viernes, 9 de marzo de 2018

KINGDOM 1-2

ONE
Each icy gust bit me to the bone. A day-
dream of roasting next to a fire in the kitchens
while eating fistfuls of hot, flaky bread made
the cold feel even harsher, the wind wetter
and my stomach all the more empty. But the
thought of death made me coldest of all.
I took inventory of my kidnappers’ weap-
ons. Two were armed with daggers while the
other two carried bows and fully stocked quiv-
ers. Maybe they would cut me open like a sack
of flour or snap my neck like a fattened, frantic
chicken. Maybe they would leave me to freeze
to death and I wouldn’t be found until spring.
“You’ll get no ransom, if that’s what you
want,” I said to Hagan, the redheaded gar-
dener. My arms were wrapped around his
freckle-spotted neck, numb from taking the
brunt of the snowy gusts. My teeth chattered
so often I could barely prize them open to
force out the words. “You ought to have kid-
napped the lord and lady’s daughter. You could
have asked a fine price for Hazel.”
Hagan snorted with laughter. “Aye, if I man-
aged not to kill her in the meantime. I wouldn’t
go to that trouble for a thousand aurions.”
1
“But you know Patsy doesn’t have the means to purchase my freedom, and the lord and lady aren’t going to pay a thousand aurions for me, or even fifty.”
Hagan shifted my weight on his back, hooking his arms
under my knees. His bow dug into my ribs. I didn’t complain
for fear that they would force me to walk again on numb feet.
“I know better than to demand a price for the cook’s help.”
Hope left me like a last breath. They didn’t want ransom,
and I had ruled out the possibility that they planned to use
me for pleasure. Plenty of opportunities for that had passed by
now. I could only wonder what fate awaited me.
My kidnappers had seemed so sure of themselves when
they snatched me from the kitchen cellar of the manor and
hauled me alongside the snowy road leading north. But as we
stood at the outskirts of the Forest of the West Fringe, I felt a tremor in their resolve.
Once we plunged into the woods, the snowfall grew so
dense, we faced the danger of hitting a tree nose-first before
we caught a glimpse of it.
Hagan glanced nervously over his shoulder, his breath puff-
ing out like pipe smoke in my face. “Let’s rest a bit, eh?” he said to the others, who studied their surroundings before nodding
their heads. No one, not even hardened men like these, could
feel at ease in the Forest of the West Fringe.
“This spot’s as good as any,” said the uncomely, squash-
faced fellow with gray teeth, pointing at a cluster of evergreens.
The men unburdened themselves and gathered beneath low
branches that dipped under the weight of the thickening snow.
Hagan relinquished me with a relieved sigh. I lost my foot-
ing, but he grabbed me by the arm before I fell. “Don’t you
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go runnin’ off now, Bridget,” he warned, as if I were an errant child.
“Bristal,” I hissed, twisting out of his grip. But I stayed put
as he asked. We both knew I wouldn’t make it far in these
woods, not without a proper cloak and winter boots.
While the four men pulled kindling from their packs and
labored over a sputtering flame, I sat with my back against
a tree, swallowing hot tears. They ate a meal of pork and
bread, casting cagey looks over their shoulders. In the olden
days, these woods had been rampant with terrible and beauti-
ful creatures. Some said that if you journeyed deep enough,
you could see shadows of things long thought to have fled the
realm of Nissera.
“Should we give her something to eat?” the blond man,
who I thought was called Elwood, asked the others.
“Why waste it?” asked the ugly fellow with the gray teeth,
poking indelicately at the feeble fire. “This lass will be nothing but a drowned corpse in a few hours.”
My stomach dropped. Drowning. I tried to slow my breath-
ing, to comfort myself with the thought that it might merely
feel like falling asleep. These men could surely think of worse
ways to kill me if they wished.
“Why are you doing this?”
No one answered, though Elwood offered me a chunk of
bread and meat. I wanted to turn it down, but he unfastened
his cloak and swept it over my shoulders. This small act of
kindness overthrew my resolve and I accepted the food, thank-
ful that the bitter wind dried my tears before they fell.
“Don’t worry,” Elwood said. “You may survive.”
“Don’t make any promises,” said the fourth, who had been
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silent the entire journey. “Thousands have touched the Water and died. Do you know how many have lived in the last few
centuries, girl?”
The fear latching onto my stomach got an even fiercer
grip and twisted hard. I had heard stories of the Water, a pool
that lay deep in the forest, deadly to most who dared touch it.
Amid my shuddering, I barely managed to nod my head. But I
knew. Everyone knew about Brack and Tamarice.
“Two,” he said, holding fingers up as his cold blue eyes bore
into mine from underneath severe black brows. “Of all those
people, only two were worthy to receive an elicrin stone. This
bloke thinks you may be the third— I think he’s a fool.”
“I tell you, Trumble, I’ve seen her do magic!” Hagan said.
“Magic?” I asked in disbelief. “I don’t know the first thing
about magic. If I did, do you think I would be the cook’s help?
And wouldn’t I have escaped by now?”
“Don’t lie, brat,” Hagan snarled. He shivered and brought
his hood up to cover his bright red hair. “Maybe you can’t con-
trol it, but I know what I saw.”
“Plenty of folks can do small magic, Hagan,” said Elwood.
“Every proper household in the three kingdoms has a fairy
these days, and they’re good for nothing but chores and parlor
tricks. The cook herself is said to be a witch. I bet every last one of them would turn belly-up in the Water, and this one
here doesn’t even claim to be their kind.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” said Trumble, the cold one with
the blue eyes, breaking branches the size of my neck and toss-
ing them onto the fire. “Throw all the witches in with their
worthless brews and incantations. If every thesar wasted on
that horse dung came to me, I’d be the richest man in Nissera.”
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Hagan leaned over the flames. “It wasn’t small magic. I saw her change into a rabbit. She was in the snow and then pop!
I hadn’t even blinked. I nearly fell off the ladder whilst I was thatching the roof of the garden shed, didn’t I, Gilroy?” He
turned to the ugly man, who affirmed his account with a nod.
