The view from the train window did not appeal to Tara. Grim, grey rocks sandwiched between a grey sea and sky. Squat stone sheds, warehouses and factories lined the far side of the harbour. Behind them, faded red huts or shacks that looked as though they could barely hold up to a stiff breeze lined the walls of the canyon – the fjord, she reminded herself. And above it all was the smell of fish and salt.
As the train slowed to a halt next to the main station building, her impressions of the town did not improve any further. The exposed wooden platform had long since lost any colour to the elements, and the faded white paint of the station looked like somebody had simply given up on maintaining it. About two thirds of the station windows had been shuttered, and the rest were too grimy to be fit for purpose.
She wrinkled her nose when she climbed down from the carriage as the smell of fish grew even more potent. Behind her, Seema remarked that it smelled like somebody had been painting with fish guts. But there was no time to comment on this, for the wind pierced their clothes as they left the shelter of the train and walked the five metres to the station doors. She could have sworn that a haphazard pile of crates creaked ominously as she passed it.
To her relief, the inside was much warmer and brighter. Oil lamps hanging from the columns that lined the hall cast a pleasant glow onto the wood-panelled walls and benches that sat between them, and the smoke of the lamps was comfortingly sharp to her nose. As the stream of passengers split inside the door into smaller clumps, she found herself examining them and the crowd that were waiting.
Many of the expectant crowd wore shapeless, knee-length hooded coats patterned with zig-zags in a variety of colours that belied the outside weather. A few wore normal overcoats or suits, or the Army’s pale blue uniforms. And there, puffing on his pipe as he leant on a column about ten metres away, was a man in a dark grey horseman’s coat and wide-brimmed hat.
She didn’t know why she focussed on him, because there was nothing about him that particularly stood out. But he must have noticed her watching him, for he lowered the pipe and languidly strode over towards them with a quizzical look on his lean, narrow face that turned into a faint smile as he drew closer. When he spoke, it was in a thick Surbringer accent that sounded like he had only arrived from the peaks the day before.
“Bernhard?” Rose smiled back, looking him up and down. “I didn’t recognise you there! It’s been a while.”
“Ja, fifteen years. We’ve both grown older.” His dark, narrowed eyes slid towards Tara and Seema. “These are your niece and Miss…Mehre?”
“Yes, Tara and Seema.”
“Hello, sir.” Tara found herself a little underwhelmed. The man looked nothing like a wizard, let alone a warlock. He was only about a dozen or so centimetres taller than herself, and there was no sign of the wand or staff she felt he should bear. The closest thing she could see were some copper studs on the outside of his gloves.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Seema added. “My surname’s ‘Mehra’, by the way.”
“Entschuldigung. Well, if you have your luggage with you, I see no reason to wait here. My wife does an exquisite fish stew.” He gestured for them to follow him and turned to leave, before abruptly stopping and sighing as he came face-to-face with another man in a scarlet overcoat that bore the Collegium’s patches on his chest. “MacAllister, have you a reason to be bothering me?”
To Tara’s eyes, the man whom he had addressed was only a few years older than herself or Seema, but he must have been just shy of two metres tall. A thin strip of black hair ran along the edge of his squat jaw. There was apprehension in his brown eyes as he met von Clief’s, but his voice was steady as he replied.
“The Archmage bid me pass you a message, Warlock von Clief. He requires your presence tomorrow morning at 9am sharp.”
“Again? And you didn’t think to send the message to Magaly instead of dragging yourself here?”
“He also wished for me to deliver a personal message, sir,” the hapless MacAllister replied. “He wishes me to remind you of the ordinance against guncasting.”
Von Clief sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Very well, consider me reminded. Now, if you will excuse us…” He stepped past the other wizard. As they followed, Tara’s eyes met the wizard’s, and he flashed them a dazzling smile as he doffed his hat. For a brief moment, she started to feel like this town wouldn’t be too bad.
The square in front of the station wasn’t as cold as the platform, but was still far too exposed for her liking, even with the rows of solid stone buildings surrounding it. Threading their way through clumps of the shapeless yet strangely colourful coats and past a sea of stalls that bore the same smells and sounds as Tinland had two weeks ago, they followed von Clief towards a line of carriages pulled by shaggy ponies. She was relieved to notice that each carriage was enclosed against the elements.
Tara watched as von Clief quietly approached one of the heavily-clad coachmen. The man’s scarf and hat rendered his face almost completely invisible, but the way the man leaned back told her that he was alarmed to have von Clief speaking with him. Her misgivings grew as Rose produced her wand and pointed at Tara’s trunk, causing the suitcase to be pulled from her hands and float up towards the luggage rack. As she climbed into the carriage ahead of Seema, she could have sworn that the coachman made some sign of warding.
