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Fire and Magic
There will always be mages. Mages who can wield even the simplest of magicks. However, once every thousand years, one is born who is…different.
I knew I was going to regret it. I always ended up doing things I regretted.
But the poor boy was going to die. I couldn’t just walk away.
So I let out a battle cry and leapt off of the cliff, my staff held high over my head. The Taurein—an ugly sort of creature with a half humanoid, half bull body, huge curled horns protruding from his head, and seven feet tall—turned and bellowed at me as I landed lightly on the ground. The boy let out a soundless gasp and scrabbled backwards before turning and running away.
Great. Now I was on my own. Thanks a whole lot, kid.
“Don’t pick on people you can eat in less than a bite!” I shouted, twisting my staff around one hand before slamming the butt of it into the ground as hard as I could. A ring of magic exploded from the spot where the staff touched the ground, and the Taurein was thrown backwards. He landed on the ground and left an impression that put sky rocks to shame.
I jerked the staff upright and thrust it up at the sky. “Lightning!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. A huge wind jerked up and my hair was thrown out behind me as a blast of raw electricity came down square on the Taurein The smell of burning fur and flesh rent the air. It let out a scream that faded into a snarl. The lightning faded away as quickly as it had come. The Taurein was now missing most of the hair on its body and its skin was charred, blistered and red, but it still picked up its fallen club and, letting out a bellow, charged me.
I leapt away, springing nimbly away from its spiked club as it slammed into the ground where I had been standing a moment before. I cupped my palm and an explosion of fire burst to life in my hand. Spinning in a circle, I used the momentum to fling it as hard as I could. The fire landed smack in the middle of the creature’s torso. He let out an angry roar that turned into one of pain as his meager clothing, just a few shreds of cloth, and what of its hair was left caught fire. I thrust the end of my staff out and shot out a blade of magic that amplified the fire’s power.
The whole creature burst into flames, and burned so brightly that I had to turn my head away. The agonized screams and roars finally faded away, and when I turned back, I saw the fire had burned itself out, leaving just a pile of ash and the rank scent of something evil in the air.
Sniffing satisfactorily, I slid my hand into a more comfortable position on the staff and pushed my hair back from my eyes. “That’s my third one today,” I tallied to myself, “and it’s not even mid-day.”
I started to turn away when another thought occurred to me. The boy.
The boy could be hurt.
The rational part of my brain replied with, Let’s not follow him. For all we know, his people could be hostile.
For all we know, he could be hurt and dying, I argued back.
“Oh, for the love of…” I huffed out a sigh and stalked off, toward the trail the boy had run down. “I’m too soft for my own good.”
The trail was narrow and wound through the tall, narrow trees of the woods. They gradually thickened into towering oaks with thick trunks, wide leaves and high, arching branches. I began to glance around. The hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand up.
I suddenly turned around—and found myself staring down the shaft of an arrow.
I was four summers old when my father gave me my first training staff. I was six summers when he had started to train me in the ways of a mage. Nine summers and I had my first warrior’s staff, and had begun to control the elements. Nothing major—just causing small rainstorms, making it snow, and creating small twisters that sucked up the village cats on accident.
When I was fourteen summers old, I left one day to fetch some berries and other food for my village—it was my turn for scavenging. We lived on the wrong side of the river—at least, that’s what we said. All of the elk, caribou, and other prey had lived on the side of the river opposite ours. On our side lived the enemies. The Taurein, the Pixies, the Lycans, and the Orcs. They were all violent and bloodthirsty, and would stop at nothing to eradicate our populations from the face of Evanya.
I was only gone for a half-day, but when I returned, our village was abandoned and torn down to the ground, and everyone was either gone or dead. I was the only one left of our population.
That had been three summers before my encounter with the boy. I had learned to take care of myself and start to harness more powerful forms of magic—lightning, for example. Fire, air, and eradication spells were also specialties of mine. I had never met another magic-wielder that could do what I could. Others could heal or destroy, start small fires or shoot small water rivulets, enchant animals or enslave them.
I could control the elements. That was different. And when you’re a magic-wielder, you don’t want to be different.
My eyes widened slowly and I raised my hands to shoulder-height, letting my gaze trail up to the archer who was currently poking the bridge of my nose with their weapon.
He was a tall boy with long black hair tied back with a simple strand of string. He had on gilded silver armor, black boots studded with spikes, and he wore fingerless black hand-guards made of a material I had never seen before. His sky blue eyes narrowed as he met mine.
“State your business here, magic-wielder,” he said, his aim never wavering.
I swallowed slowly, trying to ignore the weapon at my face. “My name is Mireille. I found a boy in the woods being threatened by a Taurein. I followed him to make sure he wasn’t hurt.”
He still looked suspicious. “I don’t believe you,” he said simply. “What did the boy look like?”
We both turned. The same boy from before burst from the trees and flung himself at the archer boy, clinging to his leg tightly.
“Casimir!” The archer boy—Calix—dropped his weapon. It clattered to the ground as he fell to his knees, clutching the boy tightly against his chest. “Where have you been? Are you hurt? I was so worried—where have you been?”
Casimir pushed the other boy away. “I’m fine, Calix.” He trailed off and then looked at me. His eyes widened. “You!” he cried. “You saved me from the Taurein!”
Casimir was cute, I’d give him that. He had messy black hair, the same shade as Calix’s, but his eyes were a more sea-blue. He couldn’t have been more than seven summers old, at least.
I blinked down at him. Calix looked up at me, and then rose to his feet, grabbing his bow and arrow as he did so. But this time, he didn’t aim it at me. He looked a lot more attractive when he wasn’t threatening my life. His skin was a light coppery color, the same tan I saw on almost everybody here in this sector of Evanya. It contrasted sharply with his eyes and made them prettier.
“You saved Casimir? From a Taurein?” he asked quietly.
“Yes!” Casimir cried out. “It was going to eat me, but she dropped down out of the sky and fought it off!”
“Actually, I jumped from a cliff,” I corrected him softly, “although being able to drop from the sky would be a handy skill to have.”
Calix glared at me for a moment before he glanced down at Casimir and his expression softened again.
“You saved my brother.” The words were so soft I wondered if I was meant to hear them. I didn’t want to say anything in case it almost got me shot again, so I kept my mouth shut. Calix ruffled Casimir’s hair and then turned to me again.
“We’ll take you back to our town,” he told me. “I can’t hurt you because you saved my brother. A life for a life. It’s the way of our people.” He put a hand on Casimir’s back and nudged him forward, continuing with, “You’re coming with us. You need to meet our father.”
The walk through the woods was a tense and quiet one. Calix brought up the rear. Casimir was slightly ahead of me, and he kept glancing up between Calix and I. Finally, Casimir tugged on the edge of my robe, which was just a simple cape I kept pinned to one shoulder. I had gained it from a tribe of Wiccans when I had sheltered with them a few moon-cycles before. It was handmade from the fur of a wolf they had found dead, and the hide they had tanned. It was edged with bear and wolf teeth for extra protection.
“Yes?” I asked Casimir.
“Why did you save me?” he asked curiously. “I don’t know you.”
“I didn’t want the Taurein to eat you,” I responded.
“Because then your brother would be sad.” I glanced back at Calix. He stared stonily ahead and gave no sign he had heard me.
“You didn’t know my brother when you saved me.”
“So why did you save me?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Can I see your staff?”
“No.” The word came out more sharply than I intended, and Casimir flinched away. More softly, I explained. “This isn’t a toy. It’s very powerful and very dangerous, and it’s also very special to me.”
“Okay,” he said meekly, and we continued our trek in silence.
I glanced over my shoulder again, and this time Calix caught my eye. He frowned slightly, his light eyes shining from beneath wisps of his black hair.
“What?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” I said quickly, turning back around. The trees gradually thinned out into thin, towering redwoods and lots of dense underbrush. The path beneath my feet turned more well-trodden, and here and there, littler paths trailed away.
Casimir turned back to Calix. “Can I go on ahead?” he asked eagerly. I didn’t hear anything, but Calix must have nodded, because Casimir spun around and shot off down the path. After his footsteps faded, I began to hear raised voices. My grip on my staff tightened, and I instinctively brought it up across my chest in a defensive position.
“Calm down,” Calix said from behind me in a bored voice. “It’s just our town. They won’t kill you—you’re with me.”
