I was not the only student mage in the room. The New Year Feast given by the Duke of the Low Barlands has been a part of the court calendar since before the death of the old king. The great aristocratic families come every year, with plenty of master mages as well as students among them. I am only a second cousin of the Earl of the West March and no longer a part of his household. But I had been unable to resist when I had been invited to join them tonight by Crispin, the Earl’s youngest son. Crispin is my friend, not my lover, no matter what anybody says. He keeps me up to date with court gossip and I was as curious as the rest of the city about the trouble here.
The scream had first been heard three months ago. Every night, at midnight, it reached into all the rooms of Barland House. It soured the milk and cracked the eggs in the kitchen; it drove dogs to howl and cats to flee. The Duke himself had led the searches for its origin, out into the grounds for traces of some unknown terror bird, indoors from the attics to the cellars. He had sent men onto the roofs and down into the sewers. When nothing had been found, he sought help from the King’s Mage and other masters. Between them, they should have been able to trace any kind of magical attack but they discovered nothing.
Duke Tancred and Duchess Roswitha refused to be driven from their home. They maintained their usual life as best they could, though Crispin said they and their household appeared to age another ten years every month. Tonight, at least, their friends and enemies and court were all here to support them.
Not the King’s Mage, though. On New Year’s Eve, by tradition, he is shut in his tower with the King, to study signs and portents for the coming year and to take thought for the welfare of the realm. I have no wish to come to the attention of the King’s Mage, so maybe my tongue ran more freely in his absence. Or maybe I would have spoken up anyhow, in my surprise.
‘That’s not an attack. It’s a cry for help.’ My voice rang out in the small silence of relief that the scream had ended. Heads turned towards me and Duke Tancred himself stood up in his place at the High Table.
‘How can you tell?’
‘I recognise that anger,’ was all I could say. ‘When you are forced to beg for help and you despair of an answer.’
He frowned as he walked towards me. Likewise, I could feel Crispin’s frown at my side and no doubt his parents wore the same expression, away at their own table. When did you feel such anger, they wanted to ask and why didn’t you tell us about it? Luckily, the Duke cared more about a different question.
‘Could you find out where the noise comes from?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. My powers of magic are no match for those of the Master Mages. On the other hand, what if they had been searching for the wrong thing?
Duke Tancred was so close now I could not avoid his gaze.
‘Maid Linnet, isn’t it?’ he said, to my surprise. I’d never spoken to him before and I could not think how I had come to his attention. He is close in age to Crispin’s father and they are rivals at court. Maybe the Duke keeps an eye on the Earl’s children in consequence but I would not have expected that to include me.
‘You’ve noticed something nobody else has,’ he said, after my bow of acknowledgement. He is a strong man, not tall but burly, and not used to refusals. ‘Let’s see what more you can achieve.’
‘I should not have spoken,’ I said. I wished I had turned down Crispin’s invitation.
The Duke looked away and spoke more gently. ‘If you had to live here, you would understand how desperate we are. Try what you can do. Even if you accomplish nothing, I will be grateful and so will the Duchess.’
Duchess Roswitha stood halfway down the room, in mid-circuit among her guests.‘Tancred, you’re frightening the child,’ she said and smiled at me. I felt Crispin bristle at my side but he had the sense to say nothing. And Duke Tancred just stared at me, his face heavy and sad. I thought of the ordeal his people endured every might and my reluctance seemed like vanity.
‘Very well,’ I said. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
I stood halfway up the grand staircase and listened. The crowd had tried to come with me but the Duke understood my need to work alone. He had herded his guests back to the dance and was now on watch in the hall below me. The Duchess had stayed inside to preside over the banquet. Nobody else was out here except Crispin, down on the bottom stair, just in case, he said and I had not argued.
