I, Mage

Nalletrix Jasmine Haisan is very unusual, and has been that way her whole life. She lives a semi-peaceful life with her large family until, one day, she is attacked by soldiers who serve a very powerful man- but who is he? Why is this mysterious enemy after her?

Chapter 1: Prologue

Lein Kyra paced across the room. She was sweating profusely, and mopped her forehead with her sleeve. “The ruler of Jotham-Alathom…” she muttered. Then she turned and slammed both fists down on her desk. “Oh, Creator,” she breathed, leaning heavily on the wooden surface.
“Mage Kyra!” a voice by the door called. “Are you alright?”
“No,” she croaked. “No, I’m not. Get Narjali, will you?”
Footsteps retreated from the door. Lein’s head ached, and she felt dizzy. She fell to her knees, her legs refusing to hold her weight. She lifted her thick brown hair off her neck, and felt the cool air on her sweaty skin.
She heard footsteps behind her but did not look up. She felt a hand grip her elbow. “Narjali,” she gasped.
When she was safely seated in her desk chair, she picked up a glass with shaking hands. She muttered a word of power and the glass filled. She sipped, barely managing not to spill it down the front of her robes. “A… prophecy,” she told Narjali.
The young man came to face her. “Tell me. Let it go.”
She looked him in the eyes. “Will you remember?”
“Yes. I swear, I will remember every word.”
Lein relaxed. She closed her eyes and breathed, in… out… in… out. She felt her mouth reciting words that she couldn’t hear. A roaring filled her ears, deafeningly loud but inaudible to Narjali’s ears.
It seemed to go on forever. Lein gripped the arms of her chair, breathing hard.
Her thoughts were filled with bits and pieces of the prophecy, repeated over and over.

A Hosar who seems weak.
The ruler of Jotham-Alathom…
…no longer flee in terror
Powers never seen before…

--

 

