I built a tower of my own. All pearly white and twined with ever- blooming roses; erected by an army of chalk kobolds raised from the surrounding limestone cliffs. My husband Mevlish, of course, took exception to my new home, but by that time I was far beyond caring. My hastily constructed wards were enough to protect it from the worst ravages of his fury, and after a few days he grew weary of being thwarted. Perhaps the King had called him on another urgent mission, or maybe our daughter Farima had swayed his temper in favor of leniency. Either way, soon all I had to look out for were the occasional stray fireball and ragged, dust-laden whirlwinds. I assumed the worst was over and concentrated instead on nursing my anger and my grief.
Then Farima turned up at my outpost near the edge of all magic. Pale-faced and tear-streaked, she trembled with fear. The standoff was over. Mevlish would soon attack again—and this time he would show no mercy.
It had been, as the wine-soaked minstrels in the Admarese taverns used to sing (and probably still do), a whirlwind romance. I was just sixteen, and it was an arranged match… but one never knows what may come of these things; certainly not the plotters, my odious stepfather, and the King of Proximus himself. Luckily for them, and unluckily for me, I fell for Mevlish’s superficial charms and he for my obvious ones.
Mevlish the Mighty, feared and admired throughout the Near and Far Kingdoms; Dragonmaster, Inquisitor and Royal High Wizard, official Guardian of the Source; the greatest wielder of magic alive. And so young, too: only ten years my senior. Dashing, soft-spoken, fawned on by others—how could I not be flattered when I caught and held his attention? Princess I may have been, but only of Admar, a backwater satrapy on the edge of the Farthest Lands; about as distant from the glittering heart of Proximus and the source of magic as one could get and still call it civilization.
He beguiled me with tales of high wizardry and adventure; of his duel to the death with the rebel sorcerer Feratus and his legion of fire ghouls; the time he saved a whole town from a plague of marauding she- devils; and with descriptions of his ancestral home, Cradlegate, near the Wizard’s Wall.
“Come live in my tower by the Source.” He grasped my hand and fell to one knee, looking up at me for the first and last time. “Kaffryn of Admar, will you be my witch wife?”
My heart skipped a beat. “Will you teach me magic?”
The wide smile that revealed his strong white teeth quavered for only a moment. “Of course, my dear. As long as you show some affinity, I should be able to teach you a trick or two.”
It was the best I could have hoped for, I supposed. And a thousand times better than any Far Land would-be wizard could offer me. “Then I accept,” I said.
He stood up, resplendent in his black and silver uniform, and beamed down at me, a dark fantasy stepped from a young girl’s dream.
I rested my head against his shoulder. “Take me from here, Mevlish.”
He squeezed my arm as if he already owned me, and nodded in approval. “Kaffryn. My witch princess.”
Our honeymoon consisted of a brief layover in Proximus, the capital of the Near Kingdoms. Mevlish spent more time meeting with officials and the King than he did with me, so I was able to explore the city at my leisure. I wasn’t surprised by the clamor for Mevlish’s attention, but I had hoped he would make at least a token show of resistance. Still, he had made it abundantly clear during the long journey from Admar that his duty to the King and the realm came above all else, and the sooner I understood that, the happier I would be.
“Yes, darling,” I had said.
Where Admar was all cobbles and slate, gulls and fishing nets, salt air and threat of storm, Proximus was turrets and colonnades, silk pennants and marbled riverbank promenades: the city closest to the Source, and hence the greatest. Its sheer scale allowed me some measure of anonymity, although whispers and stares would always follow me if I tarried too long in any one place. My abiding memory of that time is of silken bed sheets, rich with color; sumptuous feasts; and all eyes on me, Mevlish’s new witch-princess. It was the dream of the life I thought I had begun.
At the grand state dinner held in my honor, whilst Mevlish was lost in discussion halfway across the ballroom, a tall, graying man with bulging eyes and a medal-encrusted military uniform detached himself from the waltz and bent his knee before me. He kissed my silk-gloved hand.
“Make my Mevlish happy.” His voice was soft, barely audible above the sound of the music. I leaned forward to better hear him. “His services are worth more to me than a thousand treaties with your little seaside town.” His voice lowered to a hiss and his staring eyes locked with mine. “You’re to be a good wife to him, do you understand? Do as he bids. Bear him a son.”
He stepped back and smiled, as if he had paid me the most gracious compliment in the world, and dissolved back into the dance. Only later, when Mevlish questioned me as to the nature of his words, did I discover it was the King himself.
