The four-wheeled cart trundled through the forest, rattling in and out of tracks carved into dry mud. Bronwyn held on with both hands. She was used to riding a horse, she knew the rhythm of canter and a trot and a gallop and how to sit accordingly. This hard wooden bench was uncomfortable and the shaking and rattling was completely random. She had nothing to anticipate, and so she held on.
The man next to her who had introduced himself as Morrigan seemed entirely at ease. His little horse knew his road and his pace and just kept moving forward with no regard for his passengers.
“He’s not going to fast for you is he?” said Morrigan.
“I’m just used to riding, that’s all.”
“Well, don’t let me stop you if that’s what you would prefer.”
A quick shake of her head made her blonde hair dance. “I’ll be ok. Shanks deserves a break from carrying me anyway. She’s worked hard the last few days. And thank you again for offering to take my saddle in your cart.”
“Oh it is my pleasure young lady! Tell me, do you always put others before yourself like this? If this is how you treat your horse you must be very popular among humans.”
Bronwyn gave him a wry smile. “The office I hold sometimes gets in the way of that.”
“Ah. Yes, I understand not everyone is happy with the rule of Mages.”
“I’m not sure I’ve met anyone,” she muttered.
“It’s a big world, Bronwyn. Don’t judge it all by your own limited experience.”
“It’s not that limited. I have to govern eleven villages.”
“Eleven, eh? That many? Do you know how many villages there are in Arden? How many towns?”
“No. Hundreds? Do you?”
“No. But it is a lot more than eleven, I know that much.”
“So you don’t know everything.”
“Oh not even close. But I know that there is an awful lot I don’t know, and I try not to make the mistake of thinking that the small part I do know is enough to judge the whole.”
He spoke so gently that even though he obviously chiding her he didn’t make her feel foolish. Besides, he was right.
“Does the study of history make everyone so wise?” she asked with a smile.
“Facts are not wisdom unfortunately. If they were then just knowing things would make us all a little wiser. Neither is history.”
She laughed at this claim. “Of course history is facts. What else could it be?”
“Dates are facts, events are facts, history is the narrative that gives them context.”
“You are like no history teacher I ever had.”
“They were all Mages? Or did you have some schooling before your training began?”
Bronwyn braced herself as they hit a bump in the road.
“Only a little. Most of my education was at the college in Lorin.”
“Where they taught you statecraft, law, civics, language and mathematics. And history.”
“That’s right. You know know about our training?” It was refreshing to speak to someone who understood her and knew something about Mages that wasn’t rumour and malicious gossip.
“It’s come up, in the past.”
“Do you study only history?”
Morrigan glanced over his shoulder at the misshapen blanket in the cart which protected his books.”
Bronwyn followed his gaze. “They are all books on history?”
“There is a lot of it about.”
“But how can there be so many? I mean, once someone has written down what happened it’s done, isn’t it?”
“Well yes, that person’s story is done.”
“How many stories can there be?”
“How many people are there?”
“I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“Doesn’t every person have their own story to tell?”
“Isn’t that history?”
“But history is what really happened, not everyone’s different version of the past.”
“Is that so? Tell me, when you arrive at Lorin, what will the history of this journey be?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just tell me what happened.”
“Um, I was travelling west, I stopped at the lake by the South Road and met you, then we travelled together.”
“And is that the truth?”
“Of course it’s the truth. What do you mean? That’s what happened.”
He nodded. “Maybe. Would you like to hear my story?”
He closed his eyes and waved his left hand around as if he was painting a scene.” I, a poor historian, working under the beneficent patronage of the merchant Milo of Tay, was travelling north along the South Road when I came to the Westway and stopped at the lake for water, both in and out, for these are the primal elemental forces which govern us all.” He winked at her, pleased with his joke. “There I came across a young Mage upon her travels to the capital, and I was gracious and offered her a ride in my cart.” He took the reins with both hands. “How was that?” he said with the most serious expression Bronwyn had ever seen.
She laughed. “It was lovely, especially the part about elemental forces, but I don’t see your point.”
