The Magician’s Guild Excerpt
Chapter One: The Purge
It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what it finds there. On the day of the Purge it whistled amongst the swaying masts in the Marina, rushed through the Western Gates and screamed between the buildings. Then, as if appalled by the ragged souls it met there, it quietened to a whimper.
Or so it seemed to Sonea. As another gust of cold wind battered her, she wrapped her arms around her chest and hugged her worn coat closer to her body. Looking down, she scowled at the dirty sludge that splashed over her shoes with each step she took. The cloth she had stuffed into her oversized boots was already saturated and her toes stung with the chill.
A sudden movement to her right caught her attention, and she side-stepped as a man with straggly grey hair staggered towards her from an alley entrance and fell to his knees. Stopping, Sonea offered him her hand, but the old man did not seem to notice. He clambered to his feet and joined the hunched figures making their way down the street.
Sighing, Sonea peered around the edge of her hood. A guard slouched in the entrance of the alley. His mouth was curled into a sneer of disdain; his gaze flitted from figure to figure. She narrowed her eyes at him, but when his head turned in her direction, she quickly looked away.
Curse the guards, she thought. May they all find poisonous faren crawling in their boots. The names of a few good-natured guards pricked her conscience, but she was in no mood to make exceptions.
Falling into step with the shuffling figures around her, Sonea followed them out of the street into a wider thoroughfare. Two- and three-storey houses rose on either side of them. The windows of the higher floors were crowded with faces. In one, a well-dressed man was holding up a small boy so he could watch the people below. The man’s nose wrinkled with disdain and, as he pointed his finger down, the boy grimaced as if he had tasted something foul.
Sonea glared at them. Wouldn’t be so smug if I threw a rock through their window. She looked about half-heartedly, but if any rocks were lying about, they were well hidden beneath the sludge.
A few steps further on, she caught sight of a pair of guards ahead of her, standing in the entrance to an alley. Dressed in stiff boiled-leather coats and iron helmets, they looked to be twice the weight of the beggars they watched. They carried wooden shields, and at their waists hung kebin – iron bars which were used as cudgels, but with a hook attached just above the handle, designed to catch an attacker’s knife. Dropping her eyes to the ground, Sonea walked by the two men.
“- cut ’em off before they reach the square,’ one of the guards was saying. ‘About twenty of ’em. Gang leader’s big. Got a scar on his neck and -‘
Sonea’s heart skipped a beat. Could it be .?
A few steps past the guards was a recessed doorway. Slipping into the shallow alcove, she turned her head to sneak a look at the two men, then jumped as she saw two dark eyes staring back at her from the doorway.
A woman gazed at her, eyes wide with surprise. Sonea took a step back. The stranger retreated too, then smiled as Sonea let out a quick laugh.
Just a reflection! Sonea reached out and her fingers met a square of polished metal attached to the wall. Words had been etched into its surface, but she knew too little about letters to make out what they said.
She examined her image. A thin, hollow-cheeked face. Short, dark hair. No-one had ever called her pretty. She could still manage to pass herself off as a boy when she wanted to. Her aunt said that she looked more like her long-dead mother than her father, but Sonea suspected Jonna simply did not want to see any resemblance to her absent marriage-brother.
Sonea leaned closer to the reflection. Her mother had been beautiful. Perhaps, if I grew my hair long, she mused, and I wore something feminine .
. oh, don’t bother. With a self-mocking snort, she turned away, annoyed at herself for being distracted by such fantasies.
‘- bout twenty minutes ago,’ said a nearby voice. She stiffened as she remembered why she had stepped into the alcove.
‘And where are they expectin’ to trap ’em?’
‘Ah, I’d like to be there. Saw what they did to Porlen last year, little bastards. Took several weeks for the rash to go away, and he couldn’t see properly for days. Wonder if I can get out of – Hai! Wrong way, boy!’
Sonea ignored the soldier’s shout, knowing that he and his companion would not leave their position at the entrance of the alley, in case the people in the street took advantage of their distraction to slip away. She broke into a jog, weaving through the steadily thickening crowd. From time to time, she paused to search for familiar faces.
She had no doubt which gang the guards had been talking about. Stories of what Harrin’s youths had done during the last Purge had been retold over and over through the harsh winter of the previous year. It had amused her to hear that her old friends were still making mischief, though she had to agree with her aunt that she was better off keeping away from their troublemaking. Now it seemed the guards were planning to have their revenge.
Which only proves Jonna right. Sonea smiled grimly. She’d flay me if she knew what I was doing, but I have to warn Harrin. She scanned the crowd again. It’s not like I’m going to rejoin the gang. I only have to find a watcher – there!
