3. Sworn Duty

Let me tell you, then, of our family’s oaths.
Let me tell you of power, coiled within us.
Let us speak of the snake and the song…”

“I know, dad. And stop with the spooky voice”

“You don’t like the spooky voice?” he said, his tone slightly hurt. And the tension was broken, the candles flickered, and everyone broke out laughing. “Alright, alright – come on, someone pass the mashed potatoes down here.” Barb laughed, and laugh was all she could do. It wasn’t a funny joke, she knew that, with the sophisitication of a teenaged girl who had lived her life with a family that did normal family things. It wasn’t funny, but she laughed, because the laughter bubbled up in a well above her stomach and flowed out of her mouth – some automated response dad had put in place to make her less cool, no doubt.

Mom had a job at an advertising firm; dad had a part-time job at a school – not hers – and her little brother was as normal as any tiny human being could be. There’d been a time, when she was the worldly age of five and he had been the strange and unearthly noise machine age two, that she’d been convinced he was an alien that had been left implanted inside mom after the time a cop pulled her over and she was in the backseat, by the government, here to destroy the family unit, but after he learned how to talk more-betterer, or, really, since he learned to shut the hell up, she reconciled that he was in some fashion or another, relatively normal, or a normally relative.

The Guilbert family was a normal family. They had just one little thing, a little idea, that made them a little bit weird. It wasn’t too weird, though – after all, Charlie, at school, was named after a baseballer, and Rory’s dad was an out-and-out trainspotter. There were plenty of kids whose parents were odd, some whose parents were weird, and some of the kids were, themselves, pretty damn weird too, as they tried to avoid being seen that way. Normalcy was something everyone was striving to claim, and so far, Barb Guilbert had managed it.

Normal.

Normal, except how, instead of going to church every Sunday – or not going to church, nobody was sure which was the more normal of the two, and it wasn’t going to come to a head as long as Jode’s family went to church on Saturday, because that shit was weird – the Guilbert family had a meal with candles and the special cookingware. It was a good meal, too, just before midnight, making Monday mornings a slow start for Barb. Every meal would feature bacon and mashed potatoes, even if sometimes it was with peas and corn or some times it was with sweet potatoes and boiled carrots, and dad would drink a small glass of amber-gold liquor, and every meal, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, dad spoke the oaths.

This was something his dad had done. This was something his mother had done, and both of her brothers. This was something, to hear him talk about it, that had been done in the family as long as the family had existed.

The snake and the song! It was just dad’s little thing that brought with it this once-a-week large meal, and really, it was the kind of tradition that Barb didn’t even think of as odd. It was just a thing that you did, right? sometimes after a larger than normal number of glasses, he’d have a bit of a habit of babbling, and singing – and he’d get the guitar out of the hall cupboard and play a bit, though not very well.

Mom had to take her brother and put him down for bed – distressed about something, a little nightmare or a new concern or maybe a hair had sprouted somewhere. Barb was herself, clearly never such a problem when she went to sleep at that age. And this time, a coincidence of effect – of a fussy brother, and a second glass from dad, which became a third glass, which left Barb in the living room, sitting on the swirling circular pattern of near-black, reds, golds, yellow and brown, listening to dad playing the guitar. As his mind wondered, his mouth wandered.

“Didju know,” he mused, plucking an errant note, “why we called you Barbara, li’l Bear?” he asked, deferring back to the childhood name.

Barb pulled her legs up underneath her. Deep inside, a hearty dinner with potatoes and bacon and, tonight, a little sip of sweet liqueur that mom favoured, bubbled in her adolescent stomach, soaking in and creating a warmth that would settle for hours. Maybe if I sleep in hard enough, the morning will be easier. Thoughts far from the origin of her name.