I shot him a sharp look over my shoulder. “I don’t need you to protect me.”
His lip raised in a sneer. “I wasn’t planning on protecting you anyway.”
I snapped back around to stare in front of me. If he didn’t want to be nice—fine.
I began to make out specific words in the voices I could hear, and began focusing on that instead of the fact that Calix was glaring at me.
“…have you been, Casimir?” a woman cried. “We were so worried!”
“I’m fine, Saeun!” Casimir said. “I was rescued by a magic-wielder!”
“A mage?” a man said, confused. “Here?”
“It’s happened before, Koru,” another man said.
“Here they are!”
Blinking, I stepped out of the shade of the trees and into the bright sunlight. Calix poked me with his bow. “Keep walking. I can’t see around you.”
Biting back a snarl, I jogged ahead a few more steps. When my eyes adjusted, I started to glance around. The houses weren’t huge, but they were bigger than the ones in my village had been. They were made of stone and brick with slanting roofs of what looked like more stone. It stretched for a while in every direction, and the whole thing was surrounded by walls that were quite a bit taller than me, made of pointed wooden spears and large blocks of stone.
Casimir was standing by a woman with long gray hair, a necklace with sharpened animal teeth strung onto the band, and piercing green eyes. There were two men as well. Each held a long-handled, double-edged sword. The first one was tall and thin, with silver and gold armor, heavily padded material for his clothes, dark brown hair, and tanned skin. The second was the same height and wore the same clothes, but he was more muscled and heavier-set, with fair hair and silver eyes.
“See, Papa!” Casimir cried, pulling on the arm of the thin man. “That’s the magic-girl!”
He narrowed his eyes and came forward. My staff immediately crossed my chest, both of my hands clutching the shaft. He stopped.
“Greetings, magic-wielder,” he said. “My name is Koru.”
“Father.” Calix stepped forward, his eyes wide and clear. “This is Mireille. She saved Casimir from a Taurein.”
“I would have been eaten!” Casimir piped up. The woman gently shushed him.
“You saved my youngest son?” Koru inquired of me. I nodded silently. He smiled, and then stretched out his arms. “Then we shall welcome you like any guest of ours.” And he went down on one knee, dropping into a bow with one arm across his chest. “Welcome, magic-wielder Mireille.”
The other man, the woman, Casimir, and, after a pause, Calix, followed suite. I just stared at them, startled by this. In my village, bowing had been a courtesy gesture used only for the chieftain and his family.
Koru rose back to his feet, and the others mocked him. I was beginning to think that he held a place of power in this society. “Are you passing through, stranger? Or are you here to stay?”
“I don’t know.” I let my staff relax back to my side, but kept a firm hand on it. “Maybe I’ll stay, maybe I’ll go.”
“You don’t have to make up your mind right now,” Koru assured me. He smiled kindly. “At least rest for a while. You must be exhausted from fighting a Taurein.”
Not really, thanks. “I’ll do that,” I said, glancing around a bit. “Nice place.”
Something flickered in Koru’s eyes, a shadow that spoke the volumes his voice didn’t, but his kind expression didn’t falter. “Calix can show you around.”
A protest burst, startled, from Calix’s throat. “Oh, but Father—!”
A sharp glare from Koru silenced him quickly. “You can join us for mid-day meal,” Koru told me, his kind expression back, “and then you can decide if you would like to leave or not.”
I nodded once. Calix made an angry sound and stalked away, deeper into the town. After another glance at Casimir, his father, and the two other people, I jogged after Calix.
“I don’t know why I have to show you around,” Calix sulked, obviously talking to himself as I caught up. “There are plenty of other people who are qualified enough to do it.”
“Well, no one else has shot at me today,” I said cheekily. He whipped an arrow out of his quiver and jabbed it at me, the tip landing between my eyes again. I froze, unwilling to spear my head through.
“Don’t talk back to me,” he growled. “I don’t care if you saved my brother—I don’t like you.” And with that, he snatched his arrow back, stuffed it into his quiver, and walked off again. Trying to still my pounding heart, I went after him.
“You do that a lot, don’t you?” I asked.
“Only to people I don’t like,” Calix said without turning around. “Usually, I’m quite kind. You should see me when I’m dealing with anyone who isn’t you.”
“Charming,” I muttered. Seeing as how my guide was being less-than-kind, I started to look around and take in my surroundings. Children chased each other around, shrieking with laughter and fighting with wooden swords. Two girls were sitting in chairs opposite each other, weaving what looked like fabric. People were turning to look at me, and then turn away quickly, whispering and glancing back. I focused on Calix’s back to avoid their eyes. They were all dressed in armor and black battle-clothes. I felt out of place, with my shoulder cape and top that revealed my midsection, hugging my chest and upper arms. The sleeves of my shirt stopped gripping my skin at my elbows, falling into loose silk around my forearms and hands. My leggings were the same way—hugging my thighs and cascading down my calves and wolf-fur boots in loose folds of blue silk.
Calix stopped in front of a building a little bit bigger than the others, with tall pillars in the front and its own stone wall surrounding it. A guard dressed in silver armor identical to Koru’s—I was beginning to see a trend—ducked his head in a quick nod to Calix. He held a spear that, resting on the ground, was slightly taller than him. He wore a silver helmet with a red crest, and his facial features were hidden by shadows.
Calix nodded back and walked past him. I glanced at the guard one more time as I followed Calix like a second shadow. He pushed through the heavy wooden door and disappeared inside, leaving me to follow awkwardly.
Torches were mounted on the walls inside, basking the whole place in a crimson, bloody glow like a sunset. There were different weapons laying on tables and hanging on the walls—bows and arrows, short swords, longswords, double-edged knives, throwing stars, darts and dart-shooters, clubs, axes, maces, staffs—just long pieces of wood or metal usually adorned with a curved blade on the end, not for wielding magic—daggers, and throwing knives. For a minute, I thought there was another source of light at the back of the room, but I realized it was just the torch-light glinting off the armor and fair hair of another figure when it moved.
He was about as tall as Calix, maybe a little taller. He had very fair hair that rivaled Calix’s in length, but his was tied back in a ponytail at the back of his head. Long bangs fell around his face, framing angular features and dark brown eyes that were barely discernable from the pupils in the torch-light.
“Who’s this?” he asked, coming around a table of swords and heading towards us. His face held a genuine curiosity, and his voice was light and gentle. He held a wooden staff in one hand, but this one was tipped decoratively with feathers of multiple colors.
“This is a magic-wielder that apparently saved Casimir’s life,” Calix said by way of introduction, and then he stalked off to hang up his bow on the back wall.
“What do they call you?” the boy asked.
“Mireille,” I replied. “And yourself?”
He grinned. “Rafe. It’s a pleasure.” He turned over his shoulder. “What’d she do to make you angry, Calix?”
“Survived the Taurein.”
“That’s harsh,” Rafe replied lightly. Then he turned back to me. “Is sour-puss over there charged with giving you a tour?”
“Something like that,” I muttered.
“I’ll lighten his load,” Rafe said, as much to me as to Calix. “I’ll show you around before mid-day meal so that someone can cool off.”
“I don’t have to cool off,” Calix snarled.
“Yes, you do,” Rafe replied. Then he put his hands on my shoulders and gently urged me backwards and out of the barracks. He pulled the door shut behind us. In the sunlight, his hair looked almost like gold. His eyes sparkled as he turned them on me.
“Ready?” he asked. “We’ve got a while before we can eat, so I can show you around if you like.”
“Okay,” I said with a shrug. What am I doing? I just met this boy. But something in my gut just told me to trust him. My gut was hardly ever wrong, but I still kept my guard up.
He led me out of the barracks and to the right, in the opposite direction from which Calix and I came. We walked for a few steps before he began talking.
“You and Calix more than likely came in from the south entrance,” he said. “There are three entrances to the town—south, north, and east.”
“Why not west?” I asked instantly.
“There’s a clan of Orcs that live three daywalks to the west,” he explained. “We want to be able to get in and out as easily as we can, but make it as hard as possible for them to get in if they do decide to attack. That entire side of our town is a solid stone wall.” He dropped a wink at a pair of girls who were carrying water jars. They giggled and sped up, hiding behind their hair.
“Seems like you’re popular,” I commented, not really sure myself if I was being facetious or complimentary. He was quiet for a minute.