In the shadows of a doorway, a youth slouched, glowering at his surroundings with sullen hostility. Despite his apparent disinterest, his gaze shifted from one alley entrance to another. As his gaze met hers, Sonea reached up to adjust her hood and made what would be taken to be a crude sign by most. His eyes narrowed, and he quickly signed back.
Sure now that he was a watcher, she made her way through the crowd and stopped a few steps away from the door, pretending to adjust the binding of her boot.
‘Who’re you with?’ he asked, looking away.
‘You used an old sign.’
‘Haven’t been about for a while.’
He paused. ‘What you want?’
‘Heard the guards talking,’ she told him. ‘Plan to catch someone.’
The watcher made a rude noise. ‘And why should I believe you?’
‘I used to know Harrin,’ she replied, straightening.
The boy considered her for a moment, then stepped out of the alcove and grabbed her arm. ‘Let’s see if he remembers you, then.’
Sonea’s heart skipped as he began to pull her into the crowd. The mud was slippery, and she knew she would end up sprawling in it if she tried to brace her feet. She muttered a curse.
‘You don’t have to take me to him,’ she said. ‘Just tell him my name. He’ll know I wouldn’t mess him about.’
The boy ignored her. Guards eyed them suspiciously as they passed. Sonea twisted her arm, but the boy’s grip was strong. He pulled her into a side street.
‘Listen to me,’ she said. ‘My name is Sonea. He knows me. So does Cery.’
‘Then you won’t mind seeing him again,’ the boy tossed over his shoulder.
The side street was crowded, and the people seemed to be in a hurry. She grabbed a lamppost and pulled him to a halt.
‘I can’t go with you. I have to meet my aunt. Let me go -‘
The press of people ended as the crowd passed and continued down the street. Sonea looked up and groaned.
‘Jonna’s going to kill me.’
A line of guards stretched across the street, shields held high. Several youths paced before them, shouting insults and jibes. As Sonea watched, one threw a small object at the guards. The missile struck a shield and exploded into a cloud of red dust. A cheer erupted from the youths as the guards backed away a few steps.
Several paces back from the youths stood two familiar figures. One was taller and bulkier than she remembered, standing with his hands on his hips. Two years of growth had erased Harrin’s boyish looks but from his stance, she guessed that little else had changed. He had always been the undisputed leader of the gang, quick to smarten up anyone with a well-placed fist.
Beside him was a youth almost half his size. Sonea could not help smiling. Cery had not grown at all since she had last seen him, and she knew how much that would annoy him. Despite his small stature, Cery had always been respected in the gang because his father had worked for the Thieves.
As the watcher pulled her closer, she saw Cery lick a finger and hold it high, then nod. Harrin gave a shout. The youths pulled small bundles from their clothes and hurled them at the guards. A cloud of red billowed from the shields, and Sonea grinned as the men began to curse and cry out in pain.
Then, from an alley behind the guards, a lone figure stepped into the street. Sonea looked up and her blood froze.
‘Magician!’ she gasped.
The boy at her side drew in a sharp breath as he too saw the robed figure. ‘Hai! Magician!’ he shouted. The youths and guards straightened and turned towards the newcomer.
Then all staggered back as a hot gust of wind battered them. An unpleasant smell filled Sonea’s nostrils, and her eyes began to sting as the red dust was blown into her face. The wind ceased abruptly, and all was silent and still.
Rubbing tears away, Sonea blinked at the ground hoping for some clean snow to ease the sting. Only mud surrounded her, smooth and unbroken by footprints. But that couldn’t be right. As her vision cleared, she saw it was marked with fine ripples – all radiating out from the magician’s feet.
‘Go!’ Harrin bellowed. At once the youths sprang away from the guards and fled past Sonea. With a yelp, the watcher pulled her around and dragged her after them.
Her mouth went dry as she saw that another line of guards waited at the end of the street. This was the trap! And I’ve gone and got myself caught with them!
The watcher pulled her along, following Harrin’s gang as the youths raced toward the guards. As they drew close, the guards lifted their shields in anticipation. A few strides from the line, the youths veered into an alleyway. Following on their heels, Sonea noted a pair of uniformed men lying slumped against a wall by the entrance.
‘Duck!’ a familiar voice shouted.
A hand grabbed her and pulled her down. She winced as her knees struck the cobblestones under the mud. Hearing cries behind her, she looked back to see a mass of arms and shields filling the narrow gap between the buildings, a cloud of red dust billowing around them.
The voice was familiar and full of amazement. She looked up, and grinned as she saw Cery crouching beside her.
