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Battle Magic

Tamora Pierce







































  Two boy-men sat on the river’s eastern bank, where an open-fronted tent gave them shelter from the chilly spring wind. It whistled down the canyon, making the banners around them snap.

  Briar Moss was the older of the two, sixteen and a fully accredited mage of the Living Circle school in Emelan. He was the foreigner, his skin a light shade of bronze, his nose long and thin, his eyes a startling gray-green in this land of brown-eyed easterners. He wore a green silk quilted tunic patterned with light green willow leaves, gold-brown quilted breeches, and the calf-high soft boots that were popular in the mountains. He sat cross-legged on cushions with a traveling desk on his lap, but his eyes were fixed just now on the events across the river.

  There five shamans from the Skipping Mountain Goat Tribe stood before a sheer rock face on the cliff opposite Briar and his companion. Crouched near to the shamans were two horn players, a drummer, and three players of singing bowls. The musicians sounded their instruments. Briar would not call what they produced “music.” The shamans — three men and two women in dark brown homespun robes — shuffled, turned, and hopped, ringing the small cymbals that were fixed to their hands. As they did, Briar started to feel a quiver under his rump. The longer the shamans danced, the more pronounced the quiver grew.

  “What are they doing?” he asked the boy who sat nearby. “Aren’t you worried?”

  The God-King looked up from his own desk. The ruler of Gyongxe was an eleven-year-old boy with the ruddy bronze skin, long brown eyes, and short, wide nose of his people. He was dressed even more simply than the shamans in an undyed, black-bordered long-sleeved tunic, undyed quilted breeches, and black boots. Like most Gyongxin boys and girls, he wore his shiny black hair cut very short, with one exception. From the moment he had been chosen as God-King, he had grown the hair at the crown of his head long. He wore it in a braid, strung with rings of precious metals or semiprecious stones, each a symbol of the eleven gods he served. He also wore eleven earrings, six in one ear, and five in the other, made of the same materials.

  “Why should I be worried? I told you what they’re doing,” the God-King reminded Briar. “They’re calling a statue for their temple out of the cliff. It does involve a little bit of shaking.”

  Briar looked at the ink in the dish by his side. It quivered, too. “What if the cliff falls on us?” he demanded. “How do you know they’re doing it right?”

  The God-King chuckled. “They always do it right. That’s why there’s more than one dancer, so if one gets a step wrong, the others correct for it. People have been getting statues from Gyongxe’s stone for generations, Briar. They haven’t pulled the cliffs down yet.” He nodded to a waiting messenger and held up a hand for that young woman’s scroll.

  Briar scowled at the river, then at the dancing shamans. “This kind of religion is too odd for me,” he muttered to himself.

  He looked at the group of people near the shamans, trying to spot his student, Evvy. There she was with some of the local stone mages and the warriors who had escorted the shamans. Evvy was standing far too close to the cliff for Briar’s liking. Suddenly he grinned. First Dedicate Dokyi, head of Gyongxe’s Living Circle temple and a stone mage himself, wound a big fist in Evvy’s tunic and gently towed her back from the cliff. Ever since Briar and his companions had arrived in Garmashing between blizzards four months ago, the busy First Dedicate had made time in his day to instruct Evvy. That morning he had told Briar that he, too, wanted to see how the shamans worked — it was very different from the way the scholar-mages did their magic — and so it would be his pleasure also to keep an eye on Evvy.

  Briar was grateful. Evvy had frustrated the few other Earth dedicates they had met who specialized in stone magic. Like Dokyi, they worked their magic with charts, books, and spoken words, letting the magic they were born with pass through stones that responded. Evvy, like Briar and Briar’s mentor Dedicate Rosethorn, drew her magic directly from the outside world. Stones gave Evvy her power, just as plants gave their magic to Briar and Rosethorn. Dokyi at least had spent years with the shamans and in other lands. He could adjust to a mage who worked in a different way. He could show Evvy the books, charms, and spells of stone magic that could strengthen what she did. He could also sense when she tried to experiment on her own and stop her before things got out of hand. His special stones helped him with that.

  “Should I make Evvy come here?” Briar asked the God-King, who was reading his message scroll.

  “Hmm?” The younger boy looked up and grinned. “Let her stay. Dokyi can handle her. Ah, they make progress.”

  If “progress” meant “more noise,” Briar agreed. Small rocks and sand fell down the cliff face, though nothing appeared to land on the shamans, musicians, or other mages who waited there. Briar suspected that Evvy was sending the stones away from the people, particularly when he saw one large rock arc away from the cliff to drop in the river.

  Needing something to occupy his hands, Briar picked up one of a number of stones that Evvy had left with him before she had crossed the river with Dokyi. She was always collecting bits of rock and handing them to him or Rosethorn while she gathered more. Before they moved on there would be a painful session at which she would have to choose the pieces she could not do without and those she would have to abandon.

