Gift of the Unmage
Cheveyo pointed to what looked like a vertical cliff rearing squarely in their path and said, “Climb.”
“Climb? That? How?” Thea gasped after a moment of stunned silence, craning her neck to where the edge of the towering mesa seemed to split the sky. “I can’t crawl up sheer rock walls like a spider!”
Cheveyo seemed to find something about that remark amusing, because there was a flash of a smile in his dark eyes. But he chose not to respond directly. Instead, he merely pointed to what seemed to be no more than a small indentation in the rock. Taking a closer look, Thea suddenly saw something she had failed to notice before. What she had thought of as a tiny hole in the rock had another just like it a little way above it. And then another.
It was a toehold. This was a ladder.
Thea looked up at the cliff face again. “Oh, my stars,” she said in a small voice.
She glanced at Cheveyo but he, other than folding his arms across his chest in a manner that suggested that he’d wait as long as necessary, merely inclined his head at her.
“Did your people make this?” she asked.
“And climbed it,” he said tranquilly, “with water gourds on their heads when it was the dry season. You carry nothing except yourself. Climb.”
Thea drew a deep breath and tucked her sandaled toe into the first indentation, feeling for the matching hand hold above her. It was lower than she thought it would be; she knew a moment of panic as her fingernails scrabbled on bare rock, but then they slipped into their niche. Thea hung her weight from her fingers, lifted her other foot, found a toehold, and inched upwards with exquisite care.
“There is a tree at the top of the mesa,” Cheveyo called out to her as she climbed. “Wait there until you are summoned.”
Thea paused, shifted her grip a little. “But how will I know who…? When is…?”
Cheveyo heaved a deep sigh. “Catori,” he said, “if there is one thing you should have learned by now it’s that your questions almost always answer themselves. Go up, find your tree, sit. Wait.” And then added, cryptically, “Kill nothing up there.”
She had had little choice. She squared her jaw, straightened her body, lifted her eyes, sought the next hand hold. She did not look down again until she was pulling herself up, breathing hard, over the edge of the mesa.
Cheveyo had gone.
Alone, she took stock of her perch. The mesa was smaller than she had thought it would be, and far from flat—it had a rugged, uneven surface that had a definite downward slant in the direction facing away from the ladder. There was nothing there except a few scraggly juniper bushes and a solitary gnarled pine tree that crouched squarely in the middle of the mesa.
The sun had set. It was the instant before moonrise, and there would be a full moon that night.
Thea amused herself by weaving a tiny ribbon of the reds and golds of the fading sunset, a feat which until only a few weeks ago would have seemed nothing short of miraculous to her but which was now something oddly familiar, something that brought comfort and peace to her. But then it began to grow dark, with unsettling speed, shadows spreading like a cloak across the land. Thea was left with nothing but a ribbon of woven sunlight to warm her. She usually allowed her handiwork to dissipate as the light that gave it birth faded from around her, but this she held on to, cupping it in her hands, willing it to stay together. As the sky brightened for moonrise, she even reached out for a strand of distant silver and began working it into the edges of the evanescent thread of light that she held.
Who knew you’d be a true weaver?
Cheveyo’s voice and cryptic words echoed in her mind. She tried to weave the words into her ribbon, puzzling out their meaning, and then felt a sudden tickle as something scampered across her bare shin, tiny tickling running feathersteps. She loosened one hand from her patch of light weaving, raised it to swat at whatever had climbed up onto her, and then froze mid motion as Cheveyo’s voice echoed in her mind.
Kill nothing up there.
Her skin crawling at the touch of insect legs, Thea clenched her teeth and allowed her hand to gently fall back into her lap.
“Look at the ground at your feet,” a tiny but imperious voice instructed Thea.
She did, and realized that there was a darker shadow there, a hole in the ground, something that she could have sworn had not been there moments before.
“Welcome,” the tiny voice said. “Please, come into my house.”
Thea involuntarily glanced upwards, but the mesa was just as empty as it was a moment ago—except for that disembodied voice, and the small hole by the toe of her woven sandal.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“In the palm of your hand,” the small voice said.
In the midst of Thea’s sunset weave that had been edged with moonrise sat a spider, its legs sunken into the light.
“Come into my house,” the spider said.
“But how can I?” Thea said helplessly.
