An excerpt from

The End of Magic

Mark Stay

The Witch Who Thinks She's A Warlock

 

Rosheen was up to her elbows in blood, baby piss and a warm placenta when the message from Torren came begging her for urgent assistance and the promise of abundant silver. She had been helping a midwife in Emerwick deliver a tavern owner’s baby, and the birth had been difficult, taking all night and Rosheen was exhausted, hungry and, of course, covered in sticky fluids and she needed a bath. Torren’s message was emphatic. Battle and bloodshed was inevitable and she had to come immediately. Even with Anzu’s powerful wings, the flight to Canwick Tor had taken most of the afternoon. Now the sun was high and Torren’s men were exhausted and close to defeat.

            The battle had been raging all day. Rosheen and her griffin Anzu landed on a high vantage point on a winding path that led to the tor, and found themselves watching with creeping discomfort. At first glance, the fighting in the field below made Rosheen think of childhood games back in Eru, when huge herds of village children would charge each other, or chase a ball across hills and fields with no sense of purpose other than pure joy. But this was no game. Torren’s men surged forward, crashed into the seemingly immovable ranks of mercenaries, then were driven back again. Some floundered in the mud and were rewarded with an axe in the back, or a broadsword biting into a limb. Cries of agony echoed around them, the voices of big men, professional soldiers, reduced to begging for death, weeping for their mothers. Children once more.

            Apart from a few localised skirmishes, Agrona hadn’t had blood spilt on its green and lush meadows for quite some time. A battle between two armies of this size was unreal. ‘There hasn’t been anything like this in… decades. Centuries, even.’ Rosheen ran her hand through Anzu’s feathers, something she caught herself doing when anxious. Anzu purred at her touch. ‘It’s like something from the chronicles,’ Rosheen said.

            It’s a slaughter. Anzu’s thoughts came directly to Rosheen’s mind with a gentle voice that only the mage could hear. Anzu always spoke with the confidence and conviction of an older sister, even though she was six years younger than Rosheen. There was something inherently aristocratic about griffins that would always add a few years of gravitas whatever their age, though Rosheen was quick to remind Anzu of her seniority if the griffin ever got too big for her boots. Who are these people? They look like mercenaries, but I’ve never seen paid men fight with such passion.

            Rosheen winced as she watched one man, wounded in the back and bleeding badly, trying to crawl from the thick of the battlefield. He was spotted by one of the mercenaries who strolled over calmly and, with a chilling inevitability, stuck her sword into his ribs. The wounded man jerked and a moment later his final cry of agony drifted up to the tor.

            Oh, gods. Do we have to watch this, Rosh’?

            Anzu wasn’t squeamish, but this was unlike anything they had ever seen. Rosheen knew she shouldn’t be dwelling on the carnage, but for a moment she felt like she was getting a glimpse into the future. Prophecy wasn’t one of her skills, but you didn’t need to be a seer to know that things wouldn’t be the same after this.

            Rosheen!

            ‘Uh, yes, sorry.’ She shook herself back to reality. ‘Let’s find Torren,’ she said.

 

A welcoming party of Torren’s Royal Guard met them further up the tor road. They greeted her with courteous bows, though a couple of the younger ones glanced in open curiosity at her brown skin. Country boys. She doubted if many of them had ever left Agrona, let alone seen anyone from Eru before.

            The older officers eyed her with suspicion. Mid-ranking officials generally didn’t like mages, their authority threatened by a power they barely understood, and they had a singular disrespect for the younger, female kind. And so Rosheen; a woman in her thirty-third year, and a foreigner at that, embodied all their prejudices in one bundle.

            A groom, more used to dealing with equine guests, reached for Anzu’s reins. Big mistake, Rosheen thought. The griffin cawed and reared-up, towering over them as her front feet with their razor-sharp talons stamped the ground.

            They quickly backed away. Griffins were rare enough around here, but all children grew up knowing that a griffin’s talons could slash your belly open, and that their beaks could tear through flesh, snap bones and leave you with one less limb than when you first encountered it.

            Do please remind them that I’m not some bloody horse, Anzu shook her wings and flexed her cat-like tail, filling the air around her with tiny hairs. One of the guards sneezed.

            ‘I think they got the message.’ Rosheen patted the mane around Anzu’s neck.

            After some quick apologies, the guards swept Rosheen and Anzu through King Torren’s encampment to the edge of the tor from where he was watching the battle unravel before him. They worked regularly with the old man, though they hadn’t seen him for a month or so. He had always looked ancient, but he was haggard and beaten now, bent over on his grey horse as the wind whipped his long white hair around his face. One of the guards announced their arrival, and he shifted in his saddle to see them.

