The Changing of Magic
Michael C. Pennington
First Published by Silver Blade Magazine
We lay hidden outside the village, with the younger children, waiting for the raid our parents said would come that night. My beloved Kay lay at my back, trembling and whispering her concealment spell. I clutched a bone-handled knife, ready to defend them with my life.
Light careful steps crept closer, a boot crushed against my forearm beneath the bull hide we lay under. I wanted to jerk my arm out from under the painful weight, jump up and run away, but fear for my charges kept me there. They huddled in a narrow pit below us, a heavy responsibility lending to my resolve to remain.
The pressure eased from my arm, and I held my breath anticipating the cover being ripped away to reveal our hiding place. Muscles tense, heart pounding, I waited. Kay pressed her face against my side and smothered a little whimper that I hoped only we could hear. I wanted to reassure my promised one, but dared not.
The hide tore aside, showering us with debris and crumbled leaves. I reacted instinctively. The shadow before me leapt back, but the loose soil gave way beneath the raider’s feet. Like a striking snake, I grabbed his fur vest with my left hand. Pulling myself up, I thrust my obsidian knife deep into the warrior’s throat.
Only a strangled gurgle and his dark blood sprayed forth. The foe couldn’t yell out a warning with the blade through the soft cartilage. I worked the edges of the blade side to side to free the knife.
Kay sprang up, lending her lighter weight to help me pull the man beneath the great hide with us. The raider kicked and clawed at the ground while we struggled to hold him quiet.
The man’s exertions weakened, slowed and finally stopped as he drowned in his own blood. His bowel’s released as his body relaxed and the stench trapped beneath the hide almost became unbearable. My stomach heaved and bile burned in my throat, but I forced the vomit down as his hot blood pooled beneath us.
Kay, stronger of will and stomach than I. Whispered to our patron goddess, she who we thought hated iron and would loan us her magic. I still held hope for our escape and prayed to the All Mother that the raiders didn’t hear or see us.
Branches snapped in the brush and feet padding through the dirt passed us by. Not as stealthy as the first scout who stepped on my arm and now lay dead beneath us. I didn’t need to peek from under the hide to know the raiders crept up to the palisade. At any moment, I expected and hoped to hear the alarm given.
Not many of the village believed in the rumored threat, although my father tried to convince them. Only Kay’s parents and a very few others would listen. There were not enough people to mount a watch on the entire circumference of the village’s palisade. The Headman claimed that the raiders rarely attacked this far inland. His henchman, the Shaman swore his magic would hide us.
“Be brave, Bry,” were my father’s last words to me as we parted earlier. I wanted to stay and fight beside him. Instead he gave me the responsibility of protecting the children, and Kay, who at seventeen summers risked a dire fate.
He warned me that the raiders wouldn’t rest until they killed or enslaved every last child of the All Mother. My father suspected the raiders secretly watched, or our families would have all fled earlier in the evening together. We would have to hide in the months to come to avoid their spies.
I lay waiting for the horror to begin, the orgy of death that would distract our attackers. Only afterward would I sneak away with my charges into the woods. I resisted the urge to give the alarm to the village, my fear for those with me keeping me still.
A scream I recognized as belonging to Kay’s mother gave the first warning. Brave of her to volunteer to help keep watch. She chose the section closest to where her three girls hid, perhaps to prolong the tie to her daughters.
Kay moved to get up and I twisted around to pull her back down into the blood soaked soil. Her fist clipped my nose as she tried to get away. Pain flared between my eyes, but I didn’t forget my purpose and I held on to her.
“Lie still,” I urgently whispered, twisting to get on top of her back to hold her down. She struggled, but gave up after a brief moment beneath my overwhelming weight. I expect she found breathing difficult as she went limp. I eased off not wanting to hurt Kay, but ready to push her face into the dirt if her infamous temper took hold of her reason.
Kay wept softly as the death cries of our village ripped at our souls. My hand dropped to her nearest shoulder and massaged trembling muscles. The sobs drifted up from the children hiding below. I needed to do something quick or risk discovery. I anticipated dying bravely while fighting, but the others would suffer a cruel existence as slaves or worse.
Lifting up, I peeked out from under the hide. I observed the village on fire, and the screams of my people rose into the night. I crawled out from our hiding place and searched the fire lit shadows of the sparse woods around us.
