From the author: If you looking for magic under rock, you might find something you don't expect.
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Down by the creek, a dark figure moved in the mist. From the door of her drystone cottage, the crofter watched it curiously. A long day’s work called softly on the wind that brought leaves rustling down from hard, dry fields above. The crofter sighed as she thought of fieldstone walls still unbuilt, their rocky parts still buried in their native soil. She gathered her tools, humming softly.
Below, walking the soft loam by the water, the figure paused here to lean over, there to poke at something on the ground. The crofter paused to watch as the mist rose slowly, and the figure resolved into a man, tall and lean in a thick blue cloak. With a quirk of sun-flaked lips, the woman set her tools in a neat pile, and walked down to meet him, a heavy mattock firm in her hard right hand.
The man looked up from his examination of a stone. It was a piece of grey flint, roughly the size of his slender hand, crumbly and damp from the morning dew.
“Looking for?” she asked.
“Magic.” He smiled, fitting the rock back into its space in the grass. “Spirit. Soul. I’m not sure.” He straightened as he put back his hood, and she saw dark brown hair framing a long, intelligent face with light green eyes. The color, she thought, of summer moss.
“Under rocks, is it?” He was about her height, she saw, but much more slender. And her clothing was coarse canvas, where his was soft satin. He’d be cold if not for that cloak.
“Not yet.” He had a good smile, a friendly one.
“I don’t know. It is to me.”
She pondered. Others might believe in magic, but she had not seen it. He might be a bit soft-headed; some kind of foreigner. Still, he had hands. “Come with me, then. I’m clearing a field. Plenty of stones.” She turned away, straining to hear whether he had followed.
He did, catching up with a bemused expression she caught from the corner of her eye. “It doesn’t have to be a stone,” he offered. “It could be a flower, or a tree, or a pond.”
“We’ll start with stones.”
They worked through the morning, clearing rocks and stacking them into piles for a wall. Despite her expectations, his hands turned out to be strong and calloused. As the morning wore on, and the mist burned off completely, he stripped off layers and hung them on an oak, until at last he worked bare-chested beside her as they dug out the largest movable rocks.
“Right,” she said as they carried a large flat stone under the oak. “Lunch.” She saw the sweat rolling down his pale, muscular torso, and knew that her thick cotton blouse was equally wet.
“I thought you’d never ask,” he puffed in exaggerated exhaustion. “You work hard, here in Breen.”
It fell into place for her now, his dark hair that contrasted so with her ash blonde, his light accent, his fine clothes. “From the Ardelles, then,” though he didn't look like a warrior.
“Yes. From Khyat, the capital.”
“No magic in Khyat?” She opened up the canvas bag she had brought, spreading flatbread, peppers, apples across the newly placed stone table. The oak above them provided dappled shade – enough to protect them from the noonday sun, but not so much that her blouse wouldn’t dry out.
He paused, and took a light green pepper with splotches of yellow.
“Spicy,” she warned.
“What? Yes,” he looked at the pepper as though seeing it for the first time. “I’m sure. Yes, there’s magic in Khyat, of a kind.”
“War kind, I’ll bet.” She took her own bite of pepper, and let the pleasant fire warm her tongue.
“Exactly!” He waved his pepper. “I have this theory, you see, that each land has its own kind of magic or spirit. Anima, I call it.” He pointed the pepper at his chest. “In Khyat, it’s an aggressive, militant spirit – it’s what drives us to fight and to conquer. It’s why we’ve been so successful.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Have you?” Was a long history of wars and violence success?
“Of course. Center of science and craft of the known world. Or it could be. My father…,” he grimaced, “… well, I'm not much of a fighter,” as if it were something to be ashamed of. He took a bite of pepper to cover the awkwardness.
She dug in her sack for the water gourd, had it ready for him when the spluttering and spitting began. Creek water wouldn’t cool the fire of a good pepper, but it wouldn’t hurt.
“What,” he asked at last, tilting the gourd back to capture its last drops, “was that?”