Hagan went on. “That was when I knew she might survive, like
one of them elicromancers in the history books.”
All four pairs of eyes turned on me.
Turn into a rabbit? Such power was only heard of in sto-
ries from the old days, when elicromancers had their own city,
culture and language. But only two people had survived the
Water to receive an elicrin stone in the last few hundred years.
I opened my mouth to argue— to say that I hadn’t become a
rabbit, that I couldn’t have, that I should be elbow-deep in
dishwater right now rather than wandering through the for-
est in my apron— but I choked on my words. Hagan had been
violent with me before when I managed to be inconvenient.
“Whether it’s true or you were up to your bollocks in ale
makes little difference to me,” Trumble barked at Hagan. “It
will only cost the cook’s brat if you’re wrong.”
“Aye, and maybe a few fingers!” the ugly man named Gil-
roy said as he rubbed his hands together to keep warm. “But
it’s better this way, with the snow. They’ll think she wandered
off and froze to death in the woods. If it doesn’t work, none
will be the wiser when we’re back.”
That tale sounded likely enough, as I made a habit of roam-
ing off after finishing my chores to escape the heat and clamor
of the kitchen, not to mention the ridicule of the lord and lady’s daughter, Hazel. She thrived on watching me finish my chores,
only to soil what I’d cleaned or dishevel what I’d straightened.
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“Didn’t you come from the woods, anyhow?” Gilroy went on. “I’ve heard the story. You were covered in blood, speaking
some nonsense language. All you knew was your name. Every-
one but the cook thought you’d been whelped by wild dogs.”
“That’ll do, Gilroy,” said Elwood, voice hard.
I could stomach Gilroy’s torment. I had endured Hazel’s
cruelty for years, and grown smarter for it. A reminder of my
past could hardly crush my spirits. It was the truth, after all.
Patsy, the cook at a manor house in Popplewell, had taken me
in after I was found wandering at the edge of the woods. She
brought me from town to town, hoping someone might recog-
nize me and point her to my mother or father. When no one
claimed me, she took me in and cared for me. The lord and
lady of the manor were kind folk who allowed Patsy eight extra
silver aurions a year for my care, as long as she made certain
I was useful. They felt obliged; Patsy was so fine a cook that
everyone in the nearby border villages suspected her of being
a witch. Sometimes I wished she were. Perhaps then she could
summon memories of my parents.
Other times, I preferred not knowing how I had turned up
roaming the streets like a stray dog.
As I inched closed to my kidnappers’ fire to warm my pur-
pling fingers, I thought about how it would take Patsy at least
a day to realize I was nowhere to be found. She wouldn’t think
to go prying for gossip about the manor gardener or three other
townsmen who had happened to vanish for a day. It would be
too late by then, anyhow.
We started off again, my hands now bound around Trum-
ble’s sinewy neck.
The man who had given me the food and cloak leaned close
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to me. His pale hair and brows softened the edges of his square jaw and straight nose.
“We may not even find the Water,” he said. “The elicro-
mancers put up gates and laid an enchantment upon it. It keeps
itself veiled from those it does not welcome, moving through-
out the forest and only permitting those who may be wor-
thy.” He wore a meager smile, and his colorful, captivated tone
reminded me of Patsy’s storytelling voice, which I had heard
so often as a girl. “I think Hagan’s right about you. And if he
is right, do you know what will happen should we find the
Water?”
I lifted my head, a small hope stirring inside me. But
Hagan cut him off before he could say anything more. “That’s
enough, Elwood,” he snarled. “If you tell her any more, things
could get dangerous when she comes out of that Water.”
“Dangerous?” Elwood repeated as he trudged through the
snow beside me. “She’s just a kitchen maid, and a slice of a
girl.”
“Likely to piss herself soon, by the looks of her.” Gilroy’s
laugh reminded me of the raucous little tawny-tits that crowed
at dawn. I gritted my teeth and determined that no matter
what befell me, I wouldn’t piss myself.
“Aye, but look at those eyes,” said Hagan. “Sharp and gray
as moonlight.” He clamped his fingers around my jaw and
squeezed. “She’s got streaks of magic in her blood. We’ll see
what that looks like soon enough!”
Gilroy gave another tawny-tit laugh and Elwood fell silent,
fixing his gaze on the road ahead. Anger and fear warred in
my pulse, but I did nothing, recalling the bruise Hagan’s fist
had left on my face years ago when I caught him stealing aged
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sherry from the food cellar. He would no doubt do worse to me now; since I had grown older he’d started calling me “pretty
one,” and I had felt the urge to squirm under his gaze. I was old enough now to understand what had happened when I was young
and saw him coerce one of the maids into the shed, a firm grip on her arm. I would rather jump into the Water than be next.
I tried to recall the legends of the Water, the stories Patsy
and the maids had told me. It determined the fate of anyone
who dared touch it— like the thousands dead before me. It
either bestowed immeasurable power in the form of an elicrin
stone or pulled you into its depths and destroyed you. The
bodies of those it rejected were never recovered.
In olden days, many people had survived the Water, retriev-
ing a powerful stone from the depths that made them ageless
and immortal elicromancers. But a civil war between two fac-
tions of elicromancers had wiped most of them out a few cen-
turies ago. After the Elicrin War, magic had greatly weakened
in Nissera.
A man named Brack had been the first to survive touching
its surface, and after him, a woman, Tamarice. Every soul in
the three kingdoms knew those names. Not a soul would know
mine.
Little as I wanted to, I clung tightly to Trumble. I feared
what lay ahead much more than I feared even him.
“Look at that,” Hagan breathed in awe. Streaks of silver
flashed in the distance, barely perceptible in the fog. Mist rose from the forest floor and wind whispered through the barren
branches.
“Impossible,” Elwood muttered breathlessly. “We’ve already
reached the gates.”
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Trumble handed me off to Gilroy, who smelled like a wet weasel. The men suddenly seemed to have an air of reverence— no, of fear. Their steps slowed and their breaths
softened.