My father served with a band of mercenaries when he left the village not much older than I. Several times he warned the Headman about the laxness of the village’s defenses. Of the brush and young trees that grew up about the log palisade, making it easy for the raiders to sneak up on the wall. But as a lover of iron, the Headman ignored my father.
The same uneven ground that my father also complained about would now be a blessing in our escape. If we stayed low and I kept the children quiet. We could sneak away downhill.
I helped Kay up and dragged the body of the raider out of the way. She ripped at the first layer of woven branches above the wooden grate, concealing the rest of our charges in the deeper pit below. I soon joined her to dig the corners free.
In the original plan, I intended to run if discovered, in an attempt to draw the raiders away from the children, while Kay lay hidden below with the smaller children to keep them quiet. But the stubborn girl refused, stating that I would need her help. As usual I gave into her to avoid further conflict.
We urgently tore back the remaining cover. One by one, I lifted the younger three girls and two boys up out of the pit. Kay lined them up, checking their packs, and put hers on next. We brought few personal belongings, because the packs were stuffed with food and already too heavy for the children to carry easily.
I grunted from the weight, as I lifted the heaviest pack out of the shallower part of the hole. What we hauled away tonight would be necessary to our survival. We couldn’t count on anyone or anything being left after the raiders finished their pillaging.
Kay led the children down the slope and I rolled the body into the deepest part of the hole. I covered the pit, hiding any sign of our escape.
I looked back at the burning village with no hope. My father lay lifeless by now, for he wouldn’t let himself be captured alive. I could hear him voice his creed.
“I will die with my sword in hand taking the blood of my enemy.”
We made for the deeper forest, to eventually begin our long climb for the hidden valley, to a distant place that my father believed the raiders knew nothing of. A lonely herdsman’s shelter in a cave we might reach just after sunrise. We would not be able to openly return if we wanted to survive the raiders’ genocide.
We waited out the day for any survivors to join us. But no one else came. The evening sank upon us as we took refuge in the cave. Hidden behind the hide covering at the entrance, I built a small fire to warm and comfort my charges.
Kay handed out portions of food to the children, always the care giver. I couldn’t read her thoughts for she kept her face averted. Unexpectedly she turned toward me, her long black hair flying, eyes blazing.
“We have to go back!” Kay yelled in my face, already angry because I refused the same demand earlier.
“Not yet.” I firmly held my ground, blocking her way, determined to follow my father’s instructions for once. I held the responsibility for all of us now.
“Ninny,” I retorted, straining to keep a calmer voice. “You want to see the little ones killed too?”
“I’ll go alone, Bry.”
“They’ll track you back to the cave. The only reason we’re alive now is because they don’t know we escaped. Don’t be a fool Kay. We have to stay here.”
“You can’t make me.”
“Kay. If you even try to leave, I’ll tie you up,” I regretted my threat immediately. We so rarely disagreed that our difference of opinion tore at our relationship.
“You wouldn’t dare,” she lifted her chin in defiance and voiced her own ominous threat. “I’ll put a hex on you if you try to stop me.”
The children looked on with frightened awe as we fought our battle of words. Kay’s half sisters, Min and Char, of ten and eight summers, wept while the two remaining boys, and the youngest girl, sat silently watching, eyes tracking back and forth as we argued.
“We stay put, and that’s final,” I said, ready to follow through with my warning if I had to. I would rather not bind her. I needed her to help with the others. “Who’s going to take care of your little sisters? Me?”
“I…,” she stopped and looked to her siblings.
“The raiders can’t be gone yet, you’ll only get caught. And after they rape and beat you, you’ll tell them where the rest of us are.”
“I will not!”
“Don’t be so sure of yourself.” I hoped that I gave her something to think about, but to be sure I got mean. “Do you want to see a baby hurt?” I pointed at little Lisa of about three. “Do you think your sisters will be taken in and adopted into their tribe? No, they will be murdered in the very least.”
Kay started to cry in rage and frustration. She turned to the cave entrance her fists clenched and then back to meet my eyes pleading. “You go. Please.”
“Please, Bry. My mother!”
“I can’t trust you.” Did she think that I didn’t want to go look for my father?