“Think we don’t have our own weapons? I could tell you ‘bout the pepper war.” She grinned.
“I can imagine.” He recovered his discarded pepper from the grass nearby, and put it back on the boulder beside them. “No wonder you’ve never been conquered.”
“Maybe I should take these back, instead of magic,” he mused. “We could arm our soldiers with peppers instead of blades. No one could stand against us, if only we could strike them in the mouth.”
“Less bloody,” she agreed.
“Though much more painful.”
“Have an apple,” she offered. “Clear your tongue.”
He took it, gingerly, examined its lumpy green surface. “Not some sort of fire apple, I hope?”
She shook her head, and he took a bite.
“Tart!” he exclaimed. “I mean, not tart. The apple is. The flavor.” He flushed, and it spread down into his shoulders. “It’s sour, is all.”
She smiled. “Time to look for more magic.” She stood, flexed her shoulders, against the rough blouse, now almost dry. He stared carefully at his apple, but couldn’t stop his eyes from twitching when she looked away. She couldn’t stop herself from smiling.
They worked through the afternoon, clearing a good quarter of the field. He’d started slow, examining each stone carefully. For ancient runes, perhaps. But after a while he seemed to forget, to match her rhythm. They’d even had a tacit contest at one point, though she’d beaten him with ease. Strong as he was, he didn’t have the knack. He fought with the stones, lifting them his way, instead of finding how they wanted to be lifted – or at least the easiest way. She shook her head to rid it of foolishness. Rocks were rocks. They’d hadn’t whispered any magic nonsense to her yet.
At last, the sun down behind the western hills, it became too dark to work. At the next muffled curse, as he banged his fingers setting down one stone on a pile of others, she called a halt.
“Come on,” she said, handing him a shovel and the stake she used as a pry bar and lever. He took them, and the discussion of where he’d spend the night was done. He gathered their belongings from beneath the tree, and followed her as she went, sure-footed, down the familiar trail to her home.
The inside of the cottage was much like the outside – drystone walls, the insides mostly plastered with clay from the boggy area across the creek. The roof was equally simple but effective – rough shingles of slate laid across stringers and rafters, sealed with more clay. It kept most of the rain out most of the time, and it didn’t rot. The floor was packed earth, with a stone hearth. She gave him a wisp of hay, showed him how to clean dirt off the metal tools, and went to light a fire.
“So,” she said, once the spark had taken in a bit of fluff, “any magic? Old runes carved in rock?”
He looked up from his task, uncertain whether she was mocking him, but she was busy at the hearth, laying twigs to catch her tiny flame.
“No runes,” he admitted. “Magic? Who can tell? It’s different in every place.”
She finished a cone of larger twigs and looked over at him.
“Tools go up in the rafters,” she pointed with her chin. “How d’you search for magic if you don’t know what it looks like?”
“It’s good question. All I can say is that generally, I know it when I see it.”
She sniffed, a world of doubt in a puff of breath.
“I know,” he sighed. “It seemed more evident in the Ardelles, where every wind, every wave is full of strength and vitality and struggle.”
“War and violence.”
“That too. In an island nation, the battle between sea and sand, between storm and land – it never ends. The tides are always reaching, always forced back, taking treasures, leaving tribute. There’s no avoiding it. Even on Alyar, the largest island, in Khyat, the smell of the sea is a constant reminder. It overrides everything – spices, flowers, fire,” he gestured to her growing flames, and she added a branch the size of her forearm. “I miss it.”
She looked at the fire curiously. But he meant the sea, of course. The smell of it. She’d heard of that – bards sang of a salty, briny tang. There was a salt lick in the forest to the east, but it didn’t smell of much other than rock and nearby deer droppings.
“That’s the Ardelles anima – conquest and glory. Other countries have their own – of growth, or life, or wildness. I’m making an index.”
“And I haven’t found Breen’s yet. I’ve been wandering inland, but so far all I’ve found is farms and fields.”
