THE WIZARD'S DAUGHTER
Sixteen-year-old Brieze is the apprentice and adopted daughter of a powerful wizard. She never met her biological father, a merchantman from the faraway Eastern Kingdoms who had a brief romance with her mother, then disappeared. When Brieze discovers her mother is still secretly, crazily in love with this man, even after seventeen years, she decides to find him, confront him, and get some answers from him for her mother’s sake.
In her small airship the Devious, she makes the long and dangerous journey to the Eastern Kingdoms. Along the way, she confronts pirates and the nocturnal ship-crushing beast known as the Nagmor. She survives a harrowing trip through the legendary Wind’s Teeth. She discovers why her father disappeared, and in the process she learns the true version of her own story.
When Brieze’s boyfriend, Tak, receives word she’s in danger, he sets out on his own journey east to help her. Will he be able to rescue her, or will she end up having to rescue him?
Brieze’s mother was acting strange. She’d been moping and sighing around the wizard’s house all day, doing dumb things. She’d left her hairbrush on the stairs of all places, where Brieze had nearly tripped over it and broken her neck, and she’d forgotten to feed the wizard’s exotic birds, which squawked hungrily from their cages in the parlor. Brieze was pretty sure her mother’s state of mind had something to do with Tobias the handyman. The two had stopped talking to each other, and Tobias was moping around the house too.
Her mother had wandered outside to the wide front lawn that stretched to the edge of the wizard’s floating island. Brieze kept an eye on her from an upstairs window as she played chess with the wizard. The wizard took a long time making his moves, and she went to the window and watched while she waited.
Now her mother was doing more dumb things. She wasn’t wearing a cloak, even though the fall chill outside hinted strongly of the winter to come, and she was standing much too close to the island’s edge, especially for such a windy day. And it was hard for Brieze to tell at this distance, but she didn’t seem to be wearing a parachute pack, which was not just dumb but dangerous.
With the late afternoon sun low in the sky and the island positioned near the Highspire Mountains, the view was spectacular. From horizon to horizon, silvery gray clouds blanketed the surface of Etherium, as they always did. To the east, the mountains rose tall and craggy and green out of these clouds, reaching for the sky. The mountain range stretched northward and southward in lazy zigs and zags, the farthest mountains fading off into the distance. The sky was a pretty shade of pinkish-purple. Banks of cumulus clouds piled high on the horizon like echoes of the mountains.
The nearest mountain was so close that, if her mother were looking at the view, she could have made out the terraced fields and orchards on its lower flanks. She could have glimpsed the tiny specks of ox- and donkey-drawn carts making their way along the roads that spiraled or switchbacked up the mountainside. Further up the mountain, she could have seen the city of Selestria in all its sunlit splendor, the brightly-colored pennants flying from the roofs of the stone houses, the airships swarming about the city like busy bees—constantly touching down and taking off—their silvery sails glinting when they caught the sun. At the mountain’s crown, she could have admired Castle Selestria, which seemed as much a part of the sky as part of the earth, its tallest towers and turrets lost in the clouds.
But Brieze’s mother wasn’t looking at any of this. She hadn’t gone outside for the view. She stood with her head down, shoulders hunched, and her hands thrust deep into her pockets, muttering to herself. She didn’t notice the gusts of wind tugging at her skirt. The knotted bun of her hair had come undone—it whipped around her face in a frenzy.
Brieze unclipped a brand-new spyglass from the belt of her black flightsuit. It had been a gift from the wizard for her sixteenth birthday. She studied her mother through it. The house’s rafters groaned in the wind.
“Ah ha!” the wizard said, and advanced one of his pawns with a satisfied little clink. “Your move.”
“She’s not wearing a parachute,” Brieze said, peering through the spyglass.
“Hmmmm…?” the wizard looked up from the chessboard, his blue eyes blinking beneath bushy white brows.
“It’s windy out there and she forgot to grab a chute from the porch.”
The wizard came to the window. He frowned at the distant figure of Patentia Crofter standing near the island’s edge with her shoulders hunched against the wind, her hands in her pockets, her hair flying. “That is exceedingly dangerous,” he said, his brow furrowing and his eyebrows squinching closer together.
And, as if to prove him right, a huge gust of wind ballooned Patentia’s skirt, lifted her off her feet, and carried her tumbling end-over-end off the island’s edge.
The wizard dashed from the room, knocking over the chessboard. The pieces scattered across the floor. He shouted at the top of his lungs, “Overside! Someone’s gone overside!” His footsteps thumped down the hallway toward the stairs. People had been windswept off the island before. It was an accepted risk of island life. The islanders would form a rescue party. They would pull on parachutes, launch airships, toss lifelines over the side. But by the time they did any of this, it might be too late. Things, including people, fall slowly in the thick atmosphere of Etherium. But they do fall, and they gather speed as they go.
