Return to the world of Karen Miller's bestselling The Innocent Mage . . .
The first time Rafel told his father he wanted to travel beyond Barl’s Mountains he was five, sailing towards six. When Da said no, Meister Tollin’s expedition didn’t need any little boys to help them, he cried . . . but not for long, because he had a new pony, Dancer, and Mama had promised to come watch him ride. And then, ages and ages later, the expedition came back – which was a surprise to everyone, since it was declared lost – and he was glad he hadn’t gone with Meister Tollin and the others because while they were away exploring, four of the seven men sickened and died, wracked and gruesome for no good reason anyone could see. Not even Da, and Da knew everything.
Once all the fuss was died down, some folk cheering and some weeping, on account of the men who got buried so far away, Meister Tollin came to tell Da what had gone on while they were over Barl’s Mountains. They met in the big ole palace where all the grown-up government things happened, where the royal family used to live once, back in the days when there was a royal family.
He knew all about them grand folk, ’cause Darran liked to tell stories. Da said Darran was a silly ole fart, and that was mostly true. He was old as old now, with an old man’s musty, fusty smell. His hair was grown all silver and thin, and his eyes were nearly lost in spiderweb wrinkles. But that didn’t matter, ’cause the stories he told about Lur’s royal family were good ones. There was Prince Gar, Da’s best friend from back then. Darran talked about him the most, and blew his nose a lot afterwards. There was the rest of the royal family: clever Princess Fane and beautiful Queen Dana and brave King Borne. It was sad how they died, tumbling over Salbert’s Eyrie. Darran cried about that too, every time he remembered . . . but it didn’t stop him telling the stories.
‘You’re young to hear these tales, Rafel, but I won’t live forever,’ he’d say, his face fierce and his voice wobbly. ‘And I can’t trust your father to tell you. He has . . . funny notions, the rapscallion. But you must know, my boy. It’s your birthright.’
He didn’t really understand about that. All he knew was he liked Darren’s stories so he never breathed a word about ’em in case Da fratched the ole man on it and the stories went away.
He especially liked the one about Da saving the prince from being drownded at the Sea Harvest Festival in Westwailing. That was a good story. Almost as good as hearing how Da saved Lur from the evil sorcerer Morg. But Darran didn’t tell him that one very often, and when he did he always said not to talk about it after. He didn’t cry, neither, after telling it. He just went awful quiet. Somehow that was worse than tears.
When he overheard Da telling Mama about Meister Tollin coming to see him, in the voice that said he was worrited and cross, Rafel knew if he didn’t do a sneak he’d never find out what was going on – and he hated not knowing. The trouble with parents was they never thought you were old enough to know things. They praised you for being a clever boy then they told you to run away and play, don’t bother your head about grown-up business.
He got so cross when they said things like that he had to hide in his secret place and crack stones with his magic, even though Da would wallop him if he found out.
Of course he knew perfectly well he wasn’t supposed to do a sneak. He wasn’t supposed to do any kind of magic, not just stone-cracking, not unless Da or Mama was with him. Or Meister Rumly, his tutor. Da and Mama said it was dangerous. They said because he was special, a prodigy, he had to be very careful or someone might get hurt. He thought they were boring and silly, all that fussing, but he did as he was told. Mostly. Except sometimes, when he couldn’t hold the magic in any more, when it skritched him so hard he wanted to shout, he danced leaves without the wind or made funny water shapes in his bath. Only playing. There was no harm in that.
The time when Da said he and Meister Tollin were going to meet and talk about the failed expedition, that was when he was s’posed to be in his lessons. But the moment Meister Rumly left him to work some problems on his own, and took himself off for a chinwag with Darran, he did the kind of earth magic that helped Mama creep up on a wild rabbit she wanted for supper and fizzled away to the white stone palace. He had to wait until there weren’t any comings and goings through its big double doors before he could hide in the tickly yellow lampha bushes beside the front steps. Waiting was hard. He kept thinking Meister Rumly would find him. But Meister Rumly didn’t come, and nobody saw him scuttle into the bushes.
Da and Meister Tollin came along a little while after, and he held his breath in case they didn’t choose to talk in the palace’s ground floor meeting room where Da and the Mage Council made important decisions for Lur.
But they did, so once they were safely inside he crawled on his hands and knees between the lampha and the palace wall until he fetched up right under that meeting room window.
There, hunkered down on the damp earth, yellow lampha blossom tickling his nose so he had to keep rubbing it on his sleeve in case he sneezed, and got caught, and landed himself into wallopin’ trouble, he listened to what Meister Tollin had to tell Da about his adventure, that Da didn’t want anybody else to hear.
