*adopts best Ludo from Labyrinth voice* Friends!
“ARIEN!” SIDONY SPOTTED her elusive friend as he entered the dining room the next morning, and not just because Mage Faron was with him. Tall and still too skinny, looking around with wary eyes, Arien would always stand out in a crowd. He looked like a crane amongst geese.
Standing on the bench, Sidony waved her arms to attract his attention. More than one disapproving frown was sent her way, but she didn’t care. Plenty of people had sneered at her over recent days because she was too happy or too loud or too bouncy. The miseries. Why shouldn’t she be happy? She was at the mage school. Why shouldn’t she be loud? She was a battle mage. Perhaps the bounciness was a bit much, but she couldn’t help it if she was excited. This was an exciting place. They were mages, for stone’s sake.
Mage Faron saw her flailing arms, put a hand on Arien’s shoulder and murmured something in his ear. Arien spotted Sidony and smiled. It made her sit down sharply. She wasn’t used to Arien smiling, but then when they’d met none of them had had much to smile about. She was glad he was smiling now.
As Faron patted the boy on the shoulder and sent him in her direction, Sidony shuffled her plate to one side and motioned for her neighbour to budge up. She’d purposefully sat at the end of the table because she hadn’t wanted Arien to feel overwhelmed. Sitting next to her would be more than enough for one morning.
“Hello, Ari,” she greeted. “I saved you a place. Morning, Rowan.”
She held her hands up to the pine marten while his mage slid onto the bench with a murmured, “Thanks.”
“So you’re living here now?” she asked, stretching across the table to grab the last two bread rolls, then snagging a fruit bowl, the toast rack, the butter slab and some honey, all of which she dumped in front of Arien. “About time. Did Hawk come with you? Do you know why he’s been moved from the page wing? Does he mind? I heard the cart had to go back three times to transport all his stuff!”
Arien was staring at the pile around his plate, to which Sidony added some sausages, a crock of porridge and a plate of ham. She passed on the kippers since he was looking a little green. Kippers, in Sidony’s opinion, were enough to put anyone off their breakfast.
“Umm… thanks,” he muttered, then looked up as someone asked him to pass the ham. He did so with obvious relief.
“Sorry.” Sidony’s shoulders slumped and she passed along the fruit bowl at her neighbour’s request. “I didn’t know what you liked to eat.”
Getting rid of the sausages, the porridge and the bread rolls, Arien spread some butter on two slices of toast and added some honey. He bit into his first piece with a smile. “Toast is fine,” he said. “And yes, I’m living here now, next to Hawk. Sir Tobias and Mage Faron moved him because they want to make sure he’s not overdoing things. I don’t know if he minds or not, and the cart only made one trip.”
“Oh.” She’d been hoping for some dark or at least embarrassing reason for why Hawk had left the page wing. Still, he was here now and that was what mattered. Arien too. She’d grown to like both boys on her trip to the city and she’d missed having them around. Not that she was the only newcomer to the school, but the others all seemed so boring.
Then again after their forest adventure most things seemed boring these days. Especially all the endless lessons. When were they going to learn about real magic?
“Who’s your friend, Lady Sid?”
Sidony looked across the table as Fort, one of her favourite fellow students, sat down. She grinned at him. “This is Arien. He’s Mara’s student.”
The boy raised his eyebrows and looked at Arien more closely. “Are you now?” he said softly and offered his hand across the table. “I’m Fort Valentin, a middling battle mage, and this is Tai, my daft mage-beast.” He shoved the inquisitive dog’s nose off the table, where it had been snuffling dangerously close to the sausages.
Sidony giggled and snitched a bread crust from Arien’s plate, poking it down her sleeve to where Cricket was hiding. “He’s a second-year like Hawk.”
Arien shook the offered hand and smiled, introducing Rowan.
“Is that a pine marten?” the girl on Sidony’s left asked, leaning rudely across her. “Gosh, I’ve heard of them but never had the luck to see one. I’m Lady Elea Samara of Solston, and this is Mackie.” She patted the little grey dog sitting beside her. It was a mountain terrier, a breed that her family were famous for. “Are you new too?”
Sidony shoved the girl back with her shoulder. They might have been social equals, but in truth the pair of them couldn’t be more different. Elea was a lady. She was dainty, polite and bubbled over with social chatter. She also said things like gosh with a straight face. Sidony thought she was a fluffy-brained fool.
Sitting opposite Elea were their other year mates. Perrin was from somewhere around the central mountains and his mage-beast was an impressive golden eagle. Rhoda came from the south coast and her mage-beast was a cute little kittiwake. The pair of them had arrived on the same day and had been pretty much inseparable every since. They even looked alike, with their mousy hair, tan skin and hazel eyes. Except Rhoda was tall and slim, while Perrin was short and stocky. All they ever talked about were rocks and water. Intolerably dull.
