Horsefeathers

 

Kathryn Sullivan

 

Clouds of incense, with overtones of fouler scents, billowed out the doorway of the grimy little shop as Smoke stealthily approached. The circled eye on the sign above the door seem to stare straight through her, but Smoke was determined not to be put off by that omen. She straightened her vest to hide her small pouch of coppers and vainly tried to finger-comb her recently cropped brown hair into some order. Glancing at the sign again, she took a deep breath and strode up to the open door.

Inside, a man in long black robes peered myopically into a cauldron streaked with various dried substances, seemingly oblivious to the dirty brown clouds engulfing him. Smoke stood in the doorway and studied him with a sinking heart. This was the only wizard she could find in the whole city. He would have to do, although he suited his shop perfectly -- from his thin beard and black-lined hands to the stains dotting his robes.

Smoke took another deep breath--and almost choked on the incense. "Are you the wizard?" she asked hoarsely.

The man did not even look up. "The sign reads 'magician', doesn't it?"

"'Milburr, the magician'," Smoke agreed. "I want to become your apprentice," she said quickly.

The magician looked at her, then slowly straightened as he saw that she was no ragged urchin. "What do your parents say?"

"They're dead." Smoke swallowed. "Goblins, in Rocktooth Pass. Two ten-days ago."

"In Rocktooth Pass?" The cauldron abruptly boiled over, and the magician swatted at the new stains on his robes. "Then how did you get here?"

"Free Traders found me and brought me to this city." Smoke backed away from the spitting cauldron and glanced at a pile of parchment atop a nearby table. A small mouse nibbled busily at another stack. "But I don't want to become a Free Trader. I want to be a wizard."

The magician peered at her face, then noticed the mouse and swung at it. The mouse scurried away. "Bah. You're only a child. Can't be more than eight."

"I'm eleven," Smoke replied, lifting her chin.

"A child," Milburr repeated. "What can you know of magic?"

"I can learn. I can read." The magician hurriedly pulled the parchment stack away. "And--" Smoke hesitated, reluctant to reveal her secret.

"And?" the magician prodded. "Well, out with it! I haven't all day." When she didn't answer, he turned away and stared back into the cauldron. "You have to do more than read to be a wizard."

Smoke straightened. "I can do magic already."

"Of course you can. Now go away and close the door on your way out."

"I can so do magic! I can call animals to me."

Milburr looked askance at her, his expression disbelieving. "Call one, then." He flapped his hand at the table. "Call that mouse."

"All right." Smoke stared at the spot where she had seen the mouse disappear and felt her forehead furrow in concentration. _Come_, she called. Soon she was rewarded by the sight of whiskers peeking around a pot on the table. _Come on_.

The mouse crept slowly out of hiding, his black beadlike eyes staring directly at her. "Ah ha!" Milburr cried.

_Go_! Smoke said.

The magician pounced, but the mouse had already scurried away. Milburr yelped as he missed, and the pot rolled slowly across the table, dripping a trail of red liquid.

The magician straightened and rubbed his elbow. He stared at the table and a strange gleam appeared in his eyes. "Well, boy, you certainly have Talent. Consider yourself my apprentice. By fire and earth and water I affirm it. Now grab that broom and start cleaning up this place."

"I'm not a boy," Smoke said.

Milburr retrieved the pot and drained it. "Well, you're not a young man yet," he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

"But I'm not a boy," Smoke repeated. "I'm a girl."

"A girl!" The pot shattered at the magician's feet. "I can't have-- You can't be a magician if you're a girl!"

"Why not?" Smoke asked curiously.

"Why-- It just isn't done, that's why not!"

"I have to learn magic," she said stubbornly.

"Girls can't learn magic," Milburr insisted. "They haven't any talent for it."

"_You_ said that _I_ had Talent. And there have been women wizards."

"Not in the Kingdoms. And not in this city! Now get out of my shop!"

"But I'm your apprentice. You swore it. By fire and earth and water."

A sudden 'pop' came from the mixture on the fire, and the magician started. He uneasily eyed the flames now crawling up the sides of the cauldron and backed a step away from both the cauldron and Smoke. "So I did. So I definitely did." He glanced wildly around the room and his gaze fell upon the stack of parchment beside him. "Oh yes, an oath is an oath."

Milburr looked back at her with a sudden gleam of interest. "I have a very important project for you, apprentice. One that only you, with your magic, could complete."

"Then I am your apprentice?" Smoke asked.

"Yes, of course! Didn't I swear to it? I was fortunate indeed that you came to help me, er--what is your name?"