One
My name is Nalletrix Jasmine Haisan. I’m eighteen, and live in the tiny village of Uk with my parents and eight siblings. I’m known by the whole village to be, er- ‘a strange child.’ I am the only person my age who is satisfied with my sheltered, simple life. I don’t long for the outside world.
Also, people believe me abnormal because of the various stunts I’ve pulled over the years. When my emotions are out of control, things… happen. I’m not necessarily proud of them all. If I’m angry, even if I don’t intend it, the person I’m angry with suffers somehow, whether from property loss or just plain bad luck.
After a while, some people began to look at me differently. Some are angry at me all the time, others hide behind me. Still others look at me with fear. I hate it. I hear the village women calling me witch-girl behind my back. My family are the only ones who treat me normally. So I spend most of my time at home.
One day, I am sitting with my back to the window, mending one of my father’s tunics. Across the room, my mother is sewing, bent low over her work. I can hear the thump, thump of my father’s axe chopping wood outside. My eight siblings are outside, half of them talking on the front porch, half of them shrieking with delight over some game.
“Don’t you want to go outside, Nally?” my mother asks me, looking up finally.
I smile, not looking up. “I’m fine, Mama. The mending still needs to be done, and you can't do it all yourself. Besides, I like doing it.”
The back door opens and closes, and my father enters the room, a huge load of wood in his arms. “Nalletrix, you’re still inside?” he asks, stacking it near the fireplace.
“Yes, Papa.” I still don’t look up, just smiling to myself and pushing the needle through the coarse fabric.
“It’s not good for a girl of your age to be inside all the time,” he says. “Even Umar is outside. It’s a beautiful day.”
“There’s work to be done, Papa.”
“The work can wait, Nalletrix. Go enjoy some fresh air.” He sounds sterner.
I can’t explain why I am the way I am. My family has mostly gotten used to my peculiarity. Mostly. My brothers consider me a complete idiot, but why are brothers here, if not to annoy their sisters?
I know that some people outside of my family accept me for the strange person I am, like Kain Usar from the village. Kain is the nineteen-year-old son of the blacksmith in the village. My brothers have told me he likes me. Personally, I can’t really see why.
I’m unusually tall for my age, almost as tall as my giant of an older brother. People also seem to distrust me for this. I’m often called narbruk, or foreigner, which doesn’t make any sense. But I’ve learned to accept it. It’s always a little amusing to watch people get uncomfortable whenever I’m within a yard of them.
Now, I grudgingly lay aside my sewing. “All right,” I say. “I’ll go outside.” I walk to the back door and pull on my boots.
Opening the door, I step outside and take a deep breath of the cool, clear morning air. I have to admit, it’s a beautiful day.
I stroll towards the woods, the hot sun already making me want to go inside again. When I reach the shade of the trees, I sigh with relief and walk to the stream. Plopping down on the rocks, I dangle a hand in the clear, flowing water.
“Why am I the way I am?” I wonder aloud. “Why can’t they accept me?” I pull my hand from the water and watch the little droplets trickling down my fingers and making dark splotches on my tunic.
Leaning backward onto the stones, I close my eyes against the sun and fold my arms behind my head. I listen to the sounds of the forest; the chatter of squirrels and other small animals, and the gentle sound of the water beside me.
I never realize anyone’s there until it’s too late.
Splash!
I land on my backside in the shallow stream, my leggings soaked. The cold shocks me for a moment, but then I regain my senses and am on my feet, stumbling towards the culprit.
“Ilea, Ismara!” I say, but the twins are already gone.
Grumbling under my breath, I head towards the house. When I step inside, wet and shivering, my mother looks a little alarmed. “Are you all right?” she asks, handing me a towel. “What happened?”
Accepting the towel, I scowl out the window. “The twins happened.”
She smiles. “I’ll let you plan your revenge.”
I head to the front porch, where Umar is sitting, watching a heated game of tag.
“Hey, look who decided to come out!” he says when he sees me.
“Hello, Umar.” I’m not in the mood for jokes.
“Was it the twins again?” He sounds serious.
I snort. “Which set? If you mean Ilea and Ismara, you’re exactly right.”
He is silent for a long moment. Then: “Do you want to take a walk?”
I shrug. “Sure, I guess.”
We stand and approach the road. As we draw away from the yard, I sigh, glad to be away from the noise.
“Umar, I hate being an older sister.” My complaint sounds childish in my own ears, but it’s true. I love my siblings, but it seems like the temptation to pick on me is unbearable.
“I can understand that,” he says. Now we can’t see the house, and the silence is glorious.
“Well, at least they show you a little respect,” I say.
“Point taken.”
“Umar, you’re supposed to be making me feel better.” I roll my eyes and continue to squeeze the water from my tunic.
“Oh. Sorry.”
Just then, something hits the back of my calf with a wet SMACK! I spin around just in time for one of the village boys to lob another handful of mud into my stomach.
“Curse you-” my words are cut off when something hits my face. My mouth is filled with mud; slimy and cold.
“Go away, witch-girl!” someone shouts. I can’t see who it is.
Wiping the mud from my face, I back up towards the edge of the road. I hear the boys laughing, and Umar cursing at them. Then there’s silence.
As I kneel at the edge of the road, spitting dirt and trying to wipe the dirt from my face, tears begin to roll down my cheeks, mixing with the muck. I hear footsteps behind me, and spin towards them, my hands raised in defense.
“Nally, Nally, it’s just me.” Umar grasps my wrists. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” I try to clear the mud from my face, but it’s no use. “It’s not like this is the first time. Curse them.” I’m crying, and my vision is going blurry.
Umar kneels on the ground beside me and lets go of my hands. “Here,” he says, withdrawing his handkerchief.
I accept it and clear the mud from my eyes, nose and mouth. “Thank you,” I tell him.
He puts an arm around my shoulders. “I’m sorry, Nally.” He doesn’t need to say any more, so we sit there for a few moments, brother and mud-soaked sister.
“Let’s go back to the house, okay?” Umar helps me to my feet and we trudge back to the house.
I feel like a mere child, with my parents and siblings constantly comforting me. It’s embarrassing. I’m eighteen, and still running to my mother every time some idiot boy throws mud at me.
When we get to the house, the children don’t ask any questions. Even Lejia and Laif look a little guilty. I’m glad they’re not bothering me. I feel like if anyone asks me what’s wrong, why I have mud in my hair, why I’m crying, I’ll snap. And I really don’t want to yell at my siblings.
We step inside and my parents gasp. “What happened?” asks my mother, setting aside her sewing.
“Village boys,” I hear Umar say.
My father curses, and I cringe. Papa NEVER curses, unless things really are bad. “Blast them, they can’t just leave you be…” he trails off.
I climb the stairs to my bedroom, and draw the curtains closed. Once I’ve changed into a clean, dry dress, I flop down onto my bed and listen to my parents’ and Umar’s voices downstairs.
“It’s gone far enough,” my father says.
“Well, what can we really do?” asks my mother.
“Umar, can I speak to your mother alone for a moment?” my father says, his voice leaving no room for argument.
“Of course, Papa.” I hear footsteps, then the front door opens and closes. I strain to hear what Mama and Papa are saying.
“I think we’ll have to send her to the School, Nalmor.” That’s Mama’s voice. I’ve heard one sentence, and already I’m confused.
“Eyvah, I can’t.” My father sounds strangely weak. “That place… do you understand?”
“You can’t let fear stop you from helping your daughter!” Mama sounds fierce, and I can imagine her leaning forward with a stubborn expression on her face.
Papa sighs. “It’s dangerous for her, Eyvah, especially with Jotham gaining power.”
“Then what better way to protect her than to train her?” my mother persists.
There is silence for several seconds, then Papa sighs again. “I can’t do it yet. I can’t let her go.”
“Nalmor…”
“Eyvah, I can’t!”  
I leap away from the door, shocked. My father’s yelling. Papa never yells at anyone, especially Mama.
I sit on my bed and clamp my hands over my ears. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but it doesn't sound good.

