A cold gust drives down through the high crags, stirring light snow to settle on the granite rubble scattered along the mountain trail. Mica shudders and leans hard against me, drawing his cloak tight against his wasting frame.
The comfort of my master's touch is undeniable, even here. But his hands are trembling now, and old, the once sure hands that had shaped me into a wizard's staff.
Go back, Mica, I think to him.
"Stop it. You sound like a clinging mother," Mica wheezes and takes another determined step.
You don't have to go through this.
"We've been through worse," Mica scolds. It is obvious he misunderstands my plea, my foreboding on what we're soon to face.
Not like this.
"Of course like this." Mica slides me forward, refusing to turn around.
"Remember slaying the Triapolla Dragons?" he asks and chuckles softly. "Up in the Saea Pass? That fool king wanted to give me his daughter as payment!" Another chuckle, then a fit of coughing. Mica shudders. "Ah, she was beautiful, though. Wasn't she?"
You're stuck with me instead.
Mica's hand tightens, fingers shake. "You've been my only true companion since I shaped you. Wizard and staff, blood and wood. It's the way of things."
The feeble afternoon sun bleeds red above the highest peaks when we come to Magecroft. There is finality in Mica's movements as we step from the boulders and look across the windswept croft. He will not turn from his intentions. "It's the way of things," he says again, obviously relieved that we've reached the holy place.
It can't be time. Perhaps I can still dissuade him . . .
"I'm old, grant me that," Mica replies to my thoughts. "I'm not of earth like you. All flesh must pass eventually."
The stone hut stands in the middle of the croft. The thick moss on its steep slate roof appears bluish-green in the spreading shadows. The small pen still stands to the right, encircled by a low stone wall. That's where the journey always starts. Must it end so soon, Mica?
Mica ignores me and says, "Let's go inside."
The ancient door is never locked and opens easily. Torches ignite. The room smells of damp and dust, but the magic is thick—drawing deep from the earth's soul. The ancient stone table stands in the back with the wood- and stone-working tools carefully stacked since the time Mica first answered the summons here.
"Sixty years," he whispers. He runs his hand over the runes etched into the stone and stops at his name, the most recent of dozens of wizards who have passed through the door to bind blood to wood upon the Table of Shaping. The other names I remember vaguely. For sixty years Mica has been my only master and I, his staff.
We walk outside. "Time for a fire," Mica says.
The temperature is falling as the sky deepens to night. Capricious winds swirl across the croft from the high crags and are quickly gone, unwilling to submit to anyone. They care little for what transpires here.
Wood is already stacked in the large fire pit, waiting. "Think we still have a little magic in us?" Mica asks. He chuckles. Coughs.
His hands tremble as he holds me and points. His words surge through me, joining the powers of blood and heaven to earth and water. The wood erupts in flame. Such an easy task, but the intimacy of binding blood and wood often leaves me spent. Especially now.
Mica nods, flames glinting off his eyes. "Now we wait." He wraps his cloak tight and sits, placing me across his lap as he has countless times. I love your laugh and gentle spirit, Mica, more than any other. I refuse to think about what we're waiting for.
"You should be happy for me," Mica scolds, "as I am happy for you."
The night is still as death. The Harpist and the Lion rise above the peaks, blazing bright. Mica's head droops and his breathing eases. He twitches and mumbles about battles we fought together and healings and kings long dead, but he doesn't awaken until the wind descends from the stars, accompanying the god.
Mica shudders as he looks upon the horse standing at the edge of firelight, dappled in stars and pearls. He struggles to his feet and holds tightly to me. "Hail, Dyeus, Father of the Sky. It's good that I didn't misread the signs, eh?" He laughs.
"You read the signs aright, my friend. All heaven and earth honor you for your service. You deserve your rest."
Mica runs his hand along my side. "As does my staff."
"You both deserve your rest. Come, it is time."
Mica nods. He carries me to the pen next to the hut. He moves slowly, carefully stepping over the low stone wall. "It's the passing of things," he says gently. "Remember that." He coughs and shudders. He raises me above his head and strikes me into the ground. "I am happy for you. Be the same for me."