The mages would have searched for hostile magic of all kinds. I could not match them in spells of power. But because my magery is weak, I have learned to look for what might be overlooked and to ask for help when I need it. As I opened up my mage senses, I heard more and more in my mind from all through the house. The servants in the kitchens talked to each other about sugar subtleties and horse races tomorrow, while they thought about their aching backs and leftovers for super. The ladies’ maids drowsed as they waited upstairs and dreamed of jewelled hats or brave lovers. And I could sense other dreams too small for me to decipher, dreams of warmth and hunger from mice, maybe, or even spiders.
Somewhere hidden away was a knot of darkness, a clench of pain so intense I could not recognise its nature.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said aloud, in the language mages learn, the language understood by everything except humans. ‘Who are you that cries so loud for help?’
The pain tightened and twisted but did not show me an answer.
‘Are you trapped?’ I did not know where to search. ‘Can you help me find you?’
I felt the struggle as something tried to break through a net of spells. The spells gripped tighter than ever but the struggle brought them into the open, where my mage sight could see them. Black ropes coated with fear ran along the stairs, across the floor and up to the ceiling, radiating out like a spider’s web. I needed to find what was in the centre of the trap before I tried to break it.
‘Wait here.’ I glanced back at Crispin and the Duke.
I took hold of the nearest rope. It stung my hand but I did not let go. I could not push my way inside but so long as I kept hold, I could feel which way to move. I sang, not to the spell ropes, which would not hear me but to my own blood and skin.
‘Stay cold, stay quiet,’ I sang. ‘Remember the touch of snow on the way here, the ice in the wash basin this morning, the rime on the stone pillars outside.
A window cracked on the stair landing and a gust of snow swept in to cling round my face and arm. I had not intended that but it comforted my grip on the spell rope. I headed upwards as fast as I could.
I ran up too many stairs to count, along passages and through doors, into chambers I had not time to observe. Nothing stopped me until I reached a small room, hardly more than a cupboard, where the tangle of spell ropes was so thick I could not enter. I could not see much inside as they writhed and thrashed around, more like a nest of snakes now than a spider’s web. But I caught glimpses of something like a human face, its eyes wide with despair.
I rubbed my sore hand and looked round, magewise, for something that might help me. There were no windows here and everything in the room was woven into the spell. The attack came before I was ready. Loose ends flailed out from the tangle and cut at my face. I flinched but I was afraid this little room would hide itself again if I backed away. I shielded my eyes with my hands and began another song, a lullaby to soothe whatever ingredients were in the spell and weaken its onset.
I failed. The loose ropes beat at me harder than ever. One snaked round my waist, so I dropped my hands to push it away. Another reached for my throat but recoiled when a long dagger struck past my ear and cut into it. Crispin was there beside me, his dagger wet, his voice raised in a chant of destruction.
Crispin’s often been told he has potential as a mage, if only he would apply himself. This once, he had thought fast enough to follow me and to use his own blood to give his dagger power. Of course, he had not carried a sword to the banquet, I was amazed and thankful to see him, as well as jealous that his downright attack should succeed where my subtle approach had not. But those feelings were swallowed up by alarm as he pushed onwards. He wielded his dagger in great strokes and strode into the heart of the tangle.
The spell ropes dropped away from the touch of the dagger and then swept back to cut at Crispin’s belly and at me, when I tried to follow him. I wore no knife with my festival gown but I took a long pin from my headdress and pricked my finger to smear it with blood. As a miniature spear, it gained me a little space but not enough. I joined Crispin’s chant and so did the creature inside the spell, as its wild keening shadowed our voices. But between us, we only roused the spell to greater turbulence.
We needed reinforcements. I shut my eyes and tried to remember which mages I had seen at the banquet. A plea for help might be effective at this distance if I could direct it at someone who knew me. But I’m not sure I would have reached anybody in time, if help had not already been on its way. A single word dropped into the hurly burly and the spell broke. The ropes vanished into nothing and silence rang out over us.