So Brieze didn’t waste time with the three flights of stairs.
She threw open the window, checked her flightsuit, and jumped out—headfirst.
She spread her arms wide. The loose folds of fabric between her wrists and waist snapped taut in the wind and became wings. The wind tried to whisk her away, but she wrestled with it, steered into it and used the weight of her body to bring herself down to the ground in a long, wobbling arc. She hit the green lawn in front of the wizard’s house shoulder first and rolled to her feet. Dizzy, she dashed to the porch, where dozens of parachute packs were stacked neatly by the double front doors.
She grabbed up a pack and slung it around her shoulders. There was commotion inside the house—confused shouting, running footsteps. Soon, she knew, people would come spilling out of the house onto the porch to form the rescue party. If she waited, she could lead them to the spot where her mother had gone over, which might increase the chances of a rescue.
But Brieze couldn’t waste her precious head start. She pelted out to the island’s edge, to the spot where she’d last seen her mother, tightening the leather straps and belt and working the buckles of the parachute pack as best she could as she ran. At the edge, she stopped for a last split-second adjustment, gathered her courage, and dove over the side.
With her hands together in front of her and her ankles together behind, Brieze made her body into a long, slim knife that sliced through the air. The side of the island, all naked stone, porous and pitted, rushed up past her. Her long braid of jet-black hair whipped out straight behind her. She squinted as the wind stung and watered her eyes. There had been no time for goggles.
There was her mother! A few hundred yards below and to the left—a small human figure standing out against the silvery-gray sea of clouds below, clouds that would soon swallow her up. Brieze was glad to see her mother had kept her head. She wasn’t flailing or screaming. She was doing what everyone had been instructed to do, from an early age, if you found yourself in free fall without a parachute. She was on her back, her arms and legs spread wide, presenting as much resistance to the wind as possible. The dress she wore, which Brieze had always considered ridiculous—the kind of baggy, impractical thing that could only be fashionable in a backwater village—was working to her advantage now. It was catching the wind and slowing her fall.
“Mother!” Brieze shouted. The wind tore the words from her mouth and spirited them away.
But Patentia heard her, or at least spotted her. She waved her arms to attract Brieze’s attention. Brieze came out of her dive. She spread her arms wide and used the wings of her flightsuit to steer. She aimed straight for her mother’s chest. She was close enough now to see the widened whites of her eyes, the flush on her cheeks. Patentia managed to look frightened, embarrassed, and angry all at the same time.
“Grab on! Don’t let go!” Brieze shouted.
They smacked into each other.
The impact knocked the breath out of them, sent them spinning and tumbling. Brieze wrapped her arms and legs tightly around her mother. Her mother’s limbs clamped around her. For seconds that seemed like forever, they gripped each other as hard as they could. There was no up, no down. Only each other. They became one body with eight limbs, two hearts thumping wildly against each other, and one mind begging the universe to let it live.
Soon, they stopped spinning. Their breath came back to them. Their grip on each other relaxed by a fraction of a squeeze. Brieze could tell up from down. She wrestled an arm free from her mother and pulled the ripcord of her parachute pack. The chute and its lines slithered out of the pack, and the chute expanded with a whump as it filled with air. They felt as if they were being yanked upward as the chute strained to slow their fall. Brieze looked down. The surface clouds were so close it seemed as if her dangling feet could touch them. Another few moments of free fall, and they would have fallen through those clouds and hit the very solid, very hard ground beneath them.
Brieze looked up. The floating island was far above them, looking like a jagged-edged rock suspended in the sky. Much too high to reach.
Brieze looked over at Selemont, the nearest mountain. It was close, and their best bet. Their only bet. At the very least, she thought, she should be able to land them safely in some field or orchard on its lower flanks. And she might get lucky and catch a mountain updraft that would carry them high enough to get back to the island again.
Patentia’s chin nestled snugly into the crook of Brieze’s neck and shoulder. Brieze asked if she was all right, and felt her nod in response. “I have to let go to steer,” Brieze said. “Hold on.”
Brieze reached for the steering toggles that dangled near her hands. Patentia held on. Though, as Brieze tugged on the toggle cords and steered them toward the mountain, she became aware that her mother wasn’t gripping her with both hands. One set of her mother’s fingers dug into her back, but the fingers of her other hand were closed into a fist that pressed against her, as if her mother were clutching something she didn’t want to let go of.
They got lucky. The heavy winds hitting the sun-warmed mountain produced a strong updraft. As soon as Brieze steered close enough to see rows of golden ripe wheat and harvest-ready corn rippling with the gusts, close enough that she could have hailed the fieldworkers if she’d wanted to, the updraft caught and lifted them. They rose past the fields and orchards. Past the walled city of Selemont and the bustling traffic in its stone-paved streets. They rose right past the western wall of Castle Selestria. Soldiers manning the wall stared in surprise at the two women clinging to each other in midair, riding the precarious lift of a single parachute. But before the soldiers could call out and ask if they needed any help, Brieze and her mother were far above the castle.
