A Short Story
They were hunters, Tence and Ru. Their quarry called them assassins. Their commission from the king, a man now dead for at least thirty years, was simple, and he paid handsomely. They were due a lifetime treasure when their task was complete—payment still assured by the king’s son.
For nearly forty years, Tence and Ru hunted. Sometimes Ru wondered if they would live to see the work to its end. They worked methodically, that was Ru’s way. They performed the task ruthlessly, not savagely or brutally, but efficiently and without malice. That was Tence’s manner.
They became great spies and liars. Proficient in the arts of poisons and accidents. Just as one becomes a skilled tracker when hunting animals, hunting people makes one well versed in all things humanly nefarious. There was always the question of ever reaching success. Would they have enough years? Would others come to replace those they dispatched, and would the gods allow them to perform their task?
In forty years, no gods spoke or acted against them. Ru gave thanks each day for that, spinning prayers like threads cast in a fragile net of supplication to any gods who would listen. Forty years of their lives melted away in the slow burn of the circling sun. Ru’s bones ground together like a mortar and pestle when she walked. The weight of forty years had buried their friends.
The last wizard in the world lay dead at Ru’s feet. His eye pierced with one of her truine arrows. “Has magic died?” Ru asked. “Have we finally killed magic?”
“Naturally,” Tence replied.
This resumed a conversation started forty years earlier.
“The question,” Tence said. “Does magic exist if there is no one to wield it—matters not because there is no one to wield it.”
“There are the gods. And people who will try, though they lack knowledge and the art.”
Tence was silent for a moment. Then, “After a few fools immolate themselves or their loved ones, the people will forget the very idea of magic.”
“And the gods?” Ru could not stop thinking about gods and their magic. Too powerful for mortals to face.
“What the gods do is not magic,” Tence said. “Their power is innate, natural. It’s a god’s will to wield it. That is not magic. It is not conjured nor cast.”
“But we’re still not safe.”
“We are safe from wizards and their magic.”
“But not from the capricious whim of gods.”
Tence frowned. “Did you think this mission would touch the gods or what they do?”
“Well, I thought, if wizards acted through the power of gods, the gods couldn’t touch us when the wizards were gone.”
“What made you think magic comes from the gods?”
“Doesn’t it? How do we humans do anything—how do we live if not by the will of gods? We’re allowed only to live by the grace of immortals who could, and do, snatch our lives with a breath of disease or the stroke of a flooding storm.”
Tence shook her head and took up her walking stick. “Your questions are too weighty for me and they are beside the point of our mission. King Elmered hired us to kill all the wizards. We have done so, and now we can retire.”
“How do we know?”
“Know what? That it is time to retire?”
“That we killed all the wizards.”
Tence shook her head again. “We have tramped over the roads of Haranish and sailed across each of the four seas of Damloss, crawled over the wind seared deserts of Palastir, and crouched through the forests of Lowmoren. No, there is nowhere else to search. No word of witches, warlocks, mages, or wizards. No mention of magic in any town. Runnult here was the last.”
Ru retrieved her arrow, cleaned it and placed it in her quiver. Runnult had lived in a mud brick hut jammed with dead things and scrolls, which Tence had piled on the floor and now set ablaze.
They resumed their journey east and walked under the flaming sun. Up Mentinagro’s famous high, hot steppes. Ru found it difficult to match Tence’s quick pace. She rested and spat onto the sun-baked pavers. “What of Tamuro?” she called ahead to Tence.
“A legend, a myth,” Tence replied over her shoulder. “Why hunt her? If she ever lived, she died a thousand years ago.”
“Are you certain?”
“Certain. I am also certain I am ready to lay these old bones on a hammock beneath the shade of two palms and watch the world exist without magic. With a cool rum, of course.”
They hiked another few miles. Then Ru mentioned Tamuro again. “They say she was deathless.”
Tence sighed. “Only the gods are deathless. If she is deathless, then she is an immortal, a goddess and not a mage. There is nothing for us to do.”
Another day passed, and they crossed the river Wascon. They followed the road up a long rise and then stepped into the gray, sparse, wind weathered hills of Tamily.
“Tamuro is said to have lived high in the Tarsinos,” Ru said. “We’ll see them tomorrow rising on the horizon like great teeth.”
