"They can't all be homeless..." Conley watched from the hill as
the unending line of refugees threaded its way into the Purasan heartlands.
"I don't know, never seen anything like this before." Roween
half-marvelled, half-abhorred the surreal scene; people, dressed in all
clothes from patched rags to the latest in Taltu high fashion, some pushing
handcarts, others riding in carriages, all travelling at the same, slow pace,
stretching back way to the distant forest. And silent, but for the wails of the
"This is just, just so..." Conley gazed in disbelief. "Where are
they all coming from?"
"Where are they all going?"
"They're tall, fair, this far north they must be Estavians. Why
would they be leaving? Has Estavia fallen?"
Roween was pulling up her hood. "Ask, make out we're
Akreans, displaced, eager for news..."
* * *
Close up, it was a miserable sight. Despair haunted the adults,
the children were morose, vacant. Whole families had uprooted themselves,
were heading west across Purasan. Conley selected a youngish woman who
seemed to be travelling alone, rode alongside. Roween followed behind.
"Good day, I am Conley of Rhiev, in Akrea. My friend and I
seek news of our land."
The Estavian cast her a disbelieving glance, seemed too weary
to dispute. "Akrea has long since fallen to Justan of Murak."
Conley feigned anguish. "How can this be? When last we
heard, our armies were regrouping, organising, resisting Justan."
The woman laughed, scornful. "You have us to blame for your
fate! We were told that Justan could no longer call upon magic, we were
told that our leaders felt themselves safe. Intelligence had reached them,
very reliable, they were confident, so, so sure of their source. And thus it
was that Estavia, mother of democracy, invaded Akrea on the pretext of
saving it; we scattered your armies, drove them into the cities, liberated the
north as Justan routed the south." She spat, self-consciously. "But of
course, we had been misled. Our army commanders were assassinated, all
of them, within hours. Magic. Parliament met, the government resigned,
and all power over both nations was ceded to Justan."
"Then... then there is no hope for us?"
"None." The woman snarled at some private contempt. Conley
scanned her, critically. She put her at about twenty-five, maybe a tad older.
No rings, no jewellery.
"Tell me, why are you, all these people, why are you leaving
Estavia? Where are you going? Surely only death awaits to the west? Are
things that bad?"
"Yes, they are, they're deepest black. These others," she
nodded to her right, "they're Followers. Back home, our brave army is
redeeming itself by purging them, killing anyone even suspected of
believing the Message. Or anyone they simply dislike."
Conley felt as if her blood temperature had dropped twenty
degrees. She heard herself saying, "You mean, all these people, they're
Followers? You're a Follower?"
"Most of them, yes, Suns, some Earthies. Can't you tell from
that smug mindlessness they all wear?" She turned, shouted, "What good's
your well of living water now?" They ignored her, trudged onwards, pious,
self-satisfied. She curled her lip. "As for me, I have the wrong `friends'."
Conley pulled to a halt. The other woman kept on riding, didn't
even look back.
"Come on, Con, we better cross this fuse before someone lights
* * *
"More magic, more misery." Roween was riding alongside
Conley now, the northern road was wider here.
"You can't blame magic for what happened to those people,
they're just suffering the normal consequences of any change of rule. Sad,
"None of it would have happened if it hadn't been for magic.
The Estavian democracy grew from the reaction to their oppressive empire,
it's been a stable influence on the region ever since. It was basically fair,
just, honourable. The ordinary people led good, fulfilling lives, and they
were at peace. Then, overnight, we barbarians took everything away,
trashed nine hundred years of history, and all directly because of our
superior command of magic. You can't deny that."
"I don't deny that magic brought about Estavia's downfall, but
it would have gone soon enough anyway, once the Messenger had built
enough support for a religious revolution - you saw how many people he's
won over already. And don't forget, the Estavians did attack Akrea."
"Yes, but to save it, from us. Anyway, just because another
evil exists, doesn't mitigate magic's use in that fashion. If magic is as
conducive to benevolence as you've said in the past, why didn't Justan feel
disposed to use it directly on the Messenger's rabble? Why did Akrea fear
us enough to refuse an alliance? Magic could have saved the democracies,
instead it's destroyed them."
