Glas could see his breath on the air as he exhaled. It was among the shortest, darkest days of the year, and the cold was constant. The skin on his fingers was tight and itchy with chilblains.
Abajee Mont talked on at the head of the class, the red robes of his priesthood dragging on the wooden floor. He had no shortage of words. Suddenly he seemed to remember that he was not alone, his robes swirling as he swung to face the students. He strode forward and rapped his rod on Glas’s desk, making his slate rattle and jump.
“Boy, why have you been brought here?”
Glas rose to answer, bobbing his head to Abajee Mont as he did so.
“Abajee. Our lives belong to the Emperor. We are fortunate to have been taken under his protection. We are his to be moulded as he sees fit. It is our greatest joy to be allowed to serve him, as a whip to smite his enemies.”
Glas ended in a gabble, so great was his relief to be asked such an easy question.
Glas had always been handy at seeing things that were concealed or as yet unrevealed. They sang out to him: a dropped needle among the rushes on the floor; where the speckled hen hid her clutch; the quickening of life.
Such a minor knack as Glas’s was often ignored in small, out-of-the-way places like his home village of Clarry. But in recent years, the number of denunciations and burnings had begun to swell again.
His parents feared for the safety of their eldest child. In their minds, better that he leave with a wizard to a school in a distant part of the Empire than risk being cleansed by burning close at hand.
Then the triangle was beaten, a loud jangle that Glas had heard three times a day for the last two months. Class was over.
There was a fast walk, not quite breaking into a run as they entered the long hall. Glas was always hungry. The food allotted for the lowliest students was never enough. Too little, burnt, overboiled, or undercooked.
Whoever was last to enter the dining hall was left with the remnants that the others hadn’t snatched up – the smallest, slug-riddled potatoes and the gristliest scraps of meat.
Oh, oh, oh, I wish I was back home in Clarry.
The song drifted through his mind. Clarry. Home. He remembered getting up early to go mushroom picking, when the fire was still unlit in the hearth, the pleasure of walking up the field with the sun rising behind him, his shadow stretching before him the length of ten men.
The sudden scrape of a knife on a plate drew him back, pulled him back to the champing of hundreds of jaws: the stink of too many bodies too close together, the coughing, sneezing, sniffing and spluttering. The clattering of plates and pitchers, pots and beakers and laid over it all, the forever cold and hunger.
* * *
Master Cloch was in a bad mood today. They had learned to read his moods accurately through the flap of his cloak, the set of his mouth, the twitch of the rod by his side.
They all rose as one and stood with their heads bowed as he entered.
“Good afternoon, honoured Master,” they chorused.
Master Cloch circled the room, robes flapping, close to the walls. The students’ heads swivelled to follow his progress.
“Such dregs. The One True God help us all! Dregs! Culled from inbred hovels from the One God knows where.”
They had heard variations on this speech many times.
“With this straw I am supposed to make bricks? A whip to smite the Emperor’s enemies?”
One boy scratched his chilblains at the wrong time. Master Cloch’s rod whistled through the air to raise a red welt on his hand. They all kept their hands still and their eyes cast down after that.
Master Cloch came to a halt at the front of the room, swinging his rod idly by his leg. There was a knock on the door, breaking the silence. This hadn’t happened before, and their heads rose in response.
The door opened and one of the higher students entered the room. His fine, black coat with a dark red collar, the mark of a promoted student, was left carelessly open as if it was a thing of no importance.
Glas desired that coat with its deep warm pockets and a collar which could be turned up. There would be no need to huddle and sniff through High Winter in a coat like that.
“It’s time to see if you have any talent worth speaking of. I doubt it, but better to know for sure than live in foolish hope,” said Master Cloch. He rapped his rod on the podium.
“Amas here will demonstrate.”
They all stared, waiting for something to happen. Amas stared past and through them. They were beneath his notice. He sat as still as a carved image on a chair at the front of the class, straight-backed, hands resting on his thighs, breathing steadily through his nose, eyes closed.
Glas could feel the whisper of Amas’s mind departing, trickling away from him like barley between his fingers till he was gone, his mind left empty and still. Glas did not know where he had gone or how. But what was left behind was no more than an empty sack.
“Now watch carefully.”
Master Cloch raised his rod high in the air and hit the boy a sharp blow across the shoulders. The students watching inhaled in shock but did not speak. There was no response from Amas, no flinch, no sign of pain, just the great emptiness that continued unbroken.
“This is the trance state. In it there is no pain, no fear. The body is an empty vessel while the mind flies elsewhere.”
There was silence in the classroom. Master Cloch paused for effect.
