Outside of Vaina Town, I discovered the fading remnant of an Old Aenyr road. A path once so well-constructed that you could not trip in a seam between stones had become an uneven collection of weathered pavers. If the legends were true—and many of the inventions of the Artificer Houses based on their recovery of the ancient knowledge of the Old Aenyr indicated that they were—carts and carriages that required no horse or other creature to pull them had traveled roads like this.
Altaena had been one of the easternmost reaches to which the Aenyr had expanded when they came from the West, conquering and enslaving as they went. According to the stories, the lowliest slave still lived a better life than the haughtiest peasant under Aenyr rule. I have no idea; I wasn’t there.
They say that one of the grand Aenyr cities lies buried beneath the mountains I could see to the north, the Tursa Elvor range rising above the Velucca forest. But none had found it, or Vaina and anywhere else nearby would’ve been swarmed by venture companies looking to plunder the ruins and sell their finds to the Artificer Houses. Perhaps House Meradhvor had uncovered some evidence of the place’s existence and location and that is why Edanu had come to negotiate a marriage and make a base of Vaina.
Under the treaty that ended the Artificer War, the Houses agreed that they could not own land, nor hold titles of nobility, nor trade in any place where they did not have the permission of the rulers. But they kept a monopoly on the secrets and creation of Artifice in exchange, at least where the gray Artificers did not steal those secrets and replicate them for black markets across the Avar. The treaty converted the open warfare into a struggle in the shadows, a game of politics and espionage, clandestine quests and proxy conflicts, when both sides had suffered exhaustion to the point of being unable to carry on their bloody struggle at full scale. The accord at least kept the innocent off of these now-occulted battlefields—most of the time—and I could live with that. Besides, the intrigue sometimes meant work for me.
I walked alongside the old road, finding it easier to traverse the rough and hilly ground than the uplifted and sharply angles stones of the road, now a barrier as much as a highway. The path led me northeast from the town and into the hills. I passed by the Vaina mills just outside the town, an impressive collection of three mills at terraced levels of large hill, all of them served by an aqueduct (probably originally built by the Aenyr, but possibly by the Cantics or Gwaenthyri) that carried water from springs in the hills to which I was headed.
The morning had warmed but not yet grown hot, making the journey not unpleasant. I’d brought my staff, both as an aid to the hike and in case this Falla was the evil witch they said she was, which I doubted. The rhythmic thump of the staff hitting the avar provided the music to which I journeyed. I’d walked for about an hour when I began to draw near to the sorceress’s abode. I knew I’d come close because I began to see strange talismans and warding objects set up along the road.
Animal skulls and bones arranged with vines, branches and flowers of all colors into arcane forms hung from nearby trees or fastened to tall stakes driven into the soft ground near the road on either side. Nothing about them gave me the impression of maleficium, of evil intent or effect, but neither did they make me especially comfortable. Checking the availability of my sword at short notice, I pressed onward, readying my mind for quick sorceries should the need to defend myself from attack using the Art should arise.
I’d heard and read about the hedge practice of untrained practitioners—the term usually signified those who received training outside the auspices of the established institutions of practitioners, for there were few who could manage anything beyond the simplest sorceries without significant training. Thaumaturgies, theurgies, alchemical constructs and enchantments do not occur by accident or happenstance. Not exactly, at least. New techniques are sometimes developed by magi or other practitioners, but these are nearly always incremental improvements or variations on existing practices.
You ask how the first practitioners developed the Art then. I wonder the same thing from time to time. Only the Aenyr know, and they aren’t talking. Not on that subject, at least. According to the Temple, the rebel Sedhwe taught the Art to ancient peoples before the First War. I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not, but, if it is, I wonder how the early practitioners turned the Art to benevolent purposes. The Temple priests call it the grace of The One upon Their creation. Maybe it is. That’s a reassuring thought.
I pushed these speculations aside as I made my way closer to Falla’s cottage. I began to encounter the low stone lines of ancient walls long since stripped for their stones or tumbled into rough piles by wind, rain and time. The townsfolk seemed correct when they called it the remains of an Old Aenyr fort. A pale comparison to the well-preserved Aenyr ruins found elsewhere in the Avar. The effigies came closer together now, and the surrounding forest pushed closer in as the road faded into nothingness and I walked amidst the old stones.
Before long, the trees opened into a spacious clearing, where a humble cottage, its walls covered in vines or turned green with mildew, occupied the center of the glade. A low campfire, surrounded by a ring of rocks, burned below a wooden tripod from which was suspended a small iron cauldron. A smell, acrid and sweet at the same time, wafted from the vessel, but I could not identify the contents. Surely not food; some poultice or poison, some creation of the alchemical Art.
