SAMPLE CHAPTER

PREVIEW Arcane (The Arinthian Line, book 1)
PREVIEW Riven (The Arinthian Line, book 2)
PREVIEW Valor (The Arinthian Line, book 3)
PREVIEW Clash (The Arinthian Line, book 4)
PREVIEW Legend (The Arinthian Line, book 5)

Beginning sample chapters from ARCANE (The Arinthian Line, Book 1):

WILLOWBROOK

Augum picked up a wooden bucket and splashed the stallion. Its coarse chestnut hair gleamed in the afternoon sun as water dripped to the arid dirt. He imagined it hissing like kettle water spilling on a cook fire.

He grabbed the brush and began scrubbing, hands aching from splitting wood all day. That morning, Sir Westwood had bought two rough cords from a passing merchant, so while almost every Willowbrook youth swam the Gamber, Augum had spent his time hacking at dry oak.

It was late in the season and there should be snow everywhere. Instead, the horizon quivered and cicadas filled the air with a thick buzz, slowing his thoughts to the speed of molasses.

His eyes flicked to the unmoving waist-high grass beyond a cluster of huts with cracked earthen walls and thatched roofs. The grass stretched endlessly, a placid yellow ocean broken only by crooked fencing, tilled pastures, and the occasional willow tree. Sweaty men flogged teams of oxen, trying to squeeze in one more planting of quickroot before the snows buried their exertions. Horses milled near each other, heads low as they grazed. Fat hogs sat unmoving in the shade of a gray barn. A distant clanging rang out as the smith shaped iron.

There was a wooden creak. Augum turned to find Sir Tobias Westwood standing at the plank door of their home, mop of curly gray hair shining with sweat, wheat dangling from his mouth. His leathery face creased as he squinted against the blazing sun.

“Finished yet?”

“No Sir, not yet.”

Sir Westwood scratched at his stubble and spat on the ground. “You can have a swim after. When you return, we shall study the written word.”

“Yes, Sir.” Augum wiped his brow as the old knight went back inside. He resumed washing the horse, hoping Sir Westwood would forego sword training tonight. By the time he finished, a wavering crimson sun kissed the horizon.

A voice fought its way through the hot air. “Hear ye, hear ye! Read the latest on the scourge known as the Legion! Two coppers for the Blackhaven Herald!”

Augum raised his wiry frame on tiptoes to glance over the horse’s back. A gaggle of dirty children mobbed a dark-skinned boy of about fourteen—the same age as Augum. Women in aprons and men in muddy boots rushed forward. Voices called after the boy.

“What news already, herald?”

“Tell us the Lord of the Legion spares us common folk, we don’t have none witches here!”

“We have not the money or the tongue, just speak it, boy!”

Augum groaned. He knew what this meant. They will all come over to have Sir Westwood read it aloud to them because he was one of only a handful in Willowbrook that could read. One time the herald had come when Sir Westwood was away on a hunting trip, so the villagers made Augum do the reading instead, enjoying his nervous stuttering. Augum could read well, it was just having all those hostile and impatient eyes on him that made it difficult.

Sir Westwood approached Augum holding two coppers. He grimaced. “This I do not like. He comes too soon,” and handed Augum the coins. Augum stepped before their hut and waited.

When the herald saw him, he rushed over with a crooked smile, exchanging the coins for a rolled parchment. He then strode off, continuing his entreaties, while the crowd remained behind.

A hunched man with one eye made an impatient gesture. “Well read it already, you daft boy!”

“Read it, gutterborn piglet!” Dap said. He was sixteen with a wide face and a neck as thick as the boars he butchered.

The crowd chuckled.

Sir Westwood stepped beside Augum, brows crossed like two swords. “Dap, if you do not want to feel the back of my hand, you will not repeat those words. I have told you many a time, we do not know where Augum was born.”

“Yeah well, he is a bastard orphan then, ain’t he? And ain’t that mean he is gutterborn? I mean, look at him, he has that ugly gutterborn face, them gutterborn hands—heck, he ain’t even have no friends—”

The part about friends had struck a nerve and Augum shot forward like a viper. After all, Dap had ensured he could not make any in Willowbrook, mostly by making up stories, like the one about him being raised by stray dogs.

Like many times before, Dap’s beefy arms grabbed Augum and threw him to the ground like a sack of coal. His hammy fist immediately began ramming into Augum’s face, until Sir Westwood pried the two apart.

“Go on home, Dap, else I take the proclamation and read it to myself.”