  After nearly two years in Evvy’s company, Briar knew limestone when he held it. The surprise lay in the image embedded deep in its surface: a curved section of leaf much like a fern. Interestingly, it was unlike any fern that Briar knew — and after five years of Rosethorn’s teaching, he knew many. He stared at the cliff across the river, not really noticing the twenty-foot-tall rectangular crack that was writing itself into the rock face.

  As he would if the fossil were a living plant, Briar reached for it with his magic, only to find nothing. The limestone held an image, but no remainder of the plant that had left it. Briar glared at it and reached for another piece of stone. It was unmarked, but the third rock he examined gripped a fossil much like a sardine.

  “This is a sea fish,” Briar muttered. Life near the docks from early childhood had taught him the look of salt- and freshwater fish, flesh and bone.

  “Eons ago all the Gyongxin flatland was a sea,” murmured the God-King. Slowly he straightened. His pen fell from his hand. “Then the Drimbakang mountain gods were born. They shoved their molten bodies up against the shore and dragged the Realms of the Sun with them.” He said it as if chanting an ancient tale, half awake, half sleeping.

iar tried not to shiver. It felt as if every hair on his body were standing.

  The God-King continued in that unearthly voice. “Higher they drove the shores and the sea. Greater they grew, the youngest gods, clawing at the sky, rising toward the Sun and the Moon and the Stars. When they could grow no more, when they stood taller than any other mountain gods, the sea drained away between them, seeking its ocean mother. The immense shoreline forests of palm, cactus, and fern withered. Only firs, spruces, larches, junipers, and hemlocks thrive here, and rarely on the open plateau. Here the gods see everything. Gyongxe has nowhere to hide from the gods of this world.” He slumped. Briar was almost afraid to breathe until the younger boy blinked and straightened. Rubbing the back of his neck he looked at Briar sheepishly. “Did I go off? They never give me any warning, you know. I’ve told them and told them that it frightens people when they grab me, but gods and spirits don’t really understand fear.”

  “Do they do that to you often?” Briar whispered, goose bumps rippling all across his skin.

  “Often enough. The land is crowded with them, what with one thing and another, and I can never tell when one of them will work through me.”

  A large crash split the air. The God-King jumped to his feet with a whoop. “There we go!” he cried as if he had just won a wager.

  Briar remembered what had brought them to this cold ledge on a chilly morning. Setting aside the boy’s tale to ponder later, he looked across the river.

  Rock tumbled from a rectangular hole at least twenty feet high in the cliff’s face, cascading around a solid shape at its center. The shamans continued to dance and the musicians to play as they backed toward the place where Evvy and the other observers stood. Briar whistled in silent admiration: He knew he couldn’t dance and walk backward, yet the shamans and their musical helpers never faltered. Only Evvy moved, walking forward around the line of shamans. Dokyi lunged to grab her again and missed. Evvy took a place on the riverbank, in front of whatever was going on in the cliff, and held out her hands.

  Briar fought to stand, spilling the tray of ink. He ignored it, but he could not ignore it when the God-King grabbed one of his arms.

  “Stop,” the younger boy ordered in a voice that froze Briar where he stood. “She will be fine. Watch.”

  He released Briar, who instantly found he could move again. Rather than continue to try to reach his student, Briar waited.

  He wasn’t quite sure if Evvy made any noise. The racket caused by the grinding, collapsing wall of rocks drowned out any other sound except, of course, for the God-King’s voice. Briar wondered if Evvy might not be chanting a spell, though. He knew she was working her magic, because the tumbling rock split on either side of the opening it made, like curtains before a window. That was pure Evvy. Neat piles of broken stone grew from the falling rock on either side of the rectangular gap in the cliff. At its heart stood a pair of embracing, human-like, stone skeletons. As the heaped boulders and chips in front of them shifted to either side, the twenty-foot-tall skeletons walked out of the cliff.

  Evvy wavered. She was trying to do too much at once. Worried, Briar stepped up to the edge where the tent was pitched, then halted again. Dokyi had reached the girl. He stood next to Evvy, writing signs on the air as he worked spells of his own. She straightened, able to control the falling stone again with Dokyi’s help.

  The skeletons, which had paused when she seemed about to fall over, resumed their walk away from the cliff. One of the two skulls looked curiously at Evvy and Dokyi while the other scanned the riverside behind them, the gap in the cliff, and then the shamans and their musicians. An arm from that skeleton reached around to tap the skull that had cocked its head as it stared at Evvy. When that skull turned to glare at the other, the tapping hand pointed to the shamans. Both skeletons lumbered toward the dancers.

  Briar looked at the God-King. “What are they for, the statues? I don’t think you said.”

  The God-King squinted at the dancing skeletons. “Such things are a promise from this realm to those who build their temples here. They are our blessing on the temples, and a sign of our protection. They tell invaders that the temple is guarded by the gods of Gyongxe as well as the gods of the temple where the statues stand.”