“Was it true?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“But your story was also true.”
“But they were different stories.”
“Well, yes,” she admitted, “But only up until the time we met. Now they are the same story.”
“So which is the true story of this journey. Yours, or mine?”
“Both of them are true.”
“Ah, both of them.” He nodded again.
“When you get to Lorin, look around you. You will see thousands of stories taking place. Every one of them will be true.”
“I think I understand what you’re saying,” she said.
“Yes. Everyone has their own story to tell. Sometimes they will the same, sometimes they will be different. History is all the stories. That’s why you need so many books.”
“That’s why I need so many books,” he agreed.
“I do understand, now. Thank you.”
“So tell me, Bronwyn, when the Mages taught you history how many different stories did you hear?”
Morrigan kept his attention on the road.
“What are you saying?”
“Me? Nothing. Just making conversation. It’s always interesting to hear the lessons the young are being taught, don’t you think? Are you hungry? There’s some seed bread in the back.”
Bronwyn stared at the ground, thinking. “I’m not hungry. Thank you.”
“So, a Mage of the Flame are you?”
“What? Oh, yes I am.”
“Not known for subtlety, that one.”
“The element. Fires and candles and so on. I mean, people are always going to know when you’re working. Well, most of the time. Now the wind, there’s one you don’t see coming. Very crafty, that one.”
“Right now, this breeze, is it the wind or is it a Mage?”
“It’s the wind. There’s no other Mages around here.”
“Could be. Could be. But how can you tell? How do you know when something is natural or from a Mage.”
This was familiar ground. “You can’t unless it is something obvious like water running uphill, or the earth moving.”
“Those are not very subtle either.”
“I suppose not!”
“Did you know that in some places the earth does move by itself?”
“No. How can it do that?”
“I don’t know. But it does. I’ve read a lot of books Bronwyn! Those accounts are terrifying. The earth shakes, whole buildings fall down and the land itself is changed forever.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like that!”
“Well, some of those stories are a long way from here, I’ll admit. Still, it’s good to know Arden is so stable.”
“Could a Mage do that?”
“It would take more power than any Mage I ever heard of to do something like that. No, I think this was a natural event.”
“It doesn’t sound very natural to me!”
“Like I said, it’s a big world out there. Have you ever heard of a volcano?”
“It’s like a mountain that spews fire.”
“That’s nonsense. Mountains are earth, fire is fire.”
“Not according to these stories. These mountains spill out rock so hot they have melted. Can you believe that?
“You can’t melt a rock, Morrigan.
“The elements are fixed. One cannot become another. Every one has its opposite, fire and water, air and earth. You must know this.”
“Eh, you might be right.”
“I know what I was taught.”
“Of course you do. My mistake.”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“Of course! I was only making conversation. Anything you like. Please!”
“You have a patron?”
“Milo of Tay, that’s right.”
“He is interested in history?”
“Oh, he is interested in all sorts of things. He patronises me for my learning. He also spends his money on the arts and the sciences too.”
This was a world Bronwyn hadn’t been part of for three years. “Really? I used to love looking at the portraits of the kings before they were taken down. What art does he like?”
“Sculptures, for the most part. He is fascinated by birds. His house is full of them, some as small as my finger and some as big as my horse. He has them carved in stone, wood, marble, jade and so on.”
“It’s a soft green stone from the north. One of the benefits of being a merchant is that he finds things from all over the world. It’s very beautiful. He has the wings carved so thin you can see the light through the stone.”
“It sounds beautiful,” she agreed. “What else does he patronise?”
“Anything you can think of. Once a year he opens his house to hear proposals from suitors seeking a patron. He chooses those he likes best.”
“Does he need a personal mage?”
“He probably has a servant to light his fires already.”
“Very funny. Is that how he met you?”
“No. I approached him. I wanted to study the ruins at Rowan’s Keep. I promised him the first copies of my findings for his library.”
“Rowan’s Keep? I don’t know that. Wait, do you mean Rowan’s Folly?”
“Is that what they are calling it now?”