“Fine.” Tence mumbled. “We will search for the legendary Tamuro since her lair is on the way.”
“What would you call it?”
“Her realm. She controls the Tarsinos and all the Tamily lands.”
“I still think if she ever existed, she was a goddess. If you believed Tamuro to be a real mage and that we should seek her, you should have said something twenty years ago when we were stronger. If she is alive, and a mage with the power of her legend, we will not survive.”
“I don’t suppose we will. Retirement was only ever a dream.”
They climbed the rock-tumbled slopes of the Tarsinos foothills and came to a village called Muro. Ru approached a young woman sitting on the dirt street weaving straw into a mat. Ru asked, “Do any living here still believe in the legend of Tamuro?”
“Legend?” the weaver scoffed. “She walks the roads and fields by night, counting the souls under her care. She’s no legend.”
“Is she immortal?”
The weaver laughed. “Tamuro is the Enduring Mage. She might have been born of a goddess, but that doesn’t make her immortal. All life dies, even the gods, if they live in this world.”
Ru looked at Tence, puzzled. Then turned back to the weaver. “That doesn’t answer the question. Is she a goddess? Was she the daughter of one?”
“Does a goddess worship her followers?”
“Tamuro is no goddess. We are under her care.”
“Does she protect you from something?” Tence asked.
“Drought, pests, disease, the things that bring death—yes. She protects us from all such deadly things.”
“I think we should seek an elder,” Ru said.
The weaver laughed again. “How young do you think I am? I’m the eldest in Muro.”
“Then everyone over twenty-five is dead?” Tence shook her head and walked away.
“I was twenty-five when your great-great-grandmothers were born.”
“That’s not possible.” Ru felt something leave her, as if something had been holding her upright and now was suddenly missing, leaving her to waver in a wind of unreason.
“Under the Enduring Mage’s protection and care, it is possible,” said the weaver. “Why do you ask? Do you believe her to be a goddess?”
“I don’t know. But if she’s only a mortal mage, then . . . well, we must get to work.” Ru left the weaver and caught up with Tence. They walked through the village and up a steep slope beyond. The Tarsinos towered above, leaning over them in the red glow of the day’s failing light like two bloody fangs. They camped in the crook of cold red and gray rocks. The lights of Muro flickered below.
“If Tamuro wanders in the night, we will see her,” Tence said as she bit into a strip of dried buckstrap.
Ru searched through her pack. “What do you think will work best? The Globes of Fire or the Blade of Harrack?”
“I am sticking with Elbereth,” Tence said, petting her sword on the ground beside her. “Silver and steel to cleave the heart of a mage.”
“That sword didn’t fare so well against Oberus. The grandson of a god—well documented.”
“Ru, I do not believe in gods and goddesses. None of the mages we killed held any power greater than their own magic, and every one of them in the end, even Oberus, was vulnerable to silver and steel.”
“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“I do not believe that.”
The moon lifted above the mountains and lit the valley in a pale glow. Tence snored. Ru remained awake. Unseen animals crept with the rustle of brush. Owls and bats cut along dark paths through the pale night.
Something moved steadily in the open grass across the road. The slope was rocky, but waves of wild grasses swayed between boulders. A lone figure floated through the long grass. If not Tamuro, then certainly a spirit.
“Tence, wake up.”
Tence grumbled and came to. “What?”
“The Enduring Mage. She’s out on the slope heading for the village.”
Tence looked across at the moonlit grass. She slid Elbereth from its scabbard without making a sound. But before she had fully exposed the blade, a female form appeared before them in silver robes with long streamers flowing in the breeze.
“Hunters,” Tamuro said in a voice that might have been wind hissing between the rocks. “Murderers of my brethren and sisters. Finally, you come to me.”
Ru fumbled for the Blade of Harrack but couldn’t seem to locate it on her belt. Tence’s sword remained partially sheathed.
“Magic makes people act in terrible, unnatural ways,” Tence said. “Our charge was to rid the world of it so people could live safely.”
“Unnatural?” Tamuro crossed her arms. Her feet, wrapped in silver boots, did not touch the ground. “Do you think magic comes from some other world? From some star or the moon?”