--

 

 

Two
It’s early afternoon by the time I leave my room. I can’t stand to go outside again, so I go back to my sewing. I notice throughout the afternoon that everyone is a lot nicer to me than usual. I suppose Papa’s told my siblings to leave me alone.
The high point of my day comes when a knock sounds at our front door. My father answers it, and I hear voices in the foyer. I don’t pay much attention, as I’m still angry with the village boys.
“Nalletrix, come here, please,” Papa calls from the foyer.
Laying aside my sewing, I stand, smoothing my dress. I round the corner into the foyer and see Papa speaking with Kain Usar.
“Nalletrix.” Kain nods in my direction. “I was wondering if you’d like to walk with me.”
I hesitate, remembering the disastrous walk Umar and I took. Then I figure that the village boys won’t be expecting me to be on the road this soon.
“I’d be glad to,” I tell him, smiling.
Kain is tall, taller than my father, with olive skin and green eyes that melt any girl’s heart. He is nineteen, a year older than me, and is rumored to be in love with me. I think that’s completely ridiculous.
Kain and I grew up together, since our mothers were close friends. However, his mother died when he was thirteen, leaving his father to care for him. Shortly after this, the villagers began to notice that I wasn’t like the rest. Within a few years, they didn’t trust me, even Kain’s own father. Kain is my closest friend.
As we walk along the road, I glance around anxiously, hoping not to run into the village boys.
“Are you all right?” Kain asks, noticing my jumpiness.
“I’m fine,” I tell him.
“I heard you were attacked by the boys from the village,” he says, a note of concern coming into his voice. “You weren’t hurt, were you?”
“No, just got a little muddy. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t understand why they can’t just leave you be,” he says, sounding frustrated.
“Lack of knowledge turns to hostility and fear,” I say. I’m a bit surprised by the depth of that statement. Only my father makes such philosophical comments.
“Well, I can understand why they’d be afraid.”
I scowl at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
He chuckles. “Any man in his right mind would be a bit nervous around you,” he says. “Especially after what you did to Johan Maresk.”
I grimace, remembering the incident. Johan Maresk is an overweight, annoying man from the village. Once, I was in the market, when he came by, being his usual disgusting self.
Johan really doesn’t like me, so I wasn’t surprised when he started calling me ‘witch-girl’ in public. He called me some other very rude things I can’t repeat, and I continued to ignore him.
Finally, I was trying to walk away when he tripped me. While I tried to gather my things, he started insulting my family and I, and Kain.
Sometimes, I look back, wondering if I overreacted. I mean, he was just an uppity old windbag who didn’t really know the meaning of the words ‘clean’ or ‘polite.’
He probably would have escaped injury, had he kept his insults directed at me. But no one, I repeat, NO ONE insults my family.
So what did I do? I stood up and backhanded the old fool across the face, knocking out a few of his yellowed teeth in the process. He sprawled in the dust, knocked out cold. No one complained. He was mostly fine, but any time he sees me, he goes pale and tries to hide behind someone.
“I guess I can understand why people are a bit nervous,” I say. “But he was really getting on my nerves. I almost never backhand people I like.”
Kain laughs. “Okay, good.”
We walk in silence for a few minutes. Should I tell Kain my secret? I haven’t told anyone except my parents. But Kain has known me all my life.
“Kain, can I show you something?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says. “What is it?”
I motion towards the edge of the road. “Come here.”
When we are out of sight of any passerby, I beckon him closer. “Look at this,” I say, pointing to a rock on the ground.
Kain studies it. “I don’t see anything.”
“Not that, you idiot. This.” I snap my fingers and the rock flies into the air, hovering six feet above the ground.
Kain inhales sharply. “What is this?”
“Hold out your hand,” I order.
He obeys, and I let the rock fall lightly into his palm.
For several seconds, he is silent, staring at the rock. Then he looks up at me, his face pale. “How long have you been able to do this?” he asks, his eyes wide and alarmed.
I think about it. “A few weeks, I guess,” I say. “Why?”
Kain lets go of the rock and it thuds to the ground. “Nalletrix, it’s very important that you listen to me,” he says. “You’re in danger. Even as we speak, I think you’re being searched for.”
“Searched for? By who? Why?” I ask.
“You just used magic!” he exclaims. “That’s like lighting a beacon! You’ve drawn attention to yourself, and people will be looking for you, mostly those who want you destroyed.”
“Um, say what, now?”
“Just come with me,” he says, grabbing my hand. “I’ll explain later.”
“Um, okay,” I say, stumbling behind him as he runs down the road. We slow down as we near my home.
“Curse my luck!” Kain says. “I left my sword at home, but…” he withdraws two daggers from his belt and hands one to me. “You need protection,” he says.
“Kain, stop,” I say. “What’s going on? Why do I need to be protected?”
He looks deep into my eyes. “Nalletrix, I’m sorry I can’t explain everything. I think your parents will understand, if we can get to your house in time. We’ll have to run.”
Suddenly I hear a voice behind me, shouting. Kain and I spin around, and I see three armed men coming towards us. I’m surprised by this, but even more surprised when Kain throws his dagger at one of the men. It looks like a pitiful gesture at first, but then the blade slams into the breastplate of one of the soldiers.
I let out a gasp of shock as the soldier crumples. His companions charge towards Kain.
“Use the dagger if you have to,” Kain says, then launches himself at one of the soldiers, with no weapon.
I turn to face the other soldier, who is leering at me. “My master is looking for you, little girl. It’d be better for you to die by my hand than to face him.” He lunges.
I clutch Kain’s dagger and swing it in a wild arc in front of me. The soldier dodges easily, laughing all the while. “Maybe I won’t kill you. There’s a cell in Jotham-Alathom with your name on it.”
I have no idea what’s happening, but I know that if I can’t beat this soldier, then I’m as good as dead.
Glancing around, I see a rock on the ground. Snapping my fingers behind my back, I send it into the air.
“Hey, look at that!” I shout, pointing at the trees behind the soldier.
He falls for it. He turns around, saying, “Huh?”
My rock slams into his temple. He crumples to the ground. I stand over his still body for several seconds, breathing hard. Then I look up, towards Kain. He and the last soldier are locked together, rolling on the ground. The soldier’s hands are wrapped around Kain’s neck, but Kain has his forearm pressed up tight against the man’s throat. It is a death embrace.
Still a little uncertain, but knowing that I have to do something, I step forward and lift my rock into the air again. I picture my next target, the base of the last soldier’s skull. Taking a deep breath, I let the rock fly.
With a cry of pain, the soldier releases Kain, and they fall in opposite directions, sprawling in the dirt. The soldier lies very still, and I know immediately that he is dead.
Kain’s knees are drawn up against his chest. He coughs and gasps for breath, and I can see bruises forming on his neck.
I step towards him, but then I am yanked backward as my wrist is caught in a tight grip. I try to twist away, but a man’s arm snakes around my throat, cutting off all oxygen. My hands fly up to my neck, wrapping around the soldier’s wrist, trying to free myself.
My vision starts to blur as I gasp for air. My fingers are wrapped around the man’s arm, but I don’t have the strength to pull it away, and my energy is diminishing rapidly. My legs start to go weak, and my grip on the soldier’s wrist slackens. Then my knees buckle and my hands drop to my sides.
I see a blur of movement in front of me, but then I see only darkness.