“Follow me,” the spider said. It disengaged itself from the weave, and almost instantly disappeared into the gathering shadows. But the light clung to its feet like droplets of water, and it left a delicate trail of splintered light where it walked—off Thea’s hand, over her knee, onto the ground, into the hole.
“But I cannot come through this entrance,” Thea whispered, watching the spider track vanish into the darkness.
“Stand,” she was told, the spider’s voice coming from within the hole.
She obeyed, and as she did so the darkness swirled inside the hole, and the hole somehow grew bigger, but without apparently taking up any more of the space of the mesa-top than it had done before. Or the mesa-top had grown larger with it, to accommodate it. Or else Thea had shrunk down to the size of a spider…
Her mind spinning, she fell forward into the hole…
…and found herself standing upright, on her own two feet, in a cavern lit by a pair of torches and a large fire on a central hearth. Beside the hearth, on a comfortable nest made from animal skins, sat an old woman.
Or a young woman, maybe, with an old woman’s white hair bobbed just at the jawline, swinging forward as she reached out to prod at the fire. It was hard to tell—as she looked up at Thea with a smile hovering around her eyes, her face was a young woman’s face, with smooth unlined bronze skin.
“As old as time, as young as eternity,” the woman said, apparently in response to Thea’s unspoken thoughts.
“Cheveyo sent me,” Thea said, and then felt like an utter idiot. It was as though she were offering a password, to someone who had not asked for one. Instead, she had been invited into this woman’s house. In Thea’s world, visitors brought offerings—flowers, chocolates, sometimes a contribution of food, depending on the occasion. Here, she was the visitor, and she suddenly naked and vulnerable, someone who had barged in without a gift, without a thought for simple courtesy.
But she had nothing to give, nothing except…
She glanced down into her hand. The light weaving still shimmered there, dulled now in the brightness of the cavern, but still holding on to its own glow.
She stepped forward, extending her hand with the light patch resting in the middle of her palm.
“This is for you,” she said.
The woman inclined her head, nodded graciously, and took the weaving in both hands, examining it.
“A true weaver,” she said at length, after a few moments of silence. “This is a precious guest gift, more so than you know. Will you sit at my fire?”
Thea folded herself with as much grace as she could muster onto a separate pile of furs apparently laid aside for a visitor, without taking her eyes off her hostess’s face. It was an odd face, for all the reasons she had already thought about—a young face under hair glowing white with the light of old age—but it was more than that. It seemed to shift and flow; even the skin changed hue, subtly, as Thea watched, shading from a pale blue-white to a warm glow of something resembling polished mahogany, and back to a creamy ivory. The eyes were a wonder all by themselves, reflecting the flames of the hearth as though tiny little fires burned behind each bright surface.
For a moment, Thea thought she caught the features shape themselves fleetingly into a more feminine version of Cheveyo’s own chiseled face.
And she had used his words. His exact words.
“Who are you?” Thea said at last, very quietly.
The woman chuckled to herself. “Many names are mine,” she said. “You may call me Grandmother Spider.”
In a world of strange things, that almost failed to seem odd to Thea. She could have queried the name and what it meant, but under the circumstances there were other questions that seemed more urgent at the moment. “Has he sent me here to test me?” she asked. Her voice trembled, just a little, despite her best efforts to control it.
“Perhaps,” Grandmother Spider said. “That entirely depends on what you mean by being tested. My guess is that he saw a true weaver and sent her to the center of the web. You are a seeker, I think—you ask questions, and Cheveyo my son is not one to give answers freely…”
“He is your son?” Thea said, unable to stop herself.
“As all men are my sons,” the woman said, “and as you are my granddaughter, and as life sprang from my music and my thought and my flesh and my bone.”
“I think I have read about you,” Thea said, choosing her words carefully. “Are you one of the old gods?”
“There are no old gods,” Grandmother Spider said serenely. “They are, or they are not. The things people believe in are born anew every morning in their souls, like the sun rises new at every dawn. I go everywhere and I know all things. I know whence you came and where you are going. If such things make one a god, then perhaps I am one. But I am what I am—I was a beginning. One of many. Or maybe there is only one beginning and some of us are merely echoes of that first primeval light of being.”
