“One thing we must always remember, Astra,” Wizard André told me as we approached the latest cottage on our list of people needing help. “We are still Wizards, first and foremost. We must always put the needs and welfare of the Plain folk of Amedia at the top of any list.”
I nodded, silent as I walked beside my mentor. I understood he was reminding himself, as much as he was reminding me, of the reason we had slogged through so many houses and cottages in so many towns over the past few six-days. I’d long ago lost count of how many Hearthfires we’d lit, how many scrapes and cuts and bruises we’d healed, of how many illnesses we’d remedied with our Magic. I continued to do the work — to light and heal and summon and mend — because there was simply no alternative. There was so much need on Wizard’s Reach. The pitiful handful of us who survived Blight’s attack were attempting to do the work of hundreds, working so much with so little rest that I had begun to believe none of us would ever again get enough sleep to preserve long-term memory.
Nor was I entirely sure that was a bad thing.
Oh, I remembered the joy of my triumph in the Summer Apprenticeship competition. I also remembered being born and growing up Plain, one of the very people I was now helping as a Wizard. But I would just as soon not remember the sights and the sounds and the smells of my battle with Blight, or of the ongoing nightmare that my life had become.
A brief image of Blight flashed across my mind, prompted by my dark thoughts — in particular, the look of surprise and pain that had crossed his features when I’d turned his own Magic against him, blasting him with the lightning he’d summoned in an effort to kill me. Neither one of us had died, of course. I knew in my bones that he was out there, somewhere ... recovering, planning, getting himself ready for whatever was to come next. I only hoped that his memories of me weren’t any fonder than my memory of him.
Inexplicably, I found myself relieved that Blight still lived. In that brief moment before he’d summoned the lightning that was supposed to be my doom, he’d looked at me with what seemed to be sadness. “I am truly sorry,” he’d said, words that still echoed in my memory, one of the many memories I would gladly surrender to lack of sleep. All my instincts insisted that someone who was truly sorry for doing evil had to have a spark of good still inside them ... maybe trapped, maybe suppressed, but it had to be there. There had to be more to Blight’s story than just evil.
Except, I’d found no one else willing to believe it.
I pushed Blight from my thoughts once again as my mentor banged on the door of the cottage which was our first visit of the day. Time to focus on the job at hand. The cottage seemed smaller than my own Plain family’s home, and was much farther away from a town than our home had been. Though my thoughts had been far afield as we walked, I couldn’t help noticing the fruit and nut tree-filled orchards we’d passed through on the way to the rough-hewn door we now faced.
When the door didn’t open right away Wizard André glanced at me then took a step back. “We are Wizards,” he called out. “We have come to heal in response to your request!” This time there was an immediate commotion inside the home, and the door opened for us moments later.
“Welcome, welcome Wizards!” said the ruddy-faced man who threw open the door, almost bubbling with excitement as he waved us into the cottage. “These troubled times, I’d begun to despair that a Wizard would ever again come to my house. I mean, we’ve never asked for much, being so far away from everything as we are here, but—”
“Sir,” Wizard André interrupted him, “as you noted, the times are troubled and there are very few of us left to serve. Can we get to it? Your request said your son was injured?”
The man nodded, his head seeming to bob between his heavily muscled shoulders, and turned to lead us through the home’s Hearthroom and toward the bedrooms. As we followed, I saw the anxious-looking faces of his wife and other children tracking us and wondered if their anxiety was for their ailing kin, or for the presence of strangers in their home.
“He fell from high in a tree while gathering fruit for harvest,” the boy’s father told us as we reached the his son’s bedroom. “We Arborkeepers have been orchardists for generations. Rawn here’s been up trees hundreds of times, but this time something just went wrong. We’ve tried to make him comfortable, but nothing we could do would set the leg straight again.”
My mentor pushed past the distraught father; as I trailed him into the room I felt my heart begin to race and my stomach to twist. The boy sprawled on the bed before us looked as though his left leg had two knee joints, one of them far, far too close to his ankle to be the work of nature. He seemed unconscious, but hints of pain still flickered across his features and his face gleamed with sweat far beyond what even the hot summer weather would account for.
“Did you give him something for the pain?” Wizard André asked, a bit quieter than he had been a moment before.
