Wind swirled along the stratospheric slopes of the Uncrossable Mountains.
For countless eons, the wind would have arisen and then died against the tallest ridges. But this was an era of progress and unprecedented change. Instead of dying, the wind encountered a jet stream that sparkled with potent magic, and the intertwined triple helix carried it far above the glacial peaks. The imbued torrent soared through atmosphere that was too thin to support life.
It plunged into fertile country on the far side of the Uncrossables.
The magical jet stream spiraled past griffon roosts, past bighorn sheep, past herdsmen who survived in the rocky steppes as they had always done, despite the changes occurring beyond their cottages.
The wind reeled towards a city in the throes of change.
Glass cubes and step pyramids stacked together in a newly birthed urban skyline, some of the towers half-built on skeletal scaffolding. A station pulled at the incoming torrent with hex runes. Umbrella-like spokes exhaled lesser helixes of imbued wind, channeling magic to public founts or into households.
The remainder of the imbued wind blew apart.
It dispersed over an ancient castle and meager hamlets. It reached a rock quarry, where it picked up a little bit of ambient magic from the spiraled cut of the quarry pit. The freshly imbued air swelled in a powerful updraft, which met clouds in a gathering storm.
Thunder growled across marshes. It boomed over grasslands, chasing pronghorns over the eastern horizon.
The storm petered into stippled clouds, reduced to a mere breeze. That breeze scooped up just enough magic in a fractal river valley to travel northward. It gusted through farmsteads, into a medieval woodland that appeared untouched by the changes affecting the rest of the world.
Oag held a journal open on a window ledge of his castle. The breeze riffled pages, and differential equations, some solved and some experimental, flashed by on each page. Oag pinned the journal open with his elbow.
Ah well. Daylight had its cost. Many of the castle windows were open to the weather, since the nearest glass artisan lived in a foreign city.
Oag inhaled the fresh scent of pine from the Knearwood, and dipped his quill in ink. He wondered if he could define the mathematical concept of a derivative with greater exactitude. His exploratory equations proved that when he applied derivatives backwards or only part of the way, the results were no longer unique.
“You slew me!” a little girl shrieked playfully. “I’m dead!”
Another girl giggled. “Okay, fine, let’s go again. This time you’re the evil archmage and I’m the prince.”
Wood clacked against wood. Two of Oag’s little sisters burst into the storeroom, shouting and whacking mops and brooms together, like boys sparring in the practice yard. Oag knew those sounds all too well. He’d been obligated to spar against his older brother.
A maidservant trailed after the girls, looking amused. She was roughly their age, in early adolescence, but her rough-spun dress and apron differentiated her from the young noble ladies.
“Oag, save me!” Sorily wailed with playful exaggeration. “The prince is too strong!” She fended off Alismay, blocking her mop with a broom handle. “I need help!”
Alismay glanced at Oag and laughed with teasing scorn. “That knight won’t help you. He doesn’t even have a sword.”
“Lady Anna!” Sorily hollered. “Give the knight a sword!”
The maidservant shyly approached Oag. Anna was no lady in waiting, despite the fake title her mistress had given her. “Milord?” She offered an extra broomstick.
“No, thanks.” Oag gently closed his math journal, keeping it out of harm’s way.
“Oag, come on!” Sorily begged. “Why are you always scribing? Don’t you want to rescue a princess?” She faked a swoon, flinging one skinny arm over her forehead. “Oh, save me, sir Oag! I don’t want stupid Ermire. I want a real knight to come rescue me!”
Oag stretched out his long legs, pretending to trap Sorily. At eighteen years old, Oag had grown a couple of inches taller than his brother and even his father. But he was half their width. The cook liked to describe him as “skin and bones.”
Not a compliment.
Oag did try to force himself to eat bread and other hearty foods. He really did try. But although such food tasted good, he always felt sharp pains of indigestion within minutes of swallowing a bite. Oag had to spend time on the latrine whenever he experimented with foods. He had decided that putting on manly weight just wasn’t worth so much suffering.
He tried not to envy his knighted brother too much. Ermire never seemed to get a stomachache.
“I thought you were the archmage, not the princess?” Oag teased his youngest sister. He tugged the eleven-year-old off balance with his legs.
Sorily fell into his embrace, giggling.
“She’s right, you know.” Alismay put a hand on her hip. “Don’t you want to get knighted?” Alismay was fourteen and getting good at mimicking the regal mannerisms of their mother. “It won’t happen if you spend all your time reading and writing. You don’t have to be an accountant.”
Oag was not going to tolerate a lecture from his little sister. “Swords are boring. I prefer magic.”
“Magic?” Sorily twisted around to gaze up at Oag with concern. “I thought you were doing sums.”
“There’s magic in advanced mathematics,” Oag said, not expecting his sisters—or anyone, really—to understand. “It’s a way of quantifying and measuring the world and everything in it.”