Duke Tancred and Duchess Roswitha were in the room behind us, together with Crispin’s parents. For a moment, I stared in puzzlement. The Earl and Countess had no magic, I knew, and if the Duke was a mage, why had he kept his practice of the art a secret for so long? Then I saw the Duchess’s face with the look of command fading out of it. She had been the one to destroy the spell. She must be one of those women who gave up the practice of magic, or at least the public profession of it, when she married. Her face showed other feelings too, but I had not time to read them, before I turned back inside.
Crispin sat on the floor, with bruises and bloody welts on his body as well as in his spirit. But he did not look badly hurt. Behind him stood a creature in the shape of a woman, so thin she was no more than a bony frame for a most enormous belly. No human would have had her greenish skin or teeth as luminescent and pointed. But the belly meant the same as it would have for a woman. I could see the babe inside her, though its spirit was in a deep stupor. And she had screamed every night for three months.
‘What happened to you?’ I whispered, though I knew the answer.
‘The child is bound inside me.’ She had the voice of a water spirit, deeper and more various than a human’s and strong, despite her suffering. ‘I should have given birth the night I came here but the child was locked into me before I was locked into this place. Now I can move but not the babe.’
‘Another spell to find.’ I was more tired than I could remember but that was nothing compared with what she endured. I glanced behind me. ‘Should we send for a Master Mage?’ I asked. It was meant as a polite way of asking the Duchess for help. But the stranger clutched my arm.
‘You must be the mage.’ She sounded desperate enough to drown us all if I did not agree. ‘Nobody but you.’
I dared not look at the Duchess. ‘What may we call you?’
‘Aifur, river daughter.’
‘Sit down, Aifur and help me search.’
I sat down on the floor and she folded herself down, joint by joint. She would have lost her balance if Crispin had not reached out to steady her. She was not used to her condition, to the need for deliberate movement, even after all this time. and as she moved, she watched me, her eyes unblinking. She had not much hope but she would be patient with me for a while, because of what I had done so far. She did not offer to tell me who had set the binding spells and I did not want to ask. I would be bound to lose an open battle against such a mage. Even if I survived, Aifur and her child might not.
I looked round the room which had been her prison. I expected to find myself in a bare attic or cupboard. But this was richly appointed, with stars painted on the ceiling and fine wood on the floor. The marquetry panels on the walls were pictures of flowers and fruit. A desk and a chair stood to one side and two painted chests on the other.
I looked back at Aifur. To hold her so tightly when the other spell had broken, this one must be made of more than magical ropes. I spoke words to bring into the open anything hidden in the room. Nothing happened. I felt the textures of the different woods, the silks and woollens in the chest, the leather of shoes and the cold metals made into buttons. Nothing there had been disturbed by the touch of malice.
‘It must be nearby, to hold you so tight,’ I said and reached out to feel her gown.
‘Every touch hurts me here, out of my own element,’ she said but she did not move away.
The gown was little more than a sleeveless sack, made of a shadowy cloth, paper thin but supple and soft. The edges were ragged. I could sense no harm there.
Aifur had no shoes, no belt or rings. But her hair was a wave of darkness kept in place by comb, pins and ribbons.
‘May I unbind your hair,’ I asked and her answer was a sigh of despair. All the same, she leaned back to let me work.
Her tresses were long and heavy. As they dropped through my hands, pebbles spilled out of them, reed stalks, strands of weed and dead insects. And no harm that I could sense in any of it. Because I did not know what else to do, I ran my fingers through her loose hair, combing out the tangles as gently as I could. And in the nape of her neck, I found a knot I could not untie, a small plait tight to her skin, hard and cold. My mage sight would not reach into it.
‘The spell is made of your own hair,’ I said. ‘With something else hidden inside. Here.’
Aifur reached back to touch the plait and her fingers tightened as though to tear it from her head.
‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘You might do worse damage that way. We need to untie it.’
I dropped my hand and tried to think. ‘It’s your hair,’ I said again. ‘Help me speak to it.’
‘She must have handled me in my sleep.’ Aifur’s voice was cold. ‘Twisted and pulled and tied his hair with mine, when I meant to be free of him.’