The crowd, who seemed to have enjoyed the pounding Augum took, grumbled in disappointment.

“Best go on home to your pappy, boy,” the one-eyed man said at last. “We needs to hear the news.”

Dap scowled and gave Augum a pointed look. “I’ll see you later.”

Augum spat blood onto the dirt as he shrugged off help from Sir Westwood. “Can’t wait.” He knew he was in for it now. It was just a matter of time before Dap and his cronies found him and beat him raw. He was their entertainment. He fought them, sure, but there were always so many, and he could not exactly run to Sir Westwood every time he had a bruised face or a torn tunic. Sir Westwood knew of course, but the old knight said nothing, instead choosing to train Augum how to defend himself using a sword and the written word.

Unfortunately, knowing how to swing a sword was useless against a boy like Dap, who was a far better swordsman. Like most other boys in Willowbrook, Dap had held a blade before he could walk, whereas Augum first gripped the pommel of a wooden practice sword only after Sir Westwood took him in, and he hardly had a knack for it.

As for the written word, it was only good for more beatings. Showing even the tiniest bit of smarts led to calls of putting on airs or witchery, even from adults. Thus, he had learned to play dumb. It was better not to say too much.

All his life, someone had picked on him, and always because he was the odd one out, the stranger, the gutterborn orphan. No part of him ever accepted it though. He believed there was more to his destiny than serving as a whipping boy. At night, he dreamt of riding a stallion into battle with a great silver lance, a crowd of girls looking on with adoring eyes; and even though they may not be real, he dreamed of being a magician too—or witch, or whatever they called people that could fight with their mind. Regardless of who he was in his dreams, he always had plenty of courage, honor, wit and friends—especially friends, for he had yet to make even one.

Sir Westwood picked up the parchment from the ground and shoved it into Augum’s hands. “Read it.”

Augum wiped the blood from his nose with the sleeve of his red and yellow tunic, the royal colors of King Ridian, Sir Westwood’s liege. He held up the parchment before him, trying to ignore his throbbing cheek, the one Dap had concentrated on smashing. Loopy characters slanted sharply, as if the scribe had been in a great hurry to pass on the news.

“‘Let it be known,’” Augum began reading aloud, “‘that the Blackhaven high council declares the rule of King Ridian the Third contrary to the interests of Solia—’”

The crowd gasped and exchanged anxious looks. Sir Westwood’s face darkened.

“‘Therefore,’” Augum continued, “‘King Ridian is hereby stripped of all his titles and lands, as are those loyal to him still. With this proclamation, the council disbands itself and submits its will to Lord Sparkstone and his great army, the Legion. All hail the Lord of the Legion, our new master, savior and king.’”

There was silence.

“Is that all there is, boy?” the one-eyed man asked.

Augum turned the parchment so they could see. “Yes.”

“Then we best prepare …”

The crowd dispersed, muttering amongst themselves. A few even ran.

Augum watched them go. “Prepare for what, Sir?”

Sir Westwood spat on the ground and took the proclamation from Augum. He stared at it. “For the inevitable.” His eyes searched the horizon, stopping on a spot to the north.

“But they wouldn’t come right this—” Augum’s throat tightened as his eyes fell upon the same spot.

What was that?

He ran over to his favorite willow tree behind the hut and scrambled up its thick trunk. Men from the fields had already begun sounding the alert. Bells rang and pots banged all over Willowbrook. Barefoot children cried as their mothers scooped them up, running towards the Gamber.

He placed a hand over his eyes and squinted. It was a cloud … a cloud of charging knights—the herald’s news was old!

“Climb down, Augum.” Sir Westwood, bathed in the crimson light of dusk, was strapping on a battered breastplate. His sword dangled in its sheath on his hip. He held Augum’s woolen coat under his arm.

Augum grabbed a handful of the willow’s drooping branches and swung off like one of those tree-living beasts he had read about in Sir Westwood’s books. The knight bent a knee and gripped him by the shoulders, looking up with stern yet kind eyes.

“Augum, if I were to choose a son, I would choose no other. You have been a faithful squire, but you cannot take part in that which comes.”

Augum began to shake his head. “No, Sir, you can’t leave me behind—”

“Look at me. It is my duty. Courage, Augum, courage. Now, the crowd will run east to the river. The soldiers will likely follow. That is why you shall travel west across the Tallows. I have thrown together a sack of journey bread, salted beef and two skins of water. Take it before you go. You are not to return, understand?”

