IN THE EARLY spring sky, clouds gathered above the isolated rangeland cabin, moving faster than a natural wind could carry them. They lowered and thickened, then suddenly released their burden of rain. Lainie stood in the downpour, laughing, arms spread wide as though to catch as much rain as she could. “I did it!”
“You sure did, darlin’,” Silas said, laughing as well. Pride swelled in his heart at her feat. Weather-working was a difficult skill, and though the rain only covered an area of about ten measures around their cabin and wouldn’t last more than a few minutes, it was mighty impressive. Summoning up a rainfall like this would normally require the strength and skills of two mages, even with plenty of small clouds still trailing through the sky in the wake of the most recent late-season storm. But during the last four months of repeatedly draining and regenerating her power, Lainie had grown enormously stronger. She had almost made calling up the rain shower look easy. Through the months of intensive training, Silas’s power had grown along with hers, but not by the same magnitude of increase, and he felt no shame in admitting that now she was likely stronger than he was.
They stood grinning in the rain, reveling in Lainie’s accomplishment. Then, without warning, the rain started coming down even harder instead of stopping after a moment, as Silas had expected it to. “Oh!” Lainie exclaimed as water poured off the brim of her hat and down her shirt. “I’m soaked! Let’s go in.” She grabbed Silas’s hand and they ran for the one-room cabin.
Inside, they stood dripping on the woven straw mat by the door. “I must have put more power into it than I thought,” Lainie said. She shivered; the day was cool and the rain colder.
Silas chuckled as he hugged her. “I guess so. How’re you feeling?”
Her eyebrows furrowed together as she assessed herself. “Good,” she said. “Tired. Hungry. No cravings, though.”
“Good. Maybe you’ve finally got this beat.” He hoped and prayed that she did. These months of draining her power then enduring the pain and sickness of the demonsalts cravings while her power regenerated itself had been hard on her. And on him; there had been times when she was suffering through the deepest throes of the cravings when he had been sure he would lose her to them. He wasn’t ready to celebrate her recovery yet; twice before, they had thought the addiction had been purged only to have the cravings come back almost as bad as ever. But now it had been a full two ninedays since the last time she had felt any demonsalts cravings at all.
“I sure hope so.” Lainie held out her arms. The fabric of her wet shirt clung to them. “We’d better do something about these wet clothes.”
Silas grinned and kissed her. “I have an idea.”
They left their clothes in a sodden heap on the packed dirt floor and made for the bed, just big enough for two, in the corner of the cabin. There, ravenous after the morning’s training session, they came together hard and fast, each of them as eager to satisfy the other’s hunger as their own.
Afterwards, sated and exhausted, Lainie fell asleep with one arm flung across Silas’s chest and her legs entwined with his. Silas lay half-drowsing, his muscles heavy with relaxation, but the thoughts worrying at his mind wouldn’t let him give in to sleep.
He and Lainie had been living in this cabin, in this small valley out here on the western edge of the settled part of the Wildings, for nearly three months, a brief, precious interval of peace and safety. On their way east to Bentwood Gulch last fall, they had passed this isolated valley, and when they needed refuge, they had headed back this way. They had arrived in mid-winter after a hard month or so of travel, just as the cold and snow and Lainie’s failing health had made it impossible for them to go any farther, and had found this place.
The one-room cabin was still solid even though it had been unoccupied for a few years; the owner was a rancher who had moved to a bigger house on the other side of his spread, closer to town. It was far enough away from town that no one would notice their magical activities but close enough that Silas could easily go in for the day to buy supplies. He had paid the owner a hundred and forty gildings for the cabin, its furnishings, the stable, a milk cow, a bunch of chickens, and grazing rights on the surrounding land for the horses, and had added in another fifty, with a promise of more, for the owner’s silence. In their time here, they hadn’t had a whiff of any other mages, hunter, rogue, or otherwise. But, as he had been reminded last night, their safety couldn’t last forever. If Lainie really was recovered from the demonsalts addiction, it was time to think about their next move.
Silas shifted; Lainie murmured something in her sleep and snuggled up closer to him. She would probably sleep the rest of the day, but Silas had business to attend to that couldn’t wait any longer. Careful not to disturb her, he got up and dressed in dry clothes. He used a drying spell to extract the rest of the water from his hat, much-mended duster, and boots, and put them on, then hung the rest of their wet things on a line outside to dry. With his gunbelt buckled on and his money and other necessities in the pocket of his coat, he sat down on the bed to kiss Lainie goodbye.
She opened sleep-soft eyes. “Where you goin’?”
“Town. Got some things I need to take care of there. Will you be okay here by yourself for a while? I’ll put up a shield.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Want me to bring you anything?”
“I’d like some more canned applesauce. And another book if they have any new ones.”
