Excerpt: Gift of Magic

Excerpt: Gift of Magic

Book 6: The Nine Kingdoms

The spell slammed into him with the force of a score of fists.

Ruithneadh of Ceangail met the ground with equal force. He lay on his back, winded, and stared up into the darkness above him. He couldn’t decide if the stars he saw were ones his poor wee brain had created for his pleasure or ones twinkling in the sky for their own purposes. It was still at least an hour before dawn, so he supposed it was possible it was merely the heavens still displaying their sparkling finery.

He realized after a bit that he hadn’t noticed it had begun to sleet. Perhaps what was swirling in front of his eyes was less a vision of the heavens than it was the aftereffects of a spell he’d known was coming his way but had been unfortunately less prepared to counter than he would have liked. He would have blinked the stinging rain out of his eyes, but it was too much effort. Breathing was too much effort as well given that all that seemed to be left of him was a void in his chest where his breath was accustomed to reside.

That was his own fault, he supposed. He’d thought a little sparring with spells before breakfast might be a good way to begin his day. And why not? His opponent had been a worthy one, and he had himself been eager to take any opportunity to improve his rather meager magical strength.

But now that he had regained what good sense he’d lost somewhere on his way to the appointed field of battle, he was prepared to revisit the conclusion he’d come to years ago:

Magic and all its incarnations should be sent briskly along to hell.

’Twas a pity he hadn’t clung to that very sensible belief as firmly as he should have.

In his defense, he had tried. He had spent the previous score of winters in a house on the side of a mountain, conducting his life by purely pedestrian means. His days had been amply filled by roaming through the woods near his home, occasionally sampling the local alemaster’s delicate apple-flavored ale, and continually stretching himself to perfect his recipe for unburned bread. Any magic he might or might not have possessed had been nothing but a distant and unpleasant memory, a memory that had occasionally plagued his dreams but never his waking hours—

He pursed his lips, the only part of him that seemed to be capable of movement at the moment. Very well, so memories of magic had plagued his dreams more than occasionally and intruded more than he wanted to admit upon his daylight ruminations. He had made it his life’s quest to ignore those memories and dreams and other things that made him profoundly uncomfortable.

At least he had until his peaceful if not exactly useful existence had come to an abrupt end one evening at twilight when a knock had sounded on his door. Answering it—against his better judgement, as it happened—had resulted in finding himself cast headlong into a rushing river of a quest that had carried him places he’d never intended to go again—

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have asked me to check mercy at the edge of the field.”

Ruith winced as his breath returned, followed rapidly by the feeling in most of his limbs. He imagined he wouldn’t be overly happy to discover what was left of his back after its meeting with the rock-hard ground, but there was nothing to be done about that. It would take his mind off the road in front of him, a road he knew would include death, danger, and duels of spells with men who would no doubt continue to suddenly and without warning appear from his past. Such as the one leaning over him, frowning thoughtfully at him.

He found he had breath after all to at least wheeze out a vile suggestion as to what his opponent might do with his annoying observations.

Mochriadhemiach of Neroche only laughed, grasped Ruith by the hand, and hauled him up to his feet. He stood back and looked him over critically. “I think we should have another go.”

Ruith thought quite a few things himself, namely that he had gravely underestimated the truly evil nature of the youngest prince of Neroche. They had spent a fair amount of time together as lads, slipping away from responsible adults to whisper along passageways as chill breezes only to regroup in private to have lengthy looks at books of spells housed behind sturdy locks. He was, if he could be permitted a bit of self-congratulation, a damned fine picker of sturdy locks, much better than Neroche’s newly crowned king.

A pity he hadn’t maintained the same sort of abilities with his magic.

Which was, he supposed, why he found himself standing unsteadily in the middle of a muddy field with sleet stinging his skin where it struck him, gritting his teeth and fighting to ignore the particular draining sort of weariness the weaving of heavy spells caused, and finding it in him to be grateful for time spent with a mage he was fairly sure wouldn’t kill him as he stretched his own powers of endurance.

