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“AND SO THE nation of Wrystan was reformed, seven years after it was first united.” As always Mistress Garen’s lesson finished just as the bell rang. She’d been doing this a long time and was good at making every breath of her teaching count. “By our next lesson I want each of you to write three pages about the Wolves of Evran – either King Aric I or Duke Wulfric – and how they spent the seven years of the Usurper’s rule. Three pages, everyone.”
While the grumbling first- and second-years gathered their things and headed for the door, Arien was just waking up from his impromptu nap.
“Here, Azarien, you may find this of some use.” Mistress Garen was a strict teacher, but she had a hidden kindness too. When Arien took the small book copied from the original histories written by Lord Blake, the first March of Gunnis Ridge, she even winked. “Try not to stay up so late tonight, hmm?”
Feeling his ears turning red, Arien tucked the book into his bag, muttered something apologetically grateful, and hurried out of the door. He didn’t normally find his history classes hard to stay awake for. In fact it was one of his favourite lessons.
The history of Wrystan fascinated him. It was all kings, knights, lords, war and politics, both brutal and polite. And it spanned centuries. So different from his life in the sands, where history and lords lasted as long as it took for the winds to change, and blood had stained the whole desert red.
Although he knew there was an Emperor of Neystan in some distant city, complete with a court and nobles, Arien’s home had been on the outskirts of the Empire, where warlords ruled and each compound was a self-contained world of its own. A hard world. His knowledge of Neystani history had been limited to what his mother had taught him, and she had never wanted to know, nor pass on, anything of her conqueror’s land.
It surprised Arien how much he liked history. Perhaps it was because it hinted at a state of permanence, something which he’d never had. He liked the idea that some families had stayed in one place for hundreds of years, even peacefully in some cases.
Which was why he was so annoyed with himself for falling asleep. He’d lasted through cookery first thing, but started to lose his focus during mathematics. By the time he reached history he simply could not keep his eyes open anymore. He was so tired.
It was all Mara’s fault. She made making glow globes sound easy. Even as she’d talked him through the procedure he’d had no doubts he would soon be holding a handful of his own glowing magic. Instead he’d held nothing. The magic had slipped through his fingers like water, if he could even get his hands into the flow in the first place.
Not that Mara had let him admit defeat. They’d stayed out in the rainy summerhouse all afternoon and well into the evening. They’d both been cold, wet, hungry and dispirited by the time they returned to the school, with not a drop of magic having sparked outside Arien.
There might be a river of it running through him, but what use was that when he couldn’t touch or use any of it? He almost wished he had the Hunger back. At least he knew what to do with that.
When he’d tried to shut off his magic in a sulk, Nia had jumped onto his shoulder and twisted his ear in her beak. Then Mara had given him a stern lecture about his responsibilities not just to himself and Rowan, but to all the magic users in the school and the city. It went on so long and raked over so much past guilt that by the time they’d discovered dinner had long been finished, Arien had completely lost his appetite.
Disgusted with him, Mara had sent him to bed, promising to find him when he stopped feeling sorry for himself. Then she’d grumbled something about dining with royalty and had left him to stew overnight. Tired though he’d been he hadn’t slept more than a few winks before the morning bell summoned him to yet another round of lessons. If this was life at the mage school, Arien wasn’t sure he wanted it.
Feeding Rowan scraps from the lunch table, Arien listened to the chatter of the students around him and dredged up a smile when Hawk appeared. The mage-page was out of breath, his face glowing from the cold outside. He fell on the food with a ravenous growl.
“Busy morning?” Connie, the only second-year girl, asked while pouring him some fruit juice.
Hawk accepted the beaker with a grunt of thanks.
“Manners,” Lady Elea tutted. “What do they teach you pages up at the palace?”
“To eat as much as we can, whenever we can,” Hawk retorted between mouthfuls.
The well-bred first-year looked scandalised, but the others laughed.
“You’re certainly cutting it fine today,” Fort said, pushing his empty plate away with a happy sigh. “The bell’s going to go at any moment.”
Hawk shrugged and handed some cold chicken up to Cyrus. The sparrowhawk was a little more dainty in his habits, but he was clearly hungry too.
“We should have left already,” Connie said, fidgeting as several older students exited the hall. “Come on, Hawk, we’ll be late. You know what Healer Iris is like if she’s left waiting.”
Hawk just waved her away, too busy chewing.
“The Healer’s Hall isn’t that far and it’s all downhill,” Fort soothed, handing Connie another beaker of juice. “Calm down and let the boy eat.”