--
 

Three
The first thing I see when I wake up is my mother’s face. She’s bending over me, wiping my forehead with a cloth.
I’m halfway lying in her lap, on the floor in our living room. Papa is on my other side, peering anxiously down at me.
When Mama sees I’m awake, she sighs with relief. “Nally, how do you feel?” she asks.
“Horrible,” I say. “Mama, please tell me it was all a bad dream.”
“No, it was real,” says Kain from somewhere to my right. I try to turn my head that way but my neck is so sore…
“You saved my life,” I say when I can see him.
He shrugs. “You saved mine. If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead right now or in a torture cell at Jotham-Alathom.” He shudders.
“Kain told us everything,” says Papa, coming into view.
I stare at my hands, streaked with dirt, scraped and bleeding; these hands have killed a man. “I’m a murderer,” I whisper, stomach heaving.
“No, you’re not,” says Kain. “It was self-defense. If you hadn’t killed him, we would both be dead.”
I turn on him. “I want answers,” I say. “Now.”
He hesitates, then shakes his head. “I can’t give them to you. It’s not my place.”
“I’m not really worried about what your place is!” I say. “I mostly just want to survive.”
“I’m sorry,” he says simply. “You’re in danger, Nalletrix, even more so if I tell you everything. But I can tell you that there is someone after you, and if you’re captured, he won’t hesitate to use torture!” He speaks in a low, hoarse voice, and his expression shows fear. “Someone will come for you, I swear. They’ll tell you everything.”
He reaches behind him and withdraws something- the sword that the first soldier had brandished at Kain and I. “Take this,” he says. “And Creator bless.”
I take it gingerly; afraid I’ll drop it. The sheath is steel, shining brightly in the dimly lit room. The leather-bound hilt fits in my hand perfectly. From hilt to tip, the entire sword must be more than three feet long.
I look up at Kain to ask more. Why is he giving me a sword? Who’s after me? What on earth is Jotham-Alathom?
And who is he, really?
But when I look up, he’s gone. Out the door and off to who-knows-where. 
“Mama, Papa, you have to tell me what’s going on,” I plead.
My parents look hard at each other, having the sort of silent conversation that all parents have and children rarely understand. In Papa’s eyes I see worry and anxiety. Mama looks scared, her eyes wide.
After several seconds, my father speaks. “We can’t tell you,” he says bluntly.

--

I pace across my bedroom, completely furious at my parents. They just sent me up to my room, without a word of explanation. I carried the sword upstairs and set it on my bed, then proceeded to silently rant at Mama and Papa.
And then there’s Kain! I grit my teeth, thinking about all the things I’d like to say to him, the annoying, impossible, infuriatingly handsome idiot!
Finally bored out of my mind, I sit on the edge of my bed and stare at the weapon on my pillow. Curious, I unsheathe the blade. It is made of steel, with a plain leather-bound hilt. I sense that this blade is important, that I have to keep it safe so that maybe one day I can learn to use it.
Hours after she sends me to my room, my mother brings up my supper. I start to ask her if I can come down, but she holds a finger to her lips, looking desperate.
“Please,” she whispers. “We’re just trying to protect you.”
“Protect me from what…?” I ask, but she’s already gone.

--

That night, I toss and turn in my bed, unable to sleep. My mind is filled with questions.
Who is the ‘Jotham’ that my parents referred to in the conversation I overheard?
Is he or she connected to Jotham-Alathom, whatever that is?
Why were Kain and I attacked?
How is it possible that I used magic?
Who is the soldiers’ master, and why is he after me?
What’s so special about the sword?
How is it possible that Kain knows how to fight?
If someone’s after me, then is my family in danger?
All these questions swirl around in my head and won’t let me relax even a little.
I roll over onto my back and stare up at the slanted ceiling. My whole world seems to be falling apart. Nothing’s what I thought it was anymore.