Augum saw Sir Westwood’s lips moving but the blood rushing through his head prevented him from understanding the words. “I’m going with you, Sir. Give me a sword and—”

“No. You are not ready, nor are you able. I shall not have you slaughtered in the field like so many before you. This is the Legion, Augum, the Legion. I have seen what they are capable of, and you are not to see that for yourself, not yet!” Sir Westwood’s gaze travelled beyond Augum. “I have been waiting for this a long time.”

Augum opened his mouth to protest just as a fireball mushroomed into the sky from the far end of the village. He instinctively clutched at Sir Westwood, but the knight gently pried Augum’s hands away, placing the coat around Augum’s shoulders. Sir Westwood then mounted his horse and, with one last look, galloped off toward the flames.

Augum stood breathing rapidly, watching the back of the only person that had ever cared about him ride off to certain death.

Suddenly something huge smacked into his back, sending him flying through a wooden fence. A tiny piglet squealed and scampered through the hole, only to be kicked by Dap, his face contorting with victorious glee. The piglet landed near Augum and went still.

“Told you I’d get you—”

Augum barely had time to shield his head before the rain of punches began.

“And this one’s for being smart—” Dap raised his fist just as a black-armored soldier in a pot helm careened through the fence, scattering chickens like a shark in a school of fish.

Dap, who was still sitting on Augum, raised his arms. “Wait, I’m one of you—”

The soldier did not break stride; a viciously large ball and chain flail whistled through the air, smashing into Dap’s chest. Dap fell back with a sickening gurgle. The towering soldier placed an iron boot against Dap’s hulking loaf of a body and yanked his weapon free.

Augum scrambled away as the spiked ball whistled by his ear, lodging into a fencepost with a smack. He ran around the corner of the house only to see a score of black-armored knights riding straight at him. He raced across to the other homes, listening as screams and shouts of attack filled the air. The invaders were swarming through the village now. This was it; he had to either find Sir Westwood or flee.

The group of knights galloped past, giving him one last opportunity to escape to the Tallows. He swallowed hard and took another look.

There were too many, it was no use.

“I’m so sorry, Sir,” he mumbled before making a run for it, not stopping until he was well outside the outer fence. There, hiding in the grass, Augum watched Willowbrook burn.

 

THE STORM

 

Augum headed westward when the soldiers began combing the fields with torches. He glanced back only once, and that was to engrave the image of the towering inferno into his mind. An occasional scream still punctured the night.

He walked on and on, eyes glazed, hands limp. The stars sparkled clearer than a still pond; he scarcely gave them any attention. Eventually, numb from exhaustion, he curled up among the tall grass, holding his legs close.

He barely slept.

Augum trudged that vast plain for three days and nights without food or water, having forgotten the sack of provisions Sir Westwood had thoughtfully prepared for him. He wore through his leather turnshoes, pushing his wiry frame to endure. Each night was cooler than the one before, as if winter itself hounded him along with those black-armored soldiers.

On the eve of the third day, black clouds raced overhead as a coarse wind pushed on his back, making waves in the ocean of waist-high grass. Lips cracked, mouth dry as parchment, he felt as if the sole purpose of his existence was to keep placing one foot before the other.

His thoughts drifted idly. Sometimes he pictured Sir Westwood alive and well. At other times, he envisioned him slumped over in a pool of his own blood, like fat Dap.

His heart panged. The old knight had been a strict but fair man, very different from the foster family Augum had previously lived with, the Pendersons.

The Pendersons … even thinking about them made his teeth clench. He glanced down at his cracked hands, remembering how blistered and bloody they would get as he toiled in their field. The longer he stared, the more he remembered, until a dirt farm and young corn stalks appeared before him. He looked up to find Meli, that old wretched mule, standing before him on wobbly legs. She was his only companion, occasionally sharing Mr. Penderson’s lashing. He winced, recalling how that same whip would flash across his back, splitting open the skin like an overripe tomato.

Suddenly someone shoved him to the dirt.

“Hey Gutter—why you always falling down?” Garth Penderson asked.

Augum placed a hand between his eyes and the hot summer sun. “I need to get to pickin’ cause—”

Garth burped loudly before Augum could explain how Mrs. Penderson would not let him eat until Meli’s packs were full of corn. Garth’s brother, Buck, and his sister, Wyza, cackled in support. All three shared the same muscular physique, flaming Penderson hair and identical ponytail. Garth was older than Augum by three years, Buck by two, and Wyza by one.

“Then why is you sitting there like some lazy dog?”

