The last way I wanted to go out was in the snow, so wouldn’t you know it: we were all doomed to die of exposure to the icy air outside. I shuddered as I grasped my arms, rubbing vigorously, tromping as best I could along the caravans. Great plumes of foggy white breath came from me in puffs as I grumbled under my breath.
“Stupid snow. Stupid cold. You try to kill me, you awful weather, but no matter how much you hate me, I will always hate you more,” I huffed, though to anyone who might have heard me, they might have only made out, “Snrflw trklm flther trhm alwz htmr.” I didn’t, after all, want either the Caravan Head or the Matron to hear me properly.
How I’d like to march up to the Caravan Head and shout, “Still think we’ll be fine? Huh? What was that about our hardy oxen, our strong wagons, our mage?” But it was hardly my place. Any other time of year and we’d have made it through this wasteland bog between towns just fine, and we certainly couldn’t stop trade just because of snow. And who would have expected that illness would debilitate our mage? If that hadn’t been the case, he could have just swept his hands forward and all the snow in our way would melt.
I reached the supply wagon, checked my apron was on tight, and grabbed a sack of feed. With my little stick-like arms, lugging the feed all the way back to the front of the wagon was hard work. A series of divots in the snow marked my path as I dragged the sack along, regained my wind, and hefted up the sack with a grunt, then grew tired and let it sink back down to the ground. I sweat, and my shivering grew worse as the air froze the moisture on the back of my neck and in my armpits.
“A’right, Jack?” called one of the broad-backed men as he saw me coming. “Here, let me get that for you.”
“I can get it Tom, it’s no big deal,” I murmured, turning pink in the face. Ordinarily I’d be glad to let one of the men carry a heavy load. That was what men were for, or one thing anyway. But all the men were there at the front of the wagon, laboring with shovels, trying to dig the front of it out of the endless slush and mud. My eyes fell on Chey and the other burly females, and I blushed as Tom reached me and pulled the sack out of my hands anyway.
“No,” laughed Tom, “It’s fine. I’m glad for the distraction, and we wouldn’t want any of the women hurting themselves.” My blush deepened as I felt full of shame. If it had just been Tom, I wouldn’t have cared. If only it had just been Tom, or even Tom and the other males, but in front of the girls who all wanted big strong men, not boys counted among the women!
Defeated, I slunk behind Tom as he carried my sack of feed to the oxen, no longer yoked to the pitiful front wagon but laying on straw mats. They lowed sadly, sickly. Tom slammed the sack down next to them.
“Honestly, I envy you, Jack. All this digging is getting us nowhere, at least you’re doing something useful,” he said.
I said nothing, grasping hold of the sack to rip it open. The burlap proved too much for me and feeling my humiliation rising, I clawed desperately at it before-
“Here, let me.” Tom took hold of the sack and ripped it open with one almighty tug.
Face as warm as the air was cold, I mumbled thanks and began distributing feed to the sick oxen. “So it’s not going well?” I asked, trying to distract myself.
Tom shook his head. “No. The more we dig, the further the wagon sinks. And even when that’s not true, the moment we get it out, it sinks all over again after pushing it a few inches. If the oxen weren’t all sick, we could still probably make it with much less digging but…well, none of us men can keep from sinking in or slipping with the wagon stuck like that.”
I took another glance over at the laborers. Several of the men had thrown down their shovels and collapsed, exhausted, on a snow bank. Boys who had been working so hard they’d stripped off their vests or shirts, girls who paused to wipe their long hair out of their eyes and re-weave braids.
“Well…thanks for the help, Tom. I…I should go…help with laundry.”
Tom nodded and slapped my back. “Well, good to know that thanks to you, we’ll at least have dry clothes.”
“It definitely beats pointless shoveling,” I said with a small smile.
Tom gave me a look and pointed at me before returning the tiny smile. With that, he adjusted the suspenders over his broad shoulders as he returned to the task of saving the lead wagon. I watched the oxen for a moment, their miserable chewing and doleful eyes matching my own mood. I gave them both an affectionate rub on the head before heading back down along the caravans.
The Matron sat with a hand on her forehead, looking like she was about to cry, when I reached our laundry line.
“What’s-” I started.
She looked up and frowned. “The shirts from yesterday, Anna managed to get all of the mud out of them, but she’s now fallen ill and the shirts just won’t dry. It’s no good, Jack.”
I pulled a face, grimacing. “Should I go get Anna some soup or something?”
“No,” sighed the Matron, rising. “No, she’s in with the children and I know how you…well. I’d rather have you tend my work.”
“Your work?” I repeated with baited breath. Did she mean-
The Matron nodded. “Yes, go feed Lord Gaevin instead.”
All I wanted to do right then was cry out with a loud, “Yes!” and pump my fist in the air, but I managed to contain my excitement. Me, tending the mage! “Certainly, Matron,” I said. I wheeled about on my heel and skipped off, whistling happily. None of the men would ever have the opportunity to wait on the mage!
I reached the kitchen and slid open the fading blue door to it. Warmth embraced me as the scent of soup kissed my nose.
