Mages' Home (Defenders of the Wildings Book 1)
(warning: contains mild spoilers for Daughter of the Wildings!)
Amber Bay, early spring
GIDEJONI CAJALI STEPPED off the gangplank onto the dock and took a deep breath of the air of this faraway land. Salty from the sea, brisk with the chill of early spring, it cleared away the cobwebs of the long journey. Around him, Amber Bay, true to its name, shone gold in the rays of the sun lowering to the sea’s distant blue horizon. Even on this newest model of steamship, the voyage had seemed endless, and it was good to be back on land again.
It wasn’t just the tedium of the journey that had made these past few months difficult to endure. His concerns about what the Union meant to do in this land had been weighing upon his mind even before the voyage began. During the voyage, the necessity of hiding any hint of those concerns and his intention to do something about them had made even the simplest interactions with his colleagues fraught with peril. As well, he had no way of knowing if the plans he had laid at home to safeguard his family were unfolding as intended or if they had been discovered by the Commission.
But at the moment, he was safely on dry land, out of the close quarters of the ship, and able to breathe freely. He would not worry about things he had no control over; now was the time to focus on the path ahead and trust that the men he had placed his faith in were indeed worthy of that faith.
The brief sensation of freedom faded as Cajali’s fellow underministers, Dorbiza and Semov, followed him onto the dock, trailed by a gaggle of assistants and guards. The ocean voyage may have finally come to an end, but the need to hide his thoughts and aims from his colleagues had not.
A tall, dark man came forward from the mass of people waiting at the docks. He was wearing a black suit in the style of the businessmen of this continent; Cajali and Semov had attired themselves in similar suits rather than the brown uniform of Chardonikan officials, in hopes that doing so would smooth the way for their dealings with these people.
The forefinger of the man’s right hand bore a broad gold ring set with a dark red stone. Cajali kept a wary, curious eye on the wizard’s ring, half-expecting flames or sparks to suddenly shoot from it. After a lifetime of being told otherwise by his government, now that the truth had been revealed to him in preparation for this mission, he found it difficult to believe that the mysterious forces the wizards claimed to command really existed.
The wizard bowed to Cajali and his colleagues. “Underministers. Welcome to Amber Bay and the Granadaian continent,” he said in passable Chardonikan.
Lut Dorbiza’s lip curled very slightly as he regarded the wizard through narrowed eyes. His pale skin was chapped red by weeks of sun and wind at sea – Cajali’s own ebony-hued skin had, fortunately, proved more resistant to the elements, as had Semov’s amber complexion – but the sunburn did nothing to warm his expression. His long, high-necked, close-fitting brown robe and flat, round cap, the attire of his homeland on which the official uniform of the Chardonikan Union was modeled, were impeccably formal. “Mr. Edavias, I presume?” he said with distaste.
With another bow, the wizard said, “I am at your service, Underministers.”
“How does the project progress?” Dorbiza asked.
“Very well, Underminister. A working prototype has been constructed by your excellent scientists, under my advisement, and we have obtained more of the substance to fuel it.”
Another man stepped forward. His pale lavender skin, strange silver eyes, and long, twisted locks of dark red hair marked him as one of the natives of the western half of this continent. The muscles of his bare arms and chest bulged under the weight of the metal box he was carrying.
Edavias moved away from the native man, putting a distance between himself and the box. As Cajali observed the wizard’s unease, his concerns nagged at him. He carefully composed his expression to avoid revealing them.
“That is the substance?” Dorbiza asked, directing his question to the lavender-skinned man.
The native answered in perfect Chardonikan. “It is, Underministers. A gift from the P’wagimet people in exchange for the Chardonikan Union’s generous considerations in the past and in the future. This is only a sample. Greater quantities are being safely stored in the place where the weapons are being made.”
“Of course,” the wizard added, “because of the difficulties in transporting the devices, they must be manufactured much closer to the Wildings – what you call the Central Territories. And it is more convenient to have the mission’s headquarters there, as you know.”
“Excellent,” Dorbiza said, again addressing the P’wagimet man. “And this material, it works as promised?”
