I attempted to console Warre on our way out of the northerner encampment, not because I thought it would actually succeed, but because it was easier than talking to Taeyr. We'd reached an agreement on the most volatile issue laying between us and now I simply had no idea how to start on everything else. The gossip of a dozen kingdoms was meaningless to him and between two archmages, it was trivial nonsense. My own doings had been of little consequence as I had been intentional in what I involved myself in to avoid taking an active role in shaping the world. I had dictated magic, that was enough for one lifetime – even one as long as mine. So, then, what was left? My anger at being alone for so long when he knew I was alive? My own guilt at assuming he was dead and never seeking him out? These were things I could not voice, so I talked to Warre instead. If the spy-master understood the purpose behind this, he did not show it. In fact, he seemed rather angry and I suspected it was directed at both of us. His hands strayed to the cords binding his wrists often and I knew that had to be a large part of it, that he resented being rendered so helpless, that he hated his own weakness in the face of Taeyr's power. Perhaps he blamed me for not being there to protect him or not making any move to break the bindings that still remained on him. I would have to explain later, in private, and pray he understood.
"It really is something else to hear Taeyr work magic," I said idly as we waited for Ratter to return with the horses, just outside the palisade, "It's unlike anything you've seen me do."
Taeyr was standing just a few paces off, looking out into the forest, and I knew he was listening. He enjoyed hearing about how great he was. So did I.
"Hear?" Even while angry, the spy did not miss the details.
"Yes," I confirmed, "The archmages never worked magic in a straight-forward way. That was how people died, back then, because magic is too wild to touch in its raw form. We all saw it side-ways – myself as light – and Taeyr saw, or heard, rather, magic as sound. It's remarkable. They northerners call him the Song-Mage and that's because when he works magic, he sings to weave it. I trace patterns of light. He uses song. All that practice has made him quite good at it, and that was a long time ago that I heard him last. I imagine he's gotten much better."
We were both looking at Taeyr's back now, who remained where he was, watching the forest. It was still many hours from dawn and the darkness at the tree line was absolute.
"Why music?" Warre asked.
I remained silent, for this was only something Taeyr could answer, just as he could not answer for me why I saw light. In my case, the answer was simple. I first saw magic in the motes of gold sunlight along the floor of my parent's cottage. I mistook them for magic and studied them until they became the power that hissed in my veins, that had lain dormant for fear of touching it. It was a child's folly that showed me the magic in the spectrum, and it was this sideways view of magic that saved me from it.
Taeyr tilted his head back, looking at the stars. He had his thumbs hooked in the sash around his waist, his stance tilted to put most his weight on one leg.
"I was born blind," he said, "I never saw magic because there had never been anything for me to see. I heard it instead, as that was the entirety of my world. Then, once I had listened long enough to understand it, I fixed my eyes."
I felt disoriented. For a moment, I could only stand there speechless, watching Taeyr's back.
"I had no idea," I whispered.
"Well, I never told you. Back then, I was content to play the seer, but I didn't want to play the blind seer." He turned so that he could look back at me. There was a tight, old anger on his face. "I only spent my childhood as a cripple, but it was enough. Besides. Can you imagine what would have happened if word spread that I had healed my own blindness? I can't do that for everyone, or perhaps not anyone. My own eyes... I didn't really heal them, not at first. Do you understand how sight works? I don't. So I just worked a spell to make them work, regardless of physiology, and over time I refined it until I think the spell became part of me just like my flesh and bone."
"It must have hurt," I said softly. Forced healing was difficult on the body and that was even with an understanding of how the muscle and skin was meant to go together.
"It did." He dropped his gaze. "For a long time. But being able to see was worth it and as I learned more about my own magic, it got better. I don't feel anything now."
Absently, he reached up to touch the edge of his face, at the corner of his eye. Then he dropped his hand and looked aside, sharply. Ratter was returning with the horses. The northerner fell in behind us and we headed to the treeline as a group, Taeyr taking the lead. I noticed that Warre walked close behind the archmage and he seemed uneasier now than he had before. I dropped back a pace, thinking that perhaps the spy wanted to speak to Taeyr, and it seemed my suspicion was correct.
"Archmage," Warre said and I was amazed at how calmly neutral his voice was, "If we're to spy for you, you understand that it could turn dangerous."
"Then I ask again if you would remove these binds."
"No. I have decided and I will not be swayed. I saw into your mind, spy-master, and I know you would kill me if you could and that you have utter disregard for the lives of the northerners. The binding stays." Taeyr cast a glance back at me. "Lada, I'd appreciate if you respected this."
"That was pretty high on our list of rules," I replied peevishly, "You don't break the working of another archmage."
"They were never official rules."
"Berain wrote them down once, the presumptuous upstart. I should have kicked him while he was down a few more times than I did."