Thea, aware that her mouth was hanging open in a most unseemly fashion, shut it with a snap. At least Cheveyo was relatively practical; if he summoned flame in magical ways out of the thin air around him, it was practical magic, applied to a practical purpose—lighting his way in the night. Grandmother Spider seemed more like she had stepped out of a fairy tale…
“Teaching tale,” Grandmother Spider said, as though Thea had spoken her thoughts out loud. “And old Grandmother Spider is as practical as practical gets. If giving mankind corn that sprang from the bones of my avatar, whom I told them to bury in a particular field when she died, is not practical enough, just look around you.”
Thea swept her gaze over the cavern’s walls, but could see nothing there except a handful of what, in her own world, found its way into curio shops under the catchall name of “dreamcatchers”. Grandmother Spider’s were impossibly delicate, webs spun so thin that they trembled in every breath of air that brushed them, strung within a frame of something fragile and transparent, like long slivers of glass.
It did not look very practical to Thea.
“And yet,” Grandmother Spider said, “these catch real dreams. When the Alphiri came for them, I sold them only the design, not the magic. Some of it clings, sure, because the purpose for which a thing is made is part of its magic. But no real magic, not for a dream catcher. The Alphiri would have asked too high a price for those, if they had got their hands on them.”
That was all Thea could manage to utter. The words contained everything—astonishment; fury; even a little fear. In the back of her mind the vision of her dream returned, vividly: the three Hawaiian-shirted Alphiri traders bending over the child-that-was Thea in that long-ago hotel room.
Grandmother Spider turned serene eyes on Thea. “The Alphiri,” she repeated firmly. “The World-eaters. They’ve been to many worlds searching for the one thing they cannot find. They came but recently to your own world, a young world, ready and eager to trade its dreams even before the dreams knew their own nature. You yourself know this. They were at your door with a copy of the Trade Codex before you could talk— but it was the wrong world, and things never got past the beginning…”
“I remember the Alphiri,” Thea murmured. “They came, when I was young. They wanted something from me.”
“They still do. They keep an eye on things from which they might make a profit.”
“You know,” Thea said, jogged into an unexpected memory, “my father sometimes brought home some of the weirder things he found lurking in the feral libraries after he cleaned up the backwash of the wild magic. There was a time he brought back a whole bunch of things that had somehow become actual living creatures in the whole mess. I remember, there was a peeve, and a chuckle, and a murmur, and a glance, and a chortle…”
“A chortle? What sort of creature would a chortle be?” asked Grandmother Spider with an almost impish grin.
“It was a bird, round and fat, much like a robin,” Thea said. “A peeve was, well, more or less a piglet. A murmur was a something with a lot of fur, but it was always asleep with its snout buried into its paws, I never did see its face. A glance was something that looked like a cat with wings, with these huge dark-lashed dark eyes. And the chuckle… I wanted to keep the chuckle as a pet.”
“Show me,” said Grandmother Spider unexpectedly.
Thea threw her a startled look. “How?”
“One of those,” Grandmother Spider said, with a nod towards the dreamcatchers on the wall. “Oh, you know how.”
Thea bit back a denial, and instead stared at the nearest dreamcatcher. The shape of the chuckle formed in her mind, the sweet little squirrel-like creature, auburn-furred, with bright black eyes like two round buttons and a high chittering voice that sounded like human laughter. The dreamcatcher shimmered once, and then its web flowed into an even mirror-like sheen. The image of the chuckle took shape in the mirror, a reflection of the one in Thea’s mind.
She allowed herself a small gasp. The image shivered once, but held.
“Very cute,” Grandmother Spider said. “So what happened to the chuckle?”
The red-furred chuckle in the image chittered a little, and then a child’s hand came into the image, finger outstretched, to tickle the beast at the top of its head. For a moment it seemed to enjoy the attention, closing its eyes and making its tail shiver with pleasure. Then it turned with startling suddenness and sank its tiny rodent teeth into the caressing finger.
The image popped like a balloon, and the dreamcatcher web was back.
“Ow,” said Grandmother Spider sympathetically. “That had to have hurt.”
“Well, Dad took it back the next day,” Thea said. “Mom insisted that I get a rabies shot although Dad scoffed at that—how could a such a creature possibly have rabies…?”
“How old were you?”
“I don’t know… four, maybe… five… something like that.”
“So what made you think of the chuckle right now?”
Thea thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “Except… except that there was something like that in the way that the Alphiri looked at me.”
“And how was it that they looked at you?” asked Grandmother Spider, crossing her arms in a manner that made Thea think that she was annoyed. But it wasn’t Thea that she was annoyed at; it was those long-ago Alphiri that had drawn her ire. She disapproved, and every line of her body said so.