“And peasants,” she smiled.
He looked at her sharply, but she kept her smile as warm as the fire that now burned comfortably in the hearth.
“And peasants,” he agreed at last. “And rocks,” he laughed, showing his scraped, bruised hands. “Lots of rocks. I thought maybe if I handled the right stone or branch or flower, I would find a hint of Breen’s anima. But all I’ve found is rock.” And you, his green eyes said, slipping past hers.
She turned away, flustered. “Better wash those hands,” she said after a moment, handing him a wooden bucket. “Fetch some water while you’re at it.”
He took the bucket, his battered hand gripping the rim close to hers, so close they almost touched. She let go suddenly, and he let the bucket sag toward him. “I’ll make soup,” she said, and fumbled for a braid of garlic hanging from a peg on the wall, though the garlic should go in at the end, and she still had some stew in a jar at the cool bend in the creek, and what had happened to the shy young man of the morning, and to her?
“All right.” He smiled and shrugged, and the shyness was back. He walked out the door into moonlight, and left her standing stupid, with garlic in her hand, and a pang in her heart.
By the time he was back, she was herself again, with vegetables cut up for soup, the garlic peeled for later, and even a small chunk of rock salt for seasoning. “In the cauldron,” she said, and he poured obediently into the precious tin pot she’d set on the hearth.
He’d taken time to bathe, she noted, the dark hair still wet, bringing with it the clean smell of the heather covering the hills that fed her little creek
She swept a double handful of cauliflower into a wooden bowl, shook her head as she saw how much he’d filled her little pot. She dumped half the water back into the bucket, replaced it with cauliflower and a handful of last year’s dry lentils.
“Not a cook,” she stated confidently as she set the pot to boil.
“Not a good one,” he agreed. He watched her drop in her bit of salt. But she was herself again, proof against, she smiled, his magic of eyes and moss.
“I don’t know your name,” he said suddenly, catching her unaware despite herself. “I’m … Crane. You know, tall, skinny.” He grinned. “Awkward.”
Here it was, then. Magic, she did not believe in. Ardellians were warlike and rough, but Breen was surrounded by mountains. There was no mystery to its independence, no need for magic to explain it. Names, though. In all the bards’ tales, the dragon asked for the doomed hero’s name, or the clever hero for the dragon’s. Names had power. They described, defined, deterred, said “This is mine; I am this.”
He said nothing as she stood back, gathered the pepper, sweet this time, and put it in the soup too early.
“That much pepper could kill a man,” he joked, and sought her gaze.
His eyes seemed greener now, darker from the creek and the shadows of the fire.
She shook her head, took a stray chunk of pepper, and put it in his hand. Their skin touched for the first time, and she let her fingers linger a moment, feeling no spell beyond the primal glamor of desire.
“Call me Pepper,” she said at last. Her father had called her that once, when as a child she had come to him in tears from trying to keep pace with her older brothers and their flint-tough mouths. Pepper, he had called her, and helped her laugh when he showed her the difference between the sweet pepper they had eaten and the hot pepper they had given her. Laugh, and understand that despite their casual cruelty, her brothers loved her. And when she’d woken late at night to hear them crawling painfully into bed, she had fetched wet cloths to place on their bruises. Pepper, they’d called her, and when her father came in, stripping cloth from around his fists, he’d smiled and said no more about it.
She and Crane talked about nothing after that – about the tumbled cottage she’d found and built into a home with her brothers’ help, about her yearly visits to them after harvest, about the ships that sailed the Ardelles archipelago, about the kinds of knots sailors used, and about the fieldstone walls she’d built that wouldn’t keep out the deer. They ate, and the soup was good despite the overcooked peppers. They said no more of magic, or of his search, or what would happen tomorrow. And when they were done, and the pot was cooling on the hearth, and the bowls were wiped with straw disposed of in the coals, she took him to bed.
