In which Halwende contemplates the shortness of battles fought using magic.
When he was duke . . . Halwende ate, not tasting the food. He could learn how to be a priest. Maltaria appeared determined to do that as soon as possible. Since Valdher was not known as “Lady of Patience,” he’d probably concentrate on the priest and magic lessons. And if father decides to throw me out in favor of Otto, I’ll have something I can do to survive. Would Duke Hal really do that? Maarsdam knew that the duke had threatened Edwacer and their older half brother with disinheritance at least once a year, not that it meant much when the duke’s temper flared. Would the duke disinherit him? Halwende chewed the trencher and thought hard. Yes, he would. Otto already had more skill and support among the arms-men than he did, Otto was older, and Otto never said the wrong thing or endangered servants. The einar should be the ones to blame for that, not me. True, but when had his grace ever blamed the wildlife? Aside from those few times that his grace went hunting and failed to return with game, of course. Halwende snorted, drank some small-beer and chewed.
Maybe I should study his grace, and do the opposite of whatever he does? Feed servants and sons good food, not anger people so greatly that they set ambushes for his heirs, at least pretend that he cared for his children . . . Halwende caught himself reciting the list. The Valke lands prospered, and aside from the ambush, peace had rested on the lands for a decade. His grace did something right, something that worked. He swallowed, then caught a yawn. Finish eating, then rest. Healer’s orders, priest’s orders, and there is nothing that I must do today. He needed another day to recover before he tried to train with the arms-men. Eticho would do something healer-ish and unkind if he hurt himself being dumb.
The next day, after morning worship, Maltaria caught him. “Please meet me in the smaller training ring before the noon meal. Our sister of the Scavenger has some knowledge of kinds of non-priestly magic, and can help me see how best to help you train your skills.”
He bowed to her. “Yes, ma’am.” Maltaria made sense, unlike his tutors and his father. And his poor older half-sister, but she was as the gods had made her, simple and sweet. Her mother had found a place for her, Rella be praised, and she served Gember in her own simple way.
Is anyone else worried about seeing the Scavenger’s priestess here? Judging by the concerned looks, and the way the other men all edged along the walls, trying not to attract notice, Halwende suspected so. He wasn’t very happy, either, even though he knew why she visited the training grounds. Maltaria walked beside her associate, deep in conversation about something. Halwende waited beside the gate to the smaller practice ring. None of the arms-men used it at the moment, and they’d probably all find other places to be while the priests lingered. The bright sun didn’t help, burning his eyes and making him sweat. Good for ripening crops, not so good for staying cool and clean during . . . whatever the priests wanted him to do.
“Good,” the voice from inside the black hood declared. The Scavenger’s voice wore practical tunic, trews tucked into boots, a hooded, sleeveless cloak, and black gloves. She carried a staff with a black rat perched on the top. The rat watched the world with glittering silver eyes. “You’ll need practice blade and shield, what you usually carry, little brother.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He fetched them from the rack in the shed and returned. Valdher’s speaker had shed her own cloak and stood, arms folded around her staff, beside her associate.
“I am called Wulfhilde,” the Scavenger’s priestess told him. She sat on the stool tucked into the corner of the practice area and crossed one leg over the other, ankle on knee. “Halwende, battle magic is what I want to test you for. I test by watching you, not by probing you with magic.”
He relaxed a little. “Yes, ma’am.”
The hood nodded. “Battle magic is . . . It is banned, and for good reason. It is not anathema, however, not like making change-creatures, and we,” she waved to her green-clad sister, “keep books and records of what was done and how.” She raised one black finger. “We, your brothers and sisters, are not quite certain what to make of the fact that you might have battle magic as well as temple magic, but are not of Sneelah.” He sensed her giving him a puzzled yet resigned look from the depths of her hood. “If you have it, we need to train it. More than that?” she shrugged.
Maltaria, arms still folded around her staff, shrugged as well. “The gods are not always as clear and forthcoming as we, their servants, might wish. Or perhaps it is just as well that we don’t know.” She unfolded her arms and took a two-handed grip on her staff. “Defend,” she commanded, then lunged and swung.
Halwende started to block with his shield, then ducked under the blow and stabbed up, inside her defenses. He hit something, something he could not see, and his sword hand lost all feeling. The blunted sword hit the ground. Motion to his right warned him and he blocked the next blow, caught it on his shield. Thunk. That arm lost feeling too, and something yanked his feet out from under him. He rolled, then stared at the sky, jaw open. The staff tapped him on the throat, the lightest of touches, then retreated.
“Which is why no one harasses priests twice, unless they are truly stupid.” Wulfhilde chuckled. “That’s god magic, little brother, part of it, purely defensive. It will not help you, Halwende duke of Valke, unless you are acting solely as a priest, not as a noble.” She stood and extended her hand, helping him to his feet. “Why?”
He blinked, shook all over, and blinked again. Because my life is unfair. No that wasn’t the right answer, no matter how much he believed it. He retrieved the practice sword and hung it from the hook on his belt and flexed his hand, trying to get feeling back. “Because if I’m attacked as a noble, like this summer, the gods are not involved? So god magic won’t help? But if I’m acting as priest, um‚—” He looked down at the loose dirt, trying to put his idea into words. “Um, it’s like attacking an imperial courier, or a neutral messenger. You’re not going after the man, but his message or goods, so you are attacking the emperor or noble?”
“He’s fast,” the Scavenger’s voice said.
