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We could never agree on where we’d first met, nor when. I thought we were eight—he said we were four. But we both agreed that I’d been older then him.
He’d been an impish, fey little boy in the beginning, safe in the knowledge of his parents’ protection. He knew he could throw rocks at me without reprisal—or did he throw sticks, as he’d insisted years later?
I remembered playing with him every day, every summer, though he insisted it was only on holidays and feast days.
I do remember long periods of time spent trapped in his manor while my parents doted on his. It was my duty to learn to weave and sew and dance and speak horribly-accented French.
But we were friends—that much I remember. And we agreed on that. Our friendship began the day he first to lead me into the greenwood. He dragged me by my hand, painfully pulling through dark, knotted trees. He was resolute, dragging me through as the thorns and brambles scratched at my legs.
The woods was supposed to be a terrible place.
I remembered the stories my parents would tell of witches and werewolves and dark, evil things. They hid in the forest waiting for children like us. They would snatch us up and nobody would find us again.
I wanted someone to find us.
He led me into the woods that day, my clinging desperately to his. If there were truly some evil thing out there waiting to consume us, it would have to take us both.
I wasn’t going to be gobbled up without him.
I wrote this story three years ago, and now it is online for you to enjoy and compare to the more recent stories I’ve written.
The lowborn girl could smell the woman’s rose-petal scent the moment she entered the room. Another Highborn client. She wished she could say she was surprised.
The woman spoke. “The King can put me to death for asking this of you?”
“Only his Magi are allowed to stick their noses in magical affairs. It’s treason to execute the Magi’s authority without their approval…if they can prove it.”
Silence, then, and after three heartbeats she spoke. “And your price?”
“Sixteen tokens a day. And then, depending on how difficult your task, the final sum is up for negotiation.”
“I’ll let you think about it.”
The Highborn woman left the girl alone in the back room, muttering something about the smell. She dismissed it. She knew she’d be back tomorrow to accept her terms. The Highborn didn’t come to Water’s End unless they were out of options.
She shuffled through organized the parchments the woman had given him, words scrawled in such superfluous cursive that it was almost illegible. She numbered the pages and made for the door.
The woman kept her free hand on the hilt of her dagger as she left the Inn of Nine Rings. She felt the innkeeper’s apprehensive eye on her. “Casrein,” the innkeeper said with a nod of his head.
She wouldn’t have been able to set up her practice there if the innkeeper didn’t owe her a favor. She’d saved the man’s daughter from the Magi and their King’s Justice
And still the man quivered in fear of her. It’s the price I pay for being one of the only adults to have magic, she thought. For being one of the few not stupid enough to use it all up while I still learning to shave.
Did nobody understand the concept of finite?
Casrein rounded a corner. Her cloak snapped behind her. In the distance, she spotted a bonfire glowing like dying embers. Just kids playing with fire magic.
She neared an outlying village in Water’s End. Home, to her own shame. She passed a few beggars on the street. Mere paces from her hut she spotted a man trying to sell his glass eye for food.
Casrein slammed the door behind her. Her home had one rickety room with two beds in one corner, opposite a kitchen.
“Annis, I’m home.”
“Mother!” Annis called from the table. “Did you get a task?”
“Why didn’t you go to bed?”
“You said I could stay up till dark.” Annis pointed to the fire in the distance. “It’s not dark, yet.”
“You know what I meant,” Casrein said. “Go to bed.”
“Did you get a task?” the child asked again.
“I might tell you in the morning if you go to bed!” He’s more stubborn than I was at eleven.
“But I’m not tired.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t want to sleep,”
Casrein flinched at that. Annis would be developing magic, soon. Three years, at best. It wouldn’t be pretty. It was hard enough when children didn’t have magic. How would Annis react once he did have it?
Casrein’s bed moaned under her weight. “Do what you want,” she said with a wave of her hand. She pinched the corner of her eyes. “I’m sleeping.” Maybe I’ll ask that highborn woman to take care of him when she accepts my terms…
It was midday by the time the woman came to meet Casrein in the back room of the Inn of Nine Rings.
She had never gotten a good look at the highborn lady the night before. She always kept the first meetings dark. In a profession such as hers, anonymity was key during first meetings.
She was tall and blond, with the kind of girth she had come to expect from highborn women.
“I accept your terms,” the highborn lady said.
