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It’s been awhile–sorry about that. I had college applications, Iris moving, and Nanowrimo to worry about. (I’m behind on my novel, but this will take only a few minutes so I AM NOT WORRYING ABOUT IT. Studiously. :-P)

In other news, I read the first book of the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan, The Ruins of Gorlan, and I LOVED it. The humor in the book was very unexpected, and the main character respects his mentor… I can’t think of anything morally objectionable in the book. (On the downside, there was one extraneous plot point that was not as well incorporated as it might be, but I’ll leave that until I can do a proper book review.) I won’t keep you any longer. Enjoy the chapter! 🙂

Warnings: Lots and lots of philosophy, maybe a little theory. Nothing too strenuous, unless you don’t like exercising your brain. ;-P

Bound to the Flame

Chapter V

Part II

Rowan fell silent again. Margery bit her lip. “Some of my father’s men were defending our coasts against Sea Raiders last winter, and two of them failed to report back in, and were presumed lost. They finally turned up in the springtime. One of them had lost a leg and two fingers. The other one had stayed with him all winter, helping him to survive and nursing him back to health. But when they came back, both of them had changed. The injured man was morose; the other was tired and worn-down. It took the combined efforts of all the men-at-arms as well as my father and brothers to get them back on their proverbial feet. Neither of them was ever quite the same, though.” Margery paused, looking sidelong at Rowan, unsure of how to continue. Without looking at her, Rowan slowly guided Obsidian onwards.

“And you’re trying to figure out if there’s some subtle way of helping me.” Rowan said. “You pity me.” He paused for a moment, biting his cheek. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid that, as far as this goes, this is the best way that you can help.” He sighed. “Activity helps, even if I’m exhausted and sore for hours afterwards.” There was a long time in which they simply rode in silence.

“It’s so quiet here,” Margery said, after a while. Rowan looked up.

“It is,” he said, without offering any explanation. Margery tilted her head on one side.

“Are they setting a trap for us, do you think?”

“Unlikely. I don’t feel any warning that might indicate on. If the silence troubles you, though, what about a walking song? Our enemies are nowhere nearby, I think, and there is no one to hear us.”

“All right…” Margery said. “You sing.” Rowan chuckled.

“Very well.”

“O’er the hills and far away

Out from a rising sun

From my door I heard Mother say,

‘I pray that soon back you’ll come.’

Among the woodlands dark and gray

While leaves all fall around

And squirrels among campfire ashes play

There comes the marching sound.

“O’er the plains so wide and far

O’er the moors so dreary

While at night a shooting star

Falls at our feet weary.

By the cliffsides steep and high

Marching to a song

When the morning dawn draws nigh

Again we pass along.

“O’er the mountains at break of day

When we rise to travel on,

In the dawning cold and gray,

We march over that browning lawn.

In the rain and in the spray

Flying from a stormy sea

Marching far, far away

We’ll come flying homeward free.

“O’er the hills and far away

Into a setting sun

Until the darkness ends the day

And stars now out have come.

O’er the fells and low green tors

Turning fast to gray,

Far from home and hearth and door

We march, far, far, away.”

                Rowan had a good voice, clear and strong, but at the same time soft and melodious; it was almost subdued, but it made the glades reverberate with sound, the earth beneath them trembling in unison with the melody. For a long while after the song had concluded, they rode along in affable silence. At last, contrary to all Margery’s expectations, Rowan broke it.

“Margery, if we are to be able to continue to evade our enemy, there is something that I must do.”

“Then do it,” Margery said, shrugging, not quite comprehending.

“No…” Rowan said. “What I meant is, I would like to—I should ask your permission first.”

“Why?” Margery asked.

“Well, if we are to remain undetected… I need to mute your presence and ground the loose magic that has gathered around you.” Margery gave him a blank gaze. “You can be sensed by magic,” Rowan explained. “But it’s harder for whoever might sense you to do if there isn’t loose magic pooled around you.”

“I don’t understand,” Margery said.

“Well,” Rowan began, apparently trying to think out the best way to explain it, “loose magic—magic that has been already drawn from the warp—”

“Start at the beginning, please,” Margery said. “You’ve explained elemental magic, but not this branch of theory.” Rowan inclined his head.

