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“Ledi!” Crislin Harret called to her daughter.
Ledia Harret, usually a very nice person, scowled at the sound of her nickname. Ledi was the name of a toddling babe, surely, not of a twelve-year-old who was almost in school. Nevertheless, she set her broom down in a corner, smoothed her apron, and hastened to her parents’ bedroom, from which her mother had called her.
“Ledia,” she reminded her mother, softly but firmly, as she entered the room. It had been over a year since she had stopped tolerating her pet name, but that was not nearly long enough for her parents’ habits to really change.
Crislin sighed, wondering why children grew up so quickly. “Ledia, it’s time for you to start packing for school.”
“Now? But I don’t leave for another week!” Ledia protested. “I don’t have enough clothes to last me that long and to pack, too.”
“Aye,” Crislin agreed. “Clothes will have to be rather last-minute. But clothes are not the only thing that you will need to bring to school. You must also take the your hope chest, your winter cloaks and blankets, your jewelry—such as it is—and the slate and chalk that your father bought you last time he was in Torinth.”
“Mother, please remind me why it is necessary to drag my hope chest halfway across Mendreal,” Ledia replied, slightly more harshly than she’d intended. She lowered her eyes when she realized how her voice had sounded, wondering if her impudence would be punished.
It was not. “School will train you in skills that you will need for the future, many of which involve the contents of your hope chest. You will learn to be a good housewife and a good mother, and, for that, you will need the chest.”
“Yes, mother,” Ledia droned in resignation. It was willing resignation; she did not mind chores and domestic duties. Rather, her objection was that, no matter how much time and energy housewifery demanded of a woman, those alone did not make a complete life. There were always races to win and adventures to have, and it seemed to Ledia that moderation was far superior, especially when juxtaposed with a fully domestic life.
Crislin, perhaps sensing her daughter’s thoughts, began to smile. It was a small smile, but one of spirit, determination, resilience, and the very barest trace of mischief. “Of course, you will also be taught to use your magic and defend yourself. Those, too, are useful skills, after all.”
Now Ledia smiled as well. All was not lost.
After Crislin had thought for a moment, she said, “I think now would be a good time to begin packing.”
“Yes, Mother,” Ledia said again. She hurried purposefully back to the kitchen, where she quickly collected the pile of dust she had created earlier and tossed it outside, and then she entered the room she shared with her sister.
Once there, she opened her hope chest and surveyed its contents: linens, sheets, candlesticks, lace, curtains, pots, pans . . . the list seemed endless. Ledia had begun the collection at the standard age of seven, and she had done well; her sewing kit was complete, as was her cutlery set, and she had sewn all the tablecloths neatly.
Of course, Ledia had more to do than stare. She hurriedly added two aprons to the large trunk’s stack, and proceeded to search her room mentally for what else she would need. She packed two formal dresses and her jewelry box, which was more empty than it probably should have been, thanks to the outrageous price of jewels. Blankets, cloaks, the slate—she packed in a hurry, and the trunk welcomed its new occupants with more space than Ledia had thought it contained.
Finally, in a mental scan of her room, Ledia could think of nothing else she could pack at that moment. Satisfied, she donned leggings and a shorter skirt, rather than the ankle-length one she had been wearing. This skirt was wide and fell just past her knees. It was intended for wear while doing outdoor chores such as gathering firewood, but Ledia had a different reason for using it.
Quietly, Ledia slipped out of her window, glad that she lived in a one-story house. Once she was certain that the window appeared closed while in reality remaining open, she turned and sprinted through the alley behind her house to the property of her friend Anlin Barrow.
Reaching the Barrows’ woodshed, Ledia stopped and peered inside.
“You’re not going out racing again?” cried Anlin, who preferred lively conversation to running. Anlin would have been happy if it rained every day; when weather permitted, her friends ran races against the boys of the town rather than talking to her when they snuck out of their houses.
“Yes, I’m running,” replied Ledia, who had long since stopped worrying about disappointing Anlin. There were plenty of rainy days in the village of Liesta; running was an opportunity not to be missed.
“Let’s go. Harlen said the boys would be waiting now, but not for long,” their friend Thera said. Thera was the girls’ spokesperson; Harlen Winnet spoke for the boys. Spokespeople were necessary because dialogue between the genders was exceedingly rare, even though the boys and girls ran races together frequently.
“I didn’t think we’d all be able to come, what with school starting so soon,” Kenara said. She was the worrier of the group.
“It wasn’t easy,” Thera admitted. She lived on the opposite side of Liesta from the rest of the group. “But that’s not the point. Come on!”
Everyone ducked out of the woodshed and dashed for the deserted field on the side of town—the designated racing spot for the town’s twelve-year-olds. When the girls reached the field, their arrival was acknowledged by nods from the perhaps fifteen boys already present; no one spoke.
Lines—start and finish—had already been drawn in the dirt. Anlin assumed her usual post as Starter. She was ideal for the job: she didn’t want to run any races, and she had the magic required to broadcast the mental start signal. The remaining adolescents lined up silently and the races began.