“I’ll stay, I promise. Please go, they might still be alive.”
“They’re not.” Did she think that I had no love for the man who raised me by himself? It hadn’t been easy for him after my mother’s death during my birth. I nearly started to cry too. “We’re staying. Promise me that you won’t go back down the valley.”
“I’m going, if you won’t!” She leaned so close with her words; I had to wipe the spittle from my face.
I grabbed her by the wrist and fumbled at my belt for the braided leather that I used to bind the feet of trapped animals.
“No, please!” She cried out, trying to pull away.
“Promise,” I demanded, growing angrier by the moment, but mostly afraid for her and the others.
“I promise,” she said, her tears freely flowing.
I let her go, relieved, but still not trusting her. I contemplated warily as she went to her sisters. I motioned to the boys, Al and Dav, brothers of eleven and ten. “You two take turns watching the lower valley from the cave entrance. Stay hidden and never leave the entrance unguarded. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” the two chimed, throwing me a salute by striking their chest in imitation of a soldier.
“You have your knives?”
They both pulled and held up the iron blades my father gave them. I couldn’t believe that I rejected the same gifting. My path to forsake iron and follow the All Mother, as with the villagers, would forever haunt me.
“Tomorrow, we’ll go into the woods and make spears,” I told them, determined to make warriors of the two. I promised their father to teach them as my father taught me to fight. The boys followed me about like puppies this past summer. They at least knew how to take orders.
We would need weapons to defend ourselves and to hunt. I pulled my obsidian blade, checking the edge. I chipped the stone away myself, perhaps inferior to the iron of the boys’ knives, but still much sharper. I had my bow and fourteen black, obsidian tipped arrows. In addition, my leather thong snares hung from my belt, so we wouldn’t starve.
Going to the entrance, I lay down near the boys to sleep. I took a final look at Kay, tucking her sisters in for the night. She caught me and glared back at me in return. I slowly shook my head in disgust. Would she put a hex on me like she said?
Turning away from her and facing the entrance, I whispered to the boys. “If she even looks like she’s going to leave the cave, wake me up.”
The following morning, I finally gave into Kay. Her fears were the same as mine.
The burned out ruin still smoldered on the flattened hill. Nothing remained standing not even the log palisade. I assumed the raiders pulled the stockade down to help fuel the fires.
I snuck in close, staying low never showing myself above the brush. At the pit we lay hidden in, I checked to see if they found the dead warrior. The smell alone told me they hadn’t. I found his long iron knife trampled into the dirt and gladly stuck the weapon in my belt.
On my hands and knees through the brush, I went up the hill. Risking a sprint at the top, I crossed the clear ground to crouch near a pile of blackened stone rubble. Cautious, I spent a long time circling the village making sure they were gone.
Finally standing, I walked out into the open. Most everything the raiders couldn’t take with them lay about burned or smashed. Even the bodies had been thrown into the flames, and by the numbers, both small and large. I observed that the raiders killed the remaining children, and was thankful for those we saved.
I made my way to my father’s forge, finding the anvil. No doubt too heavy for them to hand carry back to the coast. I used a broken shepherd’s staff to clear away the debris as I went deeper into the burned ruin. The ground grew uncomfortably hot beneath my boots. Reaching the spot behind the stone forge, I probed at the dirt to locate my father’s cache.
Satisfied with the knowledge the cache remained and due to the heated ground, I decided to come back later. My father’s tools were hidden below along with a disassembled cart. The small two wheeled little wagon could carry the anvil. I noted the pile of unburned, but smoldering coal and the raw ore close by. I would have plenty of materials to work with.
Until the raid I shunned iron, because the Shaman said the metal hindered the All Mother’s magic. Still I learned to work the raw iron at my father’s side. I did love him after all. I watched and helped my father, never shirking my duty as a son, but I rarely carried or used the metal myself. Foolish of me.
I went in search of my father in the area that the gate once stood, now nothing but a burned, jagged-stubble marking the entrance. He would have died defending the gate. I couldn’t identify my father amongst the blackened husks to ask him for his forgiveness. I hoped he heard the sorrow from my heart.
In that moment, I vowed to learn a new magic, one of iron. I wanted to bleed the life from my enemies and craved revenge.
