My usual way of working with Jamie on book projects for Fabled Lands LLP is that we come up with a story outline together, but Jamie does most of the actual writing because the company can only afford to employ one person full-time. Sometimes, if I have a week or two to spare, I'll write the first few chapters to help Jamie get started. That's how The Wrong Side of the Galaxy began.
In the case of this kids' fantasy book, which we gave the working title Mage of Dust and Bone, I wrote the first twelve thousand words, but by then Jamie was assigned to write a Frozen-style novel for Fabled Lands LLP called A Shadow on the Heart, which we decided was a better commercial bet than this tale of yet another wizard-in-training. (Earthsea, anybody?) In any case, as usual I was taking the story much too dark for the tender sensibilities of the tween and early teen readers - or of literary agents, come to that. And so it got shelved. The ironic twist in this tale is that A Shadow on the Heart didn't actually get written after all and then Fabled Lands LLP ran out of money, so in fact it was an entirely wasted opportunity. Oh well, it's not like the world doesn't already have a tsunami of fantasy adventure novels to keep it going. Small loss.
The Mage of Dust and Bone may be of some interest to Fabled Lands readers because the nominal setting is Sokara during the civil war - though not quite the same as the world of the gamebooks. Dweomer, for example, in the novel is not a wizardly university but simply a Tintagel-like castle where an old Arch Mage teaches three apprentices, one of whom is our antihero, Forge Burntholm. At the start Forge is about fifteen years old, and has been studying magic for some time, but then the book flashes back to when he first meets the Arch Mage. This is the beginning of chapter four, and I'll run chapter five over the next few days.
* * *
THE MAGE OF DUST AND BONE
The first time Forge remembered meeting the Arch Mage, he was nine years old and running home through the woods near his home. He had jumped the brook, ducked under a branch still heavy with last night’s rain, and there in front of him stood a stranger who seemed to be made of sky and sunlight.
Forge took a step back and looked again. The stranger was a normal man, no phantom of the woods, but he was not like any woodsman that Forge had ever seen. He must have been old, very old, but the only impression he gave Forge at the time was of boundless and ageless vigour, as if he’d grown there among the ferns and belonged to the wild as much as any bear or deer. Greying hair curled down to his shoulders, and there was a silver circlet on his brow, but it was his gaze that dazzled Forge. His eyes were bright - brighter than the raindrops on the leaves, that caught and danced the sunlight in a thousand fractured colours - and yet as dark and secret-laden as the cool shade under a stone.
His cloak, swept back from wide angular shoulders, hung like a black waterfall. His blue robes, as fine as any king’s, were tucked up into his belt, revealing strong leather boots with silver buckles. And beside him on the ground were half a dozen big wooden travelling chests, as if he’d just that minute got off a carriage or a boat. Which made no sense, of course, because the forest track they were on was no wider than a fox, and even in winter the brook was so small that a grown man could stand astride it.
‘Where did you come from?’ demanded Forge, who always acted bold if he felt nervous.
There was a long silence as the stranger studied him. ‘Many places,’ he said at last, and though he spoke very softly, his voice rang out clearly against the rushing water of the brook.
‘You must have come from one place last,’ insisted Forge.
‘From the sea. A place called Dweomer.’
‘That sounds a long way off,’ said Forge, for whom the next village over was an unimaginable distance.
‘Long enough to be thinking of lunch. I’m hoping your mother will have her fine herb salad ready. Maybe even some fresh-baked bread, eh?’
Forge bristled defensively at the reference to his home life. ‘How did you get here?’
‘You meet a traveller on the river bank. You’re a smart boy. How would you say he got there?’
‘This isn’t a river. It’s just the brook.’ Forge jumped over to the other side and back with a snort of contempt.
‘Just the brook, you say? Well it goes up and up into the hills, further than you’ve ever been, and miles down there to the sea, which you’ve never seen.’
‘You couldn’t get a boat on it, though.’
The stranger frowned and bent forward a little towards him. ‘Where did you get that idea? You used to know better when you were this high.’
Forge looked at his hand, held just so far off the ground. A yearling lamb might fit under it. Forge had less experience with young children, but he thought the Greysons’ toddler was about that tall, and he was two or three summers now.
‘We’ve never met,’ he told the Arch Mage.
‘Hmm. What a lot you’ve got to remember. Come on, let’s find your parents. Then we can make a start.’
He swept off through the undergrowth, straight in the direction that the Burntholm cottage lay. Forge followed, more to keep an eye on him than because he wanted to look like he was doing as he was told.
‘What about your boxes?’
The Arch Mage kept on walking. ‘You know the thing about travelling chests, Forge Burntholm?’
‘They travel. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get there before we do.’
Forge looked back at the spot where the Arch Mage’s boxes had been just a moment before. The ferns were still pressed flat, the oblong outlines clearly visible, but of the boxes themselves there was no sign.
He ran ahead to the cottage, intending to warn his mother about the stranger, but as he banged in through the gate he found the boxes piled up in the middle of the lawn. His mother, who had been bending over the weeds, looked up as she heard him. He saw her face as she caught sight of the boxes – first a puzzled frown, then a smile as she saw him, and then all expression and colour drained out of her face and he guessed the Arch Mage must have appeared at the gate behind him.
Forge’s mother looked back at the thick clump of weed she was grasping, and she braced to uproot it, but it seemed that all her strength had gone. After tugging weakly at it for a moment, she straightened up, turned and went into the kitchen. By the time Forge and the Arch Mage came in, she was already filling the teapot.
‘Mistress Burntholm, I hope I find you well,’ said the Arch Mage.
’I found him in the woods, Ma,’ said Forge, going over to stand beside her.
She barely looked at the Arch Mage, just gazed sadly down at Forge. ‘I never thought… I didn’t think the years would turn so quick.’