It wasn’t magic, despite the bards. It was smooth kisses, and awkward maneuvers, and a reawakened passion that she hadn’t felt since, well, since a bard had last passed by. The last but one, she admitted to him, for the last had been an old, old woman, and they had done no more than sleep and drink tea.
“I’ve never been with a bard,” he admitted, to make her laugh. “But there was a barmaid at the coast…” And though he didn’t say it, she realized that there was nothing more, that this one barmaid was the sum of all her bards and villagers and passing traders, and, perhaps, did not exist at all. She said no more, but turned her back to him and pushed up warm and close until he chuckled and held her tight, and slept.
In the morning, they ate grains soaked in water, and waited for the dawn to break over the forest. When it was nearly light enough to see her path to the fields, she gathered up water gourd and fruit, and turned to find him standing by the door, tools in hand, and his carry bag set neatly in the corner, fancy blue cloak folded on top.
They cleared another quarter of the field that day, and more the next day and the next. At night, they lay under the cool stars or in her warm bed. She told him about her brothers, and her mother in town, and the day her father died, and how he taught her to fight, before. Crane told his stories of other countries and their weird customs, and their magic. If sometimes his voice and gaze grew distant, she made no demands, built no expectations, waited each day for a sign that he would leave. But there were more fields to clear, and walls to build with the cleared stone, and a stone floor to be laid in the cottage that took a month to set just right, and that he did by himself while she ploughed and sowed.
And then it was summer, and the floor was done.
“Cold and hard,” she said, though it was also smooth and dry and solid.
“Just like you,” he said, and held her soft against him.
The next morning she rose late. She relived the quiet noises he had made as he dressed, his hesitation as he placed something small and hard and metal on the hearth, his soft kiss on her shoulder as she pretended to sleep, his pause before a quick movement at the hearth again, his footsteps as he left. She squeezed her eyes hard together, then rolled to her feet thinking of only the rill she might divert to her new fields. She thought of it as she quickly dressed and ate, as her sleeve accidentally brushed the hearth and obscured the faint round impression of a coin in its ash, as she filled her gourd with suddenly trembling hands. For the rest of the day, as she dug trenches, she ignored the wind from the western coast, the stiff dry moss that covered small stones by the rill. She thought only of water, and the bright sunlight that glanced off tiny ripples as they rocked tiny boats of leaf and grass.
As days passed, the ripples became only ripples, the wind only wind. If she sat sometimes to eat at a mossy boulder under an oak tree, if she stood at a drystone wall to watch the sunset fade to indigo, she reminded herself that memory was a treasure, not a burden, and promised herself to visit her brothers when she next visited town to trade.
At last, a rainy spell came in early autumn, and she went, leaving the fields and their new irrigation trenches to fend for themselves. And when she came back, laden with cloth and spices and thoughts of young nephews and nieces, he was waiting.
“I saw you coming,” he said, gesturing down the track behind her before taking her pack.
She looked up at him, at his sturdy canvas clothes, his smiling face, and wondered what they meant. What to make of the tightness in her belly, of the blood draining from her face despite a racing heart.
“I made soup,” he said, and kissed her.
He told her, later, of his journey back to the Ardelles, to the capital Khyat, and to his family. “They asked me about anima,” he said, “and laughed, and told me about the new campaign against the north coast.” He shrugged. “They told me to bring my magic with me for the spring campaign. I told them it wasn’t that kind of magic. And that I might not be back.”
He looked into her eyes, and the summer moss of his gaze captured her in its dry, scratchy, yellow-green fingers. “How about you?”
“I dug a ditch,” she said, and her eyes filled with its water, nourishing field and moss alike, and dripping at last onto the stone of the floor as it performed its slow, steady magic of holding and of keeping.
This story originally appeared in Start With Stones: collected stories.
A collection of light-hearted fantasy and science fiction stories. • Silver Lining • The Girl Who Just Went Wrong • Start with Stones • The First Assembly of God • Manifest Destiny • The Matter of God • The Stone in the Sword
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