“Got it,” he said. He had something else in mind to bring her, as well. If he wasn’t mistaken, her twentieth birthday was soon, within a nineday, and though it was a little early, the time had come to give her the gift he’d picked out for her.
“And be careful,” she added. “Don’t take too long.”
He kissed her again. “You know I’ll be careful. I’ve no intention of leaving you all alone out here. You be careful, too. Stay put inside the shield and don’t go anywhere.”
“I’ll be good. I promise.”
Outside the cabin, the clouds Lainie had gathered had broken up and drifted away. The new spring grass, still damp from the shower, bent and swayed in the near-constant wind that swept through the valley. Silas stopped and put up a shield around the cabin, that blurred the small structure to near-invisibility so it looked like no more than a smudge on the grassy range. The shield would also gently but firmly deflect from their path anyone who tried to approach the cabin, and would hide Lainie’s regenerating power from magical searches. He blended the shield with the surrounding flows of natural and magical energy so that an ordinary search for shields would slide past it, then imbued it with enough of his own power to make it last well into the evening. Satisfied that Lainie would be safe while he was gone, he walked through the mud and puddles in the yard to the stable.
As he saddled Abenar, his thoughts turned to the message, scrawled in an unfamiliar hand, that had appeared in his Hidden Council message box last night. It’s worse than we thought. Don’t trust anyone.
He hadn’t mentioned the message to Lainie; he wasn’t sure what to make of it himself. It was the first word he had received from the Hidden Council since last summer, when he had written to them asking them to look into the identity of Carden’s backers in the ore-mining scheme and then to inform them of Verl Bissom’s and Garis Horden’s deaths. He had buried his Mage Council message box out in the Bads so that the Mage Council couldn’t trace his location through it, but the member of the Hidden Council who had given him the Hidden Council box had assured him that, for reasons of security and secrecy, it was untraceable. Now, with the Hidden Council discovered, maybe even betrayed from within, Silas dearly hoped and prayed that was true.
Though the message was cryptic, it only made him more certain that the danger to him and Lainie was real, and that it was greater than he knew. Even if the Mage Council didn’t know about Lainie’s ability to manipulate other mages’ power, they had to know about his and Lainie’s unapproved marriage and that he was teaching Lainie himself, in violation of the law that all mages had to be trained at authorized schools of magic in Granadaia. Why else would there be an eight hundred gilding bounty on his head? And Orl Fazar’s orders to assassinate him along with Bissom and Horden, two other hunters allied with the Hidden Council, proved that the Mage Council knew he had ties to the Hidden Council. Whether or not the Mage Council knew about Lainie’s unusual abilities, she was still in danger because of her association with him.
He hadn’t wanted to trouble Lainie with the question of going all the way out west to Amber Bay while she worked through the demonsalts cravings, so he hadn’t brought up the idea again since they left Bentwood Gulch. He understood why she didn’t want to go; she didn’t want to leave her Pa, and, though she hadn’t said so outright, he knew she didn’t want to give up all hope of having the Mage Council approve their marriage and remove his fertility block. And the trip across the lands controlled by the hostile and demanding P’wagimet was long, dangerous, and expensive. But he couldn’t let the idea go. The thought of Lainie captured, imprisoned, Stripped, even tortured and killed by the Mage Council was worse than any obstacle they would face or sacrifice they would have to make to find safety.
At the same time, he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that even Amber Bay might not be far enough. The journey across the plains, while long and difficult, wasn’t impossible, and there was no reason why other mages couldn’t travel out there. If the bounty on him was a rich eight hundred gildings, how much would the Mage Council offer for Lainie, with her unusual and forbidden talents? The price on his and Lainie’s heads would almost certainly be high enough to make the trip worth it for any sufficiently intrepid mage hunter.
And then there was his duty of honor to Garis Horden, his fellow mage hunter and Hidden Council ally, to inform Horden’s widow, Adelin, of his death and return his belongings to her. Somehow, he and Lainie were going to have to travel all the way east to Piney Ridge, which was perilously close to the Gap, the only pass between the Wildings and Granadaia, to see Mrs. Horden, then make their way thousands of leagues west to Amber Bay, all without being discovered by other mages.
Maybe hardest of all, he was also going to have to convince Lainie that going west was their only choice.
In the meantime, though, he had a more pleasant task to attend to. He smiled at the thought of Lainie’s face when he presented her with the gift he was planning to buy for her. With his power carefully shielded, in case any mages were around, he mounted up and headed for town.
* * *
FROM THE CABIN to the town of Windy Valley was an easy ride of about two hours. The town wasn’t large, even by Wildings standards, but there were enough ranches in the area to support a cattlemen’s cooperative, a bank, a general mercantile, and a second shop, intriguingly named Fine Things. That shop had caught Silas’s eye the first time he came into town, and he had been pleased to discover on a later visit that it had exactly the item he needed, the gift he was planning to buy for Lainie today.