“Why do you want to study his ruins? He went mad.”
“So history tells us.”
“It was only, what? Twenty years ago the keep was destroyed?”
“Twenty-two years, to be exact. The same year the last king was crowned.”
“Why are you studying his ruins?
“To learn more about what he did and what happened. That sort of thing. To see if there was ny method to his madness, if you like.”
“I heard he went mad by trying to master more than one element.”
“Did you learn that from the Mages?”
“No, actually. My parents told me about him when I was younger.”
“Well, he did have a lot of ideas we think are strange. Like your elemental gifts being related to your bloodline.”
“That’s not such a strange idea. Mages marry other Mages all the time, and they have the most gifted children.”
“Did you say your parents were Mages?”
“Yes, both of the Flame.”
“Both of them?”
“And their parents too, all of the Flame.”
“All of them? That’s unusual.”
“Not in our part of Arden. Mages of the Flame are uncommon there, and they intermarried because the other elements didn’t want to marry them and risk having children gifted with the element of fire.”
“Do you have any siblings, Bronwyn?”
“So in you is all the gifts of three generations of the Flame? That’s very interesting, for the historical and genealogically inclined anyway.”
Bronwyn chucked at that. “You have a way of making things sound far more impressive than they are. I’m just a Mage, and not a special one.”
“Oh but you are, Bronwyn!”
“Every other Mage I’ve met has done nothing but remind me how special they are!”
“Well, what were their gifts?”
“They never mentioned their gifts. The thought that the fact they were a Mage was enough.”
She grinned at this descrition. “I think I have known some like that myself. Do you know many Mages?”
“A few, in my time.”
“And they were all like that?”
“Well no, not all, not at first, but each year I meet more and more who think they are the most important people in Arden.”
“Well they have an important job to do.”
“Of service to the land.”
“Of governing the land.”
“Mages should be the stewards, not rulers.”
“At least they are not kings.”
“Are they not? And what is so bad about a king?”
“They have no right to rule?
“No right? Apart from the right of kingship, you mean?”
“No, I mean a king is just someone born lucky. They are born into wealth and power and somehow that makes them a fit ruler? It doesn’t make sense. It’s not a fair way to govern a country. An accident of birth should not grant someone that much power.”
“So the Mages took the power from him?”
Bronwyn nodded vigorously. “Of course. He was leading the country astray. The Mages had to act to save the land from his rule.”
“Why was it up to the Mages?”
“Because someone had to act. The Mages study for years to learn about politics and law. We were better qualified.”
“So did the Mages have more right, or just more power?”
“Why are you trying so hard to annoy me?”
“Am I annoying you? I’m sorry. It’s the challenge of my profession. Every claim I see has to be questioned. It’s the only way to find out the truth. History, they say, is written by the winners.”
“Who says that?”
He shrugged. “Well, historians mostly.”
They travelled without speaking for a few moments. The only sounds around them were the creaking of the cart, the soft jingle of a harness and the irrythmic drumming of hooves on the road.
“What happens to the losers stories?” said Bronwyn.
“Sometimes they never get told. Sometimes we have to look hard to find them. Sometimes you just have to listen.”
“Listen to who?”
“Everyone. History is not the story of something that happened, Bronwyn. It’s the story we write every day.”
“But only the important parts get written down?”
“The significant parts are what get written down. That’s not the same as important.”
“It’s getting dark,” he commented by way of an answer. “Fortunately we are only not far from the Keep. You might be more comfortable there. Would it be presumptuous of me to think that a Mage who spends so much time on the road might enjoy a warmer bed tonight? We have tents.”
“You’re welcome to have one of your own as a touch of my respect to your calling.”
“You respect Mages? I wasn’t sure.”
“Of course. Many of them work very hard for the people they serve.”
“Some work very hard for themselves.”
“And which do you think I am?”
“Ah, here we are,” said Morrigan, and turned his horse and cart off the main road and down a track, long since overgrown. “This was not the main road to the keep when it stood but it was a well-used path in its day. See how the trees on either side would have lined the way?” He spread one hand across the scene before them, wiping away years of growth in his mind’s eye. “The ground beneath us is paved too, but we are more concerned with the keep itself. We only use the main road in and out for supplies.”
