In late November, Amalie/A.R. Frederiksen posted a tweet about a short story exchange.
It's me. I'm stuck in the query trenches where writing had lost its joy. And this exchange seemed perfect to get my writing joy back. I followed the thread instructions and sent off my prompt. On December 1, I received my prompt.
I found writing in the week between Christmas and New Year's to be rejuvenating and fun. I produced a 2150-word story that I hope my Santa's Secret Pen 2021 partner will love!
Mel Grebing received my prompt and produced a sweet little tale about a relationship in the lab space called Mistakes and Resolutions.
Time for Magic by Adria Bailton
The horse plodded forward, its foreleg breaking the snowdrifts with power. Chelsea yanked at the lining of her hood, pulling it farther forward to protect her face from the fat falling flakes. She’d numbed to the chill hours ago. Who needed warming spells when she could just freeze away all feeling? The horse snorted as if it agreed with her assessment.
“That’s a good boy, Roger.” She leaned forward and patted the chestnut’s neck. “It’s not far now.”
She’d traveled this journey three times, ever twelfth year of her life. Always alone, except for her horse. The path amongst the trees existed only when needed. The heavily falling snow obscured the path, but the destination pulled on her heart and mind, keeping her on track.
The trees opened and the path became a cobblestone road, cleared of snow, winding around the foothills. Roger’s movements eased. Chelsea rubbed her hands against the fur lining of her cloak, spreading it out to protect the stallion from the wet snow. He’d been payment for saving fallow fields for a village and had been with her for several years. She wanted him healthy.
Her last trip had started with unseasonably warm weather, but the return home had turned cold with sleet and she’d been too worn down from the trials to implement her newly acquired skills. Her mare had taken ill. Arriving home from her mage trial with an ailing horse had tarnished her reputation. If she could not keep a horse well, how could she heal a wound or ease pain in the chest? If she could not keep herself dry during a journey, how could she protect a village from floods?
She’d eventually recovered. But the mare had not been able to travel after that. She did not want the same for Roger.
Ruins rose before her as she followed the path around a bend. The snow became mist and descended upon the wood and stones before Chelsea identified the buildings. Roger’s pace increased, as though he knew the end of the long journey was nigh.
The mist tumbled down the hill and consumed her. This had scared her on her first journey to the Mage Center. By now she trusted her horse to stay on the road which would bring her to the gates. She reached them post haste. The iron sat askew, and the wood rotted through. Once she passed through the opening, the mist lifted, and everything changed.
The courtyard filled with people. To her right, her younger selves dismounted. She never turned left. Those who did became obsessed with the number of selves they saw. They would shift their focus to altering that number, trying to predict their death and circumvent it. Perhaps not all. But enough.
A stable hand met her at Roger’s head with a broad smile and teeth matched to their charge’s. They pressed their forehead to Roger’s and the horse gave a contented sigh. Chelsea patted Roger’s shoulder, whispered a goodbye, and removed her packs.
Chelsea turned to the courtyard to assess her destination. Each time, a different tower called to her and new lessons and trials began. The towers glowed and she selected the one matching her deep blue cloak. The courtyard was clean, kept so by the warm magic humming around the campus.
A host met her at the door, which barely crested in a point above their head.
Chelsea dipped her head forward.
“Would you like to eat or go to your room first?”
“A meal is welcome.”
The host stepped aside, and Chelsea entered a dining hall. Tables connected in three rows with benches alongside. She selected a seat with room for her packs and no one to converse with. Mage lights hovered in sets above, providing a warm glow. The table filled with bowls of grains and vegetables, legumes and fruits. Chelsea ate her fill. Last time, her entry trials had started right after her meal. The first time it they started after she’d put her packs in her room, before going to a meal. She would always choose to eat first.
She took a last swig of wine and stood, gathering her packs. A young adult slid to a stop across the table from her. Her dark hair was braided in patterns similar to those Chelsea wore her own green locks in when she was learning magic her first time here. The young woman looked at each dish. Then she pressed her hands together and drew them apart, making motions unfamiliar to Chelsea. The dishes disappeared from the table.
Her gaze briefly flitted across Chelsea’s face, quick as her smile. She fled with alacrity.
“Please follow me to your room,” the host said at her elbow.
Chelsea nodded. Normally, her emotions were contained but surprise at the opportunity to eat and spend time in her room suffused through her.
The host registered her astonishment. “Age has its benefits. You’ll find your accommodations more comfortable than the younger mages receive.”
“Thank you,” Chelsea said.
The room had a bed instead of the cot of her previous arrangements, a window like last time, and a fireplace. The desk, chair, and lamp were the same. Additionally, a private attached bathing room rather than sharing the common bathing room on each floor completed her quarters. The trek up the stairs, though, was far worse than her previous visits.
Chelsea warmed herself by a fire in the fireplace. A bell chimed and she called her guest in.
“Mage,” the elder addressed her.
Chelsea bowed her head in respect to him.
“Your trial of assessment starts now.”
Magic cannot be learned except at the Mage Center. Only those called can find the Center. No apprenticeship or years of study anywhere but here yielded the skills to warm a person or object, bring life to a fallow field, or heal the wounds and disease current medicine could not. Or any other magic for that matter. Chelsea’s well of magic was filled here and nowhere else. Some mages chose never to leave, for once the well was empty, magic was lost to the Mage until they recenter to the Center. Some Mages could not face that. Some Mages were granted magic early, and they returned to the Center every two or three or five years. But a Mage must arrive at the Mage Center when first called, or the well of magic cracked and would hold none. Some endured even longer spells between visits than Chelsea.
