friend of Doe's Master, and was part of an army of aunts that had been conscripted for Doe during her apprentice-ship. Fala was the type who taught you the tricks the others turned a blind eye to.
"Hello, Fala," Doe said. "It's just that I fear it'll forget me, again."
"Ah, didn't anyone tell you?" Fala mocked surprise. "The wisox is a remarkable creature. Miraculously, it will never remember anything it has once forgotten. I am afraid it will never recognise you ever again."
"I actually had a little business here," Doe lifted her hand with the leash. The snow-fawn stepped forward. Fala looked at Dinner, and said: "It's spring, so it's at its thinnest, there's no meat on those bones. But...", she crouched down to check, and arched her eye-brows, "it has lambed already. It'll give you milk, and easier than a goat."
"I was thinking of keeping it here with Eye anyhow, while I'm at the site," Doe suggested.
"You might as well take it with you. Snow-fawns don't fear the cold, and they're made for the mountains, and you won't need to carry up feed for it like you would with Eye-of-the-Storm. You keep yourself up there for long times, a little fresh milk will do you good. Besides, we're going to be plenty full soon, with those horses."
Doe grimaced. "I guess I shall do that."
Fala grinned: "And you can't sell it either, because it's the Sacrifice. No one would buy it..."
"It's not just the herders, it's this whole accursed barter economy!" Doe started to rant, "If there was more money around these parts, I wouldn't have to know so damn much about handling miscellaneous ungulates!"
"Last summer alone I had to try to get rid of four goats, one sheep, two three-toed falsedeer, one red-eyed Botton cow and a dwarf rhinoceros. They are driving me insane." She sighed.
"I was hoping the herder would have had something else, but no. He seemed so damned shocked when I tried to imply that I might not want the Sacrifice. A poseur, I declare! I am sure I could smell some copper on him. It has a very distinctive odor because it is not native to these lands."
This was an old exchange, that Doe had only partly inherited from her Master.
"How are the flocks back home?" Fala asked.
"You know you can't call them flocks," Doe said. One way to get rid of the damned beasts was to just leave them at the peninsula, to be taken care of by the clan. It had been Fala's suggestion. "The goats bully the sheep who bully the damn rhinoceros, and the long-neck (I still haven't figured out where that one came from, a bizarre creature) bullies everyone. Whichever of my little brothers -- or I guess it would be time for my poor nephews -- who is guarding them and isn't yet traumatised by the experience is probably learning to hate hooved creatures just as much as I do. I dread returning home. Each time I imagine all those eyes, yellow and brown and their ever-varying pupils looking at me when I get there, it chills my spine something horrible."
"One day you will wake in the middle of the night, to the sound of those trip-trip-trapping feet in the darkness..."
"Augh, stop that! I am sure I am cursed," shuddered Doe, "cursed by some godling of hoofed creatures to forever walk the earths alone, but for my constant companions, the kin of the goat..."
Fala laughed. "Come, let's get something to drink for tonight. We haven't had one in a long time."
"Let's," Doe nodded, and followed the old woman to the Inn.
* * *
They fell through the landscape of the visions, like snowflakes. The dreamer could feel them soak his skin, and chill him, and warm him.
One of them was familiar. It was the goat girl. Oh what goat related antics will you get to today, goat girl? Will you perhaps send your left flank to surround the enemy's archers and then, I tell a lie, that isn't the goat girl. The goat girl was, yes leading some sort of goat creature.
Then the goat girl disappeared, with her goat creature, and the dreamer dreamt of someone else.
"Speaking of things that look cursed... What is with that caravan? I've not seen such a motley crowd since I last saw the Red Traveling Show."
They were sitting at a window-table, sipping their drinks and waxing old stories. Doe had a cup of the Inn's sweet wine, which she happened to like.
She had gestured towards a table at which sat a group of the caravaners, who were having meals of something else than their own provisions.
"They drove into the village while you were bothering the herders on the other side of the valley," Fala replied. "Seems they are some sort of expeditionary enterprise."
"Expeditionary enterprise?" That would explain why they didn't seem well-funded or actually competent at caravanery. Better send your second-best to do the legwork, then if it's safe use your Sunday caravans. "To where, though? Pardon my saying so, but Village-in-the-Valley doesn't lead anywhere you'd want to get, except out of here."
