Sparrow Hawk, some people have no respect.
HAWK HAD MET a lot of important people in his life; his father was a march, so he’d been born into it. The king and queen treated him like a nephew, he’d talked with princesses and sparred with princes. He was on first name terms with dukes, marches, earls, barons and their children. Yet none of them unnerved him quite like Mara.
“Hawk, is it?” she sniffed, as they left the awed mage school behind and strode towards the palace. Mara was a striding type of person; Hawk had to jog to keep up. “What kind of name is that? What were your parents thinking?”
“It’s a nickname,” Hawk muttered, as Cyrus grew tired of the uncomfortable ride and took to the air, swooping low overhead.
Mara stopped to study him with her fierce blue eyes. The jackdaw on her shoulder did the same, before they both tilted their heads to look at Cyrus. The mage snorted and walked on.
“Could as easily have called you Sparrow, since you’re short, brown and plain.”
Hawk wasn’t one to dwell on his looks, but Mara’s words had him hunching his shoulders. All right, so he did have brown hair, brown eyes and brown skin. He wasn’t handsome and tall like Bertram, or handsome and golden like Cyneric, the Duke of Cyrenwaters’ son, but he’d never cared about it before. He was going to be a mage-knight, perhaps more, if he worked hard enough. What would looks matter then? As for his size, well, there was still time for him to grow.
What kind of a name was Amarantha anyway? Even Mara sounded daft, like a lost sheep. Nor could she talk about looks being on the short side herself, and weathered and crusty with it. Her eyes might be blue, but her hair was an even duller shade of brown than his. Realising he’d dropped behind while he ruminated on his unhappy thoughts, Hawk jogged to catch up.
Mara was chuckling. “So stiff-rumped, you pages, especially mage-pages. Bet you’re wondering what gives me the right to talk?” When Hawk hesitated, she laughed. “What’s your real name, lad?”
“Then I see why you prefer Hawk.” She glanced at him. “Fret not, I’ll keep your dark secret. Better a Sir Hawk than a Sir Astor. Sounds like a flower. You make a much better bird.” Striding through the palace gates, she planted her hands on her hips and looked around. “So, Sparrow, which way do we go next?”
* * *
IT WAS THE first day of the pages’ three-day lesson rotation and Arien was slumped at the back of their geography class, staring blankly at the map. It looked so flat and simple up there on the wall. Having run, crawled, walked, been marched, dragged and chased over a great portion of it, Arien could honestly say the picture did not live up to the reality.
“As you can see,” Master Bensem droned, tapping the map with his pointer cane, “despite Wrystan’s excessive coastline in comparison to Firthen, we still have the same amount of neighbours. Name them, Jenly.”
The cane slapped the desk of an unsuspecting first-year page and the boy squeaked. As well he might, since Arien was certain he’d heard the boy snoring a moment ago.
“Er, er, umm…” he stammered.
“Borders,” a friend hissed.
Though a muscle twitched in Master Bensem’s cheek, he chose to ignore the unsolicited help and tapped his cane on Jenly’s desk. “I’m waiting, page.”
“Er, umm, Wr-Wrystan shares a border -”
Master Bensem rolled his eyes and jabbed his cane at Henris instead. “You, since you were so eager to help.”
Page Henris quickly gabbled, “Mallesun, Sanika, Tyllatt and Firthen, sir. While Firthen borders us, Tyllatt, Neystan and Callisun.”
“And why are they more potentially dangerous neighbours than ours, Page Jenly, if you’ve managed to regain your tongue?”
A knock interrupted the session, saving both Jenly and the rest of the class from his stumbling embarrassment.
Master Bensem’s cane slapped against his palm in clear annoyance. “Enter!”
A small, wiry woman whose brown hair was streaked with grey sauntered in. “Pardon the intrusion -” She stopped when she saw the master and grinned. “Well, if it isn’t old Benny? Living in the palace these days? The mage students must have finally succeeded in driving you out. Good for them.”
The cane tapped against Bensem’s leg in obvious irritation. “Lady Amarantha,” he growled, turning to glare the whispering pages into silence. “An honour, I’m sure. I would ask what it is you want, but you’ve always been predictable.”
“Only in so much as I’m always unpredictable,” she corrected with a sly smile. “Don’t get into a pet, Benny, I’ve no intention of ruffling your feathers for long.”
“Then take the boy and good day to you.”
Arien stood without being called. He’d felt her magic approaching for a while, but it wasn’t until his eyes met hers that he understood the force of it. Here was a magic even the Hunger would hesitate to touch. There was so much of it. It was so alive.
Lady Mara held out her hand and gave his fingers a welcoming squeeze. “Well met, young Azarien. Come along, we’ve much to talk about.”
* * *
SHE TOOK HIM out of the city on the same placid horse he’d ridden into Royas Bay on. As they left the white walls behind and cantered along the road beside the sea, Arien felt able to breathe for the first time in days.
“Open up,” Mara shouted, leaning over her bay horse’s neck and urging it to gallop. “Don’t be afraid. Let your magic go.”
It took Arien a little time to figure out how. He was so used to holding it in, pushing it down, not letting anyone see how much he had, not letting the Hunger feed. Yet as his little horse kicked up its heels and thundered across the soft ground, Arien felt his magic bubble up inside. It wanted to go, wanted to be free. Arien knew what that felt like. He took a deep breath, stood in his stirrups and opened his arms to the sky.
It was like plunging head-first into a raging river. While magic pulsed slowly out of Arien, even more flooded in. The Hunger vanished, drowned beneath the rush. It was hard to breathe, but in the most glorious way. Arien opened his eyes, and all he could see was magic. Silver light shimmered over every living thing. He’d never felt so incredible in his life.
Sadly, his horse didn’t share the feeling. Giving a shrill whinny, it skittered to a halt and gave a twisting, double buck before galloping off again.
It was all too much for the dizzy, off-balance Arien and he hit the ground with a thump. He listened to the receding thunder of panicked hoofs but had no desire to move. Down here he was connected directly to the earth and the magic washed over him.
There would be bruises later but he didn’t care, he just rolled onto his back, sighed and wallowed in the tide.
“Hm.” The soft ground crunched as Mara approached. “That wasn’t my smartest idea, hey, Nia?” A croak answered and the mage crouched beside Arien. “Still alive, boy?”
He gave her a dreamy smile.
“Hazelnuts, he’s drunk. I should have known better than to spring that surprise on an untried horse. Poor beast. Then again I never expected that much.” Three concerned faces looked down at Arien; woman, jackdaw and pine marten. The marten’s eyes were silver.
Nudging the mage-beasts aside, Mara tutted and hauled Arien into a sitting position. “What have been doing to yourself? Don’t you know better than to starve your magic?”
Now that half his body wasn’t directly connected to the earth, Arien felt the wash of the tide settle. It flowed but didn’t flood.
He shook his head. “Keep it hidden. No one must know.”
It was a voice from the past, words that were whispered into his ear every night as he slept. He could still feel the ghost of a kiss across his brow. It made his heart hurt and the magic stop.
“Ah.” Mara touched the ground, then his hand, restarting the flow as a small, manageable trickle. “I think you’d best tell me about it. And let the magic in as you do. You’ve a lot of balance to make up. Start talking.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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