“Tildi!” Olen’s voice shouted. It seemed to come from everywhere. Tildi looked up.
“Oh, he’s in one of his moods,” the housekeeper Liana said, indulgently. “Go on. He’s in his study.”
Tildi sprang up and headed for the stairs, but her master was on the way down. He had on a tall, dark hat, and he swung a cloak around his shoulders. One of the footmen followed him with a tall staff with a luminous orb on top. “Get your cloak. Hurry.”
Tildi dashed up the long flight and all but tumbled down them trying to get her cape on while she ran. Samek must have followed her up at Olen’s shout. He stood at the door, in a posture of exaggerated attention, and waved her out. At the bottom of the grand steps, Olen was swinging into the saddle of a horse whose coat was the same shade as Silvertree’s bark.
“Easy, Sihine. Hurry, child. The Madcloud is coming this way.”
Tildi looked up at the sky beyond Silvertree’s canopy. As the staff had said, it was lightly overcast everywhere but in the southeast, where a dark blanket gave the light a horrible green hue.
A groom swept her up and placed her on the back of his saddle. Olen’s cloak closed over her. Tildi felt the horse give a mighty leap. She clung to the wizard’s back as Sihine’s powerful muscles under her swelled and relaxed, but she heard no footfalls on cobblestones. She could hear Olen’s voice, but any meaning was drowned out by the flapping of his cloak in her ears and the whistling of the wind.
After an eternity of semi-darkness, the horse’s hooves clattered suddenly on stone. They trotted to a stop.
“…Can see it properly from here.” The cloak swung aside, and Olen looked down over his shoulder at her. “Did you hear a thing I was saying?”
“No, master,” Tildi said. She looked at the landscape. Towers and the tops of evergreen trees protruded above a thin layer of gray mist. The only shelter they had from the sudden chill winds was a leafless tree behind them. They must be very high up. Over them the sky was a sickly gray-green, and a wind was stirring the thin grasses under her feet. “Where are we?”
He slid out of the saddle and helped her down. “We are on the east side of the river valley above Overhill. This is wild country, a band of marshes and forests between the city and the farmlands. I am hoping to intercept the Madcloud and direct it away from Overhill.”
“What is the Madcloud?”
“What? Hasn’t it ever attacked the Quarters? It’s a lightning storm that travels about of its own accord, often sailing right into the teeth of prevailing winds. It is a most destructive force. You’ve never seen it?”
“Thank Nature, no!”
A blinding stroke of white erupted in the distance. Tildi jumped. Olen counted quietly to himself until a distant crackling boom was heard.
“Still a way off. Good. Give us time to prepare.” He dropped into his lecture mode, and peered at her under his large eyebrows. “Now, Tildi, you may guess that a wizard receives many requests, among which are pleas from farmers to change the weather. It’s raining too much, it’s not raining enough, they want more sunshine, and, of all things, they want me to put off the sunset in harvest times! Do you know, one of the most dangerous temptations of power is not to avoid doing wrong, but to do all the things people want you to. Not only are few paths ahead of you good choices, but not every path you do take is the right one. That’s to be expected. You’re fallible. Good judgement will keep you from making terrible mistakes. You must learn to say no when the time is right. You’ll be better off refusing to take an action if you are not certain of all the potential outcomes.”
Tildi frowned. “How could I know all of them?”
“You can’t, really. But you should know as many as are reasonable. In that you may take the advice of others you trust to be as wise or wiser than yourself.”
“Do you see, you have justified my faith in you,” Olen said, with a chuckle. I have met so many who always know best, you see. Most of them are dead.”
“Dead?” Tildi blanched. “That would put me right off trying!”
“It shouldn’t,” Olen said, taking her by the shoulder. “A judicious attempt, guided by wisdom…Look, here comes the cloud. You can see its rune within it, can’t you?”
“Yes.” The clouds that she had once she had left the Quarters usually had faint, light-colored sigils somewhere on their surfaces, changing and shifting just like the clouds themselves, but this was a violent display of colors at war with itself. It made Tildi feel a little queasy just to look at it. Lightning shot out of the roiling black mounds in all directions, like an injured cat striking out at anyone who might try to handle it. Tildi felt a hunger in it. It wanted something badly. But what could a cloud possibly want?
“The rune is spinning out of control. This is an entity without purpose. It was set going for no particularly good reason except that the incredible fool who made it, could,” Olen said, with a grim set to his jaw. “What is it doing here, of all places?”