“Like… like they wanted to keep me,” Thea said.
Grandmother Spider snorted in a most inelegant manner. “Offer, counteroffer, trade,” she muttered. “There’s nothing that can’t be bought and sold in their world.”
“You said…” Thea began after a moment, hesitating.
“I said, ‘the wrong world’,” Grandmother Spider said, smiling. “I know all about worlds, my child. I have created many—but most of my children only get to live in one, the right one if they are lucky. If they choose the wrong world, they waste a life. Sometimes that is inevitable.”
“You can’t choose where you are born,” Thea said.
“Ah, but you can—and there are many reasons. And sometimes you get tricked into doing it. And sometimes it’s even a good thing. For you—if you had been able to do all that they expected of you back in the world you chose for yourself, the Alphiri would have probably had you signed, sealed and delivered by now. To perform whatever tricks brought them the largest profits. But you obstinately didn’t do magic in that world…”
“Couldn’t,” Thea corrected, with a grimace.
“Didn’t,” Grandmother Spider repeated, gently but firmly. “You knew the dangers, it seemed, even when they were unknowable to you.”
“But I could never do anything!” Thea said “My entire family did, every day! Even Frankie, the ham-fisted little twerp, can do some. My father traps impossible things like chuckles and peeves into cages. My Aunt Zoë can see the colour of the wind. My mother makes dough rise by saying words over it. My brothers do class transformations with a wave of their hand—well, except Frankie, but then he always was weird… and then there’s me…”
“And do you really think that your world is the same as your father’s? Frankie’s?” Grandmother Spider smiled. “Your Aunt Zoë’s? Cheveyo’s for that matter?”
Thea blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“Sometimes we share worlds,” Grandmother Spider said. “Not always the best ones for ourselves, but it is a world we share with people we love, or respect, or need to be near. And there is a price to be paid for that.” She frowned delicately, her face currently perfectly suited to that expression, pale and thin-lipped and with slanted narrow eyes. “I hate to say it, but sometimes I think the Alphiri do have something in that wretched Trade Codex of theirs.”
Grandmother Spider looked up again, lifting lashes that were now pale auburn and framing eyes of a startling emerald green. Thea sat in the midst of her shattered worlds, keeping as much of her dignity about her as she could, but there was a tremble to her lower lip that she could not quite control.
“Oh, sweet child,” Grandmother Spider murmured, reaching out to touch Thea’s cheek lightly.
“Then I don’t belong back there…? Back with my family?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Grandmother Spider carefully. “I just said… that your world is not quite the same as any of theirs. You know how you throw two pebbles into deep water, and they both make circles, and there are places where the circles intersect…?”
“Yes,” said Thea, keeping her words short, aware that she felt like nothing so much as bursting into tears.
“Well,” said Grandmother Spider, “it’s like… you’re in those intersections right now. You’re at the edges of their world. I didn’t say you didn’t belong there, it’s just that the center of your own world is not where you thought it would be, and it’s certainly not where your mother and father, or the Alphiri for that matter, think it is. It is my belief that you haven’t found that center yet.”
“But I still can’t do any magic in that world. Their world. Where it’s important.”
Grandmother Spider laughed, but it was a kind laugh, full of affection. “Well,” she said. “when you’re done looking like a startled owlet… I have you for a little while. We can speak of all of this, and more—there is time enough, when you are at the beginning of time. In the meantime….” She rose to her feet, a graceful, fluid motion, and waited as Thea scrambled to her own in response. “Are you ready?”
Thea wriggled her toes in their woven sandals. “Where are we going?”
“Out of the sipapu again,” said Grandmother Spider, “although it may not open into the same world as the one through which you entered.”
Grandmother Spider laughed again—she laughed easily, for sheer joy. “Don’t worry, my granddaughter. I will be with you. Hold out your hand to me.”
Thea obeyed, extending her hand palm up. In the moment her attention was focused on her motion Grandmother Spider the woman had winked out of existence and, instead, a small brown spider sat in the palm of Thea’s hand.
“I know all paths,” the spider said, its voice the same high sweet trill that had invited Thea into this strange house in the first place. "I have made myself small; I will sit behind your left ear and tell you what to do. Now go, let us walk under the First World’s bright stars together.”
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