“Serene, you’re such a good cook,” I said to the slender girl by the stove.
She smiled at me. “Don’t you try to flatter me now,” she said. “You’re here for some to feed Lord Gaevin?”
I nodded as she continued. “Won’t be ready for a few more moments, have a seat.”
A crate I knew to be nearly empty of rations served as my chair. I looked around the kitchen, noting that it was unhappily devoid of poultry or haunches hanging from the ceiling, that several barrels ordinarily full of fruits or pickled herring or some such were missing. The men had broken down spare wood for fire last night; the now-empty barrels must have been a good portion of it. When we were still stuck here tonight, what would we do for fire? Any wood to be scavenged was soaked in snow and swamp water.
“Daydreaming again, or worrying?” Serene said, breaking my thoughts. I shook my head to clear it.
“Worrying,” I said.
She gave me a patronizing smile. “That’s not an attractive quality,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. “Turns out that being a woman isn’t an attractive quality, unless you’re a girl,” I said in a grumble. For all the perks of working with animals and food, that was a pretty big downside.
“Oh, don’t be silly. There are girls that like women,” she said.
“Yeah, lesbians,” I said under my breath.
Serene didn’t hear me. She was clanking through our dishware to produce a bowl. On success, she ladled some steaming soup into it and held it out to me. “Now, no snitching! We need Lord Gaevin t-”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m not desperately starving yet, I can keep my hands to myself,” I said, accepting the bowl. Once I had carefully exited the kitchen, it was rather tempting to sneak a little sip, however. The best part of working in the kitchens was usually that wasn’t a problem! I sighed heavily and turned my thoughts to Gaevin.
While catching the virus myself was an uncomfortable prospect, meeting the mage, talking to him, that was an singular opportunity, at least for me. A real, live mage – the talent of magic was so rare, I was still baffled one would even travel with us. I suppose our caravan was vital to trade, and protection of caravans by hired guards was costly and not necessarily effective, so perhaps it made sense the government would send one mage instead. All the same, a real mage, right here, with us!
I thought about what his life must have been like. Discovered to have the talent at a young age, no doubt. Most were. Then he’d be taken to a magic school, impressing everyone with the wonders of the miracle few could do. I bet he never had trouble getting a date despite the fact that he, like me, wasn’t shaped to do men’s work. The third-last wagon, the smallish one that belonged to my idol, came into view and I hastened my pace.
How I wish I could use magic! The idea wasn’t impossible – well, I didn’t have magic, so it was – but since magic did not appear to be genetic, it wasn’t something at which I never even had a chance. I flinched as something far hotter than the frigid air touched my fingers; I had spilled the soup as I daydreamed.
Careful not to spill any more soup, I bent my elbows and licked the warm broth from my fingers. At least I had spilled very little.
As I reached the pale red wagon, I paused, unsure of how to knock. “Lord Gaevan?” I called, “Are you…can I come in? It’s Jack, I brought you soup.”
A weak voice answered me. “Come in.”
I paused. Hesitantly, I raised my arm like a wing and tried to use my elbow to push down the handle of the door, but it didn’t quite work. With chagrin, I set the bowl of soup in a snowbank and opened the doors, then grabbed the bowl, certain its seconds in the snow had made it lukewarm or even ice-cold.
“P-please, shut the doors.” The frail-looking man was clutching at his blankets and sounded pathetic, especially for a mighty mage, so I hurried to set the bowl on his dresser and obey. Lord Gaevan was still shivering under his blankets when I arrived with his soup. He labored to push himself into a sitting position and I noticed how pale he was, how much his arms shook at just the effort of sitting up. If I gave him the spoon, would he be able to lift it?
“I’m so sorry that you got sick almost as soon as you joined our car-” I started, withdrawing a spoon to feed him myself.
Gaevin’s pallid blue eyes focused on me and he frowned. “I thought,” he said in his raspy voice, “that the Matron said women tended to the sick.”
I blinked. “Yes, they do,” I said, confusion spelled in my voice.
He gestured to me. “You’re a man,” he said.
I shook my head. “No disrespect, sir, but what, exactly, about my appearance made you think that I was a man? I mean, I’m skinny, I have scrawny arms, I’m short, I’m clearly a woman, aren’t I?”
Gaevin narrowed his eyes. “That’s not…you caravan folks and your bizarre genders. I’ll never understand you.”
I sat next to him and offered him a spoonful of soup, which he accepted. “It’s simple, really,” I said as I offered him another, “Look, men do all the heavy work, chopping wood, pulling wagons, transporting goods, protecting the women. That’s men’s work because only someone who is strong can do it; someone who is weak would only get in the way. And women therefore do the other chores that need to be done, like cooking, cleaning, tending the sick. So anyone who is strong and can do heavy work is a man, and anyone who isn’t is a woman.”
Gaevin ate the soup quietly as I explained this to him, still looking puzzled. “But,” he said, and I paused with the spoon in the air, “but both men and women do business in the cities, don’t they?”
“Well, that’s not a gender-specific job, is it?” I said, moving the spoon forward. “The ability to trade is based on how shrewd or crafty a person is, and both men and women can be either.”