She meandered about the room. “I’ll need the particulars. Your name, for starters. Who you want me to find, your relation to them, appearance, things like that.”
The woman wrinkled her nose at the comment. “You don’t know me?” she asked.
Casrein laughed. “People with my abilities tend to avoid the highborn. Too much politics and Magi Councils”
The woman’s jaw dropped. “How dare you—”
Casrein held up a hand for silence. “You’re highborn, my lady,” she said. “All you lot are involved with the Magi. Whether you know it or not.”
“And you know this how?”
“Who do you think trained me in my profession? The Magi are everywhere. You just don’t know it.”
The lady’s eyes widened. “You’re one of them.”
“Was, yes. Not anymore. I lost my titles a while ago. He was only a kid, and they called it the King’s Justice. “I’d rather not talk about it. We still haven’t discussed your name or your predicament. What task would you have me do, my lady?”
“I would have you find my daughter.”
“Hm. Did she have her blood recently?”
Casrein shrugged. “I don’t know how you didn’t see it coming,” she said. She ignored the look the lady gave him. “Most girls get their magic shortly after their blood. And a girl who grows up around the Magi Council, well, I imagine they told her how dreadful it would be once she got magic—how she’d better not break the rules or else. Stop me if I’m wrong.”
The lady said nothing
“So she runs away. And you want me to find her. Only I need to know her name.”
The woman started to speak. Casrein cut her off.
“The pins on your shoulder—three red leaves—they’re the sigil of House Herald. But House Herald already had a daughter who used up her magic a few years back. You’re in disguise because you’re worried people might follow you.” Under her breath, she added, “They probably have,” and then continued. “Yellow hair—not so common a trait among the highborn, is it, my lady? Three houses are yellow haired–House Nir, House Layre, and House Hallow.” She paced around the Baroness. “House Nir is comprised of Dukes and Duchesses. That leaves House Layre and House Hallow.
“House Layre called their banners against House Herald a few centuries ago, and neither have forgotten, am I correct?” She did not wait for a response. “I’m correct. However, House Hallow is a close ally of House Herald. Close enough, you might say, to allow a fellow Baroness into their humble abode where she could steal pins with their sigil on it.”
The Baroness scowled at Casrein and stepped back. She attempted to speak, but the words caught strangled in her throat.
“The Lady Marys of House Hallow, am I correct?”
The woman nodded. Her face darkened. “You will not repeat this,” she said.
Casrein bowed. “You have my word as lowborn scum.”
Marys struck her, and she stumbled back, wiping the blood from her split lip.
The Baroness held fury in her eyes. She creased her eyebrows. “This is not a game!” she said, in a strangled attempt not to shout.
Casrein nodded. “Agreed. This is a puzzle with glass edges. Much more dangerous.”
“I’m paying you to find my daughter,” Lady Marys said through a clenched jaw. “Not to sit here spewing idle banter. Sixteen tokens a day, am I correct?”
Casrein nodded. “Indeed.”
Marys produced a purse from the fold of her gown and plucked out the sixteen coins. She tossed them at her, letting them scatter to the floor. She stopped in the doorway. “My daughter’s name is Kerri Hallow. Find her. Or I’ll get the Council involved.”
“Be sure to check in daily,” Casrein called after her. She slammed the door closed without a response.
Casrein waited a few minutes to leave, hoping no one would make the connection. Stupid, she thought. She came in here dressed as a noble. A sigil, silks and everything! Does she want to die?
The autumn air bristled Casrein’s skin. She had to get back to Annis. They were short on food, and with tokens she could buy the two of them food enough to last a few days.
“Casrein,” a familiar voice said, “How have you been?”
Casrein turned around to see a man in shining white armor and a golden cloak. He smelled of brine, the latest fashion among highborn men—or so she had surmised by her recent clients.
“Gerna,” she said with a slight bow, “How can I help you?”
Gerna was the head of the Magi Council. The King’s force of adult warriors who still had magic. He’d led the Council on a number of tasks over the years doling out the King’s Justice to keep magical rebellions at bay.
“I hear you have a client,” Gerna said. “Take another task, did you?”
Casrein smirked. “Oh, Gerna, you know how much I hated the tasks on the Council. Why would I seek it as a profession?”
“Don’t ask me,” Gerna said. He circled her. “You’re the one who loves the business.”