And so, all too soon, even the dream was over. “We must leave,” Mevlish said, expression pensive. “Cradlegate is eager for its new mistress.”
The next day we were alone again, in a carriage pulled by a quartet of six-legged horses. They required no driver to give them direction.
East of Proximus, the landscape grew barren and rocky, the lush fields giving way to unpopulated foothills that wound towards the mountains. The soil here was too strange and unpredictable to grow crops, the animals too dangerous, tainted and warped by the increasing strength of the magic field, to sustain a community. There was a reason for the location of Proximus, balanced finely on the edge between maximum magic and its overdose.
Rows of wooden crosses lined the road out of the city, hung with the dead or dying. I stared at the grisly evidence of the King’s justice and asked Mevlish what crimes warranted such a fate. His face darkened and he looked away from the carriage window. “Murderers, rapists,” he said. “And heretic wizards practicing free magic without license.”
“Free magic?” I asked. “Magic is magic, isn’t it?”
“The practice of magic is proscribed within strict limits, my dear. Only spells and incantations approved by the King may be performed.”
I was genuinely confused. “Why?”
He grimaced. “Otherwise it grows wild and harmful and out of control.”
“I had no idea.”
“You’re from the Far Lands, my love.” His gaze refused to meet mine. “I wouldn’t expect you to.”
We spent the rest of the journey in silence.
Cradlegate lay at the mouth of the mountain pass that led to the Source. The carriage stopped perhaps half a mile from the brooding tower and its low cluster of outbuildings. I was all agog, wide-eyed and nervous, my head throbbing with the intensity of the magic field. I had felt it building all day, a pressure behind my eyes, tricking occasional sparkles and strange blurs into my vision.
“Let me show you the stables first,” Mevlish said.
Set into a bank of rubble near a series of tumbling cascades was a wide, single-storey stone building. At first I thought it abandoned, ash and burned stone everywhere—then I heard and felt the low rumble, and dread certainty filled me.
Dragons. At least half a dozen of them. Most slept, almost indistinguishable from the rock, but a couple extended their great wings and slithered forward to greet their returned master. Large as three tall men standing on each other’s shoulders, they were all blackened slate and molten glow between thick plates of spiked armor. The air shivered before their breath, and I found myself in true fear for the first time in my life.
“Come,” Mevlish said. He seemed oblivious to my reluctance and tugged me out of the carriage for introductions.
“They’ve been bound to my family for generations.” He spoke with obvious pride, his chest puffed out, his head tilted back as he swept his hand in an arc. “It takes a king’s ransom to feed them but they’re invaluable for hunting down and disposing of rogue magicians.”
I shuddered at the thought of being at the receiving end of these creatures’ attentions. Thrax, Drax, Grax, or some such; I don’t remember the litany of similar sounding names Mevlish reeled off. Instead I concentrated on not being overcome by the oily, metallic stench of them. I didn’t know whether it was the heat and the smell, the altitude, or the strength of magic, but darkness threatened the borders of my vision.
Either Mevlish noticed my discomfort or he grew tired of re- acquainting himself with his pets; eventually we clambered back into the carriage and clattered on towards his home.
Like the dragons, Cradlegate had been in his family for generations. The cold stone staircase corkscrewing up through the tower’s dark interior was lined with portraits of his haggard ancestors. They seemed to eye me with disapproval as I climbed and I began to feel dizzy and faint again. It finally dawned on me that this was my new home. My new life. And I had left behind the Far Lands forever.
Later that first night, after our attempt at lovemaking ended with Mevlish storming from the bedchamber, I had my first glimpse of the Wizard’s Wall. I wandered the tower in search of my escaped husband and eventually found him on the rooftop, staring out over the battlements towards the desolate mountain pass Cradlegate guarded. Ribbons of ghostly light veiled the glittering stars, playing above the ground that rose towards the Source, and I could not help but give a soft gasp at the sight.
Mevlish did not turn as he hunkered over the edge. I approached and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Mevlish. What’s the matter, my love?”
“This place,” he said. “This cursed place. My head buzzes with the infernal intensity of the magic here.” He hung his head, his expression pained. “I swear, sometimes it’s too much.”
“But this is your home,” I said. And you invited me to live here.
“It’s where I was born, yes. And my father before me, and his before him.” He straightened, arching his back, and let out a pent up breath. “Do not worry, Kaffryn. It’s just that I’ve been away too long. Eventually I’ll get used to it again. You will, too.”