            ‘We won’t be killing anyone, Torren,’ Rosheen said. ‘I want that clear from the start. You know that’s not—’

            ‘My dear girl, you know me better than that.’ Old King Torren would always greet them with niceties, good wishes, and enquiries about the health of Rosheen’s family but there was none of that this morning. ‘I simply need this to end quickly. These people are savages. Good day to you, Anzu,’ he added, and the griffin respectfully bowed her head in return.

            ‘Mercenaries?’ Rosheen asked.

            ‘Led by some chancer from the north. He’s been making his way south through some minor skirmishes. He made camp on our border. We asked him to leave, he refused, and so we… Well, we seem to have started a small war.’

            ‘You’re more a wine and feasts king than a warmonger, Torren.’ Rosheen liked the old king for his straightforward manner. He had little time for nonsense. He never bothered with his own permanent mage, preferring to simply hire one, usually Rosheen, when necessary. ‘This isn’t like you at all.’

            ‘Quite, but one must recourse to rattling the sabre every now and then. Trouble is, these buggers are fighting like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t know what he’s paying them, but they clearly think it’s worth it.’

            ‘Who is he?’

            ‘A warlord named Frang.’

            ‘Frang.’ Rosheen swished the name around in her mind for a moment. ‘Haldor Frang?’

            ‘You know him?’

            ‘He sent me word that he wanted to hire me some weeks back, but he wouldn’t say what for,’ Rosheen said. ‘It was all a bit vague, and he had no one to vouch for him, so I passed.’

            ‘Hmm. He’s been buying allegiances along the way south.’

            ‘Glad I didn’t follow it up. He’s clearly off his chump to be taking on an army of the Newlands on their own turf.’

            He’s not doing a bad job of kicking their arses though, is he? Anzu added, and Rosheen was relieved that only she could hear the griffin’s astonished voice in her mind.

            ‘What do you want us to do?’ Rosheen asked the king.

            ‘Make it bloody stop.’ Torren flourished a hand at the ongoing chaos. ‘Preferably in our favour.’

            ‘Our usual terms don’t really cover this, we—’

            ‘Of course.’ Torren beckoned to his guards, and two of them brought forward a small wooden chest. They swung it open to reveal that it was brimming with silver coins. ‘I trust this will be satisfactory?’

            That’s more than we’ve earned in the last two years combined. Anzu sounded awestruck to Rosheen. He must be desperate. Think we can haggle for more?

            ‘I need to bring this Frang fellow to the table for parley,’ the old king said. ‘Can you do that?’

            Rosheen looked out over the tor and across the field. With a roar, a few dozen of Torren’s men charged around the flanks of the mercenaries, herding like sheep. They were met immediately with fierce resistance, and already the main bulk of them were split in two as the mercenaries cut a swathe through them.

            If you think I’m going anywhere near that you’ve got another thing coming, Anzu told her in no uncertain terms. All it takes is one opportunistic loon with a bow and I’m done for. I don’t care how much silver he’s got.

            ‘It’s okay, I know what to do,’ she replied. She turned to Torren, ‘We have a deal, Good King Torren. Have your men fall back.’

            The old man nodded. He gave the command and a horn sounded the retreat. Almost immediately, Torren’s men peeled away, rushing back to the high ground. The mercenaries gave chase.

            Rosheen moved to the edge of the tor, the wind whipping around her cloak, and closed her eyes.

            She found the mercenaries’ minds in the darkness. Bright little bubbles of energy. Rosheen knew that she wouldn’t be able to send them to sleep, they were far too frenzied for that to work effectively. She would have to use their aggression somehow.

 

Later, when accounts of the battle of Canwick Tor were gathered, a clearer picture began to emerge of what exactly happened. Torren’s men said they saw all the mercenaries’ eyes briefly roll back white, and they turned on one another without explanation.

            Those mercenaries who survived and were willing to talk about it, told of a momentary loss of their senses. This was followed by disorientation and confusion as their comrades were replaced by undead figures. Living corpses of the last person they had slain in combat. They could hear their commanders crying, ‘It’s a trick! Magic! Do not be deceived, stand down!’ but that’s easier said than done when you find the reanimated rotting carcass of an old enemy rushing towards you with an axe.

            It was in this confusion that Torren’s men regrouped and attacked. They decimated the mercenary forces, sending them fleeing back across the field and over the River Can.

 

Rosheen opened her eyes, returning back to the real world to find Torren clapping his hands together, delighted. ‘Excellent, splendid. What did you do?’