“We gave him some brew that I made, yes,” Arborkeeper replied. “It eases the pain some and makes him sleep. But he needs to be healed, Wizards. Not only do I need him for harvest time, I can’t stand the thought of my Rawn having to go through life crippled like this!”
Wizard André stared at the boy for a long moment, then drew a deep breath and sighed it out noisily. “Of course we’ll heal him, good sir. But this will take a bit of time. Could you leave us alone with Rawn? We need to concentrate, and I’m afraid the process won’t be pretty.”
“Of — of course, Wizard,” the man said, turning pale as he bobbed his head once more and withdrew from his son’s room. “Of course. If there’s anything—”
“Have more of that brew ready for when we’re finished,” Wizard André said, again cutting Arborkeeper off. “He’ll need more sleep as he heals, and our Magic will likely wash away much of the medicine that’s in him now.”
The man nodded again and fled from the room. Wizard André motioned for me to close the door, then removed the heavy pack of gear from his back, dropping it to the floor as I unslung my own pack and joined him at the side of the bed.
“Have you ever seen the like of this?” He stared at the boy’s leg as he spoke, his voice hushed, looking as upset as I felt.
“No,” I answered, once I was sure my stomach was fully under my control. “I’ve seen broken arms before, but they always looked more like … well, bumps under the skin.” My heart had slowed from the first shock of seeing the injury, and I was already beginning to push myself into the state I had learned to assume while healing. “Can we really fix this?”
“Yes. It’ll take both of us, but we can do it.” My mentor looked grim. “Astra, the thing is ...”
“What?” I felt suddenly nervous as he left the thought hanging.
“You’re going to have to provide most of the Magic,” he said, his voice flat.
I felt my eyes widen and my body tense. “Are you sure—” I began, then fell silent as I read the look on my mentor’s face. Wizard André had begun leaving much of the Magical work to me over the past few days, but this looked like it would test even an experienced Wizard.
“There’s no choice for it, Astra,” Wizard André insisted. “It’s going to take all of my strength just to wrestle the boy’s leg bone back into the shape it should be. That has to be done with sheer muscle power. If I try to use Magic it would just muddle the injury and the actual healing wouldn’t take properly.”
He paused for a moment, looking uncomfortable. “And ...”
Wizard André let the thought hang. I sensed there was something ominous behind the single word, though, and steeled myself in apprehension.
“My Magic has become muddy,” he finally told me. “Sluggish, as though there isn’t as much power available as there should be.”
All I could do was stare at him.
“I’m going to presume for now that it’s just because I’m very tired,” he continued after a moment. “It’s not like we don’t have cause to be tired. But it doesn’t feel like ‘just tired.’ It feels like —” He broke off, then shook his head in frustration. “I’m not sure what it feels like. It doesn’t feel good.”
He turned to catch my eyes for the first time since entering Rawn’s room. “Your Magic hasn’t felt off lately, has it? Any different at all?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Not that I’ve noticed, Wizard André.”
“Good.” My mentor nodded, then grimaced. “Your Instinctive Magic should retain its full strength no matter what, and this poor boy will need every ounce of power you can give him.”
He moved into position by Rawn’s leg, then looked at me once more. “Right now, it would be helpful if you could reinforce his sleep,” he told me, then reached out for the leg. “Keep your Magic away from the leg until I have it straightened, though — we can’t chance the bone healing before it’s whole again. Then be ready with as much healing power you can when it is straight.”
I nodded, steeling myself and gathering my power to the ready as Wizard André began to straighten Rawn’s leg. While this was by far the worst injury I’d so far had to heal, in the bigger scheme of my life it was merely the latest trauma to be dealt with. In two short months I’d had to learn the fastest and most efficient ways to heal and firestart and soothe and ... well, everything else a Wizard may run into from day to day. My life had been turned into a crash course in battlefield Magic, where quick, down and dirty methods mostly trumped any consideration of gentleness, or even civility. I was learning to do more, and do it faster, than any Wizard should ever have to — because I did have to.