I stared at the pass, all crushed slate and pulverized, glassy rock, and sensed the energy that Mevlish spoke of, a sparkling in the air. Beneath the dancing light of the aurora, to me it felt intoxicating rather than oppressive.
“There aren’t any demons here?” I asked. “Like in the stories?” Mevlish laughed, but then turned serious. “Only those we make.” “And have you made any?” He turned away, and was silent for a time. His answer, when it
came, was cryptic. “I never quite reached as far as Great-Uncle Alexandre.”
I edged closer to him, curled my arm around his waist. He did not pull away. “I don’t understand.”
He nodded towards the pass. “Grandfather’s brother. Drunk one night, challenged by some guest—the stories never agree—he marched out, determined to reach the Source.” He quirked his dark brow. “He made it farther than most.”
“He lies there still. Along with all the other fools and madmen who have gone before and since.” Mevlish pointed towards a line of black posts that meandered across the width of the valley, only just visible in the pale light. “There is the edge of magic. Beyond those markers the rise in its strength is no longer gradual: every step you take increases the power of the field by half again as much. Tarry for more than a few moments and you’ll become addled; stay longer and you’ll lose your sanity and die. Just a few steps beyond lies the Wizard’s Wall. You can’t see it, but it’s there: the boundary marked by the fallen. No human has ever strayed beyond it; the weight of magic simply crushes the mind.” He turned to look at me, his back to the valley. “Part of my duties here is to make sure no fools climb past Cradlegate and try to reach the Wall. Every year there are a few, bent on reaching the point of maximum magic to cast this spell or that. It’s another reason the King pays to keep the dragons; they’re a most effective deterrent.”
I stared at the line of posts, at the aurora flickering above. “And what do you think lies beyond the Wall? How much farther is the Source itself?”
He shrugged. “Just a mile or so, the calculations suggest. As the crow flies. If one could ever survive the flight.”
My brow furrowed. “Perhaps the strength of the field dips again, beyond the Wall. Like the late summer storms that sometimes wrack Admar—the winds build and build, and you think they can grow no stronger, until the breath is sucked out of your lungs… and then the wind lulls and the sky grows blue again, and you find yourself at the still centre.”
Mevlish glanced at me sharply. “What nonsense is this?”
Stung by his rebuke, I pointed in the direction the Source must lie. “Perhaps it’s like that with magic; the field mounts and then subsides, the Source at the eye of the… storm.” I hesitated, no longer sure I understood my own thoughts. “If one could only push through that strongest part –”
“Kaffryn. Stop. This is just crazy talk.”
I paused, my mouth moving wordlessly, and then I laughed to re- assure him and myself. I took his hand, and tried not to think of how my stepfather used to reprimand me. “It was a jest, my love.”
He looked down at me, unblinking. “The Source calls those who dare listen. A siren call. Many have fallen to that fascination, believing their magic would only become stronger the closer they approached.” His grip on my shoulder grew painful. “Listen to me, Kaffryn. They all fall. All. Do you understand? Never try to approach the Wall. Never.”
I nodded. “Yes, my love.”
But in my mind, the magic field tickled and played across an itch I knew would only grow stronger.
To some extent I could understand how Mevlish came to be disappointed with me, his new trophy wife. I was unpracticed in the kitchen, for one thing—my meals had all been prepared by father’s staff, so I had never needed to learn to cook. In conversation he quickly became frustrated with me; I had little regard for or knowledge of the politics of the nation, and no doubt he found my stream of complaints about the dim and dank living conditions tiresome. Neither was I much use managing the household, but at least Mevlish was undemanding when it came to the tidying, sweeping and laundry; his coterie of eerie clay servants, with their hollow eyes and powdery trails of dust, were well used to coping with those duties. At first these servants disturbed me with their blank faces, incongruously formal uniforms and silent manner—but I soon became used to their ministrations. In the morning they fetched my dresses, in the afternoon and evening they served our lunch and dinner, in the evening they helped me bathe. Before long I took them for granted, an everyday miracle made possible by Mevlish’s outstanding talent at magic and the intensity of the field here.
I quickly learned more than a trick or two myself. Like a sun-starved flower, I bloomed under my husband’s reluctant tutelage and the strength of magic. Those times in the Mevlish’s laboratory when he would deign to show me the basics of the art, and I reproduced his results, were some of my best memories of our time as a couple.