The Arch Mage stooped under the wooden beams with their hanging bunches of onions and drying herbs. ‘Nothing’s written yet. No decision taken that can’t be undone. I can turn around and go, and the current of your lives won’t show a ripple.’
He sat at the table and waited while Forge’s mother poured steaming cups of tea. The sun blazed out on the lawn, but here in the kitchen with its clay-brick floor the day was still cool. They drank without saying anything, which made Forge think that the Arch Mage must either be an old friend of his mother’s or else somebody she didn’t like.
The Arch Mage looked out of the window at his pile of boxes. ‘Late again. Where’s it got to now?’
He muttered this under his breath, just talking to himself. They lapsed back into silence. Forge took the opportunity to hang around out of the Arch Mage’s line of sight and study him. The impression of wildness and nature was less obvious but still there. He sat at the kitchen table as if he belonged there just as much as the stove or the woodpile, or the basket where the cat normally lay – except that it had bolted up the stairs the moment it saw him.
Wrapped around his left hand was a gold ring that fascinated Forge. He tried not to stare, but from the moment he noticed it he found his eyes being pulled back, finding more details each time he looked. The ring was in the shape of a golden serpent, the band winding down from the wrist and around the hand so that the serpent’s head lay flat above the first knuckle of the Arch Mage’s middle finger. The metal was stamped with a pattern of scales, intricate and lifelike, and it had tiny black eyes that gleamed liquidly against the glinting sheen of the head. It looked so real. If Forge had found something like that under his heel when he was out in the woods, he’d have jumped ten feet.
As the Arch Mage raised his cup, his sleeve fell back and Forge was able to see that the golden coils wound all the way up his forearm, thickening as they went. The bright band against the hard-hewn brown flesh of the Arch Mage’s arm put him in mind of ivy wrapped around an oak. Strange too that it didn’t hold his arm stiff, as you’d expect a metal band like that to do. It must have moved with him.
The snake’s eyes blinked. Forge bolted for the door and ran straight into a leather apron that felt like it had a brick wall behind it. His father. He held Forge’s shoulders, laughing, but he fell silent when he caught sight of their guest.
‘Those’d be your cases, then. I remember now.’
‘All but one,’ said the Arch Mage, ‘but I expect it’ll be along in its own good time. How have you been, Gar Burntholm?’
‘Hale as horseshoes, Magister, if you’d asked me yesterday. Now, seeing you here at my table, and knowing what that means – ’
‘As I told your wife, there’s no step taken yet that it’s too late to turn around and go back. We’ll sit here and talk awhile, if you like. Smoke a pipe or two and mull it over.’
‘Burntholm,’ said his mother with sudden hope. ‘We could – ’
Forge’s father shook his head, always stubborn. ‘No, we spoke about all this before and the years haven’t changed anything.’
Forge was full to bursting with questions. ‘Who is he, Poppa?’
He got a slap across the back of the head for that, as he expected, but an answer too. ‘Don’t be rude, Forge. This is the Arch Mage of Dweomer. I’ve a mind to have you scrape the Magister’s boots.’
‘They’re not muddy, Poppa. He got here by magic – ’ Ducking another half-hearted cuff, and bowing to the Arch Mage. ‘Begging your pardon, Magister, but I reckon you did, didn’t you? And your travelling chests too.’
The Arch Mage reached out to him. It was his left hand, the one with the gold serpent ring, and Forge detached himself from his father’s grip and stepped nearer, half-hypnotized by fascination and the tug of fear.
Their fingers touched. Forge jumped. ‘What do you feel?’
‘Something stung me,’ said Forge. ‘Just for a moment. It’s gone now.’
‘Like calls to like. That sting is the stroke of a current you’ll learn to use. Did you know that rain can carve a mountainside? Wind shapes rocks. Rivers scoop out the landscape. A current just like that is flowing inside you.’
Forge squinted at him, unsure if he was being teased. ‘Do you mean blood?’
‘Blood? A surface thing. You used to know to look below the surface, Forge. A broken pot is not the anger that broke it. And so too life. It’s what runs inside the current, is life, while blood and sap are only what flow on top.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Forge went to draw his hand away, but the Arch Mage caught his wrist and with the other hand plucked a sprig of dried lavender from the potpourri bowl on the table. He placed it in Forge’s palm and curled the fingers round it.
‘Say what you feel.’
Forge shrugged. ‘Tickles a bit, I suppose. It’s scratchy.’
‘Not like a fresh flower. That would be soft, wouldn’t it?’
‘It’s just to make the kitchen smell nice,’ said Forge patiently, as if the Arch Mage were the child.
‘Imagine it now. You’re holding it in your hand, now hold it in your mind.’
Though he gave a small scowl of defiance, Forge closed his eyes. He pictured the desiccated blossom clutched in the pink darkness of his hand, its purple hue half rusted away, its scent pungent but powdery now that the life was gone.
‘You can see it?’ He nodded. ‘Now remember this flower as it was when your mother cut it. Picture it bathed in sunshine. It’s sturdily watered. Can you see it rippling there in the breeze? A growing, living thing. A bee settles on it, attracted by the colour and the scent. Feel it against your skin. Do you feel it?’
Forge opened his eyes, startled. Slowly and disbelievingly he unfolded his fingers. The lavender lay there bright and fragrant, as alive as if it had been cut just that moment.
There was a long silence as they all bent to look at the tiny miracle. Finally Forge’s father spoke. ‘Now see if you can do the same for my wrinkles.’
It was his usual plodding humour, brought out as clumsily as a bit of scrap iron. Forge had always enjoyed his father’s quips, groaning delightedly at them along with his mother. This time, with the Arch Mage there, he winced. It was the first time he was conscious of being embarrassed by his parents.