"There's the old road that leads over Pepper Peak, they say."
Doe's face scrunched up in an incredulous expression.
"They said it would make a shortcut to southern Marag," Fala continued, "but you've studied the old road, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have," replied the Sealer. It was in her magic, after all. "It goes right by the old cave and through the ruins of the Obsidian", Fala made a sign warding against evil, "and, as a Sealer, I have to tell you that the old road is impassable for any wagon. You might think the path is useable beyond the ruins, like it is here, but it's not. They can't get through."
"You are so sure?"
"Fala, I am a Sealer. I don't feel it just in my bones; my nails, hair, elbows and two thirds of my toes have something to say about that path. It isn't so much blocked as completely gone in a few place where it has merged with the undergrowth and the occasional forest it has gobbled up on the way. There is no way to get through beyond the ruins, and onto the other side."
She thought for a while, and then smiled greedily. "Except maybe by magic... And I might be able to find them the right mage for the job..."
"Ah," said Fala, "but will they have enough goats?"
Doe tried to rap Fala on the forehead, which was deftly evaded. She rose from the table, and walked to the other side of the room, where a man was sitting alone, drinking a small beer and tallying something down into a notebook.
"Greetings," Doe said to him. "Are you the leader of this caravan?"
The man put down his pencil (Did Doe spot the new charcoal model from Braca? Maybe he had some to sell.) and introduced himself as the leader.
"The Heavens have seen it fit that I be called Feng the Merchant," he spoke Trade with a western accent. He was obviously from beyond the mountains, but he wore the clothes -- and the patterns of silver and gold chain in the fabric -- of a Corobine merchant.
Doe introduced herself ("Of course, I recognise a Sealer's robe."), and inquired whether it was true that the caravan was on its way over Pepper Peak.
"Ah, you have heard of our reason for being here," Feng said, and rubbed his eyes.
"I see you have already learned of the troubles you will face on the way."
The merchant seemed only slightly worried. "Troubles?"
"The Old Road is completely impassable. You would need an army of shovelers and foresters to cut down everything on the way from the low summit to Marag."
The merchant licked his lips nervously, and thought about it for a moment. He started to make a reply, when he saw something that lifted his eyes.
"I hope you will forgive me, oh Sealer, for my rudeness when I, in my layman's persona, cannot but tell you that we have no need for your services at this very moment, for," he gestured to the doorway of the Inn, "we already have someone to take care of it."
Feng beckoned the man who had just entered the Inn to get closer. "Yanda, please come here."
Yanda was about middle-aged, long, and thin. His face reminded Doe of people she had seen survive the wasting plague on the coast, as if something had been eating him from the inside. But when she saw his eyes, she corrected herself: burning him from the inside.
He wore red, highlighted with golds and yellows, and he had no eyebrows or hair on his head. Doe could already tell what he was; she could feel it radiating from him, so much like the nucleus of the magic he controlled.
The irises of his eyes were smouldering like ashes. And not in a literary sense -- in a literal sense. The circumferences of his pupils were glowing with uneven yellow and red, and it seemed as if his eyes were going to catch flame any second...
"Yanda, at your service," he bowed slightly over his arm, and his voice crackled. "I follow the Living Flame."
"I am Doe," she bowed. Suddenly she felt uncomfortably warm in her winter robes. She hadn't seen a case of focal deanthropofication this bad in a long time. "I follow the Opened Door."
"I was just telling Mistress Doe here," Feng told to the fire-mage, "how we, so unfortunately, cannot afford to hire two thaumates at the same time to clear the Old Road over the peaks into Marag from the undergrowth."
Yanda looked confused for a moment, but then realised what was being talked about, "Oh yes, that, yes, I am well-versed in the contained burning of plant-matter, and able to open the Old Road for the caravan by myself."
"So you see, oh Sealer," Feng pleaded apologetically, "I am held liable to the sponsors of our trip, and, though if it were wholly up to me, I am so forced to refuse your most gracious offer, and defer to Master Yanda instead.""Ah, I understand," said Doe. [Footnote: It was at this moment that she decided to seek out some, any goat-faced god that she could really give her mind to, but that is a story for later.] "Well, if you come to any obstacle that seems insurmountable, or you need anything else a Sealer can offer, you can find me camping at the old cave that lies near the old road near the Obsidian."
Both men seemed surprised at this.
"You are not, ah, passing through?" Feng asked.
"Oh no," said Doe, "I am doing some research in the Obsidian. It's not uncommon. In fact, it is so common that the local economy is centered around people poking around the ruins! No one's here yet, though, because winter's just ended."
A look passed between the two men.
Yanda asked: "Are you perhaps studying the Great Seal?"
* * *
When Thorn entered the Inn, he was pleasantly surprised to see Doe there. She was sitting at a table with two men -- from the caravan? -- speaking to them agitatedly, her hands flying all over the place as she punctuated her speech with gestures.
The stable master caught his eye, and beckoned him to sit down with her.
"Good day, Closer-of-the-Eyes," she told him.
"Good day, aunt Fala," he sat down.
"Can I get some wine, please?" he said towards the kitchen, and a member of the maid brigade nodded.
"So, how are things on Grave Hill nowadays?" Fala asked him.
"Same as it was last week, aunt Fala," Thorn replied. "Muddy and wet at this time of year. Thank you," he received the cup.
Thorn was the Closer-of-the-Eyes of the village, or what Doe thought of as simply a necromancer. His medium-blond hair and easy tan wasn't exactly what you expected from a necromancer, but it was exactly what the Closer-of-the-Eyes was supposed to look like.
It is said that there are three colours a necromancer -- or the local equivalent -- could wear without feeling completely silly; red, white and black. The Closers wore black, though Thorn had added some cheery little details to his own vestments: a rather cheery shoulder-cape brooch of a grinning skull, and an absolutely hilarious pendant that spelled out a pun in ancient Khuruzean runes.
He took a sip. "I see there's a caravan outside."
"You've always been an observant boy," Fala grinned.
He took a deeper sip and looked at the other table.
"Doe is talking with the leader of the caravan," Fala said.
"-- some went up my nose," Thorn had coughed at the wrong time. Fala grinned at her nephew.
"Ah, look, she's ending her speech," she pointed out to him.
Doe stood up from the table. The two men she left behind had on their faces a dazed look that Thorn recognised was common among people who had the opportunity to a lecture from Doe. He wondered smiling what the topic had been this time.
He blinked. "My god, look at that man," he said absent-mindedly.
"The skinny one?" Fala asked. "What about him?"
"That's the worst case of focal deanthropofication I've ever seen," he shuddered. "Let's not talk about it, it's not proper."
His aunt looked like she wanted to ask, but was interrupted.
"They already had someone," Doe said to Fala, walking to their table. "Evening, Closer Thorn," she said to Thorn.
"Hello, Sealer Doe," Thorn stammered out, and gave a private glare to his aunt, who was now grinning like a cat who had found the magic cauldron that made cream. "How is your research going?"
"Well, thank you. I've figured out what the power-core is, and I have a small hypothesis on what the actual purifying mechanism might be, but, at the moment I'm mostly hunting down clues from the historical records and remains. Let the past do my work for me," she said.
"Historical records?" asked Master Thorn. "Have you carted up a small library up to the cave?" he smiled.
"I mostly mean the stuff the original caster left behind," she replied, "which makes things hard, because we do not know who they were. But you can tell things from the way they've done the spell, like with the leylines."
"I did hear you were running around the forest near the village yesterday," Thorn said.
"One of my investigations, which is not going well at all," she frowned, "I couldn't find the last elakhisk. The bloody things are enormous, so why can't I find them? I'm thinking of asking your aunt," she nodded to her, "to borrow one of her boys. If I know kids, then they should know all the secret places on the woods around here. I know I would."
Master Thorn looked thoughtful.
"Well, isn't this a good opportunity to visit the Shrine?" he said, "You should know we have quite extensive historical records."
Doe's head snapped to look at him. "Really? What kind?"