The boys and Kay’s sisters made a contest out of filling the cart with stone and hauling the load back to the cave. They had already built up a great pile that I picked from. Kay and the youngest girl, mixed the clay and lime mortar I used to set the stone under the overhang at the cave entrance. The defensive wall would help keep the heat in during the winter and protect us from the raiders if I used my head.
There were also the beasts, bears and badgers that prowled in the winter months seeking food. Wolves, too, though they never seemed to threaten anyone from the village in the past. The bears being the worst if they smelled out the food, the flimsy hide frame could never keep one out. The children would be defenseless if I went out hunting. Kay claimed she knew spells to keep them off, but I don’t think even she believed in her magic anymore.
I planned to build a smithy next, incorporated into the entrance wall. I knew where my father dug the raw ore from. Plus the location of a vein of coal near the surface, across the main valley to supplement the supply stacked outside my father’s forge. I salvaged his tools, the bellows and the knowledge to make weapons. I would be busy enough this winter.
Winter came, and after weeks of rising early and working until dusk, we were ready for the cold and the snow. The stone work was completed with plenty of time to cure. The hearth built up extending the flue into a fissure, for the smoke from the fire would be the death of us before the cold. The constant fire from the addition of the smithy’s chamber bulging out from under the overhang supplied most of the heat for the cave.
For the past full moon, I burned off the impurities from the raw ore and shaped the metal into workable lumps. I planned to start hammering out spear points. The boys took turns at the foot pedal to the bellows keeping the fire glowing hot. I left the sturdy door to the interior cave open, and listened to the girls singing a song in rhythm to the hammer. I liked their fetching tune, and soon the boys joined in. I even found myself humming along with them.
I perceived a presence come in amongst us, one of cheer and companionship, something we had no time for in the past few moons. All those happy voices, lent strength to my endurance that I never knew I possessed. Blow after blow the hammer fell as I worked the iron. I alternated between three pieces, heating two while lengthening and shaping the third.
Something strange happened, the center of the fire burned white and glowed much hotter than I ever witnessed before. At the same time, the girls were drawn to the forge to watch and sing as if caught up in a chant of power. Embers flew high from the bellows and sparks spat outwards with each drawing of the hammer.
We each discerned the presence growing amongst us, no longer alone. No fear, but perhaps awe and we bathed in our spiritual virtue. I attribute the shape of the spear points to that moment, the long leaf pattern that came into my mind. The idea of the cross guard might have been something my father taught me long ago. However, I believe the memory came from the magic that we made by our joint effort. A blessed ambiance permeated the cave.
Kay later said the All Mother lent us her power and that we regained her graces. I believed her to be right, for we could feel her presence with us every time we fired the forge. We made iron tips for our arrows and all of us had knives to protect ourselves. I made axes, tools and a small plow blade for the spring. The doors were bound with iron hinges, straps and nails instead of the scrapes of hide we first used.
Al came running from the lookout at the entrance to our valley. His legs pumping and leather bound feet pounding in his urgency. Nearing the cave he finally yelled, “They’re coming!”
We always knew the raiders might come back. The departed winter a long and harsh one, though we ourselves fared well. Raiders are raiders, and they lived off the work of others. By plundering and killing, they bled the land. Foolish of them, for even a farmer knows to save seed for the next crop.
“How many?” I asked, fear gripping my heart.
“More than I can count,” Al’s chest heaved while he caught his breath.
Cursing, I called into the cave. “Arm yourselves!” We practiced for this emergency all winter.
I glanced up at the arrow notches built about the stone entrance of the cave. The narrow slots high up from the ground, an attacker couldn’t easily thrust a spear through. I built an interior ledge for the children to stand on to compensate for their height. Each of us had a station, where we could send out our arrows to kill the enemy in relative safety. From the protruding smithy, I could send an arrow clear to the canyon entrance.
A rolling rumble and a grinding crash echoed up the valley. I couldn’t help but smile, one of our widow-maker traps had been triggered. They must have followed the cart track from the coal vein that cut across the valley. I often worried they would find the trail. Thus the traps, for every one of them we killed, would be less to deal with later.
I counted the moments waiting for the second rock fall, and was finally rewarded by the crashing rock and the screams of more men. We set up foot traps, too, with sharpened stakes to pierce a man’s boot when he stepped into one of the holes. I had hopes the traps would account for a good number of them.