Thank all the mountains and little fishes that Arien had joined them at last. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could have survived without him. Now that he was here the real fun could begin. Sidony couldn’t wait.
* * *
BY LUNCHTIME ARIEN had to admit he was disappointed. He’d just spent his first morning in the mage school and to be honest he couldn’t see any difference from his afternoons with the pages. Except for the size of the class.
His morning lessons had been in literature, geography and languages. He’d joined the first-years on literature, since he had no idea about the great writers of Wrystan, but his superior knowledge of international geography had put him with the second-years. As for language, well, since Rowan had arrived in his life it had become one of his best skills. Yet another thing to ask Mara about. Especially as it had a habit of fading the further away from Rowan he was.
However, just because he could speak and understand Wrystani, didn’t mean he was any good at the reading and writing part. Well, the reading he could just about manage, thanks to Rowan’s presence, but the writing was difficult. He’d made a rough beginning with the pages, but so far no one had realised that the Neystani people used a completely different script, several in fact. Arien had been taught to read and write by his mother, who used yet another form of writing from her own conquered homeland, and he was used to words that shifted and flowed like sand dunes in the wind. Here it was all separate, blocky letters and utilitarian usage. For the first time he felt a little homesick.
Since he was good at bluffing, Arien felt certain he could cover his tracks long enough to learn what he needed. Although it was another thing he’d ask Mara about later, certain she’d be happy to help. It was an unusual feeling for Arien to trust an adult, but Mara was different to any he’d ever met. She understood him even better than his mother had.
It felt right to trust her.
As the others squabbled over their midday meal, Arien fed most of his to Rowan. He was nervous about what would happen next. Afternoons at the mage school were for magic study – theory and practice. As yet the first-years hadn’t started practical lessons, but Arien knew it would only be a matter of time. Once they were judged to have learnt enough theory or were getting too close to trying things out on their own, surely their proper lessons would start.
Arien wasn’t looking forward to it. He might have only just arrived, but so far his fellow students had been welcoming. A little curious, but they mostly assumed it was his nationality that made him different. It suited him to let them think that. Once magic lessons started, he would have nowhere left to hide.
When the bell tolled for afternoon lessons, Arien trailed after the other first-years towards the stairs. Sidony wasn’t the only one left grumbling as the second- and third-years headed towards the ballroom at the back of the mansion.
“It’s not fair,” Sidony muttered, stamping her feet extra hard as she walked up the stairs. “I thought we were supposed to be mage students. What kind of a mage doesn’t use magic?”
“A wise one.”
Sidony scowled as Mara met them on the half-landing. “Ha!” she scoffed, any reverence she might once have felt for the famous mage fading under her annoyance. “Easy to say when you know how.”
“Chin up, Silly Sid.” Mara chucked the girl under the jaw. “You’ll be practising glow globes before you know it.” As Sidony’s eyes widened excitedly, the mage chuckled. “And be wishing you’d never learned how within days.”
“Never,” Sidony denied fervently, and her fellow students made similar protests.
Mara shook her head. “So young, so eager, so much to learn. You make me tired.” She waved her hands. “Go! Get to your lesson. Poor Faron’s waiting for you. He was muttering something about Mage-Witch Wars when I saw him.”
“Oh, we should reach Mirage Peak today!” Perrine told the girls gleefully. “The one they thought they’d never win. The hundred against ten thousand.” His excited tone matched the speed with which he ran up the stairs, Rhoda on his heels. Elea was far more decorous in her ascent, while Sidony was dragging her feet again.
“Do I have to?” she whined at Mara. “I’m not interested in dead mages.”
“You should be,” the mage said with a distinct lack of sympathy. “Especially if they died young. Hurry along, Faron is waiting for you.”
She sighed, finally accepting defeat. “Come on, Ari. You can wake me when I snore.”
“Sorry, Sid, but Arien’s with me.”
Turning on the stairs, hands planted on her hips, Sidony’s expression turned mutinous. “That’s not fair.”
“No,” Mara agreed, smiling smugly. “Life rarely is. Now run along, student. There are lessons to be learning.”
Narrowing her eyes, Sidony muttered, “I think I’ve just been taught one,” and flounced off.
“Clever girl,” Mara remarked idly, wincing as a door slammed in the corridor above. “Or she will be, once she’s finished growing.”
Rowan snuffled in his mage’s ear, and Arien looked expectantly at Mara.
She smiled. “Care for a magic lesson?”
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading!