The Magic Needle
by Kathleen Tully
2013-14 NEBADOR Writing Contest, first place
This story depicts the future of Risan Gor after her rescue by the crew of the Manessa Kwi, at Melorania's direction, near the end of Book Four: Flight Training.
Timod Gor's gold didn't last long. He drank up some of it, smoked some, bought whores with a lot, gave some away to impress people, and gambled. He was at the card table when he ran out of gold, and thought he had a good hand, so he bet his daughter. He lost the hand, but suddenly sobered up enough to realize what he had done and refused to give her to the winner. The winner didn't like being cheated, a dagger flashed out, and even before Timod Gor hit the floor, little Risan Gor ran out into the black night faster than anyone could follow.
She didn't touch her gold, still hidden on the hill, for a long, long time. It felt dirty because it had made her father stupid with drink and smoke and gambling. So she just walked, and when she saw people on the road, she hid in the bushes until they were close enough to tell if they were good people or bad.
Most of the time, the people were good when she thought they were. She asked if she could work for her food. Sometimes they said yes. Sometimes they were too poor and had to say no. Sometimes they were bad and she had to run again. Luckily she was too young for them to care much about catching.
For two years she worked doing anything people wanted her to. Slowly she discovered she was best at sewing, because she had long, nimble fingers, and she liked doing it. So when she came to a new village or farm, she started saying she was a seamstress. Often enough to keep her fed, they needed one.
Risan Gor was eight, and getting really good at sewing, when she started saving up some copper pieces. One day she saw some fancy new iron needles in the marketplace, and the woman said they lasted a lot longer than bone needles. The girl dug into her money pouch and counted out the precious coins.
By the time she was nine, she would arrive in a town and people would start whispering, "It's Risan the Seamstress! Tell the innkeeper! He's got lots of mending to do!" Soon she had copper AND silver pieces in her pouch, and half a dozen iron needles, of different shapes and sizes, in her shoulder bag along with four colors of thread. She still kept the bone needles, just to remember her younger days.
The years passed, and Risan the Seamstress liked to go on walks in the woods when she wasn't sewing. She was eleven when she found a pretty, shiny rock, so she put it into her bag. Back in her tiny one-room workshop, the shiny rock was sitting on the work table when she happened to toss an iron needle near it. The needle jumped, and stuck to the rock!
She nearly ran to the blacksmith.
"Sir, what kind of rock is this? My iron sewing needles stick to it!"
"Hmm. I've heard of these. Some kind of strange iron that fell from the sky, some say. I can't think of any use for it." He tossed the rock back to her.
She couldn't think of any use for it either, so she just used it on her work table to hold her needles.
Risan was twelve when she happened to drop her smallest iron needle, the one she used for embroidery, into a cup of water. The needle floated on the surface of the water, and quickly pointed toward the shiny rock, only about a foot away. She looked at it for a minute, then dried it off and went back to sewing.
About a month later, she set down her smallest needle after some embroidery work that left her fingers sore, and was about to take a drink of water. She looked at the needle and the cup of water, and remembered the first time. But this time was different. She had taken the shiny rock to show a friend, and had accidentally left it there. What would the needle do, she wondered, without the rock near? Would it point toward her friend's house?
She carefully dropped the needle into the water, and it floated, just like the first time. It started slowly swinging to point at something, but it wasn't her friend's house. She stepped outside to make sure. Yep, she was right -- her friend's house was a different direction.
This new thing she had discovered was funny, but she couldn't think of any use for it, so she went back to sewing.
Risan the Seamstress started dreaming about whatever the needle was pointing to when the shiny rock wasn't near. She could never quite see it, so far away and shrouded in mist in the dream. But she woke up curious.
Her twelfth year was passing into her thirteenth when she could stand it no longer. She was, honestly, getting tired of dreaming about pointing needles. A dream about a handsome young man, now and then, would be nice.
She started putting a small wooden cup and her embroidery needle into her shoulder bag whenever she went walking. At the town well, just a block from her house, she got a cup of water, found a place to sit where no one could see, and put the needle in. It pointed straight back to her workshop, where the rock sat on the table.
But at the stream outside of town, it slowly went a different way again. At the river two miles away, it did the same thing. At three other places, all a mile or more away from the village, the needle pointed to ...
"Sir," she asked an old man pulling his little boat onto the riverbank, "are you a sailor?"
"Was when I was young and strong. Sailed the five seas for twenty years."
"So you know how to tell directions?"
"Sure do! On most ships, I was the closest thing they had to a navigator."
"Can you tell me what direction it is to that mountain that looks like a bird's beak?"
"Buzzard's Peak, that's called. Every sailor 'round here knows that direction, 'cause it's right under the North Star, the star that all the Heavens rotate around. That's north, little lady, about as perfect as anyone can tell."
Risan the Seamstress was fourteen when she started remembering something that had happened to her at age five. She remembered a journey by ship, then bad weather, and finally a very cold place with ice in every direction, even floating on the sea.
For some reason, the way she and her father had been rescued was hard to remember. She didn't want to remember what came next -- her father drinking and smoking and gambling, then getting killed and leaving her alone. But her mind kept wandering back to the voyage by ship, and she started remembering voices.