At least there was no one there to watch him shake not only from weariness but from revulsion over the disgusting nature of the spells Miach was no doubt dredging up for his benefit alone. He had no desire to know from whence Miach had unearthed them. If the man hadn’t looked so damned casual about spewing them out, Ruith might have felt sorry for him that the like were rattling around in his wee head.

“Perhaps you would rather return to seek out a soft seat and a hot fire?”

Ruith shot Miach a look. “I think I will manage another few moments without either, thank you just the same.”

“Truly, you don’t look well.”

“I appreciate your solicitude.”

Miach only lifted one shoulder slightly. “I’m altruistic.”

Ruith could have brought to mind several other things he would have preferred to call him, but the truth was Miach was a fairly decent soul, his vile collection of spells aside. He had been willing, after all, to abandon not only sleep but an inedible breakfast to march out into the gloom and toss a few spells about. Admirable traits, those.

He was also lazy, illustrated by the fact that he seemed content to simply stand there and yawn for a bit. Ruith was happy to take advantage of that to put off the torture for a bit longer, not only to catch his breath but also to look about himself to make certain they were still about their unpleasant labors unobserved. He noted nothing, but that didn’t surprise him. The inn was at least half a league behind them and surely no one else would tramp through heavy spring snow to reach the clearing Miach had noticed as he’d come on wing from his home in the west.

And even if anyone had known the glade was there, they wouldn’t have been able to take a closer look given that it was now covered by a glamour provided by none other than that illustrious king of Neroche. That spell, Ruith suspected, had been poached from Ruith’s grandfather. Ruith didn’t remember having been there for that bit of thievery, though he’d certainly accompanied Miach on several other forays into Sìle of Tòrr Dòrainn’s library under cover of darkness. To say Sìle had disliked Miach for those intrusions was to put it mildly.


Ruith pulled himself back to the present, then smiled briefly. “Sorry. I was just wondering when it was you filched that spell for my grandfather’s glamour and what you did to ingratiate yourself so thoroughly with him that he didn’t do damage to you for it when last you met.”

“Oh, he wasn’t at all happy to see me,” Miach allowed with a rueful smile, “but I had brought your sister to Seanagarra which earned me a bit of forbearance. I suppose nothing but good manners prevented him from killing me once he’d recovered from his surprise at seeing her.”

“Did Grandmother Brèagha prevent him from forcing you to sleep in the stables?”

Miach laughed a bit. “Aye, she did, thankfully. And as for all that unwarranted animosity toward me he’d entertained over the years, I daresay he thought I was corrupting you, though I’m not sure how that’s possible.”

“Perhaps he was soured by all the times he caught you in either his library or his private solar?”

“With you leading the way?” Miach returned politely. “No doubt. And whilst we’re discussing who corrupted whom, I seem to remember your having taught me several spells I hadn’t considered myself, most of them having to do with shapechanging so we could venture into other, more exclusive places mere mortals would have considered utterly unassailable.”

Ruith smiled faintly. “Did I? I don’t remember that.”

“They weren’t your father’s spells, if that eases you any,” Miach said. “I imagine they were things Rùnach had stumbled across in his endless search for the obscure and elegant. As for King Sìle’s tolerance of me now—” He shrugged. “’Tis nothing I’ve done, I assure you. I enjoy his favor simply because your sister was good enough to insist on it.”

Ruith only avoided wincing because he had enormous reserves of self-control. He had just recently learned that his sister lived still, which had been startling enough. Standing five paces from her betrothed was substantially more wrenching. That Miach had passed so much time with her when he had still been laboring under the belief that she was dead—

He took a deep breath, but that left him coughing miserably. It was several uncomfortable moments later before he regained control enough to wheeze out a few words. “Stubborn, is she?” he managed, because he had to say something. “My sister, I mean.”

