art by Liz Clarke
The White Raven's Feather
by David D. Levine
Ibude's door slammed open, waking him from exhausted sleep into chill and darkness. Silhouetted in the flickering light from the hall was the hulking form of one of his guards. "Wizard!" he growled. "Warhaft Kraig demands your presence. Immediately!"
"I obey," Ibude replied. It was the first phrase in the Karshan language he had learned to utter. Quickly Ibude slipped from his bed and dressed himself in the rough woolen robe and fur overcloak his captors had given him. They themselves seemed to thrive on the cold.
The guard watched impassively as he dressed. Once Ibude would have protested this intrusion, or at least tried to shield his warm brown skin from the cold blue-eyed gaze of his captor. But three years of captivity had inured him to the absence of privacy.
"Bring your little dolls, your bones and rattles," the guard said. "Whatever you require to work your magic."
Ibude ignored the Karshan's sneer at the effigies of his ancestors. Shivering in his heavy fur boots, he bowed before his little altar and begged his ancestors' forgiveness for the sudden disruption before gathering up the few items upon it: the crude clay figurines, the skull of a horned puff adder, a tattered red parrot feather. The poorest servant back in Ubini would be ashamed of such a paltry altar, but if approached with the proper reverence it was just as effective as the Great King's altar with its trappings of polished brass and fine ivory. Even a simple stick, painted white and thrust into a mound of earth, could serve as an altar.
Ibude placed the altar items into the satchel that held his other ritual materials. "I am ready." Without a word the guard set off down the hall, where seal-oil lamps guttered in niches hacked from the stone-hard ice, staining the air with fish-stink smoke. Ibude scrambled to keep up. "Why am I summoned in the middle of the night?"
"War," the guard said without turning back. "The Svaargelders are massing on our borders."
Ibude stopped dead at the news.
War. Invasion. Destruction. Again.
Three years ago Ibude's life had been torn in half by war. He remembered the flames, the screams and clash of swords, the taste of smoke and grit... but worst of all, he remembered how he'd argued with his beloved Ejira. "This is no time for niceties!" she'd shouted, the beads in her hair rattling with the fierceness of her words.
"What you propose is worse than defeat!" he'd replied, and smacked the knife from her hand. Startled, she'd relaxed her grip on the black cockerel she held, which fled squawking from the room. "You would dishonor our ancestors!"
"For the sake of our children!"
Before he could reply, the barbarians had burst into the room, taking them both hostage. They'd never had a chance to reconcile.
Karsh and Svaargelt had been allies then, united by hatred of their neighbor to the north--Ibude's homeland, the warm and golden land of Ubini. But even then the Karshan Warhaft Kraig and the Svaargelder General Njarsten had distrusted each other. They'd divided Ubini's magical artifacts and practitioners between themselves with meticulous care, each unwilling to cede any potential advantage to his rival-ally.
This meant that Ubini's greatest team of research wizards must be split right down the middle. The random spin of a bronze dagger had sent Ibude to Stugar, the Karshan capital city, and Ejira--mother of his children, originator of some of their most important ideas, possessor of the darkest, smoothest skin and deepest brown eyes in the whole city... Ejira was sent to Svaargelt, slung across the back of a sweating reindeer like some plundered carpet. Ibude had screamed and fought so hard to follow her that they'd had to chain him up.
For two weeks he sat in his chains, refusing to speak, eat, or drink. Then Warhaft Kraig had come to him and told him he'd struck a deal with his Svaargelder counterpart: if Ibude died in custody, or was killed resisting orders or attempting escape, Ejira would be killed as well. "We must retain parity with our allies," Kraig had said, and though the sweating Ubini translator had delivered the statement in diplomatic language, the grin on Kraig's half-ruined face had been even uglier than his usual scowl.
From that moment Ibude had ceased to resist.
At first he'd tried to only appear to cooperate. But Kraig was too clever to be easily fooled; he demanded verifiable progress, on pain of death. And after the first year, Ibude found that concentrating on his research was the only thing that took his mind away from the cold and privation of the small ice-carved cave to which he had been exiled. The work was, in its way, a form of escape... and it reminded him of his dear Ejira.
The guard hurried Ibude from the ice cave to Kraig's headquarters, a two-story, peeled-log structure in the center of the city. Karshan soldiers drilled in the ice-choked streets, guttural chants accompanying each practice thrust of pike and sword. Everywhere whetstones shrieked, filling the air with the smell of metal and oil.
Inside the building, Kraig hulked over a map in the council chamber, surrounded by advisers and lieutenants. The Warhaft's face reminded Ibude of the ice-crusted rocky crags that surrounded this place: hairless, white and hard as a glacier, and scarred as though one cheek and eye had slumped away in a landslide. "Wizard," he rumbled when he saw Ibude. "Tell these men what you have been doing with my money for the last three years."