"Death records," Thorn said, "some of them stretching back a thousand years. Of course, not the originals, but copies, and copies of copies, made of the originals onto scrolls and kept at the Shrine, protected by a few seals and so forth. The originals, if they still exist, are probably rotting at the Bibliotheca, four hundred miles from here."
Doe stared at the necromancer. A small smile was being uncovered on her lips. "Of course, why didn't I realise that? The books of Death..."
"Some of the ancient Closers could be rather obsessive," he offered nervously under that stare.
Doe grasped his hands and looked him in the eye, making him blush.
"You. Must. Show. Them. To. Me." she intoned, willing her gaze to burrow those words into the back of his skull.
"Oh, oh, yes, yes!" Thorn stammered out in panic, "I will show them to you."
Doe smiled radiantly, and straightened herself.
"Brilliant!" she chirped, "so what say you, tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's fine!" he said "nothing scheduled tomorrow or anything."
"Then it's settled," Doe smiled. She looked outside. "Well, I must be going now! Bye, Master Thorn and Master Fala," she bounced off to the stables.
"Bye," said the necromancer, left in her wake like a derelict at sea that had encountered the Doe Armada.
"You charmer you," Fala winked at him.
"Aunty," Thorn looked mortified.
* * *
Still feeling excited, Doe came to one of the small workshops in the village, a house with an open roof canopy on its side, her last way-point for the day. The numerous broken pieces of earthenware littering the ground, the kiln at the back, the flywheel lying unused on the floor, and the numerous pots lining the walls clued her in; it must be the pottery.
"Mistress Doe!" the potter, called Clay, greeted her with open arms ("Potter Clay," she replied). "Let me show you the newest batch," he continued excitedly. "Boys, fetch Mistress Doe's stoneware!"
The potter's two apprentices came out carrying a wide plank, on which were about half a dozen of small ceramic bottles. Each one could easily fit on a hand-palm, and was glazed into a soft milky colour.
"Ooooh, they are so tiny," Doe cooed over them, "may I?" she looked at the potter, who nodded.
She took one of the tiny bottles in her hand with a whoop, and holding it up in the air, looked at it with an appraising eye. And then she closed them, and let her other sense guide her. She felt the bottle.
She felt its rim, the glazing and the fired clay together, and the opening that was tapered out of the main body. She could feel its strength, the hard stoneware that was formed out of the earth, and the faint shadows of its siblings, formed out of the same clump on the same potter's-wheel. The hands of the potter had left a trail of humanity in it, a strong rim, stronger still by the advice and small spells she had sold him, and stronger by its purpose.
"May I?" she asked Clay again without opening her eyes. A faint yes, excited and anticipating.
She held the tiny bottle tighter in her hand, and let her hunger free. She felt the rim, and how her hunger surrounded it, entering through the eye, how its barbs penetrated the barriers of glaze and clay, how the tendrils of her magic infiltrated its skin -- and how they finally crushed it, and devoured the pieces that so had defined it.
The bottle in her hand turned into mere dust in the shape of something that had once been, and slowly crumbled in her shaking hands and scattered onto the ground.
"Marvelous," she said. "I feel like I could capture the sky."
"Excellent," the potter twittered, "then I can assume this has been a success?"
"Very much so, good potter," she said, "you have an excellent grasp of the soul of pottery. I will take them all," she lifted her hand with the leash of the goat.
"No need for payment, good Sealer," Mister Clay said, "you have been enough help for us with your magic in the past. These are on the house. Boys, get a carrying basket for Mistress Doe."
"Thank you for your generosity," she bowed.
"But I must say," the potter said, "that I never realised this about Sealers. For twenty years I've seen your kind come up and down the street, and most have never even looked at my wares, except old Iron Eyes, of course."
"Master had discerning eyes," Doe said. "Your pottery has a thing that many other potters lack. Most Sealers who go through here don't have the time to stop for long times, and to notice something here, you need to have good eyes," she pointed at hers, "or you'll have to take a very close look. Master always said that she'd have a talk with you someday..."
"Ah," the potter looked a bit sad. "But I never saw her devouring any of my pots, though."
"No, she just used them like ordinary pots... Or for some spells, which, by the way," she pointed at the clay bottles, "these will be excellent for. But she was strong enough to not need to augment her strength like this."