  Seemingly unafraid and without missing a step, the dancers and musicians continued to back up, dancing or playing as they went. The warriors mounted horses to form a half circle around them. Other members of their group that handled the wagon they had brought helped the musicians into it. As smoothly as if they often traveled this way, the warriors and wagon set off in the lead, their half circle ending with the dancers just inside. The two skeletons, arms around each other’s stone spine waist, came last of all.

  Dokyi turned to Evvy and bent until they were face-to-face. He grabbed her by the ears and pressed his forehead to hers. Briar wasn’t sure if he was trying to scold Evvy or just knock two rock heads together. Thinking that he ought to intervene before Evvy said or did something rude, he turned to excuse himself to the God-King. The boy was scowling at the message he had just received.

  “You don’t look very happy,” Briar said.

  “I have not heard from the king of Inxia.” That was the realm to the northeast, a country that stood between Gyongxe and the Yanjing empire. “I often do by now. Our mages who deal in conversations at a distance have not heard from his mages in several months. No horse messengers have come through the Green Pass, either.”

  “It is only the third month of the year,” Briar reminded him. “It’s probably frozen solid.”

  The God-King gave him an absentminded smile. “The Green Pass is in hill country, beyond the mountains of the Drimbakang Sharlog. Usually it is open by this time, though the weather has been very harsh in the hills this year.” He stopped speaking as he stared off into the distance.

  Briar waited longer than he would have waited for anyone else to resume talking. When he was sure the God-King had simply forgotten what he’d begun to explain, Briar asked, “So what has this Inxia fellow to do with how well you’ll sleep tonight?” He could tell the God-King was worried.

  “All three kingdoms north of Yanjing have been fighting the empire for the last five years,” the God-King explained. “Since Inxia is our closest neighbor, we have sent mages and soldiers to their assistance for four of those years. We should have heard what they will need for this year’s fighting by now.”

  Briar nodded. Now he understood. “Because if Inxia falls, Gyongxe is next.”

  “I would like to think not,” the younger boy replied, but he did not sound convinced. “We have very little to interest the Emperor Weishu. Except the gods and spirits, who are closer here than anywhere else in the world, and you can’t pay soldiers with those. There are the temple treasures, but surely Weishu’s mages do not believe they can take the curses from temple goods. We do spread word that there are curses on anything stolen from the temples of Gyongxe, and we cannot remove them.” The God-King sighed. “I would feel better if I knew the Yanjingyi armies were denting their teeth on my neighbors again this year.”

  A surge of pity raced through Briar’s heart at the expression on the God-King’s face. That’s not the look any boy his age ought to wear, thought Briar. I’d even feel sorry for a man of twice my years in his shoes.

  It was at moments like these that Briar understood why the gods of Gyongxe had told their priests to choose this boy to rule over the many different tribes, villages, cities, faiths, and temples of Gyongxe. There was something great inside the God-King; something larger than Briar was. He wouldn’t have spent a day in the God-King’s skin for all the pretty girls between there and home.

  “Briar, did you see it?” While they had talked politics and war, the rest of the statue-raising party had crossed the river bridge to join the God-King’s group. Evvy raced over to the tent. The pockets of her orange wool tunic sagged with what Briar knew were more stone fragments. “You aren’t even looking!”

  “We watched the
statue raising,” the God-King told her. “I’ve seen such things before, you know. Briar was impressed.”

  “I was,” Briar assured the girl.

  Evvy stopped at the open doorway and bowed to the God-King, then braced her hands on her knees while she struggled to catch her breath. They had been in high mountain country for nearly two years, but Evvy and Briar would struggle with the thin air if they tried to run. Rosethorn had trouble breathing all of the time. Although their entire journey had been Rosethorn’s idea, she had been forced to spend much of it resting. She had chosen to work on the spring gardens instead of taking the awkward journey down the cliff into the river canyon with Briar and Evvy that morning. Briar looked forward to getting back to lowlands again, so his Rosethorn could breathe more easily.

  “Could you see what I did?” Evvy demanded. “I kept the scrap rock from falling on anyone!” She grabbed the pack she had left with Briar and emptied her stones into it. “Do you know it’s going to take them at least ten days to walk back to their home temple? They only had the five shamans who could do the spell, so there’s no one to keep the magic going at night. If they aren’t dancing, the statues won’t move. They’re going to be awfully tired — the shamans, not the statues. I offered to clean up the loose rock, but Dokyi said the Drimbakang Zugu have their own way of dealing with it. What does that mean?” She gathered the stones she’d left with Briar and stowed them in her pack as well.

  Evumeimei Dingzai was a skinny former slave who never missed a meal if she could help it. She was five feet tall with a strong Yanjingyi face: wide cheekbones, sharp chin, and long black eyes. Briar liked to tease her that she’d smacked her face into a door once, since her nose was flat at the tip. Her hands and nails showed scars and scratches from two years of hard work as a stone mage and a lifetime as a cat owner. He had found her scraping for a living in a slum. Although her magic was different from his, he had learned that he would not give her up to a teacher of her own power who would be unkind to her.

  The God-King stood and moved off the giant pillow where he and Briar had spent the morning. “Wait a moment, Evumeimei.”