“Not really.” Rafe glanced down at me for a minute before turning his attention back ahead. “Calix is the popular one, and that’s only because his father is a high-ranking soldier.” Then he changed the subject.
“The center of our town is used mainly for town meetings, led by our medicine-woman—our healer—and our leader, who is Calix’s grandfather.” Rafe held out an arm to stop me, and I stumbled a bit. A man on horseback trotted in front of us, tipping his hat to Rafe. The boy nodded back, and when the horse had left, Rafe continued walking.
“There are four levels of power in our town. There’s the soldiers and knights, like Koru and our leader. They’re the highest. The next highest is the fighters. That’s Calix and myself, as well as another thirty or forty of our population. Then there’s the artisans—the cloth-makers, the weapon-makers, the steel-benders, and the horse-tamers. Casimir is training to be a steel-bender.” His eyes sparkled. “Koru isn’t happy about it. He wanted both of his sons to be fighters like him.”
“What’s the fourth level?” I inquired.
“Everyone else,” he said simply. “They’re trained as guards, sentries, spies, things like that—jobs that require staying within the city walls. We are, for the most part, the only population of our kind out here.”
We had reached the center of the city. It was a big circular area made of stones on the ground worn smooth by years of being walked on. They spiraled into the center, where a tall podium of rock and metal stood tall. I switched my staff to the other hand and shielded my eyes with the first, peering around.
“How many people live here?” I asked.
“In our town? There’s about three-hundred-fifty of us who have jobs,” Rafe said. “Counting the kids and little ones, there’s another twenty. There’s not a lot.”
My village used to have fifty. I shook off that thought and glanced up at Rafe. He was staring across town, a misty look in his eyes, lost in his own thought.
“How do your ranks get decided?” I asked. He gave a tiny start, and then turned his sharp gaze on me.
“Usually you’re born into them—for the most part, you do what your parents do,” he said. “There are kids, though, like Casimir, who choose to do something that their parents don’t. If that’s the case, then you can change ranks. Calix was born into his rank.”
“What about you?”
I knew immediately that I had said the wrong thing. Rafe’s features hardened and he jerked his gaze away.
“It’s almost time to eat,” he said, and his voice held an edge that hadn’t been there before. “We’ll head back to Koru’s cottage and eat there.” He stalked across the square without waiting to see if I was following. I darted up after him. With his long strides, I was half-jogging to keep up.
“Sorry if I said something wrong,” I began, but he cut me off.
“You didn’t. It’s fine. Forget it.”
I sighed and fell back behind him a few steps without speaking again.
Koru’s cottage was slightly larger than the others, like the barracks had been, minus the set of walls and guard. Inside, there was a door leading to the rest of the building. Down a narrow hallway and it opened into a larger room with a long table in it. The table was made out of carved redwood. There were five chairs around it, and a woman with long brown hair was pulling another into place as Rafe and I entered. She turned to look at us—and I saw there was an ugly scar tearing down the left side of her face, and her left eye was clouded and sightless.
“Hello, Rafe,” she said kindly. “Did you have a good morning?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied. “This is Mireille—the magic-wielder that Calix brought back. She’ll be joining us as well.”
The woman turned her good eye on me, and I forced myself to not flinch. “Hello, darling,” she said with a sweet smile. The right side of her mouth pulled up further than her left, giving her an oddly lopsided look. “I’m Hikara—Calix’s mother.”
“Greetings,” I stammered out, relieved when she turned away and then guilty for feeling relieved.
Rafe must have caught my look, because as we slid into two chairs, he murmured, “She was attacked by a Pixie the year Calix was born. The wound became infected and never healed properly, and she lost the use of her left eye. She’s a very kind woman, though—but don’t stare. It’s impolite.”
That was the first thing he had said to me since we had left the town square, and it was a relief to hear him speaking kindly again.
It was barely a heartbeat later when Calix came in. His cheeks were flushed and he was panting lightly; he looked like he had just taken a long run. He murmured a ‘hello’ to his mother and slid into the seat on Rafe’s right—I was across from the latter. The two of them sank into conversation and I fumbled awkwardly with one of the wolf teeth on my shoulder cape to avoid looking at anyone.
A few moments after that, Koru entered and sat at the head of the table. Casimir sat beside him, across from Calix and beside me. Hikara came over and set a plate of grilled vegetables in the middle of the table. She walked off again and came back, setting down another plate, this one with cooked meat on it.
“I can help,” Rafe offered instantly, rising to his feet.
“It’s okay, Rafe,” Hikara replied gently. “There’s only one more plate.”
This one was piled high with assorted greens and more vegetables. It was more food than I had seen in a while, and my stomach began to growl eagerly.
“Is this all?” Koru asked, a note of disbelief entering his voice. I looked up at him, startled. What do you mean, all? This is amazing! I thought excitedly.
“You know how dry everything is, Koru,” Hikara said softly as she sat opposite him, at the other end of the table. “This is all they could harvest.”
I glanced around at the other people at the table and saw that this was met with less-than-happy faces. Uneager to ask questions, I leaned back in my chair, tipping it up on the back legs, and rested my staff against the wall. It almost reached the ceiling, and I was careful not to knock over any of the decorations on the walls as I set it down.
“That’s a good-looking staff you have, Mireille,” Hikara said as I returned my chair to all four legs and turned back to the table. She set a porcelain plate in front of me and then passed one down to Casimir. Rafe and Calix were already hauling forkfuls of meat onto their plates, eyeing it hungrily. I scooped a few grilled vegetables onto my plate and then topped it with a bit of meat. “Where did you get it?”
“My father made it for me when I was fourteen summers,” I responded. “It’s blessed redwood with a core of enchanted jade and peridot. The gemstone on the top is enchanted sapphire, with the horns from a Taurein for strength.”
Koru nodded, examining it. “It’s very well-made,” he commented. “You seem to be taking very good care of it.”
Casimir poked my arm. “Are you going to eat?” he asked curiously, eyeing my food. I nodded and smiled down at him gently.
“I will,” I said softly.
Out of habit, I closed my eyes. Thank you, Goddess Anlienisse, for the blessing of these kind people and the food that fills my stomach again tonight, as well as the power that keeps myself and my staff alive. Then I paused, feeling my brow furrow as I realized something. I apologize for not giving an offering, but I can tell these people are starving for every bit of food they have. A large offering will come later; you have my word.
When I opened my eyes, I saw Rafe staring curiously at me across from the table. His dark eyes met mine for a moment before he raised his eyebrows in a silent question. I could tell he was faintly amused.
“Nothing,” I muttered, face burning as I stabbed my fork into the vegetables, taking a large bite. He didn’t say a word or look at me again.
Mid-day meal was over quite quickly. Casimir left to go play with the other children. Koru said something about resuming his guard post at the south entrance and left as well. Rafe and Calix remained at their seats, talking softly to each other. Calix’s fingers were moving over the polished wood of the table like he was drawing a map, and Rafe was nodding slowly. Hikara left after taking the empty dishes with her.
I stood up and grabbed my staff again. I always felt safer when it was in my hands, and I gently stroked the polished wood while my mind wandered.
Without thinking or turning around to face them, I asked, “What did Hikara mean—how dry everything is?”
Rafe and Calix fell silent.
“We haven’t had rain in many days,” Rafe finally said. “The fields are drying out and we’re running out of food supplies. We have enough rations to last us a little while longer if nothing hap—”
Like his words had brought it, there was a loud sound like an explosion that cut Rafe off, and people began screaming. I caught one word above the rest—“Fire!”
Calix and Rafe leapt to their feet and dashed past me, out of the cottage. Heart suddenly pounding, I ran after them.
Calix was faster than me, Rafe faster still. I followed them through the winding pathways of the town until they skidded to such an abrupt halt I almost bumped into Calix’s back. Dashing around him, I gasped in horror.
About fifty people were throwing water out into the fields, but it wasn’t enough. A huge wall of fire was ravaging the field and sending clouds of smoke billowing into the sky. The two girls Rafe and I had passed earlier hurried past, carrying their water jugs. I knew it wasn’t going to do anything.
Calix voiced my thought: “The fire’s too violent!” he cried. “The whole field is going to burn!” He staggered back at a hot ember landed at his feet, thrown violently from the fire. “What can we do?” He and Rafe exchanged panicky, scared looks.
