Whisper of the Wilding Woods: Forward & Prologue
In which we meet the Magus.
This story was my first foray into a new fantasy world called Tellen. Unhappy with the larger series plot arc I’d planned out, I tucked this incomplete draft away and redirected my energy toward other projects like The Traveling Librarian. At times, I both consciously and unconsciously pilfered elements of Whisper of the Wilding Woods for The Traveling Librarian, but for the sake of this serial, I have decided not to revise with an eye toward making the story wholly distinct from its successor. I won’t get into details about some of the similarities which will later become either subtly or blatantly apparent to readers of both stories, but suffice it to say that there are a couple of things I should probably change when I eventually get around to finishing this story and revising it for broader publication.
The sequence you’re about to read is approximately a third of the first novel, and it ends at something of a natural break before the sequence that follows. It also features broken geography that I’m not yet sure how to merge with future stories already written in the same world, and it may well include a few plot holes and continuity errors that slip through the cracks in this weekly release format. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, and if I’m revising chapter 6 and have a great idea for something that will require a significant change to something in an earlier chapter, I’m probably just going to do it and make notes to ensure I correct it in future rewrites.
So here it is, warts and all. If you’re enjoying this story, please take a moment to let me know in the comments. I’ve already written four chapters of the next sequence, and if engagement with the first twelve chapters is high enough, I’ll make time to continue writing from where I left off to keep the serial going.
Whisper of the Wilding Woods
The Caretaker’s eyelashes were crusted with rime when they fluttered open for another morning of duty. It seemed to take him longer and longer to get out of bed these days. On this, the coldest morning he could remember for quite some time, it was difficult to not count the winters that had slipped behind him. He’d kept track for a while—could still in fact see the tally marks etched into the wall beside his bed—but had given up after the hundredth careful knife scratch. How many seasons had come and gone since then? Fifty? Sixty?
Getting out of bed had become a process that lasted a quarter of an hour or more. First came the inventory of his various aches and pains, then the slow process of simply sitting upright. The Caretaker sat watching his breath stream out in thin clouds until the world regained its balance. His mouth tightened into a thin line as he used his hands to gently shift his sluggish legs toward the edge of the bed where he lowered them one by one to the floor. Palms resting on the edge of the timeworn wooden bedframe, he sat for several minutes, grimacing against the prickling discomfort of blood flowing into his lower limbs. After an experimental wiggle of his toes, he gathered his strength for the effort of rising to his feet.
The cabin he called home was only a single room that could be crossed in six strides. Twelve if one shuffled as the Caretaker now did. Aside from the bed, there was a small chest for his clothing, a row of pegs upon which hung an assortment of cloaks and furs like the heavy bear fur he now tugged over his shoulders, and a small hearth that hadn’t been lit in years. Beside the hearth was a water barrel that developed a fresh film of ice each morning. The Caretaker used the end of a wooden spoon to shatter the frozen crust so he could dip a tin cup into the water and drank it down in one long swallow. Upon setting the cup down on the little table beside the barrel, he caught a flash of his reflection on the water’s surface that made him pause. He leaned in closer to inspect the white streaks in his beard and hair before turning away and heading for the door where he stuffed his feet into thick, fur-lined boots.
When had he become so old? There were no mirrors in the cabin, nor in the ancient Kvastian tower toward which he now trudged through knee-deep snow, so it had been some time since he’d seen his own face. Perhaps it was time to begin thinking about a successor. As long as he’d been able to perform his daily duties, the Caretaker had never really given much thought to the issue of retirement. The years, it seemed, had been quietly catching up with him. Even the thought of climbing the tower stairs to bring the Magus his breakfast had begun to invoke a sense of sinking dread. For most of his many years of service, the first thing the Caretaker had done upon entering the tower each morning was to go up and check if his charge was even awake and alert before making breakfast. These days he did his best to minimize how often he made the trip to the top-floor chambers. Instead, he lingered in the relative comfort of the hearth-warmed main floor where he prepared stinging nettle tea and plain porridge with his usual meticulousness. Once everything was arranged on a tray, porridge in a simple wooden dish and tea in a delicate bone cup the Caretaker had long thought more suited to a King or Queen, the Caretaker began his arduous climb up the tower stairs.
The four levels between the main floor and the Magus’s chambers were crammed with stacks of books, boxes of scrolls, and tapestries so faded it was impossible to tell what they might have once depicted. For many years, the Caretaker had done his best to keep these rooms clean. Since the Magus never left his chambers and had not asked for any of the relics so much as once in all the time the Caretaker had been in his service, the futile daily chore had been given up some sixty years ago. Now everything between the first and sixth floors had acquired a thick blanket of dust and grime.