"The Free Traders called me Smoke."

"Smoke, yes. Ah, I am fortunate indeed! Many years have I tried to complete this spell, tried and failed because I am lacking one important ingredient -- one that only you, with your magic, could obtain. So, apprentice, I want you to seek out and bring to me the feather of a horse."

Smoke looked at him. "There're no such things as horses. That's just a legend."

Milburr lifted a sheet of parchment off the table. "But that is what the spell requires. You can read it for yourself."

Smoke reached for the sheet, and Milburr turned and gestured, parchment in hand, at the small jars scattered about the room. "You call these only legends? Each one obtained for this particular spell and now I will never complete it because my apprentice doubts me and is afraid to seek out--"

"I'm not afraid," Smoke interrupted.

"Then you will seek out a horse? And bring a feather to me?"

Smoke gave up trying to read the moving parchment. "I'm still your apprentice?"

The magician looked hurt. "I affirmed it by fire and earth and water. Only you can break it."

"Then I'll go."

"Good!" Milburr hurried her toward the door. "Go quickly. Have a safe trip. I must finish the mixture I am preparing now, otherwise it will be ruined, so I won't give you unnecessary instructions." The cauldron burped. "Hurry back with the feather!"

Smoke found herself out on the street. "But where do I go?" She turned back to the shop. "I'll need supplies, and--"

The door slammed shut, and Smoke heard the bar sliding into place behind it. "Milburr?"

She tried to peer through the small grimy front window. "Milburr!"

She heard the muffled sound of an explosion inside the shop, and the inside of the window was suddenly streaked with liquid. "My mixture!" Milburr's voice wailed from inside.

Smoke backed away from the window and decided to start on her search.

Seeking out the market, Smoke spent a few of her coppers on food for the journey. She had her father's dagger to protect herself outside the city and the memories of her family's travels to guide her on this new search. But where would she find a horse? There were four-footed beings similar to horses that ran wild on the wide stretches of plains between the Eight Human Kingdoms, but they resembled the horses of legend as much as a weosun of the Free Traders resembled the dull-brained aurochs the kingdom dwellers used as beasts of burden. Still, it was a place to begin.

Ducking into hiding each time she saw a Free Trader, Smoke cautiously made her way to the city gates. She was almost out the gate when she spotted one of the Free Traders who had rescued her coming toward the gate from outside. He was deep in conversation with his companion, and Smoke darted behind a cart before he could see her.

"I tell you, Witan, I did see them! A whole herd of Taisee! Flying above the Silvergreen Hills!"

"Are you certain they weren't birds?"

"Birds that resemble the four-footed plains Runners? With big white wings that stretch the height of two grown men? Or longer?"

"The tongue of a Trader. Taisee! You almost make me believe it."

"Ah, Witan, my friend. Don't be so shop-minded."

Smoke peeked over the edge of the cart as the two walked away. Spying no other Free Traders about, she ran out of the city gates and kept running until she was far outside.

When she thought she was far enough from the city to be safe from well-meaning adults, she slowed to a walk and thought over the Trader's words. She had never heard of Taisee, but if they resembled Runners and had wings, maybe they were what she was looking for. Smoke didn't know if Runners had feathers, but she reasoned that anything with wings should have.

She glanced up at the sun, then set off in the proper direction. She knew the way to the Silvergreen Hills. Rocktooth Pass was among those hills.

* * * * *

A few days later Smoke lay flat in the silver-edged grass that gave the Silvergreen Hills their name and studied the blue-white being grazing not far from her. A Taisee. The creature was so beautiful that Smoke could not believe she was actually seeing it. The body resembled the small and fragile horses of legend she had seen in her father's book, with a long flowing mane and tail that reminded her somehow of clouds. The wings were long, even longer than the Trader had described, with feathers that shone in the gathering dusk.

Smoke suddenly hated herself for what she was about to do. But, she reasoned, the Taisee could probably spare one feather, and she had to become a wizard.

Slowly she rose to her feet. The Taisee lifted his head, gazing at her with eyes that were a surprising light blue. _Stay_, she ordered. The Taisee's ears pricked forward, then, still watching her, he lowered his head and continued grazing.

Smoke could not believe her good fortune. She walked forward slowly and calmly, repeating her command over and over. The Taisee stayed.

Closer and closer Smoke advanced. Then, suddenly, she couldn't move another step. A curious lassitude invaded her mind, along with an acute reluctance to continue any further.