Bronwyn could see it too. If the smaller trees and bushes were cleared away, and the trees on either side cut back she could see how this would have been a broad path from the Westway.
She heard the noise of axes and laughter and raucous shouts from the road ahead, and could smell the campfires.
“How many men do you have working for you?”
“Six. If all has gone to plan while I have been away they have spent the last two days digging.”
“You’ve only been digging for two days? It sounded like you had been here for a lot longer than that.”
“Oh, we have, but so much of our time has been spent clearing the site, cutting down trees and so on, that we have only just begun to dig.”
The clearing was coming into view. A wood pile the size of several trees was stacked in a neat pyramid on one side of the camp and nearby burned a bonfire of leaves and branches and smaller offcuts. Smoke rose from the pile in billowy white clouds. On the far side of the camp was a smaller cookfire, surrounded by flat stones, pots and kettles. From this a thin line of smoke drifted skyward.
Between the two fires was the remains of the keep. A broken tower of dark stone covered in moss and greenery about twenty feet tall stood in the centre. A crumbling wall ten feet high came from one side of the tower. On the other side the wall was mostly intact but an arch in the middle had collapsed. That was as far as Bronwyn could see.
“Why does it look so old? I thought Rowan only lived recently?”
“This is what happens a ruin in the middle of the forest and don’t come back for twenty years. The forest grows quickly when you’re not looking.”
Dinner was ready so after the horses were quickly taken care of, Bronwyn and Morrigan sat down to eat with the men working on the site. All of them were twice her size, perfect the tough labour ahead of them. They exchanged names and seemed pleasant enough, but Bronwyn was alert enough to notice the curious glances they gave each other and Morrigan when he introduced her, emphatically, as a Mage. Obviously they were not expecting her, but they seemed surprised that she was joining them for dinner, and that Morrigan was welcoming her.
One of the men nudged his neighbour and called to her. “Hey, Morrigan here says you’re a Mage of the Flame?”
“That’s right,” she said, and braced herself for some petty insult.
“It’s going to be cold in camp tonight, you think you can help warm my tent?” He snickered at his own comment while his friend doubled up laughing into his plate.
“Oh, of course I can!” She set down her plate and flexed her fingers. “How hot would you like it?”
He leered at her. “How hot can you get?”
Bronwyn rolled her eyes. Morrigan obviously didn’t employ these men for their brains. They really should have seen this coming. She waved a hand over the fire toward them and it flared hot and yellow. Flames leaped into the sky and fanned out before curling over them like a slowly breaking wave.
“That’s…That’s not too hot is it?” She asked with false sweetness.
The men leaned back. The instigator shook his head in fear. His friend elbowed him in the ribs. “Nod, idiot!”
Bronwyn planted her hands on her knees and stood between them and the fire as the wall of flame collapsed. “And one other thing,” she added. Both men shrank back as her shadow danced over them. “Learn to love the cold.”
Morrigan watched the scene play out without comment, but once the men had scrambled to their feet and left for their tents, alone, Bronwyn had a comment of her own.
“You should not have let that happen,” she insisted.
“I know. I am aware of my duties as a host.”
“Then why did I have to speak on my own behalf?”
Morrigan placed his bowl and spoon on the log next to him. “I was curious to see what you would do.”
“Because you could have demanded far worse from them than humiliation. Your rights as a Mage and my duties as a host could demand compensation from them to you.”
“But that wasn’t necessary.”
“The law allows it.”
Bronwyn folded her arms and considered her host. “I don’t understand you, Morrigan. I feel like you’re always testing me or poking me to see what will happen. I don’t like it. I want it to stop.”
He held up his hands in a gesture of apology. “Of course! If that’s how you feel I shall try to be more considerate of your feelings.”
“Hmm. Very well, then. Goodnight, Morrigan.”
After Bronwyn left Morrigan picked up his bowl and finished his meal, watching her tent all the while.