This wasn’t any natural fire, I knew. This was sabotage. But I couldn’t think of any being that was smart enough to attack underhandedly like this, except Pixies. But they had no access to fire, and there were no signs of a Pixie clan living in the area.
While I was pondering in a panicked sort of way, Rafe set his jaw. He spun around and began yelling orders. “We need more water!” he shouted as a man shot past him. “Get everyone you can and bring as much water as we can haul!”
Calix began to run back for the village, following Rafe’s order, but another burst of fire landed in front of his feet. A small fire exploded into life, and Calix scrambled backwards.
“It’s not going to work, Rafe!” he yelled. He was right. The fire burned orange, but I could faintly see a flicker of green and blue at the center. It wasn’t normal fire. It even smelled like…mint? That was different. A magic smell—but one I’d never encountered before.
That settled it. I didn’t care if it was crazy for a mage to be able to control the elements—these people had fed me and accepted me, and now their well-being was threatened by something I could stop.
Maybe. If this was magic fire, it had the chance of fighting back.
Letting out a cry, I slammed the butt of my staff down hard onto the sandy, dry earth. Dust puffed up around it. An arc of magic blasted outwards from the head of my staff and slammed into the fire. It reared up, snarling like a beast, but continued its onslaught nonetheless.
I thrust my staff high into the air and screamed, “Rain!”
Rafe and Calix spun around to stare at me. “What—?” Rafe gasped out.
I had never tried to summon as much water as was needed to put this fire out, but these people needed my help, and I could try, couldn’t I? A sharp jerk behind my navel almost pulled me off my feet. I gasped with its pain. It felt like someone had attached a hook to my stomach and was pulling backwards with all their strength.
The sound was lost in the sudden bellow of thunder that echoed across the fields and into the trees. People started looking up. Dark gray storm clouds began condensing over the fields, flickering with lightning and blue magic, the same blue magic that dripped from the sapphire at the head of my staff.
My legs started to shake with the strain of summoning such a powerful force. My second hand slammed into the body of my staff, holding it steady. My feet sank a little in the ground and I began to gasp for air. Black spots began to dance at the edge of my vision. I had never used this much energy to summon anything before, and I was barely holding on.
With a loud crack of thunder and a single flash of lightning, the clouds split open and splashed down a torrent of water. The fire snarled and spit in fury, and I could feel it, in the back of my mind, trying to fight back. But the rain was too much for it. It began to die out and the smoke faded, leaving the smell of wet ash and smothered mint in the air.
I thrust the butt of my staff into the now damp ground. Water dripped from my hair and ran down my face. I could barely breathe, but I managed to gasp out, “Earth… Heal—Heal this land. Revive the dead—and let them grow. Let them feed those who need fed.”
The ground rumbled. The strain of controlling both water and earth at once almost made me pass out. Green shoots began to pop up out of the now wet earth, and the storm was still raging overhead. When the plants were knee-high, I lost my ability to stand, and the ground rushed up very fast to meet me.
I didn’t remember hitting it.
This mage will be unlike the others of her kind. She will be special. She will have things that set her apart—a talent, per say. And she will be dangerous.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up in Koru’s cottage, I was bone-tired and sore all over, and my clothes were damp and sticky. I let out a low moan and rolled over, curling up on myself. I was tucked soundly into what felt like a soft bed and the entire room was dark. I burrowed deeper into the blankets and breathed in deeply. It smelled of soap and weapon polish and steel—and something darker that made me think of Rafe.
I bolted upright with a gasp. Pain shot up my back and through my body, and I let out a tiny whimper, curling up on myself. It was intense, like I was getting burned everywhere at once. My arms hugged my torso and cradled the parts of me that felt bruised—then, everywhere. I took a few slow breaths, waiting for the pain to subside. While I was doing that, I managed to take in the fact that the full moon was spilling milky light into the room and the stars twinkled in a navy blue expanse outside the window over the bed.
Did I put the fire out?
I waited until the pain in my neck lessened enough for me to slowly raise my head. Calix was leaning against the doorframe, and his outline was barely visible against the darkness of the room.
“The fields,” I said—or rather, tried to say. The words caught in my throat and choked me, and I broke off coughing harshly. Calix made a low sound in his throat, and then there was a cup held under my lips.
“Drink this,” he said. “It’s not poisoned—Rafe made it. It’ll help your throat.”
His fingers went under my chin and tipped my head up, and some of the warm liquid from the cup flowed through my lips. It was bitter and sharp, and I immediately coughed it back. Calix jerked away to avoid the fine mist I sent spraying over the blankets.
“No,” I ground out through a throat that felt rubbed with sand. “Can’t.”
“Too bad,” he said unsympathetically. “And that’s Rafe’s blanket you’re spitting all over, so you can explain to him why he has to sleep in a wet bed.”
I shook my head, and then stopped due to pain in my neck. “Can’t—drink.”
“Well then, you can sit here and suffer.” He set the cup down on the table beside the head of Rafe’s bed. “I was going to nurse you back to health, but you obviously don’t want me to.” He turned around and started to walk out.
“Fire,” I croaked, letting my eyes painfully follow every movement of his. He stopped. His back remained turned to me, one hand resting gently on the doorframe.
“You put it out,” Calix finally said. “The crops are the healthiest they’ve been in months. Some of them are still growing.” He paused again. “There aren’t any mages around here that can control the elements like you can, are there?”
I didn’t answer. Calix’s fingers drummed lightly against the doorframe before he spoke again.
“Drink that. It’ll make you feel better. Rafe said he’ll be in later.”
And he was gone, silent as a shadow. I eyed the cup with some distrust, but I picked it up and took a careful sip nonetheless. It burned for a moment, but a cool sensation like ice followed it, soothing my throat like honey. Closing my eyes, I drained the whole think in a few slow swallows. I felt the cold-heat flowing through my bones and muscles, and everything stopped aching. I let the cup fall from my lips and gently caressed the smooth stone, thinking.
Calix was the last person I had expected to help me or bring me something that would help. I figured he hated me.
“It’s not poisoned—Rafe made it.”
I had also thought Rafe was mad at me for reasons I didn’t quite understand—yet here he was helping me as well. They were a pretty interesting duo.
That seemed like a hypocritical statement coming from myself.
“There aren’t any mages around here that can control the elements like you can, are there?”
Speaking of mages.
My head jerked around, eyes suddenly wide. My staff. I kicked the blankets back and hopped to my feet, looking around. I didn’t see it in the room. I couldn’t have lost it!
“Looking for something?” a new voice asked in amusement—and this time, it wasn’t Calix. I froze, my back to the doorway.
“Maybe,” I said. There were three footsteps and then I felt the familiar wood of my staff brush my hand. I snatched it instantly and pulled it from Rafe’s grip, swinging it around in front of me. The wood was smooth and gleamed in the faint light in the room. The stone nestled between the Taurein horns glinted with a wicked light.
“What did you do to it?” I asked.
“I polished the wood and shined the stone,” Rafe explained. His voice softened a bit. “You’re good with your magic. There aren’t any other mages—”
“Who can do what I do, I know,” I cut him off. “How are the crops?”
“Healthy and thriving and still growing,” he said. “They slowed down drastically after you collapsed, but they’re still creeping up slowly.” He hesitated before asking, “Why did you pass out after using your magic for such a short time?”
“Fire, earth, and water are the three most powerful elements,” I told him. “I tried to harness two at the same time and it exhausted me. My body couldn’t take the strain.”
“You worried all of us when you collapsed.” His voice was so soft that I almost couldn’t hear him. I felt his hand rest gently on my shoulder, his other hand on my opposite arm, the one that was holding my staff. “You were completely unresponsive to anything for half a day.”
“I’m fine,” I muttered, feeling an odd flush spread throughout my body from where he touched me. “I was just tired.”
He was quiet. “Yes,” he murmured. “Just tired.”
I felt a strange pang of disappointment when his hands pulled away, and then he said, “Come into the eating room when you’re ready—Koru, Saeun, and Hikara would like to speak with you.”
And he left too, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the moon.
I sat in Rafe’s bedroom for a little while longer, until dawn was creeping over the horizon, before I got up the courage to walk into the eating room. I wasn’t scared of the people in it—I was scared of the thoughts in their heads. Here was a mage who came out of the woods and killed a Taurein with a twist of a staff, and then they realized that she had the ability to control the elements as well. They were probably scared of me.