“It has been extensively tested, Underminister,” the wizard answered, edging yet a little further away from the box. “I think you three gentlemen and your leaders will be more than pleased. Miss Dorbiza – forgive me, Madam Commander Dorbiza – looks forward to giving you a more detailed report in person.”
Dorbiza gave him a dismissive glance. “Of course.”
Faced with the reality of the wizard before him – not a legend, not a rumor, not something out of the history books, neither an inhuman monster nor a mindless beast, but a living, breathing human being – Cajali could no longer remain silent. To speak was risky, but his conscience demanded he say something.
“Are we certain this is absolutely necessary?” he asked his colleagues, trying to say what needed to be said in a way that wouldn’t bring suspicion or censure upon himself. “It seems to me that the cost of the devices and the difficulty of making them are far greater than any benefit this tactic might provide. Even considering the generous donation of the key material by this man’s people.” He nodded to the native man.
“If you are having doubts, Mr. Cajali,” Dorbiza said mildly, “please feel free to remove yourself from this assignment and express your concerns to the High Commission.”
Fear twisted Cajali’s stomach. The images of his wife and children, who might yet be within the reach of the Commission, went through his mind. If Dorbiza sent a message accusing Cajali of being less than completely loyal, the message would take months to reach the Commission. But once such a message was on its way, the plans Cajali had made to protect his family would be greatly imperiled. For their sakes, and the sake of his plans, he must not say any more, no matter what his conscience required.
“Of course I’m not having doubts, Mr. Dorbiza,” he said. “I am simply concerned with the economic success of this venture. But if you and Mr. Semov are convinced that this measure is necessary, I will not argue with that. Expansion and Regulation are your areas of authority, not mine.”
“Excellent,” Dorbiza said. “We all clearly understand our duties, then.” He turned to the wizard. “We wish to rest from our journey tonight and depart Amber Bay in the morning.”
“Yes, Underministers,” Edavias said. “I have a carriage waiting right over here, to take you to your hotel. And a second carriage awaits your assistants.”
The underministers and their entourage followed the wizard and the native man to a pair of carriages waiting near the busy, crowded pier. Cajali climbed into the front carriage and sat back in the leather-padded seat, trying to let go of his troubled thoughts and enjoy this brief respite from traveling. All too soon, he would be faced with the demands of the next stage of the long journey and the difficult work that lay ahead.
Prairie Wells Township, later that spring
LAINIE FOCUSED A gentle beam of magic on the tomato seedling poking its leaves up from the ground. The limited stock of tomato seeds at Rikton’s Mercantile had sold out quickly, and she had been lucky to get her hands on some. Canned tomatoes from the canneries out at Amber Bay were somewhat costly; if she could get these seedlings to grow and bear fruit, there would be plenty of tomatoes to eat fresh and to preserve, and seeds for next year’s planting, which would be a great savings.
No one in the Wildings had yet figured out the foreign scientists’ secrets for preserving food in cans. But Lainie knew how to make pickled tomato conserves, spicy, savory, or sweet, and also how to preserve food with magic. If she could get enough bottles and jars together, she could even set aside some preserves for her friends. Some of them wouldn’t mind eating tomatoes grown and preserved with magic.
It hadn’t always been that way. Time was, not so long ago, mages in the Wildings wouldn’t have dared tell their non-magical neighbors, their friends, even their kin, what they were. But over the past six years or so, after Lainie and Silas defeated a band of powerful renegade mages who wanted to seize control of the Wildings, many of the Plain settlers had left off the old hate and fear, and more and more towns were making it illegal to harm or kill mages just for being mages. Her and Silas’s dream of making the Wildings a place where mages and Plain folk could live peacefully side by side was well on the way to coming true.
Lainie reached beneath the surface of the ground to pull in a little of the amber magic that flowed there and fed the power into the seedling. The ring on her right forefinger, slender gold set with three rose-colored gems, glowed a little with her effort. Then, having done her best to get that seedling to thrive, she sat back, enjoying the warmth of the spring sunshine on her face.