‘She told me the guards were planning an ambush,’ the watcher told him.
Cery nodded. ‘We knew.’ A smile spread slowly across his face, then his eyes flickered past her to the guards, and the smile vanished. ‘Come on, everyone. Time to go!’
He took her hand, pulled her to her feet and led her between the youths bombarding the guards. As they did, a flash of light filled the alley with a blinding whiteness.
‘What was that?’ Sonea gasped, trying to blink away the image of the narrow street which seemed to hang before her eyes.
‘The magician,’ Cery hissed.
‘Run!’ Harrin bellowed nearby. Half blind, Sonea stumbled forward. A body slammed into her back and she fell. Cery grasped her arms, pulled her to her feet, and guided her onward.
They leapt out of the alley and Sonea found herself back on the main street. The youths slowed, lifting hoods and hunching their backs as they spread amongst the crowd. Sonea followed suit, and for several minutes she and Cery walked in silence. A tall figure moved to Cery’s side and peered around the edge of his hood to regard her.
‘Hai! Look who it is!’ Harrin’s eyes widened. ‘Sonea! What are you doing here?’
She smiled. ‘Getting caught in your mischief again, Harrin.’
‘She heard the guards were planning an ambush and came looking for us,’ Cery explained.
Harrin waved a hand dismissively. ‘We knew they’d try something, so we made sure we had a way out.’
Thinking of the guards slumped in the alley entrance, Sonea nodded. ‘I should’ve guessed you knew.’
‘So where have you been? It’s been . years.’
‘Two years. We’ve been living in the North Quarter. Uncle Ranel got a room in a stayhouse.’
‘I hear the rent stinks in those stayhouses – and everything costs double just ’cause you’re living inside the city walls.’
‘It does, but we got by.’
‘Doing what?’ Cery asked.
‘Mending shoes and clothes.’
Harrin nodded. ‘So that’s why we haven’t seen you for so long.’
Sonea smiled. That, and Jonna wanted to keep me from getting mixed up with your gang. Her aunt had not approved of Harrin and his friends. Not at all .
‘Don’t sound too exciting,’ Cery muttered.
Looking at him, she noted that, though he hadn’t grown much in the last few years, his face was no longer boyish. He wore a new longcoat with threads dangling where it had been cut short, and probably loaded with a collection of picks, knives, trinkets and sweets hidden in pockets and pouches within the lining. She had always wondered what Cery would do when he grew out of picking pockets and locks.
‘It was safer than hanging about with you lot,’ she told him.
Cery’s eyes narrowed. ‘That’s Jonna talking.’
Once, that would have stung. She smiled. ‘Jonna’s talking got us out of the slums.’
‘So,’ Harrin interrupted. ‘If you’ve got a room in a stayhouse, why are you here?’
Sonea scowled and her mood darkened. ‘The King’s putting out the people in stayhouses,’ she told him. ‘Says he don’t want so many people living in one building – that it’s not clean. Guards came and kicked us out this morning.’
Harrin frowned and muttered a curse. Glancing at Cery, she saw that the teasing look in his eyes had died. She looked away, grateful, but not comforted, by their understanding.
With one word from the Palace, in one morning, everything that she and her aunt and uncle had worked for had been taken away. There had been no time to think about what this meant as they had grabbed their belongings before being dragged out into the street.
‘Where are Jonna and Ranel, then?’ Harrin asked.
‘Sent me ahead to see if we can get a room in our old place.’
Cery gave her a direct look. ‘Come see me if you can’t.’
She nodded. ‘Thanks.’
The crowd slowly spilled out of the street into a large paved area. This was the North Square, where small local markets were held each week. She and her aunt visited it regularly – had visited it regularly.
Several hundred people had gathered in the square. While many continued on through the Northern Gates, others lingered inside in the hope of meeting their loved ones before entering the confusion of the slums, and some always refused to move until they were forced to.
Cery and Harrin stopped at the base of the pool in the centre of the square. A statue of King Kalpol rose from the water. The long-dead monarch had been almost forty when he routed the mountain bandits, yet here he was portrayed as a young man, his right hand brandishing a likeness of his famous, jewel-encrusted sword, and his left gripping an equally ornate goblet.
A different statue had once stood in its place, but it had been torn down thirty years before. Though several statues had been erected of King Terrel over the years, all but one had been destroyed, and it was rumoured that even the surviving statue, protected within the Palace walls, had been defaced. Despite all else he had done, the citizens of Imardin would always remember King Terrel as the man who had started the yearly Purges.