Brieze looked down at the floating island. They would make it now. She relaxed. The knots in her stomach and her shoulders, which she hadn’t even been aware of until now, loosened. She let out a relieved breath. So did her mother. But the next moment Patentia sucked in her breath again and let loose with a flurry of scolding words. Her mouth was right next to Brieze’s ear, and she felt the heat of the words against her cheek. “Never, ever, ever in all your life do anything like that again! What were you thinking diving off the edge of the island like that? You had me scared to death. You could have been killed.”
“Me!?” Brieze countered. “What about you, mother? What in the world were you doing standing near the edge of the island in that wind, muttering and talking to yourself like a crazy person?”
Patentia was quiet for a moment. “Tobias proposed to me,” she finally said, as if this were a perfectly logical and reasonable answer.
Brieze let this sink in. It was strange to think of her mother with a man. It had always been just the two of them. Back in the small village on the tiny mountain known as Footmont where she grew up, no man ever considered marrying her mother, a woman with an illegitimate, out-of-wedlock child. But Brieze supposed she should have known this might change when she became the wizard’s apprentice and they moved to his island. Her mother wasn’t that old, thirty-five, and she was still good-looking, Brieze supposed, in a rustic, plumpish sort of way.
“Let’s not have this conversation in midair,” Brieze said.
Patentia nodded in agreement.
Brieze skimmed over the island at treetop level, looking for a place to land. On its flat topside, the island’s surface was covered with grasses and mosses, scrub brush and hardy dwarf pines. Small ponds sparkled in the sunlight here and there, their surfaces rippling in the wind. Brieze floated right over the roof of the wizard’s large, rambling house, with its towers and balconies, its cornices and cupolas. She waved to the people gathered out front. They waved back and cheered when they saw that Patentia was safe.
But Brieze didn’t want to land near the house. She wanted somewhere more private, where they could talk. She chose a grassy field out of sight of the house. With the extra weight hanging on the chute, they had to come in low and fast.
“Rolling landing,” Brieze said.
Her mother nodded. Every sky rider has an instinct for riding the wind, for soaring and swooping, even Patentia, who by sky rider standards was short and thickly built and clumsy. Brieze hit the field in the exact center. Her toes touched the ground, her mother’s heels touched the ground, and they executed a rolling landing together, arms wrapped around each other. Patentia did a decent job, especially considering she faced backward as they touched down.
Lying on their sides in the grass, they disentangled themselves from the chute and from each other. They lay there for a few moments, just breathing, looking up at the sky and feeling the comforting solidness of the island beneath them. Brieze sat up and brushed the grass from her flightsuit. She pulled her long braid in front of her and ran her hands along it, cleaning it off. Stroking her braid this way always calmed her. “So,” she said, “Tobias proposed. That’s why you two are acting strange. I take it you didn’t say yes?”
Patentia sat up and brushed herself off. She did this one-handed, still clutching something in a fist in her lap. “I told him I need to think about it.”
“Are you in love with him?”
Patentia chewed her lower lip the way she did when thinking something over. Brieze recognized the gesture as one of her own. She understood her mother was debating what—or how much—to tell her. “It’s complicated,” Patentia finally said curtly, giving Brieze what she had always thought of as her mother’s “hard face.” It was a stern mask she used to hide her emotions. Brieze had seen the hard face nearly every day growing up on Footmont. But she rarely saw it since they joined the wizard’s island community. Here, her mother had made real friends. She smiled a lot, and flirted with Tobias, and laughed—a genuine laugh, not the false cheer she used to employ.
With her “hard face” firmly set, Patentia tried to gather up her hair and tie it in a knot. But she was having trouble because of the thing she held in her hand.
“For heaven’s sake, mother! What are you holding onto there like it’s your last silver coin?”
Patentia let her hair go. She looked down at her clenched fist. She opened the fist and handed the object concealed there to Brieze. Her face softened. She handed the thing over as if it were the explanation she couldn’t bring herself to put into words. All she said was, “I was trying to throw this over the side of the island. That’s why I was standing so close to the edge. But I couldn’t do it.”
Brieze took the thing and studied it. It was a gray heart-shaped stone, worn smooth by some mountain stream and polished by years of constant handling. She had vague recollections of seeing the stone around their hut as a child. On one side, someone had carved the initials P and K. The other side of the stone was inscribed with the complicated characters used in the far-away Eastern Kingdoms. Brieze had been studying the Eastern language. It took her a moment to puzzle the characters out. They said, may our love last forever.