After fifteen minutes, Ledia had already run five races and maintained her usual winning streak. Thera had lost her first race before collecting herself and winning the subsequent four. Kenara had lost both of her races but seemed unbothered by the defeats. Ledia was now at the starting line, this time facing Ranar Tanner. He was a tall boy, rather fast, but with a nasty temper; he was well known as a sore loser.
Ledia crouched on the starting line, prepared for another victory.
“I’m not running against you, firewitch,” Ranar spat suddenly, startling Ledia. The girl whipped around, long black hair flying. “Witch” was a derogatory name for a female magician, and she felt vindicated in having taken offense when the crowd of those waiting to race let out a collective gasp.
“Scared of losing, mage?” Ledia retorted. “Mage” was the male version of “witch,” and the crowd reacted similarly, though now there was even more noise as people started to shout and take sides.
“Take that back!” Ranar snarled.
“Make me!” Ledia challenged.
Ranar tried to do just that. He was a battle magician; his magic specialized in violence, as Ledia’s specialized in light and heat. The boy immobilized Ledia—she wasn’t sure how—and conjured up an arrow, which he sent flying at her with amazing speed.
Enraged, Ledia somehow managed to break free of her bondage; she burned the arrow at a temperature that rather exceeded her expectations. The shaft and fletching burned in seconds, and the arrowhead dropped as molten metal.
Before the metal even hit the ground, Ledia blinded Ranar with a beam of light brighter than sunlight. Then she heated up the air around him and the ground beneath his feet. Pausing to make his clothing resistant to heat, she proceeded to ratchet up its temperature, too. Part of her told her to slow down, but she ignored the advice. Not only had Ranar insulted her, but he had also attacked her. That was an invitation to fight, and fight she would.
Grimacing at the fear that he would very soon be scalded alive, Ranar conjured up a spear and prepared to throw it. Ledia concentrated heat into the weapon so intensely that the shaft turned to ashes and the spearhead melted. I am a firewitch, Ledia thought, and she couldn’t help feeling pleased about this.
Ranar, meanwhile, looked bewildered. Taking advantage of this, Ledia lobbed a fireball at him. It did not affect his clothes, but, even so, Ranar felt the flames’ merciless heat. Opening his mouth to cry out, he found himself mute to the pain. He crumpled to the searing ground.
Ledia, suddenly realizing the true extent of the harm she had wrought, removed her spells from Ranar. She did so slowly, however, to avoid putting him into shock. After the temperature around him had returned to normal, she continued to draw heat from it, so that the air around him would feel pleasantly cool after the scalding heat she had just forced him to endure.
When she saw how burned Ranar’s skin looked, Ledia realized that the poor boy probably needed a healing. “Anlin?” she asked hesitantly. Anlin was a healer—albeit not a very trained one—and she, unlike the town healer, would not tell anyone about treating a twelve-year-old who was sneaking out without permission.
“Yes.” That was the thing with Anlin—between telepathy and intuition, it wasn’t necessary to say much to her. Ledia sighed with relief.
Both girls knelt beside Ranar. Anlin put her hands first on his shoulder, which had been burned by the fireball, and then on his forehead, to get a sense of his temperature. His shoulder healed almost instantly. Then both girls, in their separate ways, cooled the boy. Once he was at a normal temperature, Anlin put one hand on each of his arms and muttered a spell to rid his skin of its singed look.
With an effort, Ranar sat up. Ledia was ashamed to see how weak he was after fighting her. She really shouldn’t have been so hard on him. He looked gratefully at Anlin. “Thanks.” Then, as if it pained him to do so, he shifted his gaze to Ledia.
“To you, too.”
“I’m sorry,” Ledia replied, and rarely had she made so sincere an apology. She truly regretted having let her anger get away from her as it had.
Thera’s voice made Ledia and Anlin leap to their feet just then. Ranar lacked the strength to do the same, but another boy came and helped him up before Ledia or Anlin could attempt the task, which could only have been an awkward one for them. “We need to go,” Thera said. “Do you want to be discovered?” Discovery was the worst fate anyone could think of. Children were supposed to help with chores and be useful. They would never be allowed to race if any adults ever knew it was happening.
Harlen, the boys’ spokesperson, replied, “No. But meet here at the same time tomorrow, all right?”
“Yes,” Thera answered. “If possible.” Everyone’s spirits sank upon hearing this addendum. No one really wanted to leave for school. Few of them had ever left their small village of Liesta, and now they would be going away for four years. Besides, school would likely put an end to racing forever.
“We’ll manage somehow. We always do,” said a boy named Endrew. As the crowd scattered, he caught up with Ledia. “You’re a good fighter and firewitch.” He paused, smiling at her. “But you’re a better person. Not everyone would heal an adversary like that.”
Ledia wondered why, with all her powers to heat and cool just about anything, she could not take the heat from her face and stop herself from blushing.