Not that I’d ever had the luxury of time when it came to Magic. I’d first learned of my Magical destiny from a stranger in the dark of First of Winter a mere eight months before. Wizard Andrétook me under his wing a sixday after that. The next six months had been a frantic blur as I scrambled to learn what Wizard-born kids take a decade to absorb. That training had paid off when I competed for — and won — the Summer Apprenticeship to Grand Wizard Forturian Stormcloud on First of Summer, which was also the day of my thirteenth birthday.
Then, mere moments after my triumph, Blight had appeared … and the world as I knew it had ended.
Blight, convicted of crimes and heresy decades before, had seemingly appeared from nowhere. He had slaughtered Grand Wizard Stormcloud before we even knew what was happening; by the time he was finished, he had killed all of the several hundred Wizard present to watch the Apprenticeship competition — everyone but me, my teachers, and the twelve other apprentice contestants. He had tried to kill us as well, but I managed to drive him away when he was caught off guard by my Instinctive power.
The enormity of the disaster only sank in as we began to recover. We fifteen were the last Wizards left on Wizard’s Reach, the island capital of Amedia ... all that was left to fill the void left by the hundreds of experienced Wizards who had been slaughtered. We threw ourselves into that void, desperately trying to keep up with the needs of fifty thousand Plain folk, but all too often it seemed to be a hopeless task.
The situation was made worse by the fact that most of the others seemed to expect me to be ready to save us from whatever Blight would have in store when he next appeared. Me, who’d been born Plain … who had only had Magic for a few brief months.
It would have been laughable if the situation hadn’t been so grave.
It took most of an hour to get Rawn’s leg set to Wizard André’s satisfaction. By the time we were finished, my mentor was almost gasping from the effort of wrestling the bone into place and holding it there while I applied healing Magic. I was far less effected by the effort; using my Instinctive Magic doesn’t drain me the way using Magic seems to exhaust other Wizards and certainly not as much as the hard physical work that my mentor had done. I was cramped from holding one position for so long, though, and found myself supremely pleased to see our patient sleeping peacefully as we left him alone in his room.
“When he wakes up,” Wizard André told the boy’s delighted father, “give him as much as he wants to eat and drink and another dose of your brew. He needs to sleep for a full day for the Magic to settle his injury properly — understand me, a full day. It would be even better if he could sleep the rest of today and all of tomorrow.” My mentor managed to give the instructions without panting, but only because I’d quietly pushed some healing Magic into him when I’d touching his arm for a moment, just before we left Rawn’s room. If he’d noticed, he’d said nothing.
“The injury is completely healed, then?” the elder Arborkeeper asked, still sounding a bit anxious. “He won’t have any ... lasting effects?”
“Not as long as you let him sleep,” Wizard André again emphasized, then softened his tone a bit. “I realize your pressing need for his help in this harvest time, Master Arborkeeper, but sufficient rest will relieve your son of a lifetime of pain and limping. Please allow him to heal.”
Arborkeeper grinned, but the grin faded as we then turned, heading for the cottage’s outside door.
“Wizards?” he inquired hesitantly. “Will you not stay for refreshment? Some freshly picked fruit? Perhaps some wine?”
I heard myself sigh at the offer and my tummy growled hopefully — we’d skipped breakfast, I was hungry, and the traveling rations that Wizard André and I had been surviving on for far too long were becoming less attractive by the day. But I nodded as my mentor glanced at me, then gave Arborkeeper a wan smile.
“I truly wish that we could, good sir. As you noted, though, the World is in the midst of dark times. The list of requests for Magical help that my colleague and I must tend to is longer than a dozen Wizards usually face in a day — and that is only the list from the town where your request was posted.” He paused for a moment to glance around at the man’s family. “Believe me, your kind offer is appreciated, more than I can say. But we must press on if we are to even hope to keep up with the demand for Wizardry.”
Arborkeeper nodded, a solemn look on his face, but then the look brightened in an instant. “I understand, Wizard, I do. Yet ... would you allow me to at least send some fruit with you? My son’s honor demands no less than that.”
“Well ...” My mentor looked at me; I tried to remain detached, but I know full well my face reflected the longings of my stomach and my taste buds.
“All right, a bit of fruit to take with us,” Wizard André finally allowed. “But please, sir, not too much! As you can see, we’re each carrying nearly half our own weight in gear as it is. I hesitate to turn us into beasts of burden.”