The lands beyond the Wall were dark and grim, Meister Tollin said. Weren’t nothing green or growing there. No people, neither. All they’d found was cold death and old decay. Mouldy bones and abandoned houses, falling to bits. There wasn’t even a bird singing in the stunted, twisted trees. That sorcerer Morg had killed everything, Meister Tollin said. Might be Lur was the only living place left in the whole world. It felt like it. On the other side of Barl’s Mountains it felt like they were all alone, in the biggest graveyard a man would ever see.
Meister Tollin’s voice sounded funny saying that, wobbly and hoarse and sad. Rafel felt his eyes go prickly, hearing it. All alone in the world. Meister Tollin was using tricky words but he understood what they meant. Most every day Mama told him he was too smart for his own good, but he didn’t mind that kind of scolding because in her dark brown eyes there was always a smile.
Next, Da wanted to know why Meister Tollin and the others had broken their promise and not contacted the General Council through the circle stones they took with them. They couldn’t, said Meister Tollin, sounding cross. In the dead lands beyond Barl’s Mountains their magic wouldn’t work. Not gentle Olken magic, not pushy Doranen magic. They tried and they tried, but they had to do everything the hard way. Just by themselves, no magic to help out.
Rafel felt himself shiver cold. No Olken magic, the way it was before Da saved Lur? That was nasty. He didn’t want to think on that.
Then Da wanted to know more about what happened to the four men who died. Three were Olken, and two of them were his friends, Titch and Derik. They’d been Circle Olken, and helped him in the fight against Morg. Da sounded sad like Darran, saying their names. It was horrible, hearing Da sad. Scrunched so small under the meeting room’s open window, Rafel tried to think how he’d feel if his best friend Goose died. That made his eyes prickle again even harder.
But before he could hear what Meister Tollin had to say about those men getting sick for no reason, Meister Rumly came calling to see where he was. His manky ole tutor had a sneaky Doranen seekem crystal that Olken magic couldn’t fool. Meister Rumly was allowed to use it to find him. Da had said so.
It wasn’t fair. There were rules about that for everyone else, about using Doranen magic on folk. There were rules for pretty much everything to do with magic and big trouble if people broke them – but sometimes they did and then Da had to go down to Justice Hall and wallop ’em the way grownups got walloped. He hated doing that. Speaking on magic at Justice Hall got Da so riled only Mama could calm him down.
Remembering his father’s fearsome temper, Rafel crawled his way out of the lampha bushes and scuttled to somewhere Meister Rumly could find him and not cause a ruckus. If there was a ruckus Da would come out to see why and his tutor would tell tales. Then Da would ask what he’d been up to and he’d say the truth. He’d have to, because it was Da. And he didn’t want that, because when Da said ‘Rafel, you be a little perisher too smart for his own good’ he hardly ever smiled. Not with his face and not in his eyes.
So he took himself off to the Tower stables and let Meister Rumly find him hobnobbing with his pony. Knowing full well he’d been led on a wild goose-chase, his tutor wittered on and on as they returned to lessons in the Tower. And all the long afternoon, bored and restless, he wondered and he wondered what else Tollin told Da.
That night at supper, sitting at the table in the fat round solar where they ate their meals, his parents talked a bit about Meister Tollin’s expedition. They didn’t mention any of the scary parts, because his stinky baby sister was there, banging her spoon on her plate and making stupid sounds instead of saying real words like Uncle Pellen’s little girl could. He wished Da and Mama would send Deenie away so they could all talk properly.
‘So that’s that,’ said Da, who’d called Meister Tollin a fool for going, and the others too, even though Titch and Derik were his friends. ‘It’s over. And there’ll be no more expeditions, I reckon.’
‘Really?’ said Mama, her eyebrows raised in that way she had. ‘Because you know what people are like, Asher. Let enough time go by and—’
Da slurped down some spicy fish soup. ‘Fixed that, didn’t I?’ he growled. ‘Tollin’s writin’ down an account of what happened. Every last sinkin’ thing, nowt polite about it. I’ll see it copied and put where it won’t get lost, and any fool as says we ought to send more folk over Barl’s Mountains then Tollin’s tale will remind ’em why that ain’t a good idea.’
Mama made the sound that said she wasn’t sure about that, but Da paid no attention.
‘Any road, ain’t no reason for the General Council to give the nod for another expedition,’ he said. ‘Tollin made it plain – there ain’t nowt to find over the mountains.’
‘Not close to Lur perhaps,’ said Mama. ‘But Tollin didn’t get terribly far, Asher. He was only gone two months, and most of that time was spent dealing with one disaster after another.’