Smoke backed up and looked at the winged being. The Taisee tossed his head and nickered cheerfully at her. Smoke advanced once again, determined to reach him this time.

But this time the reluctance was stronger. Smoke gritted her teeth and tried again. And again.

Finally she settled herself onto the long sweet-smelling grass and studied the Taisee. There was nothing she could see which prevented her from walking right up to the being, yet she couldn't get closer than twenty paces to him. The Taisee was looking very amused.

Smoke smiled ruefully. "I must have looked very foolish," she said to the Taisee. "There's a protective spell about you, isn't there?"

The Taisee's mane rippled blue-silver as he nodded his head. Smoke sat up straight. "You aren't a captive, are you?"

The Taisee shook his head.

"Then why a spell?"

Feathers rustled as the Taisee started to raise his wings, and Smoke saw the answer to her question. The left wing hung limp and useless.

"Oh, you poor thing!" she exclaimed. "I could help. I broke my arm once and Father had to splint it. I'll go get some sticks and--"

The Taisee shook his head and whickered softly. He stamped one hoof firmly on the ground and looked encouragingly at her.

"Stay here?" Smoke asked.

The Taisee nodded. He swung his head toward his chest and then stamped his hoof again.

"You're supposed to stay here? Oh, I understand. Someone will be back to help you, and that someone put the spell around you to protect you until he returns?"

The Taisee nodded, and his mane swung down to cover one eye. Smoke, admiring the sheer beauty of the being, sighed softly. "I wish we could talk together, rather than just me doing all the talking." She rummaged in her depleted carrypouch. "I found some tartapples a while ago. Would you like one?"

The Taisee's front hooves danced a bit, and Smoke took that to mean assent. She started to climb to her feet, and the being backed up. Smoke sat down again. "Oh, that's right. I almost forgot." She looked from the apple in her hand to the Taisee, then gave up and rolled it toward the being. The apple rolled unhindered almost to his hooves, and the Taisee gobbled it greedily. He looked wistfully at the one Smoke was slowly munching, and Smoke laughed and rolled the last one in her pouch towards him. The Taisee wasn't satisfied until he had the core of her apple as well.

By then it had become so dark that Smoke could see only the Taisee's shining wings. She laid back in the grass and studied the winged being against the twinkling stars, responding to his whickers with questions and comments of her own. But deep in her mind was the growing question of her apprenticeship to the magician.

* * * * *

A dream woke Smoke a short time later, a dream that was part memory and part warning. She awoke from the midst of the goblin attack on her family and knew before her eyes were fully open that goblins were nearby.

For a moment she did not know where she was. Then she saw the faint gleam of the Taisee's wings not far away and remembered. She stayed still, trying to locate by scent where the goblins were. She could hear low murmurs in the goblins' coarse tongue and tried to count the speakers. There seemed to be only two, and they were between her and the dozing Taisee.

Smoke slowly drew her father's dagger out of its sheath, thankful that the goblins' night vision was as poor as her own. Only that had saved her from discovery so far. The Taisee would be safe enough from the goblins within his protective spell. For a moment, she thought it might be fun to watch the goblins' reaction to it.

One goblin rose to its full height. There was something long in its hand, and as it raised the object to its shoulder, Smoke's heart froze. They had spears!

Smoke gathered herself to run, but knew she could never cross the distance to the goblin in time to throw off its aim. "Taisee, look out!" she yelled.

The Taisee started awake just as the goblin threw its spear. The weapon buried itself harmlessly in the earth as the Taisee dodged, then charged forward with a scream of anger. The goblin's answering exclamations sounded frightened.

Crouching low as she ran, Smoke searched for the goblin with the second spear. From the goblin cries, the Taisee's vision was superior to her own. Where was that second goblin?

Someone fell over her, knocking her dagger from her hand, and a heavy object banged into her leg. Grabbing the object, Smoke found herself in sole possession of a spear. Hearing mumbled complaints nearby, she swung the heavy end of the spear as if it was a quarterstaff and felt it connect with something.

Smoke stood, listening, trying to locate the goblin in the darkness. Something crashed into her from behind, knocking her to the ground. Landing on the spear, Smoke stubbornly held onto the weapon and tried to throw the goblin off.

Suddenly the weight was gone from her back, and sweet apple-scented breath warmed her face. Smoke sat up and stared at the Taisee standing protectively over her. In the shine of the Taisee's wings, she could dimly see the two goblins gesturing angrily just outside the field of the protective spell.