We drew cautiously near and saw silver trees glinting in the
muted light. The two foremost were woven together to create
a set of narrow gates stretching into unknown heights. If the
mist hadn’t been rippling like ghostly apparitions, the sight
would have been more beautiful than fearsome.
Gilroy set me down, but kept a firm grip on my arm. “How
are we supposed to get through?” he asked, voice lumbering
through the eerie silence.
I looked up at the silver branches looming in the fog. Per-
haps we would fail to even reach the sacred pool to begin with.
“Eh! What’s this?” Hagan exclaimed.
All eyes followed his pointed finger. Gilroy dragged me
forward so that he could get a closer look.
“It’s an elicrin stone,” Hagan mused.
Where there normally might be a lock, the gates held
what looked like a jagged, uncut gem, blue as a sapphire and
clenched in ornate silver garniture. Hagan extracted a knife
and prepared to pry it off, but the cold man, Trumble, seized
his arm.
“A fool you are!” he spat. “This place reeks of old magic.
There’s power here that would make even an elicromancer
tremble, and you come pilfering like it’s a jewelry box.” He
released Hagan’s arm. “Let’s do what we came here to.”
Hagan made as if to argue but instead sighed, disenchanted.
Eyes locked on the translucent gem, he slowly sheathed his
dagger.
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Gilroy seemed to recall the reason we were there and shook me by the shoulders to make sure I hadn’t forgotten,
either. “Well, go on then, boys!”
Hagan and Trumble pulled with all their strength, but
couldn’t budge the gate an inch. The elicrin stone flickered
even in the absence of sunlight.
“Come off it, Elwood!” Hagan growled. “You going to
help?”
We turned to Elwood, who looked pale and uncertain.
“Never mind that,” said Gilroy, who held me fast, icy fin-
gers at my nape. “Make her try.”
After a hushed moment, they nodded at one another in
agreement. Gilroy cut my bonds and the men retreated into
the haze. I took a cautious step forward, watching the snow-
flakes kiss the earth.
“Get to it then!” Hagan prodded.
“What am I supposed to do?” I meant for my voice to sound
sharp, as callused and strong as my hardworking hands, but it
emerged feeble and thick with fear. I already knew the answer.
I looked at the elicrin stone, trying not to notice what lay
beyond the gates as my fingertips prickled in anticipation. The
light reflecting in the gem seemed to shift and bend, revealing
a multitude of rich, rippling hues.
I looked back at my captors, but the flash of a knife in
Trumble’s hand told me hesitating would only make matters
worse. I faced the gates again.
I had worn fairy charms before, even held a stone that a
traveling peddler claimed carried traces of deep magic. Those
trinkets had produced a sort of chill, a peculiar tingling
that traveled across my palm and under my skin, proving its
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mystical qualities. Closing my eyes, I pressed my fingertips to the stone.
Heat coiled around my veins and burst through them like
strands of fire consuming me from inside, only I felt no pain.
My blood surged, carrying a shudder of heat to my core. This
was no trinket.
The silence grew thick as I drew back and waited. Nothing
happened. If it didn’t work— if I promised never to tell what
they had done— perhaps I would be allowed to return home.
But the uppermost branches began to untangle them-
selves. The silver slid away, revealing wet brown bark beneath.
I gasped as the trees shrank, straightened their branches and
grew sparse coronets of withered leaves. Only the tree embed-
ded with the sparkling stone remained unchanged.
Hagan’s voice barreled through the dense silence. “Ha! You
see that? I’d say I well deserve my three quarters.”
“Half,” Elwood corrected, voice low. I turned around. He
and Trumble hung back, stiff with hesitance.
I dug my heels into the snow as Gilroy dragged me forward,
hauling me over the threshold. “You aren’t getting scared now,
are you, pretty one?” he goaded, making a show of his gray-
tinged teeth. “We’re nearly to the good part!”
With mounting terror, I watched the fog snake away from
the Water. The surface shone silver, but I could see fragments
of light breaking up the darkness, rays of color cast in all directions, tricking the eye so that its depth could no more easily be determined than the distance of the stars.
The men formed a half-circle around me. Gilroy shoved
me toward the Water’s edge.
“Please, I’m not what you think I am.” I attempted to break
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free from the heavy hands on my shoulders, twisting to face Hagan. “My guardian is a witch,” I lied. “The powerful sort.
But me, I’ve never done magic. I don’t know how to do any of
it, common or not.” At least that part was true.
There was a touch of doubt in Hagan’s hard eyes. He looked
at Trumble. “What if it was the witch? What if she finds out
and punishes us?”
Trumble’s tone was final. “The girl opened the gates. She’s
coming out with an elicrin stone or not at all.”
I turned to Elwood, my last hope.
“Please,” I begged, the word emerging as a hoarse whisper.
Elwood bleakly returned my gaze.
Trumble chuckled. “Don’t be cross with him for not taking
up for you, sweet. He has his reasons. Don’t you, Elwood?”
Elwood stared at Trumble. He stiffened his jaw but kept
silent.
“That’s what I thought,” Trumble said. “You can play the
hero another day.”
I felt a fresh round of fiery tears well up as Trumble tugged
off my borrowed cloak and clamped a large hand on my
shoulder.
“No!” I shrieked, beating my fists against his solid chest
until the word became nothing but a scream. He yanked me
close to the shore, dangling me so that my feet still touched the earth but the rest of me was poised over the Water. My warped
reflection showed a sopping mess of dark hair, a stained apron
and eyes alight with fear.
My left hand nearly touched the surface. I made a defiant
fist.
“Shall I drop you in?” Trumble growled into my ear. I
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shuddered as the cold caress of a knife trailed along the back of my neck.
“She’s scared enough!” Elwood pleaded.
Trumble didn’t react. “Let’s put it this way: you got a better
chance of living by touching that water than by disobeying me.”
Biting back a sob, I uncurled my fist. The distance between
the Water and my hand was imperceptible.
I shut my eyes and grazed the surface with my fingertips.
A ghostly calm swept over the world. Seconds passed, sinis-
ter in their silence, before an invisible force from below clenched my forearm with an icy grip and pulled me into darkness.