Augum stumbled to his feet. Meli glanced at him with tired red eyes. She was probably thirstier than he was. He needed to get to the well—

A blinding pain splashed across his face. His eyes immediately began to water from the slap.

Garth dusted off his hands. “You best answer when I talk, Gutter.”

Buck’s ruddy cheeks puffed out with a grin. “Dumber than a cow.”

Wyza kicked the old mule. “Dumber than this here ass!”

Augum moved between Meli and the brats. “You leave Meli alone!”

Garth pushed him back down into the dirt with a lazy hand, a wicked smile playing across his lips. “Don’t cry now, we is not going to do nothin’ to this useless old mule.” Suddenly he reared back and clobbered Meli with his fist. The animal fell to the ground, braying, as corn spilled into the dirt.

The brats roared with laughter as Augum dropped to help Meli. He tenderly smoothed her mangy hair before trying to help her stand, but she was too weak and kicked feebly at the air.

Mrs. Penderson’s screeching voice floated over from the farmhouse. “Wyza? Buck? Garth? What you doing over there with that stupid boy!”

Garth rolled his eyes. “Nothing, Ma!”

“I need that corn picked, you hear?”

“Yes, Ma!”

“Tell that gutterborn trash to hustle up!”

Garth squatted down before Augum. His chin dropped as his neck bulged. A moment later, he belched a burp of rotten onion into Augum’s face. Wyza and Buck laughed.

“You heard her, Gutter,” Garth said, ignoring his siblings. “Get going, we needs you pickin’.” His pig eyes swiveled to the spilled corn. “And by the looks of it, you ain’t going to be eating for a while.”

Augum’s vision blurred. Suddenly the brats were gone and it was raining. Beside him, Mr. Penderson jerked at a leek, dropping it into one of Meli’s pouches, muttering to himself all the while.

Augum somehow knew what was about to happen. The dread ate at his stomach. He reached out to her, wanting to tell her everything would be all right, that he would protect her—yet just before his hand touched her hide, Meli collapsed, leeks tumbling to the mud.

He scrambled to pick them up. “Mr. Penderson, I’ll clean it right away, no need to get angry—”

“Don’t be talking back to me, boy!”

The punch was harder than usual, doubling Augum over. With it came the stench of strong wine from the man’s breath. Mr. Penderson loosened the whip hanging from his belt and wacked the animal across the snout. Meli only made a quiet whine.

“No, Mr. Penderson, please—!” but even when Augum lunged across the animal to protect her with his own body, Mr. Penderson did not stop, lashing boy and mule alike.

“You’re killing her! Stop, Mr. Penderson, stop—!” Augum kept shouting between his own cries of pain.

Mr. Penderson did eventually stop, but only because he had winded himself. “You deserve each other,” he spat, and weaved back to the house.

Augum lay with Meli, shoulders heaving. Her flank had long ceased rising.

Now there was nothing holding him there.

“I’m leaving, Meli,” he whispered, lovingly stroking her neck. “Just like we’ve always said. I’m sorry you can’t come with me.” He gently closed her eyes, rose, and turned toward the Gamber, never looking back.

He had followed that winding river south until stumbling upon the village of Willowbrook, where an old knight by the name of Sir Tobias Westwood found him lying hungry and bloody by its banks. He took Augum in, fed and clothed him, and made him his squire.

Before long, life grew routine. Augum’s hands browned from oiling and polishing Sir Westwood’s armor. His tunic was constantly soaked from scrubbing the knight’s stallion, the planks, the iron pots, the trestle table and benches. At night, he ached from the day’s riding, straw prickling at his scalp. Splinters stung his hands from training with a wooden sword. He smelled like roast chicken, turkey, rabbit, boar or venison after learning how to cook. He sunburned tending to Sir Westwood’s garden, chickens, geese and pigs. The wounds on his back slowly healed, leaving permanent ridged scars he would sometimes trace with a finger, scars that never stopped itching.

Sometimes Sir Westwood took him hunting, and Augum’s elbow would be raw from constantly catching the sinew bowstring. The old knight made Augum taste bitter and sweet plants, pointing out which ones were edible; taught him how to locate north using tree moss; tired him out lecturing about chivalry, heraldry, and the basic etiquette required of a noble in court.

But Sir Westwood had been most particular about the written word, proclaiming that a knight who could not read or write was at the mercy of those who could. Thus, Augum often stayed up late, quill in hand, fingers stained with ink, copying dusty tomes. Castle Stewardship, Arithmetic of the Treasury, On Horsemanship, The Joust, and the like. Some had sunk in, most had not.

