The Witch’s Boy – illustration and excerpt
In honour of the launch I’m re-posting lineae‘s gorgeous illustration for The Witch’s Boy, along with an excerpt of the scene she illustrated:
Oswy stood, reluctantly, on the great gray boulder which balanced on the very top of Hammer-and-Anvil fell.
Ahead of him the sun, glowing like a disk of dragon-gold, drove up into the sky. Very far away she seemed, whipping up her horses until the clouds sprang from their mouths red-tinged. Birds circled beneath her, and Oswy, breathless at the height, looked down on them as though he were a god.
Below him the Fells marched far away, gold washed green, and then blue and purple against the pale sky. Behind him the smooth moor swept down to wooded valleys.
A cold wind tossed the budding tree-tops, came whistling through the broom and gorse to tug at his clothes, and nudge him, ever so gently, towards the edge.
Just one step away was a long fall, straight down, onto rock-strewn peaks. He could almost feel the tumbling through the air, the urge to go closer and closer to the drop, the urge to step off and feel for one moment the rush and thrill of the dive. He stood very still.
Sulien sure footed and silent as a cat, came up beside him, looking out on the wild lands with satisfaction.
“A good day,” he said quietly, glancing down on Oswy with a smile. “Let’s get away from all of them. Let’s fly.”
“Fly?” Oswy gasped, feeling his mouth open wide in a foolish smile, his mind filling up with his mother’s tales: Owl-wives, hiding the knowledge of secret hunts from their stifling families; the old gods, falcon-cloaked speeding, winged and fierce, over the Earth. Incredulity and delight warred for possession, left him speechless.
“If you want to,” said Sulien, suddenly uncertain.
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Oswy, “I want to! How?”
The witch got down on his knees, leaned out over the cliff like a boy birds-nesting for gull’s eggs. The wind, flinging itself up from the edge, hit him in the face, lifted his yellow hair into a blaze like a comet’s trail. He laughed, a real, easy laugh, before sitting back on his heels again and thinking about the question.
“I’ll cast the spell,” he said, “you watch, feel the shape of it, and remember it for when you will be able to use it yourself.”
“Will I need to remember gestures, and words?” Oswy asked, all eager, steeling himself to memorize every one.
Sulien shrugged, “If it helps you,” he said, “but I don’t find them important.” Then, relenting, he smiled again, a reflective, almost shy smile.
“This is an art we practice, Oswy,” he said, “Perhaps, in the days of the Duguth colleges, words and formulas and spells were important – I can see it would be simpler if you were trying to train mages to work together. But these days, when we prey on each other like beasts, everyone does his own will.
“Some spells are useful to remember. Some,” he shrugged, “you see the knack and never need the words again. I can guide you, but you will have to find out what works for you.”
Then, rising, he placed his hands on Oswy’s shoulders, took a good long look at him, his face curious and his eyes very intent. “I would guess a raven, or maybe a crow. Watch me now.”
He closed his eyes, and taking his hands from Oswy’s shoulders began to make slow, controlled gestures, elegant against the sunrise.
The shadow in which he moved, purple as the robe of an emperor, spread out from him like ink in water until Oswy, and the tor on which he stood, and the very sky above him, was stained with his influence, enclosed by and subject to his power.
The touch of it was strangely intimate – like touching the naked soul – and Oswy gasped as the edge of it hit him, terrified by its sheer, nonchalant strength.
Then Sulien began to change the pattern of the world, gathering its fibers into his hands as though he were weaving. Oswy saw the shape of it, understood where the threads were to go. He could hardly stop himself from shouting aloud. It was so obvious!
Pressure began to build up, squeezing him tightly. He felt the sky above him as a great weight, the earth rise to press him against it. He could hardly breathe – his very bones cried out – while the world rejected him, pushing him into a shape too small to fit.
Dimly he saw his master holding back the final hammer-blow, like a man putting his shoulders to a bursting door. Then, leaning forward, Sulien traced a small sign on Oswy’s forehead, saying one word, very softly; hardly to be heard over the hiss of the wind. The hammer-blow struck.
There was for a brief moment a great light, fierce and bright as burning salt, and a clap of sound like thunder. Oswy felt a dizzying rush of movement, a swirl of air, and a lightness so terrible he thought he must be sick.