“The mind is the source of our power. When it is freed from its pitiful sack of flesh, then it can be what it truly should be. It is the restrictions of the body which pull us back, keep us rooted to the earth.”
He looked around him.
“This is your first true lesson. Once the trance state has been mastered, then other abilities can rise to the surface.”
There was a moment’s silence followed by a murmured hum around the classroom as they digested that.
“With ability comes control and then power. Power is the measure of a wizard.”
Power. He dangled it before them, a bright bauble hanging just beyond their current reach. Someone with power would not be forever cold, hungry, and afraid. A person with power could not be beaten at the whim of others.
In his mind’s eye Glas could see the higher students shrinking back before him, fear and respect in their eyes as he walked to the high tables to eat his fill, clothed in his fine black coat and his newfound power. He craved this with a sudden, sharp hunger.
* * *
“Pull the threads together in your hands. Grip them tightly. And so, back up. Slowly, slowly, return.” Master Cloch’s voice was soothing, measured, and from a great distance as he called them back. “Return, return to the flesh.”
Glas raised his head and opened his eyes. Dust motes of bright gold hung and whirled in a shaft of sunlight. Light and colours seemed brighter, painful to the eye. Around him, boys began to shuffle restlessly.
“And so, what did you see there? Beneath the threshold of the door? What? Nothing? Useless pack of fools.”
“A big, round stone.”
“A bag of coins.”
The boys all around Glas shouted out their answers and Master Cloch rolled his eyes.
“A silver coin.”
“A stick of wood.”
“You, boy. What did you see there?” said Master Cloch, his rod resting lightly on Glas’s desk.
“Bones, Master Cloch. The white bones of a man, sitting curled up with the skull of his head staved in.”
Master Cloch whirled back, his face filled with surprise.
“Your name, boy.”
“Glas, Master Cloch.”
“Well done, Glas, you have seen truly.”
Glas kept his head down. He didn’t want to see the looks of envy on the faces of the other boys, but he swelled with pride nonetheless. They should be envious. A smallholder’s son from some little, nowhere place had bested them all. He would leave them far behind with the maggoty potatoes and gristly meat.
“Power. Power is the measure of a wizard.” Master Cloch continued his pacing. “Where there is one, there may be more. We will try again.”
Glas’s eye was caught by a small brown sparrow on the floor of the classroom. They flew in to pick up crumbs, and when they were disturbed, they flew out again through the windows in tiny flashes of brown feathers.
Desire arose in him, sudden as a gale, battering him. Home. He wanted to go home. This was how the swallows must feel as winter turned her face towards them and they fled home.
But Clarry was far, far to the north and west of here, and Glas had no wings to take him there. Maybe power would give him the wings of a bird so he could fly home to Clarry.
“So, once more. Breathe slow and deep. Deeper and slower.”
The lessons continued over the following weeks and Glas grew more proficient. All manner of lost and hidden things cried out to him. Within the trance, he could float bodiless outside himself while the shining lodes of silver far beneath Muileann Ban gleamed; he could see the white bones beneath the thresholds of the school where the men sacrificed long ago for its building were buried.
He could hear the terrible whisperings in Abajee Mont’s head, feel his skittering fear. Now he could travel the hidden paths of Master Cloch’s mind. These were dark roads to be pulled down. Hairpin bends and high trees, always in darkness with nothing to guide him and the thin, gulping cries of a beaten child rising all around him.
But the trance state filled him with a deep sense of unease. If something was hidden, then why should it be revealed? Finding and hiding were two faces of the one coin after all.
* * *
Glas stood near the west gate. It was a cold day, with a thin drizzle falling, so he had the place to himself. The walls around were brick, high and grey.
Spring had arrived in the last month. He smelled it in the air, life returning after the endless long nights of winter. Even the buds of the espaliered peach trees in the kitchen garden had started to swell.
Glas heard a magpie in a nearby tree, its familiar cry. It perched brazenly in the branches with a twig in its beak. A single magpie was a sign of visitors, of change.
After a little while it flew away, back over the wall, its flight bobbing through the air. He envied the magpie, how it could just rise up and fly away.
“What are you doing here?”
“Standing like a half-wit in the rain.”
“Who gave you leave to be here?”
Four of the higher students surrounded him. Certain parts of the school, the high tables in the hall nearest the fireplaces, the sunny corner of the quadrangle, the steps by the west gate were their domain.
One of the boys stepped forward and poked Glas in the chest with his finger. He stepped back with the shock of it.
“Nothing, sir. That’s how you answer your betters, boy. Nothing, sir.”
“Nothing, sir.” It was only words, meaningless words that cost nothing.
“Notions above your station, is that it?”
“Teach him a lesson.”
“Aye, a lesson is what he needs.”
They laughed and smiled, exchanging glances among each other.
Glas could feel the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Power was building, pushing at him, like the waves of rising heat in a forge. Glas braced himself and turned to face the source of the power.
He was a tall boy with pale, elegant features, the collar of his black coat turned up against the cold. His face was set and calmly smiling, eyes distant, entranced by his own abilities. The other boys stood back, content to watch the lesson.
In the swelling heat of power, Glas finally perceived clearly. He would not be battered on the anvil of power, beaten and hammered till he was forged into a new form.
He flexed and moved within his mind, flung forth his power. The boy lurched and staggered back, fear and panic on his face. The beaten steel resisting the hammer.
Glas pushed again, his power flowing out of him like the wind that sweeps the flanks of the mountains dragging rain with it.
The boy was flung back, slipped and fell. His head struck the flagstones, a loud sound in the silence. He lay there, blood running from his nose.
“What’ve you done?”
“He’s killed Eanair.”
“It was only in fun.”
“Master Cloch will hear of this.”
Glas did not reply.
Two picked up their fallen classmate and staggered away, his arms draped about their shoulders, his black coat stained with moss and slime.
As they were leaving, one of the boys turned back, a knowing smile on his face.
“What’s your name?”
“Glas. I’ll remember that. You’ve grasped your power today. You’ll surely be joining us at the high tables soon. I’ll watch for you there.”
With that the boy turned and walked away, following the others, his coat flapping behind him.
* * *
“What happened, boy?”
“An accident, Master Cloch, the student slipped and fell.”
“Is that so?” Master Cloch shifted in his seat. “Glas, this is a place of winnowing. The chaff is winnowed out. There is no shame in being the winnowing fork.”
“He slipped on the path and fell, Master Cloch.”
“A gifted lad would move up quickly. Those with power can command those without.”
What was this power that they spoke of? A prize for the maimed of mind, a rod, a bauble?
“A boy of power is an asset, to the school, to the Emperor, to me. It makes all the work and striving and sacrifice worthwhile.” For a moment, Master Cloch was still, looking into the distance, a thin, tired, old man. “Do you understand me, Glas?”
“Yes, Master Cloch.”
“To be here is an honour. One that you have proven yourself worthy of. Power needs to be grasped and wielded.”
“Yes, Master Cloch.”
“You are here in the heart of the empire. These are times of change. There are many opportunities for a boy such as yourself.”
“I am sorry, Master Cloch, but I am not that boy.”
“Sorry?” Master Cloch exhaled sharply. “Power without desire, without focus is useless.”
Something that was valuable to Master Cloch would be held close, while that perceived to be useless could be easily lost, cast off and free.
“Eanair slipped and fell. It was nothing to do with me.”
“Slipped and fell? Do you truly expect me to believe that, boy?”
Glas remained silent, his true self and his desires hidden in the long grass like a leveret. Finding and hiding were two sides of the same coin. Who could ever find a thing that he wanted concealed?
“Yes, Master Cloch.”
“Then, why are you here, boy? Answer me that!”
“I don’t know, Master Cloch.”
“Yes, Master Cloch.” Glas rose and left the room. There was nothing left to say.
* * *
He got up the next morning, very early before the school stirred to life. It was quiet and still, a dead place.
At the wall, he shifted his pack on his back and climbed over. He jumped down, the hard cobblestones of the street jarring his knees. Before him were the empty, shut up stalls of the market street. He ducked into a stall and sat on a wooden stool left there. He slipped into the trance as easily as a man moving from one room of his house to another.
When he was within, he flung his power at his room – all his distilled hunger and rage at the lost months, his fear, and loneliness. He could feel the percussion of the explosion and moments later, heard voices high with panic and fear.
With all the chaos, they might not notice him missing for a day or two. Maybe Master Cloch would assume that he was dead, burned up and devoured in his bed by his own denied power.
He did not look back. Walking was just one step in front of another, and again and again. Anywhere in the Empire could be reached by walking, if you kept at it long enough.
He shifted his pack on his shoulder and walked away. Back home to Clarry. He would not be found again.
Noeleen Kavanagh is an Irish author currently living and working in Shanghai, China. She has short stories published in Silver Blade, Another Realm, Fantasy Short Stories, Fiction on the Web.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH THE WINGS OF A BIRD:
At Fabula Argentea we strive to publish a wide variety of stories, and Noeleen Kavanagh’s excellent piece takes the reader down a different path. The author’s masterful use of sensory detail brings the reader very close to a character that we might otherwise have difficulty identifying with. It is first a character study, but it leaves itself open to interpretation.