The sweet earth opens to me, whispers to me its welcome after sixty years. Mica's hands slip and he mounts Dyeus. In an instant, years fade from his face and he looks as he did when we were first bound together. He waves and laughs, free of coughing and pain. Dyeus shakes his mane and the two vanish in a flurry of hooves and starlight. I am alone, but not alone.
My roots dig deep into the nourishing dirt and the earth sings to me of those who came before Mica, each one special, each my master through the centuries. Tender branches reach upward and leaves bud even in the croft's cruel winter night. I find my rest in earth's embrace even as Mica finds his in heaven.
"I told you! Look, the sapling is in leaf even in the dead of winter!"
I stir. Weeks have passed and the day is bright and cold. Two men in threadbare cloaks trudge across the frozen croft toward the pen.
"A bloody twig, Roach?" demands one. "I'm about to lose my hands to frostbite for a stick?"
"Haven't you learned nothing, Tamlin?" the one called Roach snaps. "Ain't the size. It's the earth-power living inside."
"So the old wizard has died," Tamlin says.
"And I'm the one to take his staff," Roach answers. "We're gonna to be rich beyond any dream, Tamlin! Kings will bow . . ."
I heard no mage-summons. There was no quickening. I will deal with these two as they deserve. I push my roots deeper into the earth and the ground quakes.
The two stop and look nervously at the crags before continuing toward the pen.
A screech fills the air as a hawk swoops toward the men. Roach raises a hand and clenches his fist. There's only a faint surge of power, but it's enough to drop the bird. A hedge wizard?
I reach out to push roots and stones up through the frozen ground. The men stumble, rise to their feet, only to stumble again.
"Are you sure about this, Roach?" Tamlin shouts. He stays on his knees.
Roach struggles forward. An axe materializes in his hand. "Ain't scaring me none!" he hisses. He enters the pen, axe poised to strike.
Blood-red vines and briars spring up thick and tall around his legs. Roach tries his feeble magic within the pen, to no avail. He swears and starts hacking with his axe, but the vines snake around him.
I call out a summons through the good earth and the wolves reply. Howls draw close and surround the croft. I see glimpses of fangs and fur among the boulders as Tamlin tries to crawl away and Roach hacks away, unable to free his legs. The wolves are hungry and eager. In the end, the earth swallows the bits of cloth and bone that remain.
Winter turns into spring and then into the croft's short summer. The air fills with the rich scent of pine. The nesting birds greet me, as do other animals traveling the high passes. I am at home, and memories of Mica start to fade. Memories always fade here. It's the passing of things.
Only this time I refuse and cling to my thoughts of Mica. The long fight continues as fall colors descend and winter's stillness encroaches on the croft once again.
I hear the mage-summons through the earth as deep snow blankets the croft. Even the winds, in their contrary ways, carry word.
I sense two riders through my roots before I see them. Draped in thick cloaks and hooded, they appear through the boulders and stop at the edge of the croft. I shiver at the blood-power there, tinged though it is with uncertainty and fear.
One rider slowly approaches. The earth sings as the rider dismounts into knee-deep snow. Oh, there's fear underlying the power I sense—doubt of the summons, a denial of fate. There always is. Of all those heaven-blessed and trained in magecraft, there is only one master wizard born to a generation: only one blood to bind with the wood.
But there's something more with this one. It comes to me on the breeze, something different. Slender hands reach out from a cloak overly large and draw back the hood, revealing the chestnut hair and long braid of a young woman.
The land stills as she stops before the stone wall. She draws a deep breath.
"My name is Ceeni," she says. "I have heard the mage-summons and answered." Her voice is calm, the words practiced. In the dozens of generations and wizards that have passed, this is the first woman.
"I have been confirmed by the Council of Twelve and escorted to Magecroft with their blessing," Ceeni continues. "Will you have me?"
I hesitate. Mica, I don't want to do this.