--

I wake up sometime after midnight, in the darkest part of the night. For several seconds, I wonder what woke me up. Then I hear it again- soft footsteps nearing my bed.
I lie perfectly still, my eyes closed, as the footsteps cease. Underneath the blankets, my hand wraps around the hilt of the dagger Kain gave me.
It takes all my self-control to keep still. I must keep up the guise of being asleep. I can tell from the sound of the footsteps that the person is wearing boots, which means that it can’t be someone in my family, because Mama has a ‘no-shoes-in-the-house’ rule. I don’t know if the person is my friend or my enemy.
I hear a soft metallic shing sound. The sound of a blade being drawn. My hand tightens on the dagger, and my muscles tense, ready to defend myself if necessary.
I quickly realize this is a mistake. The dagger is in my left hand, under the covers. My right hand is draped palm-down over my stomach. I’m lying on my left side. When I tense up, the person can easily conclude that I am indeed awake, and they can also see that my left hand is the only thing I can use to defend myself.
A heavy weight pins my left hand down. The dagger is useless now.
Panicked, I lash out at the person with my right hand, but a hand locks around my wrist.
“Do. Not. Make. A. Sound,” says a man’s voice close to my ear. “Understand?” He wrestles the dagger out of my hand, and I feel the cold blade against my throat.

--

 

