The Gossamer Mage
Maleonarial shrugged, shaking the tiny bells knotted in his hair. Mage scribes marked their lives by them, the quiet tinkling a constant reminder of magic’s toll, collected by the Deathless Lady. A bell for each intention. The first twenty or so accumulated quickly; schooling spent half -- or more, for those prone to mistakes. The next thirty or so were reasoned, deliberate, considered. These earned what a mage judged of greater worth than time. Wealth. Security. The touch of a woman.
The moment came for every mage when that balance shifted, when the bells whispered: “life’s short enough, fool.” A hundred-bell mage could write anything and make it live -- for a fee to make even a heartland hold lord reconsider.
Having tied his three hundredth bell this season, Maleonarial counted himself fortunate to still have teeth.
He ran his tongue along their tips.
Most of them.
Enough for chewing.
To write with intent was, for those with Her Gift, an expenditure of life. A mage scribe used ink and pen, needed a surface on which to write, would study years to master stroke and technique, would above all else learn as many words of the Goddess’ unspoken language as possible since those words were the means by which magic could be summoned.
To bring life.
At life’s cost.
What matter the price? said those new to Her Gift. To the young, life was the deepest well, always full. When students gathered in hallways to gossip, it was of how their masters were timid, grown inept with age ... that this was why mage scribes worked so little magic after the first wrinkle and ache ... it couldn’t be because those masters had been young once too and squandered the time they’d had ... that they’d strutted from holding to holding to work magic, sustained by their confidence that the bells sang praise, not warning. Until too late.
The young believed their elders were indeed old.
They learned better. Come twenty years, each would find himself like a man of thirty. At thirty, more like forty-five. They would finally understand that no mage scribe escaped magic’s toll. That they too aged not as nature but as each set of words intended, paying Her price for power. Until they too became masters, to hoard days, begrudge minutes, and scorn the young.
Until they refused to write magic again.
Rain on canvas echoed Maleonarial’s bells as he bent to his task. Young once. Master once.
Fool, he hoped, no longer.
Excerpt from “The Gossamer Mage: Intended Words,” first published December 2008 in Baen’s Universe, edited by Eric Flint. To be part of The Gossamer Mage, published by DAW Books.