Sir Westwood also taught him how to speak properly. “Am not” instead of “Ain’t.” “We are not” instead of “We isn’t.” The Penderson drawl was patiently but methodically corrected at every turn. It was how the highborn city folk spoke. Sir Westwood was liberal when it came to more modern youthful contractions, however, as long as they were from the city.

Remembering those happy times with Sir Westwood warmed Augum’s heart and made it easy to forget where he really was.

He stopped and glanced about. The tall yellow grass of the Tallows lashed at his hands as if possessed by the spirit of Mr. Penderson. The wind had increased during his reminiscence and he had not even noticed. Cold rain pelted his face, stinging his eyes. The clouds overhead were as dark as a Penderson heart.

Suddenly the grass flattened as a strong gust knocked him to the ground. His woolen coat shot over his head, choking and dragging him like a sail attached to his neck. He fumbled with the collar, only to discover he was too weak to undo it.

He gurgled what he thought was his last breath when there was an abrupt tearing sound. The coat ripped away, exposing his face to a torrent of icy needle rain. Gasping, he curled up into a ball, already shivering from the cold seeping through his clothes.

A mule hee-hawed. When he looked up, the Penderson brats had him surrounded, ponytails flapping in the wind, cruel grins on their ruddy faces.

“You is damn stupid, Gutter.” Garth’s wide fist reared back as Augum feebly rolled away, only to find Mr. Penderson standing before him, a giant bottle of wine in one hand, whip in the other.

The farmer took a long swig and wiped his mouth with an oily sleeve. “You done wrong, boy.” The whip uncoiled like a viper.

“I ain’t done nothin’ …” Augum pulled on the grass, scrambling to get away, only to stumble across Dap’s bloody body. A black-armored soldier stood just behind, wielding a spiked ball and chain flail, face obscured by a pot helm.

“No …” Augum tried to move back, but a great stallion blocked his path. It snorted and reared up, exposing a rotten ribcage, and bony thorns where there should have been hooves. The Penderson brats closed in from his left. Their father, whip snaking, from Augum’s right. Behind Augum came the whistle of a flail. He raised his hands in defense and screamed, until exhaustion overcame all sense and he collapsed, succumbing to nightmares as turbulent as the rain.

It was pitch-dark when awareness returned. The grass whipped his numb face as the storm raged about him. His soaked tunic snagged on the dirt as the enemy dragged him along the ground.

“Please, sir, just leave me alone …”

The wind moaned as Augum felt his body suddenly lighten. Had the soldier thrown him? His stomach lurched from the weightless sensation, yet the anticipated crash back to the ground did not come.

Lightning burst across the clouds, fanning out like a great spider web, making visible something Augum struggled to make sense of—yellow grass far below him. The ensuing crack of thunder rattled his innards and amplified the nausea.

It’s only a nightmare, he thought frantically, it’s only a nightmare … yet every subsequent flash confirmed the unbelievable—that he was indeed flying.

Then, amidst the spearing flashes, he glimpsed an enormous mass of jagged rock, the top of which disappeared in cloud. The wind increased to a shriek as he hurtled towards the behemoth, slowly losing consciousness from tumbling end over end. With the tunnel of darkness closing in, Augum felt a final searing light illuminate his entire being. A warm glow settled over his heart, and as it faded away, so too did he.

 

MRS. STONE

 

Augum startled awake, forehead beaded with sweat. Feeling soft linen sheets beneath him, he sighed in relief, thinking what a vivid nightmare that had all been. He should probably get up and feed the horse …

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, yet when his vision adjusted to the dim light, nothing looked familiar. He lay on an old bed in a cave-like room, dressed in a patched nightgown. Opposite was a heavy door with an iron handle. Beside it, a battered chest of drawers. Shelves stuffed with books and scrolls towered along the walls. Candles flickered from hollows in between. The scent of earth mingled with the smell of old books.

He searched his mind, trying to piece together where he was and what had happened. Like a moth, his eyes kept returning to the candles.

Fire …

Gods, no … Willowbrook burning, the journey across the Tallows, the storm—it had all been real! Maybe the Unnameables took him and he was in some kind of afterlife. He pinched himself and felt pain; inspected for signs of trauma—no cuts, no bruises.

Augum went still. “Hello—?”

Other than his thundering heart, there was only silence. He nervously chewed on a finger, an old habit neither the Pendersons nor Sir Westwood had broken.