Conley was shaking her head, tousled ash-blonde hair flowing
free. Roween hadn't noticed when she'd stopped using the hold spells, not
that it mattered: Conley was staggeringly beautiful either way.
"You disagree, Con?"
She tossed a lock over her shoulder. "I keep telling you, it's
how magic is used. It's the people, the manipulators of magic, it can be
employed either for good or evil. At the moment, in certain high-profile
cases, it's being misused. But there are decent, honest uses, Ro. All the
"Most spells are intrinsically bad. You can use them for the
better on occasion, but they tend to promote misuse by their very nature.
It's hard to use them non-detrimentally."
Conley wasn't sure whether she was expected to take Roween's
words as given, or argue. Ro had reined back her horse, let Conley go first
to avoid a large, water-filled hole in the road. Conley took the time to
think, decided to argue.
"You're wrong, Ro, spells are just sequences of gestures, they
carry no implicit judgement on how they are to be used. How could they?"
Roween hesitated. Perhaps this is the time to explain a little
more? Conley was getting restless, all this seemingly pointless wandering
across boring, hostile terrain, farther than ever from home. "Spells are not
sequences of gestures, that's just a trick to concentrate the mind. Suppose,"
she paused again, "suppose I told you I could distinguish between good
spells and bad."
"Well I wouldn't believe you."
Belief. "Let's think about it from basics. For everything else
humans can do, they have some way of telling they've done it, registering
the change in the environment. They can see it, feel it, smell it, taste it,
hear it. Five senses, classic. There's maybe others, like balance - doesn't
matter for the moment though. Now, does it not strike you as odd that we
can make magical alterations to the world and yet have no immediate way
of knowing we've done it? You stroke a comsphere, but can you feel any
magical energy making a connection? Can you sense the target glowing?
You look at a binder: can you tell whether it's locked, or just lying there on
top of a book?"
"You're telling me you can sense magic?"
"Not just me, Con, everyone. In order to develop a skill in
using some faculty, you have to get feedback on it. Otherwise, it could
never have evolved."
"Ah." She nodded. "You're an evolutionist, then. So this is
all - "
"No, I'm not making a pitch, it's - take a similar sort of thing,
with prosthetics. It's possible to graft extra arms onto people, but they can
never use them. Why not? Because the prosses aren't plumbed in to the
brain. To fix that, you have to stick them where some other limb used to
be, although even then if they're too different they won't work properly,
not to start with. Put on a tail instead of a finger, and the brain still thinks
it's a finger - but if you give it enough stimuli, moving it about and
suchlike, eventually people can learn to do a few tail-like things with it."
"Physiotherapy, yes." She clicked her tongue. "So you're
implying that to use magic, people must have some organ receptive to it?"
"That's right, exactly."
"But it doesn't follow from your argument! I can build a
fountain at the bottom of a hill, then turn it on at a valve at the top, and I
don't need any special hydraulic-sensing ability to understand what I've
done or why it works."
"No, that's because turning on fountains is not something you
can just do. Magic, though, everyone can do, like lifting an arm, it's
"I disagree with that. Spells have to be worked out in advance,
planned, proven, then cast. They're manufactured by making gestures, like
water courses are dug by hand movements; neither product is itself an
extension of a person's body. Therefore, your argument about needing to
sense spells' effects is fallacious! Detecting that what you just cast caused
someone's tortoise to float in the air is no more innate than is detecting that
a fountain in a valley will come on if you turn a valve."
"No, no, I'm right." This was going too fast, if she wasn't
careful she'd blurt out things before Conley was ready to accept them.
"Look, just assume for now that using magic is something people can just
do, as easily as winking their eyes. If that were the case, then it would be
reasonable to assume people could, at least in the distant past, tell when
they were using magic. Agreed?"
Conley clearly wasn't so sure, but then she hadn't had time to
think of things Roween could be missing. She smiled. "I'll let it ride, go
"Well I had this idea myself, a few years back. I figured that if
people were once, ages ago, able to sense when magic was in use, maybe
we still could, if we tried. No harm in trying, right?"
"I'll grant you that." Conley wasn't looking at her now, she
was staring ahead, scanning the horizon.