Hawk stuffed one last piece of bacon into his mouth, grabbed an apple from the bowl and drained his own beaker. “Thanks, Fort. Come on, Con, let’s heal.”
And with that he was gone.
Arien watched the abandoned wooden beaker spin and settle as though it had been caught in a whirlwind. “Is he always like that?”
“Every other day,” Sidony said with a shrug. “When he’s got healing lessons he has so much further to go than the rest of us.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” Fort agreed, tossing a glossy red apple from hand to hand before biting off a chunk.
“I thought he was always so calm.” Even when fighting Hawk maintained an even speed. This was the first time Arien had seen him rush.
As the bell pealed overhead, summoning the students to their afternoon lessons, Fort laughed and threw the rest of his apple to his wolfhound. “The mage school gets to all of us in the end, my friend. Just wait and see.” He sauntered out with the rest of the battle-mages.
Leaving the first-years to watch them leave, four with wistful sighs, one with a frown.
“When do we get to start our magic lessons?” Sidony wanted to know.
“How about tomorrow?”
Eager faces swung in Mara’s direction and she laughed. “If you’re very good, it just might happen. Now, aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?”
They scattered like a flock of pigeons until only Arien was left. He stood with a lot less haste, unable to share his fellow students’ excitement. What would be the point in having lessons when he already knew his magic was beyond his reach? He’d always worried his magic would make him a freak, but he’d never thought it would make him a failure.
“Not even a smile from you today, Ari?” Mara asked, falling into step as they left the dining room. The echo of the first-years’ footsteps was already fading, along with their chatter and the clamour of their mage-beasts. Arien wished he was going with them.
“What’s on your mind now?”
Rowan slid down from his shoulders into his arms, instinctively knowing that Arien needed a cuddle. “Magic,” he muttered, voice muffled by the thickness of Rowan’s fur.
Mara rested a hand on his arm to a stop him. The jackdaw on her shoulder nibbled at her ear and she frowned. “It was your first time, Ari. Plenty of mages take a few tries before they can produce a spark.” She tightened her grip, eyes losing focus as she looked inside him. “You’ve got so much magic. Why would it be there if you weren’t meant to use it?”
“Will you be there?” Arien blurted out. “Tomorrow. In our lesson? Will you teach us?”
“They won’t start teaching you magic tomorrow, Ari. They save it for the First of Change Month. It’s a symbolic and powerful time.”
Even though he wasn’t entirely familiar with the Wrystani calendar yet, Arien had enough knowledge to know that was only four days away. “But will you be there?” he repeated.
Mara sighed and pushed through the door to the cold outdoors. “Walk with me,” she commanded and strode into the gardens.
Arien snuggled Rowan closer, certain he wasn’t going to like what Mara was going to say next. Then he ran after her, knowing the curiosity would be worse.
* * *
BY THE TIME lessons finished for the day, Hawk was exhausted. He ended most days in a similar state. It came of getting up before breakfast to jog over to the palace, followed by a morning in the practice arena before snatching lunch and going to work on his magic. Then came dinner, and after that study until bedtime. The life of a mage-page was never dull.
Letting the others go on ahead, he sent Cyrus flapping into the sky and dragged his feet back to the school. Fort was right, the Healer’s Hall really wasn’t that far, but it felt like it in the gathering evening gloom as he ambled slowly back up the hill. Why was everything always uphill at the end of the day?
He was about halfway home when a lone horse clopped to a halt before him. “Sparrow!”
Hawk looked up in surprise. “Lady Mara.” He noticed her saddle bags were bulging. “Are you leaving?”
Flicking the end of her reins against the sides of her horse’s neck, the mage sighed. “Back south I go. On the King’s business. I wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place, you know. I’ve still got work to do.”
Hawk knew what that could be like. Not that he’d ever received orders from the monarch personally, but he’d seen plenty of others brought in and sent away after only a gentle hint from the softly spoken King Aric. No one argued with a royal hint if they knew what was good for them, but in this case… “What about Ari?”
Mara sighed again, heavily. “I’ve just finished telling him.”
Hawk could imagine how well that had gone. “Where is he?”
“He said something about visiting old friends.” Still toying with her reins, the mage fixed her powerful eyes on him. “Find him, Hawk. I have a bad feeling about this. It’s a rotten time to leave him, but duty calls. Tell him I’ll be back as soon as I can. I haven’t abandoned him. Make sure he understands that.” With a firm nod she turned her horse and trotted off into the gathering night.
Hawk didn’t stay to watch her leave – he was already running.
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