Near the fire a log had been set for sitting upon, its uppermost surface worn smooth with long use, the rest of it somehow preserved from rot and decay. Behind that, to the right side of the cottage, lines had been run on which hung laundry, humble and of simple colors, weaved and stitched by hand, no doubt. On the other side of the cottage I could see the edge of a well-kept garden behind a simple wood fence; the majority of plant-life within it appeared to be medicinal or arcane, for few vegetables pushed their way out of the ground in that patch of avar, at least that I could see.
More of the strange icons hung from branches all around the trees hemming in the clearing, swaying slightly with the wind, some humming a low whistle and others with bones chiming against one another. The hollow eye-sockets of bird or rabbit skulls watched me as I stopped just inside the open space, taking it all in. It was then, as the swinging talismans drew my eyes upwards, that I noticed the trees were full of birds of all types: sparrows, rooks, pigeons; a silent audience, or perhaps tiny guardians of the space. Below them, rabbits and squirrels played across the field, unconcerned with my presence of that of the birds overhead. A sense of peace came over me there and I shook my head at Barro’s blind condemnation.
The door flung wide and a young woman with hair covered and wearing a dress of the type favored by the merchant class stepped out. For a moment, I thought that this was Falla; my mouth must have dropped open at the sound of my shattered expectations. But when the woman looked up and saw me standing there, she paused, equally surprised. She carried something in a small satchel and fumbled with it momentarily, almost spilling the contents. Once she’d recovered herself, she briskly passed through the clearing, making the sign of the Tree at me as she passed.
I stood for a moment dumbfounded at the contradiction, wondering if I’d walked into a joke or a riddle, perhaps one posed by the gathered animals. A second woman stepping out of the shadowed door frame broke my reverie. This one better matched my expectations, her dark hair and eyes wild, her face painted with ochre and umber, tattoos down the length of her bare arms. She wore rough-made clothing of colors similar to her facepaint, like those hanging from the line nearby. Self-sufficient living left her wiry, her skin tan and rough with exposure to the elements. She smiled a crooked smile, but she had all of her teeth. Around her neck hung miniature versions of the signs that had lined the pathway to her home; she held a rod of wood in her left hand.
“Master thaumaturge,” she said in welcoming tone, spreading her arms as if in welcome to her personal demesne. Then she laughed, and I wondered why until she gestured toward me and I realized I’d put my hand on the hilt of my sword at her appearance. “Perhaps you’ve read too many tales of witches in the woods, my friend, that you come here armed against me.”
I nodded to the implement of the Art in her own hand. “A tool,” she said, tossing it casually aside.
Removing my hand from my weapon, leaning my staff against one of the trees edging the clearing in sign of good will—though mostly for the excuse to turn my face from the woman and hide my embarrassment at my initial reaction to her, I said over my shoulder, “Every tool’s a weapon if you hold it right.”
She laughed again, “And what about you, Iaren, what kind of tool are you? How does the Lord Aryden hold you? As a weapon?”
“Lord amn Vaina does not hold me any way. I am my own man.”
“We shall see.”
“How did you know my name?”
“The Art, of course.”
I cocked my head at her, disbelieving.
“Fine, the townsfolk told me of your arrival. You’re no fun at all. But I did see you in my dreams.”
“Sure you did.”
“On an island in the Sea of Dreams, pursuing a woman herself pursued.” Seeing the change in my expression, she smiled softly. Still, I felt no malevolence in this place. A strangeness that matched her appearance, yes—she reminded me of the Wild Folk who live in the shadowed places on the continent, raiding, pillaging and worshiping dark spirits—but not threatening. “Did you think that only those with books and universities can understand the mystical ways of manipulating Creation?”
“Did I learn? From my mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from hers stretching back to my ancestors who first learnt the Art from those who stole it from the Aenyr. Some had seen the Art used by the Aenyr to dominate and destroy; they vowed to use the power they’d acquired for healing and protection, not for for violence and ambition. I cannot say the same, I think, for those ones who taught your masters’ masters, who established the Guilds and the Conclave, who write the books they claim contain the one true way of the Art. Or for you.”
“You seem to know a lot about the world outside Vaina.”
“I was born here; my mother raised me here, but I have not always lived here. I traveled for a time, until I felt that my mother’s time drew near, when I came home to take her place.”
“You’re quite an open book yourself,” I said.
She smiled again. “A living one, the truest kind. Besides, I have nothing to hide from you. You come under suspicion that I have something to do with the Lord Aryden amn Vaina’s troubles, but I do not. I suspect that he has caused those for himself.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because hypocrites earn their own punishment. It is the way of things, the indisputable nature of nature itself.”
“Why do you call him a hypocrite?”
