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Chapter I - A Wizard’s Affairs

Voices from Below Cover
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The reflection in the water wasn’t one she recognized. In the calm early morning, the sea was flat as a polished shield, displaying a fuller image of her body than Halia ever remembered. In addition to her larger muscles, she’d cut her long hair to shoulder length to keep it out of the way while performing the manual labor that had become part of her life recently. After her friend Minaras died, she’d decided to honor his commitment to helping others, even though he’d been a powerful wizard and she knew nothing about magic. She hadn’t realized such dedication would be so physically demanding. All this work made stealing food and clothing as an abandoned child seem easy, but that was two decades ago.
“Can you help us?” asked the town alderman, standing at the edge of the water.
“Of course we can,” said Xarun, a head taller than and almost twice as wide as the townsman. “Isn’t that so?”
Halia turned her gaze from the ocean to a line of boulders jutting out from the beach, a tidal barrier that had shifted during a massive storm. Powerful winds and rains had pushed the giant stones far enough from the shore that the next abnormally high tide would threaten the village’s crops.
“There’s always something that can be done,” said Halia, “but I’m not sure what would be best.”
“We need a wizard, don’t we?” said the townsman.
“Well, Minaras was killed last year, so unless you can speak with the dead he can’t help you.”
Halia kicked the water, scattering her reflection, before heading up the beach toward a pair of horses grazing on dune grass.
“And if you’d known another elementalist, you would have asked him to come here instead of us. How long do we have before you’re flooded?”
The townsman looked at the sky. “The next full moon is only a week from now. There’s a good chance we’ll lose half our harvest if we don’t do something soon.”
Xarun strolled to the waterline and said, “You shouldn’t have planted anything near the water. I grew up next to the desert, and even I know better.”
“Originally, our crops weren’t this close,” said the townsman, “but the ocean’s been creeping toward our farms each year. When we realized what was happening, we should have planted farther away but instead chose to build the tidal barrier. We’ll go hungry because of that decision.”
“Nobody’s going to starve,” said Halia as she mounted the smaller of the two horses. “We’ll move the barrier back into place, and next year you’ll plant farther inland.”
Xarun mounted the second horse, a creature almost as muscular as he was, and gave it a heavy pat on the neck. Only a few months ago he wouldn’t have gone near a horse, but Halia had been determined to teach him to ride and he’d been a good student. Now she was worried he’d want to keep one as a pet when they barely had enough food for themselves.
“How can we move those huge rocks without a wizard?” asked the townsman. “They’re too deep and too heavy; we’d drown before any of them budged, unless—”
“No more about wizards,” said Halia. She missed Minaras and didn’t want to be reminded about his death all the time. “I guarantee we’ll shift that barrier back to where it belongs. We only need some heavy rope, a few strong horses, and a small army of men.”
She guided her horse inland, with the townsman following her on foot.
“We already considered that,” he said, “and we don’t have thick enough rope nor do we have enough gold to buy it. These past few years have been especially lean.”
“Don’t worry,” said Halia. “We’ll be back in a few days with the rope. Just make sure your horses and men are ready to move those boulders.”
Xarun rode beside her.
“We don’t have any thick rope either.”
“We will soon,” she said and urged her horse to a gallop.
 