"So, I had a try. I borrowed a few trinkets, you know, light
sets, click-wells, and tried to feel any aura they were giving off. Held them
close to my head, thought that's where any sensors would most likely be,
kept them under a beret, did that kind of thing for hours every day."
"And you succeeded, yes?"
Conley's half-hearted reply irritated Roween. I'm trying to say
something important here! "No, not straight away. Are you listening to me?
I can say this some other time."
Conley looked over, gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Sorry, Ro, go
on. It's just it seems a bit contrived, that's all. I don't really see the point
you're trying to make."
Give me strength! "I'll be brief. My little experiments didn't
awaken any unknown spell-detectors in my brain, no. Imagine you were
born with your eyes closed, like rabbits, so you couldn't see. Maybe we're
all born blind to magic, or maybe we just get that way because we don't
look, so our sensory organs dull, atrophy. Whatever, even if you try and
see things with your eyes closed, you still won't have any success. You
need something to open your eyes."
"You can see magic?"
"Hot, Conley, listen to me! Listen to what I'm saying!" No, too
angry, you'll forget something, make a hash of it. "Look, if you couldn't
open your eyes, what would you think might do it? If someone poked one?
Probably, but we don't know where magic-eyes might be sited. A very
bright light, perhaps? When I was locked in the bound-book room, all
around me was magic, more magic than I'd ever encountered before. My
mind could feel it, dimly, my games with the light-sets had awakened my
senses a little, but the magic wasn't bright enough for me to notice, so I
didn't know. These books, they felt so drenched in magic, it was all over,
everywhere. I began to unscramble it, picking out distinct binders, it made
sense, but it was surrounding me, all sides, unpleasant, I didn't like it. I
couldn't stop, though, it was like looking at the sun through closed eyes,
you can still see light no matter how hard you try not to, you have to look
away. Only I couldn't, I was trapped. The feeling got stronger, it was
nagging, like toothache, I couldn't shake it off. Or like a screeching, shrilly
noise, getting louder and louder, engulfing me, oppressive, I just wanted it
to stop, a release, I couldn't take it. I was crying, it hurt so bad, deep in
my head, hot, Con, it was awful, I couldn't stand it any longer, I'd rather
be captured, I just had to get out, escape from it! I screamed, I don't know,
anguish, hopelessness, despair, then something amazing happened."
Conley was rapt.
"I had this most indescribably joyous sensation where the pain
had been, it was marvellous. Relief, I can still remember it now. I'd
opened my eyes. But I couldn't feel the magic on the books any more, I
thought I'd damaged my new-found sense, like a huge-volume noise can
deafen you. That wasn't it, though, because the binders on the loose
volumes had fallen to the shelves. I'd triggered off some kind of reflex. If
someone shines a light in your eyes, you can't help but close them. I'd
discovered humans have a magic-wiping reflex, too. If they can sense
magic, then they can defend against it. It's like a protection mechanism
against magical attack."
Conley's mind was a whirl of questions. "So, so what's its
nature, this sensory modality? Is it like sight? Sound?"
"Well despite the metaphors I used just now, I think of it more
like smell. I can't turn it off, just like with smell, and there are
characteristic, well, I call them scents, associated with different kinds of
magic. I pick up a waterpatch, say, and I can sort of smell that it's got
some kind of hardener in there, plus a binder, a little webbing. Put it
against a leak, it uses the water as a trigger to bind it to the surrounding
wood or whatever, and the hardener makes it rigid. The webbing keeps out
any more water."
"And some of these `scents', you don't like them?" She clicked
her teeth. "Ah, now I see what you were implying! The spells that you
dislike the smell of are the ones you think are inherently bad?"
Roween sighed, at last! "Yes, that's about right. Some are
really lovely, best of all is the dispel itself, but most are life-awful."
"But smells can't be the same for everyone, can they? Normal
spells can be thought nice by some people, but bad by others. I don't like
the taste of marzipan, but my mother adored it."