“He is, and you’re right, little brother.” Maltaria smiled a little. “God magic is for the service of Valdher, not Lord Valke.” She took a defensive stance. “This, not attacking, unless the attack is commanded by the Lady, and then you’ll know.” A snort. “The Lady of the Forests is not subtle at such times.”
Wulfhilde gestured with her left hand. “No. Not subtle. When the gods command attack magic, you will know, and will do whatever they demand. Battle magic, though, can be subtle or dramatic. The emperor favors dramatic, because he has assistance and he seeks to overawe.” She pointed at Halwende. “You, lord Valke, should avoid dramatic.”
He sensed a question, and tried to answer it. “Because some people think battle magic is wrong?”
“In part.” Maltaria folded her arms around her staff again. “One, you lack the sources of power the emperor can draw upon. You have only yourself, and if your head ached yesterday, you have a sense of what even weak magic use can do to you. Two, battle magic can only be used against battle magic. You cannot throw a fireball at an enemy’s horsemen unless they use magic first.”
“What’s the point then?” He heard the whine in his voice and caught himself, looking down at his boot toes. “Your pardon, ma’am.” He looked up again. “Why learn something I may not use and that is forbidden?”
“Because someone else will.” Wufhilde’s words sent the hair on his neck snapping straight up. “Power will be abused by someone with the ability to do it, and the desire. You need to learn and control battle spells so you can stop them. Think about the beast that killed your oldest brother.”
He thought back to what he remembered of the attack. They’d been out at one of the farms, collecting the rent in ovsta. As they walked back to the keep, following the herders and their charges, an oily black thing like a laupen but heavier and with claws that dripped poison had attacked. It had an armored shell on its back, too, something no laupen had. It had savaged his oldest brother before anyone could respond, then tried to drag him into the underbrush of the forest. One of the arms-men had attacked it with his sword, and the thing let go of the body. A priest of the Scavenger and a group of hunters had tracked the thing and killed it, or so he’d heard. “The creature, the changed laupen. That was battle magic, ma’am?”
“A form of it, yes, although not all change creatures are made by living men and women.” Wulfhilde waved toward the forest, hidden by the walls around them. “Have you ever hunted near the Black Spring?”
“No, ma’am, and I don’t want to.”
Maltaria drew something in the dirt with her staff. “Good. Look. Here’s the spring here,” she pointed at a circle in the dirt. “And rocks and twisted trees here, overlooking the Black Spring. According to the priestess of Valdher before me, the laupen came from here. It had been changed by man, but when they tracked it back, they found other things changed by the magic left in the Black Spring.” She met his eyes. “Magic from the Great Cold, from the fighting then. It remains in the land, polluting and twisting it. Our sisters and brothers of the Scavenger, Sneelah, and Valdher work to drain and dilute such when we find them, but they are the result of battle magic.”
He shivered. “Ah, I see why it is banned, and why we’re not supposed to touch it.” He licked dry lips. “Like some kinds of man-trap and snares in the woods.”
“Yes.” Valdher’s priestess locked eyes and he twitched. “To leave a slow-killing trap is an insult to the Lady of the Forest. And cruel. Yoorst has no patience with people who abuse His beasts, no more than our,” she tapped her chest with her free hand, “patron does.”
Halwende nodded. He’d heard stories about the accidents that befell teamsters and others who didn’t properly care for animals.
Wulfhilde clapped gloved hands together. “So. Before my sister scares you out of your boots. See that pile of wood?” She pointed with her own staff at the loose heap at the end of the practice area.
“Concentrate at it, and make it catch fire.”
How—? Oh. If nothing happened, then he didn’t have battle magic. Maybe. He turned and looked at the pile. He squinted a little and thought at the pile, seeing fire fall onto the dry wood and ignite it. Nothing happened. He thought harder, forcing the flame into the dry, cracked, brown—
“Ow, dear Lady have mercy ow,” he whimpered, eyes closed, flat on his back again. His hair hurt. Breathing made his head hurt.
A man’s voice—Eticho—said, “What in Rella’s name was that?” He panted. “I felt magic— Oh.” A loud, dramatic sigh made Halwende’s head hurt worse. “I should have guessed.”
Wulfhilde chuckled, a sound that echoed slightly. “The fault is mine. Young lord Halwende acted on my command, and I did not think to ask him for moderation in his efforts.”
Halwende rolled onto his stomach, got to all fours, and breathed. His stomach rejected the morning meal.
“Little brother, that’s a hard way to answer a question,” Eticho said. “In Rella’s name and by Her grace, be lifted.” The pain eased a little, but the nausea remained.
Master Lothar yelled, “Who’s tryin’ to burn down my— Oh, your pardon, sir, ma’am.”
“No damage done, arms master,” Maltaria assured him. “We saw to that. You may resume your other duties.”
A loud gulp. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Fireballs, check,” Maltaria sighed. “Battle magic, check. That makes him what, one of four we know of?”
“Yes.” Wulfhilde’s voice deepened, and Halwende froze. He could feel the Scavenger speaking despite his terrible headache and weakness. “Four, for now.” The Scavenger departed.
“Yes,” Maltaria’s voice rustled like leaves in the wind and he bowed, as best he could. He felt Valdher’s presence and trembled. “Yes, my pathfinder has the gifts he needs for his task.” The Lady retreated.
Halwende gave up. He rolled onto his side and lay in the dirt, eyes closed, hurting.
That night, he lay in bed, staring up at the faint shadow of the beams and plaster in the darkness. He still hurt, not so much as before. If that was battle magic, they must have been short battles.
(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved