Cornelia smelled brine and heard the roar of the ocean lost in the mist. With a flick of the reins, she guided her russet courser onto the sand.
The first signs of the village were cottages, a pier, and a fishing fleet materializing in the fog. A chill breeze blew off the water, and Cornelia wished she had drawn an assignment to hunt rogues back east under a cloudless sky and the fiery heat of Sol.
Fishwives and fishermen preparing for the day’s work retreated from the muddy path and muttered prayers to the gods when they saw Cornelia.
Cornelia reined in her mount in the middle of the village and shut her eyes, breathing in woodsmoke intermixed with the marine air. From somewhere overhead, a seagull shrieked, and a crow cawed. In her mind, Cornelia punctured the veil between the world and the unseen reservoir of power called magic. It was a pinprick, but through it flowed enough energy for her to detect any residue left behind by illicit witchcraft. She breathed in sharply, even the small dribble of power made her feel ecstatic. Sighing, she sealed the hole in the veil, effectively cutting herself off from magic.
“There is a report of a rogue witch in this village. Is that true?” Cornelia called.
When no one answered, Cornelia rolled her eyes. This was the last backwater on her long list. After this, she could return to the capital and plead her case for an assignment in a region with warmer weather and a more sophisticated populace.
“Where is the mayor?” Cornelia asked.
A fishwife pointed a trembling hand toward the pier. “Mending nets at this hour.”
Cornelia dismounted, her sturdy boots sinking into the mud. She patted her mount on the neck. “A golden overlord to see to my horse.”
The villagers watched her with avaricious gazes. A golden overlord was a princely sum, but none dared to approach. Cornelia was about to repeat her proposition when a girl darted away from her mother and ran straight up to Cornelia. Her mother called after her, but the girl paid no heed. She took the reins from Cornelia and held out her palm for payment.
Cornelia paid the girl and trudged through the mud towards the pier. A group of men perched on stools on the dock. They retreated at her approach, leaving behind a barrel of a man with a wild tangle of salt and pepper hair. He gazed at her, his thick fingers unknotting a fishing net.
“You are the mayor?”
The man nodded.
“You have dealt with magicians before?” Cornelia asked.
“I served in the legions for 20 years. Fought alongside magicians and against them,” the mayor said. “You’re here for the boy, I take it?”
“Boy? I expected a woman,” Cornelia said and frowned.
“He has the…” the mayor rested the net on his big knees and gestured to his face with his hands.
“The boy has wizard marks,” Cornelia said and threw back her purple cowl.
The mayor grimaced but didn't look away.
“You are certain? I did not detect magic in the village.”
“I’m suspicious. My people think the boy is a rogue magician. It’s only a matter of time before the boy and his family have their throats slit in the night.”
“Where is he?”
The mayor hooked his thumb toward the end of the pier. “Got the boy and his ma in the cabin of my own boat. For everyone’s safety.”
Together they walked to the fishing boat docked at the end of the pier. The rest of the village’s fleet were anchored a goodly distance from the shore.
“Angie! Harris! There’s a magician here to see Harris,” the mayor called.
No response came from the small, windowless cabin. The mayor grimaced and looked ready to shout again, but Cornelia raised a gloved hand.
“They are frightened,” Cornelia said, removing the glove from her raised hand.
She discarded it onto the pier. Her exposed hand was covered in carbuncles and puss oozing fissures. Green flames erupted from her hand to dance over palm and fingers – wizard fire. Pleasurable tingling shot through her body.
The mayor backed away, his eyes wide with fear. “What are you doing?”
“I am doing what you summoned me here to do,” Cornelia said and stepped toward the boat. “Stay back. If the boy has the marks of a wizard, he has been using magic, which makes him dangerous.”
In the water between the pier and the boat, Cornelia saw her reflection. She breathed in sharply, hating her visage that once long ago had been pretty, even beautiful. Now, sores marred her face, a fat pustule made her nose inhumanly bulbous. Legends had it the magicians of old could work magic without suffering disfigurement, but that ability was lost to time.
When Cornelia stepped onto the boat, a malodorous odor wafted on the breeze. She swallowed and clenched her jaw to keep from gagging. Before the door to the cabin, she shut her eyes, trying to sense magical residue. Nothing.
She pushed the door open without saying a word. A putrid stench assaulted her, and she nearly turned away. Inside the cabin, a woman and boy huddled on a chair, flies buzzing around them. Their skin was covered in sores very much like her own. Supplies were piled around them, filling every corner of the small space. Cornelia quickly backed away and returned to the pier.
“You should have summoned a doctor weeks ago,” Cornelia told the mayor.
“Are they - ”
“They are dead.”
A jet of flame shot from Cornelia’s blazing hand and set the boat alight.
“Why? Gods why? My boat!” the mayor howled.
“They died of a pox. Pray it doesn’t spread.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
While not entertaining a pair of young lads or pulling the 9 to 5, Dan writes fiction, mostly speculative. His debut fantasy novel Solarflame will hit the shelves in 2021. To read his thoughts on writing and view his complete bibliography, please visit https://danscifi.com.