“Very well. This has to do more with the origins of magic than with the theory of magic,” he said. “Most magic remains hidden, like the warp threads under the weft of a tapestry, holding together the tapestry of life on this world. You can think of the visible world as the weft threads—magic holds them together, just like warp. Magic can be drawn up out of the warp in order to be used. But magic can not be used up, like material goods can. It simply returns to its energy phase. It tries to get back into the warp, but it takes effort or time—even both in some cases—to return. Naturally, it always seeks the path of least resistance—and living things, especially people with an innate magical talent, are like bridges straight to the warp. Thus, ‘loose’ magic tends to gather around magic users, and other living things. The easier a Wielder can connect with the warp, the more magic will tend to pool around them. Most naturally-gifted wizards have the ability to sense large ‘drifts’ of loose magic, which means that they could potentially sense all living things around them. So, if we want to go unnoticed, the wisest course would be to ‘dim’ our presence by returning the loose magic that has gathered around us to the warp.”

Margery shrugged. “Well, go ahead. You didn’t have to ask permission for that. I’m not a magic user, anyway.”

“I don’t like the idea of doing it without asking,” Rowan said. “Just… be warned. This may make you feel vulnerable, tired, weak, perhaps even ill. Everyone can sense magic on some level or other; potentially anyone could become a Wielder, but it would take time and energy. You have a slight magical ability, and that could exacerbate the effect.” Margery shrugged again.

“Well, forewarned is forearmed, I guess. Go ahead.”

Margery had expected to feel any of the sensations Rowan had described—or perhaps she hadn’t known what to expect—but she certainly had not expected the strange draining sensation that flowed through her and left her limbs feeling heavy and her head slightly dizzy. She focused on relaxing and not fighting the dizzy feeling, taking deep breaths. As the off-balanced sensation passed, Margery gave a sigh of relief.

“You responded well,” Rowan said encouragingly. He seemed dimmed, muted, diminished somehow—though it was not in his physical appearance. As far as looks went, he was just a fraction paler than before; that was all. “I may have to repeat this, periodically. Loose magic tends to build up, over time. It makes spell-casting easier. I only grounded enough so that we can blend in with nature.”

“This is more complex than I ever imagined,” Margery murmured. Rowan offered her a sympathetic look.

“Most things are that way,” he remarked. “They seem simple on the surface, but look deeper and they’re inescapably complex, yet beautifully simple at the same time.”

“Can you teach me?” Margery asked, suddenly, impulsively.

“I don’t think so,” Rowan replied pensively. “You’re more intuitive; you use magic instinctively, if at all. I don’t think I could teach you to use it in the way I do, and certainly not in this short a time. Not with any degree of safety. It takes a lifetime to learn properly. Magic is not a plaything; it’s a tool, and like all tools it can be dangerous if abused, or misused. It should not be used by the unskilled. Ever.” Margery bowed her head, chastened. “However,” Rowan continued, I can teach you more about it and help you to understand the gift.” Margery looked at him, grateful.

“Please,” she said softly. Rowan gazed on ahead, thoughtful.

“If you wanted to become a Wielder and were really, honestly serious about it, you could become a scholar, focusing on knowledge, discovery, and research. You would need to find a partner who specialized in focused or applied Wielding, to work with, of course, but wisdom and those who seek it are sorely needed.” Margery smiled. Rowan turned toward her, an unrecognized expression twinkling in tawny hazel eyes. “Besides, there’s another reason why I can’t teach you more than just theory.”

“What would that be?” Margery asked, ducking under a tree branch as she rode.

“Whatever would your parents say?” Rowan asked. Margery suddenly realized what the sly twinkle in the young man’s eyes was—mischief. She moved to swat him, but Rowan moved much more quickly. She missed him completely as he swiftly ducked. “There are some things you should know beforehand,” Rowan said, turning serious. “There are certain laws which should be followed, when it comes to magic. These are not merely the laws of Ertraia, but the laws of righteous Wielders everywhere. Some laws are punishable by imprisonment; others by banishment, or instant death. To seek refuge in Ertraia is to put yourself under Ertraia’s justice. First of all, magic should never be used to take a life by any means, except in the defense of life. There are certain prayers and meditations that should be undertaken subsequent to the taking of a life in self-defense. Attempting to summon spirits is most certainly forbidden. If one of the saints speaks to you in a dream or vision, that’s a different thing entirely; but you must be cautious and examine the message of such a dream, analyzing it to decide if it truly comes from God or His saints. There is almost nothing in the world that is more dangerous than a magician under the influence of a demon; you must guard yourself carefully against the mental interference of such evil forces. Magic can not defend against evil spirits; only reverent prayer can do that. Using magic to compel someone against their free will is also forbidden. Magic should never be used for personal gain. Changing the appearance—the accidents, or circumstances—of some object is possible, but only our Lord—” he bowed his head, respectfully—“can change their substance or essence. To attempt to do so would be blasphemy. It is not permissible to attempt to create life, though imitating it is allowed, under certain dire circumstances. Only God can create life, give it and take it. Saving lives, however, is most certainly permissible and praiseworthy. Creating a bond with someone and then throwing them aside without a thought is unthinkable; bonds should not be created in the first place, unless it is absolutely necessary. Bonding with an animal and then forcing it off on its own is punishable by a fine. Courting dreams and visions is not necessarily culpable, but it is generally considered to be a stupid thing to do, as it can leave you open to suggestion by outside forces that might not be benign. Some forms of knowledge are better left alone; we do not believe that the enemy is best fought with his own weapons. That makes us worse than him, because we actually know better, and yet we still allow ourselves to be provoked. Not his own, no, but with equal and opposite ones.”