I was almost to the room when I heard voices drifting down the hallway. The door was closed, and I leaned up against it, pressing my ear against the wood.
“…isn’t a danger.” Calix sounded angry. “She’s just like we are—she is just more skilled.”
“Calix, be sensible,” Koru said firmly. “She’s a mage who we know nothing about—”
“She saved Casimir!” Calix cried desperately. “Without her, my little brother would be dead! She saved our fields—and thanks to her, we aren’t going to go hungry anymore! How can you say she’s evil?”
“As much as I hate to admit it,” Hikara said softly, her voice almost lost in Calix’s strangled cry of frustration, “Koru does have a point. You remember what happened the last time a stranger was brought into our village.”
“Yes—but—he was in league with the Pixies,” Calix stammered. “Mireille—”
“Calix.” Rafe’s voice was soft and calm, the voice of reason. “Stop shouting. You’ll wake Casimir.”
“We shall talk to her.” That was a new woman’s voice—I recognized it faintly from when I had arrived earlier that morning. It was the woman who had been with Koru and the other guard.
“What do you plan to find out from talking to her, Saeun?” Calix demanded. “Exactly what I’ve told you for the past hour?”
“Calix, stop,” Rafe said again. This time his voice held a hard edge. “This isn’t making things better.”
“And what do you reckon we do?” Calix said, and there was a hard sound like something hitting the floor. Someone gasped. “Kick her out? Leave her to fend for herself against the beasts that are out there? You’re a heartless bastard, Rafe.”
I narrowed my eyes. Drawing back a bit, I lightly tapped my staff against the door. A spiral of magic spun from the center of the door, wider and wider until it formed a transparent window—one I could see them through, but not the other way around.
Calix was flushed with anger, his hair loose from its ponytail and falling around his shoulders. He was facing Rafe, one hand fisted in the front of the other boy’s shirt. Rafe was calmly looking at Calix with unreadable dark eyes, not raising a hand against the archer. Hikara had one hand over her mouth, staring at them with big eyes. The woman Calix called Saeun—the elderly woman I had met when I first entered the town—was watching them calmly. Koru was standing by the table, one hand on his sword hilt, the other arm limply at his side.
“Calix, let me go,” Rafe said very softly. With a growl of anger, Calix shoved Rafe away from him. The swordsman took a step backwards, smoothing out his ruffled shirt. “We aren’t planning on doing anything to Mireille,” he continued. “We just don’t know anything about her.”
“Then ask her!” Calix shouted, whipping around to stare desperately at the other three people in the room. Hikara looked down at her feet. Koru stared at a spot five feet over Calix’s head. Only Saeun met his eyes, and even she eventually looked away.
“That’s all we’re going to do,” Rafe soothed, shaking his head as Calix turned back to him. “I’m not any happier about the situation than you are, but—”
“This is your fault!” Calix suddenly cried, grabbing up Rafe’s shirt in one hand again and drawing back an arm to hit him. “If you had never come—!”
“Calix!” Hikara gasped, but it was too late. Calix had struck Rafe with all the force he could muster. It made an ugly sound like brick striking wood. Rafe fell backwards against the table, his fair hair falling around his face and hiding it. He made no sound.
“Calix,” Koru said, sounding angry as he took a step forward. Calix shoved him away and ran out through the other hallway. A moment later, the front door slammed.
That was all I could take. I shoved open the door I had been spying through and stalked into the room. They all—with the exception of Rafe, who had a hand up to his face and was otherwise still—turned to me, shocked.
“You’re right,” I said flatly. “You don’t know anything about me. Yes, I’m a mage who can control the elements. But I did save Casimir. You have been nothing but kind to me since I’ve arrived. I helped with the fields. I won’t stay if I’m not welcome, but I won’t have you decide my future for me. People tried that before.”
And I stalked out in Calix’s footsteps. I was halfway down the hallway when I turned around and snapped, “And don’t follow me.”
I left after that.
The rising sun was struggling to stretch over the treetops as I wound my way around the side of the field that had been ravaged by the fire. It was lush and green, and the ground was still damp underfoot. I picked my way to the back and proceeded to cut down a fair amount of the crops at ground level. After making more small plants pop up in their place, I heaped the freshly cut stalks together in a pile—a safe distance away from the other crops and any buildings.
I held out my hand in a lightly cupped shape and whispered, “Fire.”
A tiny fireball formed in my palm; I tossed it onto the pile. It burst into flames, burning in magic colors of blue, gold, and green.
I looked up at the sky. “Thank you, Goddess Anlienisse, for bringing me to these people and keeping me safe from the fire. This is the offering I promised earlier. I hope it’s to your liking.”
A warm breeze stirred up and the fire twisted around the air currents, burning brighter for a moment before dying back down. Once the wind had dissipated, a soft voice came from behind me for the second time in a few minutes.
“So you pray to Anlienisse.”
My shoulders tensed. “Something like that.”
Rafe came up to my side. His hair was tied back again, and the light from the fire danced in odd shadows over his face. There was an ugly sort of bruise that covered his right eye and cheekbone from where Calix had punched him, and his cheek was slightly swollen. “When you said not to follow you, I hope that only meant Koru and the others.”
“It did,” I said, planting the butt of my staff in the ground and leaning on it. “I’m sorry I lost my temper back there.”
“Calix does it all the time—we’re used to it.” Rafe stared into the fire, carefully avoiding my gaze as I let it trail over his face.
“Does he get violent often?” I asked, only half joking.
“Yes,” Rafe said without preamble. “He beats me up a fair amount. Of course, I bruise him back in return, but I didn’t get a chance to today.”
I made a small, amused noise.
“Anlienisse is the goddess of magic-wielders, isn’t she?” he continued. “Did you come from a family of magic-wielders?”
A sudden, very sharp pull in my chest made me want to cry. “My mother was one. My father was a blacksmith. He made me this staff. Mother taught me how to wield magic. They were killed—two summers ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and he truly sounded sorry. “I know how it feels to lose one’s parents.”
I turned and stared back into the fire, which was slowly dying. I tossed another fireball into it. It roared back up.
“My parents were hunters,” Rafe explained. The dancing flames of the fire drew me into a slowly hypnotic state. “I look like my father physically. My mother was tall and blonde, with pretty brown eyes. Father always said that you could see into someone’s soul by looking into their eyes.”
I blinked a bit, my eyes watering from the brightness of the fire. In the back of my mind, I could see a man that looked like Rafe and a woman with long hair and brown eyes, dressed in battlegear and holding a small child.
“They weren’t from this village. Neither am I. Our village is…was…a long trip from here. My parents left on a raid shortly after I was born, leaving me home with a friend. While they were out, they were attacked—and killed—by a band of Orcs.”
“Rafe,” I whispered, but he wasn’t done.
“Koru told me all of this. That same day, the leader of this village had received a distress signal from mine, and a small party came at once. However, it took them a day to get to my village. They were a bit too late.
“The lycanthropes had attacked while our fighters were out, fighting the Orcs. They had killed—everyone”—his voice broke a little—“and burned our whole village to the ground. Those who they hadn’t killed ran away and were killed by the Orcs. I was the only living thing in the ruins of the village. My parents and I had lived in a house at the edge of the village, built into the side of a hill. Our house hadn’t been touched.
“Koru had a dog that died not long later, but he was the one who found me. He was trained to search out living things. I survived—and according to the legends of our village, whatever can survive a fire is considered a bad omen, because fire is used to expel the evil from the world. Our village was still smoldering when they arrived.
“The name ‘Rafe’ means ‘shield wolf’.” Rafe’s hand went to his neck and down into the neck of his shirt, pulling out a small circular pendant that was attached to a string. He lifted the necklace over his head, handing it to me. I took it in my hand and turned the pendant over. His name was carved into the silver in beautiful letters, and on the back there was a carving of a wolf.
“I was born under the full moon. In our village, wolves were a source of power and were never to be killed—always respected and treated like the village dogs.”
My fingers went up to my wolf-skin cape self-consciously.
“The full moon was the sign of the wolf,” he explained. “I was destined to be a knight—that’s where the name came from. ‘Shield’ for the knight in me, ‘wolf’ for being born under a full moon.” His lips twisted into a wry smile. “Kind of ironic seeing as how my whole village was killed by lycanthropes.”