A jolt of anger stiffened her. She made a fist around the stone. “I remember this. It’s from my father,” she said. “Something he gave you.”
Patentia nodded. “He found it on the bank of a stream, and he inscribed it. See how the P and the K are joined?”
Brieze didn’t open her fist to look. She knew little about her biological father, and she didn’t care to know more. She and her mother didn’t talk about him anymore. His name was Kaishou Fujiwara, and he was a merchantman from the city of Kyo in the Eastern Kingdoms. At least that’s what he’d told her mother. His ship, the Atagu Maru, had stopped at Footmont for a week for repairs and to take on water and provisions for the journey home. During that time, Kaishou and her mother had “fallen in love,” as her mother put it. Kaishou had promised to return and marry her mother, once he’d gotten his merchant vessel safely home and secured the permission of his family.
But Patentia never saw or heard from him again. She’d written him many letters, sent by way of trading ships to Kyo, but never got one back.
When Brieze thought about her father, which wasn’t often, it opened a well of anger and sadness—and strangely, shame—in her. A well she preferred to keep tightly covered. As far as she was concerned, everything the man had said was a lie. She doubted Kaishou was even his real name. He’d seduced her mother, then disappeared. It was a story you heard often enough. When Brieze imagined her father, she pictured him drinking in some tavern, bragging to his friends about all the dumb farmers’ and herders’ daughters he’d bedded.
“So this is all he gave you,” Brieze said with a sneer. “The rich merchant from Kyo. A rock with your initials scratched into it?”
“He wasn’t rich. He was just a boy. And he was sweet. And kind.” Patentia reached out and tucked a few loose strands of Brieze’s straight, raven-black hair behind her ears, stroked the honey-colored skin of her cheek, looked wistfully into her daughter’s black, almond-shaped eyes. “And anyway, the stone wasn’t the only thing he gave me.”
Brieze flushed, understanding her mother meant her. This made her even sadder and angrier. She looked nothing like her mother, who had reddish-brown curly hair, blue eyes, a smattering of freckles across her fair skin. Brieze looked like an Easterner, not a Westerner, and she had always hated her features—her straight black hair, the color of her skin, the shape of her eyes. All her life, they had marked her as different.
“You can’t still be in love with him? After seventeen years?”
Patentia shrugged helplessly, looking down into her lap.
Brieze leapt to her feet. “That’s ridiculous. If you can’t throw this stupid stone away, mother, I’ll do it for you.” With that she stalked off, toward where she calculated the nearest edge of the island would be. Patentia got to her feet with a strangled sound and chased after her daughter. She tackled Brieze from behind, wrapping her arms around her waist and bringing them both to the ground with a thud. It was hard to say who was more surprised by this, daughter or mother. Brieze dropped the stone, and they wrestled for it, scrabbling and grunting. Patentia got it. She sat up and clutched the stone to her chest with both hands.
Then she doubled over, sobbing.
“He’s out there somewhere…I feel it in my bones…he still loves me…one day he’ll come back…”
Brieze blinked, stunned. Her anger evaporated. She may have noticed a lilt in her mother’s voice, a gleam in her eye, whenever they’d talked about her father, but she never imagined her mother felt anything like this. And it was hard to believe that her mother, who had always been so tough and practical-minded, if not exactly smart, believed something so pathetically delusional. How had it happened? It must have been a story she told herself over and over, Brieze supposed, an illusion she clung to that helped her get through the toughest times, until she started to actually believe it.
Brieze chewed her lower lip. How could she help her mother? How could she free her of this delusion that kept her stuck in the past, that kept her from marrying a good man like Tobias and being happy? To her logical mind, there was only one answer. Gently, she gathered up her mother’s flying hair and tied it into a windproof knot. She put her arms around her and held her until the sobbing fit subsided into sniffles. She found a handkerchief and offered it to Patentia, who used it to dab her eyes and blow her nose.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Brieze said. “I’m going to find this man. This Kaishou Fujiwara from the city of Kyo. And I’m going to bring him here, willing or unwilling. He’s going to look you in the eye and explain himself. He’s going to tell you what he’s been up to the past seventeen years, and whether he loves you or not. And then you can get on with your life.”
The Cygnet was a small, creaky old ship, Tak noted with disappointment as he and his platoon of cadets climbed aboard. It was crewed by equally creaky old airmen, those too old for more dangerous duties and who needed easier work as they coasted toward retirement. The ship had been stripped down of everything not necessary to train cadets. The sails and rigging had been simplified. Six light cannon sat at regularly spaced intervals along either edge of the deck, their barrels pointing out at the sky, but all their gear, powder, and shot were stored securely below. They were tied up tight, and each fitted with a sign that said, DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT TOUCHING THIS.