“What about marriage? Can men only marry women?” Gaevin said.
“Are you using our definitions, or your city definitions?” I asked with a frown. “The tradition, at least in our caravan, is that only boys and girls get married to each other. So two men could get married, provided they were different sexes. Course marriage is just about reproduction in the caravan, so.”
Gaevin considered this. “I thought I had noticed many wom…girls helping with heavy work, but you…”
“Yeah,” I said, pausing in my feeding. “Yeah, I’m the only male woman. It’s because I got sick a lot as a kid so I wasn’t out helping very much and didn’t build up very much muscle.” I stared at the spoon I held, thinking bitterly on my predicament. No one cared that I wound up a woman. It usually didn’t happen that way, but no one cared it did. But only boys ever seemed to find a weaker partner attractive.
Gaevin cleared his throat and I jumped slightly, spilling the spoonful. “I-I’m sorry,” I said.
“Boy, what’s the situation with the caravan?” he asked.
I resumed offering him soup. “Well, the lead wagon’s sunk, and the oxen are all sick.” I gave him another spoonful. “One of the wheels in the back is broken pretty badly, too, and now that wagon’s all sunk making it hard to replace.”
Gaevan’s face grew grave and I paused. He looked so serious, with his straight black hair framing his white face and his pointed chin. “Some help your mage is,” he rasped, “how easy it would be for me to fix it all…” his face fell. “I am not so great as I thought, it seems.”
Grimacing, I said, “Lord Gaevan, that’s not true at all! You’re a great mage, and the most powerful man in this company!”
A weak laugh, more of a labored breath, answered me. “Not right now, Jack. My faith in myself is shaken. Right now, you could well be more powerful than me.”
“I can’t do magic,” I said bitterly, getting another spoonful. This time, he did not open his mouth. I slowly withdrew the spoon, shocked by his steely gaze.
“Yes, you can,” he said.
I frowned. “No I can’t,” I said, “I’ve even been tested. Not a drop of magic in me.”
Gaevin leaned forward slightly. “Jack, you’re a good boy and you’ve been given a rough lot. Swear to me secrecy and I will tell you a secret…but only because otherwise we will likely perish.”
A secret of magic? I lowered the spoon back into the near-empty bowl. Magic and the practice thereof was one of the most closely guarded state secrets. “You shouldn’t exert yourself,” I said, though my heart pined to know more.
Maybe he’s just feverish, anyway, and not about to spill truth, I thought to steel my resolve, he already said something weird when he said I could use magic. “Just rest and eat.”
With a flash of vigor, he threw up his hand and caught my wrist. Soup flew and stained his blankets, but he didn’t seem to care to my surprise.
“Listen to me!” he heaved, voice whistling and raspy. “Magic – anyone can do it!”
I swallowed, feeling suddenly afraid. What was he talking about? Magic was a rare gift! But I didn’t want to upset him, didn’t want to get hurt, so I stayed still as he continued.
“Back in the day, everyone used magic and the government couldn’t subject the people to its will. But magic is based in faith in oneself. All the government had to do to subject the people was take away the people’s faith in themselves. Soon practically no one could perform magic…all but those whose inner faith, whose self-confidence could not be squelched.
“To brainwash these individuals and the public, the government took magic users away and trained them to believe magic is a gift, in their blood. Most mages believe this…and they don’t know about those of us who know the truth. There’s little point in fighting the system as most government agents are mages, too; they’ll eliminate you.”
I stared. I couldn’t believe it. A purported requirement to become a government agent was magicless blood.
But then, if what Gaevin said was true, no one had magic in his blood.
“Jack, Boy. You can do magic. You just have to believe you can.” Gaevin’s voice was frailer now. His grip on my wrist had since loosened; now it slid off, back to the floor. He leaned back weakly. “You just…have to…believe.”
I panicked slightly as he fell quiet, but a tiny snore let me know he had pushed himself too far and had fallen asleep. I swallowed, dryly, and set the bowl of the remaining soup not too far from his mattress. Was it true?
As I left his caravan, hustling to stave away the cold, I thought on it more. Anyone could do magic…that couldn’t be true. There were people who really wanted to, people like myself, people who tried really hard to use magic who just…couldn’t. I had desperately wanted to use magic ever since I was small, ever since I knew of it! Gaevin was wrong. Feverish. I had no magic in me. I still really wanted to, still couldn’t use it.
But…wanting to was not the same as believing I could.
I paused, realizing I’d walked too far, past the kitchen and back up to the front caravan where all the men had given up.
I watched them, this time without shame. With how badly I wanted to use magic, why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I use magic? Because I was a scrawny woman? There were girl mages. Because I was a fetching boy? Children used magic. Because I was just…Jack?
I was just Jack.
But who else would I be?
Who else better to be than me?
And why shouldn’t I use magic?
Why shouldn’t I?
There was no reason why I shouldn’t. And maybe…just maybe I could.
I flinched as something far hotter than the frigid air touched my fingers. Something far hotter than the soup. Something that could melt the snow and warm my fellow traders. Something burning hot – but not as hot as the new-found confidence in my heart.