As I sank far beneath the surface, I heard a sound like crack-
ling wood and watched in horror as a sheet of ice closed over
the Water. I saw the four men’s tainted faces as if from a far-off world, listened as their voices drowned in pressing silence. The cold shocked my body so immediately that I couldn’t even will
my limbs to struggle, to press toward freedom.
A long time seemed to pass as I drifted down. I began to
wonder if I might already be dead, because at the center of the
brilliant ice shone a white light. It lit up weeds swaying along the floor down below, and hidden among them, a glint of silver
that looked like, of all things, armor.
It was a body.
Above me the ice cracked with a deafening sound. Frac-
tures crept through it, splintering it into shards that burst
down through the Water like a deluge of jagged rain. Only one
of them fell slowly while the others raced back into the depths.
The elicrin stone settled softly in my hand, illuminated by the
white light and surging with warm energy I could feel in my
blood.
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I fought toward the surface, at last emerging into the biting air. The Water swirled with waves that gently nudged me
toward shore.
v
The ache in my lungs slowly faded as I sucked in precious
breaths. I rolled over and looked at the jagged treasure in my
palm. It was a translucent blue-gray, like the color of the sky
muffled by wispy clouds and falling snow.
Elwood lay panting in the snow next to me, blood smeared
across his face and one eye swelling. He must have tried to
save me.
Footfalls approached. I looked up to see Trumble standing
over me with his knife, cold eyes fixed on my elicrin stone.
He had been right: I had more to fear from him than the
Water. He was determined I would die today, fate be damned.
But no sooner did he pry the stone from my fingers than
he discharged a vile curse and dropped it in the snow, the flesh of his palm seared. He glared at me before lurching forward as
if to seize me by the hair, but I scrambled away and sprinted
dizzily into the cover of the trees.
As I reeled through the mist, I felt a pang of regret at leav-
ing the elicrin stone behind. But I wouldn’t let them kill me
after I had survived the Water.
My surroundings pulsed in my vision and I felt as if I were
learning to use my legs again. Whether the Water had made
me more powerful or muddled my senses, I couldn’t tell. I only
knew that it had changed me.
The kidnappers gave fierce chase, but their ungainly
footsteps sounded far behind me. I swerved to avoid trees
and sprang through the snow with less noise than a whisper,
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tearing on until it seemed the kidnappers had lost my trail. As I came upon a clearing, I slowed to a canter, barely even short
of breath.
The silver pool waited before me. I had unknowingly cir-
cled back to the Water, where Elwood stood alone at the edge.
He held the precious object in a fold of his cloak.
From across the clearing, his eyes met mine in awe. Hand
trembling slightly, he lifted the stone, offering it to me.
A whooshing sound followed by a swift thud made me
lurch back— an arrow striking a nearby tree. The shot had
been meant for me and narrowly missed.
Near the tree line, Hagan drew back another arrow. He
let the string slip and before I could escape, a piercing pain
wracked my side. I collapsed in the snow with a cry.
Fingers trembling, I reached down to feel the shaft of the
arrow underneath my ribs. I registered with shock the sight of
dark blood on my fingertips and, more absurdly, my unclothed
body. But none of that seemed real. Only the sharp, cold, pain
sinking through me was real.
The other two emerged from the wood. At the creak of a
bowstring, I shut my eyes and waited for death again.
But light pierced the wintry haze as a strange man launched
himself in front of Trumble’s drawn bow. Before Trumble could
react, the man tore the weapon from his hand and, without so
much as touching him, sent him reeling across the clearing.
The stranger whipped around. He was tall and broad-
shouldered, built like a soldier, with hair blacker than mid-
night. An emerald elicrin stone hung around his neck, marking
him as one of the two remaining elicromancers in Nissera. But
his most notable feature was the deep, disfiguring scar that ran b 15 c
diagonally from his right temple, over the bridge of his nose, drawing to a jagged end near his left ear. His eyes locked on
mine.
Meanwhile, Hagan stretched for the quiver on his back. He
aimed for the scarred man’s broad chest, but before he could
let fly, a thin branch whipped down from the treetops to wrap
around his wrists and neck.
Someone gave a little jerk of laughter. I looked up to see
a young woman stride into the clearing and approach Hagan.
She yanked one hand upward and the branches suspended
Hagan high in the air, straining his arms in opposite directions.
His face filled with blood and his screams were wrought with
unsettling desperation. I knew that with any more pressure his
body would rip apart.
“Tamarice!” the scarred man barked.
The young woman froze and calmly met his eyes. Her
hands relaxed, and the branches slid away from Hagan’s limbs,
dropping him inelegantly on the ground.
When she noticed me lying in a pool of blood, she sprinted
gracefully to my side. Her thick brown plait swept across my
face as she leaned over me and studied my wound with the
forced composure of someone who has seen worse.
“Hold on,” she whispered.
A red gem swinging between her ribs lit up and the ground
beneath me transformed from packed snow to soft grass. She
laid her cloak over my body, careful not to let it touch the
arrow, and gripped my hand in hers. Her eyes were soft and
gold as nectar, warm with astonishing affection that comforted
me even while I writhed in agony.
Gilroy attacked the disfigured man from behind with a
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dagger. Tamarice turned to watch the struggle, unruffled. I saw a knife pressed against my male rescuer’s throat and for
a moment thought he had been overpowered. But an unseen
force compelled the dagger and coaxed it from the wielder’s
hand. I heard the crack of Gilroy’s bones as the knife bent back his fingers and tore from his grasp, lodging itself securely in the frozen ground at his feet.
Realizing they were outmatched, my kidnappers slowly
rose to their feet, shoulders hunched in surrender.
“Drop your weapons,” the powerful man commanded.
Soft thuds broke through the silence as the two who still
held weapons obeyed him perfunctorily.
“Leave or die.”
With one last awestruck glance at me and then the elicro-
mancers, Hagan and Gilroy trudged toward the spot where the
gates had once been, the second cradling his broken fingers.
Trumble, seething with anger, spit blood on the miry snow
and followed.
