The Long Retreat No. 39

“Falthejn,” Sif said. The diviner opened his eyes. Sif stood a long pace away, holding out the carved stick at arm’s length. He took it, and she stepped back. “Will it work?”

He turned it over in his hands. “Yes, it should be fine. Thank you.” He gave her a close look. “Are you alright?”

She crossed her arms in front of her, looking down and to one side, and waved a hand vaguely. “It’s like there’s something buzzing in my head.”

Falthejn raised an eyebrow. Sif had been near magical workings for some time now, but it wouldn’t have bothered most of the untrained. The girl did seem of the quiet, mindful persuasion, though, and the guilds were stuffed with her sort. At the least, he’d have to teach her how to ignore it. If his preparations bothered her, the feel of power flowing by once he got started would sweep her away. He pushed his supplies aside and stepped carefully out of his circle. “Now is as good a time as any, I suppose.”

“For what?” Sif said, following him to the very edge of the sheltering overhang.

“To answer your question about magic—or how we use it. Do you remember the example?”

The girl held out her arm and used her fingers to frame part of her sleeve.

“Right. Now, squeeze it.”

She did. The fabric bunched between her fingers. Her brow arrayed itself similarly as she thought. “This is the foundation of the world. So you.. change the shape of that, and that changes things in the world?”

“Well done. Now, suppose you were to stretch your sleeve even further—beyond the strength of the cloth.”

“It would tear.” She blinked. “You could tear the world?”

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The Long Retreat No. 38

He turned downslope—no sense going toward the road and revealing their hideaway—and headed for a patch of undergrowth, clinging precariously to the hillside in a patch of sunlight the trees had not yet colonized. Bright yellow blossoms drew his eyes to a tall grasslike plant, the flowers atop tall blades, while other stems, bending toward the ground, bore five-pointed seed pods. Falthejn stripped a handful of the latter and headed back up the hill.

When he returned the scattering of wood shavings around Sif’s legs had grown thicker. She had cut a deep, narrow vee into one side of the stick, and was working on the other. Falthejn grabbed a handful of pine needles as he sat, placing them and the starseed on his fire-cloth. Opening each of the cloth bags from his pack in turn, he sniffed at them, putting all but one away and producing a piece of chalk from his pack. Slowly and precisely, he drew a circle around himself and the fire-cloth. He stood, eyed the circle, erased a section with the heel of his palm, and redrew it. He repeated the process several times more, until, finally satisfied, he stepped gingerly inside. He sat at one side of the circle and centered the cloth opposite himself. He drew intricate symbols all around it, erasing and trying again whenever his work didn’t meet his standard.

After a while, he sat up, wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind. He could feel the hum of power in the air already. This would do.

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Weekend update

Looks like I, uh, forgot to schedule Friday’s post. Oops. It’ll run on Tuesday instead. (Never let it be said I’m one to waste a chance to get ahead on backlog.)

In the meantime, pop by the Fish Bowl tomorrow afternoon for some content from parvusimperator.

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The Long Retreat No. 37

“Try the fruit and the nuts,” Falthejn advised. He inspected his handiwork. The length of stick almost hummed with power. He sheathed his knife. “Do you think you could cut the top of this away for me?”

“I used to watch a woodcarver work,” Sif said uncertainly. “He let me try a few times.”

“It doesn’t need to be a very good job. Just be careful not to touch the carvings.” Falthejn presented her with the knife and the stick, and she set to work, quickly gaining confidence.

While she worked, Falthejn rummaged in the pockets on the side of his pack. He produced a few small cloth bags, a neatly folded square of fabric, and a flint and steel. He unfolded the fabric and struck sparks from the steel onto it speculatively. A goodly quantity failed even to singe it, and he nodded to himself.

“What are you doing now?” Sif asked.

“Preparing. Magic takes focus. When magiker are in training, our masters teach us tricks to bring our minds to bear.” He stood, taking his sheathed sword in hand. “I’ll be back soon.”

The plant life of the south was not a topic Falthejn knew at all well. He’d only been to this part of the world a handful of times before. Tundra creeper would have been best, but didn’t grow for another thousand miles north. Starseed or bruisevine would do well.

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The Long Retreat No. 36

Falthejn mimicked Sif, leaning against his pack and resting his legs. The land here was beautiful, in its rugged way. Down the hill, a bare patch of ground left a break in the canopy at eye level. It revealed leagues of ridges covered with the conifers so common here, the dark green of the needles making the infrequent patch of red-brown forest floor or dark gray stone stand out all the more vividly. The breeze carried the scent of sap to Falthejn’s nose, and overhead, an unfamiliar bird let loose a cry. He took in the sight for a few minutes.