Tak sighed and pulled at the stiff collar of his cadet uniform. The gray wool uniform was a little too small for his tall, lanky frame. It felt tight and constricting around the shoulders, and the cuffs of its sleeves didn’t quite reach his wrists. Also, it itched. Being a cadet at the academy was a lot less exciting than he’d imagined. In fact, so far, it had consisted of little more than following a bunch of strict and pointless rules. He and his fellow cadets had to be up at the crack of dawn, fully dressed and with their beds neatly made. They had to arrive at the mess hall precisely at six a.m. for breakfast and be finished by six-thirty. Every hour of the day after that was scheduled for them—an endless series of lectures and drills and physical training.
Failure to follow any of the rules or to be where you were supposed to be at the precise time you were supposed to be there resulted in demerits, which resulted in punishments. The punishments mostly involved scrubbing. Scrubbing pots in the mess hall kitchen—or worse—scrubbing the latrines. Tak, who had recently turned sixteen, was not a rule follower by nature. Already, he’d done his share of scrubbing. He hadn’t realized how free and easy his life had been before.
“Don’t even look at those cannons!” the drill sergeant growled, noticing some of the cadets gazing longingly at them. “We’ll not be taking cannon practice today. We’ll be seeing how you keep your feet on an airship while swinging a sword.”
Some of the cadets’ hands went to the hilts of the swords strapped to their belts, as if to make sure they were still there. Tak tried to stick his hands in his pockets—but discovered for the umpteenth time that his cadet’s breeches had no pockets. He ran a hand through his short-cropped, bristly brown hair, which had once been long and shaggy. He felt his sword hanging like a dead weight from his hip. He knew they would get to sword practice eventually, and he’d been dreading it. He hadn’t swung his sword since the siege of Selestria, and the idea of wielding it filled him with an inexplicable fear.
The sergeant ordered Tak’s platoon to stand at ease in the bow, out of the crew’s way as the Cygnet was launched.
Like most airships of Etherium, the Cygnet looked something like an old-fashioned wooden sailing ship. But it was much wider and shallower in the hull, and the long keel dipped much deeper below it, the better to keep the ship upright and stable in the thick atmosphere. The Cygnet was tied snugly in its berth at the academy dock, built near the summit of Larkspur, a spur of Selemont that was home to the airfleet academy. With the sail furled, the ship hung heavily on its mooring lines, stretching them taut. But when the crew unfurled the sail and raised it up between the tall mainmast and slightly shorter foremast, the ship began to rise. The huge triangular sail filled with wind. It stretched on a long, flexible yard well over both sides of the ship, looking like a giant wing.
The Cygnet tried to rise on the wind, straining and tugging at the mooring lines that held it down. The wooden deck under Tak’s feet came alive, thrumming and pitching. He smiled. He couldn’t help but be reminded of his own little craft, the Arrow, and how with a raised sail it always seemed eager to slip its mooring lines and soar into the sky.
“Launch!” the captain called from the command deck.
“Brace yourselves,” the sergeant ordered.
The crew tugged on knots and released all four mooring lines simultaneously, and with a whoosh the Cygnet took flight. Tak felt the thrill in the pit of his stomach as he was momentarily weightless and the ship skimmed out into the sky. The wind ruffled his hair. The cadets grinned. The old crewmen grinned. Even the dour drill sergeant had something like a grin on his face. This was the soaring feeling of freedom every sky rider craved. The cadets kept their feet as the ship listed one way, then the other, finding its balance. The crew adjusted the angle and position of the sail. They unfurled a stabilizing sail from the bowsprit.
The crew had orders to cruise the sky around Larkspur, keeping the Cygnet steady but throwing in the occasional surprise lurch or roll. Some crewmen hauled up practice dummies from below deck and placed them in the spaces between each cannon. The dummies were just wooden poles with straw-filled sacks tied around them and much-battered old helmets nailed to their tops. Each cadet took his place before one of the dummies, back straight, hand near the hilt of his sword.
“Present arms!” the drill sergeant shouted.
The cadets drew their swords and held them upright for inspection. Tak’s sword parted reluctantly from its sheath. The weapon felt heavy and clumsy in his hand, not at all like an extension of his arm as it should have felt. It trembled slightly as he held it up, and Tak silently cursed his shaking hand.
The drill sergeant walked down the line of cadets, inspecting each weapon. Some were family weapons, given to the boys by their fathers as Tak’s had been. Others were issued by the academy. Regardless, the fledgling cadets were expected to keep the weapons in tiptop shape. The sergeant grunted approvingly as he moved down the line of boys, eyes running expertly up and down each razor-sharp and freshly gleaming blade.
That is, until he got to Tak.
“What’s this?” the sergeant frowned.