A dozen pairs of hard blue eyes converged on Ibude; he felt as though he were skewered on two dozen icicles. He swallowed. "Most worthy Warhaft," he said, "I have been researching nakowa-gbalu." Despite the chill of the room, sweat ran down his sides beneath his cloak. "It is a specific way of focusing the mind in worship, which my wife and I originated not long before the fall of Ubini."
"And what does it do?"
"If it works, it will create a force that presses outward. Like a wall of wind around a city, even a whole country."
"How close are you to delivering me this weapon?"
Ibude had never promised a weapon. Even if it could be made to work, nakowa-gbalu was an essentially defensive principle. "My researches make good progress. I feel that the ancestors are warming to my new formulation."
"The ancestors are warming?" Kraig sneered. "The accursed Njarsten has five legions massed on my borders. What can your precious ancestors do against them?"
"Do not mock the ancestors."
Kraig covered the distance between himself and Ibude in two long strides that made the wooden floor shudder. He was a full head taller. "If your ancestors are so by-Gods powerful," he roared, "why can't you smite the Svaargelders this minute?"
Ibude held up his hands. "Magic isn't metalwork, Warhaft! It takes time to develop the correct mental formulations. Even a small error in mental attitude can offend the ancestors, or attract evil forces from the invisible world."
Kraig closed his one good eye, clenched his hand into a trembling fist. "How. Long. Will. It. Take?"
"I... I don't know, Warhaft. Perhaps another year."
"You've already had three years!"
"If the process were more rapid, we would have defeated you three years ago." But even as he said it, Ibude realized he had crossed a line. The Warhaft's ice-white visage twisted with rage and he grabbed the front of Ibude's robe.
"Is there anything you can do for me?" Kraig shook Ibude until his brains rattled. "Or are you completely useless?"
If Ibude didn't give Kraig something he might die right here and now. Three years of research had not achieved the results he was sure nakowa-gbalu could deliver, but he had discovered other, smaller effects along the way... "I can show you exactly where the Svaargelders are and what they are doing."
Kraig's hands tightened on Ibude's robe and his one eye glared like sun on a frozen lake. "Do it. Right here, right now. Show me why I should not regret buying you costly materials for the last three years." Then, with one last hard twist at the fabric of Ibude's collar, he pushed him away.
Ibude staggered upright. "I obey, Warhaft." He had no choice.
He began by mixing a potion: powdered eye of fish-eagle for clear sight, flakes of puff-adder scale for quick action, burnt vulture feather for wisdom. Even after many years of magical practice it was still hard to choke the vile stuff down. Then he set up his paltry little altar on a log from the firepit.
He ran the parrot feather between his fingers before setting it down. Kraig had offered Ibude his pick of the magnificent magical artifacts looted from the Ubini treasury, but Ibude had declined them all, not wanting to give Kraig's possession of them any legitimacy whatsoever. Tattered and faded though the feather was, it still reminded him of the raucous bird that had perched on his father's shoulder in life.
Ibude bowed before the altar. Honored father, he prayed, I require your assistance.
Beyond and behind the visible, physical world lay an invisible world, where people lived before they were born and returned after they died. The invisible world was also home to the gods and many other spirits, and like the visible world it contained both good and evil. The two worlds affected each other in many ways: sometimes subtle, sometimes profound, and often difficult to understand. But the spirits of departed ancestors could sometimes be persuaded to exert their influence in the invisible world on behalf of their living relatives.
As he prayed to his father and his grandfathers and all the fathers before them, Ibude bent his mind in the patterns of nakowa-gbalu. The magic he was trying to work was much simpler than the full nakowa-gbalu, but it was a novel formulation and there was a good chance the Svaargelders' captured Ubini battle mages had not set up wards against it.
Anyone could pray, and if they were worthy and pure of heart the ancestors might fulfill their wishes, but a true wizard could focus his spirit, attune his essence to the flows and currents of the invisible world, and achieve otherwise impossible results. It took years of practice, and the more Ibude learned the more he realized he did not know. But sometimes, if the climate in the invisible world was right and the ancestors were in a receptive mood...
Someone screamed. Ibude's eyes snapped open, but it took a moment to focus.
An enormous fire had broken out in the middle of the Karshans' map, sparks spitting, flames leaping man-high, smoke spreading across the ceiling beams. Kraig and his lieutenants ran around, shouting and slapping at the fire with their fur cloaks. "Wait!" Ibude cried. "This is from the ancestors!"
And, indeed, a moment later the fire extinguished itself, flames furling up and vanishing into space, smoke dissipating like a flock of frightened birds.
A moment after that, Kraig smacked Ibude to the floor with one enormous hand and drew the dagger from its sheath at his hip. "This is how you repay me?" he yelled. "By destroying my map?" He yanked Ibude to his knees and raised the dagger for a killing blow.