‘Don’t speak with anger,’ I said. ‘Think of your ease once the knots are unravelled, of the caresses of the wind and the water when you can shake loose every hair.
‘Deep in my stream,’ Aifur murmured. She began to sing, in words I could not understand, a wavery, gurgly song, full of danger and longing. I sensed a change in her, like the snap of a key in a lock. When I lifted the bulk of her hair, I saw the small plait swirling like water as it untwisted.
Aifur groaned and bent forward over her belly. I stumbled to my feet as I realised what was about to happen.
From the doorway, the others stared at us, Crispin and his parents, the Duke and the Duchess. Their faces were as stiff as though they had forgotten how to breathe.
‘She needs a midwife,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do now.’
‘I’ll attend to her.’ Crispin’s mother walked past me.
‘But -,’ I said. She has given birth six times but never without a gaggle of helpers, I’m sure.
‘Husband, fetch me blankets and hot water,’ she said. ‘Linnet, sit down before you fall down. Guard the door if you won’t go away.’
I don’t remember much about the rest of that night. I must have stayed awake until the child was born because I heard its yell, robust and angry. Other women had arrived by then, sent by the Duke to offer assistance. One of them guided me to a bed in another room and I fell asleep before she could help me undress.
In the morning, I was roused early by a summons from the Duke. I had no time to order my thoughts or understand the dread that clogged my heart, before I was hurried downstairs.
In Duke Tancred’s private chamber, I found Aifur with the baby in her arms and the Countess by her side. The Duke stood behind a chair where Duchess Roswitha sat and nobody else was present.
‘Crispin?’ I asked, before I could stop myself.
‘He went home with his father last night,’ his mother said. ‘I waited here for you.’ I heard the warning in her voice, though I was not sure what it was directed at.
‘I would have let you rest for longer,’ the Duke said. ‘But the Lady Aifur was urgent to see you.’
Aifur walked towards me. Now that she was free of the spell, she had recovered faster than any mortal woman would have done. Her step was light and her face bright, despite the greeny blue tint. Her gaze was fierce as she looked me up and down.
‘You rescued me,’ she said. ‘But you are no great lady and not much of a mage, I’m told. How did you do it?’
‘Luck, mostly,’ I said. ‘And patience.’
‘I hoped for power and riches.’ She frowned. ‘But you’re the one I trust. You must take my son.’
She held out the bundle in her arms and I backed away.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I have been away from my stream for too long, I must set out for home and I cannot take him with me. He is too human to survive underwater.’
‘But his father -?’ I broke off as I understood too much.
‘That’s why I came here, to give him to his father,’ Aifur kept her eyes on me but I could not help looking at the Duchess. And I nearly ran from the room to get away from her stare back at me. No wonder the mages found no hostile magic here. The Duchess’s spells must be woven all through the house, spells of protection and safekeeping, which she had only twisted a little to trap Aifur. She had broken the spell ropes when I brought them into the open, because she did not want any of the mages at the feast to be summoned to Aifur’s aid..
‘I asked to see the Duke and I was met by the Duchess,’ Aifur said. ‘She offered me a place to rest while she sent for her husband. I did not tell her why I had come but she knew.’
The Duke seemed smaller than the day before, not diminished but condensed with determination and anger. His mouth worked but he did not speak.
‘I saw.’ Duchess Roswitha was the only one of us fashionably dressed that morning. Crispin’s mother and I wore drab borrowed robes over ruined festival gowns and Aifur was in her sack from the night before. The Duchess’s jacket was of close-fitting black velvet, embroidered with pearls. She had rings on her fingers, lace at her neck and a boat-shaped hat, abristle with garnets. Her face was white and sharp as a jewelled dagger and her voice was sharp to match. ‘He has given me no children. Did you expect me to rejoice?’
She is younger than the Duke and they have been married for seven years or so. He walked round to face her. ‘You swore you had abandoned your magery. Even when we found her last night, you would not admit what you had done. You would not let her go.’