            She didn’t answer, but shivered as her breath settled. Magic could make Rosheen feel a little light-headed sometimes, but considering she’d just sent an entire army packing, it was a small price to pay. Anzu gently brushed her beak against Rosheen’s arm in sympathy. Rosheen ran her hands through the griffin’s mane as they both looked up into the pale, early evening sky, where they found the two moons Greystone and Lapis. One large, dull, rocky and lifeless. The other tiny in comparison, and a dazzling blue, even now in the daylight. The mages’ moon and the source of her power. Rosheen closed her eyes again, thankful, as she basked in the strength it gave her.

 

Torren asked Rosheen to stay and help with the negotiations as a truth seer. He offered her more coins, her usual rate this time, and the comfort of his own yurt for the night. She took the coins, but couldn’t possibly shove an old man out of his bed, and said she would sleep under the stars with Anzu.

            That’s a lot of money. Anzu tipped the lid of the chest open with her beak. Enough to go home?

            ‘Enough to get us there,’ Rosheen replied as she brushed Anzu’s coat. ‘But not a place of our own.’

            We could work on the way. Anzu sounded excited now. Travel through Mylar having adventures. Earn enough for a bit of land in the northern hills?

            Rosheen smiled at Anzu’s childish enthusiasm. The mage had to remind herself that Anzu missed the blue open skies of home more than Rosheen ever would. ‘Sounds like a plan,’ Rosheen said. ‘We could make a start tomorrow, perhaps?’

            Anzu suddenly hopped around her back feet, eyes wide with excitement as her cat half took over. Yes! Yes, let’s do that. First thing.

            ‘Come here you big idiot.’ Rosheen took the griffin’s head in her hands, smiling brightly. Anzu’s eyes were as big as apples, but looked as delicate as glass. A jet black iris surrounded by a shining golden ring. Anzu blinked and inclined her head. She couldn’t smile, but there was a happy, gentle demeanour in the way her bright white head feathers arranged themselves.

            We’re going home? the voice in Rosheen’s head asked. The voice that only Rosheen could hear, the voice she had known since the day she had named Anzu on her sixth birthday.

            ‘Yes. Yes, we are,’ Rosheen told her.

 

Torren sent emissaries to the leader of the mercenaries to offer terms of peace. He agreed to meet at dusk, but it was nearly midnight when Haldor Frang finally arrived.

            Torren summoned Rosheen and she left Anzu happily tearing a roasted boar to pieces with her beak and claws. A crowd of Torren’s soldiers had gathered around her, wide-eyed in fear and admiration as the griffin’s beak broke ribs like breadsticks and her talons hacked away at the hog with the skill and dexterity you’d expect from an experienced butcher with a sharp cleaver.

            Frang was younger than Rosheen had expected. Not much older than her. Maybe mid-thirties, it was difficult to tell. His face was nut brown and wrinkled by a life exposed to the sun. His beard was dark and may once have been immaculately groomed, but now it was fraying at the edges with flecks of grey and white. Tattoos of black tears dripped from his green eyes. He did not bother with the usual furs and gold of a warlord or a king. Just a simple leather jerkin and trousers, good boots, and a short blade on his belt. He was as much of a fighter as his hired swords.

            ‘Rosheen Katell, yes?’ He grinned when he saw her, ‘You’re a hard person to meet, young lady. Finally, the honour is mine.’ Haldor slouched in the chair opposite them, crossing his legs and dangling a foot in the air. He jabbed an accusing finger at Torren. ‘You grabbed her first, Torren, you crafty old devil, that hardly seems fair.’

            Rosheen immediately felt at a disadvantage, as if this strange, overfamiliar man had been stalking her from afar. She remained silent, however, reminding herself that this was Torren’s meeting, and waited for the old king to speak next.

            ‘Magi have kept the peace for over a thousand years,’ Torren said with a calm, even voice. ‘Why would you be foolish enough to try and disrupt that peace?’

            ‘Good King Torren.’ Haldor’s voice had a northern warmth to it, peppered with rhotic rolls of the tongue. Rosheen listened carefully, trying to pin it down. ‘Peace suits you. It allows you to keep your riches, grow old in comfort, hire witches to win your battles.’ He flashed Rosheen a smile and gave her a wink. ‘Peace does not suit me, however. It means poverty where I come from. Scratching a living from dust and rocks and ice. You and the other kings in the Newlands, particularly the south, seem unwilling to dole out the benefits of your rule, so I have decided that the time has come to take my share.’

            ‘Your share?’ Torren coughed a laugh. ‘You’ll be grateful to leave with your life and passage back to wherever it is you came from.’