Four
I nod, too terrified to do anything else.
I can just barely make him out in the moonlight. He’s very tall, wearing a dark cloak with a cowl that hides his face.
He seizes both wrists in one hand and begins binding them together with coarse rope that bites into my flesh. I can see the knife glinting in his right hand. I still can’t see his face, though.
He mutters something I don’t understand, and I feel my lips seem to freeze shut. Experimentally, I try to open my mouth, but my lips are indeed stuck together.
Yanking me to my feet, he shoves me towards the open window. Now I really start to panic. Thinking quickly, I drop to the ground, and the man nearly trips over me.
With a growl of anger, he easily pulls me back up and practically drags me to the windowsill. Glancing outside at the ground three floors down, I feel ill at the thought of how high up my room is.
Needless to say, I’m feeling pretty nervous at this point. Who is this man? Why is he kidnapping me? I have no doubt that this is connected with all the other strange things that have been happening recently.
Just then, I hear footsteps pounding on the stairs outside my door. The man whirls around, looking at the door. I take that opportunity and fling my weight towards the door with all my strength.
It works. The man stumbles and loses his grip on my arm. The knife clatters to the floor. I snatch it up in my bound hands and hold it out in front of me, backing away from the man, who has recovered his balance.
Several people burst in through the bedroom door. After I recover from the shock of them coming in, I get a chance to look more closely. Kain is there, with three other people: a man and two women. Or rather, a man, a woman, and a girl who looks about my age.
The girl evaluates the situation in seconds. While the others head in the direction of my would-be kidnapper, she steps towards me and gestures towards the knife in my hands.
“Can I have that?” she asks. “I’ll cut the rope.”
Warily, I hand over the knife. Within seconds, she has sliced through the ropes. I rub my wrists, which ache from the rope.
“You’re Nalletrix,” the girl says.
I nod. “Who are you? Who are they?” I wave a hand in the direction of the others.
“My name’s Marajia Yamar,” she says. “Daughter of Xe’Nedra Yamar, Rak mage, student at the School of Magic. The others will introduce themselves when the time comes.”
As if on cue, Kain is at my side. “Are you all right?” he asks.
I start to nod, but then a wave of dizziness sweeps over me. I stumble backward, one hand on the wall for balance.
Kain puts his arm around my shoulders. “Oh, no you’re not. Sit down,” he says, leading me to a chair.
“You’ve woken my family up, for sure,” I say, glancing out the door. Sure enough, I can hear footsteps and the confused voices of my many siblings.
“It’s all right,” the other man says, his voice calm. “It’s about time your parents knew everything.”
I glance around at them. The man is very tall, and dark-skinned, which we don’t see around Usk very often. He has an air of command about him, but he has a compassionate look in his brown eyes, and I sense that he is a kind person.
The woman looks stern. She is shorter than me, with olive skin and dark hair. She looks like someone I wouldn’t want to tangle with.
Marajia is exactly my height, with lighter skin and long, curly blonde hair that falls to her waist. She has blue eyes.
My father enters the room, and looks shocked at the sight of the three other people in my room. “What is this?” he demands.
The man steps forward, clearing his throat. “You know why we’re here, Haisan,” he says, his voice deadly serious.
“That’s it!” I slide off the bed and look my father in the eyes. “What are you keeping from me, Papa?” I know that he has no choice but to answer now.
“Er… well…” his eyes slide away from mine.
  The man looks completely furious. “For the Creator’s sake, Haisan! You mean to tell me that for eighteen years, you’ve hidden your own daughter’s destiny from her?”
Papa doesn’t answer.
I suddenly notice that Kain looks very nervous. He’s gone a bit pale and is shifting his weight from foot to foot. When the man turns on him, he goes even paler.
“Did you know about this?” the man demands.
“I’m sorry, Abdul,” Kain says. “I figured I wasn’t the best person to tell her.”
“This is a matter of life and death, Kain!” the man, Abdul, says. Turning to the woman, he rubs his forehead in exasperation. “Xe’Nedra, do you want to tell her, or shall I?”
The woman shrugs. “I don’t know much myself, honestly.”
By this time, my mother has entered the room and stands, looking irritated, at Papa’s elbow. “Thankfully, most of the children are still asleep,” she says. “But you’ve woken the little one.” She means my seven-year-old sister. Giving my father a sardonic look that says, Congratulations! she steps forward, brushing past Abdul, and sits beside me on the bed.
“Are you all right?” she asks me, examining my wrists, which are red from the rope that bound them.
“I’ll be all right,” I say, my attention not really focused on her, but on Abdul and the woman instead.
Abdul takes a breath and is about to start speaking, but he suddenly stiffens.
The woman stands up quickly. “Abdul, what’s wrong?” she asks.
His face is completely blank; his eyes are distant, as though he is looking at something far off. After several seconds of us all watching in concern, he relaxes and turns his gaze on the woman.
“Jotham is tracking us,” he says. “He knows the girl is still here. He’ll be coming for us within the next few hours.”
She nods. “If we leave now, we can save your family, Nalletrix.”
I sigh. “I suppose I’d better get used to others making all my decisions?”
“Exactly,” says Abdul. “Pack your things.”
My mother wraps her arm around my shoulders, holding me close. “You can’t just barge in here, wake up my children, and take my daughter!”
Abdul looks frustrated, but the woman holds up a finger. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Haisan,” she says. “I know that we owe you a lot, but if you truly love your children, including Nalletrix, then you’ll understand. If we stay here, Nalletrix will probably be killed, and you and your husband and children will almost certainly be killed. We can’t explain everything to you now, but I swear to you on behalf of the Board of Magic that we will repay you.”
My mother doesn’t argue. I stand and move to my dresser. “If all of you wouldn’t mind…?” I begin, and Papa takes the hint.
“Let’s go down to the living room,” he says.
“Quietly,” Mama adds, her tone forbidding all argument. Abdul nods meekly.
When my bedroom is empty, I close and lock the door. Quickly, I change into a tunic and leggings and braid my black hair. Turning back to my bed, I reach underneath for my bag. As I brush the dust from it, I realize how pitifully small it is.
I rummage through the drawers, finding the things that I’ll actually need. I have a feeling I’ll be gone a long time, so I shove my heavy winter cloak to the very bottom of the bag. Then I move on to things more practical for mid-summer weather.
Halfheartedly, I close the drawstring top and push the drawers closed. Looking around my room, I see the many small treasures I’ve gathered over the years, just random objects that seemed special at the time. Scooping something up, I study it, tears springing to my eyes.
It’s a chalk drawing of my home, stunningly accurate, that I drew a few years ago. Carefully, I slip it into the bag as well.
On impulse, I pick up the sword from my bed and the sword belt attached to it. Adjusting the belt to its smallest size, I buckle it around my waist. Thankfully, it fits almost perfectly. Since I’m as tall as any man, the end of the sheath is a comfortable distance from the ground.
Shouldering my bag, I unlock and open the door. Turning around for a moment, I take one final look at my room. Then, with new resolve, I turn and shut the door behind me.
Descending the stairs, I take a deep breath, trying to stay quiet so as not to wake my siblings. But when I step into the living room, I realize that most of them are already there. Umar is standing with our brother Nalmor II, and the oldest set of twins, Lejia and Laif. They all look half-asleep still.
Umar envelops me in a tight hug. “Stay safe out there, little sister,” he says, voice breaking.
Nalmor looks as though he might cry any moment, but he’s holding it back. “Nally, will you come back?”
“I will,” I tell him. “I promise.”
The twins argue among themselves for several seconds, then they both hug me at once.
“Be a good sister to the little ones, Lejia,” I tell her. “Help Mama, will you?”
She nods.
“Don’t let the twins dump you into any ponds, Laif,” I say. “Give them my love, okay?”
Mama and Papa envelop me in a huge hug. When they back away, Mama drops a kiss on my forehead. “Stay safe,” she says. Tears are rolling down her cheeks. Even Papa is surreptitiously wiping his eyes.
“I’ll be back, Papa,” I say. “I know I will. Don’t worry, please.”
The woman touches my shoulder. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we need to leave. If we stay much longer, Jotham will come here.”
I don’t know who Jotham is, but I know he can’t be good.
With a sense of foreboding, I follow Abdul, the woman, Marajia, and Kain out the door and into the night.

