THE FIRST CONFESSOR
The Legend of Magda Searus
"I have heard it told," the old woman confided, "that there be those walking among us who can do more than merely speak with the dead."
Coming out of her distracted thoughts, Magda Searus frowned up at the woman leaning in close over her shoulder. The woman's intent expression drew heavy creases across her broad, flat brow.
"What are you talking about, Tilly?"
The woman's faded blue eyes turned to check the shadowed corners of the gloomy room. "Down in the lower reaches of the Keep, where those with exceptional talents go about their dark work, it is said that there be gifted among them who can speak with souls beyond the veil of life, those souls now in the world of the dead."
Magda placed her trembling fingers on the creases in her own brow. "Tilly, you should know better than to believe such gossip."
Tilly's gaze again lifted to search the somber room lit only by thin streamers of light coming in the slits between the ill-fitting, warped shutters. The narrow slices of light revealed specks of dust floating almost motionless above the heavy wooden worktable set hard up against the stone wall.
The table bore the age-softened evidence of dark stains, cuts, and scars collected over centuries of varied use. The edges of the thick top had been irregularly rounded over and worn smooth by the touch of countless hands that had over the passage of time given the wood a polished, chestnut-colored patina.
Sitting at the table, facing the shuttered windows, Magda stared down into memories held in a small silver box sitting alone before her as she thought of all that was lost to her.
Everything was lost to her.
"Not mere gossip," Tilly said softly, compassionately. "A friend I trust works in the nether reaches of the Keep. She knows things, sees things. She says that some of those whose work it is to know about the world of the dead have not merely spoken to those passed on, but have done more."
"More?" Magda couldn't bring herself to look up from the memories in the box. "What are you saying?"
"My friend says that the gifted down there may even have ways to bring people back from the world of the dead. What I'm saying is that maybe you could have him brought back."
Elbows on the table, Magda pressed her fingertips to her temples as she struggled to keep the tears from springing anew. She stared down at a dried flower he had once given her, a rare white flower he had climbed all day to retrieve. He had called her his young, fierce flower and said that only such a rare and beautiful thing befit her.
So why would he choose to abandon her in this way?
"Brought back? From the dead?" Magda slowly shook her head as she sighed. "Dear spirits, Tilly, what has gotten into you?"
The woman set down her wooden pail and let the washrag she was holding slip into the soapy water. She leaned down a bit more, as if to make sure that no one could hear, even though there was no one else in the cluttered, rarely used storage room.
"You have been kind to me, Mistress," Tilly said as she laid a gentle, wash-wrinkled hand on Magda's shoulder. "More kind than most folk, even when you had no need to be. Most ignore me as I go about my work. Even though I've worked here most of my life, many don't even know my name. Only you have ever asked after me, or offered me a smile, or a bite to eat on occasion when I was looking haggard. You, of all people."
Magda patted the warm, comforting hand on her shoulder. "You're a good woman, Tilly. Most people don't see the simple truth in front of them. I have offered you nothing more than common decency."
Tilly nodded. "Common decency is what most of your standing would offer only a woman born noble."
Magda smiled distantly. "We are all noble, Tilly. Every life is . . ."
Magda had to swallow, fearing that another word would put her over the edge.
"Precious," Tilly finished for her.
Magda managed a smile for the woman. "Precious," she agreed at last. "Maybe I see things differently because I wasn't born noble." She cleared her throat. "But when a life is over, it is over. That is the way of life. We all are born, we live, we die. There is no coming back from beyond the veil."
Magda considered her own words and realized that they weren't entirely accurate.
It occurred to her for the first time that it might have been that he had brought death back with him, that even though he had succeeded in returning from his perilous journey to the world of the dead, perhaps he had never really escaped its grasp. Perhaps he couldn't.
Tilly fussed with the end of her apron strings as she mulled something over for a moment.
"I don't wish to upset you, Mistress," she said at last. "It is only because you have been kind to me and always treated me with respect, that I would tell you that which I would dare not speak of to another. But only if you wish to hear it. If you don't, you have but to say the word and I will never again speak of the matter."
Magda let out a deep breath. "Tell me then."
Tilly ran the side of a finger along her lower lip as she took a final glance around the somber room before speaking.
"Down in the burial vaults, Mistress, down in the tunnels running far underground near where some of the departed are placed and most visitors aren't allowed, my friend says that the wizards working for the war effort have found a way to bring the dead back to life. Though I admit that I have not seen such things with my own eyes, she swears on her soul that it be true.