The potter looked at the bottles. "I will have to make a new sign," he said, "it'll read 'Delicious Glazed Stoneware Bottles, for the Discerning Sealer! Fresh Fired from the Kiln this Morning! Best Prices in the Whole Valley! Ask about our Tea Sets!'" Doe laughed.
"We don't often let in outsiders to our little secrets," she said, and winked, "but this is Village-in-the-Valley. I don't think many will mind, and there are some potters out there who are almost Sealers themselves, in the big cities, who do much the same thing."
The boys came back, carrying a small basket with a leather-strap for carrying.
"Put them carefully in the straw," Clay absent-mindedly said to the boys, who carried expressions that told Doe that they had heard those same words hundreds of times before.
Thoughtfully, Doe took one of the bottles that still laid on the bench, and inspected it, like she had done to the first one. Suddenly, her interest was piqued, and she looked at one of the apprentice boys who was slowly and carefully packing the bottles into the basket. She walked to him, and said, "Stand up, boy."
She put her hand on the boy's head, who looked confused. The potter looked on with sudden and hungry interest, as Doe felt the boy.
She let her hand drop, and the boy returned hesitantly to the packing, taking the bottle from her proffered hand.
"Well?" the potter asked.
"It's very faint," she said, "very faint. He'll never be a full thaumate."
The potter looked a bit disappointed.
"But he will become a very good potter, I am thinking." Clay cheered at the news. "Very good indeed."
The basket was filled with the milky bottles, so Doe took it over her shoulder.
"Time for me to go," she said, "so thank you for the bottles. They will come in good use."
"Please, do come again," the potter bowed, "we will always have a special piece ready for you."
Doe continued her way up the street, and heard the potter behind her.
"Come, boys, we're going to do more of those bottles! I can smell the money already!" he laughed.
* * *
It was calm, and cold, and the twilight shadows of red and orange were slowly receding before the ever-deepening blue of the night-sky above her.
She noticed that all the moons were full in the sky, and wondered if there would be a confluence. Was it a good or a bad sign?
The cave she had camped in for the past two months was lit by the red glow of the embers in the fire-pot. It was extraordinarily intense for something that had been left to smolder for a whole day, and when Doe threw some dry wood on it, the sticks failed to catch on fire, no matter how close they touched the intense ashes.
This was because the flame would be released to relight the fire only when she allowed it, which she did with a tap of an arm's-length stick on the embers to avoid singeing her fingers. The fire she had sealed within the embers opened like a budding flower, and soon the cave was being rewarmed again.
At the Small University she had learned about the physical nature of fire and flame: hot and glowing gases that were released from a burning mass and the ashes absorbed stuff from the air and the heat was just the vibration of the smallest indivisible entities that matter consisted of and... For a while, fire and heat had not been Something.
It had taken her two months to recover before she could seal flame again, a type of occurrence that had plagued her at the University all too often. Every so often she learned a new fact, or found a new truth about the world, and suddenly the semantic framework of her powers were shaken.
In time she would get it all back (all the while feeling like she was betraying some sort of Bigger Truth of Nature), the flame that was Flame, the heat that was Heat, not just processes. One of the lectors had called it "caloric thinking", a term Flagrators like Yanda used. She still felt that it was much easier in the countryside, where no one was trying to make you learn new things about how the world actually worked, except maybe if they thought you might be interested in the finer points of the practical anatomy of the domesticated cow.
The ultimate expression of that desire for mental comfort was the cave she sat in.
It was a cozy place, that cave, cozied up by generations of occasional people like her, huddling there from the winds and the rains, and sometimes the Sun. Hundreds of years of habitation were marred on the walls, like grooves in the face of a world-worn man. The place even smelled human, though it was tinged at the moment by the mellow odour of the snow-fawn.
The entrance was scarred by inscriptions of warding, one style of magic upon another, cut deep enough for the stone to have started to crumble and litter the doorway with bits and pieces of the imbued rock. The locals would now and then come there to collect them, and use them as amulets and focuses of protection. Someone had once hammered a stock of wood up in the ceiling a way from the entrance, from which hung a thick door-curtain. It was covered in stitches of symbols, marks, signatures and general quilted graffiti. Doe had marked it more than once.