Elwood approached the disfigured warrior who had saved
my life, taking a knee before him. Cradling my elicrin stone
in his cloak, he lifted it toward the elicromancer. “Lord Brack, forgive me,” he whispered, head bowed. “I wouldn’t have done
it if I’d had a choice.” He looked at me, writhing in grass blotted with dark blood. “Forgive me.”
The elicromancer’s expression was cold. I feared what jus-
tice he might exact upon my kidnapper. But he used his own
cloak to accept the stone, tucking it away in his tunic, then
took a small leather pouch from the same pocket and offered
it to Elwood.
Mystified, Elwood stood and accepted the mysterious gift.
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My eyelids grew heavy and I flickered in and out of consciousness as I met his rueful gaze and watched him depart from the
clearing.
The scarred man was a blur as he knelt at my other side.
“I’m going to take out the arrow,” he warned me. “So I can
heal the wound.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and screamed as he ripped the
point from my flesh. My consciousness reeled while the light
from his green elicrin stone spread over me. He enveloped me
with his cloak and lifted me.
Held against his chest, I felt his voice resound. I was unable
to make sense of his remark as everything faded away. In fact,
I was sure I imagined it.
“That was a clever trick, transforming into a deer. Clever
indeed.”
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index-29_1.jpg
TWO
“They thought they could use her.” A voice
emerged from the profound silence. “As if an
elicrin stone simply belongs to anyone who
happens upon it. If we hadn’t intervened, she
would be lying there dead, her power wasted.”
I wanted to climb out of the black fog in
my mind, but the warmth of sleep held me
captive. I recognized the voices, but they
sounded distant.
“Yes, they were men without consciences,”
Brack said. “But the last man was merely
desperate.”
“Desperate?” the woman called Tamarice
demanded. “Is that why you gave him a whole
bag of gold aurions? You sympathize too easily.”
“His children were nearly starving. He
didn’t want to take part. If you had heard his
thoughts— ”
“Whatever he was thinking,  he still dragged
a young woman to her probable death.”
“The gift was mine to give.” Brack’s voice
was firm, but gentle.
“The point is that he deserved death and
you rewarded him.”
19
“The last generation erected the gates around the Water for a reason: so that only those meant to open them would
open them. She was meant to have an elicrin stone, to be here
with us now. For all the things they did wrong, the kidnappers
delivered her to her destiny.”
Tamarice let out a frustrated sigh. “I’ll get the old woman
so she can tend to her.”
“That ‘old woman’ is an elder of this city, not a servant, and
she deserves your respect. . . .” Brack trailed off as the other elicromancer’s resolved footsteps faded. He sighed wearily,
turning toward me.
“She is clever, Bristal,” he whispered, though my eyes were
closed and heavy with fatigue. “But I hope you are wise.”
After he left, I heard only a hearth fire crackling and moun-
tain wind wailing at shutters.
v
An unforgiving ray of evening sunlight tinted the back of
my eyelids red. The soreness of the arrow wound ranged from
the tight, itchy flesh to the depths of my belly, forcing me to
groan through cracked lips. As I blinked at an unfamiliar room,
a face materialized next to my bed, edging closer as though
inspecting me. The cloud of fatigue cleared and I took in a lit-
tle girl’s straight orange hair and round eyes of glistening blue.
“Grandmum, she’s awake!”
“You made sure of that when you opened the shutters, Deir-
drel.” The second voice belonged to a tall old woman whose gray
hair held hints of faded auburn. She stood up from her seat by
the fire and tested my skin for fever with a feather-light hand.
“I was just letting fresh air in,” the little girl argued. “It
smells like sickness.”
b 20 c
“Where am I?” I croaked.
The old woman spoke. “A citadel in the Brazor Mountains
called Darmeska. I’m Kimber, an elder of this city, and this is
my granddaughter, Deirdrel.”
“Drell,” the girl corrected.
I had heard of Darmeska before. Patsy had shown me the
map on display in the manor study and explained that it was
where the descendants of the ancient elicromancers lived.
“Try to eat up while it’s hot,” Kimber said, placing a bowl
of vegetable soup in my hands. The woman and her grand-
daughter’s Northern lilts were strong, much more colorful
than my Volarian accent.
I sipped until I realized the breadth of my hunger, then
began slurping the steaming broth, which ran down my chin
as I swallowed spoonful after spoonful. I tried to sound polite
between ravenous helpings. “Do you happen to know where
my elicrin stone is?”
“Brack is keeping it for you. He will send for you when the
healing spell has completed its work.”
Grimacing, I recalled the painful wound and my stark
naked body in the snow.
“Do you want to see the best view of Darmeska?” Drell
interrupted my thoughts, pointing at the window beside me.
I followed her gaze and my breath caught in wonder. The
citadel must have been built into vast cliffs; I saw a dizzy-
ing view of the sprawling wilderness in the distance, glistening with ice and snow. The stacked lower levels spread out below
us, an entire city staggering down the slope of a mountain.
“Are there galleries full of magical artifacts? That’s what
people say.”
b 21 c
“Yes, we have preserved the culture of our ancestors, even if the magic has thinned in our veins.” Kimber closed the shutters, blocking out the chill. Her proud posture exemplified her
status as an elder, and yet she was tending to me like a servant.
Either the people of this city were very kind, or I was very
important.
When I finished the soup, Kimber placed a teacup full of
dark-ruby liquid on a saucer at my bedside. “Briarberry tea. It’s likely stronger than what you’re used to.”
It was bitter, much more robust than the peppermint tea
we drank in Popplewell, but I detected a tad more sweetness
with each sip. When I’d emptied the dregs, Kimber changed
the poultice covering my wound. She took pains to ensure I
wouldn’t see the brown-stained cloth, though I saw it anyhow.
I gingerly traced my wound with my fingertips, surprised to
find the beginnings of a taut, shiny scar and a stippled bruise
rather than a jaggedly stitched wound.
An abrupt knock on the door signaled Tamarice’s entry. She
looked even younger than I remembered, perhaps only a few
years older than me in body, though the legends said she was a
century old. Ladylike features— soft cheeks, a round nose, long
lashes and lips so full and pink that other women would have
pinched and painted theirs for the same effect— clashed with
her powerful stance and wild dark braid. Her circular vermil-
ion elicrin stone was set in a gold pendant that hung on a thick chain around her neck.
