Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series) (3 page)

BOOK: Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series)
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The mage rubbed his knees and watched the two cradling their mugs. He smiled and reached inside his pocket for his tobacco and pipe. ‘Do you mind?’ he asked. The woman shook her head. She found herself watching the mage closely as he packed the bowl of his briar-root pipe with the tobacco. It was the cheap sort. More like bark shavings than the shredded moss. He didn’t seem to care. He had the look of a man several weeks of wine past caring. He put the pipe to his lips and pressed his little finger into the bowl, a lick of flame hovering around its tip. A few moments later and he was sucking happily on the pipe, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling, much to the little girl’s pleasure.

‘So,’ grunted the mage. ‘You’re not from the Crumbled Empire, I can’t hear any of that in your accent. Definitely south, but not too south, by your skin. I’d say Arka, if I had to guess. Essen, to be exact.’

The woman raised her mug. ‘And you would guess correctly, stranger.’

The man held up his hands and exhaled smoke. ‘I’m at an advantage. It’s hard not to recognise your own accent,’ he said, clapping his chest, ‘Arka myself, as you’ve probably guessed.’

‘Well, mage, I fear that your keen ear is wasted in your current employ.’

The mage laughed heartily then, until a cough caught him, and he thumped his chest with his fist to get it out.

The woman smiled, confused. ‘I wasn’t aware I made a joke.’

‘You didn’t, lady. I’ve just never heard being a mage like me described so light-heartedly.’

‘Well, isn’t it your job?’

The mage held the pipe in his mouth, testing it against his teeth, eyes half-closed, thinking long and hard. ‘Curse, more like it.’

The woman looked shocked. ‘A curse?’

The mage shuffled in his seat and blew another smoke ring towards the girl. He was rewarded with a giggle. ‘Any path that leads a man to, to
this
,’ he gestured at the tarred pine walls and ceiling of the tavern, ‘is bloody cursed.’

The woman smiled politely. ‘But is it the path, or the way the man treads it?’ she asked.

The mage shrugged, brushing off the question. ‘So,’ he said. ‘What brings you through Jorpsund? Trading? Rich husband send for you and the girl? Not much of a country for sight-seeing, is it?’

The woman shook her head and took a careful sip of her drink. ‘We are in search of an education,’ she said, nodding towards her little girl.

‘For your daughter?’

The woman nodded.

‘So you’re heading to a school?’

‘You could say that.’

‘I see.’

‘And you? What business brings you out this far along the Fool Roads?’

The mage waved the stem of his pipe in the air, shaking his head. ‘Aptly named, those roads.’

‘I’ve never understood them. Is it foolish to want to explore? Foolish to seek strange lands and new peoples?’

‘They call them that because of the people that tread them, lady, as far as I’ve seen. You could say that’s what brings me out here. On a fool’s errand.’

‘And what is that, good sir?’

The mage turned around to check on the cloth-wrapped box sat nestled against the foot of the bar. Darnums was still staring at him, furiously polishing glasses. The mage rested his elbows on his knees and his chin on his pipe. ‘Secret,’ he whispered, winking at the little girl.

‘I like secrets,’ said the girl, in a voice as clear and musical as a bell made of glass, bright as her eyes. The mage held her inquisitive gaze for a moment and then turned to the girl’s mother, who was combing her tangled fringe with her fingers. She sensed a trade was coming.

‘I’ll tell you my secret if you tell me your names,’ offered the mage.

‘Our names?’ she asked. She gave him a shy smile. A secret in exchange for a brace of names. ‘And what would you want with those?’

A moment passed as a smoke ring drifted to the ceiling. ‘What any man would want; to use them. Would you prefer me to call you “woman” and “girl” all evening?’

The woman looked at the little girl, who had already caught on to the game. ‘I see. And what gave you the idea you would be spending the evening with us?’

The mage shrugged. ‘Your choice.’

‘Tell you what. My daughter’s name for the secret, and my name for a glimpse of what you’re hiding in that box of yours,’ said the woman. She uncurled a finger from the warm handle of the mug and pointed towards the bar, towards the mage’s empty stool and the box between its legs. She had a sly glint in her smoky eyes. ‘And your name, as well. Unless you’d like me to call you “sir” or “mage” all night?’

