Welcome to the mage school.
THERE WERE SO many of them. Too many. Arien felt overwhelmed as he was shuffled out of the stable yard and in through a side door. Hawk walked in front with an exuberant Sidony, chattering about school legends and gossip. She seemed so happy to be here, her little mouse mage-beast peeping out from her collar for his own share of the sights.
Riding backwards on Hawk’s shoulder, the ever-watchful Cyrus kept Arien under his yellow-rimmed eye. The sparrowhawk was always watching him. Strangely, it made Arien feel safer. It was a constant reminder to keep himself under control. No matter how hard it might be.
Reaching up, he found Rowan’s thick tale and hung on tight. The pine marten nuzzled his neck comfortingly, but it didn’t help. Too many people, too much magic. It was overwhelming.
He looked around for Irissa, wondering how she was coping surrounded by so many enemies. She wasn’t there. Nor were Sir Gedrey, Squire Philippe or the guardsmen. Turning, he caught a glimpse of them leaving the stable yard just before the door closed.
A strange girl caught his gaze and stared at him. Shivering, Arien lowered his head and clamped down hard on the Hunger. After his time in the forest it had been mercifully quiet, but Arien realised now that it had just been waiting. For this place. What a feast it would be. So much magic, so potent, so young. Even the Hunger might feel sated here.
The prospect made him shudder, and he quickened his pace so that he was walking right behind Hawk. Something about the serious older boy and his sharp-eyed mage-beast called to him. Hawk was safe, calm and capable. Arien could do with a few of those qualities himself.
The group of new arrivals and curious followers emerged from a broad corridor into an airy entrance hall. Footsteps and voices echoed off the marble floor and high ceilings, bombarding Arien with noise. He flinched and hunched in on himself, wishing he could vanish as Cricket did beneath Sidony’s collar. On Arien’s shoulder Rowan bristled, and it brought back unpleasant memories of markets, cages and searing heat. His control slipped and the Hunger stirred.
Mage Faron paused on the grand staircase. His calm eyes settled on Arien and he held up a hand. “All right, everyone,” he said in a soft voice that was somehow loud enough to cut through the chatter. “That’s enough. You’ll get your chance to see us again soon. Be off with you.”
There was a moment of hesitation and the gentleness faded from the mage’s face. His left eyebrow arched upwards. “Well?”
Their escort vanished, leaving behind a mage, a knight, three young students and the fading echoes of too many feet.
“You must to teach me how to do that,” Sir Tobias said, as they started up the stairs.
Faron’s smug smile grew amused. “You don’t need it. All you have to do is flex your muscles and they slaver at your feet like puppies.”
Sidony giggled, while Hawk’s shoulders stiffened and Cyrus’ head whipped around to glare at the mage’s back.
“Not puppies, Ry,” Tobias chuckled. “Just well behaved pages.” He winked at Hawk.
Even Arien felt an urge to smile. These were good people. They were kind and funny, and cared for each other. It made his shoulders hunch all the tighter. He didn’t belong here. If they didn’t know that already, they would soon. He wasn’t fit to live amongst normal people. He was too dangerous, too wild. Others had tried to teach him before and it had never ended well. For either side.
Arien ran a hand up the inside of his left arm, rubbing the scarred skin hidden by his sleeve, and pushed the memories away. That time was gone. Whatever happened next he was free. For now anyway. Arien had long learned that now was all that mattered.
Sidony gasped and Arien looked up. Above the half landing where the staircase split into two was a wide, wide window. The centre was brilliantly clear, showing a mist-shrouded landscape beyond, but the sections on either side were even better: two glorious, stained glass trees. One held all the bright promise of spring, the other the full golden glory of autumn.
“The tree of knowledge,” Faron said, pausing to let them admire the view. “In two of its most important stages. This -” He pointed to the tree on the left. “- is Spring, when life is young and flourishing. As we hope the students in this school will. Here -” He waved to the right. “- is Autumn, when knowledge is mature and rich. It’s supposed to represent your teachers.”
Sir Tobias snorted. “The humility of mages is a constant surprise to me.”
Mage Faron gave him a haughty look and swept onwards up the stairs. “Come along, students, the Mage-Mistress is waiting.”
Sidony widened her eyes at Arien and slipped her hand into his. “I’m nervous,” she confessed in a low voice. When he looked surprised, she smiled. “I’m excited too, but now we’re here I don’t know what’ll happen next. I’m not used to new places, and certainly not so many new faces. What if they don’t like me?”
Arien doubted Sidony would ever have trouble making friends, although he sympathised with her nerves. He’d lost count of the new places and faces he’d encountered in his life. Since they’d frequently turned out to be unpleasant it was no wonder he was feeling nervous.
The difference this time was that he wasn’t alone. Not only did he have Rowan draped across his shoulders, he had Sidony and Hawk too. Even though Arien had an instinctive distrust for adults, there was something about Tobias and Faron that made him want to like them as well. He was glad they were here, even if he didn’t expect them to stay for long.
“Here we are.” Faron turned right at the top of the stairs and knocked on the first door he came to, smiled reassuringly and led them all inside.
~ Next Chapter ~
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