Then he noticed the strangeness of his vision; the way he had to turn his head to see anything clearly, the way it all seemed flat, like a painting plastered on a white wall. He craned his neck around to see himself – a sleek bundle of sable feathers, gleaming like blued steel – and he laughed and laughed with delight.
The sound came out harsh, the raucous caw of a great carrion bird, shocking him at first into silence, and then into more laughter.
He felt the wind then, pulling at him, lifting his feathers with a cold breath, roaring and whispering like a million voices speaking at once. He grasped the sweet turf with both feet, frightened to let go, afraid of being swept away, buffeted, helpless, by this ettin of air.
Sulien leaned down and picked him up, cradling him carefully in both hands. It was more frightening than the blast – his ribs felt parchment-thin against those fingers. Then the witch tossed him, just like a child’s ball, over the edge of the cliff.
The up-draft hit him. He put out his arms to save himself and the fan of his wings caught the wind. He was tossed up, tossed by the wind like a baby tossed into the air by a doting father. He felt no more fear of falling than a baby does as it yells with delight at the high point of the arc.
Up and up he circled in the draft, rising like a mote in a shaft of sunlight, until the world below him was smoothed out into one green plain, and the sky seemed like a sea – filled up with craggy islands and swimming monsters of cloud.
The rising air slowed, leaving him to drift, effortless among the currents and eddies of the air, cocking his head to try and take in, all at once, the gold-bordered wilderness of the heavens, the tapestry-like remoteness of the world of men, and the moonstone-sheen of the wind in which he swam.
He had passed beyond laughter now, into a joy which was all the more shattering because it was quiet. He felt again, as he had when he had called up the witch-light, that he had touched a truth – touched reality, and found it good. He opened his mouth in praise, to shout out his thanks – to God, to Sulien, to something – and the terrible cruel cry which emerged set him laughing again.
Then, like ashes, clinging and dirty, in a voice too cynical to be truly his own, the thought came to him;
“Do you really think this is what magic is about? You’re only playing at it,” and briefly, even buoyed up by the warming morning air, he wanted to weep.
A cloud just beneath him burst apart in a fountain of rainbows. He was spattered with spray – bright as pure gold – which beaded his black plumage. The gyrfalcon turned fast in the air, looked at Oswy out of a burning yellow eye. Its white feathers and blue-gray markings caught the sunshine and blazed briefly silver, before it plunged back through the vapor like a loosed arrow.
He recognized it by the violet shadow of its magic, and drifted on the wind incredulous and delighted, watching as his master danced on the air; larking about like a boy let off from work on a spring holy-day.
The joy came back as he watched, and he would have joined in, but the raven-shape was not made for such feats. He had to follow the falcon more sedately, down out of the high reaches of the sky, until they were skimming close over the moors, feeling the warmth and coldness of air over grass and bare stone, running water and still.
Over the fells the air was tinted with the faint smell of magic. A power was there, holding the rocks and gorse and scrub in thrall. Oswy felt it was a masculine power; like the boldness of a man secure in his own strength.
Then, just briefly, they flew over the edge of the forest, and the feeling changed. There was another power at work here, closed in, kindly, but shy as a young fawn hiding in the grass.
Oswy back-tracked, stitching the border with his flight, making sure the sense remained. It did, and he wondered what it could mean.
Eventually by the banks of a small stream, its borders thickly grown with reeds, they landed, and, in a flicker of darkness and silence, became human once more.
Oswy sat down quickly, his shoulders already beginning to ache, but his heart so full of wonder he felt he could neither stand nor speak.
Sulien sat and watched him for a while, his face more peaceful than Oswy had ever seen it.
“My master taught me that,” he said, his voice gentle, regretful, soft as the voice of the brook where it rolled clear as glass beside him. “It was… generous… of him. Having no magery in his blood, it was not something he could do himself, not even with borrowed power. The body has to be capable as well as the mind.”
He shifted on the soft turf, smiling, speaking now so quietly Oswy was not sure if he was meant to hear. “My master taught me many things in the early years – things I didn’t have to know to be of use to him. He gave me what I now live for – my craft.” He finished in a whisper which Oswy knew was not meant for him, “I would have loved him for it, but that he was so cruel.”
Then the witch lay back against the short-cropped grass, his jasper-red tunic like a splash of newly spilled blood on the verdant ground. He folded his arms behind his head and for a long time he was silent, gazing up at the flying clouds.