She strode up to me and examined my wound. “Are you
feeling better?”
I lowered my dressing gown. “Much. I can never thank you
enough for saving me.”
b 22 c
“I would have stopped that arrow if I’d gotten there in time. I’m just happy you’re alive.” Her eyes snapped to Kimber
behind me. “Get her dressed. Brack is ready for her.”
“Brack said to send her when she’s well. Cheating death is
no small matter.”
“She looks well enough to me.”
After a tense pause, the elder turned her back on the
elicromancer and opened a massive wardrobe sitting against
the stone wall of the bedchamber. She rifled through a small
selection of winter dresses and picked out a dark blue wool
dress, a pair of boots and a cloak.
“She can’t train in a dress,” said Tamarice, who wore a
leather tunic, sturdy boots and a fur cloak.
“I doubt she will have any rigorous lessons today. Drell will
go down to a clothier to buy her something more suitable.”
Drell narrowed her blue eyes at Tamarice. Her thin lips
and straight orange hair made for overall peculiar features, but they were somehow pleasant on an otherwise plain face, which
she screwed up in a frown. She moseyed out of the room,
shoulders prouder than her grandmother’s.
Tamarice begrudgingly accepted the clothes from Kimber
and helped me get dressed. She finished by tossing the cloak
over my shoulders. “Follow me,” she said, already on her way
into the stone corridor.
“Thank you,” I said to Kimber, feeling torn about Tama-
rice’s poor graces. The old woman smiled and nodded, and I
hurried out of the room.
My bedchamber overlooked the city below, as well as the
foothills and the forests beyond that eventually met civiliza-
tion. But when I wiped away the condensation clinging to the
b 23 c
windows on the opposite side of the corridor, I saw a snowy plateau surrounded by cliffs that jutted higher still than the
citadel. Whatever unknown wilderness of mountains and sea
lay beyond them was unseen even from the topmost level of
Darmeska.
I ignored the pain of my mending wound as Tamarice led
me down a drafty stone stairwell, moving slowly for my bene-
fit. “High as we are, the slightest wind can sound like a howling storm,” she said. “So don’t be frightened thinking the fortress
is going to come crashing down.”
“Where are the other people?”
“The common folk live down below. Thousands of elicro-
mancers once filled these halls, but now it’s just you up here.”
“Where do you live?
She removed a heavy latch from the wooden door and a
burst of cold air raced around us. We walked through a small
passage onto the mountain plateau. “Brack lives in that stone
cottage set in the cliff face,” she said pointing to a stone hut with smoke pouring from the chimney and warm light from
the windows. “And I have a home outside of the citadel, down
by the river. Being an elicromancer isn’t much to boast of any-
more. We don’t live in the extravagance many would expect.”
My dark hair blinded me as it whipped around in the freez-
ing wind. I tightened the fur around my shoulders, gazing up
at the mountains. “It’s extravagant to me.”
Tamarice led the way over the snowy plateau, which turned
to grass beneath her feet. She was lean and powerful-looking,
but as I watched her cross through the cutting wind, I realized
that the look of power came from within rather than without.
It struck me then: I was like her. I was now one of the three
b 24 c
most powerful beings in the realm of Nissera. Soon everyone from Calgoran to Yorth would know my name.
My life in Popplewell suddenly felt as distant as a child-
hood memory. I wondered if I would ever go back to the
manor, if I would have a chance to thank Patsy for her charity.
I smiled to myself, thinking of Hazel’s reaction to the news
that I was an elicromancer. Knowing that in every shadow she
would imagine me returning for vengeance was satisfying ven-
geance enough.
When we reached the hovel, Tamarice opened the door
without knocking, casting a gold prism of light on the grass.
She allowed me to step inside first. A sitting room with mis-
matched furniture held untidy stacks of books and loose parch-
ment. In the corner near the fireplace stood an entrance to a
winding stairwell, and to the left sat a small kitchen with a
simple square table and other crude furnishings.
Remembering Brack’s scar, I prepared myself to look on
his marred features. But rather than a massive, marked young
warrior, there sat a middle-aged man with cropped graying
hair and a neat beard. There was no scar— just light eyes of an
indeterminate blue-gray. He had a squarish face crossed with
the leathery wrinkles that come to the weary too young.
Tamarice brushed past me to warm herself by the fire.
Brack stood up from his ratty chair to welcome me.
“Brack . . . sir?” I ventured.
“Bristal, good evening. I’m surprised to see you up and
about.” The friendly voice was different from the one I had
heard before. He set a chair near the hearth and gestured for
me to sit. “I’m sorry if my appearance startled you,” he said,
removing the damp fur from my shoulders and replacing it
b 25 c
with a blanket. “I find it makes things easier to be young and strong when I have to fight. Otherwise, I don’t mind this.” He
gestured at himself. “Care for briarberry tea?”
“You change your appearance?” I asked. “Oh, and yes,
please.”
“It took me more than a hundred years to learn how, and as
of yet I’ve only managed to create two guises.”
“One hundred years . . .” I repeated.
“Indeed. You must take pity on the rest of us to whom
the power of changing forms doesn’t come so naturally.” He
chuckled at my astonished look. “You’re pale. Something to
eat?”
“No, but thank you.” My mind was far from my full stom-
ach or my injury. “If you don’t mind my asking, is this your . . .
true self ?”
“No. I’ve haven’t appeared as my true self in many years.”
I studied him as he hung a tea kettle over the fire. Though
older now, he looked sturdy and square, like a retired soldier.
The gentleness of his manner agreed with the mercy he showed
my kidnappers by sparing their lives. I found it easier to believe he and the man who helped save me yesterday were one and
the same.
I looked at Tamarice, now suspicious that her beauty was
contrived. “Is that your real . . . ?”
“Yes, it is,” she said.
I turned back to Brack. “Why do you appear as either old
or scarred? Can’t you choose any form you wish?”