            ‘Grainne,’ Rosheen said, unable to resist from joining in any longer. ‘He’s from Grainne, more specifically Dagdun on the north east coast.’

            ‘Very good.’ Haldor was genuinely impressed. ‘Magic?’

            ‘No, just good with accents,’ Rosheen said modestly. ‘I worked with some merchant sailors from there once. They somehow managed to earn a living without killing people.’

            ‘Sadly, the ocean and I do not make good company.’ Haldor mimed vomiting over the side of a ship and laughed, clapping his hands together. ‘For so long I have wanted to meet you, Rosheen Katell. The Witch Who Thinks She's A Warlock, they call you.’

            ‘I’ve been called many things.’

            ‘Oh no, don’t worry. The stories I hear are good. Drust Krax speaks very highly of you. He warned me you might try something cunning today. I should have listened to him.’

            The last time Rosheen had seen Drust Krax, the red-cheeked Warlord Chieftain of Arranrod, he’d tried to kill her after his wife died of an incurable pox. He said he couldn’t afford to look weak and the nurse - Rosheen in his case - would need to take the blame. He was genuinely apologetic as he drew his sword. Rosheen had escaped by the skin of her teeth by using a version of the same trick she’d utilised on the battle field today. ‘That’s nice to hear,’ she said. ‘How is he?’

            ‘Fine, I had to take a couple of his fingers, but he swears loyalty to me now.’ Haldor’s head tilted at her reaction. ‘You expected me to say he was dead, didn’t you? Krax and his men are good warriors. Better on my side than dead. I’m no savage.’

            ‘I never said you were.’

            ‘Plenty of others do, yes?’ He flashed his teeth, the swagger still there, but Rosheen saw the resentment simmering underneath. He desperately wanted to be taken seriously. ‘You move around, with your griffin, from place to place, work for hire.’

            ‘It makes for a more interesting career.’

            ‘Like a Warlock!’ He clapped his hands together. ‘That’s why they call her the…’ He trailed off as he looked around for a reaction from Torren and his guards, but got none. ‘Oh, never mind. Why have you ignored me, girl? I wanted to hire you and your wonderful beast.’ He leaned forward, a suggestive glint in his eye.

            ‘At the moment, we’re employed by King Torren.’ Rosheen gestured to the old man next to her, whom she could sense was growing impatient with their banter. Despite herself, she was enjoying this.

            ‘Ah, an exclusive arrangement, I see.’ Haldor nodded solemnly.

            ‘No, not exclusive. Though I only work for those who can be vouched for. I asked after you and the few who had ever heard of you said you were mad. The Dogmeat General, they called you.’

            ‘Better a bad reputation than none at all.’ Haldor pursed his lips so hard she thought for one moment he was blowing her a kiss. ‘It’s a shame as I was hoping today’s little distraction would convince you of the seriousness of my intent.’

            ‘I sincerely hope you didn’t stage a battle where men died in order to garner my attention.’

            ‘You should be flattered.’

            ‘I’m horrified.’

            ‘It’s the only way people like me can get the attention of people like you. Perhaps some other time, eh?’

            ‘Perhaps.’

            ‘Tell me, why don’t you and the beast—’

            ‘Anzu.’

            ‘A lovely name. Eruish?’

            ‘Yes, well, Mylarian.’

            ‘Of course. So why don’t you and Anzu settle down with a King or a Warlord like other mages?’

            Most Warlords or Kings asked her this question sooner or later, usually as a precursor to offering her a permanent position, and she gave Haldor her usual response, ‘Kings are all fine and good, but sooner or later they die and their mad son or daughter takes over and they always start by beheading those people who were loyal to the old king.’ She rested a hand on Torren’s arm. ‘No offence.’

            ‘None taken, my dear,’ the old king replied, now propping-up his head on one arm and wondering when he might get a word in again.

            Rosheen continued and turned back to Haldor. ‘And you’re always faced with the choice of stand by and watch, or interfere. Neither of which interests me very much.’

            ‘What’s he paying you? I’ll double it.’

            Torren shifted uncomfortably, but Rosheen was quick to answer. ‘I follow the Mage’s Code, Haldor Frang. And I do not take kindly to those who would try to usurp it.’

            ‘Ah.’ Haldor nodded. ‘Principles. How’s that working for you?’

            ‘It made me the mage I am today, thank you.’

            ‘One stuck in a rut, I hear.’

            ‘Not at all,’ Rosheen answered a little too quickly and with far too much injury.