Her uncle had told her the story many times. Thirty years before, after influential members of the Houses had complained that the streets were not safe, the King had ordered the guard to drive all beggars, homeless vagrants and suspected criminals out of the city. Angered by this, the strongest of the expelled gathered together and, with weapons provided by the wealthier smugglers and thieves, fought back. Faced with street battles and riots, the King turned to the Magicians’ Guild for assistance.
The rebels had no weapon to use against magic. They were captured or driven out into the slums. The King was so pleased by the festivities the Houses had held to celebrate that he declared the city would be purged of vagrants every winter.
When the old King had died five years past, many had hoped that the Purges would stop, but Terrel’s son, King Merin, had continued the tradition. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that the frail, sick-looking people about her could ever be a threat. Then she noticed that several youths had gathered around Harrin, all watching their leader expectantly. She felt her stomach clench with sudden apprehension.
‘I have to go,’ she said.
‘No, don’t go,’ Cery protested. ‘We’ve only just found each other again.’
She shook her head. ‘I’ve been too long. Jonna and Ranel might be in the slums already.’
‘Then you’re already in trouble.’ Cery shrugged. ‘You still ‘fraid of a scolding, eh?’
She gave him a reproachful look. Undeterred, he smiled back.
‘Here.’ He pressed something into her hand. Looking down, she examined the little packet of paper.
‘This is the stuff you guys were throwing at the guards?’
Cery nodded. ‘Papea dust,’ he said. ‘Makes their eyes sting and give’s ’em a rash.’
‘No good against magicians, though.’
He grinned. ‘I got one once. He didn’t see me coming.’
Sonea started to hand back the packet, but Cery waved his hand.
‘Keep it,’ he said. ‘It’s no use here. The magicians always make a wall.’
She shook her head. ‘So you throw stones instead? Why do you bother?’
‘It feels good.’ Cery looked back towards the road, his eyes a steely grey. ‘If we didn’t, it would be like we don’t mind the Purge. We can’t let them drive us out of the city without some kind of show, can we?’
Shrugging, she looked at the youths. Their eyes were bright with anticipation. She had always felt that throwing anything at the magicians was pointless and foolish.
‘But you and Harrin hardly ever come into the city,’ she said.
‘No, but we ought to be able to if we want.’ Cery grinned. ‘And this is the only time we get to make trouble without the Thieves sticking their noses in.’
Sonea rolled her eyes. ‘So that’s it.’
‘Hai! Let’s go!’ Harrin bellowed over the noise of the crowd.
As the youths cheered and began to move away, Cery looked at her expectantly.
‘Come on,’ he urged. ‘It’ll be fun.’
Sonea shook her head.
‘You don’t have to join in. Just watch,’ he said. ‘After, I’ll come with you and see you get a place to stay.’
‘Here.’ He reached out and undid her scarf. Folding it into a triangle, he draped it over her head and tied it at her throat. ‘You look more like a girl now. Even if the guards decide to chase us – which they never do – they won’t think you’re a troublemaker. There,’ he patted her cheek, ‘much better. Now come on. I’m not letting you disappear again.’
She sighed. ‘All right.’
The crowd had grown, and the gang began to push forward through the crush of people. To Sonea’s surprise, they received no protest or retaliation in return for their elbowing. Instead, the men and women she passed reached out to press rocks and over-ripe fruit into her hands, and to whisper encouragement. As she followed Cery past the eager faces, she felt a stirring of excitement. Sensible people like her aunt and uncle had already left the North Square. Those who remained wanted to see a show of defiance – and it didn’t matter how pointless it was.
The crowd thinned as the gang reached its edge. At one side Sonea could see people still entering the square from a side street. On the other, the distant gates rose above the crowd. In front .
Sonea stopped and felt all her confidence drain away. As Cery moved on, she took a few steps back and stopped behind an elderly woman. Less than twenty paces away stood a row of magicians.
Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly. She knew they would not move from their places. They would ignore the crowd until they were ready to drive it out of the square. There was no reason to be frightened.
Swallowing, she forced herself to look away and seek out the youths. Harrin, Cery and the others were moving further forward, strolling amongst the dwindling stream of latecomers joining the edge of the crowd.
Looking up at the magicians again, she shivered. She had never been this close to them before, or had an opportunity to take a good look at them.
They wore a uniform: wide-sleeved robes bound by a sash at the waist. According to her uncle Ranel, clothes like these had been fashionable many hundreds of years ago but now it was a crime for ordinary people to dress like magicians.