“Hello? Anybody there—?” A candle sputtered as if troubled by his voice.

Shuffling came from the other side of the door. He tensed as the handle turned with a squeak. A hunched woman in a sparkling white robe entered. One hand clutched a withered candle, the other a wooden staff capped with a crystal orb. Long silver hair fell around a face creased with a hundred years of time.

She stood examining him with bright blue eyes, grunted, and approached. Her robe shimmered with embroidered silver lions, birds, a castle, and lightning—did the bolts just flash?

Augum shrank away as she took a seat beside him on the straw-filled mattress.

“Well now, my child, I see you have awakened. How do you feel?” her voice sounded like wheezing bellows.

He eyed the door and gulped; he could make a run for it if he had to.

“Manners, child, manners. Surely you can speak.”

“I …”

Her silver brows rose. “Hmm?”

“I feel better, my lady … I think. But where am I?”

“You are in my home, and I daresay you are one lucky boy. Or perhaps … unlucky, as it were?” She leaned in a little and he caught the faint scent of rosemary. “And just what was a boy like you thinking, travelling in such unkind weather, hmm? Trying to get to the other side of death, were we?”

“The Legion burned my village, my lady, so I escaped across the Tallows. Then I was caught in a storm and … and …” His eyes unfocused trying to piece it all together. The memories were so … unbelievable. He remembered soaring through the air, flashes of lightning, and something huge, darker than the night.

He should have died out there, he realized, if not from smashing into the ground, then from starvation or from the cold. He looked into her eyes, wondering if she was the reason he was alive.

“I’m … I’m grateful. Thank you.”

Her wrinkled face remained impassive.

He tugged at the frilly sleeve of his nightgown. “What happened to my tunic?”

“Burnt to a crisp and quite beyond repair, I daresay. But never you mind that—let us begin with names.”

He blinked. Burnt? Why burnt?

She gazed at him expectantly.

“Augum, my lady. My name is Augum.”

Her brows rose slightly. “Augum. Indeed. And what is your surname?”

“Orphans don’t have last names, my lady. I was squire to Sir Westwood in Willowbrook—before it was razed that is.” He scratched his head. “If that even happened, I’m not quite sure what’s going on …”

“I see. So you were training to become a knight.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Enough of this ‘my lady’ business—Mrs. Stone will do just fine.”

“Yes, my—err—Mrs. Stone.”

The candle sputtered out. She glanced at it as a mother would at a misbehaving child and it immediately flared back to life. “And what do you know of the Legion?” she asked, still staring at the candle, perhaps daring it to disobey.

Augum recalled standing from afar, face hot from the heat of the blaze; the willows burning, their tendril branches flailing as if in agony; embers swirling like fireflies; black-armored men chasing screaming people. The smell of oil and thatch and animals …

“They’re butchers led by a man who calls himself Lord Sparkstone …” a man rumored to be doing unspeakable things, ancient rituals testing the bounds of life and death; dark witchery the peasants feared and only whispered about.

“How old are you, child?”

“Fourteen.

“Two years from a man.”

“One year and a couple of months.”

She groaned, used her staff to stand, and padded to the door. There she stopped, face concealed in shadow. “Once again our brittle kingdom falls under the spell of ambition. King Ridian was old, perhaps unable to keep up with the many youthful intrigues that follow kings like flies follow lions. The royal court has always been a dangerous place.”

She sighed and faced him. “You have been through much, child. I present you a choice—I can take you on to the next village, or—”

“Or—?”

“Or you can stay here with me, help around the home and, should you show the proper attitude … become my apprentice.”

What did she mean? Apprentice in what?

“It is rude to gape.”

Augum closed his mouth, but the puzzled expression remained.

Mrs. Stone grunted and left. “No need to choose right away,” she said from the corridor. “I find decisions are best made on a full stomach. Come. Breakfast.”

“Breakfast? Is it morning—?”

 

LIGHTNING

 

Beyond Augum’s room was a roughly hewn rocky corridor. The right led to another bedroom, the left a cavernous living room where Mrs. Stone shuffled past what appeared to be a mountain of books and scrolls. He entered to find her fussing over a kettle.

A small fire crackled in a rocky hearth to his left. Cookware and large copper ladles hung on the wall above. A rustic rocking chair sat in front, a thick book and pair of spectacles on its seat. Embedded into the far wall was an iron-fitted oaken door, flanked by a pair of round, leaded-glass windows.