The mage bit the mouthpiece of his pipe and drummed his grimy fingernails against its wooden bowl. He shook his head, closed his eyes, and stuck out a hand, which the woman shook daintily. ‘Thialf,’ whispered the man. ‘Manesmark, born and bred.’

‘A pleasure to meet you, Thialf. The little one is Samara, and my name is Lilith.’

‘Lilith eh?’ mused the man. ‘A pretty name for a pretty woman.’

The hollows beneath Lilith’s cheekbones turned a soft crimson. Thialf wondered if it was still all an act. He was starting to hope it wasn’t.

‘And Samara. What an interesting name.’ The little girl smiled at this. ‘Did you choose it?’ Thialf turned back to her mother.

‘I did indeed.’

‘I’ve never heard it before. What is it, Paraian?’

Lilith shrugged, looking down at the little girl, who was now perched on the very edge of her stool, an inch from falling off. She was busy cradling her warm mug and swinging her legs back and forth as quickly as she could. ‘It just came to me one day,’ she said.

‘Fair enough,’ grunted Thialf. He stood up and adjusted his belt. He sauntered over to the bar to fetch his cloth-covered box and wine. He gave Darnums a wink before he returned to Lilith. He could feel the heat of the landlord’s eyes on the back of his neck as he returned to the little fire and the enraptured females. There might have even been a little swagger in the way he walked, and this time it was not because of his wine.

With a thud he set his half-empty glass and almost-empty bottle on the little table and placed his box very gently on his lap. There was a handle at the top of the box, under the thick, grey cloth, and Thialf held onto it while he topped up his glass with the remainder of the pungent, purple wine. Lilith tried hard not to wrinkle her nose at its vinegary smell. He looked around the little tavern, trying to see if the other patrons were watching, which, of course, they were trying
very
hard not to do. They had watched the mage and the box for hours. They murmured between themselves, feigning conversation and sipping their ales while they waited for the reveal, stealthily leaning into better viewpoints and shuffling in their moth-bitten armchairs. Even Darnums was intrigued. For the moment, his glass and cloth lay dormant in his hands.

Thialf lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. ‘You might have heard the rumours in your travels, you might not, but it’s common knowledge in Krauslung that something’s happening to the magick in Emaneska. Something wrong they say. Something in the water.’ The mage took a sip of his wine. ‘I’ll be damned if I can feel it, like the Arkmages and the others claim, but I can see it, I’ll tell you that. I see it on every street corner of every town and city I’ve wandered through. They’re all the same now. Magick markets. Spell pedlars. Charm merchants. Meddlers the lot of them. Amateurs. I even see it in the wilds too, and if I don’t see it then I hear it. Rumours of strange beasts and creatures emerging from the forests at night to hunt magick and meat. Magick bending trees to the ground. Magick tainting the waters of a well. It’s like a disease that everybody seems to welcome. Even Albion, superstitious Albion, whose Dukes had their spell books and spell-libraries burnt out of fear, usher these magick markets through their gates. I remember when magick used to be a privilege, a skill, not something to be worn on a finger to bring good luck and light your mansion at night.’

‘You sound bitter about it.’

‘That I am.’

‘But why? From what I hear the magick markets are booming. Trade has never been better.’

‘And what of us mages? What of us Written?’

Lilith held a hand to her mouth, almost dropping her mug. ‘You’re a Written?’ she whispered. At her side, Samara leant forward a fraction more.

‘One of the last I am. Look at what’s become of us now. Sent on errands like common mages. Fools’ errands like this.’ Thialf venomously flicked his box with a finger, a bitter sneer on his purple lips. Something fluttered beneath the cloth. ‘Now there are farmhands being recruited into the army. Farm boys and peasants with stirrings of real magick in them, casting spells like they think they deserve to. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Whatever’s happening to the magick in this world, it’s pushing the real magick users into the shadows.’

Lilith pointed to the box. ‘And what is your errand?’

Thialf frowned. ‘The reason I’m out here in this backside of nowhere is simple. With so much magick around these days, and so many magick markets travelling to and fro, it’s getting dangerous. More often than not, the merchants end up eaten or beaten. Creatures or bandits, that’s their fate. And the Arkmages can’t have that, can they? Not when they are so insistent on controlling the traffic of such things. No. Such a trade is too insistent to ignore, and too profitable to ban, so instead they act as its enforcers, like the good old days of the Arkabbeys, except that this time, the glory is confined to shepherding trade caravans, frisking merchants, and hunting down whatever nuisances rear their head.’ Thialf quaffed the rest of his wine and let the glass drop on the table, making little Samara jump. ‘M’sorry. Frustrating, is all,’ he grunted.