‘I offered to release her, when she came.’ The Duchess glared at him, not at Aifur. ‘She had only to agree to my terms.’
‘You offered nothing last night,’ the Duke said. ‘If she’d spoken your name, if I’d summoned the mages to undo your spells, we’d both have been shamed before the whole court.
‘She doesn’t trust you any more than I do.’ Roswitha’s smile was scornful. ‘Without this student’s meddling,’ she glanced at me and I shivered, ‘the rest of my spells would have held fast and I would have had another chance to persuade her.’
‘She wanted my child,’ Aifur said. ‘And a promise to leave and never return.’
The Duke winced and turned to frown at Aifur. ‘I’ll take care of the child.’ He beat out the words like hammer blows. ‘And of you, if you will let me.’
Aifur laughed. ‘You ran away from me before. I should have known better than to come to you now.’
‘Then let me take my son.’ He took a step towards her but she shook her head and he stopped.
‘He needs someone with more strength and wisdom. You’ll find other ways to punish your wife.’
She held out her arms to me and I had to take the bundle before it fell between us. The weight made my arms sag and the child’s squirming almost unbalanced me. His eyes were shut and his white face twisted into a scowl. He looked human enough but not peaceful.
‘Not me,’ I said. ‘I don’t have much wisdom or strength.’
‘But you know how to learn.’ Aifur was already at the door. ‘Keep him safe and you will have the goodwill of me and all my sisters.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Please!’
She did not listen. She was out of sight before I could go after her.
‘I’ll take him,’ the Duke said.
‘Give him to me.’ The Duchess stood up. ‘All these weeks I’ve struggled against that creature. Only once a day, her screams broke through my spells and I could not silence them. But I held her in her suffering until you came. Do you think I’ll let you walk out now with her child?’
‘If you don’t, you’ll have to fight the King’s Mage and all the other masters, once they know what you’ve done.’ Crispin’s mother can sound steady and brisk in all sorts of circumstances and I have never been more grateful. She came to stand beside me. ‘‘And every water spirit in the land would bear a grudge against you. Let’s go home, Linnet. We will find a wet-nurse and take counsel about what you should do next.’
We left them staring at one another, the Duke and Duchess, with a hard crust of silence settling over them.
The child rolled to and fro and gurgled, though his eyes were shut tight. At four weeks’ old, he was never completely still or quiet, even in the deepest sleep. He had pushed away his blankets as usual. His nurse worried that his skin was never warm bit I hoped that was healthy for a water spirit’s offspring. I had not wanted a child but I was beginning to find this one fascinating.
‘What’s his name?’ Crispin stood in the doorway.
‘I don’t know.’ This had begun to worry me. ‘I haven’t found the right one ye.’
‘You didn’t tell me you had given up your lodgings.’
‘I’ve hardly seen you.’ I was staying at Bear Hall, his parents’ house but he had scarcely been home. My lodgings were no place for a child and I would have been more vulnerable there to Duchess Roswitha’s enmity. Crispin ought to have been able to work that out for himself.
‘It’s not right.’ He sounded angry. ‘How can you continue your studies like this?’
‘I’m leaving the city, as soon as the babe is old enough to travel with a nurse.’ The prospect would once have horrified me but now it cheered me up. I had had enough of the city and its mages. Crispin’s mother had promised me funds, which I was not too proud to take. I was ready t see new places and meet new people.
‘You can’t,’ Crispin said. ‘The best teaching mages are all here.’
‘So they say in the city. Maybe I’ll prove them wrong. A water spirit’s child will have plenty to teach me, even while he is small.’
©June, 2017 Sandra Unerman
Sandra Unerman is a keen writer and reader of fantasy. She has had a number of stories published, including stories in Aurora Wolf and an earlier edition of Swords & Sorcery Magazine. Her fantasy novel, Spellhaven, is due out from Mirror World Publishing later this year.She lives in London, UK and is a member of London Clockhouse Writers.