“I’ve found arrogance comes too easily to a young, hand-
some man. It’s not worth the trouble.” The kettle screeched.
He retrieved it and poured me a cup of briarberry tea, then sat
b 26 c
facing me, his eyes bright amid somewhat weatherworn features. “So you have received an elicrin stone.”
My heart cantered. “Yes.”
He pulled a wrapped object from the pocket of his wool
tunic and gave it to me. I unwrapped the cloth and saw the
glistening surface of my pale blue gem catching the firelight.
Feeling all was right with the world again, I tested its weight
in my palm.
“We elicromancers have a purpose,” Brack stated carefully.
“As gifted beings, we are destined to guide the kingdoms of
men to prosperity and peace, to come to their aid when disas-
ter or war threatens.”
“Or when Calgoran and Volarre cannot play as friends,”
Tamarice said. “We like to slap their hands like strict govern-
esses.”
“Yes, we aim to prevent proud, powerful men with armies
from growing hostile,” Brack retorted. He looked at me. “I sup-
pose you’re wondering where you come into play.”
I nodded.
“There’s been magic in your blood since you were born,
magic that manifested itself as it chose, outside of your con-
trol. Until now.” Brack paused, his eyes alight. “The gardener
claimed to witness something strange, something you did that
only a very powerful being could do.”
“I turned into . . . a rabbit?” Watching Brack nod yes to my
question felt even more absurd than saying the words aloud. I
gasped, finally fitting truths together. “A few days ago, Hagan
drank before thatching the roof. He knocked his ladder down
but he mumbled something about one of the maids doing it to
trap him. I was outside feeding scraps to the dogs, and I tried
b 27 c
to hide before he could blame me.” I remembered going dizzy, briefly losing my grasp on reality. “But . . . how did you know?”
“Brack is extraordinary, even among elicromancers,” Tam-
arice said. “You and I can manipulate physical matter. He can
read and manipulate the mind.”
I tensed. Brack’s pale eyes shifted from me to Tamarice.
“We are all equals. I have promised never to discern your
thoughts.” He looked back at me. “And I promise the same to
you.”
I realized I had been holding my breath since Tamarice last
spoke, trying to keep my mind from producing thoughts for
him to discern. “Um, all right,” I muttered. “Thank you.”
I didn’t know whether I could trust his promise. But when
he smiled at my response, the soft wisdom in his eyes made
doubt seem unnecessary.
“Though elicromancers have the same broad range of magi-
cal abilities,” he went on, “each one of us possesses a single
gift that is accentuated more than the others. It could be
mastery over fire, duplication, prophecy, the ability to turn
one’s body into impenetrable crystal. . . . There are specialties beyond number. This gift usually manifests itself in some way,
often uncontrollably, before the elicromancer claims an elicrin
stone.”
“Brack is a Sentient,” Tamarice said. “I am called a Terrene,
because my dominion is over the land and what grows from it.
You’re a Clandestine.”
“Clandestine?”
“Even in the old days the gift was rare and greatly revered,”
Brack added. “Until now, your talent for disguises has been
muddled, unchecked and sporadic. But with an elicrin stone
b 28 c
to harness your power, you should be able to assume the form of any human or animal, and even change the appearance of
other objects.”
A gasp of disbelief escaped my lips. How had so many peo-
ple drowned in the Water if someone like me could emerge
from its depths a hundred times more powerful? I looked at
the emerald elicrin stone that hung around Brack’s neck. “Who
were you before?”
Brack’s smiled ruefully. “The arrogant son of a wealthy
man. I heard the thoughts of others incessantly, and while I
delighted to use it to my advantage, it also plagued me. I knew
that if I survived the Water, it would allow me to control my
Sentience rather than be at its mercy. In the end, braving the
Water also gave me a new sense of responsibility to this world.
I no longer saw it as my own for the selfish taking.”
I turned to Tamarice, expecting to see her fixing me with
the same meaningful look as Brack. But she walked away from
the fire to pour herself a cup of tea.
Brack leaned toward me and placed a firm hand on my
shoulder. I looked into the depths of his kind eyes, sensing a
commission.
“As an elicromancer, you have the responsibility to keep
peace between the nations and their people. Your life will
no longer be measured by years or the span of mortal lives.
Instead, you will mature until you reach the age at which your
body ceases to grow, and you will remain that way for a long
time.”
“A lonely time,” Tamarice amended quietly.
“You can choose to be mortal again, giving up your magic
along with your responsibility to keep peace in these lands,”
b 29 c
Brack continued. “But if you choose to keep your elicrin stone, you will be challenged, frightened and endangered. You will
put yourself aside over and over again, sacrifice the life you
want to live for the life you must live. You may even wish you
were never brought to the Water. But we promise to prepare
you the best we can for whatever comes.” His voice grew calm,
intent. “I must ask you now: Will you commit to seeking the
good of this world?”
At once I knew that this question would weigh on me all
my life, no matter my answer. A prick of loss threatened to
dampen the exhilaration of the moment. Beginning a new life
meant saying a sad farewell to my old one, humble though it
was.
More disturbing than that was the memory of the terri-
fying power hanging in the forest air. What if the unknown
path held even greater terrors? It felt too soon to make such a
promise.
But a force of pride and purpose rose up from somewhere
deep in my chest, a place even deeper than where my heart
thundered against my ribs. The elicrin stone in my hand pulsed
with light as if to encourage me. It had chosen me. Now I
would choose to become worthy.
All I managed at first was an affirmative croak. I swallowed
and looked directly into Brack’s unfaltering gaze. “Yes, I will.”
A quiet moment passed during which I thought of how
much power this small room contained. My eyes followed the
crimson glow of the fire as it rose and fell like an engulfing tide.
“Then consider this your home.” Brack squeezed my shoul-
der and stood up. “Do you wish to write your guardian? Do you
need me to transcribe a letter explaining what’s happened?”
b 30 c
“I can write it,” I said. “The lord and lady of the manor prefer their servants to be educated.”
Brack smiled, hauling a desk with ink and parchment
toward me. “Well, that will make your elicromancy training
much easier. If you can manage without your elicrin stone for
now, I’ll have a jeweler make you one of these.” He lifted the
heavy silver chain and setting that held his jagged emerald
stone.