For a few moments, nobody spoke as the carriage set off. The slats in the shutters on the doors let in just enough light for her to see the adults seated opposite her, and barely enough to see the stone buildings that passed by. The only other source of light was the faint glow of von Clief’s pipe that illuminated his lean face.
Eventually, Rose turned towards von Clief. “Bernhard, what was that about with that MacAllister fellow?”
Von Clief briefly rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed, as though he had expected this to happen. “Archmage Anderssen and I don’t see eye-to-eye. He is very much a stickler for rules and protocol. He expects everything to be by-the-book and to not deviate from tradition. Being a guncaster does not endear me to him.”
“A guncaster? What you mean?”
“My preference is to use firearms instead of a wand or staff, and not just in the usual manner. I have learned how to channel mana through them, allowing me to put out more of it, and faster, than I could with a wand or staff. Anderssen hates it, and has issued an ordinance banning it. However, as a warlock, I am technically outside of his chain of command. I suspect that this is part of his problem.”
“It sounds dangerous,” Rose commented. Tara felt a shiver go down her spine.
“That was his main reason, and he’s not entirely wrong about that. The whole purpose of a wand or a staff is to drain away the excess heat we draw. With firearms, there is a chance that this will make the bullets start ‘cooking off’ – exploding while in the magazine or next chamber. However, it means I can put out more mana from further away, and faster. If I am out in the wilds by myself, I may need to bend procedure a bit.”
Seema cocked her head. “By yourself? My cousin said the warlocks often call on the troops for help.”
“Ja, five rounds volleyed often works just as well as a thunderbolt. And few things survive a couple of 80mm shells. In fact, a lot of my work out here has been simply fixing a monster’s location and letting them know where or when to shoot. What is not so straightforward is the human element.
“About two years ago, we had a gang of unlicensed necromancers out here trying to resurrect a dragon corpse for one reason or another,” he continued, ignoring the widened eyes and falling jaws. “Destroying the body was easy enough, but actually hunting the necromancers took the better part of eight months. They were clever enough to limit the amount of magic they cast – just enough to hide in the volcanoes and hot springs of the fjords.”
“Will Tara and Seema be required to…aid you in similar matters?” Rose asked. Tara noticed that her aunt’s right hand had balled into a fist underneath her left, and there was a tension to her voice.
“That will depend,” von Clief shrugged. “I will not go so far as to say that a woman shouldn’t be on the battlefield, but I am in no hurry to bring you out into the valleys. I would rather wait until-”
Whatever he was about to say was interrupted as the driver slid open a panel behind him and hesitantly announced that they had arrived. As the warlock thanked him and leaned forwards to open the door, Tara found herself peering outside in anticipation of the warlock’s abode. Surely here was a-
A three-storey, faded yellow wooden shack with few windows, leaning out over the road. A white sign painted with a green cross, hanging on a boom next to the door, announced that this was an apothecary. No barely-standing towers that crackled with lightning, no trails of colourful smoke from an alchemical laboratory, and no sign of the complex layers of wards or runes that she expected. Only the brazier next to the door looked even slightly magical, and only because of the faint blue glow to the flames.
She started as one of the trunks sailed over her head and smacked against the wall with a thud that sounded like it had hit something more solid than wooden planks. The latches held, but where had it – and then she noticed the sheepish grin on Seema’s face as she lowered her wand with a hesitant “Whoops”.
“Try not to put that through a window,” von Clief sighed as he turned away from the coachman. He shook his head and looked at Tara. “Well, I suppose you may as well try yourself, Miss Heywood.”
Tara stared back at him. Did he seriously think she was any more capable of controlling it? What if she did put it through the window? Would he-
“Come on, Tara! Show me what ya got!” Seema interrupted, her cheeky grin returning with a vengeance. Steeling herself, Tara drew her own wand and pointed it towards her trunk. Pull, she thought. Nothing. Not even the hint of heat passing through her like…like…
Pull! She thought again, desperately trying to focus. Still nothing. Move, you–
The trunk jerked off the rack. Startled, she instinctively ordered it to stop. The trunk began to tumble. Stay still! It jerked to a stop, and she could feel her hand warming. Okay…lower yourself. The trunk slowly floated down to the ground and settled onto it’s end. Tara blinked and lowered her wand. Had she…
“Passable,” von Clief muttered as he waved a hand, causing the other cases to smoothly fly off the rack and gently land on the ground. She blinked, stung by his tone as he turned back to the coachman and handed him something, and covered herself by righting her trunk. As the coachman whipped the horses into movement, von Clief strode over to the door and pressed his hand against the door handle. He stood aside and waved for them to enter.
Steeling herself, she lifted the trunk and stepped inside.
So, we meet the mysterious warlock von Clief, and both girls prove that they can in fact use magic. And yes, von Clief is based on Lee van Cleef. Here’s a couple of pictures of characters.