Edition 23: Serial Fiction: Stolen Moments (Part 2 of 2) by Lindsey Duncan
In part two of Stolen Moments, Mantisia learns all she can of magic from the doomed Sarbeth. Mantisia has a plan to free him from the bargain with the eternal Valinah, maybe at the cost of her own short life. The conclusion of Lindsey Duncan’s mythic fantasy. SY
Mantisia, Age Twenty-Three
We came to the city of Sherig two days later. Sarbeth had ten tomes of magic with him; I had memorized every word. I had never concentrated on something so intently, and the gestures of power flowed through my veins. I could lift small objects with a thought and create illusions that danced in the darkness.
He was a patient teacher, always gentle with corrections, and he understood the furious pace of my mind. I devoured every scrap of history and lore. The pride in his gaze was a light, and I felt I could speak to him in a look, as I had once imagined Silt did—words of hope, words of discovery and words of the future. It was a future neither of us had, and it bound us.
I had two hours before dark, two luminous hours of freedom. I toured the city, gone mad with sensations. I heard the sussurus of fabric as people drifted past; saw fraying ribbons of paint on signs and wall-murals; tasted brick-dust and baker’s yeast on the air. Every scene—things that flashed past others as nothing more than dim impressions—was an endless story.
I came by chance to a poor area of Sherig. Not like the foreign quarter of my home—walled in by forces stronger than walls. Tattered rags starched by dirt and the creeping evidence of a hundred small creatures that claimed the same living space.
A woman in a robe that had once been blue sat on the corner, hunched over herself. Her fingers fumbled with a birchwood cane, tip scraping against the ground. Her hair had lost its color, a mass of fiber and dirt. And her face…in a thousand lines, I saw every worry, every fear, every pain—the crushing impact of years.
I looked at myself, I realized. Within a matter of weeks, with no way to prepare and precious little time to enjoy what lay between. Forgotten, abandoned and ravaged—it seemed impossible punishment. I had always known I would grow old quickly and then die, but I had never lingered on what that first step would mean.
The old woman lifted her head. Her gaze fixed on me without seeing. Inside, I flailed, but the advantage to my nature was I could panic a hundred times over and hardly be seen to blink—and I needed every repetition.
“Spare a coin for an old woman?”
I fumbled with the purse Sarbeth had given me. It was a paltry response to what I had seen, but it was all I had. I imagined myself as just such a shell.
She gave me a gapped smile as I dropped the coin on her palm. “Bless you, child.”
If only she knew.
I fled. I hardly saw the rest of the city.
As I returned to the camp, I saw Sarbeth leaning against a wagon, hand motionless on Silt’s back, a tremor in his jaw. The sigh that followed echoed in my breast, and I felt ashamed of both my vacation and my fear. I had spent what amounted to months of my life gallivanting, when I might have been trying to find a solution for his problem; I still had time, even if vanishingly brief, while he had none.
Silt whined in greeting. I scratched under her chin, looking up at her master. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m going to repay you. Somehow.”
“There won’t be time.” Sarbeth smiled wryly. “And no need. Teaching you, I feel as if I’ll leave something behind. Hush,” he continued, “you’ll make your mark, however much time you have. I’m certain of it.”
I wished those words could comfort me. I sat down and curled against his shoulder. “Will you tell me what happened? Why you made the bargain?”
“I did it out of love.” He was looking there again, into some past longer back than I could imagine. “I was the scribe for a garrison stationed on the Ice Fringe. A message came my wife Tirin was very ill with some sickness no one could identify. I begged leave to go to her, and leave was granted, though it was dead of winter and the snows were coming thick.
“The cold snapped and bit. I stumbled into a blizzard and realized I was lost.” He paused. Silt licked his hand, as if in encouragement. “I have never been a religious man, but I prayed—and as I prayed, my foot slipped. I slammed into a rock and gashed my leg open. I cursed the gods with what I thought would be my last breath.”
I gasped, and then grimaced as I realized how silly I sounded. “And then?”
Sarbeth laughed at my reaction. “I was much younger then, filled with fire and purpose.” He canted his head to look at me, and I did not need words to know the comparison he made. “And she…she came to me. She offered me life.”