Casrein arched an eyebrow. “Of course I do. That’s why I left the Council, right?”
Gerna laughed. “I saw the lady who left that inn of yours. No lowborn girl, that one. Far too pretty.”
“I’m flattered you’ve been keeping an eye on me, really, but I must reject your advances.”
Gerna sauntered forward until they were nose-to-nose.
“Allow me to rephrase that last sentiment,” Casrein said, “Fuck off!” She turned away. And a meaty hand landed on her shoulder. She gripped it tight. “Was I not clear?”
“That was unladylike.”
“Only I’m not a lady. Lowborn, remember?”
“Come on, Casrein, let’s see some magic.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Gerna’s hand tightened on her shoulder. “You know, the Magi have a bet amongst ourselves. Some of us are starting to think you’ve run out of magic. Care to prove us false?”
Casrein tugged on Gerna’s arm, pulling his belly close to her back. With enough leverage, she could send him over her shoulder. “I’d love to,” she said, “But everyone on the Council knows how much I love preserving, so I’ll assume you’re lying to me.”
Gerna put his free hand around Casrein’s neck. “Come on. Give me a hex, at least.”
“You mean a reason to fight me, right?” Casrein said. “You’ll be getting no hexes from me. And before you try that spell you’re thinking about, I want you to know I can feel the warmth in your hand. If I may speak freely, I think a spell would be a bit too costly for you. Magic is finite, you’ll remember.”
The unnatural warmth receded from Gerna’s hand. Casrein released him and turned to face the Magi leader. “Try a hex, next time. It’s subtler.”
Gerna’s furrowed his brow. “I will not forget this.”
“I should hope not. Now let me make this as clear as possible. I am finished undertaking tasks. I leave that to you and the Council. Myself? I have a meal to buy my son.”
Annis dug into the chicken as if he hadn’t eaten in months. Which was almost true. The food Casrein had been able to afford of late was scarcely better than none at all. He tore the meat apart with the ferocity of a starving wolf.
Casrein ate her food slowly. Bit by bit. She was tempted to tell her son not to eat so greedily, but held her tongue at that thought that she would’ve done the same thing at his age.
“Mother,” Annis said with a mouthful of chicken.
He did so, then asked, “Are you going to kill anyone?”
Casrein froze with a piece of chicken dangling from her hand. “Why do you ask that?”
“I’ve heard rumors all around Water’s End. People say you killed a child undertaking your last task. Are you going to do it again?”
She waved the notion aside with a gesture. “People like to talk. That doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t think of such things, Annis.”
“But are you?”
Casrein bit her lip. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”
“People say you’re going to. They say you always kill children with magic.”
That’s the Council’s job. “You should not listen to such lies.”
“I heard they aren’t lies. Mother, are you going to kill the girl you’ve been sent to find?”
“I told you.”
“And I don’t believe you.” Annis stuck his tongue out.
That stung. This isn’t a game, child. “If I give you my food, will you change the subject?”
Annis beamed at the notion. He nodded. Casrein dumped her chicken onto her son’s plate. Annis soon started rambling about the other children had told him about magic, and what he planned to do once he got it. Casrein barely heard a word. She was lost in her thoughts.
Her stomach grumbled at the smell of chicken. She did her best to ignore it.
Casrein waited until her son was asleep before leaving the hut.
She grabbed her cloak, pulled her hood overhead and went out into the streets. Her boots thudded along the cobblestones. She walked as though possessed, with surety in each step. She knew where she was going. It was the first place she went after every task.
She rounded a corner and went down an alley, her cloak trailing behind her. At the end of the alley stood a trap door. Most thought it led to a wine cellar. Few could open it. Fewer still cared to. Those that tried found that there was a padlock that would not come undone by the mightiest of methods.
Casrein put a finger to the padlock and concentrated the smallest amount of magic to the tip of her finger. The lock came undone and she clambered down the steps. She could hear the padlock reset behind her.
Blue flames illuminated the hall that awaited her. They flickered, yet gave off no smoke. Her footfalls were faster now, until she saw someone with a boulder of a chest, who warbled, “Take off your hood, stranger.”
Casrein obeyed. “It’s me, Faegen.”
The fat man barked a laugh. “Why’d you have to go wearing a hood for, Casrein?”
“The Magi are onto me. I can’t have them following me.”