"What do you mean you don't know which direction to go?" the captain bellowed.
"I haven't been able to see the stars for days!" the frightened man whined. "North could be that way, or that way, or ..."
The conversation ended when the captain thrust a dagger between the navigator's ribs.
Risan brought her mind back to the present, ripped out a couple of stitches she had gotten in the wrong place because of daydreaming, and mumbled to herself, "He must not have had a magic needle. He must not have even known about magic needles."
In the days that followed, she started to wonder if maybe that strange rock of hers had a use after all.
She was fifteen when she realized several things at about the same time, and thinking about them nearly made her sick. She wasn't pretty enough to catch the eye of any of the handsome young men. She didn't know how to do anything but sew. And her hands were becoming stiff and sore, more and more quickly, while she worked. It the stiffness kept getting worse, in just a few years she'd be unable to sew enough to pay the rent and buy food.
A month later, she quit taking new sewing jobs, finished the ones she was working on, packed a bag, and walked out the door before paying the rent that was due. She took her strange, shiny rock, a few small iron needles, one spool of thread, and a wooden cup, but little else. She was not planning to set up a new sewing business somewhere else. She was casting herself into the wind to see what the world would show her.
After a week of travel, she was wandering along the docks of the port city of her kingdom. At first she was lost in her thoughts, but slowly started to realize that something was wrong. There were four great sailing ships in the harbor, but no cargos were being loaded or unloaded. Each had a man or two standing guard, but nothing else was happening. She became curious and approached one of the ships.
"Hey there, sailor! What news from the sea?"
"You watch your tongue, young woman, for I be not some lousy sailor, but am truly the captain of this proud vessel ... for all the good it does me."
"Why would a captain speak in such tones? Is she not a fair ship that races before the wind?"
"She would be, if she had any work to do. Now ... she just rots in the harbor, and neither she, nor I, like it much."
Risan the ex-seamstress got comfortable on a crate at the edge of the wharf. "What keeps her from having work, if I may ask. I am without work right now out of choice, but not you, I take it."
"Certainly not! I'd be hauling cargos back and forth across the sea if anyone dared send them anymore. It's in my blood. I can do nothing else. If I cannot sail, I might as well lie down and die."
"Why do they not send cargos?"
"Too many ships lost. Too much bad weather. Hardly half get to the far shore. Some, they say, end up at the bottom of the world where there is nothing but ice. Most are never seen again. One made it back from there, a few years ago, and told of the bones of ships scattered on the ice and the bones of men piled on the shore."
Risan swallowed. "I've been there," she said softly.
"Have ye? Well, you're one of the few who can say that and still draw breath to boast of it."
She was thoughtful for a while. "What would be your chances of getting across the sea safely if you had something ... something magical ... that always pointed north?"
His eyes grew very large. "My stars, I'd be the luckiest captain in the kingdom! I'd be able to guide the helmsman true even in the worst storm or fog! But such a magical thing does not exist, does it?"
"It does, and I have one."
"Well, you come right aboard, young woman, and I shall make you ... you don't mind soup and bread, do you?"
"I love soup and bread. I was a seamstress, nothing fancy."
They talked for hours, ate soup and bread, drank ale, and became friends. But the captain still frowned whenever the talk circled around to his ship once again carrying cargos.
"What bothers you?" Risan asked.
"It takes more than a ship and a magical north-finder. It takes a patron."
"An investor, a rich man who believes the voyage will be successful, believes it enough to put up the four or five great gold pieces for a crew, supplies, and a cargo to sell on the far shore. After so many ships lost, there's hardly a patron to be found. And believe me, Risan, me saying I know a young woman with a magical north-finder, an unproven gadget no one's ever heard of, is not going to shake even a copper piece out of anyone's money pouch, much less the gold that would be needed. So unless you know of a patron who would take such a risk ..."
Her mind went back ten years and struggled to remember something ... something about gold ... gold that her father didn't know about. She glimpsed, in her memory, a shaggy black-haired ... lady? ... angel? ... burying something ... a metal tube with something very heavy inside. She saw the log the angel-lady put over the hiding place. She saw the hill it was on from the road to the village.
"How far is it from here to Tolek?" she asked the captain.
"That little sheep and cattle village in the hills? Half a day on a horse, or a long day's walk."
"I think I know ... a patron there who ... would believe in my north-finder. What does a patron get for his risk?"
"If the voyage is successful, he gets his money back and at least another great gold, sometimes two, depending on how well the cargo sells. And with so few ships making it, I know the cities across the sea will pay good money for our wares."
Risan Gor ate her soup and bread silently for a little while longer.
"I'm going on a little journey. If I find ... the patron ... I'll be back in ... two or three days with five great gold pieces. Will you be here?"
He grinned, pulled her close, and kissed her.
Note from J. Z. Colby: It is true that the compass was already in use in the kingdom that is the setting of NEBADOR Books One, Two, and Three, but this story takes place in a different kingdom. It is often the case in history that inventions come to one part of a world before, sometimes long before, another. Even more strange are those moments in history when discoveries are made at multiple locations at about the same time, but without any cross-influence.