‘He got far enough,’ Da said, shaking his head. ‘Morg poisoned everything he touched, Dath. Ain’t nowt but foolishness to think otherwise, or to waste time frettin’ on what’s so far away.’
‘Oh, Asher,’ Mama said, smiling. Da’s grouching nearly always made her smile. ‘After six hundred years locked up behind those mountains, you can’t blame people for being curious.’
Six hundred years. Rafel could hardly imagine it. That was about a hundred times as long as he’d been alive. Mama was right. Of course people wanted to know. He wanted to know. He was as miserable as she was that Meister Tollin and the others hadn’t found anything good on the other side of Barl’s Mountains.
But Da wasn’t. He gave Mama a look, then soaked his last bit of bread in his soup. ‘Reckon I can blame ’em, y’know,’ he grumbled around a full mouth. That wasn’t good manners, but Da didn’t care. He just laughed when Mama said so and was ruder than before. ‘You tell me, Dath, what’s curiosity ever done but black the eye of the fool who ain’t content to stay put?’
Rafel saw his mother cast him a cautious glance, and made his face look all not caring, as though he really was a silly little boy who didn’t understand. ‘Tollin and the others were only trying to help,’ she murmured. ‘And I’m sorry things went wrong. I wanted to meet the people who live on the other side of the mountains. I wanted to hear their stories. And now we find there aren’t any? I think it’s a great pity.’
With a grunt Da reached for the heel of fresh-baked bread on its board in the centre of the table. Tearing off another hunk of it, he glowered at Mama. Not angry at her, just angry at the world like he got sometimes. Da was never angry with Mama.
‘I tell you, Dathne,’ he said, waving the bread at her, ‘here’s the truth without scales on, proven by Tollin – there ain’t no good to come of sniffin’ over them mountains. What price have we paid already, eh? Titch and Derik dead, it be a cryin’ shame. Pik Mobley too, that stubborn ole fish. And that hoity-toity Lord Bram. Reckon a Doranen mage should’ve bloody known better, but he were a giddy fool like the rest of ’em. They should’ve listened to me. Ain’t I the one who told ’em not to go? Ain’t I the one told ’em only a fool pokes a stick in a shark’s eye? I am. But they wouldn’t listen. Both bloody Councils, they wouldn’t listen neither. And all we’ve got to show for it is folk weepin’ in the streets.’
Sighing, Mama put her hand on Da’s arm. ‘I know. But let’s talk about it later. Supper will go cold if we go on about it now.’
‘There ain’t nowt to talk on, Dath,’ said Da, tossing his bread in his empty bowl and shoving it away. ‘What’s done is done. Can’t snap m’fingers and bring ’em all back in one piece, can I?’
Da was so riled now he sounded like the cousins from down on the coast, instead of almost a regular City Olken. He sounded like the sky looked with a storm blowing up. Even though stinky Deenie was a baby, three years old and still piddling in her nappies, she knew about that. She threw her spoon onto the table and started wailing.
‘There now, Asher!’ said Mama in her scolding voice. ‘Look what you’ve done.’
Rafel rolled his eyes as his mother started fussing with his bratty sister. Scowling, Da pulled his bowl back and spooned up what was left of his soup and soggy bread, muttering under his breath. Rafel kept his head down and finished his soup too, because Da didn’t like to see good food wasted. When his bowl was empty he looked at his father, feeling his bottom lip poke out. He had a question, and he knew it’d tickle him and tickle him until he had an answer.
‘Da? Can I ask you something?’
Da looked up from brooding into his soup bowl. ‘Aye, sprat. Y’know you can.’
He felt Mama’s eyes on him, even though she was spooning mashed-up sweet pickles into the baby. ‘Da, don’t you want anyone going over the mountains? Not ever?’
‘No,’ said Da, and shook his head hard. ‘Ain’t no point, Rafe. Everythin’ we could ever want or need, we got right here in Lur.’ He looked at Mama, smiling a little bit, with his eyes all warm ’cause he loved her so much. Da riled fast, but he cooled down fast too. ‘We got family and friends and food for the table. What else do we need, that we got to risk ourselves over them mountains to find?’
Rafel put down his spoon. Da was a hero, everyone said so. Darran wasn’t the only one who told him stories. Da hated to hear folk say it, his face went scowly enough to bust glass, but it was true. Da was a hero and he knew everything about everything . . .
But I don’t believe him. Not about this.
Oh, it was an awful thing to think. But it was true. Da was wrong. There was something to find beyond the mountains, he knew it – and one day, he’d go. He’d find out what was there.
Then I’ll be a hero too. I’ll be Rafe the Bold, the great Olken explorer. I’ll do something special for Lur, just like my da.