“I think we stung them with that one,” Kay’s wicked side showed in her grim smile. As she and the rest lined up to meet the enemy, stringing our bows and putting on our leather arm guards. Each of us stabbed three arrows at our feet, ready for our reaching hands.
“Aye, I think we did,” looking at my small army of brave ones.
The six of us stood prepared in front of the cave entrance, braided hair and wearing buckskins, our bows ready to pull back and send a flight of arrows toward the canyon. I hoped to get at least three flights off before retreating into the cave. I glanced over their quivers and personal weapons.
My eyes tracked back toward the cave checking the ground for obstructions. Lisa stood ready to close the door, and throw the bolt to lock the sturdy beamed construction in place. Her lips pursed, she glared toward the canyon.
I lost count of fur clad warriors as they crowded out from the entrance into the valley. The raiders faced a long up hill run. One bore the totem of the same clan that killed our parents. I held nothing but hatred for them as they took our measure.
Al sucked deep from his lungs and spit on the ground in front of us. Min kicked at the dirt and drew her toe across the ground making a small line that she dared them to cross. Char loosened the thong on her dagger and held her head high. While Dav whirled his throwing axe to briefly taunt the enemy before stuffing the handle back in his belt.
Kay kissed the tip of the first arrow that she knocked. From the side of her face I could see a single tear roll from the corner of her eye. That arrow would scream her mother’s name when the shaft flew.
My heart swelled with pride, revenge flowed in our blood for the men that stood before us.
“Let fly!” I commanded.
Some carried round shields and a few raiders may have survived because of them, but others were hammered back or dropped in their tracks. We got off a second flight, before they gathered enough nerve to charge screaming their war cries as they rushed to attack.
We sent out the two remaining flights I counted on in their long run toward us. Kay’s and my bow were larger than the younger ones. We aimed for the shield bearers and our iron-tipped shafts smashed through the hide covers of the wooden shields.
“Into the cave!” I ordered my charges. Backing up to be the last in, Kay and I killed another man each, before ducking in ourselves. A great comfort wrapped about me, when Lisa slid the bolt home and Dav dropped the bar to lock the door. I dashed for the smithy to the slightly protruding corner that gave me a position to see the entire valley, both upper and lower.
We drove arrows into their flesh as they crowded close and chopped at the door with axes. Fortunately, the thick ironbound beams held against their onslaught. Silently my young charges fought, not giving away their youth with shrill voices. I hoped their courage held.
I could feel my muscles ache, worrying the younger ones would soon tire. How many we would have to kill before they withdrew? I didn’t have time to count their dead as they were dragged away or the wounded shoved aside to make room for others. Their shields raised up against us did little to stop my arrows as I drove the sharp iron-headed shafts through splintering frames.
My hammer clanged against the anvil, a high pitched ring. Glancing around, I took notice of little Lisa standing by the forge. Pumping up the bellows with one foot and wielding the hammer two handed, driving the hammer down to set the rhythm. She sang our Song of Power. A contagious song and we all joined with her as we fought. The hair rose on the back of my neck for I could sense the enchantment of the calling.
A whistling wind rushed down from the mountain through the cave vents. Fanning the hearth and raining cinders upon our attackers from the belching chimney. The enemy as if mired in mud, with haunted eyes casting about, perhaps sensed their doom. While our bodies quickened with the force of the mountain stream. Our arrow’s rendered death empowered by the All Mother’s displeasure with the raiders.
With defeat imminent, the raiders retreated. I launched one shaft after another into their backs before the remaining few escaped through the canyon. I retained no pity, but my hatred emptied from my heart with each arrow.
Many seasons have passed for us, and during that time we shaped our little valley into a prosperous holding. The boys grow stronger and their skills as fighters nearly equal mine. The girls are even more deadly with their bows and spears. I no longer worry when I go out on the hunt.
Standing with my life partner at the cave entrance we surveyed our summer’s harvest. Kay keeps looking at me with her happy smile and I at her. We share the love for our unborn child. Though, we still can’t agree on a name, or even if the baby will be a boy or a girl. I find that our small disagreements don’t matter anymore. My love for her exceeds such insignificant thoughts.