A misting rain drenched the countryside in its white embrace. In the small central square locals huddled in doorways and under eaves to watch the mayor argue over the price of warding the village. The man’s mud stained boots and breeches were matched with a patched green coat that had seen better days. His oily black hair dripped into the unkempt beard that covered his lips and chin. The beard did nothing to distract from the sneer twisting the man’s pinched features. This was a man to make money any way he could, no matter how far outside of legal he might have to go to do so.
The mage stood to one side wrapped in a grey cloak. The villagers watched, muttering to each other. Between the bad harvest and most of the younger generation moving away from the farmland, the village could not afford the gold needed to have a Royal Mage ward the village.
Hedge Mages and those without enough power to become a Royal Mage were few and far between. The Monarchy was determined to have a monopoly on Mages and their magic. Only those with very little power were turned away to become healers or hedge mages.
“Girl.” The man snapped. Her grey eyes slid from the woods to his face and back to the ground as she walked to him. “The protections are to be on the Inn, the stables, and the town wall.” He said, eying with a sneer the low grey stone wall that barely reached chest height. “Cloak.” Snapping his fingers, he made an impatient gesture.
Without a word, the mage took off her cloak and handed it to him, revealing soft brown boots laced to her knees and faded green pants. A patched leather sheepskin lined vest hung off her narrow frame covering a grey shirt. Her sleeves were rolled up to the bicep showing thick twisting scars running along both arms. Running parallel on either side of the scar tissue was a thin blue line of runes. The Mayor took this in with wide eyes. No mage used chained runes, only single runes etched on the backs of hands or palms. What drew a gasp from the mayor was the jewelry she wore at neck, wrist, and waist, exposed as the thin muddied cloak slid from her shoulders. Most mages had maybe three stones on a necklace or belt. This girl dripped with gems. She wore a collar like necklace of silver and gold with gems of various sizes barely a finger width apart. She had the same for the cuffs on each wrist. The belt she wore was made of links of chain mail with a gem studded every few hand widths, the ends of the belt were thick brown leather. The belt was clearly too big for the girl, one end wrapped to keep it out of the way.
She simply nodded to the man and walked to the Inn that stood in the heart of the village. The Mayor hurried to catch up. The price of warding was extreme but the protection from fire alone was worth it. The wall around the town would be spelled against extreme weather and attack, blocking storms and preventing arrows or cannon balls from entering. Instead of walking the edge of the building as most warders would, the girl walked to the door. Pulling a knife from the small of her back she began carving runes on the lintel of the door and windows. Once she was done that to the entire lower level and the inside and outside of the doors, she glanced at the Mayor and gestured him over.
Pointing to the door with her knife she said “The runes will glow when someone meaning harm to the building or the occupants tries to enter.” Her voice was a soft alto with an edge of gravel, like someone who seldom spoke. Kneeling she scooped up a small stone and using the knife carved a rune deep into the stone; the stone peeling away like it was clay. She handed it to the Mayor when she was done. “Give this to the Innkeeper. It will warm and glow if something sets off the wards. I will ward the rest of the building.” She paused, eying the Mayor as he stood there shifting his weight, “Do you want the stables to have their own stone or to be connected to that one?”
The Mayor gaped at the stone he was holding, she was clearly not a hedge mage. This was not how the last mage the town had employed worked at all. Stammering he said, “A…a separate stone.” Swallowing thickly he managed, “How long with the warding last?” The girl shrugged and turned to walk along the edge of the Inn “Five years, maybe more, maybe less. Press the stone to the ward runes to check them. When they stop glowing you need to put in a new ward.” she responded over her shoulder. The mayor’s mind reeled at this. Most wards lasted barely two years, three if the weather was not bad, or there were no fires or attacks. The more a ward was used, the faster it died, to have one last five years was insanity.
The girl continued walking the parameter of the inn occasionally stopping to add a rune to the foundation. Once she was done she knelt near one corner of the building with her hands on either side. Head bowed she began to frown in concentration. The runes she had carved in the door and wall began to glow a soft steady silver, lines of liquid light began racing from rune to run connecting each other till every wall of the building glowed with an inner light, every edge lined with silver. The glow escalated till it was near blinding then slowly faded to nothing. The girl stood stretching her arms and rolling her shoulders. Thin lines of brown hair whipped across her face in the breeze making her wish for her cloak. She turned and walked to the stable, beginning the process all over again.