"If it be true, then perhaps . . . perhaps there be a way to have Master Baraccus brought back." Tilly arched an eyebrow. "You are one with the standing to ask for such indulgences."
"Do you forget so soon exactly who my husband was, Tilly? Take it from me, wizards are masters of deception. They can conjure all sorts of illusions and make them seem real."
"No, Mistress, I have not forgotten who your husband was. He was loved by many people, me included." Tilly picked up her bucket. She paused to consider Magda's words. "It must be as you say. You would know of such illusions far better than I." She dipped her head respectfully. "I must be on to my work, Mistress."
Magda watched the old woman make her way toward the door. She moved with an ever so slight, rocking, hitched stride, the result of a fall the past winter. Apparently, the broken hip had never healed properly.
Tilly turned back before reaching the door. "I didn't mean to upset you, Mistress, with talk of returning a loved one from the dead. I know how you are suffering. I only thought to help."
The woman probably couldn't begin to imagine that Magda's husband, a man of great power and ability, had already returned once from the world of the dead. After others had been lost in the attempt to answer the warning of each night's red moon, a desperate call for help from the Temple of the Winds beyond the veil, her husband had undertaken the unprecedented journey himself.
He had traveled to the world of the dead, and returned.
Magda knew that, this time, he would not be returning.
With nothing left for her in the world of life, Magda wanted only to join him.
She managed another small smile for the woman. "I know, Tilly. It's all right. Thank you for thinking to help."
Tilly pursed her lips, then thought to add something. "Mistress, perhaps you could at least visit a spiritist. Such a woman might be able to contact your husband for you. There be a woman of such ability down there. I believe those wizards consult her in their work."
"And what good could it really do to visit such a woman?"
"Perhaps you could at least speak with her and ask her to help provide the answers that would let you be at peace with what First Wizard Baraccus did. She may be able to bring you his words from beyond the veil, and put your heart at peace."
Magda didn't see how her heart could ever again be at peace.
"You may need help, Mistress," Tilly added. "Maybe First Wizard Baraccus could still somehow help to protect you."
Magda frowned at the woman across the small room. "Help to protect me? What do you mean?"
Tilly took a moment in answering. "People are cruel, Mistress. Especially to one not born noble. As the beautiful wife of the First Wizard, you are widely respected, despite being so much younger than him." Tilly touched her own short hair, then gestured at Magda. "Your long hair is a mark of your standing. You have used your position of power to speak before the council for those in the Midlands who have no voice. You alone give them voice. You are widely known and respected for that, not just because you were the wife of the First Wizard.
"But with Master Baraccus gone you have no one to protect you, to give you standing before the council or anywhere else for that matter. You may find that the world is an unfriendly place to a widow of a powerful man who herself is not gifted and was not born noble."
Magda had already considered all of that, but it was not going to be a problem she would live to face.
"Perhaps the spiritist could bring you valuable advice from beyond the grave. Perhaps your departed husband could at least explain his reasons and ease your pain as well."
Magda nodded. "Thank you, Tilly. I will think on it."
Her gaze again sank to the silver box of memories. She couldn't imagine why Baraccus had done what he had done, or that he would be able to explain it from beyond the grave. If he had wanted to explain his reasons, he'd had ample opportunities to do so. He would have at least left a letter waiting for her upon her return.
She knew, too, that there was nothing Baraccus could do from beyond the grave to protect her standing. But that didn't really matter.
A faint glow of candlelight fell across the floor as Tilly opened the door on the far side of the room.
Magda looked back over her shoulder to see Tilly standing at the open door, lever in hand.
Men, their faces in shadow, their hands clasped, stood out in the hallway.
"There are . . . visitors come to see you, Mistress."
Magda turned back to the table and carefully closed the silver box of treasured memories. "Please let them in, Tilly."
Magda had known that sooner or later they would come. It appeared that it was to be sooner rather than later. She had planned to be finished with it all before they had a chance to show up. That, too, it seemed, was not to be.
Her spirits would have sunk lower, but they could go no lower. What did it matter anymore? What did any of it matter? It would soon enough be ended.
"Would you like me to stay, Mistress?"
Magda touched her fingers to the long, thick, freshly brushed hair lying over the front of her shoulder.
She had to be strong. Baraccus would want her to be strong.
"No, Tilly," she said after getting a firm command of her voice, "it's all right. Please let them in and then you may go on to your work."
Tilly bowed deeply from the waist and backed away a little as she held the door open wider for the men to enter. As soon as all seven of them had glided into the room, Tilly hurried away, closing the door behind her.
Continued in Chapter 2, The First Confessor: The Legend of Magda Searus.