Margery looked solemnly at Rowan. “So, the gift comes with responsibilities.”

“As all true gifts do,” Rowan nodded solemnly. “All true gifts are given to us so that we may serve others. We are nothing on our own. It is folly to take our gifts for granted, though this is more a matter for personal guidance, rather than for the law. We walk similar lines in magic that we do in our everyday lives. We fall in similar ways; we make similar errors. The punishments are more severe because a rogue magician can cause more harm than an average man in the same plight. The only man who might cause more damage would be one in a position of power or influence. The more we are entrusted with, the higher the expectations. We must be on our guard at all times so that our power does not corrupt us, and take safeguards against greed.” Margery nodded, seriously.

“So, are all the stories about magic true? Not the ones that say all magicians are evil, of course, but the stories about what magic can do.”

“Some of them, but probably not all,” Rowan said. “Even magic has its rules and its limitations. And there are things that should not be attempted, not merely because they can cause physical harm, but because they are morally destructive to the Wielder as well.”

“What about the stories where someone is healed of a wound that should have been fatal?” Margery asked.

“Those are more likely to be true,” Rowan replied, looking down. Margery could not help it; her eyes were drawn to the ugly old scar on one cheek. How had that come about, if…? “Ertraia’s healers are the best in Scotland,” Rowan carried on, “perhaps the best in the world. Normal wounds are easy enough to heal. Magical wounds—those dealt by direct magical means—are more difficult. Some of our healers have traveled abroad to heal the wounds dealt in war and to aid the sick, but due to the persecution of magic users and other knowledge that seems to them of magic, they have had to keep their true abilities secret, and they have grown rarer. Some of our healers have gone out and never returned, and no word came back to us of their fate. We can only hope that they yet live, and are safe and well.”

“What’s the difference—I mean, how do you tell which magic is dark and which is light?”

“No. Don’t say ‘dark’ or ‘light,’” Rowan said. “Perhaps they are, as you use them, mere metaphors, but they are not quite perfect. To use ‘light’ to imply ‘good’ and ‘dark’ to imply ‘evil’ is not quite accurate. We must remember that they are mere metaphors and not innately good or evil of themselves. Darkness predates sin; it is not evil of itself. Even the light, in this broken world of ours, is flawed. Only the Light of Christ shines perfect. Furthermore, some people use ‘light’ to equate truth, and ‘dark’ for ignorance. But this is flawed as well; truth alone, on its own, without the light of grace and divine revelation, can point people in the wrong direction. A few scattered truths do not add up to a full picture. Truth can be colored by perspective, and twisted to the selfish ends of men. Reason unguided by faith can lead down a dark path indeed. Light illuminates, but it does not always guide.” Rowan fell silent; Margery sat, overawed, perfectly still in her saddle. Rowan cocked his head to one side. “What was the question again?”

Margery couldn’t help but laugh. With his philosophical dissertation, he had obviously forgotten entirely about the question that had prompted it. “I asked how I could tell the good from the bad. Or, maybe, a right use of magic from a wrong one?”

“Much the same way as you can tell a good action from a bad one on a purely ordinary level,” Rowan said. “If either the end or the action is not morally permissible on a completely material, natural, and spiritual standpoint, you can be sure it’s wrong no matter the means, ordinary or magical. Natural law. Conscience. Both apply in any situation.”

“By natural law, you mean the moral guidelines ingrained into us, almost instinct?” Margery clarified.

“Exactly.”

They continued to travel, Margery struggling to remember as much philosophy as she could, until nightfall.

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