“Doesn’t it just wander, like all weather?” Tildi asked.
“To start with the second half of your question, that is a misconception. Weather does not wander. It has many reasons for going where it does, and doing what it does. If you are so inclined, I will send you one day for a couple years’ apprenticeship in Levrenn with my friend Volek, whose specialty is weather-witching. But we do not have time for a lesson in that at this moment. We are concerned with a storm that does not wander, the Madcloud. Many have studied this phenomenon over the centuries. It seems to go where it is attracted, though no one has yet divined to what. I believe it to have a tropism for natural power, yet I don’t know what could have drawn it here: nothing has changed in this area in many months. I would have expected it to go toward the volcanoes in the north, or south if a tidal wave arises.” He shook his head. “We have no time to speculate. It will pass over the city if we do not redirect it.”
“Can’t you…?” Tildi held up her hand and closed it the way Olen had done to extinguish the fire demon.
The wizard’s curling eyebrows rose high on his forehead, but he didn’t scoff at the question.
“Tildi, a heuren is a mere speck of power. This cloud is a powerful spell, combined with a force of nature. To destroy it would upset the balance of nature, to be undone only by a host of wizards, or perhaps one of the Makers. I hope one day it will simply rain itself out, over the ocean or mountains where it can hurt no one. In the meanwhile, the best that we can do with it is drive it away.”
“Is it safe?” Tildi asked, as a lightning strike blasted apart a scrub bush clinging to the mountain. Rocks, dislodged by the bolt, rumbled downhill. Other rocks were knocked loose. Birds, disturbed by the fall, flew squawking into the sky.
“Safe?” Olen exclaimed. “Of course it is not safe. A wizard must always do what must be done. There is no choice. Our responsibility is to undertake the jobs that we can take. Yes, we may be killed by this storm, but what are two lives against all those in Overhill? You don’t strike me as one who shirks a job just because it is unpleasant.”
“No, that’s true…” Tildi mused. But turning a storm? “It’s taking a great risk.”
“All magic is risktaking, Tildi.”
“I don’t like to take risks. Well, not many,” she said, after a moment’s thought.
“You took many risks coming here, didn’t you? I know something of smallfolk, you see,” Olen said, bending down and putting a hand on her shoulder. “You thought I might not accept you as an apprentice because you’re a girl, isn’t that right? But you came anyhow. I honor you for that. It shows the proper chance-taking character.”
Tildi wanted to say that wasn’t exactly the way it had happened, though he was right about his conclusion, and she was so relieved that she didn’t want to throw in the many other facts that had gone into her decision. Still, her conscience troubled her, and she opened her mouth to confess that it wasn’t she who had applied to him for an apprenticeship in the first place.
“No time!” Olen snapped out. Tildi closed her mouth. Her private griefs would not concern him. He brandished his staff at the storm. “Here it comes. Do you have a wand?”
“Must see about getting you a wand. Are you carrying a pen? No? There, draw your knife. You know how to create wards now. Draw them as large as you can. Picture them filling the sky. You must protect the city. Keep that in your mind. It will inform your wards.”
Tildi pulled her knife out of the sheath at her belt, but held it up uncertainly. This mere wisp of metal – how could it stave off a force of nature that was the size of an entire valley? The Madcloud came closer. Red lightning shot from its underside. Far below them, underneath the mist, Tildi heard shouting and the crackle of flame as unseen woods caught fire.
“Begin!” Olen boomed. He held out his staff and began to chant. “Fornai chnetech voshad!” The disk touched the sky and thick silver lines began to flow from it as the wizard swept his arm across, up, down and back. They formed into a gigantic word-phrase that said ‘Protect!” on their side. Tildi knew that the reverse, the side facing the oncoming storm, said something that approximated the word “Away!” in the strongest possible archaic terms. Hastily, she began to draw her own ward.
The lines she produced were puny by comparison, but as she began to picture them guarding the entire city of Overhill, they did grow. The rune, though seemingly limned on the sky in spider web, spread out until it was at least half the size of Olen’s. She threw every bit of knowledge she had into its formation, as if by force of her mind alone she could make it powerful.