Light shimmered beneath the door when the Caretaker finally summited the sixth-floor landing. He nudged it inward with his elbow and slipped quietly into the room so as not to disturb the Magus if he’d sunk into one of his fugue-like states. Though the fireplace crackled with flames—despite never requiring so much as a splinter of firewood to keep them going—the room had been made frigid by the chill blast of air streaming in from a window where the shutters had been flung open in the night. The Magus himself lay snoring soundly, sprawled beneath several layers of blankets and furs. Once asleep, the man was as likely to wake as a forest animal that had settled deep into its winter hibernation.
The Caretaker set his tray down on a table and went to close the shutters. The ancient tower—just one of many that dotted the Kvastian landscape—had somehow been constructed from a single piece of dark gray stone, almost as if it had sprouted from the earth fully formed instead of being crafted by mortal hands. Whatever its origins, the strange stone kept the tower comfortably cool in summer and warm in winter. Assuming one kept the windows shuttered against the bitter cold of the northern mountains. The hostile winter draft made the Caretaker shiver and rub his hands together before sparing a moment to warm his bones by the fireplace where flames sprouted from ashen logs that never crumbled.
Under different circumstances, the Caretaker might have been concerned about the Magus catching a chill after leaving the window open all night, but the man had never once been ill during the Caretaker’s tenure. At least now the tea and porridge he’d prepared stood a chance of not cooling completely before the Magus woke. If he woke at all today. Yesterday’s meal hadn’t been touched and still sat on the small table by the fireplace where the Magus preferred to take his meals on those rare occasions he actually chose to do so. Despite having been initiated into the Mysteries as a boy of only seven summers, the Caretaker had for many years marveled at the Magus’s ability to survive without eating or drinking for what was often months at a stretch. Gradually, he had come to accept the strangeness of this place and was now well past questioning such things. The Magus had been here as long as the peculiar Kvastian towers—according to the Mysteries, even long before whatever forgotten magic had raised the strange stone structures from the ground in the first place—and would be here long after the Caretaker eventually succumbed to the ravages of time, delayed as that eventual end might be.
Having swapped today’s breakfast for yesterday’s leavings, the Caretaker set about gathering up the scraps of paper upon which the Magus had scratched hundreds of mostly indecipherable words, phrases, and drawings. Well-versed in eleven foreign and ancient scripts by now, The Caretaker still only recognized about half the characters the Magus scrawled on any given day. Squinting in the dim light and against the persistent blurry spots that plagued his vision, he saw that most of the words had been crossed out with such force that the paper had been torn in places. When the Caretaker inspected the supply of quill pens he kept stocked in a box on the Magus’s writing desk, he was dismayed to find it nearly empty. Almost every single one of of the quills strewn about the Magus’s desk had been so abused that the nibs had either crumpled or snapped clean off. He’d only just furnished the Magus with a new set of pens two days before, and now he’d have to dig into the supply room for another score of quills to be cut and brought back up to the Magus’s chambers.
At a glance, today’s pages were the usual mess of nonsensical words and phrases strung together without apparent meaning. The Caretaker shuffled idly through the texts as he gathered them, lingering over a page where the Magus had underscored several words with frantic slashes that left ink stippled across the page. Beneath the old Kvastian word for mountain, something had been written and scratched out so thoroughly the Caretaker couldn’t so much as hazard a guess as to what it might have been. Beneath that was the name Aline and something illegible beginning with a ‘K’ possibly followed by an ‘a’. Whomever this Aline was, she’d been appearing frequently in the Magus’s notes as of late. Sorting through the different languages and dialects to pick out patterns was always a challenge—it was usually safe to discard any mention of chickens that for some reason incomprehensible reason saturated many of these texts—but whatever events swirled around this girl were beginning to feel more important than any of the other prophetic puzzles the Caretaker had thus far managed to piece together.
The Caretaker’s final duty before leaving the Magus to his slumber was to check the chamber pot beneath the bed. By virtue of whatever rare sorcery sustained the Magus throughout his fasts, the pot remained blessedly unused more often than not, but on those nights it had been used it was distressingly full. Relieved to find it empty, the Caretaker straightened up and was moving to leave when the Magus’s hand shot out from beneath the blankets, seizing him with a grip that threatened to crush muscle and bone.
“Has the girl been collected?” the Magus asked, eyes wild with mirrored firelight.
The Caretaker’s knees buckled and he nearly fell to the floor but for the Magus’s powerful grip holding him upright.
“Which girl?” he asked carefully.