“Nohp,” she murmured, shuffling back, leaning her head back, into the sofa. Soft cushions squished around the back of her head. Long, ash-blonde hair that fell down the small of her back when she stood was almost under her rear. Arms from netball, legs from hockey, midriff from ballet – Barb could claim she did a lot of things, but couldn’t say she stuck to any of them. Eyes closing, she tilted her head, wiggling an ear at her father, as if to encourage her.

“See, your mother t-inks it’s because of Barbara.” And the guitar sat silent. “Because of a character in a comic book… Barbara Gordon?” He said. Arms folded, resting atop the curve of the guitar, head tilted to the side. His beard scruffed against his forearm as he sat. “But it’s not. The girls at school… they call you Barbie, don’t they?”

A nod. Tall. Long legs. Developed in the ways that made mom worried. Athletic. Of course the girls tended to be resentful as hell when they said it.

Dad shifted forwards, leaning so the guitar tilted with his motions, looking down at his daughter. “In Ancient Greece, they used to think that the only language that … that was civilized?” Questioning himself, double-checking a memorised spiel. Sometimes an idea rose like the sun, slow and steady, creeping over the horizon. “And they thought the only language that was civilized was greek. And the other people in the world? Allu the others? They sat around, all day long, saying ‘barbarbarbarbarbarbar.'”

“Muh?”

“And that’s why we have the word ‘Barbarian.'”

“You named me after racists thinkin’ about how idiots spoke?”

Dad laughed, a little squeak of a laugh. His guitar flopped forwards, onto his knees, unbalanced, as the discord filled the room. Why couldn’t it have been the explanation of the oaths? The meaning behind who they were? What it meant to be part of the family, to speak of the coiled serpent, the rising cloud, the first stones and the song of the sand? Perhaps one day, Barb would understand. For now? Rolling forwards on her knees, Barb pulled herself up into standing, rubbing hand against her forehead, Barb gave a little smile, reaching out to hug her dad around the shoulders.

“I’m gunna get some bed, okay, dad?”

“Okay, li’l bear.”

It was just a family tradition. The bacon didn’t represent the slaughtered pig, the potato a symbol of famine. The amber liquor wasn’t the sun, captured in a bottle, and midnight wasn’t the time when the stars sat in their alien configuration that showed the shape of the Prince of Infinite Eyes. Nor was the family gathering an example of when the oath was ingrained in the children. It was just a family tradition.

It would have been just a family tradition.

*
It was just a family tradition when her father knew it; when his father knew it; when his mother, her father, his mother, and so on for so many family members had the tradition pass and change and transform. Once, the blood had been a lamb, and before that, the blood of a foe. Once, the midnight had been but once a month, and once, the magic had slithered into its circuit, so easily.

The sun trapped behind the moon, the pledges to the stars, they were all part of the pattern. The pattern in the mind. The pattern had shifted a little at a time, generation from generation. the magic had left the world, but the pattern had remained.

As the silence of the second age of sand drew to an end, mighty bergs of magic, coalesced, crystallised, pulled far away from the people who could use them, started to melt. Power could only be contained for so long. In some places, and for some people, it filled the air, it sparked randomly. For some – some who had ways that reached back to the old ways – the patterns remained.

*
In the middle of the night, her eyes closed, sprawled out on the bed, Barb rolled over. Wincing at the light, blinking into wakefulness – what light? Winced. Hands held out before her, something itched, under her skin, something that pulled at the edge of her forebrain like a headache, but not quite and all of those facts were immediately shunted as the shot of adrenalin hit her system and she woke fully.

There was, in the middle of her palm, a dancing spire of green flame.

Like a candle’s flame in a guttering breeze, the flame touched not her skin, nor left any heat. It etched under her skin, lines that only showed in its light.

Panic, in the state of the sleepy, is a strange thing.

Barb drew her breath; the flame vanished, the light was gone – and so came the excuse, as easy as exhaling. Oh. It was just a dream. thought Barb to herself, ever doubting the truth.

Magic was back.

Magic was returning to its old patterns.

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