A chill struck him, along with an unbidden thought: “No men after us will see this place for a very long time.”

He shook his head and frowned, hoping that wasn’t a premonition. Even if it was, he had more important things to do. He got up, looked around the makeshift camp, and and sat a minute later with a stick in hand, fat as his thumb. He went to work on it with his knife, stripping it of its bark and smoothing out its surface, before flipping the knife around in his hand and using its tip to inscribe runes into the wood, from its base to a point a handspan up its height. He said their names as he did, pushing a little with the force of his will here, pushing harder there.

He became aware of Sif’s intent gaze, and raised an eyebrow at her.

“Can I help with anything?” she said, through a mouthful of trail bread.

“Be careful how much you eat,” he said, looking back to his work. “That’s more filling than it seems at first. Long marches breed hunger, but I doubt Hrothgar Hrafnssen would be very happy if he had to carry you tomorrow.”

She looked at the biscuit in her hands. “Last one,” she promised. “Unless I’m still hungry.”

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The Long Retreat No. 35

The road cut into the side of a steep hill. The conifers upslope leaned out over the heads of Falthejn and his company, before bending upward toward the sun. On the other side, the land dropped away precipitously.

“Here,” Hrothgar said. “Or very nearly. Down the slope, there is a large outcropping. It shelters a flat with room enough for tents.”

Falthejn walked up to the edge of the slope. A few candidates presented themselves. He closed his eyes and let the possibilities blossom before him. “That one,” he said.”

They followed the road for a few hundred yards, then picked their way down the hillside. Hrothgar led them a dozen yards around the outcrop, revealing a depression in the hill beneath its face, a narrow strip of stony ground which would be sheltered from rain by the overhang.

Sif dropped her pack with a huge sigh of relief, then flopped down beside it, leaning against it and stretching out her legs. Falthejn, with somewhat more reserve, took a spot a few yards further toward the middle of the sheltered area, and Hrothgar, Alfhilde, and Jakob went all the way to the far end, staking out as private a space as they could hope for here. The distant thunder of rapids covered their quiet conversation.

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Commentary, The Long Retreat No. 35

My sister is getting married this weekend, so you can expect limited presence from me in most places. (Not that I’m especially active in most of the ways you might choose to follow me, but whatever.)

Let’s cover some news. First off, there will be a new episode of Crossbox (that is, the spoken word Fish Bowl) later this week, or early next week. We cover such varied and diverse topics as firearms for a particular kind of big game, a rant about a very different kind of big game, and an interesting (if I do say so myself) challenge in military hardware design.

Second, the first Many Words Monthly email newsletter debuted two weekends ago, and went to precisely one email inbox, which was mine. Sign up for a monthly dose of exclusive words. (Although, since I hate to waste writing, the fictional words which I wrote are now exclusive to the forum thread at Spacebattles. It’s one of the largest original web fiction communities around these days. You ought to drop in and say something in the forum thread. Or just go and read the exclusive words. That’s cool too.)

Finally, the first Top Web Fiction vote drive was extraordinarily successful, pushing me up to second place in the science fiction rankings and near the top ten on the overall rankings. I’m going to ask for your help again. Here’s the link. Click it. Share it. Let’s get some eyes here again.

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The Long Retreat No. 34

The sun, high overhead, made its trek down toward the horizon. As it did, they came across a few felled trees, left by the side of the road. Saws and grapples laid beside them.

“These men left in a hurry,” Hrothgar said, kneeling. “They kept their axes.”

Falthejn pressed his lips together. The ominous feeling flitting around the back of his head settled in deeper. “We should not tarry.” He thought back to the journey down, two weeks and an eternity ago. “Nor should we leave the road for the logging camp. Hrothgar Hrafnssen, do you know the land here well? Where might we set up camp out of sight?”

Hrothgar frowned to himself, thinking. Falthejn gave him a few moments. A sudden chill swept past him, and a deeper sense of foreboding. “We should move,” he said.” No diviner ignored feelings like that. “If you see a place as we are walking, say so.” He didn’t wait for an answer, continuing down the road with a hand on the hilt of his sword. Sif followed, rubbing at her arms, and Alfhilde and Hrothgar fell in a few steps back.

Alfhilde watched her husband’s face. His brow furrowed with more than just recollection. Pushed aside again, she guessed. Corralling Jakob’s flailing arms with one of her own, she laid a hand on Hrothgar’s shoulder. He looked to her, and she gave him a sympathetic look—I’m on your side, she hoped it said.

His expression lost some of its dour character, and he tried a smile that turned out halfhearted, before turning back to his own thoughts.

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