“The girl is the key to everything! She must be fetched before she is wedded. Even now, she travels the high road to Inverburie. Or she will?” The Magus’s brow furrowed and he glowered at the blankets, shaking his head a moment until his lambent eyes fixed themselves on the Caretaker once again. “Yes, she will. It has yet to pass. We must not tarry, Vaszcha. Mark her by her flaxen hair. Mark her by the plait that drapes below her waist. Mark her by the soldiers dressed as common guards. Hire men who will strike swiftly and surely. Go yourself and see it done, Vaszcha. Hie thee to Aerdun and have her brought to me. No cost is too great, for she is the key to retrieving the lost stones! She must be brought at once.”
And with that, the Magus released the Caretaker’s arm and fell back onto the bed, whereupon he uttered a long and wheezy sigh before rolling over and settling back into a deep sleep.
Shaken to his very core, The Caretaker rubbed his sore arm and hastened back to the desk where he clenched the Magus’s papers tightly to quiet the unsettling susurrus of rustling pages before tucking them onto the tray. Hardly daring to breathe until he reached the fifth-floor landing, he returned to the ground floor where decades of habit drove him to scoop the old porridge into a midden bucket and wash yesterday’s cup and bowl with warm water from the pot hanging at the edge of the hearth. The quills, he thought to himself. Mustn’t forget the quills. The Magus would need them when he woke. Quills and paper. Paper and quills. And ink! The Caretaker had quite forgotten to check the inkwell in the writing desk. Better to be safe. Better to bring up a fresh supply than to discover the well had run dry and have to climb the stairs all over again.
The Caretaker went to the storage room, hands still trembling as he pulled a crate of uncut quill feathers from a shelf. Thoughts everywhere but on the task actually before him, he let the crate tilt too far to one side, and the unsecured lid tumbled free to hit the ground with a loud clatter that made him start and drop the crate entirely. Quills skittered across the floor. The Caretaker dropped to his knees, frantically grabbing at the feathers and trying to restore some semblance of order. When every last quill had been collected and returned to the crate, he shifted to his rear, leaning back against the shelf and absently rubbing the tingling, warm spot on his arm where the Magus had grabbed him.
Never had the Magus spoken with such urgency, let alone acted with that measure of brutish forcefulness. But that wasn’t what had so disturbed the Caretaker. Nor had it been the use of a given name he’d not heard since his days as an apprentice. No, the thing that made the Caretaker’s pulse quicken was the Magus’s mention of what could only be the Seven Stones. The selfsame stones upon which the Order had been founded. Could they really be so close at hand? Who was this Aline and what role did she have to play in the long-awaited return of magic?
The Caretaker closed his eyes and made himself breathe deeply. It was ever thus with the Magus, albeit on a much smaller scale until now. No one in the Order had ever been able to definitively prove how the Magus seemed to know such things or why he was shrouded in an aura of what could only be described as the last remaining magic in all of Tellen, but it was highly suspected the man had one of the Seven Stones in his possession. The Caretaker had never seen the Stone, nor—if it was to be believed—had the previous Caretaker or the Caretaker before that. But how else to explain it? If this theory held true, the power of the Stone must have become weak without the others to bolster it. The Magus had a special talent for predicting events all across Tellen, but the information came always in dribs and drabs that had to be pieced together by the Caretaker and those acolytes who maintained the master archives of the incalculable volume of texts the Magus had produced over the years. Though the Caretaker did not yet understand the full significance of the Magus’s insistent outburst, more details would emerge in the days to come. And when that picture coalsesced, the Caretaker would do what must be done. Though he’d never ventured more than a half-day’s walk from the tower, he would go to Aerdun if he must.
A sense of resolute calm washed over him. The pounding of his heart had slowed to something approaching normal, but he felt more invigorated than he had in years. So invigorated, in fact, that his knees neither ached nor crackled with gritty resistance when he rose to his feet. He felt spry as a young lad; as though he could run across Aerdun to the neighboring kingdom of Baerdun and Inverburie itself if he had to. Forgetting the quills for the moment, the Caretaker returned to what passed for a kitchen on the tower’s ground floor and fetched a shallow silver dish into which he ladled a scoop of water. By holding it just so, he was able to catch a glimpse of his reflection, marveling at what he saw therein. The man staring back at him looked thirty years younger. It was the Caretaker’s face to be sure, but softer and less lined with age. Neither white nor gray marred his hair, and his eyes gleamed with a clarity that matched a fresh keenness of his vision. Blurry spots no longer occluded his vision, and objects on the other side of the room were no longer hazy around the edges. When he went to the window and threw open the shutters, he could easily make out details far off on the horizon where storm clouds gathered over the mountains.
Storm clouds that were heading this way.
Indulging in one last look at himself in the makeshift mirror, the Caretaker smiled and steeled himself for the work to come. Retirement would have to wait; though, an apprentice might still be a good idea. After all, someone would have to look after the Magus if his Caretaker was to go off and fetch the girl called Aline.
Looking forward to this!