Oswy let him be for as long as he could bear it. He recognized that Sulien was at ease, and he doubted if such a thing could happen often. Nevertheless, after what seemed like a long wait, he said “Master?”
“Hm?” said Sulien, still looking up at the pale sky.
“Did you feel the way the…” he struggled for the words, “Well, the feeling of the land changed?”
“What does it mean?”
“You feel the influence of the elf-lords,” said Sulien, and smiled with obvious enjoyment at Oswy’s widened eyes, “Crow the secretive,” he continued, “and Icewolf, Lord of the Tors. They will want to see you, quite soon.”
“They kidnap human children!” Oswy exclaimed, half horrified but still filled up with ravenous curiosity. He had heard all the stories, but he had never yet seen an elf. “And they send a tithe of them to the King of the Abyss!” he finished, triumphant, indignant and eager to hear more.
“Perhaps,” Sulien admitted, calmly, “perhaps they feel they have no other choice. They seem to be as confused as I am about these matters.”
“When can we go and see them?” said Oswy eagerly. He felt dizzyingly happy; his new life was turning into something glorious and exciting. He was glad now he wasn’t doomed to be a farmer, glad he had been sold. Even, with a certain reservation, he felt glad that Sulien was his master.
“Not yet,” said Sulien quietly, “I would want to see you a good deal better prepared first. Icewolf collects interesting humans. He may want to keep you.”
Oswy shivered. “Would he send me to the Abyss?” he said, in horror.
“I don’t know,” Sulien replied, and his dark brows pinched together in a frown of uncertainty. “It may be,” he said, and the shadow of his magic deepened around him, darkening with his mood; “It may be I am about to take you there myself. The priest is right. The practice of magic is so rarely innocent, so often leads to damnation, that I wonder how I dare think of teaching you.”
“But…” Oswy’s mood too plummeted back to earth, and, rising up to meet it, the yearning for magic came over him like an ache. It wasn’t fair, this, he thought; to be given a gift and then have it taken away again.
“But the flying…” he said.
“Was one of the few purely innocent things I could think of,” Sulien finished for him. “Healing magic too I could teach you with a clear conscience, but as for the rest…”
“But you said you would,” Oswy insisted, knowing he overstepped the boundaries of what was expected from a slave, and not caring. “I want to learn everything,” he said, “I want to.”
“Yes,” said Sulien, and turned to watch Oswy’s face, as intense and as threatening as ever, “And this morning I wanted to kick the priest until there wasn’t a bone left unbroken in his body.” He snorted, “since when has desire been any recommendation?”
“But you said…” Oswy whined, turning his face away from the dark gaze, feeling its continued pressure with resentment. All his easiness in this company, even the dawning fondness he had felt for this man, fell away, and remembering the witch’s sudden rages he grew silent, hugging his knees for the illusory feeling of defense.
“Yes,” Sulien sighed, “I said….” And he leaned forward, intent, the pressure of his regard like a wrestler’s hug – tight enough to choke. “But remember, this is not a game. It’s not for children. It’s deadly serious.”
He paused, searching for the right thing to say, then went on, with increasing force, the words pouring out of him like confession: “Bad magic is so easy to start, it looks so innocent, but it’s like… it’s like a drink of salt water to a thirsty man. It does him no good. While he’s drinking it there is perhaps a tiny relief, but the thirst grows worse and worse with each mouthful until it’s a constant torture, and suddenly he can’t even dream of stopping. “
He turned away, rubbing his open hand over his face as though he felt ill. His rings, brown agate and crystal, set in gold, glowed in the light like the powers of earth, water and fire, but his voice did not echo the image of strength. It was unsure, reflective, personal.
“It will drain everything of value from your life,” he said, “And replace it with a parched, frantic scramble for some thrill which turns your stomach even as you lust for it. And all the time you will be growing more and more inhuman, until you could look at one of the fiends from the pit and see your own reflection.”
And now, in distress, “God knows I know what I’m talking about. You must have heard of some of the things I have done.”
Oswy, horrified and fascinated at the same time, hints and rumors taking shape about him like a dark smoke, remembered suddenly Fulk’s comment ‘surly as a whipped dog’. He remembered too a nightmare – a boy, his own powers bound, screaming defiance – and, surprising himself, he asked
“No,” said Sulien, surprised too, but honest. “I did none of it willingly, and yet it still snared me, and now, when I can do whatever I want, I thirst for it.”
The Witch’s Boy is available here