As we headed down the lane several minutes later, in the fragrant shade of Arborkeeper’s orchards, we were eagerly devouring freshly picked peaches and each of us had a small sack of apples added to our backpacks. The peaches were incredibly delicious and juicy, and buoyed our spirits despite Wizard André’s hesitation in taking them. We each ate some trail food as well; I, at least, felt a bit revived by the time we paused at a crossroad on the path back to town.
“We’re going to need to split up the rest of the jobs, Astra,” Wizard André told me as he pulled several pieces of paper from under his vest — the requests for Wizardly help we’d found at the most recent town we’d passed through, posted by tradition on the door to the town hall. Before Blight’s attack, Wizards had picked up the requests daily and done whatever healing or other Magic was needed as a matter of routine. Now, the papers represented more than a sixdays’ accumulation of need. We’d gone first to the Arborkeepers because Rawn’s injury was by far the worst of the lot; now the day was hours underway and we would have to scurry to complete the rest of them by nightfall.
“Do you feel ready to handle some jobs on your own?”
“How many are there?” I tried to catch glimpses of the writing as my teacher sorted through the pleas.
“Ahh ... nineteen,” he said after a moment. “I guess I’ll take—”
“You’ll take six,” I told him, trying to sound severe, softening it with a small smile as he whipped his eyes to me in shock. “Make it the six easiest ones, too.
“No, Wizard André,” I rushed to add when it seemed that he would object, “I’m more than ready to take jobs on my own. Besides, it makes sense. If your Magic has become sluggish it will take you longer to do what’s needed.” A look of dismay crossed his face.
“I should never have told you that,” he muttered.
“But you did tell me,” I insisted when his face began to gain a cast of stubbornness, “and you know I’m right. If it really is just you being tired, taking it easier for a day will help you recharge your Magic.”
He sighed. “I doubt it will help, but I can’t disagree that I’m exhausted.” He quickly flipped through the small pages, pulled a half dozen out and handed the rest to me. “I just worry about you being on your own.”
“You and Wizard Hucklebee didn’t seem worried about Jenna and Maikel and the others being on their own,” I pointed out, referring to the other apprentices who survived Blight’s killing rampage, thanks to my Magic.
“Oh, we were concerned — that’s why we insisted that everyone go in pairs. But remember, the other apprentices grew up as Wizards. Not only did most of them learn to do healings and light fires by the time they were twelve years old, they were raised knowing how to behave as Wizards.” My mentor gave me a smile that I suspected held both warmth and concern. “I have no worries about your Magic, Astra. I worry, though, that your Plain roots will show and the very people you’re trying to help might turn on you.”
I drew in a sharp breath. It was a possibility that had never occurred to me. “Why — why would they?”
“Because, as Master Arborkeeper so rightly said, these are troubled times. Troubled times tend to make people suspicious of anything that’s different and a Plainborn Wizard is the most different thing Amedia has ever known.”
He’s right, a dark inner voice whispered to me. It didn’t matter how good I might get, I would always be considered a freak, even by my own people. I felt myself shiver, then consciously shook off the dour feeling that crept over me unbidden. I’d been having those dark moments more and more often in the past few six-days — Blight had seen to that.
“I’ll be careful,” I said softly, and Wizard André nodded.
“I know you will,” he answered in a gentle tone, “but worry isn’t something I can just snuff out with an Extingui.” He gripped my shoulder a moment, then turned to head down one of the crossing paths.
“Wizard André?” He stopped and turned back to look at me, his eyes questioning.
“What can the Wizard Council even do, once they finally get to Thunderhead Castle?” It was something we’d never talked about — how Amedia’s governing body of Wizards would deal with the crisis caused by the hundreds of deaths and the loss of the World’s Grand Wizard. Wizard Hucklebee, as the surviving Senior Wizard on Wizard’s Reach, had sent out the cry for help to the Amedian mainland, home of all Council members save the Grand Wizard himself, but I’d never heard anyone raise the question of what even a council of Wizards could do in the face of one so powerful as Blight. I had the worst feeling that Blight would consider the Council as simply one more group of Wizards to be slain as he pursued whatever it was he was seeking to accomplish. He might be truly sorry to do so, but he would do so without hesitation or remorse.