Halia’s adopted hometown, Seaton, was one of the largest cities in the land, second in size only to Zairn, an enormous port city to the north. Even at night there were people around, whether frequenting the popular taverns or preparing the seagoing ships for the next busy day. Halia and Xarun lived in a mansion on the Anxiar River, not far from the wide delta that spilled into the Great Ocean, but she didn’t return home immediately. She pulled her hood over her head and rode quietly toward the docks, making as little contact with other people as possible.
As usual, the taverns were busy, emitting a cacophony of laughter, shouting, and singing. Halia knew where her companion wanted to go. Without looking at him, she felt his eyes drawn toward the crowds, not to socialize but to be near the food and drink.
“Don’t even think about it, Xarun,” she said. “We have important business to complete.”
“Eating is just as important,” he said with his neck craning toward the nearest building.
“Not many people know us around here, but I still don’t want to be seen.” The smell of fried fish and strong ale wafted past her nose. “I promise you a huge feast when we’re done. For now, can you focus on this one small task or do I need to fit you with a pair of blinders like the city horses?”
“Lead on,” he said, “but I’ll hold you to your word.”
She guided her horse onto a side street where a large cart was resting against the side of a tanner’s shop.
“Help me with this,” she said.
“I won’t let you steal that cart.”
She tugged at the side, but the cart was too heavy to move. If she hadn’t been worried about the noise, she would have tied it to the horse and dragged it down.
“We’re not stealing anything,” she whispered loudly. “We’re just borrowing it for a few days. I promise to return it to this exact spot when we’re done.”
Xarun slid off his horse and righted the cart on his own, a feat that should have taken two grown men. Halia attached the cart to her horse with some twine, checked the street for any passersby, and headed for the piers. As a busy port, there’d always be boats docked for the night while the sailors spent their coins in the taverns.
“You shouldn’t steal rope either,” said Xarun.
“I already told you—we’re not stealing.” Halia ducked so her head wouldn’t be above her horse’s shoulder. “And keep your voice down.”
“If we’re not stealing,” said Xarun, copying her motion to hide his face, “why must we keep quiet and use the horses for cover?”
Frustrated, Halia shook her head. Why couldn’t he understand? There was nothing wrong with borrowing a few items to help others. It wasn’t much different from him demanding food after a job was done.
When they reached the water, Halia threw her horse’s reins around a pole and tiptoed forward. There appeared to be nobody aboard the nearest ship, which had been tied to the pier in three spots with rope as thick as her arm. She unsheathed her sword and began cutting the middle rope.
“We could have asked to borrow what we needed,” said Xarun.
“That would have taken too long. If we don’t return soon, it won’t matter how we got the supplies. Besides, if anyone refused our request they would have known who took the cart and rope when it went missing.” Halia’s sword, forged from a rare metal called vistrium, cut through the rope easily. “Put this on the cart and stand watch for any sailors. I’ll get a few more lengths from down there. They might not even notice anything was missing—these boats only need to be tied in the front and back.”
“Unless a storm hits,” said Xarun.
“The sky’s clear,” said Halia. “I wouldn’t worry about that.”
As Xarun coiled the rope onto his shoulder, Halia snuck to the next moored ship. The night was dark, but the moon reflecting over the ocean provided enough light for her to see without the aid of a torch. A sea chantey coming from a nearby tavern was barely audible over the small waves lapping at the shore. Halia glanced at the horse and cart to make sure Xarun hadn’t been enticed into having an evening meal. The rope was clearly visible in the cart, but Xarun was gone. She sighed and crouched to cut through the next length of heavy rope. Let him eat; she’d finish the job herself.
“Ho there!” A hoarse voice came from the ship. “What are you doing?”
Halia returned her sword to its sheath as she stood. “I was just…”
The sailor leaned over the railing. “I’d call the patrol on you, but you’re too tall to be a street urchin. Get going before I change my mind.”
That was almost a compliment. Growing up on her own, everyone assumed she was out to steal something, but gaining one sailor’s trust didn’t matter. If she moved from this spot, he’d notice the rope in the cart and realize what she’d been doing. The young man was probably from Zairn and wouldn’t recognize her, but she couldn’t take the chance and run. She pulled her hood back and smiled at him, trying to think of something to say, when Xarun appeared on the ship. His black hair and dark clothing made him almost invisible against the night sky.
With his axe over his shoulder, he was sneaking up on the sailor—odd because he’d never been good at moving without a great deal of noise. When he was within a few paces of his target, he readied his weapon. Halia frowned at him from the pier. How could he think about murdering an innocent man after chastising her for borrowing a few inexpensive items?
In one clean blow, Xarun knocked the sailor out with the hilt of the axe.
“I wouldn’t have killed him,” he said as he hopped off the ship onto the pier.
“I thought hunger might have clouded your mind.” Halia continued slicing though the rope. “Let’s get this done quickly. I don’t want to harm anyone else.”
 
As promised, Halia returned to the village of Merwin with a cart of supplies and a few hours to spare. Twenty-three volunteers and a dozen horses had gathered along the shoreline. The men swam out to the barrier, attached the ropes to the horses, and pulled the heavy rocks into position one boulder at a time. A few were lodged in place, wedged deeply into the sandy sea bottom, but Halia had thought to bring picks and shovels as well as rope. By the end of a long day, the tidal barrier had been shifted enough to protect the farmlands closest to the beach.
While the villagers rejoiced, Halia collected the tools and rope. The town alderman helped her load the items onto the cart.
“As you know,” he said, “we have little to pay you with.”
“We’re just glad the crops were saved,” she said. She would have preferred some gold but couldn’t imagine taking the last of their money, especially if they needed it to buy supplies for the winter. “You don’t have to pay us.”
“Other than with a hearty meal,” said Xarun, tossing the last of the rope onto the cart. “I haven’t eaten in days.”
“He’s exaggerating,” said Halia.
“I can see that, but you look a bit thin,” said the alderman. “Anyway, it’s the least we could do as thanks for your assistance. Stay the night and we’ll have a feast tomorrow evening.”
“A full day is too long to wait,” said Xarun. “I’m hungry now.”
“You won’t be disappointed, but we’ll need an entire day to prepare,” said the alderman. “There will be more food than you can eat.”
“I can eat a lot,” said Xarun.
“You stay and enjoy the feast,” said Halia. “I’m leaving for Seaton tonight. This equipment needs to find its way home.”
 