“I’m sorry, Rafe, that’s awful,” I said, wanting to reach out and touch him but worried about what his reaction would be. Instead, I handed him back his pendant and asked tenderly, “Is that what Calix meant—something about if you hadn’t come?”
Rafe was silent for a long time, staring unblinkingly at the fire.
“In this village, wolves are a bad omen,” he said simply. Then he turned away, towards the horizon. “Looks like the sun is up.”
I followed his gaze and realized that the sky was slowly lightening as the dawn lengthened. The sun had nearly cleared the horizon. How long had we stood here talking? I didn’t know.
“Let’s go back into the village,” Rafe continued. “There are things that lurk around here at dawn that we don’t want to run into.”
A shiver traveled down my spine. Carefully, I set a spell that would prevent the offering fire from spreading when it burned the crops out. Rafe turned and walked away, and I followed him closely. I opened my mouth to say something when my boot stuck into a small impression in the dirt. With a yelp, I tripped forward.
Rafe spun around, darting back a step, and caught me against his chest. I let out a soft gasp, looking up at him. His eyes were wide and dark, reflecting the sunrise.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, staggering to my feet. His hands never left my arms, where they had landed when he caught me.
“Mireille, I—” he began, his voice a rough whisper.
He snapped around. I peered over his shoulder. Calix was jogging towards us, his dark hair spread out behind him like a flag, but he skidded to a halt when he saw us standing as close as we were, Rafe’s hands on my arms.
“Sorry,” he said, and his voice was suddenly short. “Didn’t realize I was interrupting anything.” He turned and started to walk off again.
I pushed Rafe away, pretending I didn’t see the hurt flash across his eyes. “You’re not, Calix,” I said. “I just tripped and Rafe caught me is all.”
Calix shot me a look that told me he didn’t believe me, but turned to Rafe and then took to ignoring me. His eyes trailed over the injury marring Rafe’s pretty face and a hint of guilt flickered in his eyes. “Sorry I hit you earlier,” he said.
“Let me hit you back and we’ll be even,” Rafe said, sounding very serious. Calix opened his mouth to respond when a loud sound like a horn blew over the grounds. They both shot to attention. Rafe flicked a knife from nowhere and immediately ran off towards the city, his fair hair shining in the milky dawn light.
“What is that?” I demanded as Calix took off too. I ran after them.
“We’re under attack!” Rafe shouted over his shoulder.
The minute I reached the site of the carnage, my staff hit the ground and I screamed, “Lightning!” The bolt that cascaded from the clouds was bright blue, screeched with energy, and slammed into a group of Orcs, throwing them to all sides.
The Orcs were huge, ugly, lumbering things that made Taureins look beautiful in comparison. They looked like an ugly cross between a bull, a goblin, and a human. They had green skin, huge noses pierced with rings, eyes that were set very close together, pointed ears, and jagged teeth that stuck up over their upper lips in a serious underbite. Most of them carried clubs.
And the thing about Orcs—they weren’t very smart.
“Hey, ugly!” I cried at one close to me. It turned around, snarling. Its spiked club was covered in blood. Everyone from the village that was trained to fight—which was everyone over sixteen summers—was fighting. We were felling Orcs faster than we fell, but we were still losing some people. A woman screamed as an Orc struck her with a club. She fell to the ground and didn’t move again.
“When was the last time you bathed?” I taunted the Orc that had turned to me. “Let me guess—Last summer? Before that? Never?”
It let out an enraged bellow and charged me. I did a nimble backflip and thrust out my staff. The arc of magic that erupted at it threw it backwards, impaling one of its own with its spiked club. (Like I mentioned, they aren’t very bright.)
Calix was at my side, launching two arrows from his bow at once. One sank into my Orc’s chest, the other into the throat of one behind it. They both collapsed, and the second halved its remaining life by pulling out the arrow and drowning on its own blood. I saw one Orc get trampled to death by its teammates.
Calix went down on his knees very suddenly and for a moment I thought he was injured as he fell to his forearms. But Rafe appeared out of nowhere, landing lightly on Calix’s back with both feet on his shoulder blades. Calix somersaulted forward, the momentum launching Rafe into the air. The fair haired boy beheaded one particularly ugly Orc with a slash of his sword, and another caught his leg and jerked him out of the air. Rafe cried out once, and then the attacking Orc was dead.
“You alright?” Rafe shouted at me over the din of battle. Calix sprang away, shoving another arrow into his bow as he went.
“Fine!” I shouted back at him. He nodded once and sprang away.
I managed to call down one more lightning bolt before I was dizzy with exhaustion. No more of that, then. I resorted to spin-kicking a short Orc in the face and then setting it on fire. As it lay burning, I dashed around it and ran for a girl I saw on the ground, laying under an Orc with a large tree branch that had it raised for another blow.
Something caught me around the waist. With a scream, my staff fell from my hands. I was lifted off my feet and a rough, dumb Orc voice said, “Pretty girl! Eat pretty girl!”
I struggled and kicked, but my wolf-fur boots weren’t made for hurting. They were made for traveling. “Let me go!” I shrieked.
“Eat pretty girl,” he said again, and his grubby paws brought me closer to my demise. With another shriek, I realized only later that what I screamed was a name.
A sword sang past my face, and the Orc made a strange choking sound. I fell to the ground with a cry. Something in my knee snapped and I hit the ground hard. Strong hands lifted me up and then I was whisked off.
“They’re retreating!” someone shouted from our side. Sure enough, as I fought off the pain and shock enough to see straight, I saw the remaining Orcs stagger away and lumber off into the woods, tripping over the bodies of their fallen comrades and impaling themselves on their own weapons as they fell. In the end, only about twenty escaped alive.
The hands set me down on the ground and a voice gasped, “You—stupid…”
I looked up. “Rafe, I—” Then I stopped.
Calix stared back at me. His light eyes were dilated and his hair was streaked with blood. His chest was rising and falling fast, and he looked scared, furious, and shocked all at once.
“You—I’m not Rafe.” His voice turned venomous. “Rafe was off saving his own back. Why did you think I was—I’m not— “
“The sword,” I gasped out, startled. “You have a bow—I thought—!”
“You thought I couldn’t use a sword?” He took a step back, shaking his head angrily. “I don’t know what I expected from an outsider. Someone dropped their weapon—I seized my chance. Anyone who knows me knows that I care more about other people than Rafe does. Anyone who knows me knows that I can use a sword.”
“Mireille!” Rafe ran up to us, limping a bit and clutching his longsword. He had a slash on his cheek that was bleeding, the blood marring his pretty skin and dripping onto his clothes. The bruise on his face looked darker than ever. “Mireille, are you okay?”
“She’s fine, no thanks to you,” Calix snarled furiously. Rafe stared at him with big, startled eyes, skidding to a clumsy halt. “She almost got eaten.”
“She—what?” Rafe turned to me, still looking startled. Calix glared at us both furiously before turning and stalking away with a growl.
“Calix!” I cried, trying to struggle to my feet and follow him. My knee gave out and I collapsed again with a gasp. Rafe dropped his bow and knelt beside me, his hands meeting my shoulders.
“Don’t bother,” he said softly. “When he gets scared, he turns it into anger. He feels like he can control his anger better than he can his fear.” He pushed my long blonde hair out of my eyes. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I stretched my leg out in front of me. My knee was bruising badly already, and it hurt to exist. “I need my staff. I dropped it when—” When the Orc grabbed me.
“I see it—I’ll get it.” Rafe hopped to his feet and darted off, out of my line of sight. When he came back, he held it out to me. “Here.”
I took it from him and held it close to the head. Laying the sapphire on the top gently on my bruised knee, I prayed to Anlienisse for this to work without any flaws before pushing all of my willpower into healing magic. It was one of the lesser-used magicks, but it was useful as all get-out.
The pain intensified for a moment before dissipating. My knee first felt very hot, then quite cold. The bruise faded from black and purple into a nasty yellow color, and then back to skin tone. When I bent my leg, it didn’t hurt anymore. I rose shakily to my feet, feeling trembles run through my body all over.
Rafe rose with me, staying close. “Need help?” he asked.
“No—thank you, Rafe. I’m okay now.”
“You’re sure?” He dropped his voice. “Did Calix say something to you?”
“Anyone who knows me knows that I care more about other people than Rafe does.”