Around her, leagues and leagues of rolling golden-green rangeland stretched away to the horizon. A good part of it was her and Silas’s land. After living with their friends the Coltors up north in the Bentwood Valley for a time after that last fight, she and Silas had decided to move on. Now they were settled on their own ranch an hour’s ride northwest of the town of Prairie Wells, which sat somewhat south of the halfway point between Lainie’s hometown of Bitterbush Springs and Canyon View. The area was well-watered but still mostly unsettled, so there had been plenty of good land to choose from.
They had sunk most of their money into a starter herd that in four years had grown to over six hundred head. Next summer, they would have enough cattle to take a small herd to the Gap for the yearly cattle market, where buyers from Granadaia paid good gildings for cattle to supply meat to that heavily-populated country. With the money from the market, Lainie and Silas would be able to increase their herd even more and make some improvements to the ranch. A better bunkhouse for their three ranch hands, for one thing, and Lainie longed for an indoor water closet.
Happily planning what they would do with their earnings once the ranch finally started turning a profit, Lainie went back to encouraging her tomato seedlings to grow.
At Silas’s voice, she looked up from her gardening. He came walking around the corner of the house with Blake riding on his shoulders. Garis and Vera each stood on one of his feet, hanging onto his legs. He was holding baby Kessie out at arm’s length. Daisy and Dancer, the breeding pair of big, brown cattlehounds, followed, running and jumping and barking in excitement.
Blake, her and Silas’s firstborn, was named for Lainie’s brother, killed in the crossfire of a gunfight. Garis was named after a good man murdered by a renegade mage, and Vera bore the name of Lainie’s mother, who had died of a fever when Lainie was six. Kesta, or Kessie for short, was named in honor of the A’ayimat healer-woman who had made it possible for Lainie and Silas to have children at all. Sometimes, Lainie wondered if it should bother her that three of her four children were named after people who had died far too young, but names weren’t destiny, and naming children after those who had gone before was a fitting and joyful way to honor their memory.
“Kessie need changed?” she asked, standing up and brushing dirt off her hands onto her pants.
“Yep. I think she’s hungry, too, and I’m not equipped for that.”
Lainie took the baby from Silas, wrinkling her nose as she got a whiff of Kessie’s diaper. A change, indeed. “I’ll take care of her. You all go on back to what you were doing.”
“Pa’s gonna let me chop wood for the fence!” Blake shouted. Like all the children, he had Silas’s dark hair and eyes. His skin was darker than Lainie’s, but her freckles still showed across his nose. Inside him, his power was just beginning to unfold, a sputtering but bright glow the blue of the spring sky.
“Not yet, son,” Silas said. “You can’t use the axe till you’re seven, remember?”
“You said I can chop when I’m six, and I’m almost six.”
“I changed my mind.”
“But, Pa!” Blake protested.
“Keep asking and you’ll have to wait till you’re eight.”
“I wanna chop too!” Garis shouted.
“Chop! Chop!” curly-haired Vera echoed.
“No chopping,” Silas said. “You sprouts are going to help me count and measure the fence posts.” He leaned down, a bit off-balance with the excited boy on his shoulders, and kissed Lainie, a lingering kiss that after all these years still made tingles go up her spine. “We’ll be around back.”
“Holler if you need me,” she replied.
As Silas turned away, Lainie remembered something. “Oh, I meant to tell you, Ap got back from town a while ago. He says there’s going to be a meeting tomorrow with that new foreign company that’s come to town. They’re going to talk about what they’re doing here, that sort of thing.”
“Huh. I’ve been wondering about them, but no one seems to know anything,” Silas said.
“When’s the meeting?”
“Three o’clock, at the Thirsty Cow.”
“You want to come?”
Lainie thought about it, weighing all the different demands on her time and attention. “I’ll admit I’m curious. But I figure the hands will want to go too, and if they don’t, they’ll be busy with chores. So I’ll stay with the children and you can tell me all about it when you get home.”
“I’ll do that,” Silas said, then he and his passengers headed back around the corner of the house.
Lainie watched them go, wondering what the new foreign company was planning. Whatever it was, if new companies were coming to Prairie Wells, surely that meant more prosperous times ahead for the township, and for her and Silas.
A hungry squall from Kessie and another whiff of full diaper called Lainie back to the here and now. “Come on, baby girl,” she said. “Let’s get you fixed up.”