After returning the cart, tools, and rope, Halia entered Minaras’s house just as the sun peeked up over the ocean. Even though the old wizard had died during a battle against a powerful half-dragon, Halia still referred to the house as his. Dozens of wizard robes hung in the closets; the study was full of nautical equipment, his favorite hobby; and the library of old books and scrolls was still disorganized.
Xarun wouldn’t be back for at least a day, depending upon how long he took advantage of the village’s hospitality, and Halia wasn’t tired despite having been awake all night replacing the borrowed items. She headed to the library on the top floor of the house. It was about time someone organized that jumble of texts.
Although there were ample shelves lining the walls and many standing bookcases, nothing seemed to be where it belonged. Minaras might have known where everything was supposed to go, but nobody else did, including his apprentices Oswynn and Thulin. Both of them were gone now. Oswynn was stuck on an island in the Cold Ocean with his new master Sigmus, and a demon-possessed warrior had murdered Thulin. The big house seemed quieter and emptier than usual.
Halia tipped over the bookcases and ran her hand along the shelves, sending every book onto the floor in an enormous heap. Her fingers picked up a thick coating of dust as she traveled around the room. Some people might have swapped a few books here and lined up a few scrolls there, but if she were going to organize the room, she’d give each item a proper home. Once she determined where everything belonged, the room would almost clean itself. She dedicated the first bookcase to introductory texts.
As she sifted through the pile of books, most of which were full of strange symbols, she paused after picking up a thick text describing the basics of elementalism. She skimmed through the pages, wondering how long it would take her to become a master wizard. Minaras had once suggested that she try wizardry but she’d laughed at his comment. At the time, she couldn’t imagine learning magic, having known nothing but thievery ever since she could remember. Now, it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea. If she’d been a master elementalist, it would have been much easier to move the tidal barrier.
“Is someone there?” came a voice from behind her.
“Xarun?” she called out. “I can’t believe you’re back already. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”
There was no response. She pushed through the books and stuck her head out the doorway.
“Did you hear me?” she shouted down the stairs. “What did you do, ride nonstop to get home? I missed you, too.”
Xarun still didn’t respond. He was probably in the pantry looking for something to eat. Halia bounded downstairs two steps at a time, intending to surprise him, but he wasn’t there. She dashed from one room to another, covering each of the three floors in the house. Nobody else was around. Her lack of sleep must have caused her to hear the voice, which was probably the wind in the bushes or a mouse scurrying along the rafters. Organizing the library could wait a day or two. She retired to her bedroom, pulled the shades tight, and jumped into bed.
 
“Help me.”
Halia rolled over in bed and covered her head with the pillow.
“Please don’t leave me here.”
“What is it?” she shouted and sat up.
The room was dark, the waning moonlight outside covered by thick clouds. Halia reached for her sword, resting against the wall by the headboard, and scanned the room for burglars. The house was full of valuable possessions, any one of them a potential target for thieves who’d learned about the wizard’s death.
Halia slid out of bed and crept through the house, but nobody else was there except Xarun, snoring in his room. He must have returned from the village and went straight to sleep. Maybe the big warrior had been having a nightmare, but he seemed too peaceful to bother. She returned to bed and polished her sword’s blade before resting it against the wall.
The Anxiar River rushed past her window, drowning out all other sounds of the night. Only a year ago she’d hated being near large bodies of water, but the constant whoosh of the current was soothing. She understood why Minaras had loved living in Seaton. It was a far more relaxing environment than the noisy city of Zairn.
“You must help me.”
Halia jumped out of bed. Those words had come from inside the house and were definitely not from Xarun. She charged into his room.
“Xarun, wake up,” she shouted and practically pushed him off the bed.
“What is it?” he asked, rubbing his eyes. “I was having a good dream.”
“I heard a voice, but there’s no one else in this house.” She knelt on the edge of his bed.
“Is that all?” He pushed her off the bed and closed his eyes. “Go back to sleep.”
“What do you mean, ‘Is that all’?” She shook his shoulders until he sat up. “Something strange is happening—either with me or in this house. How can you just ignore it?”
“It isn’t that strange,” he said. “I’ve been hearing a voice for months. It’s probably the same one you just heard.”
“For months? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I did.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and faced her. “But you said it was my conscience. Maybe you regret stealing the supplies.”
She crawled closer to him. “I remember that, but when you told me about the voice I didn’t think you actually heard something.”
“Then why would I say I did.”
“I’m sorry—I didn’t take you literally. At least if I’m going crazy, so are you. What should we do about it?”
“Nothing for now.” Xarun yawned. “I’m too tired to think.”
“Fine, get your beauty sleep,” said Halia. “I’m too upset to go back to bed. Perhaps Minaras’s library will have some useful information, although it’s more of a mess now than when he lived here. Are you sure you don’t want to help me sift through the books?”
Xarun had already fallen asleep. Halia pulled the cover over him and headed upstairs. She shouldn’t have been so patronizing. This might have been resolved months ago if she hadn’t assumed the voice was his conscience. That same voice had now presented itself to her. They couldn’t both be hearing something if it wasn’t real, and she was determined to find out what it was.
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