The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 8)

The sky had been overcast, that summer noon two years ago, but the air moved less wildly than was usual on the island of Fiors, a mere warm breeze ruffling the shore grasses instead of whipping the knee-high strands.

Keiran—she’d been Keiran, not Keir, before she came to Belzetarn—stopped walking, turned her face up with closed eyes, and stretched her arms. The heat of the sun coming through the thin cloud cover felt good, as did the waffling of her light wool tunic against her midriff. Her long blond braid touched gently against her back. The hanging strings of her suede skirt had slapped her thighs as she strode, a happy rhythm lacking in colder seasons. But the soft leather of her right shoe—cut low and secured with two thongs across the bridge of her foot—had rubbed a blister on her smallest toe.

She didn’t care. She felt so free—free of constraint and free of care—on these warm days, with the salt scent of the sea in her nose and its salt taste on her lips.

“Keiran?” came the amused voice of her pater.

Keiran opened her eyes and grinned at him.

Engis stood some paces ahead of her, a big man with powerful shoulders and a craggy face—formidable in repose, but approachable when his eyes smiled as they did now. He wore an ankle-length robe of green wool, rather than the short tunic and trews preferred by most tribesmen. It camouflaged the peg leg that tended to disturb his neighbors.

“If magery could make me fly,” said Keiran, “I’d leave the ground right now, soaring.”

Pater’s laugh rumbled. “You did good work, back in Gullins, on little Peadar.”

The toddler had been her most complicated use of magery yet. He’d fallen in the estuary and been fished out unbreathing. Keiran had gotten his lungs clear of water, heart beating again, and then nursed him through a waning moon of lung fever, all under her pater’s supervision. He’d insisted she was ready when she’d attempted to hand little Peadar off to him in the crisis. And he’d been right. She’d just told the boy’s mother that Peadar was fully recovered and needed no more of Keiran’s attendance.

“Pater, why have you emphasized healing so much in my training?” she asked. “You spend more time strengthening the warriors’ knives and bucklers than anything else.”

His face hardened a moment, then relaxed. His lips quirked. “Come.” He beckoned. “This afternoon’s lesson will not be midwifery or chirurgery or even herbal preparation.” He turned away to follow the sandy path toward the dunes ahead. Step, thump. Step, thump.

Keiran studied his gait. Was it just a bit more uneven than usual? A little halting?

“Pater!” she called.

He kept walking.

She trotted to catch up to him. “Your stump is bothering you, isn’t it?”

She was close enough to hear his answering sigh. “It’ll keep.”

Keiran nibbled her lip. He wouldn’t thank her for coddling him, but she wished he were less stoic sometimes. She’d never noticed it when she was younger—taking his strength for granted—but all her healing knowledge informed her that he would fare better with more breaks for rest than he generally took.

The path widened, and Engis let her come alongside him.

“Aren’t you curious about what I’ll be teaching you?” he asked.

Keiran nodded.

“You’ll be summoning fishes and then sending them back to the deeps again when they come.”

“Why?” She could imagine such might be useful, if she fished for her living. But for a mage?

“If you can summon a fish and then dismiss it, you can learn to dismiss beings of greater power.” His voice grew edged. “I would have you strong enough to dismiss the afflicted, if need be.”

Keiran swallowed her annoyance and sympathy both. So many things came back to this, but how could they not? Engis had lost his lower leg to the attack of renegade trolls, and his hatred for the truldemagar was a personal thing, far sharper than that felt by the tribe as a whole.

Engis prepared for the next renegade band who would threaten him or his family, while the tribe prepared for the next time the troll horde migrated over the sea, inundating Fiors en route as it had done in Keiran’s grandmother’s youth.

Keiran stayed silent. There was nothing useful she could say that she hadn’t said before.

Her forbearance had its reward.

Engis sighed again. “I suppose we could stop at home first. Rub some goose grease into the scar before we go shoreward.”

The sea breeze, the rustling grasses, and the faint cry of a gull faded.

The shores of Fiors would never be her home again. She stood in the claustrophobic tin vault of Belzetarn, oppressed by its heavy stones, and counting tin.

She’d just tallied the last ingot, and there were eighty-two. Not eighty-three.

Who had stolen that eighty-third? And why? And—more importantly—how could she and Gael catch him, whoever he was?

These were questions currently without answers.

But Keir had an idea for what to do next.

* * *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 9)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 7)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)