Tak’s sword gleamed as brightly as any of the others. But the edges of the blade were nicked and dull. Tak flushed. Still, he stood with his back straight and eyes forward, as cadets were supposed to do.
The sergeant was disappointed. He’d been eager to see what the boy could do. Taktinius Spinner junior was famous for fighting in the siege of Selestria—among other things. The King himself had presented Tak with a medal of valor and ordered his acceptance into the academy. The sergeant had hoped the boy would give a performance of swordsmanship that would inspire the other cadets.
“This weapon is a disgrace,” the sergeant said. “That blade’s not fit to cut butter. What have you been doing with it, hacking at mill stones?”
“No sir,” Tak replied. “Gublin armor.”
The sergeant’s eyebrows shot up. The cadets didn’t dare whisper among each other, but they exchanged glances. “So!” the sergeant said. “You think because you fought in one short battle you’ve got the right to show up with an unfit weapon and give me back talk?”
“No sir,” Tak said. “I meant no disrespect.”
“And you mean to tell me you haven’t sharpened your blade since the siege? What kind of soldier are you?”
Several replies occurred to Tak, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“Well,” the sergeant took a step backward, put his hands on his hips, and raised his voice to make sure every cadet and crewman heard. “Our young hero has earned himself another demerit. And cleanup detail after mess tonight.”
A few snorts of laughter, quickly stifled, escaped from the cadets. The drill sergeant ignored them. Some of Tak’s fellows at the academy were in awe of him, but just as many, if not more, were jealous. There were even rumors going around that Tak hadn’t fought in the siege at all. That the story was made up.
The sergeant raised his voice another notch. “And if our hero doesn’t want a second night of cleanup duty, he will demonstrate an expert two-handed crosscut blow followed by an overhead blow that knocks the helmet clear off this dummy. Think you can handle that, boy?”
The sergeant took a few more steps back, giving Tak space to swing his sword. “Then get to it. Show us how you killed those Gublins.”
Tak stepped up to the dummy, gripping his sword with both hands. His palms were sweaty. His mouth had gone dry. He was keenly aware that every pair of eyes was on him. Silence fell over the Cygnet. The old ship’s wooden beams groaned. Ropes creaked. From somewhere in the rigging above, a crewman coughed. The practice dummy loomed over Tak. It had grown taller, somehow. The empty eye slits of its rusty, dented helmet glared at him menacingly.
Show us how you killed those Gublins.
Tak swung—and in that instant he was no longer on the deck of the Cygnet.
He was on the walls of Castle Selestria, trying not to die.
Men were screaming.
The city was on fire.
His fighting partner, the huge lumberjack Jon Cutter, collapsed in a heap, the life leaking out of him from a gash in his neck.
Instead of a dummy looming over Tak, there was an armored Gublin soldier with a curved sword in each hand. He easily parried Tak’s blow and struck back blindingly fast—as if with four or five swords at once. Tak’s shield shattered. His sword was knocked out of his hands. A blade stabbed into the center of his chest. Tak screamed and toppled backward.
At least, that’s what happened in Tak’s head.
On the Cygnet, everyone saw Tak give the dummy a clumsy blow, lose his grip on his sword, fall to the deck with a scream and curl up into a quivering ball.
After a moment of shocked silence, they all crowded around him and began jostling and talking at once. “Stand back! Back, everyone!” the drill sergeant ordered, shoving curious cadets aside. He knelt next to Tak and put a hand on his shoulder. The boy was shaking like a sail torn loose in a storm. The sergeant sometimes doubted whether the boy really had fought on the castle walls during the siege. He wondered if Tak hadn’t at least exaggerated his role in the battle. But the sergeant doubted no longer. He was an experienced soldier, and he’d seen the mental aftereffects of combat, especially in young men after their first real fight.
To the inexperienced cadets, however, Tak’s actions seemed to prove just the opposite.
“This is our hero who won the medal of valor?” one snorted.
“He never fought in no battle,” another muttered.
“They should send him back to the spider farms, let him weave sails like the rest of his family,” a third joined in.
X X X
They ambushed Tak after dinner as he was finishing his cleanup duties. He pushed a wheelbarrow loaded with trash and plate scrapings up a muddy mountainside path through the woods toward a muddy clearing that was home to the academy’s garbage pit. The pit had been dug far away from the academy buildings. Tak grunted and cursed as he struggled to push the heavy wheelbarrow up the rutted, stone-clogged path. He sweated itchily under his uniform. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the mud off his boots. He’d have to clean and polish them for inspection tomorrow morning.
The sun sat low in the purple evening sky, dipping toward dusk, its rays slanting through the trunks of the trees. Hairs prickled on the back of Tak’s neck. Someone was watching him. He dropped the wheelbarrow handles and whipped around. There was no one on the path behind him. He turned in a full circle, scanning the woods on both sides and the path ahead. All empty. Of course, there could be a platoon of cadets in the woods around him, hiding behind the trunks of trees, and he’d never see them. Frowning, he picked up the handles and resumed his struggle with the wheelbarrow.