His eyes widened, startled. “How did you—” He sighed. “Yes. I told her that was not enough, that I would rather die out here than outlive my beloved. I think that was what interested her. She wanted to see, through my eyes, what would cause such devotion. She gave me what I needed, but she locked my leg in this way, as a reminder. I had no feeling in it from then on, but a few days before I left, it—”
“Are you hurt?” I asked. “Why didn’t you say something? You taught me a spell to numb pain.”
“I don’t think it will work.” Sarbeth looked uneasy. “We are dealing with power greater than our own.”
“Greater than yours,” I said. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.” But neither did I. Frustration swelled over me in patches of heat. “And she clearly didn’t keep her bargain, or where is Tirin now?”
He flinched, and I cursed myself for the words. “My wife and I had ten good years together,” he murmured. “Magic can’t heal every ailment, and she was always frail. Let it alone, Mantisia. The bargain was fair.”
Dim voices floated through the camp from Sherig. Silt reproached me in silence. Time drained away, time in which I somehow could not think at all.
“Let’s talk about something more cheerful, shall we?” he said, voice heavy. “I sold some tomes for others. Theory primarily. I thought you’d appreciate new reading material.”
We had already discovered my capacity for fitting a hundred thoughts into a second made the intense focus necessary for magic almost second nature—he thought I could handle advanced spells, given practice.
“Thank you.” I didn’t dare apologize for my outburst. Instead, I smiled and clasped his hands. “You are the truest friend I have.”
He laughed, tentatively. “In that, I think, you need more variety—but I’ll do, until you move on. A true friend would stop you. Even if the Valinah cannot drink more years than she needs to stay young, she could still hurt you.”
“I’m not afraid,” I said.
“I know.” Sarbeth smiled. “Let me show you what I have.”
He moved on, clearly expecting me to forget—but I will not let myself. So much I owe this man, and so little time to pay—before I am the one who is old.
Mantisia, Age Twenty-Nine
Last night, the caravan stopped at its northernmost point, a military outpost at the foot of the mountains. Sarbeth traded for a mountain horse, and we set out this morning. Sometimes we rode double; sometimes I walked, but I refused to let him do the same. His leg bothered him, though he tried to hide it. Even mounted, he couldn’t stay comfortable—and the further we ascended, the colder it grew.
I was ever more determined. Maybe Sarbeth had decided to go without a fight, and maybe he still refused to teach me anything that would allow me to do the same, but I had months to think and the grounding of theory in which to subvert his plan.
I walked as he rode up a particularly steep slope. Silt trotted alongside, her tail thumping the tempo of our journey. I watched him shiver, and realized the moment I had planned for was here. “You said you could teach me a spell of warmth.” I felt guilty saying it, for comfort wasn’t the reason I asked.
“A spell to make the body think it is warm,” he corrected gently. “It’s not easy. Remember it’s hard to work with flesh, even for you.”
“Please teach me,” I said
Sarbeth looked down, a twitch of one brow. The smile surfaced. “Mantisia, you’re tireless. As you will.”
I heard the thanks in his voice, and I glowed. “I don’t have time to stop and rest,” I said, flashing a grin. “I’ll do it when I’m dead.”
“If everyone thought that way,” Sarbeth observed, “the world would move much faster. Start with the cleansing gestures …”
Mantisia, Age Thirty-Three
I’m older now.
I’ve come to realize I shouldn’t have left my mother. I’ve given Sarbeth companionship in his last days, but I also must have made her frantic with worry and fear. I once reasoned she would know I had grown up and grown capable—but reason isn’t always what guides us.
As we ascended, the shape of the rocks seemed to change. The castle emerged first as an imaginative fancy, until it became a reality, turrets of stone glazed with snow. The blizzards of perpetual winter carved the landscape around it with distant, weary howls. A castle between the winds, indeed.
We came to a barren plateau midway up the final peak. Sarbeth halted the horse with a jerk of the reins. “No further.”
I started to question, until I saw his hand clutching his leg.
He dismounted with difficulty; I caught his arm and helped him. He hugged me tightly, and I burrowed my face into his shoulder, inhaling his familiar scent. I could feel him tense, unwilling to let go. Finally, he turned, easing out of my arms. For me, it took far too long.
“Take care of Silt, will you?” he said. “And thank you, Mantisia. Having a companion— a witness—has made this bearable.”