They were all men. From her position she could see nine of them, standing alone or in pairs, forming part of a line that she knew would encompass the square. Some were no older than twenty, while others looked ancient. One of the closest, a fair-haired man of about thirty, was handsome in a sleek, well-groomed way. The rest were surprisingly ordinary-looking.
In the corner of her eye she saw an abrupt movement, and turned in time to see Harrin swing his arm forward. A rock flew though the air toward the magicians. Despite knowing what would happen, she held her breath.
The stone smacked against something hard and invisible and dropped to the ground. Sonea let out her breath as more of the youths began hurling stones. A few of the robed figures looked up to watch the missiles pattering against the air in front of them. Others regarded the youths briefly, then turned back to their conversations.
Sonea stared at the place where the magicians’ barrier hung. She could see nothing. Moving forward, she took out one of the lumps in her pockets, drew her arm back and hurled it with all her strength. It disintegrated as it hit the invisible wall, and for a moment, a cloud of dust hung in the air, flat on one side.
She heard a low chuckle nearby and turned to see the old woman grinning at her.
‘That’s a good ‘un,’ the woman cackled. ‘You show ’em. Go on.’
Sonea slipped a hand into a pocket and felt her fingers close on a larger rock. She took a few steps closer to the magicians and smiled. She had seen annoyance in some of their faces. Obviously they did not like to be defied, but something prevented them from confronting the youths.
Beyond the haze of dust came the sound of voices. The well-groomed magician glanced up, then turned back to his companion, an older man with grey in his hair.
‘Pathetic vermin,’ he sneered. ‘How long until we can get rid of them?’
Something flipped over in Sonea’s belly, and she tightened her grip on the rock. She pulled it free and gauged its weight. A heavy one. Turning to face the magicians, she gathered the anger she felt at being thrown out of her home, all her inbred hate of the magicians, and hurled the stone at the speaker. She traced its path through the air, and as it neared the magicians’ barrier, she willed it to pass through and reach its mark.
A ripple of blue light flashed outward, then the rock slammed into the magician’s temple with a dull thud. He stood motionless, staring at nothing, then his knees buckled and his companion stepped forward to catch him.
Sonea stared, her mouth agape, as the older magician lowered his companion to the ground. The jeers of the youths died away. Stillness spread outward like smoke through the crowd.
Then exclamations rang out as two more magicians sprang forward to crouch beside their fallen companion. Harrin’s friends, and others in the crowd, began to cheer. Noise returned to the square as people murmured and shouted out what had happened.
Sonea looked down at her hands. It worked. I broke the barrier, but that’s not possible, unless .
Unless I used magic.
Cold rushed through her as she remembered how she had focused all her anger and hate on the stone, how she had followed its path with her mind and willed it to break through the barrier. Something in her stirred, as if it were eager for her to repeat those actions.
Looking up, she saw that several magicians had gathered around their fallen companion. Some crouched beside him, but most had turned to stare out at the people in the square, their eyes searching. Looking for me, she thought suddenly. As if hearing her thought, one turned to stare at her. She froze in terror, but his eyes slid away and roved on through the crowd.
They don’t know who it was. She gasped with relief. Glancing around, she saw that the crowd was several paces behind her. The youths were backing away. Heart pounding, she followed suit.
Then the older magician rose. Unlike the others, his eyes snapped to hers without hesitation. He pointed at her and the rest of the magicians turned to stare again. As their hands rose, she felt a surge of terror. Spinning around, she bolted towards the crowd. In the corner of her eye, she saw the rest of the youths fleeing. Her vision wavered as several quick flashes of light lit the faces before her, then screams tore through the air. Heat rushed over her and she fell to her knees, gasping.
She felt no pain. Looking down, she gasped in relief to find her body whole. She looked up; people were still running away, ignoring the strangely amplified command that still echoed through the square.
A smell of burning drifted to her nose. Sonea turned to see a figure sprawled face-down on the pavement a few steps away. Though flames ate at the clothing hungrily, the figure lay still. Then she saw the blackened mess that had once been an arm, and her stomach twisted with nausea.
‘DO NOT HARM HER!’
Staggering to her feet, she reeled away from the corpse. Figures passed her on either side as the youths fled. With an effort, she forced herself into a staggering run.
She caught up with the crowd at the Northern Gate and pushed her way into it. Fighting her way forward, clawing past those in her way, she forced herself deep within the crowd of bodies. Feeling the stones still weighing down her pockets, she clawed them out. Something caught her legs, tripping her over, but she dragged herself to her feet and pushed on.
Hands grabbed her roughly from behind. She struggled and drew a breath to scream, but the hands turned her around and she found herself staring up at the familiar blue eyes of Harrin.