The garbage pit had been widened each year until it took up the entire clearing. The academy had in fact hired loggers to cut down trees and make more space. Tak had seen some of them eating in the mess hall, at a table in the back by the kitchen. Rough-looking men with bushy beards and bulging arms. He knew they had a camp somewhere out in these woods. Freshly cut stumps ringed the clearing, and several felled trees lay on the ground, in the process of being sawed into lumber. Tak’s ambushers let him dump his load of garbage into the pit, wipe his sweaty brow, and turn around, making ready to head down the path back to the mess hall, before they emerged from the woods.
There were three of them. Older boys. All with the short-cropped hair and gray uniforms of cadets. Tak recognized their faces, but couldn’t recall their names. With hundreds of cadets at the academy, there hadn’t been time to learn all the names yet. He especially recognized the leader of the group, the biggest boy who emerged from the woods first. Tak had heard his brash voice raised in the mess hall and seen the way he shouldered ahead of the younger cadets in the chow line. The other two ambushers stood on either side of him, smiling wickedly.
Tak shoved the wheelbarrow aside and faced the leader, who had a few inches, not to mention several pounds, on him. The bully looked down at Tak with mock disgust. “I thought we’d find this piece of garbage out here,” he said.
His buddies snickered.
Tak flushed and his hands instinctively balled into fists. But he made himself breathe slowly and calmly. He unclenched his hands. Fighting was strictly forbidden among cadets. It was cause for immediate dismissal from the academy. Even so, from what Tak gathered during mess hall conversations, it happened all the time. He was sure there was going to be a fight. That’s why the boys chose this isolated ambush spot. But he wasn’t going to be the one to throw the first punch. That way, at least he could claim he’d been defending himself.
“That’s very clever,” Tak said. “You’re a funny guy. What do you want?”
“What do you want?” the boy snorted and mocked Tak’s tone. “I heard you were real impressive at sword practice this morning. Put on quite a show.”
Tak flushed again. His failure that morning had been mortifying. They’d taken him to the infirmary and let him rest for a few hours. When he’d recovered, they’d let him go back to his lessons and drills. He’d fixed his gaze on his boots for the rest of the day, embarrassed to look anyone in the eye, to see the disappointment and pity that was sure to be there. At dinner, some of the guys in his platoon, all decent boys who he considered friends, sat with him to show their support. But no one knew what to say. They’d eaten in awkward silence. He had been grateful for his cleanup duties which allowed him to escape the mess hall and help the kitchen staff wash dishes.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Tak said.
“You wouldn’t understand,” the boy echoed. “Well, I understand this. You’re a coward. And a liar. You never fought in the siege of Selestria. You don’t deserve a place at this academy. So we’re gonna teach you a lesson.”
There was a time, not long ago, when being called a coward and a liar would have had Tak instantly swinging his fists. Just a few months ago, but seemingly forever ago, he’d overheard Admiral Scud call him a liar while he was spying on a meeting between the admiral and the wizard. The accusation had been enough to make him blow his cover and confront the admiral. Things had not gone particularly well after that.
This time Tak kept his cool. He’d grown up a bit since then. He knew what the truth was, and that was all that mattered. What other people thought mattered less to him. “Speaking of cowards,” he said. “What do you call a guy who needs three-to-one odds to teach me a lesson?”
That barb hit home. The boy’s face twisted into an ugly snarl. He would have attacked right then had not all of them been startled by a loud crack! behind them. It was the sound of a large branch being broken off a tree. They all turned to see where the sound came from. A boy stepped out of the woods near the path that led back down to the mess hall. He carried the large branch casually over his shoulder.
Boy was not the first word Tak would have used to describe the newcomer. Scrawny giant was the phrase that came to mind. He couldn’t be much older than Tak, but he was already close to seven feet tall. His frame was huge, all wide shoulders and long limbs, but it looked as if he’d been growing so fast there’d been no time to put any meat on his bones. His arms were thin and wiry, with knobby wrists and elbows, and the knotty tree branch seemed like an extension of them. He wasn’t a cadet. He wore workman’s clothes. Something about the boy was familiar to Tak, especially his curly, fiery red hair and his scruffy, patchy red beard.
“Them odds just got better,” the boy said in a deep, gruff voice.
The lead bully sputtered for a moment in confusion. “Who the hell are you?” he asked.
The scrawny giant didn’t answer. Instead, he chewed the beard under his lower lip, cleared his throat with a growl, and spit at their feet. With that, Tak realized why the boy seemed familiar. Tak’s fighting partner during the siege of Selestria, the tree-sized Jon Cutter, had chewed his red beard and spit over the castle ramparts in just the same way before the battle. This boy must be one of the Cutters, a family of loggers who lived on Pinemont. He must be part of the group hired to clear the trees.