Sorily looked impressed.
“Be glad he’s not doing magic,” Alismay said. “I’d rather have an accountant for a brother than a mage.”
Battle mages threw fireballs and made their own soldiers impervious to arrows. Oag’s father and brother had survived a magical onslaught, and they had returned from that battle shaken, having witnessed men burned alive in their armor.
So yes, the Merlish mages were horrible. They slew a lot of good men, including knights.
In the privacy of his own mind, though, Oag didn’t think any of that was evil. How was a fireball any morally worse than swinging a broadsword? Was magical armor much different from steel armor? If Merl had superior military technology to everyone else, well….
He dared not say “so what” out loud. Merl was the enemy kingdom.
“Not all magic practitioners are evil,” Oag said experimentally. “In ancient times, wizards used to do good deeds. They could save entire villages from monsters.”
“Uh huh.” Alismay sounded skeptical. “Anyway, you’re not a wizard. Don’t you want to be strong like Ermire?” She flexed her bicep, pretending to be their brother, although she wore a blouse and a corset.
“I just want to be left alone.” Oag was tired of justifying his interests. “How about if you let me finish what I was doing?”
He hoped his sisters wouldn’t tattle on him. The last time Lord Eagen had caught his son “pretending to be a scholar,” he had knocked the book out of Oag’s hands.
And that was fair. Oag was supposed to follow in his brother’s footsteps. When the king demanded more soldiers, Oag would be expected to answer that call. He was the son of a lord. That meant he was expected to become a military leader of men, not a hunched accountant who devoted his life to legal contracts and ledger books.
The problem? Oag didn’t want to die from a flaming arrow on some muddy battlefield.
He also despised the coarse vassals who bowed and scraped for his father and brother. He didn’t fit in with men like that.
He wasn’t fond of horsemanship, either. He got itchy eyes and wheezing breath whenever he was near the stables.
Sorily moved off Oag’s lap. “Guess what?” She bounced on the bench seat, kicking her stockinged feet, apparently unwilling to leave. “There’s a peddler in the village.”
Oag wondered if she was trying to trick him. Oswick fiefdom was on the edge of the monster wilds, and the duke’s road was all but impassable throughout the long winter. They rarely saw visitors this early in the year.
But the snows were melting.
Oag tried to mask his excitement. “Really?”
“So we heard,” Alismay confirmed. “The peddler is that green-skinned newt. You know, the one who comes every few years.”
Oag could hear his own heart pounding.
He expected mail.
Mathar of Chethney was a royal accountant in a faraway kingdom. Every springtime, he mailed a book on mathematics or natural science to Oag of Oswick.
Books did not always survive the long, hard journey, of course. Peddlers got waylaid or sold their wares before they wound up in the hinterlands. Neither Oag nor Mathar could pay royal sums to hire an armed merchant company. So in total, Oag had only received three books from the accountant, but he was always eager for more.
Mathar also sent correspondence. Oag had been exchanging letters with the accountant since he was ten years old. He could hardly wait to gather Mathar’s insights on rational numbers and divine ratios. Whenever Oag had questions, his correspondent provided answers.
“Is there a crowd?” Oag jumped to his feet, towering over his adolescent sisters. “Is the peddler carrying books? Do you know? None of the mayors showed up, I hope?”
Sorily giggled at his enthusiasm.
“How would we know?” Alismay said with a note of despondence in her tone. “We are not allowed to leave the keep unescorted.”
If the peddler did carry a book, then Oag absolutely needed to get there before the mayor of Grindlebuck could hobble over and make a bid. That old mayor was literate—and like most of the local peasantry, he held a grudge against house Oswick. Everyone complained that taxes were too high.
Peasants failed to grasp the pressures that noblemen faced.
“Thanks for telling me.” Oag raced towards the doorway.
“Wait!” Alismay called. “Will you escort us?” She tempered her voice with an attempt at maturity. “I would like to consider a purchase or two.”
Sorily gasped with delight at the idea. “Yes, please!” She latched onto Oag and gazed up at him with her big gray eyes. “Please, please, please? Take us to the peddler?”
Oag did not want to watch over his sisters in a crowd. But their desperate hope was too much to bear, and he supposed a household guardsman or two might help. He caved in. “All right.”
“YAY!” Both sisters shouted, jumping with joy.
Oag laughed in spite of his worries. “Go put on your boots and cloaks, and meet me in the bailey.”
The girls raced towards their quarters, laughing and chatting in excitement. Their maidservant hiked up her thick skirts to keep up.
Oag rushed in the opposite direction, stopping in his own bedchamber. He unlock the chest where he kept his precious sheafs of paper, jars of ink, and goose quills. He removed the false bottom. Lord Eagen gifted a silver to each of his lesser children on their annual name days, so Oag had a coin purse that was mostly full. He pocketed it.