Swallowing, I hesitated. What did Calix mean? Why did he save me? Is Rafe just pretending to care for me?
I jerked back to the present, where Rafe was staring at me with concern in his eyes. I shook my head.
“I’m okay now,” I repeated softly, clutching my staff. I can puzzle that out later, when I’m alone.
“If you’re sure. Come find me if you need me,” he said, nodding and turning away from me.
He headed off, slinging his sword into the sheath on his back. I stared after him until he joined a group of other fighters, and they began talking and examining each others’ wounds.
Shaking my thoughts from Rafe, I took a few shaky steps, clinging to my staff, before I walked more confidently without it. I turned and headed for a small group of fighters—two girls and three boys, looking a little older than Calix and Rafe.
I healed one boy’s shattered leg and the oldest girl’s broken arm before standing back up and glancing around. The sun was clearing the horizon and casting forlorn shadows over the entire village. Koru broke away from a group of older guards and approached me.
“Are you injured?” he asked me. I shook my head.
“Not as badly as some of the others,” I replied. “I’m just a bit shaken is all.”
“Understandable,” he said, putting a hand lightly on my shoulder. “I saw you fighting. You did well.”
“Thank you,” I said, pleased by the compliment. He paused for a moment, obviously thinking hard about something, before he cleared his throat.
“Are you planning on staying with us?” he asked without preamble. “I know—we upset you earlier, and I apologize deeply.”
I gave a tiny start. The conversation I had eavesdropped on seemed like hours ago, what with Rafe and Calix, and the fight to boot. Some of my earlier resentment returned, but not much.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
Koru nodded once, slowly. “I understand,” he repeated softly. He removed his hand from my shoulder and sheathed his blood-stained sword. “Do you know where Calix is?”
“He took off in a huff just a bit ago,” I replied, glancing around. “I don’t know where he went.”
“Probably home,” Koru murmured, and then nodded again. “You must be exhausted. There is a spare bedroom in my cottage if you’d like to sleep there. If you do, we’ll make sure you’re awake for midday meal.”
“Okay, thank you,” I said, and then turned and walked away. I picked my way across the torn and bloodied grass, walking into the village. My knees began to shake for no reason, and I had to sit down about twenty strides in. Suddenly gasping for air, I bent down and put my forehead on my knees, my hands looping around the back of my neck. My stomach twisted uncomfortably and I fought the urge to be sick.
Inadvertently my thoughts turned to Rafe. He told me everything about his past, including how he came to live with Calix and his family, and poured out his heart without ever asking anything from me in return.
Calix, who acted like he hates me most of the time, saves my life and acts like an overprotective puppy. They were complete opposites, and so confusing, and…
I took a few shaky breaths, fighting the urge to either pass out or cry. I didn’t want to do either, so I just held my breath until I felt dizzy, and then let it out until I felt breathless and lightheaded. I repeated this process a few times and my stomach slowly started to settle.
I hated dealing with Calix and Rafe. They made me want to beat them senseless. I hated dealing with them—but I liked being around them. I had never felt this way about anything else in my life. It was confusing but sickening and lovely all at once. It was a feeling I both wanted to be rid of but couldn’t get enough of. I hated it and loved it.
And I hated myself for loving it.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but when I finally was able to stand up and continue toward Koru’s cottage, the heat of the day was settling over the village. Flies buzzed lazily around, and a gnat got tangled in my hair. I smacked at it and winced as I accidentally hit myself in the process.
The inside of Koru’s cottage was cool and shady, and I could hear someone moving in the back room. Figuring it was Calix, I shut the front door behind me and headed down the hallway, through the eating room, and back into the living quarters. The door to Rafe’s bedroom was open slightly and I peeked in.
A group of five candles was burning on top of his bedside table. It wasn’t Calix as I had originally expected—it was Rafe, kneeling on the floor by his bed, his legs tucked up under him and his shirt cast aside, his back to the door. There was a long slash across his back that was still bleeding and was red and inflamed. Rafe had his hair pulled over his shoulder and a cloth that was dripping with water in one hand, trying to twist around and clean the wound.
I must have made a nose, because Rafe paused and then said, “Calix, is that you?”
I didn’t say anything. Rafe rose up onto one knee and turned around. “Calix—” Then he stopped when he saw me. “Oh—Mireille.”
“Need some help?” I asked, pushing the door open some more and edging in. My staff knocked against the wood lightly.
“I can get it,” he said firmly, turning back away and pulling at his hair as it threatened to fall back against the slash.
“Let me heal it,” I insisted, coming in and tenderly kneeling behind him. “Hold still.”
“It’s not necessary—”
“Do you want it to get infected?” I took the cloth from his hand and laid my staff down, daubing at the swollen wound with the wet rag. His shoulders tensed and his hands curled into fists where they rested against the floor, but he didn’t make a sound.
“Did that hurt?” I asked immediately.
“No,” he said, sounding like his teeth were gritted. “I’m fine. Go on.”
“How did you get this?” I asked as I moved the cloth again. His back tensed again.
“One of the Orcs—had a glass and metal sword,” he said haltingly. “It shattered against my back as he hit me. I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Something glinted in the candlelight that wasn’t water or blood. I moved the cloth and went for it with my fingertips. Rafe made a strangled sort of noise in his throat as I freed the wickedly curved piece of glass from his skin. Tenderly, I wiped the blood off of my fingertips and laid the piece of glass on the floor.
“Why would you make a sword out of glass and metal?” I asked as I turned my attention back to the ugly wound. Rafe pulled on a lock of his long fair hair. “That seems dumb even for an Orc.”
“The Orcs didn’t make it—they got it from somewhere,” Rafe said, and then drew in a sharp breath as I accidentally shifted another piece of glass by brushing over it with the cloth. “It’s rather ingenious actually—when you hit someone with it—the metal cuts them”—he gasped sharply, and the relaxed again as I removed the glass shard— “and the glass shatters in their skin.”
I sat back on my heels for a moment, examining the wound with a critical eye. “Even if I healed this with my magic, you’d still have a wicked scar,” I commented.
“I don’t care.” One of Rafe’s hands knotted into the blankets on his bed. “Just—get the glass out—and heal it.”
We sat in silence as I picked out some of the larger pieces, and then picked up my staff. “Let me try something.” I held the sapphire on the end of my staff close to his back and whispered, “Stone—come to me.”
The house shivered and let out a small moan. Rafe let out a loud, startled cry of pain, arching his spine up and away from me, but my magic had done its work. The bug-sized bits of glass shot up through the air and stuck to the head of my staff like metals to a blacksmith’s magnet. Both of his hands clutched onto the blankets, almost dragging them off of the bed frame, as he hung his head between his shoulders, panting lightly and shivering.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized suddenly, my eyes wide as I suddenly wondered if I’d hurt him more than I’d helped.
“Is—all the glass out?” he asked. Each word sounded like it was being dragged through his teeth.
“Yes,” I replied, absently brushing the glass bits off of the sapphire. “I can heal it now—”
“Do it.” His voice held no wariness. “Just—make it stop—hurting.”
I rested the sapphire against his back, above the wound, and murmured, “Heal.” Blue magic pulsed from the head and danced over his back like little flickers of lightning. The skin began to knit back together and the swelling went down drastically. The red faded into a healthier skin color, but there was still a long line clawing down his back that stuck there in a scar. He let out a slow breath and his hands fell to the floor. His breathing evened out.
“Does that hurt less?” I asked, gently laying my hand against his back. His skin was hot, almost feverish to the touch.
“Yes,” Rafe replied, his voice a soft whisper. “Thank you, Mireille.” He turned his head over his shoulder. There was a light sheen of sweat across his forehead and his hair was sticking to his skin, but his eyes were bright and clear. “Thank you,” he repeated.
“It’s nothing,” I said, glancing away as I laid my staff across my folded legs.
“I wanted to talk to you earlier,” he said. “Before we got attacked.” I felt his hand lightly on my shoulder. Feelings like sparks of electricity spread from the feel of his skin on mine. I looked up. His clear gaze was locked on mine with a sort of emotion that said he didn’t want me to look away again.
“I…. There’s something I have to tell you. Something I haven’t told anyone. Not even Calix.” He stood up, towering over me. “It’s a secret.”