He left Abenar at the hitching post outside Fine Things and went in. The shop, dimly lit by the afternoon sun coming in through the single barred window, was filled with elegant furniture carved of fragrant golden, red, and black woods. In the corner stood a dress form displaying a loose, sleeveless silk gown, deep blue embroidered all over with gold flowers. Silas wondered how Lainie would look in it; he had never seen her in a dress. A glass case beneath the shop counter held a wide assortment of jewelry, fancy knives, little enameled boxes, embroidered handkerchiefs, carved wood figurines, and all sorts of other decorative and useful items.
The owner of the shop, a foreigner from across the sea, stood at the counter, playing a one-man game with a deck of Dragon’s Threes cards. He looked up from his game, and a smile split his broad amber face and crinkled his dark, tilted eyes. His head was topped with a shock of tightly curling red hair. “Ah,” he said, putting down his cards. “Mr. – ah – Forgive me, I have forgotten your name.”
“Vendine,” Silas said, putting another name-slip charm on his name as he spoke it. Remembering the mistake he had made with Oferdon, when he came into town he checked every person he encountered for magic, no matter how brief his contact with them was, and now he ascertained once again that the shopkeeper didn’t have any magical power. “Do you still have that ring I was looking at?”
“Of course, Mr. Vendine. Of course. After you expressed interest in it on your previous visit, I set it aside. Not that many people have been coming in to buy rings in the last month,” he added ruefully. His rolling accent gave a dramatic lilt to his words.
“That’ll change in the fall, after the drive, when the ranchers and their hands have been paid,” Silas said.
“So I understand. So much to learn, being in a new land. Now then, here it is.”
As the shopkeeper spoke, he opened a cabinet behind the counter, and now he set a tiny box carved of red wood on the counter. He opened the box with a flourish to display the ring inside, resting on a bed of ivory silk.
Silas bent over the counter to study the ring again, to make sure it was the right one. This was a choice that, once made, could not be easily undone. The ring was gold, of delicate work, set with three faceted round stones, the largest stone flanked on each side by a smaller gem. The stones were a soft, dark red, a slightly deeper shade of the rose color of Lainie’s power. Silas reached out with his mage senses, feeling out the natural patterns and energies of the gold and the stones to make sure they were compatible with the unique texture and patterns of Lainie’s power.
The ring would suit her perfectly, he decided, confirming his earlier impression. And it was a beautiful ring. Again he smiled, imagining Lainie’s delight when she saw it. “I’ll take it,” he said.
“Very good, Mr. – forgive me, my memory is poor today.”
“Mr. Vendine. Will you be bringing the lady in to have it fitted?”
“I can take care of that.”
“Ah.” The shopkeeper gave him a knowing smile. “You know a bit of the jeweler’s craft, then?”
“You might say that.”
“Very well, then. If need be, you can bring her here at any time in the future if additional adjustments are needed.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind. What do I owe you?”
The shopkeeper’s smile was replaced by a serious look. “Ah, the price. As you can see, Mr. Velding, this is an exceptionally fine piece. It is rare to find three such perfectly matched gems, and the exquisite goldwork took considerable time and skill on the part of the goldsmith, which made it quite expensive. If I am to gain a fair profit from this sale, I fear that I can accept no less than eighty gildings.”
Silas took the appropriate coins from his pocket and dropped them on the counter.
The shopkeeper stared open-mouthed for a moment, then smiled again. “Ah. Thank you very much, sir. Most customers would have tried to bargain me down somewhat; indeed I was expecting you to.”
“This is too important,” Silas said. Which was true. In fact, he had been prepared to pay twice as much. The trip out west to Amber Bay – assuming he could convince Lainie to go – would be expensive, and that eighty gildings might have made a difference in whether or not they could afford it. But they could always earn more money, while the incident with the Ta’ayatan clan had made it clear to Silas that Lainie would need her mage ring before they ventured back out into the wide and perilous world.
“I see. Thank you, sir.” The shopkeeper placed the box with the ring in it in a small ivory silk pouch and pulled the drawstring closed.
As Silas watched the foreign man and pondered his future plans, an idea formed in his mind. “You can make up for it by satisfying my curiosity on a few things.”
“Why, certainly, Mr. Venning. Talk, as they say, is cheap.”
“To get here from your country, did you sail to Granadaia or to Amber Bay?”
“We sailed what you call the western sea, to Amber Bay. I have not yet set foot in this fabled land of Granadaia.”
“How much was the passage?” Lainie would never go for it. If she didn’t want to go to Amber Bay, sailing across the sea to a foreign land was out of the question. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to ask. He was curious, that was all.