"In general, there's a lot of agreement: the worse something
smells - in the normal sense - the more likely it is to be harmful. Some
things may smell nice and be bad for you, like roses, but there's certainly a
meaningful correlation between the two. Now I'm not pretending that I
have an unfailing ability to smell which spells are bad and which are good,
but I've noticed that those I think are bad also have the vilest scents. Very
bad-smelling ones will always get me. Artefacts, if they're passive, I can
handle them in small doses, but if I'm nervy or on edge, or if there's too
many of them like in Cala Bay Town, it can spark the reflex." She
shivered. "Or standing with those books, it was like being in a sewer, I
thought I was going to throw up."
Conley nodded. "What's your range? Depends on how strong
the magic is?"
"Yes, how bad it smells. Doors, walls, they don't make any
difference, and the scents aren't directed, not like light would be. Just seem
to radiate in a ball centred on the source of the magic. If I stay as far away
as I did from Sennary when you gelled him, I'm usually safe enough.
Might catch a whiff in the corner of my..." She tut-tutted. "I'll have to
think of a word for it someday."
"So this whole trek of yours, you're taking me to Liagh Na
Laerich because you want me to develop the same reflex as you?"
"It's not just that, there's more to it. Another person just like
me would be no good at all, I can't cast spells. I want someone who can -
you. Yes, I do intend for you to sit in Liagh Na Laerich library's bound-
book section until you wipe their binders clear, but you need to learn more
first. Otherwise, I'd have just taken you to a black-fac in CBT, or a click-
bank in Cala."
Conley's shoulders dropped. "What is it you're holding back,
Ro? What is it I need to know?"
Roween put her hand on Conley's leg, looked askew at her,
wishing she could tell. "Sorry, Con, can't risk it till I know you won't go
starry on me."
* * *
Farther north, there were more refugees, scattered groups rather
than the single, depressive, line. They had less possessions with them,
didn't seem as organised.
The first few Conley had approached wouldn't talk. They
looked like city folk, but then all Estavians did. The next batch, however,
were more forthcoming, albeit still suspicious.
The man driving the mule had a thin moustache, artificially
darkened. His wife was skinny, red-faced, sullen. She nursed a baby,
They were from the small Altinn region in the west of Estavia,
where the River Erva kinks round in a looping semi-circle. They weren't
believers of the Message, and they didn't know why they'd been attacked.
For some reason, though, their houses had been set ablaze in the night;
swarms of armed men had ridden in, swinging swords, shooting arrows,
and they'd had to flee. They'd been lucky, had time to take the wagon:
other people had been forced to leave everything. It hadn't stopped there,
either; they were pursued across the Erva, driven forward, broken up by
ambush. Now they were confused, beaten, destitute and hungry, nowhere
to go but onwards.
Roween dropped the family one of Medreph's rubies.
* * *
Conley waited until the group was out of range before seeking
The smaller woman narrowed her eyes. "They were herded out
of Altinn, herded over the Erva, and are still being herded now. I don't
understand: why would anyone want to do that?"
"To steal their farms? Some would-be warlord? Revenge for
something? Just soldiers, looting?" She gave up. "Who knows?"
"No, whoever it was didn't do it to capture or destroy, they
deliberately set about driving the people west. The natural escape route
would have been east, where there's no great river to cross. It was
"A sudden influx of displacees in the north - it could draw away
resources from where the real fighting will take place, more centrally."
Roween bit her thumb, stared intently at her mare's mane. "The
Followers we saw are going to cause the Messenger far more problems.
They're of his faith, so he can't ignore them. They're more numerous, and
they're turning up right in potential battlefields, just where he wants all
civilians out the way. These people up here, he can forget them, they'll
cause the Purasans more problems than they'll bring down on him."
"Well, whatever the reason, at least we now know that there's a
whole wodge of army types chasing them westwards. If we're not careful
they'll probably pick us up, too." She looked over her shoulder, automatic.
"Why is it important we reach the coast, couldn't we cut west ourselves?"
Roween didn't answer immediately, something Conley had
said... "We can go west, yes, I did before. Just hoping to catch a boat
round to Elet this time, that's all." She scratched her brow. Too much
running away, you get paranoid.
"Well let's turn now, get ahead of this lot before they hit
civilisation. Every town will close its gates once people know what's
"We might find they're closed anyway..."