For years now, ever since she had camped there for the first time one warm Harvest Month with her master, Doe had wanted to spend a long, long time at the shelter, to smooth away the broken stone, and write down a strong circle of warding with all her might, one that would hold for a thousand years at least. As had probably every other Sealer who had been there before her. But for the moment she had been too busy with her research, and the entrance would have to wait.
When she had returned from the village earlier, the first thing she had noticed that she had forgotten to seal the cave against the cold. The warmth that had accumulated in there, previously contained by her spells, had been wiped away by the bitter dying curses of the winter season. The glow of the cooking fire had seeped deeper into the walls, to be hidden from her tired bones.
As a Sealer, Doe did not know many ways to make things warmer or colder through magic. The best she could do in this situation was insulation against one or the other, but dividing a block of ice in twain was not going to make one half warmer. She suspected that there were ways for her to speed up the process of the cave warming up, but she had no idea where to start: and when stumped by the lack of imagination, the semantic scope of her magic could not expand, and her efforts would have been fruitless.
So she made mush instead.
* * *
Is it the Great Seal? Yanda the Burner had asked.
You know of it! Doe had replied.
The men had gotten strange looks on their faces, Doe remembered, as she'd rambled on about the Great Seal and her research into it, but that just happened to people for some reason. She wiggled the spoon in her mouth as she thought about her self-appointed mission, and what it entailed. Sometimes she wondered if it was just the Sealer in her.
She remembered the first time her master had taken her to witness the Seal. It had looked horrifying. It had looked enticing. It had looked like something she wanted to possess more than any other thing in the world.
It was insidious, the Great Seal. It wriggled into your mind and made you want to unravel it, puzzle it open, and reveal all of its secrets. Doe didn't believe it was the Great Seal doing it, though. It was the Sealers who did it to themselves. The world was filled, no, the world was made out of the very things that defined the powers of a Sealer, yet they were weak in front of the things that they should not open; Great Seals of varying shapes and sizes, doors that led to the dark places, and paths that lead to the end of the world...
The Great Seal of the Obsidian. It was not a famous seal. There were no legends, only accounts in dusty biographies and chronologies. There were no stories, except the obvious nonsense the villagers sometimes made up about the Obsidian itself. There was no explanation.
Doe knew some things, and she had uncovered a few other small facts with her own research, which had made for a few good papers. The Seal was ancient, around a thousand years old. It had been built within the already crumbled ruins of the Obsidian, which itself had fallen 1344 years in the past.
"The age itself can be determined by a very neat little trick," she explained to Dinner, "but we already knew how old it was from the historical record. The last mention of the ruins that did not have the Great Seal was done before the Broken Wars, and the first was done ten years later, well into the rule of the Lords."
Dinner chewed on her cud. Doe's eyes had returned to that far-away land, the halls of the Small University, and the mush was half-forgotten.
"The Obsidian, as you know, was a fortress built during the Haida era on top of a stable thaumatic eruption. The place is bursting with mojo. The hotspot was used for a few centuries, until it ended up in the hands of the dread Sincere Empire. During the upheaval that toppled the Emperor, the Obsidian was destroyed, and the hotspot ran out... No one's sure."
Dinner felt that she had to contribute somehow. She bleated.
"I have my own theory, though, that the hotspot never actually dried up, but was diverted... But diversions aside, the Great Seal appeared sometime between 334 Haida and 7 Eastern era. It is a knot-type Great Seal, or maybe a root-type is a better description... Anyhow, what makes this one rather interesting is that it is a regenerative type. It's amazing it hasn't been destroyed yet!"
Dinner gave Doe a sceptical look.
"We know that regenerative spells are prone to their own destruction through the cumulative effect of small imperfections in their cycle of rebirth. A small error in a spell that would mean nothing in a continuous enchantment will prove fatal in a regenerative spell, sooner or later, as its effect and corruption starts to spread through the fabric of the incantations each time the spell remakes itself. Finally, it will eat itself out from the inside, and the hollow shell will snap, destroying the spell. It is a testament to the original caster that the Obsidian Seal has not broken yet."
