THE MAGE OF DUST AND BONE
Forge rose early the next day, tiptoeing down from his shut-bed in the upstairs passage. A pale early-morning light floated in the upper branches of the beech trees that ran along the back of the garden, but the lawn was still sunk in charcoal darkness.
He padded in bare feet across the chilly kitchen floor. The familiar earthy smell came from the parlour. It crept up from under the floorboards in the night. That was where the Arch Mage had slept, the most comfortable room in the house. The door was open now and a bar of silver light lay across the grey gloom in the kitchen.
Forge went to the doorway and peeked inside. The hearth was cold, full of heavy ashes. The light came from a single lamp.
No, not a lamp. A jar. Inside it, imprisoned by blotchy glass, a tiny, fragile figure with gossamer wings struck a forlorn pose. By the light the fairy gave off, the Arch Mage sat surrounded by his travelling cases, all open now like puzzle boxes. One formed a writing desk beside him with inkwells, rows of quills, and rolls of crisp white paper. Another contained a dish of small pastel-coloured cakes along with bottles of wine or cordial. His couch had been one of the largest of the cases, unfolded to reveal sumptuous pillows and silk blankets of the kind Forge pictured in bedtime stories. Inside another case, a smouldering taper released a curl of jasmine smoke that hid the smells of last night’s cooking and the dank crawlspace soil.
But none of the travelling cases held anything as marvellous as the Book which floated in the air in front of the Arch Mage. It was so big that at first Forge took it for a painter’s easel, and the rich roughness of the binding put him in mind of freshly peeled bark. The Arch Mage was writing in it as he entered. Forge saw that he’d noticed him standing in the doorway, but for a moment the old man’s concentration was absolute. Then, removing his quill from the page, he beckoned Forge over.
He was dazzled by his first glimpse of the open Book. It was like having your head thrust into the middle of a rainbow. Colour and movement vibrated at the edges of his vision. At first he could see no pattern, only symbols that glided away as he tried to focus on them. If you have ever tried to read a book in a dream, you’ll know the feeling.
‘Here.’ The Arch Mage wiped the quill and pointed with it.
It was a word that hovered, floating above the rest of the text, not quite attached to the paper underneath.
‘What does it say?’
‘It’s your name.’
He was dubious. He knew how to read and write. The letters here looked more like pressed insects. Normal writing didn’t twitch, after all. Letters chalked on the slate in the village schoolroom didn’t waver with an obvious reluctance to be read.
‘Forge? Or Burntholm?’
‘Neither.’ The Arch Mage gestured, and the Book closed like a dungeon door. ‘It is your true name, the word that forms part of the entire work that is the world. Now you are written large, because you have a destiny.’
‘What is my destiny?’ said Forge, thinking of dragons and kingdoms to save.
‘All who study magic have a destiny,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘I will teach you to change the work of the world, perhaps only in minor ways, but still that is a thing worth writing in the book.’
‘How long will I be an apprentice?’ asked Forge. He’d been thinking about it all night.
‘Seven years, to begin with. Some leave then. If that’s your course, you’ll become what is called a journeyman. Perhaps you’ll set up a practice in a town, filling a space between the doctor and the priest and the fortune-teller. Other journeymen travel up and down, selling spells to make a person fall in or out of love, or a talisman to bring luck or guarantee a safe voyage.’
Forge picked up the tone of slight scorn. ‘What about those that stay?’
‘Another seven years and you’ll be a true mage. Lords will seek you out. They’re not interested in love, only in war. You’ll be paid to work spells to fortify their castles, protect them from treachery, ensure their sons grow up strong. They rarely ask for daughters or wisdom, you see.’ He laughed.
‘I’ll stay on. I want to be a mage.’
‘More knowledge makes for a more difficult life. The rich and powerful have never learned what it is to have their wishes denied. Some will ask for everlasting youth or for the dead to be brought back to life.’
‘But that can’t be done.’