He gifted me a single slim volume from his personal library. “Elements of Approved Magic”, a basic manual containing enough simple spells and mind techniques to allow me to start tapping the field. “My favorite when I was a child,” he laughed. When I asked for access to the library—the door was always kept locked—he shook his head. “No, my dear. Far too dangerous.” He did not say to whom.
If Mevlish was ever surprised by my latent affinity and growing skill he never mentioned it. Once or twice, after I had demonstrated some particularly elaborate technique or rite, he would give my hand a squeeze, lean close and say, “Kaffryn. My witchy wife.” His condescension was unintentional, I am sure, and anyway I forgave him, since those moments soon became the only times he showed me any real affection.
Ah, the Source. Bless its ancient creators, or the passing star from which it fell, or whatever natural or unnatural process gave rise to it all those centuries ago. In the first few months at Cradlegate, when I was consumed by a growing fear I had made the biggest mistake of my life by marrying Mevlish, the vibrant energy emanating from that mysterious point just over the horizon became my one consolation, the one advantage of my move from Admar. I could feel its influence deep through my bones, a slow-pulsing potential, and each day I wondered what new aspect of its power would be revealed to me.
Despite everything, it was enough.
It was no surprise to learn my primary duty at Cradlegate was to bear Mevlish an heir; it was inconceivable the Mevlish name would not continue, undiminished, down the ages. To this demand I acceded, more or less willingly. As long as my study of magic was allowed to continue I could put up with the isolation and less than luxurious living conditions; not to mention Mevlish’s growing emotional detachment, and the exercise of his connubial rights upon demand.
Our lovemaking was awkward and overly serious, dutiful rather than joyful; not a patch on the adventures of my careless youth, and not helped by the tinge of pity I began to feel towards him. Mighty in magic my Mevlish may have been, but meek he was when it came to the bedchamber. If I attempted to lighten the mood with humor he would become sullen and retreat; when I took the initiative he frowned disapprovingly and shrugged me away. If I had been less experienced, my confidence would have been dealt a crushing blow and I would have begun, perhaps, to blame myself for our lack of satisfaction; as it was, I knew whatever ailed our relationship, at least in that regard, was none of my doing.
Despite our problems, I fell pregnant less than a year after our move to Cradlegate. I’d always known I would end up being a mother, I suppose, but it had never been a consuming ambition of mine like it had been for so many of my serving maids and ladies-in-waiting back in Admar. I was not one to romanticize the role. To me, it was all just part of the bargain I had struck: lore of magic for child. I thought I was getting the greater part of the deal. Any young doxy down by the harbor could spawn a child or dozen: but who could exercise the skill necessary to raise the very earth to do one’s bidding?
When I finally told Mevlish the news he grinned for the first time in months and almost—almost—leaned down to kiss me.
“Well done,” he said. “I shall… make arrangements.”
I knew better by that stage than to be affronted by his cold demeanor, even though the bodily spirits that can at times possess a woman whilst carrying child were already raging through me. I merely nodded and said, “Make sure you do.”
Things changed once Farima was born; some for the better, many for the worse.
I’ll not discuss the birth itself, save to say I took covert steps afterwards to make sure I would never become pregnant again.
To Mevlish’s credit he never once expressed any disappointment, to me at least, that his first-born wasn’t a son, but after a brief period of doting he became increasingly scarce. I’m sure it had nothing to do with Farima’s constant crying and demands upon our time, and everything to do with the King’s new crusade against the heretic territories in the Farthest Lands. On the rare occasions he returned from these distant campaigns for more than a day or two I would find him either collapsed asleep upon the bed, sitting in grim silence in his study, or striding the battlements, prone to sudden and unpredictable bouts of rage. Sometimes, behind the always locked doors of his library, I thought I heard him weeping. At night, in our shared bed, he would toss and turn and moan, his hands and jaws clenched, dark, blood-tainted things flitting in and out of existence above his sweat-slicked body as he unconsciously summoned them out of the magic field. In the mornings he would deny anything was the matter, that he was perfectly fine, that he was only carrying out the King’s will, and that I should mind my own matters and tend to the babe. And so that’s what I did.
I refused the aid of a nursemaid or any other help raising Farima. I’m not sure why: perhaps a sense of wounded pride. She was my responsibility, my one chance to carve out a meaningful role at last. With Mevlish’s services increasingly called upon by the King, for the most part I spent the early months alone with her. I’ll not lie: it was a difficult time, immensely tiring and lonely. Often I wondered if there was something wrong with me, that I did not love my child when she screamed and screamed, high-pitched and so loud for something so small, and I would wonder if she would even stop if thrown from the top of the tower. More than once I ordered the silent clay servants to take her away and I would lock my door and collapse in tears, the screams still piercing my ears. Yes, she was an unsmiling red bundle and nursing her was a painful and almost thankless task. Almost.