After I reluctantly lay mine back in the cloth he held, he
bid us good-night and went out the door.
Dipping the quill in the silky ink, I began my letter to
Patsy. After crafting the first sentence, I glanced up at Tama-
rice. She stood staring blankly into the flames, her red elicrin stone twisting with firelight and her pale fingers tight around
her teacup.
“What was your life like before the Water?” I asked her.
The lovely elicromancer smiled, but the humor didn’t
reach her shining bronze eyes. She took my empty teacup and
turned away to pour us each another steaming cupful. “A tale
for another time.”
v
With morning sunshine thawing the bitterness in the air,
I smiled as I hiked back to Brack’s homestead a few days later.
The low-lying mists had thinned, revealing silvery peaks jut-
ting into a blue morning sky.
Taking the spiral stairs to the study as Brack had instructed
me, I reached a circular room with a lofty ceiling made entirely of glass. Thousands of books lined the shelves, dense and
cocooned in dust.
Brack stood amid the clutter, his pendant gleaming white.
b 31 c
Books slunk off the ledges and drifted about, their pages turning as he looked from one to the other, brow furrowed. With a
flick of his hand, he sent one to a teetering stack while another soared to a shelf on the second landing.
My stone lay on a square of silk on the desk by the door. The
jagged edges had been artfully foiled in silver with thin prongs to hold the stone in place. The pendant was attached to a long,
sturdy chain. I brushed it with my fingertips, amazed that so
fine a thing belonged to me. It had required years of trust for
Patsy to let me wash the fancy dishes trimmed with gold roses.
“It’s beautiful.”
“I’ve enchanted it to adapt to your size so that you can
wear it with any guise,” Brack said, halting the books in the
midst of their dance and turning to face me. “Concealing it
will be up to you, however. Concealing spells are simple, and
you can hide it according to the situation.”
I slid it ceremoniously over my head, noticing that the cool
metal chain on my nape didn’t feel as burdensome as expected.
I anticipated a flash of light or a burst of powerful magic to
surge out of it, but the elicrin stone just hung lightly against my ribcage. “So, how do I use it?”
“With the language of the ancient elicromancers. Every
enchantment and spell corresponds with a phrase in Old Nis-
seran, which your elicrin stone interprets to an action. What
you command, it will make happen. It’s as simple as that.” He
placed his hand atop the wobbly stack of books. I had an omi-
nous feeling that they were for me.
“So I have to learn a language before I can even use it?”
“This isn’t a simple fairy charm or a witch’s potion.”
I nodded, staving off disappointment.
b 32 c
“But since creating disguises is your natural domain, we can jump right into that discipline without words or spells.”
“Oh,” I perked up, circling my fingers around my elicrin
stone.
“Let’s start now. Take off your boot, please.”
I slid it off and plunked it on the floor.
“Now, close your eyes, breathe in and concentrate on turn-
ing it into a slipper. Nothing fancy.”
Power swelled up within me like a river during spring rains.
I felt my elicrin stone reacting, the magic within it and within me working in tandem. When I opened my eyes I found the
boot was still a boot, though made of silk. Next, Brack asked
me to turn a teacup into a teapot. I watched it grow, beginning
to take on the shape I had envisioned— just before it burst into shards. I covered my head, but the porcelain pieces morphed
into silken pink ribbons and fluttered to the floor. I lifted one from the sleeve of my tunic and rubbed it between my thumb
and index finger in wonder.
Brack propped his fists on his desk and sighed deeply.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll do better next time.”
“No, you did very well. Forgive me. My mind is on other
matters.”
I bit my lip, wondering if it would be audacious of me to
ask for more information. Remembering that he had called us
equals, I straightened my shoulders and opened my mouth, but
he spoke first.
“You haven’t happened to visit the library yet, have you?”
“No, my lord.”
“You don’t need titles among friends, Bristal. I know acting
subservient is a difficult habit to break.”
b 33 c
I lifted my chin. “Why do you ask?”
“Certain volumes and artifacts have gone missing, ones
kept locked up by me and the elders of this city. Far be it for
me to judge scholarly pursuits, but it seems someone has taken
a rather fastidious interest in the kind of elicromancy we don’t ascribe to or permit.” He sighed. “I hoped it was simply you,
being a curious novice.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m afraid it wasn’t me.” The phrase
felt empty without a my lord at the end.
“If you . . .” he hesitated. “If Tamarice makes you uncom-
fortable with her ideas, don’t be afraid to tell me so. She’s
always been fascinated by what some would call gray areas  of magic. Now that we have you in our midst, her progressive
ways put me ill at ease. I don’t want you to get overwhelmed.”
“I will look out for that,” I said. If the three of us were truly equals, I didn’t want to promise to report on Tamarice’s doings
like a spy.
Brack nodded, the shadowy look on his face fading a bit.
“Please do.” Footsteps clunked up the stairs. “That’s Drell here for your next lesson.”
“She’s going to watch?” I asked, heat rushing to my cheeks.
“But I’ve only just started. . . .”
He strutted toward a cabinet holding an array of weap-
ons. He chose a small sword with an enlarged pommel that
was probably meant to keep it from slipping from my hand.
“She’s going to teach.”
I blinked at him. “A child is going to teach me to fight?”
“I started learning when I was three,” the high-pitched,
heavily-lilted voice said from behind me. Drell waltzed into
b 34 c
the room with her fists planted on her hips. “When was the first time you held a sword?”
“I never have,” I admitted.
“Exactly.” She unsheathed the dirk at her waist and struck
a pose of readiness.
I laughed, thinking perhaps this was a joke, but Brack held
out the lightweight sword for me to take. Drell stalked out of
the room, leading the way down the stairs and out the door.
“Will your wound permit rigorous exercise?” Brack asked.
“I can tell Drell to take it easy on you.”
“Don’t bother.” I smiled, looking up into his strangely sad
eyes as I accepted the weapon. “Thanks to you, there’s not

even a scar.” 

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