The Arch Mage looked amused. ‘Oh, it can. Better not, though. Everything stays in the Book, you understand? You might take it from here and insert it some other place, but it can’t be erased altogether. In short, what is pushed down will press back up.’
Forge struggled to catch the thread of meaning that he felt was almost within reach. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said at last,
‘That’s what the fourteen years are for.’
‘How do you get to be an Arch Mage?’
‘Seven times seven years, and even then only one in seven makes it. There’s only ever the one Arch Mage.’
‘You must be very old.’
The Arch Mage smiled ruefully and worked the muscles of his neck. ‘And in the mornings I feel it more and more. Remember what I told you. Magic will only alter reality for a while.’
He nodded towards the windowsill and Forge turned to see a withered tendril lying there. It was the sprig of lavender he’d held the day before, now dead and grey. Forge touched it and it was as light as ash, even the residue of vitality burnt away. Now it was a husk, a thing that had never lived.
‘It could have lasted longer,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘We could find a flower in the garden and weave an enchantment into it so that it is still in bloom when this house is an abandoned ruin.’
‘So why didn’t this last?’ Forge crumbled the dead lavender with just the brush of his fingertips.
‘Because that was magic you worked.’ The Arch Mage laughed as Forge spun to look at him. ‘You knew. I only guided your wish. But, as you have no skill in these things as yet, the moment your attention was elsewhere the life drained out of it again.’
‘Will I be able to conjure marvels like this?’
‘This?’ The Arch Mage clapped his hands and, with a twang of springs and clasps, the boxes all snapped shut. ‘You will make true miracles happen. Much more than this.’
‘And will I write in the Book?’
It still floated in the air between them. Forge could feel the throb of secrets.
‘Very few find that is their destiny. It is the Book of All Things, Forge Burntholm. Don’t be in any hurry to add to those pages.’
‘Maybe.’ He was still young enough to be a little brazen. Later he’d learn to be in awe of the Arch Mage. But after all, so far he’d only seen tricks.
‘Come here, then. Come, I’ll show you.’ He took Forge’s hand, very lightly as one would move an injured bird, and placed it on the scale-patterned leather of the Book’s cover.
Forge was conscious of the Arch Mage’s gnarled fingers on his own soft hand. He shifted uncomfortably.
‘Be still,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘Without my help, you could not so much as touch the book. Now let your mind empty. Become a conduit – ’
‘A channel. A drainpipe, say, along which that current I told you about can flow. It’s coming from the Book. You sense it, can’t you, flowing through you?’
Forge started to look around, then it hit him.
He felt things growing in the soil, and earthworms turning it. Insects scratching their way through the thatched roof. The mice in the walls, a-tremble with constant cat-shaped nightmares. He felt a bird in a nest under the gutter, where it had three blue eggs. The cat there by the banisters, keenly watchful in case the mice should venture out across the kitchen floor. The cockerel outside in the garden, absurdly pleased with himself, and the hens rustling in the coop as the approach of day astonished them.
And he could feel grass and trees and how the dawn filled them up, and the brook remembering and forgetting, forgetting and remembering, just like the fish it carried along. And the wind deciding when to blow, and shadows fitting themselves into their right places under the bushes, and the hinge on the gate that would need fixing after another ninety-three swings. The firm clay hill stretching in its sleep like an old sheepdog. Crops pushing impatiently to the sky. Livestock stirring, abiding the arrival of a new day’s warmth. Clouds being born, growing with majestic grace and then fading, some as light as a passing thought, others thick and bruised, harbouring in their heart the seed of storms.
And there was something else, even deeper than the world – a babbling of voices and feelings. People’s lives. Their thoughts. His father and mother, awake in a quiet room, looking at the paling window and hoping for some things to happen and some things never to. He heard a call of desire and intention and happiness and regret, that swept across the land from every household.
‘I can hear them! Everyone’s thoughts. I can – ’
He pulled his hand away as if it had been burned.
‘Oh yes.’ The Arch Mage smiled secretly. ‘You’re not just a journeyman, that’s for sure.’