But over the long years spent in that dour place, taking care of her turned gradually from a labor of duty to one of love.
My formal study of magic had ended as soon as Mevlish learned I was pregnant. “Far too dangerous for you both if you continue,” he muttered, and I found my copy of “Elements” mysteriously disappeared soon after—a small but hurtful slight, considering I had long since committed it to memory. I never stopped probing and flirting with the magic field, though, not even during those long stretches of exhausted, barely conscious wakefulness between Farima’s feeds in the first months after her birth. And as soon as she was old enough to concentrate on small things and smile I would materialize glittering toys from the field: sparkling flowers or floating sprites she would follow with her eyes and try to grasp with her chubby little hands. Mevlish would have called it reckless free magic if he had known, but he was not there to see, and I was not one to care.
During his long absences, using a variation of the little magic I had already learned, I began to animate toys for my baby: a rocking horse whose legs cantered in the air and neighed when its long hair was pulled, a toy house full of dolls that gyrated and pirouetted when the tiny doors were pulled open, Cradlegate’s clay servants in miniature. Farima loved all these, and it only encouraged me to practice more. But when Mevlish returned, invariably in foul mood, the magically enhanced playthings stilled.
Farima grew up not minding the isolation; it was all she had ever known, and of course she eased my own sense of loneliness. Not only did I love her as a daughter, but we became friends too, something I had never dared expect. She, too, began to share in my magic learning. When I would complain about lack of access to her father’s library she laughed and spun around, arms upraised, and said, “But Mother, we don’t need those dusty old books to learn about magic. It’s here all around us; we can make it do whatever we want.”
Eight good years we had; eight years during which Mevlish was an absent father and husband, too distracted to notice our growing deviation or his lack of a male heir.
Of course it could not last.
The playroom was dancing when he caught us.
The carriage carrying Farima’s stern-faced tutor had clattered back to Proximus—Mevlish insisted she learn the rudiments of the King’s Magic whilst he was away and unable to teach her himself—and I was free again to see my daughter alone again for the first time in days.
“It’s silly that you’re not allowed to join us in the lessons,” Farima said. “The teacher even takes all my books away when he leaves. Why does Daddy make him do that?”
I smiled. “It doesn’t matter, darling. Tell me what you learned.”
She pouted. “Boring stuff. Repeat after me: always use the same tone and cadence during incantation, always close your eyes when making a spell, always praise the King for his tolerance, always this, always that…”
I laughed. “It does sound boring. Here: let’s have some fun now!”
Farima clapped her hands at the gleam in my eye, and together we joined our minds to meld with the field. Soon we had her sizeable collection of dolls—rag, porcelain, and straw-stuffed—all marching around the floor in time to an impromptu band of floating drums, magically blown flutes and her harp plucked by dust fairies. We didn’t hear Mevlish’s dragon land at the stables. The playroom door slammed open, and such was the strength of our communion with the Source, we didn’t even notice until his roar cut through our joy.
“Stop it! Stop it at once!”
The instruments crashed down to the floor. The dolls collapsed as if struck dead.
My heart jumped into my throat. I felt a wash of guilt and shame, although about what I could not explain. For enjoying myself. “Mevlish! What are you doing here?”
He jabbed his finger at Farima. “Bedroom. Now.” Two clay servants emerged from behind him, brushed past me, and made sure Farima obeyed. She glanced over her shoulder as she was marched out, and I saw the tears gleaming in her eyes.
Mevlish strode towards me. His uniform—the same black silver he had worn the night he proposed—was covered in dirt and sweat and worse. His hair, shot through with silver too now, was all in disarray and he stank of the burned oil smell of the dragonride. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I was about to ask you the same!”
He grabbed my arm, and it was not a playful or even angry grip, but fierce, life-crushing. “I return from battle with a free magic sorcerer, barely escaped with my life, and find my own wife and child like this?” His hold tightened further and I gave a yelp of pain. “Are you insane?”
“We were just having some fun –”
“Kaffryn! This is free magic of the worst sort. I’ve crucified others for less.”
My stomach went chill. He was telling the truth. Anger still got the better of me. “Then shame on you!”