From there, he rushed towards the stairwell.
He paused at the storeroom where he’d been interrupted. Chambermaids might be tempted to mishandle his journal.
Or worse—his brother might see it. Ermire would likely toss the book out the window just to see it fall.
Oag decided not leave his precious journal in plain sight. Paper was hard to come by. If he lost this book, he couldn’t easily replace it.
So he carried the mostly full journal to the windowless room where his father’s vassals stored cheap armor. A wooden screen served as the door. Oag shifted that aside, and entered the darkness.
He could see well enough by the dim light from the hallway. He stepped past crates of discarded lamps and handles, and over rolled tapestries and rugs.
His journal fit in next to old accounting ledgers, plus a few actual books. Oag had read all thirteen books multiple times. He prayed for new things to read.
Not that he really expected his deceased forefathers to answer his prayers. Lesser lords and knights rarely learned how to read. His forefathers had hired scribes whenever they needed to send or read a letter or a proclamation.
Strange. One book was missing.
Oag wondered if his mother had borrowed the missing book on number theory. She had never shown interest in mathematics, but she was the only fully literate inhabitant of Oswick Castle, other than Oag himself. She had taught him how to read.
He made his way out. As he was stepping between rolled carpets, he caught sight of a creature slinking along the wall.
All castles needed cats to cull the rat population. Oag had major allergies whenever he was in the same room as a feline, so he gave it a wide berth and moved quickly.
Then he stopped.
The creature was carrying the missing book.
It—or his?—eyes reflected the dim light. The tiny man was the size of a barn owl, and he had orange eyes. He wore suspenders over a rumpled shirt. Sparse fur grew out of his face, like tufted whiskers rather than facial hair. Those white whiskers contrasted with dark gray skin, like wet granite flecked with mica.
Was this a forest pixie?
Or maybe a mountain gnome?
Oag could only guess. He had seen a few odd things in his eighteen years of living at the edge of the monster wilds. Slimes occasionally scooted out of the Knearwood. Flame tails might terrify a farmer before Lord Eagan sent vassals to kill the beasts.
Oag had seen weird people, as well. There was an ossified man in one of the peasant villages. And everyone had seen the tribal nomads with silvery green skin and pointy ears. They had a word for themselves, but most folks called them newts.
As for this tiny man…
Oag had glimpsed him once before, hadn’t he? He had caught this gnome, or whatever he was, stealing a slice of bread.
But that was many years ago. Oag had been a small child. He had reported the tiny thief to the cook and her scullions, as well as to his mother. Everyone had reacted with derision or laughter, assuming young Oag was telling a tall tale.
Now the gnome eyed Oag with an expression that was not quite fear.
“Hey,” Oag said softly, not wanting to scare the tiny man away. “Want help carrying”—he recalled the title of the book—”Mathar’s Number Theory?”
The gnome grunted and continued to haul away the book. It must be a great burden for his tiny arms. He tottered behind a shield painted with the white goose sigil of Oswick.
Oag waited for the gnome to emerge.
He heard a very faint thud. Then nothing.
“My name is Oagmalo.” Oag offered his full name, formally introducing himself. “May I know your name?”
Overcome by curiosity, Oag moved the goose shield aside. He uncovered a broken stone at the wall’s base. When he pulled it aside, he revealed a hole, barely large enough for a cat to wriggle through.
Faint sounds hinted that the gnome was moving further in a hurry.
Oag dropped to his hands and knees. He felt like a fairy-tale giant. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Candlelight flickered far down the miniature passageway. Oag could not see past the place where the narrow tunnel dropped off.
“You live here, don’t you?” Oag wondered if the gnome could even understand human language. “Are you from the Knearwood? Do you want help getting back to your home?”
Not that Oag would venture into the monster wilds himself. He was not suicidal.
Was the tiny man cowering in fear by the light of that candle deep in the hole in the wall? Or was he simply ignoring the giant?
“Am I the only person who ever sees you?” Oag muttered to himself, no longer bothering to speak to the gnome. He stood and dusted off his hands and knees. “Well, enjoy learning integers, little man.”
Oag moved the broken stone into place, sealing the hole. He put the shield back, then walked out of the old armory.
“Milord?” A maidservant curtsied. “Who are ye meeting with?” She slid a look at the armory entrance.
“Ah…” Oag blushed. He hadn’t guessed that anyone had overheard his one sided dialogue.
And this was the one maidservant he preferred to avoid.
Uma had ravenous eyes. She tended to look at Oag like he was a morsel she wanted to devour, and he had no idea why.
She was giving him that look now.
“I, ah, thought I saw a cat.” Oag dragged the wooden screen back into place, sealing off the old armory.
The maidservant looked at him as if she thought he was joking.
Oag hurried away. “I’ve got to go!”
Uma’s soft laugh followed him down the hallway.