The well of magic varied between Mages. The frequency of the Mage Center call was unrelated. Some Mages stayed because their well was so shallow when the Center allowed them. Chelsea’s well was deep. Deep enough that she performed complicated and difficult magic and her well did not run dry for at least a decade.
But it had run dry months ago. The prospect of failure opened before her. The trickle of magic since she had crossed the gates had not replenished her.
She drew herself up to her full height and began the basic gestures of the first article of magic she learned two dozen years ago – palms pressed together then dropped and swung upward to invite the sky into her, to become one with it.
Hours later, or was it days? Chelsea completed the final article of magic she learned in her twelfth year. The trickle of magic sufficed for her magics of weather crops. Her first tower she’d chosen was green, one to keep another famine from wiping the countryside. The trial left her energized despite its duration. And hungry.
She refreshed herself in her private bath before returning to the tower’s main hall to find sustenance. Days passed before another elder addressed her while she walked in the courtyard. The yard had been active with another Mage arriving in all their stages. It all faded into mist.
“Mage,” the elder addressed her.
Chelsea bowed her head in respect to her.
“Your trial of assessment starts now.”
Chelsea’s well of magic had filled enough that the larger magics learned in her second visit, learned in the red tower, were now manageable. The healing magics learned in the red tower required more concentration and more fine control.
Again, hours or days passed. This time Chelsea was spent. She returned to her room and collapsed upon the soft mattress. She succumbed to a dreamless sleep before she could pull the wool blanket over herself.
When she woke, she again refreshed herself in her private bath and found the Great Hall for a meal. She had not spoken to other Mages since arriving. Most Mages kept to themselves within the walls and outside were far flung. Meeting a Mage within the walls risked difficult knowledge. For outside the Magic Center the other Mage might be a different age than the one met. Chelsea did not wish to know the future, a potential lifespan, information to withhold.
Her solitude broke when another Mage sat on the bench across the table from her. More dishes appeared. Chelsea nodded a welcome. The Mage began her meal. They ate together without speaking. Until Chelsea finished her meal.
“We will meet again and again,” the Mage said, her voice deep and melodious. “This is not the first time I’ve eaten with you. This is the Tower of Time. You have seven days of lessons and trials ahead.”
“You should not tell me these things.”
The Mage’s smile was oblique. “It does not matter. You will see.”
Despite the first and only warning the first day she arrived in her twelfth year from the Mage Center regarding time and knowledge, Chelsea yearned to ask. She hadn’t known this was the Tower of Time. The Towers simply drew her to them. Five towers stood each arrival, each emanating a color of nature. The magic each represented was unknown. The Mages she’d worked with in the intervening years all had similar experiences, though the visual of color was not the same. For some, the towers resonated music or emitted scents or another sensation.
When she’d been drawn to magics to prevent villages from starving and to heal, Chelsea acknowledged events in her past. Those who manipulated Time-they remained here at the Magic Center, to hold it outside the laws of the passage of time. She had no wish to remain. She had so many people left to help.
Chelsea bowed her head and turned. A child stood before her. As she watched the child aged up and back down. She wore the cord of an elder. Chelsea bowed her head yet again.
“Your lesson and trial start now,” the elder said.
It was as the Mage at the meal, Michelle, said. During seven grueling days Chelsea learned and demonstrated the rules of time and the power to manipulate it outside the walls of the Mage Center.
Her final lesson required no final trial. A dozen elders stood before her.
“You are released,” they announced as one.
Chelsea would not let the opportunity of learning from a dozen elders at once pass uncontested.
“Why did the time tower call to me? Famine and healing were clear to me. But I wish to leave these walls, not stay and hold the Mage Center outside of time.”
Her first tutor of the seven days answered, “That is the difficulty with time. You will need these skills and to learn them after will be too late. So, the tower called you before you need them.”
The tutor of her second day continued, “Now that you are released, the rules of time and knowledge instilled in other Mages no longer apply to you. You may do as you wish, look forward or back. Travel. Share your knowledge of time with whoever you wish. There are consequences you have learned.”
The tutor of her third day said, “Refill your reservoir of magic, then go forth. You will return. One day you will know it is your final journey, and you will stay.”
The tutor of her fourth day said, “The fluidity of time grants us knowledge, but it also grants us less certainty. Our answers to your questions will be unsatisfactory.”
Chelsea now understood the abilities she’d learned gave her all the answers she needed. She could stay as long as she wished to move in time and let her well refill while here. But her resolve to not let time become an obsession held true.
Twelve days of meals with Michelle and working magics with other Mages, for now she did not fear the knowledge, replenished her well of magic. She rode Roger out of the gates, the Center falling into ruins behind her.
Upon the road she met her friend Michelle who had just finished Battle Magic and not yet learned Time Magic.
“We shall be friends a long time,” Chelsea announced, certain in the knowledge. Happy to no longer travel alone.
Intereted in reading all two dozen stories produced for the inaugural Santa's Secret Pen hosted by A.R. Frederiksen? Read the Masterlist of Stories here.
Writer of spec fic.