In the middle of the room sat an old carved settee, pieces of parchment strewn on its faded rose cushions. Two armchairs sat opposite, along with a low tree-trunk table, inkbottle and peacock quill on top. Candles flickered in sunken hollows between shelves of all shapes and sizes. The shelves overflowed with hourglasses, stoppered vials, dry herbs, scrolls, books, and what appeared to be jars of multicolored drying sand.

He eyed the peacock quill and concluded she had to be a scribe.

Mrs. Stone pushed aside a pile of cloth and pulled open a small door, revealing a pantry filled with an abundance of carrots, onions, garlic, leeks, radishes and potatoes. Sacks of beans, lentils, and various grains sat lumped together. There were dried meats, hanging herbs, and jars of roots and spices he did not recognize. It was a rich stock; she had to be a wealthy scribe.

“As you have probably gathered,” she said over her shoulder, “I have not received a guest in some time. Take a seat at the table.”

He realized she meant the mountain of books and scrolls, and pushed some of it aside, uncovering a battered round table. As he fought the pile for a chair, something on the wall caught his attention.

“Mrs. Stone, what’s that?” He pointed at a short sword and scabbard hanging by a window. It sparked occasionally, a most unusual thing for a sword to do.

“None of your concern, child,” she said without turning around.

He marveled at the blade, imagining striking a black-armored villain with it, until his wandering eyes rested on a tome sitting high on a shelf. It was bound in vivid blue leather and ornately gilded, as if made for royalty—probably the most extravagant object he had ever laid eyes on. Sir Westwood had quite a few books, but nothing like this one.

Just as he was going to inquire about it, Mrs. Stone turned around with an armful of red radishes, carrots, apples and a loaf of bread.

“Perhaps you could stop being so curious and give me a hand.”

He rushed to take them from her, placing the food on the table.

She gestured at a particularly grumpy-looking carrot. “These are from Antioc.”

Augum was too hungry to care and began wolfing it down. He had always been a fast eater anyway, learning that the longer he sat with the Pendersons, the higher the chance of garnering their attention.

“Slow down, child, and you might taste something.”

Augum made a show of patience, yet as soon as she turned her back, he gobbled down an apple and two chunks of bread. Midway through an eye-watering radish, a strong gust of wind rattled the windows. Shadows danced as candles flickered in response. A flash lit up the room, followed by the low rumble of thunder. It brought distant yellow grass to mind along with the stomach-churning sensation of falling.

He dropped the radish, no longer hungry.

Mrs. Stone glanced at the tempest through the leaded glass. “By all rights that storm should have killed you.”

He stared at the table, unsure how to reply.

“Humph.” She fetched the kettle from the hearth, fixed two mugs of lemon and honey tea, handed him one, and sat down in the rocker by the fire. The pelt of rain increased against the windows.

Augum took a sip, savoring the bittersweet taste. He glanced about; the place could feel like home, and a scribe’s life had to be better than a wandering orphan’s. Besides, where else was he to go?

“Mrs. Stone—?”

“Mmm?”

“I think I’d like to stay with you.”

She rocked slowly. “So be it.” Her gaze did not leave the fire, though he thought he saw the corner of her mouth briefly twitch upward in a smile.

“But Mrs. Stone, um, what did you mean when you said I could become your apprentice?”

“Mercy, needlessly daft,” she muttered. “Have you not figured out why your clothes had burned, yet you yourself remain unharmed?”

Augum flinched as a bolt struck close by, illuminating the cavern. The crack of thunder rumbled through the room. He saw himself tumbling; a final bright flash …

“Can’t be …”

“Oh, it can, my dear child. It is rare, but a person’s talents can awaken like that. Few could be struck by lightning and still live, yet you do not have a mark on you.” The rocker creaked as she turned to fix him with a piercing gaze. “You may be predisposed to a discipline, though it may not be knighthood as Sir Westwood had hoped. Tomorrow morning you will take the first of three tests. Should you pass them all, I shall consider your apprenticeship in the warlock element of lightning.”

Augum felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. “Lightning …” he whispered as thunder trailed distantly. He had always believed there was more to life than tilling the land, or wearing armor and swinging a sword—but was she talking about witchery? In the isolated places he had grown up—the Penderson farm and Willowbrook—people never saw witches, tricksters or magicians. They only accused others of the practice; or in Augum’s case, used the term as an insult. The Pendersons said it was all parlor tricks, while Sir Westwood, a proud knight attached to the way of the sword, stayed quiet on the matter.