“It was –” The shopkeeper looked up for a moment as though searching his memory. “The equivalent of twenty-five gildings each, for my passage and my wife’s. Our three children, being small, sailed for only fifty gildings for all three of them. Our goods cost another twenty-five to ship. And, of course, we needed to bring enough money to make our start here in this new land; I acquired a house and this shop for two hundred and forty gildings. And then there was the cost of crossing the grasslands with the trade wagons, which was ninety gildings and a small portion of our trade goods as tribute to the folk of the grasslands.”
Silas added up the numbers in his head. Even considering the cost of crossing the P’wagimet lands and a trip to Piney Ridge beforehand, it was well within his and Lainie’s means. “I suppose it would be the same going the other way?”
“You are perhaps thinking of making a voyage?” The shopkeeper’s smile drooped. “I am desolated to tell you this, sir, but, unfortunately, it would cost considerably more. You see, my homeland and the neighboring countries do not encourage immigration. As well, because of the nature and amounts of goods that are being shipped back from this continent, there is less accommodation available for passengers on the ships. I believe passage would cost in the neighborhood of four hundred gildings per person.”
Silas’s mind nearly went blank at the number. Four hundred gildings was more than he used to earn in bounties in a good year.
“There would also be the cost for shipping your belongings and your animals,” the shopkeeper went on, “assuming you wished to bring that fine gray beast with you and your dear lady’s animal as well, if she has one. And then there would be your entry permits and residence papers, and the required amount to establish yourself in a home and occupation.”
As the shopkeeper spoke, he wrote down figures, and Silas wondered exactly what goods were being shipped from the Wildings to the foreign lands that were so valuable and took up so much room in the ships. Raw materials for the scientific inventions that were made in those lands, such guns and clocks and ammunition and so forth, he supposed. Items that were highly valued in the Wildings and no doubt made a tidy fortune for their foreign manufacturers.
“And even before you set sail,” the shopkeeper went on, “the grasslands must be crossed. If you are not associated with a trading enterprise, that would require the purchase of a wagon and a pair of draft animals to pull it – your riding beasts, fine as they are, would be insufficient to the task – along with a place in the caravan and supplies for the journey. You would also be required to provide fees and gifts to the native people of the grasslands. All of this, I understand, would total approximately four hundred gildings. And once you arrive in Amber Bay, you will have to wait as long as a month, or possibly even longer, for the next ship with room for passengers to depart.”
He handed Silas the paper with the figures on it. Silas’s mind boggled; the estimated cost to travel to Amber Bay and across the sea and settle in a foreign land was between eighteen and nineteen hundred gildings. While he and Lainie had something in the neighborhood of sixteen hundred gildings left of the two thousand Brin Coltor had paid them.
It was too expensive, and Lainie would never agree to it, and in any case it wasn’t a decision to be made lightly, but still… It was something to keep in mind if the situation with the Mage Council turned out to be as bad as he feared it might be. “How do folks feel about wizards where you’re from?”
“Wizards?” The shopkeeper chuckled a little. “Dear sir, everyone knows that magic does not exist,” he said with absolute certainty.
“I see. Not that it matters anyhow, if I can’t afford to go.” Silas pocketed the pouch containing the ring box and tipped his hat to the shopkeeper. “Nice doing business with you.”
“And with you as well, sir. Oh!” the shopkeeper exclaimed as Silas turned to leave. “I’ve just remembered something.”
Silas paused. “What is it?”
“I have heard,” the shopkeeper went on, “that the cattlemen’s cooperative association is still hiring hands for the cattle drive this year. If one desired to earn some money.”
The cattle drive. Silas hadn’t thought of that. He wasn’t a cowhand; it had never occurred to him to seek out that kind of work. But he’d heard that a hand on the big annual cattle drive to the Gap could earn fifteen gildings a month or more for the four or five months of the drive, plus a handsome bonus after the cattle were sold. Cooks could earn even more, and Lainie was an excellent cook. He worked the figures out in his head, and came up with a number well over two hundred gildings, which would put him and Lainie at least within easy reach of what they would need to travel to the lands across the sea.
Going on the drive would also get them to Piney Ridge without spending any additional money. And if they hid their power, laid low, and blended in with the rest of the drive crew, they could avoid drawing the notice of other mages along the way and at the Gap. Once they got to the Gap, they would have to be careful of all the mages there for the market. But with so many mages around, a shield on his power would likely go undetected, and Lainie’s power was invisible to non-Wildings-born mages when it was suppressed. Traveling among a large group of Plains who more likely than not hated wizards would present its own difficulties, but, on the whole, despite the risks, this could be the solution to their problems. And he knew that Lainie missed the ranch; she might enjoy the chance to return to the life she had grown up with, even if only for a few months.
“Thanks,” he said. “I do believe I’ll look into that.”
Copyright 2015 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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