My mentor drew a deep breath before answering. “At the very least,” he said at last, “they can bring in Wizards from the mainland to help us, or even take over the work that you and I and the others are doing. Beyond that ...” He shrugged. “Hopefully they can arrive at some plan to undo the damage that Blight has done.”
“Can the damage even be undone?” I didn’t quite realizing I’d spoken the question aloud until Wizard André quirked his lips into a sort of smile.
“I devoutly hope so,” my mentor told me. “I certainly have to believe that Amedia will not allow us to suffer for long, especially not at the hands of someone Amedia itself gifted with Magic. As to what can be done ...”
He shook his head.
“I’ll leave that for the Council to figure out. Right now I’m so tired, my thoughts are even fuzzier than my Magic. I can’t begin to think about politics and strategy.”
I pondered that. “I just wondered, I guess, if we’re going to be this busy and this tired for the rest of our lives.”
Wizard André frowned. “I hope not, Astra, I truly hope not. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that the worst is yet to come. There are a lot of things worse than just being tired from travel and work, you know.”
I stared at him a long moment before putting voice to a question that had been bothering me since Blight and I had fought.
“Should I have done more?” My voice was little more than a whisper. Wizard André stared at me as though I had multiple heads.
“Done more of what?”
“In the fight against Blight,” I said. “Should I have ... you know ...”
Wizard André dropped his chin to his chest for a moment, then drew a deep breath and blew it out in a gust.
“Should you have killed him, you mean,” he said, little louder than I had spoken, then held my eyes with his gaze. “Astra, I don’t believe that you could have killed Blight. Quite aside from what I know about you as a person, Blight wasn’t about to let you kill him. I believe that’s why he took off so abruptly — he couldn’t take even the chance of you putting him down. That man has an agenda. He is going to pursue that agenda without wavering and is not going to risk anything that might prevent him from its accomplishment.”
My mentor heaved a sigh and I could see him shiver. “Astra, you did what you could. You hurt him, severely, and that’s the only thing that has given us the time that we’ve had to lick our own wounds. Be happy with that.”
I felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. “Thank you, Wizard André,” I whispered. “I felt horrible, at first, because I’d tried to kill him. Lately, though ... well, I’ve started to wonder. Jenna and the others all say they wanted him dead.”
“I’m sure they did,” my mentor agreed, his voice stronger than I’d heard it in a while. “It’s a natural reaction to what we went through. But someone powerful enough to kill all those Wizards, to even kill Wizard Stormcloud—” His voice broke, and he paused for a moment. “Someone that powerful wouldn’t be stopped by a re-directed lightning bolt, not even with your Instinctive Magic behind it. Besides ...”
Wizard André paused, studying my face as though he was reading a book.
“You don’t want to kill him, now, do you?”
I shook my head in slow reply. “No.”
He stared at me a moment longer, eventually nodding. “Then we will find another way to deal with him,” he said, his voice carrying as sure a note of certainty as I’d ever heard from him.
Without another word he turned and trudged off toward his next call for help. I watched him for a minute, my emotions churning, both relief and foreboding mixed together.
When was it decided that we were to be the ones to deal with Blight, I wondered, a sudden feeling of hollowness forming in the pit of my stomach. Did I miss something? What if I don’t want to face him again? What if I just want to be an everyday Wizard, healing hurts and lighting hearths?
I closed my eyes, trying to imaging myself doing nothing — just keeping on as I was and letting the Wizard Council or whoever else deal with him — and after a moment felt myself cringe at the idea. That person wasn’t me.
I shivered. Blight’s image suddenly appeared before me, the same sad look on his face that had been there just before he’d summoned lightning to kill me ... only this time as his eyes met mine, the sadness turned into an icy glare that chilled me to the bone. In that moment I realized I didn’t have a choice in the matter — fate had decreed that Blight and I would meet again. There was no way that he would forget me, the red-headed apprentice who bested him on First of Summer. We would meet again, somewhere, sometime ... and when that time came, he would be ready for me. Luck wouldn’t be enough.
The next time we met I would have to actually be better than he was. I sighed, accepting the challenge that the World had set for me.
Only please, Amedia, I pleaded with more fervency than I’d ever felt. Please, give me the strength to do what I must.
With that thought I turned and headed for my next call.