“Yes, the otherworld.”
“And where is that?”
“Beneath us.” Tence spoke as though trying to convince herself.
“All that is beneath us is the world. If this so-called otherworld lies below, then it is part of this world and cannot be other. It is therefore natural. Lots of natural things are dangerous, like lions. Do you plan to eliminate those too?”
Ru tried to locate her Globes of Fire, but they too eluded her. “Are you a goddess?” she managed to ask while searching her pockets.
“What would it mean to you if I were a goddess?”
“You’d be deathless—with power.”
“Then perhaps I am a goddess, though I prefer the name, Enduring Mage.”
“Which is it, mage or goddess?”
“I could be both.” She raised her hands in the air. Ru was yanked to her feet as if she were a marionette. Tence likewise. “Do you think killing all the mages will rid the world of magic? Magic is part of the world. You cannot remove it.”
Tence said, “If there is no one to wield it—”
“Magic acts on its own. It moves with nature. It turns with the world. It travels with the seasons. And yes, it can be dangerous. You’ve wasted your lives and killed many who deserved to live.”
“It was our charge,” Tence said. “To make safe—”
Something cold and sharp slipped inside Ru’s belly; a cut through her clothes, and across her flesh, exposing her insides to the cool night air. She clutched at her gaping wound. Tence grasped her bleeding left thigh.
“I can heal you,” Tamuro said. “I can return your flesh to health without a scar, or I can let you die. But it requires magic. Do you consent?”
“I will not believe it,” Tence said through a grimace. “This is an illusion.”
“And you, Ru?”
“Heal me. Please.” The chill in her belly vanished, and her flesh was whole, though the holes in her shirt remained.
“Last chance,” Tamuro said to Tence.
“It works,” Ru said. She’d never seen Tence so weakened and frightened. Tence’s chin shivered. Shock and wetness filled her eyes. “Healing is an illusion,” she said without conviction.
“By the time I am finished with this sentence, you will die.”
“Tence!” But it was too late. Tence fell onto the bloodstained ground beneath her with a soft, wet smack.
“Retrieve her sword,” Tamuro ordered. Ru hesitated, but then undid Tence’s bloody belt and took Elbereth and its scabbard.
“Put it on. We have work to do and you will need both swords.”
“Thanks to you and your partner, there are many magical items abandoned in the world. A few rest in hands they should not. You have a new task. You and your magical weapons.”
Ru wanted to bury Tence. She glanced back at Tence’s body, but she was no longer there. No body and no blood.
“What were you going to do?” Tamuro asked. “Just leave the magical items for anyone to use, then kill them too? Why didn’t you collect the items? At least then it would just be the two of you who possessed magic things. You could have killed each other in a suicide pact.”
Ru never thought about the magic items. Only a few were interesting enough to take and keep for themselves. They never thought much beyond the immediate task of killing all the mages and sorcerers. “Who should possess the items now?” she asked.
“Trained magicians, sorcerers, witches, and mages. You would not hand a sword to a toddler, would you?”
From the heights of the Tarsinos, the entire world spread below like a carpet woven by gods. The sun cast light into purple and golden clouds. The dawning and the ending of time present together.
Tamuro’s words came again as soft as the breeze. “So many items, so many people to educate.”
“I’m old,” Ru said. “My hair is white and my bones are brittle. My joints swollen and worn. I won’t last to see your task finished—now to my regret.”
“Nonsense. You are Ru-Muro, adept to the Enduring Mage, and you will endure.”
The pain in Ru’s knees, the ache in her back, and the weight of a life fell away. She emerged from the whirlpool of time to dry in the sun of many tomorrows. Enduring, not immortal. Tamuro promised an extension to life. A divine gift wrapped in a task as punishment. Ru and Tence had not killed magic, only those who carried it. Magic remained in the world for anyone to pick up. They hadn’t made the world safe, they’d left it a more dangerous and darker place.
Ru strode forward to walk beside Tamuro who glided over the ground in her wind whipped gossamer gowns. She hovered in silver and gold and was lit radiant by the sun. Where Ru and Tence had left the world darker, the Enduring Mage now lit it with hope.
(C) 2020 by Kevin J. Fellows. All rights reserved.