The bullies seemed to recognize the boy as a Cutter as well, judging from how they hesitated. The Cutters of Pinemont were well known throughout the Kingdom of Spire for their size and toughness, their ability to fell prodigious amounts of trees with huge axes, and for their bad tempers when crossed.
The bullies’ leader shook off his hesitation. “You two take the tall freak,” he directed his cronies. “I’ll handle our hero here.”
They leapt into action.
Things happened fast.
A loud whack! sounded in the clearing. The scrawny giant had swung his long arms, and his long branch connected with the skull of one of his attackers, evening the odds to two-on-two before any of the boys had gotten close enough to trade punches.
The charging leader closed on Tak and swung. Tak had little formal training in hand-to-hand combat so far, but he had good instincts and he was fast. He sidestepped and shoved, tripping up his attacker’s legs. The boy’s fist missed and he went down in the mud, falling to his hands and knees. Unfortunately, Tak lost his footing on the slippery ground and went down too, sprawling on his back. The boy was on top of him in an instant. As they rolled and grappled in the mud, each trying to get on top and pin the other, Tak heard another whack! of wood against skull somewhere close by.
The lead bully was bigger than Tak, stronger, and had the benefit of more training. He straddled Tak’s chest, pinning his arms with his legs. Tak writhed and cursed and kicked but couldn’t shake the boy off. The boy raised a fist to drive into Tak’s face. “This…” he said, gasping for breath, “is what happens to liars.” Tak shut his eyes and made a strangled sound.
The blow never landed.
There was a third and final whack!
The boy’s eyes rolled up into his head and he toppled sideways off of Tak.
The Cutter boy stood looming over him, leaning on his tree branch like a staff. He held out a hand and helped Tak up. He was an odd-looking one. It seemed that the features of his face had decided to stop growing in a coordinated fashion and instead race each other pell-mell to adulthood. His ears were in the lead. But his nose wasn’t far behind. He was too young to grow a full beard but apparently determined to do so anyway, judging by the thin, patchy, aspiring beard that was doing its best to cover his face. On his feet, Tak tried to wipe the mud off his uniform and out of his hair, which only coated his hands with mud, which he wiped onto his breeches.
“Who are you?” he asked.
As he would learn later, the Cutter boy had a habit of not answering questions. He was also a man of few words, most of the time. He took a piece of folded-up paper from a pocket and handed it to Tak. “You write this?” he asked.
Tak unfolded the paper. It was smudged with grime and old blood.
John Cutter, Pinemont was written there. Tak’s sergeant during the siege of Selestria had written that. This was the paper they pinned to Jon Cutter to identify him before his body had been shipped home. Below the name, in Tak’s hand, was written, He was a brave man. He loved you all. I am sorry. Tak Spinner.
Tak nodded and handed the paper back.
The boy grunted and looked Tak up and down, as if taking a mental picture of him. “Thanks,” he said. “It helped.”
“You’re welcome,” Tak said. “I’m glad. He was a good man.”
“Did he really say that, before he died? That he loved us?”
The boy’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. His ears turned red. He gritted his teeth. “I shoulda been there,” he said. “I coulda done something maybe.”
Tak shook his head. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Believe me, there was nothing you could have done.”
The boy’s fingers squeezed his tree branch, hard. “They wouldn’t let me go. I shoulda gone anyway.”
“If you did, you’d probably be dead too. And anyway, you’re too young to fight.”
“You’re too young, but you were there.”
“That was a mistake. Some bad luck.”
The boy took a deep breath. His ears faded back to their usual color. He held out his hand. “Jon Cutter junior, of Pinemont.”
Tak shook his hand. “Taktinius Spinner junior, Selemont. I’m sorry about your dad.”
The boy shrugged and looked down at his boots, out of words.
“Are you with the loggers?” Tak asked, to fill the silence.
It took a while for the Cutter boy to answer. “Yep. Followed you from the mess hall. Just wanted to say thanks. Gonna head to camp now.” He nodded a brief farewell and stalked off toward the woods. Tak was too surprised by the encounter to think of anything else to say. The boy said over his shoulder, “Might want to get outta here before those three come around.”
The three cadets on the ground were beginning to groan and stir.
“One more thing,” the Cutter boy said, turning around and looking Tak in the eye. “You need anything, just holler. Okay?”
“Okay,” Tak said.
The scrawny giant disappeared into the woods.
This title does not have Book Reviews.
Please check back for updates.
Company Information Order Options Booksellers Careers Charity Programs
Copyright © 2003 - 2018 Silver Leaf Books, LLC. All rights reserved.