A small crowd had gathered to watch, many making gestures to Ruth, the goddess of healing and protection. Once the girl was done with the stable she returned and handed the Mayor a pale stone shot through with quartz. With a wry smile she said, “Don’t lose them.” Reaching into a pocket she drew out a coil of copper wire which she would use to set the warding runes into the wall. “Do you have a piece of jewelry you wear all the time or something the town watch wear that I can weave into the wards? It would let them all know if something breached the wall or even attacked.” The mayor stood dumbfounded, clearly scrabbling for an idea. One of the crowd stepped forward, “Those on the watch were all given rings so that everyone outside of the town would know them. The mayor has one also, Mistress.” he said steadfastly not looking at the foundering mayor who was clearly out of his depth. Collecting taxes from merchants and farmers and helping deal with local squabbles was one thing, dealing with strange mages and magics beyond any small hedge mage was asking more than most here would be able to handle.
The mage smiled gently at this, it was clear she was striving to be polite even as most of the general pleasantries were forgotten by the Mayor. “Thank you, I will need all of them so I can connect them to the wards.” With a nod to him and the Mayor she turned and walked to the wall, the crowd parting and falling away to let her walk alone. A stray cat paced along beside her. With a small smile she sent a spark of magic skittering along the ground like a demented firefly. The young cat happily batted and pounced at the twinkling light that spiraled, twisted, and skipped along the ground all the way to the wall. Once they reached the wall, the mage sent the light in a triple bounce back along the path into town before allowing the cat to pounce and catch it, extinguishing it as it did.
Once the wall and rings were warded, the girl returned to the man she was traveling with. With a sneer he tossed her cloak at her feet, “Took long enough.” Turning to the mayor he glared, “Now the money I was promised. Your precious village is warded.” He snapped, spitting to one side.
“We would be honored to share dinner at the inn with you. You could stay the night and head out fresh in the morning, if you wish.” The Mayor said handing the man a pouch of gold. The man spat again, taking the pouch. “Rather not. Come girl.”
He walked off without looking back. One of the villagers stepped up to the girl and handed her a wrapped bundle, “Just a few things to make your journey easier, child.” She whispered. The girl smiled her thanks and slid the bundle in a small bag. With a wave she headed after the man. ***
The two walked on through the night, coming to an inn as morning neared. Jared went straight in, spitting out another stream of betnut juice as he opened the door. She knew he would spend the next few days gambling and drinking till he ran out of money and needed her again. She shuddered as she avoided where he had spat. The betnut was a mild narcotic and was ground into powder or chewed raw by its users. They were marked by the constant need to spit out the bitter taste of the nut which worked as an emetic if swallowed and the black staining of their gums.
Glancing around the small village that set near a crossroads, the girl turned down a side road, walking along till she came to a small clearing with a pile of boulders which she climbed and sat upon. Fishing out the small bundle the villager had given her, she scattered the contents around her on the stone. Inside she found a pair of brown leather gloves that were a size too big, a slab of berries and nuts glued together with honey that had been cut into bars, a small bag of herbal leaves that could be steeped to make sha, a small pot of healing balm, three candles and a black pouch which was bound and sealed with wax. Breaking the seal, she almost dropped the three stones that rolled into her hand. There lay a smooth sphere of onyx, jade and moonstone. Each was about the size of a walnut. Where in the world had such a small village gotten these? Stones without flaw that sat in her hand waiting for magic to be pooled into them. They were blank wells waiting to be filled.
Placing everything back in the bundle she hopped down. Writing a string of runes into a clear spot of ground near the boulders, she called in the pack where she kept her handful of treasures and supplies she did not want Jared finding. The actual bolt hole where she stored her pack was in a well warded cliff face near her old childhood home. Originally it had been a hideaway in the event of an attack by raiders on the village. With her parents dead and she living with Jared, it was well hidden and unused. After a few weeks of Jared’s tender care she had crafted the two-way sending spell to protect her things. She also kept a small amount of food, water, and medicines in case she got injured or lost.
Writing the last rune she paused, her father had often spoke of magic having ways to correct wrongs. She had stopped believing in that soon after the news arrived. Tears built in her eyes as she remembered the day. She had been staying with a neighbor as her parents travelled when they had been killed. It had been the first big trip since the accident but the creditors would wait no longer. Her father was sent off on a commission and her mother went with him as a small holiday. Neither reached their destination. Attacked by robbers, they were killed on the road, her father by an arrow before he could cast a ward and her mother dying of injuries soon after. The attackers were caught trying to sell the mage belt her father had always worn. Dashing the tears from her eyes before they could fall she finished the circle and sent her pack back to its hiding place. Scuffing the marks away she headed back into town, fingers lingering on the chain belt that she wore. She needed to make sure Jared had gotten her a room as well, last time she had to sleep in the Inn’s stable.