--

 

 

Five
Abdul leads us all onto the road, and over to a cluster of trees. Once there, he uses his boot to trace a circle in the dirt, about a yard across. Then he says something under his breath, and I let out a yelp of surprise. The circle in the dust is glowing.
“That’s a portal circle,” says Marajia. “Just step inside, okay?” She steps forward, across the line, and vanishes into thin air.
The woman follows, then Kain. Abdul motions for me to do the same. Tentatively, I step over the line, and the world starts spinning.
I find myself in a completely different place. We’re standing in the pouring rain on a stone ledge. Peering over the edge, I realize we’re about fifty feet up from the ground, on the side of a cliff. Fabulous.
“Get inside!” Abdul says. I don’t know what he’s talking about, until Kain grabs my elbow and points to the opening of a cave a few feet away.
The wind is blowing hard against us, blowing the rain into our faces. I’m soaked within seconds.
When we’re safely inside the cave, I glance around. It’s tiny. In the dark, I can’t see much, but while it’s small and dark and damp, it’s better than out there in the rain.
Abdul is the last one inside. “Will you light a fire?”
The woman nods, looking tired. She says something I don’t understand, and suddenly a pile of wood materializes in the center of the cave. Another word, and it bursts into flames.
The heat feels amazing. I don’t bother to ask how on earth she was able to do what she just did. Kain and Marajia are already huddled by the fire. I follow their lead, wishing that my cloak was closer to the top of my bag.
“Where are we?” Marajia asks.
“Between Usk and Magark,” says Abdul. “If Jotham is after us, then we don’t want to go straight to the Board. I’ll send a message ahead. We’ll go tomorrow. Besides, the girl needs to know everything.”
“Would you please stop calling me that?” I ask, irritated. “The girl has a name, you know!”
“My apologies,” he says, not sounding very apologetic.
“Nalletrix,” says the woman, “You and Kain were attacked this afternoon, is that correct?”
I nod. “That’s right.” I rub my sore neck.
The woman takes a breath, then stops, laughing. “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but—”
I sigh, exasperated.
Abdul steps into the light. “Nalletrix, you’re a mage.”

--

I stare at him skeptically. “A mage? What’s that?”
He sighs. “A mage is anyone who can use magic. All of us are mages—” he gestures to the others— “and so are you.”
“I suppose that explains this?” I point to a rock and snap my fingers.
Abdul stares at the rock floating in front of his face. “Well, that certainly is unusual,” he mutters.
“Kain’s seen it,” I say. “If it’s so unusual, why didn’t he tell you?”
Kain glares at me. “You really had to do that, didn’t you?” he asks.
“Exactly,” I say. “It’s a small repayment in return for you leaving me with a sword I can’t use, without telling me anything.”
Abdul turns his gaze to Kain. “You knew about this?”
Kain nods nervously. “Er, yes.”
“I’ll deal with you later,” Abdul promises. Turning to me he continues. “Nalletrix, there is a Dark mage out there, a necromancer, named Alejar Jotham.”
The name sends chills up my spine, the way he says it.
“Since he turned to the Dark three years ago, Jotham has been hunting for young mages to bring to his side. He’s building an army of Dark mages to try and defeat the Board of Magic- the group that oversees the magical world. When you used your first magic a few weeks ago, Jotham noticed. He always notices.
He’s been hunting you, I believe. Why it’s taken him this long, I don’t know. But today, when you used magic again, Jotham was able to locate you. So, right away, he sent some of his non-mage soldiers to test your strength.”
Abdul pauses. “And here we are.”
“Speaking of which,” says the woman, “I think proper introductions should be made.” She smiles. “Nalletrix, I am Xe’Nedra Yamar, daughter of Jairus Askoma, chief Karmen mage of the Board of Magic—” she grins at Marajia— “and Marajia’s mother.”
Abdul grunts. “Abdul Lei-Kesh, son of Darsul Lei-Kesh, chief Jek mage of the Board of magic, Bane of Markel, and advisor to Narjali Lyari, Head of the Board of Magic.”
Xe’Nedra scowls. “Your list is longer than mine.”
Abdul smiles for the first time. “And whose fault is it that I defeated the Markelian Serpent instead of you?”
She scowls.
Intrigued, I lean forward. “What’s the Markelian Serpent?”
Abdul settles down by the fire, a look of anticipation in his eyes. “Centuries ago, the Markelian Serpent was created by the Dark, to terrorize the people of the earth.”
Xe’Nedra sighs. “Here we go again.”
Marajia yawns. “I know it’s exciting the first time, but it’s getting old now.”
Abdul ignores them. “The serpent destroyed whole villages. Finally, a group of the strongest mages bound it at Markel. For three centuries, it remained bound. Then, ten years ago, it escaped.
“When the Board of Magic got the news, I went to Markel with two others- Xe’Nedra here, and my sister, Klare. When we reached the lair of the serpent, we attacked. After three days of sneaking about, trying to catch it by surprise, I stumbled upon it. It had cornered the others. Klare was already dead, but Xe’Nedra was still fighting.
“I snuck up behind it, and stabbed it through the heart. So, while I carry the title of ‘Bane of Markel’, Xe’Nedra and I share it.” His face darkens. “If Klare were alive, she would share it, too.”
We are all silent. Xe’Nedra sighs. “Kain, would you…” she trails off, glancing at the snoring Kain. We all burst out laughing, and he doesn’t even stir.
“Looks like a good idea,” Marajia says.
As we settle down to sleep, I listen to the rain outside and smile, thinking of the warmth inside the cave. I wonder if I can find a home with the mages after all.