* * *
IT HAD BEEN more than a nineday since Silas was last in town. As he rode in the next afternoon with his three ranch hands, the first thing that caught his eye was a two-story building across from the saloon that hadn’t been there before. He remembered some new construction just starting up in that spot, not an unusual sight in a new settlement, but now there the building stood, two floors high, with an even higher false front. Big, freshly-painted red letters on the false front proudly proclaimed, Continental Message Wire and Rail Wagon Company.
“That sure went up fast,” he remarked.
“What in the world are message wires and rail wagons?” Eck asked. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Silas hadn’t heard of them, either. If Eck, who was older and pretty well-read for a cowhand, didn’t know what they were, then he didn’t reckon anyone else in town did. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
Silas and his hands tethered their horses in the nearest empty hitching spots, then Ap and Joren went off to find their friends among the other ranch hands who had come to town. Among them was young Torrin Ardiss, who worked for one of Silas’s neighbors. Silas reached out with his mage senses; Torrin’s newly-sprouting power was continuing to unfold, a deep blue-violet. In keeping with the young man’s dark hair and deep tan, his power carried a definite strain of Island heritage, akin to Silas’s own.
Before much longer, Torrin’s power would be strong enough for him to notice it, and to start showing itself in inconvenient or even dangerous ways. He would have to talk to Torrin soon, Silas thought, or maybe he should speak with his boss first. Most Plain settlers were more accepting of mages than they used to be, but it would still come as a shock for one to discover he was actually a wizard himself, or that he had one working for him. It would be better if Silas brought up the subject ahead of time instead of letting them be taken by surprise.
Over near the Thirsty Cow Saloon, Silas spotted Ashlund, Torrin’s boss, standing with Norden, another neighboring rancher, and Norden’s young foreman Chase Billenton. He and Eck walked over, and the men greeted each other with handshakes and slaps on the shoulders.
“Any idea what this is all about?” Silas asked.
“No more than you, I reckon,” Ashlund replied.
“Not a clue, then. How’s that keeper charm working that I set on your cows, Norden?”
“Never saw nothing like it. Those wandering cows quit wandering, just like if they was told to. You wizards got your uses, I reckon,” Norden said with a friendly grin.
After the events of six and seven years ago, there had been no point in Silas and Lainie trying to hide who they were. Fortunately, most of the folk of Prairie Wells Township had quickly warmed up to the idea of wizards in their midst. Those who hadn’t were at least polite to Silas and Lainie’s faces, whatever they might think or say in private. And no one had tried to hang them, a definite improvement over how things used to be.
“Hey, there’s Garrow,” Ashlund said. He waved, and Eli Garrow, whose farm bordered Ashlund’s spread, came over with his two oldest sons. Though both boys were still in their teens, they were even bigger than their father and had brown beards just as bushy as his.
“Where’s your youngest?” Silas asked Garrow as they all greeted each other.
The big farmer shrugged. “Dax and them foreigners been thick as biter-bugs over the slough in mid-summer. I reckon he probably knows something about all this, but he ain’t sayin’. Of course, him being fifteen, it’s no surprise anyhow he don’t talk to us.”
“Speaking of thick,” Eck said with a sideways jerk of his head.
Silas looked over that way and saw Barlet, the rancher who was currently president of the cattlemen’s co-op, standing with the co-op manager, the bank clerk who acted as treasurer, and Meerson, another rancher. All four of them had their heads close together.
Norden scowled. “Who went and voted Meerson into the co-op leadership?”
“Thinks just because him and Barlet married sisters, he don’t need to be voted in,” Ashlund said. “New vote’s coming up this winter; hopefully it’ll shake things up. You thought of standing for it?” he asked Silas.
“Nope. I don’t reckon folks are that comfortable with wizards yet, to vote for one as co-op president. Anyhow,” Silas added, grinning, “it’s too much paperwork for me. If you want to stand, I’ll be behind you all the way.”
“Same here,” Norden said.
“I’ll admit, I’m thinking on it,” Ashlund said.
“Nice thing about bein’ a farmer,” Garrow said. “None of this co-op politics to worry about. Town politics is enough for me. Looks like everyone’s heading inside; let’s go see what this is all about.”
Copyright 2018 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.