“Many in Vaina are hypocrites, just like the woman you met before me. She attends Temple, listens to Barro’s diatribes against me, nods along as he calls for me to be burnt, and then comes here in secret for my help.”
“What kind of help?”
“She has been with a man who is not her husband; she’s afraid she may be with child; she’s afraid of what her husband might do if he finds out, so she seeks my assistance. What would the priest say about that?”
“Nothing kind about either of you, I think.”
“True, but I am honest about what I am.”
“Have you no fear of The One?”
“Why should I? The One is mercy and love. It is the Temple priests I fear. And rightly so.”
I’d heard enough from Barro to agree with her. It didn’t mean I was ready to trust her. “Is that what you do for the townsfolk? You keep the women from the children they do not want?”
“Would you judge me for that? Do you think that I have the ability to create or destroy a spirit? Do you think that I can prevent The One from bringing a spirit into this world that They desire to dwell here? I have little power, even relative to you, perhaps, or at least that you could have. And none I know of, in the Avar or in legend has such power. Why would you condemn me for preventing the suffering of a woman and a child?”
“You should not speak about things you know nothing about.”
“I’m not here to speak; I came to listen.”
“That is some wisdom, then. I’d feared the lord’s thaumaturge would simply come to kill me.”
“I’m not a killer.”
“You are not yet. What will you do when the time comes to decide that question?”
“What do you mean?”
“You are on a path that walks between life and death. Here and now, but also in your future. I have seen it. What will you become?”
I thought about that for a moment. This was not the conversation I’d expected to have. Part of me considered the question, and part of me wondered how she’d pushed me into this position in the first place. “I can only be what I am,” I said after a while.
“Psh,” she expelled between tight lips. “A poor aphorism, especially from one such as you. You work your will upon the world itself. How will you work your will upon yourself? What will you choose to become from what you are now? Perhaps some things will be decided for you, but not all. If you have not dominion over yourself, you have dominion over nothing. Your masters taught you that those without their training could not practice the Art without falling to corruption or madness. And yet, here I am, proof that that is not true, while many of those who have received your masters’ training have corrupted themselves, turned to Daea or Sedhwe, or, worse yet, served only their own base desires with their Art.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
“To help you. As I said, I have seen you in my dreams, and I believe that you, too, can be an agent of good in this dark world, of healing, though your path is very different from mine.”
“I’m just like everyone else, just trying to survive.”
“Fool. What value has survival without purpose?”
“You don’t know my path.”
“No, not fully. Not even clearly. But I have intuitions and visions of it, and I trust them. Whether you trust me is another matter.”
“If you want to help me, if you want me to trust you, tell me what you can about the haunting at the castle.”
“What is there to tell? I cannot set foot in the town without fear of violence, and it is only fear of me—misplaced as it is—that protects me here. So I have only what I am told by those who visit me and what I see in my dreams.”
“Then what have you been told?”
“There is fear in the town, many of them have come to me for protection from the spirit. I prepare trinkets for them, say a prayer over it with them, and send them on their way.”
“Without drawing upon the Power? That doesn’t do anything for them.”
“Nothing? Belief has a power of its own. They believe that it will protect them, so they sleep easier at night, spend less time worrying about something that will never effect them anyway. It does no harm and does much good for them. Not everything I do for those who seek my assistance requires the Art. I know much about herbcraft to heal through natural sympathies, and I have wisdom that others do not.”
“And humility,” I smirked.
“Of my own sort, yes.”
I’d offended her; her eyes flashed at me and her mouth turned downward. Frankly, given her own haughtiness, I didn’t care. “What else do you know? I already knew that people were scared.”
“The girl Nilma came to me, after she was attacked.”
“Now that’s something I can use. What did she tell you?”
“She said that she felt the spirit had come for her, specifically, not that it was striking at her wantonly or without forethought.”
“So she recognized the specter?”
I frowned again. “You won’t say or you don’t know?”
“I don’t know what Nilma herself doesn’t.”
“Fine. What did she want from you?”
“Like everyone else, something to protect her.”
“A charm, a minor enchantment to calm and sooth the girl. Nothing more.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me before I go?”
“I felt when the spirit settled in, a shadow upon this place. A sharp stab it was when it first appeared, I’m sure. It is a spirit of vengeance, but the vengeance is not its own. Evil returns evil it is said, and this spirit is the essence of that statement.”
“That doesn’t help; it’s just cryptic nonsense.”
“As all prophetic utterances seem at first.”
I turned away and collected my staff; I didn’t need to be played with any more, and if something else was going on here, I didn’t see it.
She spoke just as I set foot back into the forest, calling out behind me. “What are you, thaumaturge? A spirit of vengeance, or one of mercy?”
What answer could I give to that?