Mevlish growled and thrust me away. I stumbled, but kept my feet. Behind him I could see more of his clay servants hovering. His reddened face contorted. “No more of your reckless witchery, Kaffryn. And you’re to stay away from my daughter.” He drew himself up. “I am the High Wizard here. I will teach her from now on.”
I couldn’t help myself. I jabbed out with my mind, at the servant beside him.
It cracked in two.
The pieces slid to the floor, barely contained by the starched uniform.
I stared at the shattered figure, stunned by the result of my act. I was still staring when Mevlish took two steps and slapped me hard across the face. I reeled into the wall, bounced to the floor. In that instant I felt more shock than pain; but the pain did follow, a pulsing, mounting tide of it.
“If you do anything like that ever again,” Mevlish said, the words forced through clenched teeth, his hot breath washing against my face, “I swear I will kill you.”
I barely noticed the playroom door slamming shut. I sat in a cloud of fine dust, left alone to mourn the destruction of the servant and the end of all my dreams.
There was no decision to make. It was a matter of survival.
I banged my fist against his study door until he opened it. His eyes were red, his face worn, as haggard as those in the portraits lining the stair walls. He reached out to my bruised face. “Kaffryn. This war –”
“I’m leaving,” I said. “And I’m taking Farima with me.”
His expression instantly hardened into fury. He stepped out and slammed the door behind him. I swear I felt the tower tremble. “You take her, and I’ll hunt you down and destroy you, do you hear? Not even if you run to the farthest corners of the Far Lands will you escape.”
I hesitated for only a second before realizing the battle was lost. I turned and fled.
Farima’s room was empty: Mevlish must have already ordered her taken to some still-hidden corner of the tower. I used my focused anger and years of idle practice to blow apart the previously impregnable wards protecting the door to the library. I stole a few randomly chosen grimoires—not for any forbidden knowledge they may have contained (and it turned out they did not contain any)—but to spite Mevlish and demonstrate how much I could now accomplish with the free magic he so despised.
Despite the churning ache in my heart, I fled the tower without my daughter. I steeled myself with the thought that one day, after I had armed myself with sufficient skill and power, I would wrest her from Mevlish’s possession. I almost convinced myself it was true.
His dragons waited for me further down the valley, in anticipation of my flight back to Admar, or to the Farthest Lands where the field and Mevlish’s power would be weakest. He knew how much I dreaded the beasts—but they were easy to avoid.
I headed up the valley. Towards the source of magic, not away from it.
I took a few steps more, swayed, then stopped. My head swam with the intensity of the field, power crackling all around me. It was only a few dozen more steps to the Wizard’s Wall.
I was still alive. Still sane.
As far as I could tell.
I felt I could have approached closer still, if only for a few moments, but that wasn’t the point. I needed to find a sustainable location, a place I could tolerate to stay in for the foreseeable future. Somewhere close to Farima, but difficult for Mevlish to approach.
This was it.
In all our years of marriage, Mevlish had never taken a step closer to the Wall than the boundaries of his tower walls. Despite his reputation and all his skill and years of practice I think he secretly feared the power of magic.
Well I had no such fear. And standing here, so much closer now to the Source than I had ever been, I could feel how much stronger my magic was.
Don’t get addled, I warned myself. Don’t become another Alexandre.
The Wall was marked by a few dozen human skeletons, none of them fresh. I wondered which one belonged to Mevlish’s apocryphal Great-Uncle. Bones gleamed pale beneath the moonlight and the faint, shifting aura crackling overhead. A few of the older remains had changed and twisted over the years, into strange, organic shapes: pale, grasping finger-bones had grown as large as ship masts, sun-bleached skulls elongated and deformed until the gaping jaws and eye sockets had grown into cavernous openings. Each an unmistakable warning to any who would dare breach the otherwise invisible Wall.
I wondered how many of the bones had belonged to males.
“Wizard’s Wall,” I said, and laughed. I felt drunk, bathed in warm power. “But is it also a Witch’s Wall?”
Perhaps the female brain could better cope with the strength of magic here. Perhaps it was just me.
I turned my back on Mevlish’s draughty tower with its cold clay servants and dusty, winding passages, and raised my hands, closed my eyes, meshing with the magic field. I made life from the chalk cliffs rising on either side; there was no need for another’s seed.
I built myself a tower of my own, and there I waited, listening to the Source’s siren call. Waiting for my daughter to join me. As I knew she would.
The ground shook me awake.
Mevlish was on his way.
“Stay inside,” I ordered Farima as I led her to the lowest levels of the tower. The Lighthouse, we called it. “Hide in the deepest cellar. Whatever you do, don’t try to peek out at the battle. Do you understand? One of us will come get you when it’s all over.”
“But Mother –”
I took her firmly by the shoulders, pushed her back through the doorway. “Please, Farima, trust me. Nothing you would see will bring you joy: today your father and I fight, and one of us must lose.”
She must have seen the strain and fatigue in my face and bowed her head, dark fringe hooding her eyes. “Yes, Mother.”
I had spent more than three days and nights with hardly any sleep, preparing for the coming battle; molding clay, imbuing it with the essence of life (or at least its convincing semblance), drawing on the power that flowed so strong here. I used all my hard-earned skill, and as much of my blood as I could spare.
I hoped it was enough.
I hugged Farima tight, kissed her forehead, felt an ache so strong in my heart it threatened to shatter my resolve. I pushed her away, hardly able to breathe never mind talk. “Go.”
The door closed behind me, the strongest locking charms I could make sliding into place. I climbed the stairs to the tower entrance, casting protective spells as I went, erasing my daughter’s tell-tale traces as best I could. Then I stepped out into the early morning light.
The ground rumbled, and I focused my attention on the threat gathering ahead of me. A yellow-brown dust cloud rose from around Mevlish’s tower and swallowed the sun. The gardens that had once flourished around Cradlegate had long since faded and dried to dust. A half-mile of desolate cracked earth and dust was all that separated us now.
I tried to calm my hammering heart, but it was impossible. My husband was too skilful, too experienced with using magic in combat, for me to stand much chance against him. Despite the advantage the strength of magic here gave me, I knew I could not win.
His magically amplified voice rolled like thunder towards me.
“Surrender my daughter.”
“She stays of her own free will,” I called out. I was pleased by how firm my voice sounded.
“You turn her against me. You’ve poisoned her mind with your madness and your lies.” The ground shook again. “I say one last time: give her up. Give her up and I’ll let you flee back to the Far Lands unharmed.”
“Come and get her,” I said, voice choked with returning anger. It was a challenge, not an invitation, and he knew it.
The ground shifted, left, right, like a rug adjusted. I barely kept my feet. Behind me, boulder-sized chunks of cliff clattered down beside the Lighthouse. I hoped Mevlish wasn’t stupid enough to try and destroy the place with Farima still inside it.
Like some nightmarish crop, his troops began to emerge from the cracked surface of the pass. Arms and torsos made of mud and rock thrust into daylight as Mevlish molded the dirt into a shambling army. Ogres and trolls and whirling dust devils as tall as our towers advanced towards me.
A year or two ago I would have dissolved at the sight, would have submitted to whatever demands he made. But now I had some power of my own.
I dove my mind deep beneath the ground. Three days and three nights had been enough for me to assemble the rudiments of my own subterranean army. All I needed to do was extend myself into their bodies and pull them to the surface.
There was a moment of terrible shock as I waited for my legions to emerge, and nothing happened. Had I foolishly overestimated my capabilities? Were the hoped for results a mirage, a delusion caused by over-exposure to the Source?
But I was merely being impatient. I had never tried to control such a mass before, nowhere close.
I would need to learn fast.
The earth cracked before Mevlish’s oncoming horde. His vanguard of sand spirits and soil pachyderms tumbled into the unexpected crevasse, dissolving back into the dirt from which they had come. The tide of creatures behind struggled to slow their momentum, but the cascade to destruction continued.
The approaching columns of dust wavered and dissipated along with Mevlish’s concentration… but they soon solidified again, tighter than ever. They grew scythes and spun towards me, lethal twirling flowers of pulverized rock.
By this time my own army had struggled to the surface. I’d re-used the kobolds that I had first created to build my tower. Their ranks had swelled, and I’d added some new designs; the sort of nameless, dread shapes that fear and desperation give rise to in the depths of sleepless, anxiety ridden nights.
I was glad Farima would never see them.
I forced Mevlish’s creations back. Despite the overwhelming force he had gathered, it was obvious he hadn’t expected any effective resistance.
At last Mevlish himself pushed forward, his troops literally crumbling before him, revealed at last to be no more than a front, a show of force meant to shock and awe.
“Stand aside,” he shouted at me. He was in his now familiar black and silver uniform, his cloak billowing around him.
My answer was to lift the earth beneath him, upthrusting it at a sharp angle. Surprised once more, he staggered and almost followed his minions into the pit revealed.
But two could play that game.