For a second, the light refracting in through the window made his eyes flash gold—and I could feel the grass under my feet again, the hot wind blowing across my skin as I ran through my town. I was fourteen summers old.
“Mother! Fa! Where are you? Fa? Fa! Mother!”
Golden eyes shining from a tree. A low, unearthly growl.
Screaming, crying—viscous lightning—burning and more screaming—and then running.
My chest tightened. Rafe had continued speaking but I wasn’t listening. I leapt to my feet and staggered away from him.
Shock and pain crossed his face. “Mireille, wait—”
I shook my head fiercely and ran out of the room.
I didn’t think before I ran into the room across the hallway, slamming the door just to put distance between Rafe and I. Shaking, I sank onto the bed with blankets soft enough to feel like down off of the fluffiest bird. I glanced around just to make sure this wasn’t Calix’s room. There wasn’t much of a sign that anyone lived in this room, and the shelves and tables in the room were bare except for a few books, which didn’t look like they’d be opened in ages.
My body was burning with a scary sort of fire I had never felt before. I both wanted to cry and to laugh at the same time, and I didn’t know why I wanted to do either. I felt bad for running from Rafe, but I couldn’t live through that day again, the day my village was killed, the day I discovered I could control the elements.
Besides, what ‘secret’ could he have to tell me? He didn’t know me. I had only met him the day before. He barely knew anything about me. Sure, he had been nice to me since I’d arrived here, and I’d been kind to him, but a lot of people seemed nice until your back was turned. Then they stabbed you with a double-edged sword. I had learned that lesson the hard way a few moons prior.
I shook my head hard and ran my hands through my free-flying blonde hair. Tangles snagged at my fingers and I flinched at a particularly large knot that caught on my hand. I knew I had a raven’s foot comb somewhere. Instinctively, I reached for my shoulder bag.
The bag that I had carried around before I had saved Casimir.
The bag that I had left behind when I had run to save him.
I groaned audibly. More than likely it would be gone by now. If it wasn’t ruined by wild animals or the weather, it was probably taken or demolished by Taureins, Orcs, or something else.
I sighed and stood up, swinging my staff around my shoulder one way and back around the other. Holding it in one hand, I cautiously exited the room. Hikara probably had a comb I could borrow.
Rafe’s door was shut tightly when I emerged into the hallway, and when I pressed my ear against the cool wood, I heard a heavy sort of silence. I almost wanted to peek in at him, but something stopped me. I wasn’t sure what.
“Are you spying?”
I let out a short screech of surprise and spun around. Calix stood behind me, his arms crossed and one eyebrow raised so it blended into his dark hair. He had it tied back again, and it was damp and freshly combed. His bright eyes were unimpressed and he looked somewhat bored as he cocked his head to one side.
“I asked a question, and by the lack of an answer, I’m going to suspect that yes, you were.” He raised his eyes to Rafe’s closed door. “What did you do to anger him? He only ever shuts his door when he’s in one of his moods.”
I didn’t do anything. “I thought you were with the wounded,” I muttered as the sharp flashback of Rafe and my memories made my stomach turn violently. I looked up at Calix and said, “Look, I need to find Hikara.”
“She’s busy.” His eyes returned to me. “You want anything, you can ask me.”
“Who died and made you king?” I snapped. I was unsure why I was suddenly so angry, but Calix was the outlet for it. If he kept holding me up, I was going to end up venting on him and it wouldn’t end well for either of us.
“No one, but I will be captain of the guard in a few years.” He looked me over. “Are you hurt from the battle?”
“No.” Something struck me. “You were limping earlier.” I looked down at his legs suddenly.
“Just a knife wound. One of our guards’ hands slipped and his knife cut me. It’s not bad.” Calix looked me over. “So why were you spying on Rafe?”
“I’m not spying,” I said, my anger sharpening.
“That’s right,” Calix replied. “Standing at the door to someone’s bedroom with your ear up against it isn’t spying. It’s polite eavesdropping.”
“There’s nothing to eavesdrop on,” I told him. “He’s being quieter than a field mouse.”
“Technically, field mice squeak, especially when you kick them.” Calix pushed his bangs out of his face. “You could kick Rafe, although I’m sure he’d do more than just squeak at you.”
“What is your deal?” I asked.
His blue eyes searched my face. “I could ask you that.”
“What do you mean?”
Calix shook his head, his dark hair flying. “Nothing. Just thinking aloud.”
I stood my staff on the ground and looked up at Calix. He was already a few inches taller than me, and his fighting boots made him slightly taller than normal, so I had to arch my head to meet his gaze. His eyes sparkled with a bit of amusement and reached out. I almost flinched away.
His hand hesitated as he saw my almost imperceptible movement, and then he continued to pull a tiny leaf out of my hair. “It’s the only thing out of place,” he murmured, rolling the stem between his fingers so the leaf spun in dizzying circles.
Not the only thing. No matter how much they made me feel like I belonged here, I knew I didn’t. This was a village of archers and swordsmen, merchants and peddlers. There wasn’t room for a mage here.
I had once been traveling and come across a stream. A brown bear had been standing in the middle of it, staring down at the water. A few staff-lengths in front of him, there was a group of salmon. They were all fighting to go one way, but there was a catfish that was pushing them back and forcing them away. It was both depriving the salmon of their upstream journey and keeping the bear from a meal.
The salmon finally won and began pushing the catfish upstream, towards the bear. The catfish fought and tried to swim through, attacking the salmon and hurting a good few of them until the bear snatched it out of the water. The salmon then continued on their journey, safe and undisturbed, while the catfish was killed and eaten, feeding the bear.
I learned something from watching them. There is an order. Anything that disturbs that order will be eliminated to preserve the peace.
This village was the salmon.
I was the catfish.
And I had a feeling the bear was waiting just upstream.
By the time I got around Calix by telling him to check on Rafe and let me go find Hikara, the house was buzzing with noise. I heard Casimir shouting eagerly to Koru for details on what had happened while he was asleep. The hiss and bubble of something cooking was emitting from the kitchen, woven into Hikara’s voice. The chickens in the village began to cluck and crow the day. As I paused by a window, a small thrush landed on the sill, burst out a few notes, and flew away.
I pushed open the door that led into the kitchen and looked in awkwardly. Koru was swinging Casimir into his arms, half-turned toward Hikara while she spoke to him about something I didn’t care enough to listen to. None of them saw me except Casimir, who turned over his father’s shoulder and locked eyes with me.
“Mireille!” he cried, reaching out an arm for me. “Come in! Mama’s making breakfast!”
Hikara and Koru turned to me, their gazes brightening.
“If you want to wash up, Mireille dear,” Hikara said cheerfully, “I’ll have breakfast ready soon.”
I forced a smile. It was hard to do that when I knew I didn’t belong. They had survived without me and would survive after I was gone. As I slipped out of the kitchen to head for the washroom, I felt a ball settle in my stomach as I decided on what to do.
After breakfast, I’d leave. They wouldn’t know I was gone until this evening. I’d be long gone by then.
They could go back to surviving without me. I wouldn’t bring the bear down on the unsuspecting salmon. It was only the catfish that needed to go.
I had almost finished breakfast—ironically, smoked trout, along with a vegetable medley, toasted bread that was handmade, and milk from the village cows—when Koru cleared his throat. He sat at the head of the table with Hikara on the other end. We all fell quiet when he looked to us for attention. Rafe and Calix turned away from a map Calix had snuck under the table. Casimir stopped playing with his vegetables, where he had been sorting them by size and shape to avoid eating them.
“I just want to say a quick thank you to Mireille.” He raised his cup, tilting it towards me. “Without her and her magic, we wouldn’t be eating as rich as this for quite a long time.”
“Hear,” Calix said under his breath, raising his glass as well.
“Hear!” Casimir echoed, not knowing quite what that meant but thrusting his cup into the air and almost spilling his milk. Rafe looked at me evenly and inclined his head slightly. Hikara murmured something at me.
“I propose a toast,” Rafe continued, “even though I’ve already eaten mine.” He knocked cups with Calix. “To Mireille—for getting us all out of the drought.”
“To Mireille!” Casimir said excitedly, standing up in his chair and pushing his glass up against Calix’s. My face burned from the attention, and when Rafe tapped his cup against mine, I snatched it up and took a long drink to avoid looking at anyone.
Leaving was already going to be hard enough. They didn’t need to make it harder.