--

 

 

 

Six
I wake up abruptly when something cold and sharp pokes my neck. I fell asleep sitting up against the cave wall, my cloak draped over me.
Before I can even see clearly, I hear a man’s voice above me. “Nobody move, or the girl dies.”
I blink several times, my eyes adjusting to the light of several lanterns. Half a dozen men are standing in the cave. The other mages are sitting up, groggily rubbing their eyes. Abdul and Xe’Nedra are already on their feet. Abdul has a weapon in his hand- is that a mace?!
A man is standing in front of me, a sword pointed at my throat. “Get up,” he says.
Shoving my cloak aside, I scramble to my feet, my back pressed against the cave wall. I finally get a good look at the man.
He’s taller than me, with olive skin and black shoulder-length hair. He looks to be in his early twenties. He’s strikingly handsome, but he has an evil glint in his eyes that makes me extremely nervous. He looks interested, and a bit curious.
“Are you Nalletrix Haisan?” he asks me.
I nod slowly. “I am,” I say. “And you’re Jotham.”
He confirms this with a slight nod. “Good,” he says, holding out a hand. “Now that the introductions are over, give me your sword.”
I finger the hilt. “You recognize this, don’t you?” I ask tauntingly.
He looks startled for a brief second when he looks at the sword again. Then he once again assumes the derisive sneer. “Hand over the sword, girl.”
Despite the circumstances, I find I can think pretty clearly. If I can draw the attention of more of his soldiers, then maybe Abdul or Xe’Nedra can lead an attack against them.
“Who are you calling girl?” I ask, knowing that my words are probably a death sentence. “You’re barely a boy yourself.” I look him up and down, smirking.
“I’m twenty-four,” he says defensively.
I hear a soldier snicker somewhere. Alejar turns, piercing the culprit with a glare. “I’ll deal with you later,” he says. I don’t think he’s kidding.
Seizing the golden opportunity, I unsheathe my sword. I have no idea how to use it, but it feels right in my hand. I raise the point up towards Alejar, and when he turns around, it’s practically touching his nose.
He starts laughing. “You have much to learn, girl.”
Before I can even say, ‘I’m eighteen, you idiot,’ my sword is slammed from my grip. It hits the ground, clattering loudly.
“You should join me,” he says, stepping towards me. “A pretty face is deceiving. You could be a great mage someday.” Now about a foot away from me, he reaches up with one gloved hand and pushes my hair away from my face. A mocking smile creeps across his face.
I slap his hand away. Mustering all my strength, I kick out with my right leg as hard as I possibly can.  Alejar lands on his behind on the cave floor several feet away from me, gasping for breath.
“Don’t you touch me,” I say.
Three soldiers move towards me at once. I scoop up my sword and try to at least look like I know how to use it.
Kain joins me. “Need a hand?”
“Definitely,” I tell him. He whips out his daggers, and we charge. I figure I might be able to do some damage. After all, I have a large, pointy object in my hand.
“Nalletrix, duck!” shouts Marajia from the other end of the cave. I obey, dropping to a crouch as something whistles over my head. Then I turn to face the now-standing Alejar.
He grins at me. “See what I mean?” he says, gesturing with his sword. “If you joined me, you could become great. You would be treated well. You would be shown respect, as my guest and fellow Hosar.”
“Ho-what?” I ask.
He laughs, advancing. “Hosar is what you are, little Nalletrix. The most powerful kind of mage, master of the elements—” his right hand bursts into flames— “illusions—” a haze appears around him, making him appear to be a black bear— “and combat.” His sword glows. “I am surprised you know so little, but that can be changed.”
“Show-off,” I mutter. “Hyah!” I swing my sword once more.
Caught by surprise, he curses loudly as my blade grazes his face. His hand flies up, and when he pulls it away, it’s covered in blood.
“Nally, go!” Kain yells, coming in towards me. Without question, I duck behind him.
“Kain Usar,” says Alejar, sneering. Blood is streaming from a six-inch gash in the left side of his face.
“Shut up, Jotham,” says Kain.
“Get out of my way,” Alejar says.
Suddenly their blades are flashing in the dim light, and I can barely see what each of them is doing. Pointing at a nearby rock, I watch it fly into the air at my command.
Turning to face the rest of the fight, I see Marajia facing two soldiers at once. I send my rock spinning towards them. Bouncing off one soldier’s helmet and slamming into the other’s, it does its job quickly and efficiently. They slump to the ground.
The other soldiers are down as well. Abdul’s mace seems to have come in handy. Xe’Nedra looks barely winded.
“That was brilliant, Nalletrix,” Marajia says.
“Which part?”
She grins. “He touched your face and you kicked him halfway across the cave! I might have to steal that one.”
“No way that idiot’s going to do that and get away with it,” I say.
Marajia smiles. “You know, I don’t think that kick showed him.”
“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.
All four of us charge Alejar at once. Instantly, he growls out something I don’t understand, and a wall of light explodes into being between us.
“You’re a coward, Jotham,” Abdul says.
Alejar studies each of us in turn. When he looks at me, his eyes narrow, and I see a dangerous look come into them.
“I suppose you think you’re going to kill me now,” he says, sheathing his sword. “Well- you’re wrong!”
He shouts something, and his voice echoes off the walls. Suddenly the cave is thrown into chaos as blades of light explode outward from Alejar’s outstretched palm.

--

Pain explodes all over my body: in my arms, legs, head, stomach. My vision goes black as I let out a scream of pain and fall. I hear the other mages crying out as well; hear a body slam into the cave wall beside me.
I feel a hand latch onto the collar of my tunic, and then the dizzying sensation of being weightless. Everything goes black.

--






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