Some Strange Magic
Conrad slowed his pace, not because he lacked energy, but because the hard calluses on his feet had cracked and started to bleed. It had been a long, dry road from Rose Abbey, part of an even longer road that had begun in the slums of Sandaar. Conrad’s battered feet had trod the length of this continent from the fiery south to the frozen north, but his soul had yet to find its destination. Omi had told him his journey would end when he found the place where his heart waited for him. He hoped Omi had not died at the hands of the sultan.
Conrad’s stomach growled, distracting him from the wistful sadness that always threatened to overcome him when he thought about Omi, but he knew she would be proud of him, proud of his accomplishments, proud that he had kept his promise to leave the slums and never return.
The tips of his fingers throbbed. Perhaps he should not have declined the offer of food and drink at the Woodcutter house. Omi had advised him to rest where he was welcomed. The breeze picked up and Conrad stopped altogether, closing his eyes and spreading his arms wide so that the gusts might better cool his sweat-damp body. He took a deep breath. There was water on the wind.
The sky had been clear this day, with not so much as a cloud in warning. They were there now, rolling quick and fat and angry up from the west. The gray of rain blurred the horizon and erased the sun. Conrad had never seen clouds behave like this. Had he been in Sandaar, this would have meant a sandstorm. Here, in Arilland, the circumstances were all wrong. The colors were all wrong. The water was all wrong. He needed to find shelter.
He turned back to the road and froze mid-stride; a long-eared owl stood before him. The bird stared at him with unblinking yellow eyes. Omi had warned him against being superstitious, but Conrad had seen too many strange things on his travels to take chances. He backed away into the wooded area off the road. The owl’s head turned slowly, those flat, yellow eyes never leaving Conrad. The wind kicked up again, lashing Conrad’s now-damp hair into his face, but still the owl did not take wing. Conrad bowed low to the owl and eased farther into the brush.
Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled soon after it—booming, unending thunder that trembled the earth to such a degree that Conrad could feel it through the soles of his shoes. The second tremor knocked him off-balance. The third ripped away the forest on the opposite side of the road completely.
The last things Conrad remembered before losing both his footing and his consciousness were giant waves washing away the trees before him and those solemn eyes of the long-eared owl.
He awoke soaking wet and face-down in the mud. His head throbbed; when he placed his palm to the tender spot behind his right ear, it came away bloody. Conrad spat bark and soil out of his mouth as he slowly rolled over and sat up, leaning back against the trunk of a tree that had no doubt been his unwitting bludgeoner. He blinked once to clear his head, and then again, only to realize that it was not his vision that had erased the sparse woods before him. The landscape had erased itself. Across the empty road now lapped the ceaseless waves of an ocean, ebbing and flowing in the twilight as regularly as the tide from a distant shore. Some strange magic had not removed Conrad to this coastline—it had moved the coastline here, to Arilland.
Carefully he rose to his feet and shuffled to the water’s edge. This water, he knew, would not slake his thirst, but it would tend to his wounds until they could be properly addressed. He threw his tattered shoes farther up on the muddy beach and waded into the surf. It was not as cold as it might have been for the climate; Conrad suspected the ocean was still energized from its journey east. If there was any latent magic still crashing with the flotsam in the waves, he hoped that it was good, natural magic. Either way, he would risk it rather than remain caked in mud from bleeding head to bleeding toes.
Once satisfied of his cleanliness and reinvigorated by the salty bath, he retrieved his shoes and walked barefoot along the new coastline as it skirted the main road to the castle. Night fell, the moon rose, and odd sounds erupted from both sides of the road, the moaning and wailing of confused sea creatures and shorebirds against the crickets and locusts of the Wood.
Conrad strained to hear the hoot of an owl, but none came. He concentrated so hard that he did not see the long lump of rags on the beach before him until he tripped over it and fell sprawling into the mud.
The bundle groaned.
Lifting himself onto his hands and knees, he turned back to the bundle and sifted through yards of soaked material until he unearthed a face. Long dark hair was plastered to the face; he brushed it aside with a muddy palm. It was a young woman, he surmised, from what little he could discern in the moonlight. There was no mistaking the curve of her cheek or the softness about her mouth. She might have been of marrying age but there was no jewelry marking her person; at the moment she was simply a very pale, mostly dead girl. And she was now his responsibility. Conrad took a deep breath and let it out slowly and loudly. As if he didn’t have enough to do.
He took off his shirt, went deeper into the surf, and collected some water so that he might discover the extent of her wounds before moving her body. It took a few trips to wash the mud from her completely. Like him, she had a rather large bump on the back of her head and a few angry scratches, nothing more. But she did not regain consciousness during his ministrations, and this worried him.
Conrad did not feel comfortable leaving her here alone, but the castle was still a distant shadow on the horizon. He could not carry her—she was almost twice again his scrawny size. He caught the heavy material of her overskirt in his hands. It seemed thick enough—though a good portion of its weight was due to water—and if the waist was a drawstring . . . it was. Conrad fumbled at the knot with shaking cold fingers until he had it undone. He peeled the overskirt away from her petticoat—she was lucky not to have drowned under the weight of so much clothing!—and then pulled the drawstring tight, closing the waist-hole completely. He laid the great circle of fabric out as best he could, and then rolled the girl up into it. With apologies to the girl, he began dragging her down the muddy shore.
Conrad had carried strange parcels and ridden stranger animals, but he had never dragged a body any significant distance. His arms quickly began to tire. Still he pulled and pulled the girl, in shorter and shorter bursts, until his skinny arms shook and his numb fingers could hold the skirt-sack closed no more. Defeated, he fell to his knees beside his charge. The looming shadow of the castle seemed no closer than it had before.
He moved the material away from her face, allowing the unconscious girl to breathe what little air she could. Her pale skin shone out from her dark cocoon. Conrad wondered if he had caught a fallen angel.
Divine or not, he couldn’t leave her. There would be no warm bed and hot supper for him this night. He only hoped he’d be able to rest in this mud and regain what litt...