Miach smiled. “It is a characteristic that has served her well in the past, though I haven’t managed to convince her she doesn’t need it any longer. She has very definite opinions on quite a few things.”

“Then I’m surprised she stayed at Tor Neroche, instead of coming here with you on your little jaunt to lands not your own.”

“Well,” Miach said slowly, clasping his hands behind his back, “let’s just say I wasn’t entirely accurate about my reasons for the journey.”

Ruith blinked. “You lied?”

“I hedged,” Miach corrected. “I told her I needed to make a brief visit to Léige to discuss a trade agreement Adhémar had initially negotiated with King Uachdaran. Of course I had actually considered doing just that, though I was much more interested in several things going on elsewhere, things I thought merited my attention.”

“And again, not within your borders.”

Miach smiled grimly. “I find myself suddenly feeling responsible for things I could have easily ignored in years past.”

“I doubt that,” Ruith said with a snort. “You were always poking your do-gooding nose into places it shouldn’t have gone. Obviously that gaudy crown of Neroche hasn’t changed you any, though I will say that in this instance, I’m grateful for it. I need every opportunity I can find to stretch what feeble powers I have left.”

“I won’t flatter your enormous ego by choosing another word besides feeble,” Miach said dryly, “though I’ll concede that lazing about for the past score of years in your luxurious accommodations in Shettlestoune didn’t do much past coming close to turning you to fat. I’m not sure we can remedy that in the next pair of days, but we can try.” He started to turn, then paused and looked at Ruith closely. “What did you tell your lady you were planning on doing this morning?”

“I told her the truth, but I gave her strict instructions to remain at the inn.”

“Best of luck with that.”

Ruith shook his head. “She had her reasons for not wanting to watch us this morning.”

Miach nodded. “I imagine she did. And I imagine her sight makes mine pale by comparison.”

“I suppose you two could spend the day trying to decide if that’s the case or not,” Ruith said, “though I’m not sure Sarah would oblige you. As for what she does see, aye, it is quite a bit. I locked her out of Uachdaran of Léige’s lists for that reason alone.” He suppressed a shiver. “I wish I’d locked myself out of his lists, for I’m heartily sorry I saw a fraction of what he threw at me.”

“How were his spells?”

“Very old,” Ruith said, “old and more tangled than anything my father had ever done, to be sure.”

“More powerful, would you say?” Miach asked, looking more interested than was polite. “I wouldn’t know, of course, having only scratched the surface of his collection myself.”

Ruith pursed his lips. “You can continue to bleat out that tale as often as possible in hopes that someone will eventually believe you. But as for the truth of it, I’m not sure there’s a way to qualify his spells. If you’re a weary traveler, are you more intimidated by a sheer mountain face jutting up hundreds of feet into the sky or a mighty river tumbling over man-sized boulders and fells?”

Miach’s ears perked up. “I wouldn’t presume to offer an opinion, and I don’t suppose you memorized any of those very tangled spells—”

“I suppose I did,” Ruith said shortly, “but I haven’t the stomach to teach them to you right now. The material point is that Uachdaran seemed determined to crush me under the vilest of the lot, no doubt as retribution for our having sneaked into his solar that one evening whilst our mothers and siblings were enjoying the delicate entertainments of his minstrels.”

“I never stay long enough at Léige for any invitations to the king’s lists, which I can see now has worked in my favor.” He frowned. “I had no idea he even had lists, though now I wonder why it never occurred to me. I can’t imagine they were very comfortable.”

“They weren’t,” Ruith agreed. “I was very happy to leave Sarah in his solar, enjoying the fire. Much as I’m hoping she’s doing at present.”

“Whilst you stand here in the mud, shaking with weariness and fear?”

Ruith snorted. “I’m not afraid of you.”

The look Miach gave him made him wonder if he might have spoken too soon.