Taeyr's eyebrows rose but otherwise he made no comment at that. We continued on in silence, Warre brooding unhappily, until we passed deep enough into the forest to obscure the camp from sight behind us. Then we stopped and congregated into a rough circled. I blew out a breath, feeling a touch of trepidation pass through me, and I looked the three men over briefly.
"Right then," I said, "Ratter, stay here. I'll return shortly."
"Good luck, Lada," Taeyr said softly. I knew why he wished me this and I nodded at him, met his eyes for a moment. I still could not believe that he had been blind at one point.
"I don't understand," Warre interjected, "Where are you going?"
"Off. Out of sight. It's a difficult transformation and I've never done it before, so I need to ensure there's as few complications as possible. Which means I need to shed my clothing. If I'd done this before, I could reshape it along with my form, but..."
I spread my hands out to either side in a helpless gesture to illustrate my point. Warre dropped his head in a nod and didn't raise his eyes, a subtle gesture of obeisance.
"Of course," he murmured, "Forgive me for being so intrusive."
"Forgiven. I'll return shortly."
I walked a good distance away until I was convinced I was both out of eye-shot and earshot of the three men. Then, I took a deep breath, and steeled myself for what was to come. I undressed quickly, shivering in the northern cold, and shuddered when it came time to abandon my boots. I spread out my mantle on the ground to stand on, to keep my bare feet from direct contact with the snow, but it was little help. The cold set in quickly, like dozens of needles pricking my skin. I shoved all this out of mind and took a deep breath, the cold invading my lungs so that I felt like I would never be warm again. I had been around Ratter enough to have a clear picture of his species bone structure and particulars of appearance, but I feared there were other, minute, details that I would get wrong. However, this would be a start. I could correct the minutia later, once the hard part was done.
I focused my power inwards. The spectrum shifted into life around me. Mages had to perform elaborate rituals to change shape, they had to bind their magic to the form they wanted to transform into. Many of them, having achieved enough practice to forgo some of the ritual, would carry an amulet of the animal they preferred to shift into, so that they might transform on the fly if the need occurred. It was rare that these mages could accomplish that, however. For myself, I only needed to envision the creature in my head, clearly, and fix it in my mind, both the end result and the transition itself – the flow of muscle and bone into another shape. From there, I would cast it to the shifting curtains of light that even now enveloped me, and let the magic take its course. The danger was in not letting go once the transformation was complete, and maintaining a sense of myself throughout the process. I tried to gasp as the magic took hold in my heart and bones, but I had lost all sensation to my body and I could no longer hold to the fastness of breath and heartbeat. I was cut loose, adrift in my magic, waiting until I was confident the spell had finished. Then, after a timeless space of drifting within my own power, I shook myself and reached out for my own flesh. It was cold, numb, and I reluctantly anchored myself to it and shoved away the drifting streamers of light. I opened my eyes and found I was laying on my side, staring out into a night that seemed duller only by the absence of my power. I weakly shoved myself to my hands and knees and then sat back on my haunches, examining the change.
I was lean, smaller than before, and I felt strong. Agile. My senses were sharper, but that was not due to knowing how the northerners functioned in these capacities, but more from my own conception of what it should be. Sight was difficult, as Taeyr had said, and scent and hearing were no different. I still did not have night-vision like the northerners did and would have to compensate with my power. I was starting to feel warm again and I ran my hand along my forearm, studying the clawed digits, and peeling the fur back to regard the under-layer. I had at first thought the northerners fur was far too thin to weather this climate, but in the course of this journey I had found there was an undercoat that trapped in heat. This was starting to help me now. I side-stepped off my mantle, intending to gather up my discarded clothing, and fell. I twisted, staring at my feet, and snarled. The sound came out as a sub-vocalization. My voice was not accustomed to this form and apparently neither were my feet. I had walked as a four-legged creature before, but this was a hybrid, and it was close enough to both human and animal that I wasn't quite sure how to handle it. It would take some effort to adjust and I feared for Warre, who had walked only as human. The spy would have difficulty.
I had managed to find my feet by the time Taeyr came looking for me. I was balanced near a tree, one hand against it for support, readying myself to take a tentative step. The archmage was careful to make some noise as he approached and then he paused before he could see me clearly, keeping his gaze averted.
"It's fine," I called out to him, surprised at the change in pitch of my voice, "I'm changed. Still naked though."
"That's custom among the northerners," he replied, "Clothing is more for function than necessity. I left Warre with Ratter. The northerner is going to help him adjust. I came to see how you were getting along."
"I don't have night-vision and I'm not sure I got all the details of a female northerner."