Doe paused for a moment, and then continue with a dramatically low voice.
"Or maybe they knew something we don't."
* * *
For centuries, the sciences of magic had taken very many but very small steps forward. The base had been made by the Lords in their time, with their scholarship into their own magic, though of course they hadn't done modern thaumatology yet. Scholars had given in to more curious scholars and those curious scholars had given their place to even curiouser scholars, who ended up being called savants and used most of their time to drink wine, mope about, and have screeching rows with their fellow peers. A glorious new era of research had begun!
It was pretty slow going.
Not that it wasn't unimaginably better than the instinctive mumbo jumbo of the past, of course.
In fact, it's magnificent what we can do today that wasn't possible just two centuries ago!
And though this standing on top of the shoulder of dwarfs was all well and comfortable and not dizzying at all, what we really could do with is a giant.
So most of the time, mages, wizards, witches and magicians were looking for A Theory.
Doe thought she had found hers.
* * *
"If the longevity of the Obsidian Seal is not due to the original skills of the caster and the perfection of the enchantment core, then we must suspect that there is some sort of process going on that is preventing the seal from succumbing to decay," Doe explained her theory.
"Regenerative theory is trendy nowadays, but master was familiar with it, and I know stuff about cyclical creation and adaptation decay that the fellows at the Department of Organic Thaumatology can only dream about. Their problem is that instead of trying to figure out the practical implications of their theories, they instead succumb to mathematics and statistical theory. They also ignore history at their own peril! For of course, though science is much more advanced today than it was in the past, the multitude of mages that have inhabited this Earth have not been constrained by what we know in the present, or what has ever been known. Is it not so that many, if not most, of the discoveries that progress thaumatology today is due to the study of magical idiosyncrasy? We study the personal magic of individuals to determine greater truths about the world, and only rarely does our sciences give us an innovation that is not already present in the environment, either contemporarily or historically."
Dinner voiced a weak counterpoint, but Doe drove on, ignoring her captive audience.
"My approach to the study of the problem of regenerative corruption has been historical. Do we have any examples of any regenerative enchantment that has resisted incarnation decay? And can we find any kind of method to this longevity that is applicable to regenerative spells in general?"
Doe paused. Somewhere along the line she had slipped into her grant application speech, almost word-for-word. She hadn't got it (may the Department of Organic Thaumatology have its facilities be over-run by beeroach chimeras), but that didn't matter: there was A Theory at stake! And damn their eyes if they thought she would give up on finding one of the Maraka's stones of general enchantment theory.
"They dared to deny me my grant! Well, we'll see. I will show them!" She bit down on her spoonful of cold stew.
Dinner bleated in sympathy.
[Footnote: Even the world of snow-fawns had its share of stone-headed and unimaginative reactionaries, though of course the topic was more often about the oft-debated issue on the hypothetical causal relationship between rain and the growth rate of stones. Dinner was partial on the radical theory of stones-grow-because-of-physical-stimulation, which always gave a good excuse to play The Ground Is Lava when boredom set in.]
Doe's path had ended at the Obsidian, which had surprised her at some level. It was like finding the gilded lotus in one's own garden pond. But the fact remained that amongst the legion of Great Seals littering the continent, preventing the escape of various evils and monstrosities, the seal at the Obsidian was the oldest that was also regenerative -- and by far. The second-oldest regenerative Seal, which was protecting the city of Torë from a plague of locusts, was only two centuries old and already at the verge of collapse, and the historical record uncovered at least a dozen that had made it past three hundred years, but never older.
But the Obsidian Seal, though obscure, had not weakened over the thousand years of its existence to such a degree as could be expected. It was a miracle someone hadn't noticed it before Doe. Sometimes she kept herself waking by thinking about why this was so -- maybe someone had figured it out ages ago, and it had turned out that the longevity was just a fluke, and that there was no regenerative purifier?
But there was no sign of prior research in the regenerative properties of the Great Seal of the Obsidian ruins. She had made sure of it. There had to be none. And if Doe was the first to discover a new principle, a new method, a new (pause) Theory, then...
Then the world would be her oyster; and there would damn well be a slice of lemon, too.