Although Sir Westwood held nothing but disdain for peasant superstition, he nonetheless alluded to other forces in his stories. When Augum asked him to elaborate, the knight answered with, “Some things are better left unsaid in small villages.”

Augum heard other campfire tales too, from the children, from men when they had imbibed too much ale, or from village elders—but only when they thought he was not listening. There were whispers of men moving things with their minds and women controlling the skies. Yet despite the threats warning how any such activity would result in being burned alive at the stake, Augum’s gut told him there was something authentic about Mrs. Stone.

He tensed, but the question had to be asked. “Mrs. Stone, are you a witch?”

She gave him a hard look. “Superstition is not welcome here, child.”

“Yes, Mrs. Stone.” He wrung his hands, secretly relieved. “So the stories were true …”

“Stories … humph.” Mrs. Stone turned back to the fire to sip her tea. “Many years have passed since I had an apprentice, Augum. You will have to work very hard. I will not go easy on you.”

“I understand, Mrs. Stone.”

She raised a crooked finger. “No, you do not, not yet. Like many others, you may perish in training. The lightning element is the most dangerous of them all. You will have to be strong, determined and brave. You will have to withstand a lot of pain.”

Augum felt a tingling as memories surfaced—Mr. Penderson caning him for being too tired and hungry to finish the day’s plowing; Mrs. Penderson slapping him in a silent room while the rest of the family watched with smug faces; hiding in a tree like a coward while the brats called, “Here Gutter, here boy!”

Withstand a lot of pain …

He cupped the mug with both hands, feeling its warmth. “Is lightning your discipline too, Mrs. Stone?”

“Lightning is my element within the arcane discipline, but you shall understand all that later. Now, since you will be living here, you will assume duties. The first thing you will do is clean your bedroom.”

“Clean my bedroom—?”

Mrs. Stone’s eyes narrowed. “I will not stand for impudence, is that clear?”

He had not intended to be impudent, he was just surprised.

“Yes …”

Yes, Mrs. Stone.”

“Yes, Mrs. Stone.”

She stood up, found her staff and leaned on it for support while ambling to her room.

Augum finished his tea, wondering where she lived. Was this cave-like place in a village? Were there other warlocks or apprentices near? The thought made him race to one of the windows, but it was too stormy to see anything.

The heavy oaken door rattled from a strong gust. He pondered opening it but changed his mind after realizing the wind would scatter all those scrolls, and he did not want to get in trouble so quickly into his stay. Instead, he headed to his room to begin cleaning.

He started with the shelves, studying the items as he went along. Most of the tomes were written in cryptic gibberish, the rest in the common tongue—An Annotated History of the Academy of Arcane Arts; The Four Major Nodian Tribes; The Arinthian Chronicles; Historical Summations of the Necrotic Plague, and others. All sounded interesting, and he could not wait to read them, though he wondered if she had any books about adventuring or treasure hunting too.

He carefully dusted each tome, sneaking a peek now and then but understanding little, before lining them up neatly on the shelves. Concentration was difficult; he was still coming to grips with what she had told him—a warlock, how exciting! Yet a part of him remained skeptical. After all, he had yet to see any real magic, and what if she had lied and it really was witchery? Would he be hung, burned at the stake, stoned to death? He had once witnessed a woman being dragged through the muddy streets of Willowbrook by an angry mob just for studying the stars. Sir Westwood had come to her defense, allowing her escape on bare foot. But the old knight could not save them all—Dap used to gloat about witnessing one boy caned to death for reading some “foreign” book.

The day dragged on. Mrs. Stone spent most of it snoozing away or reading in the living room. Sometimes Augum overheard her talking to herself, mumbling in some exotic tongue. In the evening, she appeared at the doorway and glanced about, giving the slightest nod.

“Come. Supper.”

They spoke not a single word through the entire meal of cured ham, buttered potatoes, bread, onion soup and blackberries. Spectacles perched on the end of her nose, Mrs. Stone kept busy reading a dense scroll titled Discussions on Uniting the Councils in Pre-scionic Times.

Tired of the long silence, Augum decided to ask one of the countless questions on his mind. He cleared his throat in preparation. Mrs. Stone closed her eyes as if begging for patience.

All right, now was not the time, apparently. “Mrs. Stone, um, may I be excused?” he asked instead.

“Mmm.”

He slouched off to bed, curious but sleepy. Lying there staring at the cavern ceiling, he wondered what a warlock life would be like. His thoughts turned to Mrs. Stone, eventually twisting into the rugged form of Sir Westwood, his favorite willow, clouds …

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