He walked closer and gestured, conjuring light. His eyes darted across my body and I looked away, suddenly self-conscious. I was not embarrassed for the reasons one would think, as I was no longer my own form and had nothing to hide. No, I was concerned that I had missed something, that he would find fault in how I worked my magic. I had spent so long being the best at this that the sudden presence of an equal completely unnerved me. Taeyr drew closer, running his eyes along my spine, then shifting to stand in front of me. He reached out and took my hand, drawing me upright, and I balanced precariously on the thin toes of this body.
"Lean back somewhat," he murmured, "Bend your knees. That's more stable. If you have to run, just drop to all fours. I don't think you'll be able to manage two and no one will think odd of it."
"Do I look complete?"
"Mmm. Almost. There's a couple things I would change, not because they're wrong, but because you have the form of a dominant northerner. You'll be able to pass by unnoticed easily if you were smaller and.. your ears... hmm."
He gently touched them and I fought not to shy away.
"Would you like me to make the corrections?" he asked.
"I'm not certain I can trust you."
He smiled, faintly. It was a sad sort of gesture.
"Because of politics? We'll both outlive those, Lada, and I think you're not so begrudging as to hate me for unraveling part of your structure."
"I don't like it," I admitted, "but as I said before, it is your right. I just – it's been a long time."
It was a poor excuse for not trusting someone. Taeyr smiled though and this time it was genuine. He cupped my chin with one hand and lifted my gaze to meet his own gray eyes. I still could not believe that at one point, he had been blind. There was none of that in his mannerisms now, which I supposed was his intent.
"Is it because I left you alone for so long?" he asked gently. I dropped my gaze as best I could without pulling away from him.
"It is," I whispered, "I just don't know what to think about that. We weren't that close, you keep saying that, but still – we're both archmages, Taeyr! We studied together for a time, we taught each other, and while we never saw eye-to-eye on... a lot of things... I'd like to think there was at least something there."
"We were never exactly friends."
"Were we?" I challenged, "Maybe you're right. But – I think I'd like for us to be."
"And here we are on opposite sides of this conflict," he sighed, "and with me undoing a large swath of your hard work. Great start to a friendship. Still – would you permit me to make the alterations now? Consider it a first step."
"Very well. If nothing else, I've missed your songs."
He smiled gently. I knew, logically, that my desperation was because I needed someone to cling to, someone that was like me so I wouldn't be so achingly alone in this world. Taeyr was a poor option, as he was right in how our relationship had been in the past, but he was the only option and our isolation would give us much in common. The archmage placed a hand on either side of my head, above the ears, and I wondered if his preference for touch was actually a remainder of his blindness, as he had learned to cast spells while he could not see. I resolved to not ask him about it. My curiosity wasn't so great that I had to point out to him something he'd probably rather remain buried.
Then, Taeyr hummed a note. It was just one, clear and crisp, and I closed my eyes as I felt his power bloom around us. He shifted in pitch, then I heard his voice. He sang, a wordless tune, haunting and clear, a slow cadence that made my very bones ache. It was a lament, I thought, and while I could not say what it was for, I knew it was for someone who mourned and my heart broke with them as Taeyr shifted from note to note, weaving his magic into those subtle patterns of music. I didn't even feel the alterations he made to my form. He continued to sing, and passed a hand over my eyes, and I kept them closed as the spell sank in. His voice was growing soft now, alternating between two notes in steady intervals, and then it trailed off altogether. I wondered if he had ended the song early now that the spell was done. He might have. Taeyr had grown so accustomed to his song as a way of casting that he viewed it as a tool instead of an art. It had irked me, at first, when I first met him. His songs were beautiful and he was careless with them.
"All done," he whispered, "You've lost about two inches of height and there's a couple other cosmetic changes."
"And you gave me the ability to see," I said, gazing about me. The night seemed brighter, but the colors were muted. Like everything had been screened in white.
"What do you think you'll find, when you go to the clans?"
"I'm not sure." I avoided his gaze. I think he knew what I suspected, but neither of us appeared willing to voice his vulnerability.
"I thought my position was so absolute," Taeyr said softly, turning away from me, "That no one would consider harming me. I suppose that's my own arrogance – and here I am, chiding you for your own."
"It'll be fine." I shrugged. "There's two archmages here now and if I can't find anything, I'll still return to protect you when your working is ready."
He was silent at that. I knew, then, that he still did not trust me either.
"You don't have much choice in this one, Taeyr," I warned, "You're getting my help, even if you find it suspect."
I turned to go. My intent was to snatch up the debris of my clothing and stalk back to where Warre waited, but the dramatic exit I planned was not to be. I missteped, trying to use the joint of my ankle as a heel instead of what it was intended for, and my legs buckled and I feel back. Taeyr lunged and caught me on the way down, grunting with the effort of breaking my fall. For a moment we remained there, he gazing down at me in mute surprise, as if he didn't believe he'd just jumped to my rescue; myself stunned silent at my own abated attempt to be a show-off. Then Taeyr started to laugh and I could not help but join in.