- Winner of the 2020 Aurora Award for
Only in Tananen do people worship a single deity: the Deathless Goddess. Only in this small, forbidden realm are there those haunted by words of no language known to woman or man. The words are Her Gift, and they summon magic.
Mage scribes learn to write Her words as intentions: spells to make beasts or plants, designed to any purpose. If an intention is flawed, what the mage creates is a gossamer: a magical creature as wild and free as it is costly for the mage.
For Her Gift comes at a steep price. Each successful intention ages a mage until they dare no more. But her magic demands to be used; the Deathless Goddess will take her fee, and mages will die.
To end this terrible toll, the greatest mage in Tananen vows to find and destroy Her. He has yet to learn She is all that protects Tananen from what waits outside. And all that keeps magic alive.
“The Gossamer Mage is like eating chocolate—smooth, addictive, and fabulous. And deliciously dark.”Kristen Britain, New York Times bestselling author of the Green Rider series
Excerpt from The Gossamer Mage
The world was not always thus.
Keepers of histories agree on this, if little else. Those from the southern continents insist the world began as a frozen hen’s egg, its yolk the ground beneath, its pristine white the ice, and its shell a sky of endless darkness and stars. When the shell cracked, in poured sunlight and warmth, melting the ice. Finally, the world was ready for people to live upon it, and so they did.
Historians and lore masters of the northern continent, experienced with ice, teach the world started in fire and it was only as it cooled that life of any sort could exist, be it hen or person.
Theologians both north and south avoid the topic, the present and future wellbeing of the souls in their care having the greater weight, the past being unalterable.
We were not the first here.
This is the truth no one—no person—dares imagine. That there were voices before ours. Hands. Hearts and love. Rage and a hunger so terrible it consumed the surface of the world, heaving mountains skyward, tossing continents, boiling oceans. Until nowhere was left unscarred.
Save one place.
This is a truth impossible to rediscover. Only in the names of places, only in that one place on all the world, could you glimpse it. For ages flew by and everywhere, even there, came new voices, new hearts and hands, to claim the land and write their truths upon it.
Magic, once, was everywhere.
Now magic is not, being confined to that one untouched place. Those of north and south might be curious. Might long for magic of their own. Might wish, in the fragile moment between twilight and the rise of the moon, to see a gossamer come to life before their eyes and transform the ordinary into wonder.
But there is only one place left in the world where you could. Where the words of those who came before linger. Where mage scribes write them down, to summon magic from the land itself.
The body was beechwood, smooth and bronzed with age, of perfect balance. Silver girdled it, worn plain and tarnished, quickly warm to Maleonarial’s fingertips. The pen had been an extravagant gift, from a father with neither coin to spare nor generous nature until a son proved of marketable talent. He remembered how the silver had glittered in his hand, that long ago day, like some cheap gaud on a whore. He’d done his utmost not to use the thing in front of classmates or masters. Such a garish object demeaned the lofty position of mage scribe-to-be.
Had he ever been so young?
The new nib was old. Bone, weathered wood-bronze, carved silver-smooth. Simple, like the now-plain band, but with remembered complexity and purpose. He’d found the piece on his wanderings, tucked among reeds by a busy, impervious stream. A deer once.
Or a man.
A good choice. Now for the next.
Three small inkpots remained. Each was stoppered with thick yellow wax, a tiny russet curl imbedded as surety. Baby curls. Inkmaster Jowen Hammerson had courage to mock his aging guest. And a remarkable abundance of russet-haired great-grandchildren.
The contents of one inkpot, sold at Alden’s Hold where mage scribes clung like leeches to their famous school, would feed those children for a year. Maleonarial had left Tankerton with five wrapped in linen and bound against his waist, bought with the only coin he possessed: words.
Not any words. Names. He’d written the names of the Hammerson family in his clearest script; no more official rendering could have been asked by any hold lord or The Deathless Goddess Herself. It had taken the best of a night, but he begrudged not a moment. As each callused hand received its precious strip of parchment, as eyes wondered at the letters that bloomed in ebon permanence under the warmth of living breath, toil-bent backs had straightened. The raucous babble of dogs, children, and clanging spoons had fallen to a solemn hush. The parchments would be treasured and kept close; more importantly, the letters’ shape would be practiced with care. None of them would again use a rude thumbprint to sign a document of importance, or be forced to wait on the uncertain–and expensive–arrival of a scribe. To write their own names was to gain respect and fair treatment from merchants and lawgivers alike.
The inkmaster counted himself well-paid. His kin whispered of marvels. But it hadn’t been magic, other than that of skill.
Magic must be intended.
The night’s breeze snapped and billowed the canvas overhead, a token against the pending rain. He slept in the open by preference. The fresh air and privacy of wilder places were a boon to his spirit; a shame they couldn’t feed or clothe him. Not that he needed more than a stew or porridge under his ribs. Maleonarial plucked his threadbare, much-mended cloak. It would do another season.
His fellow mage scribes, having discovered his lifestyle–an unfortunate coincidence of storm and crowded inn, followed by a collision in a narrow hallway with a round bulk of rich velvet and gilt that had exploded in ire until he’d lifted his face to the torchlight and the other had stammered something aghast and apologetic–his fellows had sent along a beautifully penned and rolled parchment, levying a fine for inappropriate attire, unbecoming his high station.
Kind of them to overlook the dirty hair and sweat as well, not to mention bad breath.
Folded, the parchment made a fine lining for his right boot. They’d be aghast if they knew. Not that he’d apologize. As if he’d scrape it clean to reuse even if those were only words, however mean spirited.
Magic required purity.
Though soaked then left in heated sand to harden, the bone nib remained brittle and unforgiving. His gentlest touch would coax a smattering of words at best from it. Words and how many months from his life?
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 Goddess. 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.