Lilith nodded sympathetically, and then reached out her left hand to pat Thialf’s. ‘I understand,’ she sighed.

Thialf looked down at her slender hand resting on his grubby knuckles. ‘So you want to know what I’m doing out here then?’ he asked. His little audience nodded. There was a round of creaking as the other patrons quietly shuffled forward, coughing and mumbling.

‘Faeries.’

‘Faeries?’ gasped Samara.

‘That’s right. A whole swarm of them. They’ve been terrorising some of the Rolian caravans moving up from the Shattered Isles. Causing quite the ruckus, until I was sent to solve the problem. Three weeks, I’ve been hunting them down. Three weeks I’ve been alone, scouring the wilds for the little bastards, ‘scuse my language. You see, they can turn invisible at whim, which makes catching them all the more bloody difficult. Yesterday I finally caught the last one.’ A proud look came over Thialf’s face then, a look that momentarily replaced his bitter mask. His finger tapped the handle of his cage as he slowly gathered the corners of the cloth in a tight fist. With a gentle tug, the cloth unravelled and fell onto the mage’s lap, revealing a strange and vicious-looking creature.

Samara finally came off the edge of her stool and inched forward, her face the very picture of fascination. Lilith held her back ever so gently. Thialf was too busy testing the bars of the cage to notice that she was not staring at the creature, not in the slightest. She was staring at the mage instead.

Thialf prodded each of the bars, careful to keep his fingertips away from the little beast’s maw. Though the base and roof of the cage were thick oak, the bars were iron, and were covered in tiny notches and scratches, where the teeth of the faerie had been busy gnawing. Samara knelt down so she could meet the thing at eye level. It was too busy watching Thialf’s tasty-looking fingers to notice her.

Insect-winged, with skin mottled like old, forgotten bone, the faerie stood as tall as a man’s hand, no more, and no less. It was the shape of a man too, for the most part, though disproportionately elongated and hunched. In the weak, fluttering glow of the soup-pot fireplace, its skin took on an almost translucent quality. Samara could almost see tiny veins, no wider than the thinnest thread, pumping blue and purple under its pale hide. Sprouting from its back were two pairs of wings, crystallised like that of a dragonfly. These too were throbbing with nervous, purple veins. Its head was an ugly, twisted stump, barely more than an ambitious neck, with scarcely enough room for a cluster of blue eyes and a savage, salivating mouth filled with rows and rows of needle teeth. There was a smear of dried crimson on its milky chest, where a cage of spiny ribs protruded so prominently from its shape that they looked as though they would break through the papery skin at any moment. The strangest thing about it was the noise it made. Aside from the snap and hum of its twitching, crystalline wings, it made a constant chattering sound with its jaws, as though its very teeth rattled in their sockets. It sounded as though it was on the verge of speaking, when suddenly it spat a guttural word that sounded almost like
Clatterfoot!
Thunderboot!
Whatever it was, it wasn’t any language anybody in the tavern had heard before. The beast was an ugly, vicious thing, from the serrated claws of its feet and hands to its tree-stump of a head. Samara found herself loathing it on sight alone. She crossed her arms and gazed at it, calmly.

As Thialf’s fingers wandered around the bars, the faerie followed them. It gnashed and bit, making a terrible noise that had most of the tavern’s patrons on their feet. Darnums was now hovering nearby, brandishing a gnarled bat that he had produced from somewhere. As the creature followed the fingers it suddenly met the serene gaze of the little girl kneeling barely two foot away. It was as if the beast had suddenly been jolted by a lightning spell. It threw itself at the metal bars, straining and stretching to claw at the face of the girl. Its wings fluttered so fast they became a blur. Little sparks flew from the metal as its teeth ground against them.

Thialf shook the cage and flicked a tiny flame at the creature to calm it down. But it refused to snap out of its little frenzy. It chattered and spat words in its vicious little language. The mage quickly wrapped the cage in the thick cloth and put it by the wall, near to the fire. He kicked it once, and the creature fell still.

There was an awkward silence in the tavern.

BOOK: Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series)
13.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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