“Then I’m obviously doing something wrong,” Miach said mildly. He turned and walked away. “I’ll rummage about in my memory and see if I can find things equal to keeping you awake.”

Ruith took a deep breath, then quite suddenly found he couldn’t even do that any longer. Miach’s enthusiasm for the task at hand was matched only by his boundless imagination and what Ruith soon realized had been only the start of what he could do. Where Miach had dredged up those spells…well, it was likely best not to speculate. It was all he could do to keep himself from being crushed beneath things he couldn’t see coming at him, though he could certainly feel them when they arrived.

A bit like his life, actually.

Not that his life should have been shrouded in that sort of mist. The quest that lay before him was rather simple, all things considered. He was going to find all the scattered pages of his father’s private book of spells, put them back together, then destroy the whole bloody lot of them. There were several people he could bring to mind without effort who might want a different outcome once the spells were gathered, but with any luck he would have his task completed before any of them caught up with him.

He studiously ignored the fact that he wasn’t entirely confident that would be the case.

He wrenched his thoughts away from unproductive paths and concentrated on fighting off what Miach was throwing at him. He recognized the occasional spell, but he was the first to admit Miach seemed determined to keep him off balance with things Ruith imagined had come from places his future brother-in-law likely wished he hadn’t gone. Unfortunately, he could readily envision when and for what purpose he himself might need those very things.

He began to wonder, after a bit, why it was that he recognized not so much what Miach was sending his way, but how he was arranging the battle. Of course Miach had trained with his father, no mean swordsman himself, but somehow Miach’s skills in using spells as a sword had improved to the point that Ruith wasn’t sure he could credit that to happenstance.

“You haven’t been studying swordplay with Soilléir, I’m sure,” Ruith managed when the barrage paused long enough for him to gasp out a comment, “given that he wouldn’t know which end of the sword to point away from himself if his life depended on it. Who has improved your paltry skills to such a degree?”

“You talk too much.”

Ruith would have argued the point but found speech was simply behind him for quite a while. He would have considered it mean-spirited of Miach to leave him in such a state if it hadn’t been so useful. As he’d noted before, anyone else he faced would have absolutely no reason to show him any mercy.

Time wore on in a particularly unpleasant way. Ruith suddenly noticed a streak of blue out of the corner of his eye, but supposed he was just imagining things. Considering how many spells Miach was flinging his way, seeing unusual things was perhaps nothing more than he should have expected.

He froze, then frowned. There was something about that flash that seemed…off. It was perhaps unreasonable to assume he could tell as much given the alarming nature of what was assaulting him, but he couldn’t dismiss the impression. He countered a trio of very vile spells of Olc, then quickly held up his hand.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?” Miach asked, sounding not at all out of breath, damn him anyway.

“That blue flash.”

“You’re stalling.”

Ruith would have protested, but he didn’t have the chance. He continued to fight off an alarming number of increasingly powerful spells until he realized that at some point during the past few moments, he had crossed the line from scarcely managing things to being completely overwhelmed. As unpleasant a conclusion as it was to come to, he realized that if he didn’t do something drastic very soon, he was actually going to perish.

That was a dodgy place to be given that Miach wasn’t paying attention to him any longer.

He opened his mouth to point that out only to watch Miach’s spells disappear as if they’d never been there. He looked up from where he’d fallen to his knees in the muck to find the king of Neroche trotting off the field.

“Where are you going?” Ruith gasped.

Miach paused, then swore just before he disappeared.

Ruith supposed that was answer enough, then he froze. Miach hadn’t run off the field to search for a drink, he’d gone because there was something more in the surrounding woods than wildlife. Something Ruith had feared would find them.

He cursed and crawled unsteadily back to his feet. The next time he left Sarah behind at an inn, he was going to either put a better spell on the door or spend more time pointing out the dangers of walking in woods that might potentially contain more than just the usual complement of man-eating creatures.

Because the sinking feeling he had in his belly told him that Sarah had just encountered just that sort of thing.