The Mage on Shallow Shores

If the land is steeped in dragon blood, running from the mountaintops of their winter slumber to the very edges of the land, then the sea is the urn that collects it all: its heart. Most forget, because it is in the mountains where the strongest magic is cast, and past the valleys are dry, dead, lands where not even the most powerful and experienced priests can feel the dragon's pulse. Between the mountains and the valleys is power in plentiful: power that nourishes our fields and fires, our love and life, and between the two tallest mountains is the palace where the Prophet sits on the Emperor's heels, the dragon's pulse pounding so loud in his ears he can hear nothing else.

The potential that lies on our shores is abandoned. The fish-people who live there are used to sandy, barren, land and no magic they can call upon themselves. Instead, they trade fish and shells and salt swept up by the sea for greens that only grow inland, and clothes they lack the means to produce. For tools and weapons, they grind the bones of their prey, and they make do without the rest.

But they don't think to use the sea for the magic that has pooled into it since the dragon first took roost on our mountaintops. Magic is for the inlanders, the ones close to the dragon's pulse. And there is aplenty for them, their limitations their own ignorance or the strength of their minds – but when one is expelled from that inner circle, we must turn our minds to other avenues.

I would like to call it a misunderstanding, and it is, but the fault is mine. Magic and the dragon's pulse are not for destruction and priesthood is the epitome of conservation towards which we strive. But I have too much of the wilderness in me. I was but a common mage and yet experimented beyond my means. And I paid the price: was cut off from the dragon's pulse and sent on my way with no more than I could carry on my back.

And at first, I wandered aimlessly. I'd known the risk of carelessness but coming to terms with it was another matter. I was dropped where the earth was dry and cracked out of view from the river beds, but the bank still had water and sparse greens and the faint pulse of magic in it.

I despaired. There was only enough magic for the land. A small fire for the first night had caused the plants that grew on the bank to rot and crumble, and the three days I could spare before I had to move on for food showed no fresh sprouts to renew. I refrained from casting again after that: walked during the cold nights and slept when the sun was highest in the sky.

A week later, I stumbled upon a group of fish-people, travelling to meet a trading caravan. They agreed to let me accompany them with little fuss, but they walked so fast and far from the bank that I could not keep up. They dragged my dry and screaming body half into the water and left me there. I leeched the faint blood still in the water, and once again the banks suffered for it. And for what? I wondered. I was no longer welcome inland, and I had just proven incapable of keeping up with life on the wild shores.

I may be an experimenter, but I was too steeped in the ways of magic to live without. Still am, but I understand more now. Or have more. And perhaps the reason it's escaped all others is that limitless power that can be siphoned from anywhere between the valleys and the mountains they embrace. And why recycle when the well is bottomless? But I had no rope nor bucket to supply myself with water from that well. I needed to find another way instead: puddles, leaks or a collecting bed.

With that thought, I followed the river. Perhaps a larger one would have more to offer but the rivers only got smaller, like the shadows of mountain peaks at my back. But eventually I reached the sea: blue except when foam dribbled from its lips onto the shore. And I hungered for both food and magic then, for the greens that grew on the banks had grown less the further I walked, till there was nothing to be found at all. I'd pressed on anyway, because there was nothing else. I pressed on and here I found myself: where the only foods were algae soaked in salt and fish I was too weak and ignorant to hunt.

Of course, the fish-people noticed me. A hefty number of them: enough for a village, or more. More than I expected. And they were kind and welcoming enough. Impatient with my physical weakness and my ignorance, but they fed me, and taught me to row boat and swim and fish with their children. Treated me like I was a child myself, once I'd failed to meet their adult standards three days hence, or like I was addle-brained. But I was dependent on their tuition, at least until I'd grasped this new life for my own.

Once I'd built a boat for myself, I was less a child and more an adult again. I joined the dinner fishing shifts, but my free time was spent amongst the waves, bronze under the sun and silver beneath the moon. And amidst a lull in the waves, I sought the dragon's pulse again.

I had not forgotten magic. Though I lived with the fish-people now, I was a mage in my heart of hearts, and I was not alive until I could feel the faint thrill of the dragon's pulse. On the shores was a dead silence that threw off my balance: let me stumble like wine-drunk till the shock of cold water woke me up again. The magic in the rivers that fed the sea were all but indistinguishable as well, but in the boat when the shores were just barely still in view, I could hear the dragon's pulse.

At first, I thought I'd dreamt it, as desperate as I was to feel the thrill of magic again. But it was a simple test. I set fire to my net, and let the waves battle it to all our hearts' content. And when spots danced before my eyes, I let the flames drown and my soul as well: drown in the wine that was the sight of magic after so long.

But I no longer require magic to light a flame. That cast was an act of self-indulgence on my part, and I allowed myself that one, but the fish-people light fires through other means and I'd learnt them by now. It's not quite the ease of snapping fingers but it's good enough. Magic is a travelling performer's tricks for them. But I'd found a reservoir of magical energy now. And in a place where only the fishes feel the backlash. Fishes that become my meals, since the fish-people cringe at the bloodless corpses as though they're filled with poison instead. But we leave each other be, and they are silently grateful for the extra live fish I scare in their direction, just as I am grateful for their tutelage and this little corner of their sanctum.

But we are different sorts of beings, the fish-people and I. Different from the other mages too, except the expelled like myself. The shoreline is long, though, and it curves around the island. I never see nor hear of others, if fortune or the fish-people – or both – had smiled upon them. Regardless, I have found my opportunity. I have the sea as my experimenting grounds and once the boat proves too small and too unstable, I begin to build my new home instead. It is infused with the magic I leach from the waves, elsewise the base will rot with time and I'll find one day my bed's a watery grave instead.

Perhaps I still will. The sea is limitless but we define limits by our limited knowledge and neither I nor the fish-people venture out of sight of the island. The shores recede, but the tips of the tallest mountains are still in view and that is the world we know. Beyond is the blank space of a map we are yet to draw and there is no-one – fish-people or mage or inland dweller – who cares to explore. I am an oddity here: restless by nature, but my exploring fingers dip into the blood of the dragon and nothing more. It is magic that beckons me: that christened and rechristened me, that's the flow and ebb and flow of tides that collects the dragon blood that's run down the mountains and through the valleys and rivers… And now I have a pool no-one else will touch, and in this house of mine I dance with all the thoughts that were too large for life before.

The house breaks often and I remake it. The patchwork fades with no-one close enough to stare. The fish-people forget what doesn't directly affect them and I've drifted away, on this anchored sea-house of mine. I'm the strange man who scares the fish and makes inadvertent light shows, and, when my legs cramp, walks on water because there's no land nearby. They see the house from the shores, just as I see the shores from my home. Spells dance within my walls or on the waves: light, heat, sound… It's a canvas upon which I paint and repaint until I have a masterpiece and it matters not that, likely, none will reap the fruits of this future masterpiece so long as the masterpiece is born. This is my life now, where the magic pools: in the heart of the dragon that feeds the land and the dragon pulse drums in my ears.


Writing Challenge Contest (The Review Game), September 2016, prompt:
"That the moon causes tides
seems too witchy to be science.
The sea purging sheet iron,
jeans, a jewel-eyed
alabastar goat. Is that
why I'm here?"
- from the poem "Exciting the Canvas" by Kaveh Akbar