The wind rustles my branches and leaves, mocking, taunting: afraid of a young woman, hmm? In the wind, I sense Mica's hearty laugh. He would have asked the same.
It isn't that at all. She's the first to follow Mica. Anyone who would come after—
Ceeni raises her voice. "I have given up everything for this—friends, family. My home. Will you have me?"
Is she angry? No. Impatient? Yes, definitely impatient, this young one. I feel her blood, the power of the wizard-born. This isn't a lie. It isn't a mistake. Yet still . . .
No. Let me rest.
Ceeni stares. Biting winds whip across the croft, and in the wind I sense Mica's rare anger. Fool staff!
The decision is mine to make. Let me be.
Ceeni approaches through the deep snow. I feel her frustration now, her growing confusion. "I didn't choose this path, any more than I chose to be born," she says fiercely. "I can't ignore why I was created!"
Winds swirl and sting. Mica's anger doesn't abate. You dare deny one who has answered the summons? You dare deny the people this gift? Let go!
I hesitate again, only this time out of shame. I can't deny Ceeni's summons. She is wizard-born. Nor can I deny the people. Everything we do is for them. Humbly I bow my branches to Ceeni.
She bows in return. "Thank you."
She steps into the pen as earth and heaven sing to me their approval. The other rider turns and departs.
Ceeni's high cheekbones are flush from the cold, but her dark eyes burn with resolve. She reaches below my branches. Her slender fingers coil around me, so different from Mica's stubby calloused ones. But the toughening of the hands comes with the work of being a wizard. Ceeni will learn this.
I feel her hot blood surge through every vein. Her heart quickens. "I have come to bind blood and heaven to earth and water," she says. "I have come to bind myself to you."
She lifts and the earth releases me. She cradles me against a body that seems too tiny and frail. But this isn't a mistake.
We trudge through the snow to the hut and Ceeni opens the door. Torches ignite. Magic rests heavily, like morning mist.
Ceeni leans me against the wall and walks to the Table of Shaping. She brushes her hand across the ancient names reverently before she picks up a chisel and then raises a hammer with her left hand. Mica always used his right.
She strikes the stone once under Mica's name and stops. She looks to the roof and laughs, a bright laugh full of youth and life. "I guess there's no going back now." She strikes the stone again and again, etching her own runes.
She sheds her cloak. Even the wool breeches and tunic look huge on her tiny frame. How will she ever stand against dragons and marauders?
"With the power of blood and wood," Ceeni answers, grabbing a saw. "Wizard and staff, the way it's always been done."
True. I twist, offering my branches to Ceeni. She cuts, sending branch and leaf to the floor, no longer needed.
She then lays me on the Table of Shaping. She picks a knife and a wood chisel. She draws a deep breath and winces as she runs the ancient knife blade across her right palm, but she doesn't cry out.
Ceeni holds me with her bloodied hand. It feels so awkward compared to Mica's left hand. Her blood seeps deep into my wounds and I see in her mind how she plans to shape me, so elegant, so different from anything Mica would do.
Ceeni's grip tightens. "I am nervous enough without such comparisons," she says. "I swear to bring honor to all wizard-born, especially Mica. But I am not Mica. I am Ceeni."
She takes the chisel in her left hand. I won't protest. I know she will live up to her oath in the years to come.
Her heart beats hard and the magic flows with it as she begins her work, shaping me into the new staff I am to become. Ceeni's staff.
Rest well, Mica, my friend.
Click Here for Easy-to-Read B&W Format
If this contribution met with your satisfaction, please consider making a contribution of your own so we may pay our authors and keep the magazine delivering great speculative fiction far into the future. Thank you for visiting.
Copyright 2010, Mark Venturini. All rights reserved.
Besides Mindflights, Mark's short fiction and flash fiction have appeared in LEADING EDGE, FLASHQUAKE, FLASH ME MAGAZINE, and THE SWORD REVIEW. The most exciting news is Mark's youngest son, Jay, returned from Afghanistan in November. It was a true Thanksgiving.