            Haldor cackled. ‘Touched a nerve, eh? Yeah, I bet you’re all too happy playing midwife to peasants, wet nurse to incontinent royals, hmm? Not up for an adventure with a real warrior, then?’

            ‘And that would be you?’

            ‘I’m about to make things interesting around here, witchy-warlock. Join a winner while you still can.’

            ‘I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not the most tempting offer, and I must refuse.’

            ‘Fair enough, I tried.’ Haldor took a noisy, deep breath through his nostrils, and like that he was serious again. ‘I have swept through the Newlands like a fire, old man.’ He turned his attention to Torren, who was a little thrown at suddenly being the focus of the warlord’s gaze once more. ‘You think your little mage girl here and her glorified flying pussy will stop me?’

            ‘They did today,’ Torren said, regaining his composure, unimpressed with the warlord’s sudden mood swings. He unravelled a parchment and began to read, ‘These are our terms: you will surrender your arms and your banner, and your commanders will be taken into our custody. You will decamp with your host at first light, leaving our borders with immediate effect. You are henceforth banished from the kingdom of Agrona, and any attempt to return will result in your immediate arrest, punishable by death. You—’

            ‘Tell me, old man, what will you do when the magic has gone?’

            Torren sighed, ‘What in the world are you talking about, you ridiculous man?’

            ‘When magic is no more?’ Haldor spoke as if this news was common knowledge. ‘When the power shifts from people like you, to people like me?’ He gestured vaguely at Rosheen. ‘You. He brought you here tonight as a truth seer, yes? Let me show you something…’ He reached into his jerkin and, with clatter of steel on chainmail, the King's Guards jumped into life, levelling their swords at him.

            Haldor froze for moment.

            Then leapt to his feet, ripping open his jerkin, popping buttons and revealing his bare chest, barking at the guards like a dog. ‘C’mon! Yes! C’MON! DO IT!’ He pushed his chest against their sword points, and Rosheen could see them dimple his skin. The king’s royal guards staggered back like first year cadets.

            Haldor fell back into his chair in hysterics, barely able to breathe he was laughing so hard. Torren and Rosheen shared a glance: he’s a maniac!

            Haldor cleared his throat and regained his composure, taking a scroll from within his jerkin. He toppled over goblets as he flattened it out on the table between them. His tone was calm and serious again. ‘After I laid waste to Drust Krax’s stronghold in Arranrod, I employed the services of his astronomer. A nervous man; jittery, crazy eyes. Kept babbling on about the end of magic.’ Haldor stood and leaned over the scroll. Rosheen, well-versed in astronomy, joined him. It was covered in smudged and scratchy diagrams showing the movement of their world and its moons around the sun. He pointed to the blue moon. ‘Lapis: the source of all your power, am I right, witchy-warlock girl?’

            Rosheen said nothing, wondering where this was going.

            ‘That’s how it works, isn’t it?’ Haldor persisted with mischievous grin, delighted to have befuddled the mage. ‘You magical beings, the mages, trolls, and dragons - your griffin companion! - you all dance naked and worship the moon and it gives you your power, yes?’

            ‘No, no, no.’ Rosheen puffed her cheeks and shook her head, speaking to Haldor like he was a child. ‘The Lapis moon has a field of energy. Mages have their own latent magical energy, and we use it to engage with the moon’s and harness its power. There’s no worshipping involved, no nudity, just years of study and hard work.’

            ‘That’s a shame about the nudity, I was rather hoping—’

            ‘Get to the point, Haldor. We’re here to discuss your surrender.’

            ‘Of course, of course. Look at these.’ Haldor’s finger found what looked like small suns shining in the firmament. ‘These are massive rocks in the stars. Comets, he called them. And this one.’ His finger jabbed at the illustration of a large red one with a long golden tail. ‘This one is biggest of all. It’s coming soon. You see this line? See how it curves? Straight for the Lapis moon. Just days away, he said and then—’

            Screaming, Haldor ripped the scroll into scraps, flinging them into the air above him. The pieces fell around them like autumn leaves as he stared Rosheen square in the eyes. ‘Oh, I see I have your attention now,’ he said. ‘This comet will collide with the Lapis moon, shattering it to a billion pieces and taking with it the source of your magical powers. Your own latent energy will not last, magic will die, and there will follow years of chaos as each of the realms fights for control. The bloodshed you’ve seen today is nothing compared to the slaughter to come, and the dull peace you’ve grown fat on will be washed away like shit in a sewer. Nothing will ever be the same again. These are the last days of magic, Rosheen Katell. Enjoy them why you can. Now tell me, truth girl, am I lying?’