I wondered, suddenly, if he would have been unable to complete the journey without me. I suppressed the thought. If the Valinah had come looking for him, the situation might have been worse.
Silt whined anxiously, nosing my hand. I tucked my fingers into her collar.
“Sarbeth, I…” My farewell speech was eloquent, composed, the work of poets—imperfect only because it was never spoken, “…wish you well.”
He limped across the plateau. I scuttled after, staying low, moving as quietly as I could. Silt padded behind me, a silver ghost.
Sarbeth stopped and drew himself up. “Valinah!” His voice cracked. “I’ve come to fulfill our pact.”
I slipped, almost falling. Ice winds keened across the plateau, swirling leaves and rock-dust. The detritus converged and then subsided around a female form.
Her skin was the color of the moon’s halo—white, but deepened by hints of emerald and night. She wore a gown that appeared to have no substance, transparent as glass, yet reflected the eye away from any sign of skin beneath. Her hair was the shade of a human pupil, dark and glossy. And she was, indeed, perfect, every curve in symmetry.
Sarbeth tried to kneel, but his leg prevented him. “Lady.”
“You were almost late.” I had heard the term ‘bedroom voice,’ but until I heard the Valinah speak, I hadn’t understood what it meant. “Are you ready?”
“Can anyone ever be?” He stood, meeting her eyes.
I vaulted to my feet. “Wait.”
She spun, her turn fast enough to conjure winds. They warbled past, rushing towards the turrets. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“Mantisia?” Sarbeth said, his eyes widening. “Get back while you can.”
I ignored him. “I want to make a deal.”
“Lady,” he reached for her sleeve, “don’t—”
The Valinah lifted a hand. A wall of ice sprang between him and us. There was no segue, not even to my perceptions: nothing one moment, and there the next. I shivered, suddenly aware of her power.
“Now we may speak,” she said. “What do you offer, mortal?”
“My life for his,” I said.
She laughed, a sound that cut. “Why would I want to do that? He satisfies my appetite.”
“So can I. You’ll get more years out of me.” The lie was easier than I had expected. I felt something soft and beautifully warm nudge my hand. I twitched; it was Silt. Absurdly, her presence made me feel cloaked against the Valinah’s cold.
“And fewer memories. The young are always easy to snare.” She laughed, a flash of parched teeth.
“My memories are a hundred times more acute than the people you have taken before.” Before she could stop me, I started into a description of the first thing that came to mind: the old woman I had seen in Sherig. It was a grim recollection, but it reminded me why I was doing this. There was so little I could do with the fleeting days I had left, but I could save Sarbeth. His life meant something.
The Valinah listened, shrouded in silence. I could not read her face, for all the hours I had to study it. “Why should I not simply take both of you?”
The pain of relief stabbed me. “Of the many terrible tales men have to say about you,” I said, “they also say you always keep your word.”
“And you believe the words of men.” She sighed, a sound like the cracking of ice. “So very young.”
She advanced: it took everything I had to stand my ground as I made the cleansing gestures behind my back. Most junior sorcerers could not have done such a thing, but I did not need to see my hands to know what they did or to focus my will upon them. My next motions were quick, staccato, striking—tinder seeking sparks. Silt growled at my side, but did not move.
“What will you do?” I asked when I saw she would reach me too quickly. I dreaded the touch of those fingers, but I would have to withstand them—if only my plan worked.
I thought of the old woman. That was all I had to lose. If only I’d had more time, the opportunity to learn more detailed magics—if only Sarbeth would have stood with me in confederacy and taught me combat magic. I would use what I had.
The Valinah paused, fingers a breath from my shoulder. They curled, a flick of icy nails, hovering. “I will take your bargain,” she said.
Her hand settled on my shoulder. Winter ran wild in my veins—and I finished the spell.
The first rush of warmth went no further than my own body, protecting me from the chill as it had on our journey up the mountain—but this was a far greater cold, and it sent shivers through me. I tensed, my fingers flying swifter through the invocations. I concentrated every instant of my attention on the sorcery.
The cold burrowed deeper. I thought I had lost. Heat surged; my body blazed as if I had thrust it into fire. I cried out, stunned more than hurt.