The storm advanced upon them. Its winds whipped at her hair, so that it clawed at the sides of her face like a wire flail. Tildi slitted her eyes. Olen’s beard streamed around him like a wild creature. If he could ignore that, she could, too. Doggedly, she drew the rune over and over, to the north, then to the south. Each new symbol bonded with the ones on either side, forming a wrought-silver gate that looked too fragile for the job. Nearer and nearer the cloud came. The winds grew more fierce. Tildi’s clothes were plastered to her body by icy cold rain. She could no longer see what she was doing, but in her mind’s eye she created yet another rune of protection.
Go away! she thought at the Madcloud. Go somewhere else!
A warm weight dropped upon her shoulder and squeezed: Olen’s hand. His hand on her shoulder gave her confidence. The lines she drew were suddenly thicker and more confident. The gate in her mind turned to iron, and began to congeal into a translucent wall.
Abruptly, the wind stopped. Having been braced against it so long Tildi staggered forward a step. The hand caught her and pulled her back again. She opened her eyes.
Her wall of runes was just as she had pictured it, as if it was made out of silvery glass. Just beyond it was a wall of a deeper silver hue. Against this double protection the Madcloud bumped and pushed as if it was a ram attempting to push open a gate with its head.
“It’s no match for us,” Olen said, patting her on the head. “It cannot pass. Now, to send it elsewhere to cause its mischief.”
He spread out his arms, the staff held on high. The silver-gray walls stretched out like taffy until they were wrapped all the way around the gigantic storm. The Madcloud rumbled menacingly and spewed multicolored lightnings out of the top, but to no avail. It began to roll away to the southeast.
“I think we’ll send it all the way to the sea, don’t you?” Olen said.
Tildi watched with awe as the silver curtain receded swiftly across the mist. “Whatever you say, master.”
“Oh, you may make a suggestion, since you were of such great help. That was very good work! You will be a fine wizard. I think I will drop a note to Volek when we return home. I will see if he has an opening in the next few years to teach you weather magic.”
“Not too soon,” Tildi pleaded, proud in spite of herself. If this was true magic, she wanted to learn everything possible. How exhilarating it had been. She had been so frightened, but together they had cowed…a thunderstorm! What would they say back in the Quarters?
Tildi sat before Olen in the great saddle as the horse bore them down again to Silvertree’s front gate. She wasn’t sure she prefered being able to see. Sihine galloped down through the air as easily as if it was trotting down a hillside, but Tildi always felt as if she was about to tumble over the saddlebow and fall to her death.
“Where do you find a flying horse?” she shouted over the wind whistling in her face.
“Sihine doesn’t fly,” Olen shouted back. “I make the air solid under his feet. He has gotten very good at running on terrain he cannot see. Much more convenient than trying to stable a pegasus, oh, yes!”
Tildi felt a little thrill of excitement even as she clutched the saddle horn in a tight grip between her small hands. Pegasi, the fabled winged horses, did exist! They weren’t just legends, as the story-telling grannies had insisted. Tildi could hardly absorb such a notion, on top of the ideas that clouds could move where they willed, and she, Tildi Summerbee, could wrap up a storm like a parcel. With help, that was.
She had it on the tip of her tongue to ask where the fabulous pegasi lived the moment they landed, but when they arrived at the gate, a mud-spattered messenger was waiting for Olen, with an equally bedaubed horse breathing heavily through flared nostrils. Olen swung off the gray horse’s back, and put the reins into the hands of a groom. The messenger all but stumbled forward and handed the wizard a tightly-bound scroll.
“You look exhausted,” Olen declared. “Get inside and let Liana take care of you. Tildi, take him down to her.”
“Yes, Master,” Tildi said, automatically, her question forgotten. The wizard took the steps up toward his study two and three at a time, breaking open the seals on the scroll as he went. He did not look happy.
Tildi took the man down to the kitchens, where Liana fluttered and clucked around him, bringing him cold drinks and a big platter of food. Once he had emptied a huge mug of ale and wolfed down a chunk of cheese the size of his fist he gave Tildi a curious look.
“Where do you come from?” the messenger asked. He was a pleasant-looking fellow with very dark skin like the sailors she had met in The Groaning Table. “Sit with me while I eat, little lass. I’m sorry I can’t return the favor. I may not say anything about my mission, so don’t ask me.”
“I won’t,” Tildi promised. “What do you want to know?”
“Tell him about storm-warding,” Liana suggested. “This is a smallfolk, you know. She is the wizard’s apprentice. They’ve just saved the city, the two of them.”
The man beheld her with such respect that Tildi felt herself blush. “Well, there’s a storm called the Madcloud, you see…” she began.