Suddenly both goblins froze in midmotion. The Taisee nudged her shoulder, and Smoke turned to see a bobbing torch coming towards them. As the torch drew closer, a wave of calmness seemed to spread outward from it, and Smoke studied the woman carrying the torch with a wondering interest.

She was tall, robed and hooded in the green of new leaves, and peeking out from under the hood were heavy braids of a brownish-red. Her features were human, and Smoke's interest intensified. A woman wizard?

The woman stopped beside the two goblins. She seemed to study them for a moment, then passed her hand slowly above their heads. The boney, purple-skinned creatures abruptly came to life and instantly recoiled from her in terror. She stared at them, and the goblins turned and fled into the night.

Smoke stared in wonderment. The woman had not even said anything!

The woman turned toward them. She passed her hand before her and stepped forward, the shielding spell dissolved.

The Taisee bowed low as the woman neared them. "I apologize, Cloud-strider. Had I realized that goblins were abroad, I would have used a different spell. I am rested enough to aid you now, so you will no longer be in danger."

"Are you a wizard?" Smoke asked.

The woman smiled at her. "No, child. I am a Sensitive--a healer, if you like."

"But the way you controlled those goblins..."

"All part of the powers of a Sensitive. But what are you doing out here alone?"

Smoke straightened her vest. "I am an apprentice to a magician," she started. Something in the woman's gaze made her tell more than she planned.

"He didn't want to take me on, not when he found out I was a girl. But I have to become a wizard, so he sent me to find the feather of a horse." She stopped suddenly, feeling confused. Why had she said so much?

The woman looked thoughtful. "The feather of a horse. Anyone who would send a child out into danger to find a nonexistent--" She caught herself up short and looked at the Taisee. "I may ask for a return favor sooner than you thought, Cloudstrider." The winged being nodded.

Smoke, meanwhile, had seen something shining in the long grass. Bending, she found herself looking at a feather the length of her palm, which gleamed whitely in the torchlight. She held it up to the Taisee. "You lost a feather. May I have it to bring to my magician?"

The Taisee looked toward the woman. She reached out and closed Smoke's hand about the feather. "Yes, of course you may. But do you truly wish to go back to him?"

"He swore the oath of apprenticeship," Smoke began hesitantly. "But he said I could break it. But I want to become a wizard! I can call animals to me!"

The woman raised her eyebrows. "A strong Talent, indeed. I am called Lifetrust, and I find that I am in need of an apprentice. I am not a wizard, true, but I can teach you how to talk to animals and how to sense them from far away. I know many wizards, and when you feel you have learned all you can from me, I am certain we can find one -- who would definitely be far more powerful than a mere magician -- to train you. Would you like that?"

Smoke nodded wordlessly. "I am called Smoke," she said finally.

Lifetrust nodded approvingly. "Not your true name, which is wise for one wishing to become a wizard. I must heal Cloudstrider's wing, and then we shall go back to my cottage and discuss how best to deal with your magician."

* * * * *

Milburr the magician was staring myopically into his cauldron when he heard a familiar voice.

"I'm back," Smoke said.

Milburr jumped, then turned and eyed her. "Gave up, did you?"

"Oh no, I found the feather."

"You found the feather of a horse? Impossible."

Smoke extended her hand and allowed him to see the feather. "Here it is."

Milburr studied it bemusedly, then slowly reached out to take it.

Smoke closed her fist about it and backed away. "I have the horse it's right outside."

The magician stared at her as if in shock. "You have the horse it's outside?" He shook himself, and Smoke retreated toward the door with a smile as Milburr stepped forward. "You fool, girl! Do you know how valuable a horse could be? Someone could steal--" He reached the open doorway and stared speechlessly, instantly falling under the spell Lifetrust had cast about the being which waited there.

Cloudstrider looked amusedly at the magician as Smoke climbed onto the Taisee's back and settled herself with a firm grip on his long mane. Smoke glanced once at the people who had come into the street and now were unable to do anything to the Taisee but stand and stare, and then turned back to Milburr.

"You affirmed me as your apprentice by fire and earth and water," she said solemnly. "By air, I say that I am no longer your apprentice." Cloudstrider opened his wings and launched himself into the sky. "Fare well, Milburr."

The magician stared after them for a long time.

 
 
 

 


Author Bio

Kathryn Sullivan is a librarian in Minnesota where she is owned by two birds. She has had stories published in print zines Minnesota Fantasy Review and Fury, and she writes reviews for The Friends of Doctor Who newsletter. Visit Kathy's web site.

 


 

 
 
 

Copyright © 1999 Kathryn Sullivan. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 4-24-99.

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