The Valinah screamed, a blizzard’s keen. Her hand pressed against my shoulder like a block of ice and shoved me backwards. I toppled, landing hard on my hands. Rocks cut into my palms. Silt crouched in front of me, growling.
Shuddering, the Valinah hunched over, her skin shedding flakes of snow. A rictus of pain clutched her features. I inhaled, held it for what must have been only an instant. It had worked.
She straightened, bright light reflecting off her skin, and came at me.
Silt launched herself with a growl. The Valinah flicked out a hand; ice sheathed the hound’s fur, imprisoning her mid-leap. Frantic tears backed up in my throat and my head even as I tried the lifting spell.
The rain of rocks skittered along her skin without impact. She grabbed my arm. I tried to twist free, but my body wouldn’t obey. To repeat the spell of warmth seemed an impossible feat. For once—for the first time—I had no time.
“You foolish child,” she snapped. “I’ll have you both.”
Her fingers vised my chin, forcing my gaze to hers. Her eyes had me, ineffable, without color to guess or focus to meet. I felt darkness spread from my extremities, not cold, not pain—just a shadow that left nothing in its wake. It came faster, until all I could feel was the tread of my heart and the pulse of my breath.
The Valinah jerked, a hiss of pain escaping her—but the movement didn’t pull her eyes from me. My heart halted, I could no longer feel my lungs pounding. It was not supposed to be a slow process, I sensed, but it was, a decay of hours. I felt myself falling, my senses withering.
Like a distant light on the horizon, I saw her luminous face. Her eyes widened, and I saw human within them: shock, uncertainty, fear, the throbbing of pain. I had hurt her—I was hurting her, by being exactly what I was.
I don’t know how I moved my hand; I only recall the impossible agony when I grabbed her arm, holding onto her. I watched the coruscation of experience in her eyes, moving ever faster until it became a blur I could not follow. The shadow inside me overwhelmed the light.
In the dim haze, her face grew younger, skin smoothing, eyes softening. I dismissed it as imagination—and then her hair shrank into an untidy mass of curls, and there was no doubting I looked at a figure on the cusp of womanhood, and then a child.
None of these things had been so long ago, for me.
Her hand fell away from my arm. Light rushed back, so fast it seemed it had always been there. I inhaled, drawing in crisp, wine-sweet air. An improbable assault of fur, limbs and warmth tackled me; it took a while to recognize Silt. Beyond her, the ice wall melted.
Sarbeth sprinted to my side. Everything happened too quickly; I had no time to stop and dissect the moments. “Mantisia! Are you all right?”
I shook my head, bewildered. How could I answer that? “The Valinah—what happened to her?” My eyes came to the small white form almost obscured within billowed garments. “I don’t understand.”
“I can venture a guess,” he said. “She tried to devour your years, but there is so much time in your every hour that it was too much, too swiftly. Instead of merely maintaining her youth, she became a child.”
And I? What had happened to me?
“Which means,” Sarbeth continued, turning with purpose, “that now is our best chance to destroy her.”
I realized only then what was wrong, that the world moved, not at accustomed speed, but fire quick. The Valinah had taken the years from my days, but she had left enough for me to live like an ordinary person.
I moved between Sarbeth and The Valinah.
He stared. “Mantisia?”
I looked down at what she had become. “This is a chance to rewrite the myth—to give the story a more hopeful ending,” I said. “I’m taking her with me.”
“What will you do with a child?” At first angry, his voice gentled. “You’re only a few weeks old.”
I could not forget that. All the complications I had freed myself not to think about, that could only be conquered only in months and years, tangled me in convoluted knots. I shuddered under the weight of the responsibility. Could I teach such a child to see the world as I had, full of wonder and worthy of respect – even as I learned to live again? I was a grown woman, but I had a thousand mistakes yet to make.
I lifted my chin. I would face it as I had faced everything before: as if there were no tomorrow to bind me.
I turned my gaze up to the castle, the demesne of a creature who had lived forever—my counterpart and now, my charge. “I will find a way,” I said. “I have all the time I need.”
Part 1 of this story can be found in SQ Mag 22, September 2015
Lindsey Duncan is a chef/pastry chef, professional Celtic harp performer, and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com. Her blog can be found at: http://lindseyduncan.blogspot.com/
Her Twitter handle is: @LindseyCDuncan