The ground beneath me rippled. A surge of mud slewed towards me. I tried to force it back, but there was no stopping it. I was moving, my legs buried ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep, in a hot, dusty slurry that pushed me back, back. Back towards the Wizard’s Wall.
“Goodbye, witch wife.” Melvish’s voice, shorn now of anger, distant in my head.
Pressure built in my skull. Lights danced before my open eyes, tiny explosions like stars, circular patterns, vertical streaks like heavy rain. Magic. Magic all around me. The field so strong now it was visible.
And skeletons, too. On either side, and beneath me.
I was being forced through the Wall. Beyond it.
Focus narrowed. I concentrated only on Mevlish. He struggled to stand upon the jutting shard of rock, his arms raised, thrust out towards me, his eyes closed, lips alive with some furious incantation. Blood streamed from his eyes.
Remember to use the same tone and cadence during incantation, dear husband.
The field built in intensity, blinding me. I didn’t have long, if the theory it would just keep getting stronger was true. My brain would fry.
I had to do something.
So I stopped. The ground cracked as it solidified in an instant, waves of soil trapped frozen by my wish.
For a moment, standing with my back against the boundary of human magic, feeling the power coursing through my mind, my mud army dancing to my tune, sensing my husband’s thwarted might—just for a glimmer of time, I hoped that I might achieve victory.
But then I heard the approaching beat of wings, the gut-shuddering roar. The air hazed with heat and not with magic, and I quailed as false hope fled.
The dragons had arrived.
“Take her,” I said. I did not need to feign the tremor in my voice.
“Anything. Just spare me.” It was difficult to see Mevlish behind the rippling curtain of hot air emerging from between the jaws of the beast he straddled. The stench of burning oil filled my nostrils, and the heat stirred my hair even as it scorched my skin. One claw of gleaming obsidian pressed me to the buckled ground, the black tip of the razor talon against my beating throat.
“Do you concede, witchy wife?”
“Spare me, Mevlish. You win.”
The dragon growled, and my insides threatened to liquefy.
Mevlish dismounted. He strode towards my tower without looking at me. The dragon’s talon did not shift an inch from throat.
A few minutes later he re-emerged with the girl, the one I had made. She was porcelain white, shaking, mute. Mevlish led her away.
She did not look back at me.
Mevlish paused before he re-mounted. “Kaffryn. If it were up to the King, he would have me crucify you.” His face twisted, and I did not know if it was because of the heat and magic, or emotion. “But you have chosen this cursed place, so I’ll let you stay here. If you ever leave or try to contact Farima again, I will return and smash your white folly apart and you along with it, mother of my daughter or not. Do you understand?”
“Goodbye, my witch wife. I hope never to see you again.”
As my little girl, my very special and unique creation, was borne away, I felt the loss deep in my bones: a physical sensation, the pull of my blood as it was drawn from me.
I bowed my head. Smoke and dust billowed into my face as the dragon’s wings eclipsed the sun.
When I was sure the dust had settled and Mevlish and the pale girl had returned to his tower, I staggered back to the Lighthouse—it was cracked and tottering, but not beyond repair—and made my way to the locked cellar to make sure Farima was all right. She too, was shaken, but again, hopefully not beyond repair.
“What will happen if he finds out?” she asked.
“He won’t find out,” I said, confident. The clay golem I had made in Farima’s likeness would be meek and obedient: his fatal pride would protect us. The hard-won trophy daughter, who hardly spoke a word, so obedient and yet so like her mother—he would not be able to conceive she was a construct of clay and blood, fashioned by his inferior magician wife. One thing had always been true: Mevlish may or may not have been my master in magic, but I had always had the edge over him when it came to simple human understanding.
I took Farima’s hand. “We are free now. At least for a time.”
Free. Free to experiment with magic as never before. Free to imagine thoughts no magician had ever dared think. I hadn’t had time to tell Farima yet, but during the battle I was sure I had been forced back further towards the Source than I had ever been before—further than anyone had been before.
And I had survived.
What had Mevlish once said, about living so near to the Source?
You get used to it.
My fate was not to be exiled here beside Cradlegate forever. Imagine what could be achieved if we were to gain true control of the Source itself, there at the calm heart of the storm? We would need never fear any man again. We would be the ones to be feared.
“Come,” I said. I took hold of Farima’s hand. “Let me show you something.”
Slowly and very carefully, we began to walk towards the shimmering edge of magic.
First published in Fantasy for Good: A Charitable Anthology, 2014.
© All Rights Reserved Henry Szabranski.
Story notes here.