Faegen’s face darkened at that. “And how do you know they didn’t.”
“Which one of us still has magic?” She walked down the hall to meet him, and the two proceeded the rest of the way. “I can tell if I’m being tracked by Magi.”
“Fair enough,” Faegen grunted. “Now what have you come here for this time?”
“Same as always. I need a name.”
“Is this one of those names I’m not allowed to repeat?”
“Her name is Kerri Hallow.”
The two reached an opening, and two-score children looked up at once. They regarded Casrein, measuring her intentions. She had come to know some of their faces, but none of their names. Most came in and out rather quickly. Only a dozen or so stayed with Faegen.
“Any of you named Kerri Hallow?” Faegen barked into the crowd of children. When no one responded she asked again, “Anyone?”
“She’s not here,” Casreyn said. “Let me know if she stops by. Remember her name.”
“I will,” Faegen said.
Casrein slipped a loaf of bread from under her cloak. “For the children,” she said. “Let’s hope their parents forgive them. Or they’re brave enough to tell them.”
“Should’ve given me a glass,” Faegen said. “I could drink to that.”
Casrein smirked. “I’ll see myself out.”
“Good luck in your task, Casrein. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Aye,” Faegen said. “Aye, you do.” Casrein turned to leave when Faegen spoke again. “Casrein—I thought you should know. The kids here—they appreciate what you’re doing. Even if it doesn’t help them. They least they could do is offer their thanks.”
“It is much appreciated,” Casrein said. “Send them my regards.”
Come morning, Casrein wandered off to the Inn of Nine Rings to meet with Lady Marys. I should hope she wasn’t stupid enough to wear another sigil, she thought.
She passed the fearful bartenders, and the innkeeper who always regarded her with those suspicious eyes, and entered the back room to the greeting of the scent of brine.
“I told you, Casrein!” Gerna said, “I told you–no more tasks!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Casrein closed the door behind him. Gerna was already turning heads.
“I know you’ve been meeting with Lady Marys.”
“I spoke to her during my days in the Council. No doubt she has heard the rumors of my practice. I assure you she has not come to visit me.”
“Of course she hasn’t,” Gerna’s tone implied he did not believe that. “Well, someone came to visit her,” With a wave of his fingers Lady Marys appeared in a cloud of blue smoke. He casts teleportation idly, Casrein thought. But when it dissipated, she backed away from what stood before her.
The highborn lady looked at her with glossy, hollow eyes. She did not blink, and she did not seem to see anything. Her lips were twisted into a grotesque mockery of a smile that would not go away. “Kerri,” she muttered through a clenched jaw, “Kerri, you’ve come home. It’s wonderful to see you again. We’ll be together forever, won’t we, dear? And you’ll never have to worry about magic again…”
“My god…” Casrein whispered.
“You should have brought her to the Council!” Gerna said. “We could have helped her! We could have found her daughter.”
“And then this would have happened anyway.” Casrein countered. “And her daughter would be dead for her actions.” He glanced at Lady Marys and her frozen smile.
“This is Council business. This is of no concern of yours.”
“Then why have you come?” Casrein snapped.
The Councilman bowed his head. His voice was no less stern. “We…we were not always enemies. I offer you a warning. We’ve found Kerri Hallow. We’re going to kill her. You have not interfered with our task, and it was not your task that brought this upon her. You will not be punished…if you remain complacent.”
“I swore I’d find her,” Casrein said, dropping her farce.
“And now we have. The Magi will handle this.”
“Because you’ve done so well with this in the past,” Casrein growled. “Tell me where she is.”
“Must I repeat myself? This is Council business.”
Casrein drew up her hood so that Gerna would not see her eyes go black. “I will not ask again.”
“You will,” Gerna said. “You will ask, and you will ask, and you will ask. And I will tell you nothing.”
Casrein inched closer. “Then I will pry it from you.”
“Torture?” Gerna chuckled.
“No. Something else.”
Casrein extended her arm to a finger’s point. She touched Gerna’s temple and pulled her hood back to look into his eyes. Visions flashed across the black orbs of her eyes. Twelve men from the Magi Council besieged House Hallow’s castle, Hallowhold. They stood around the entrance to the crypts. Waiting. Talking.
Casrein released her hold on Gerna. The black fading from her eyes. A feeling enveloped him. As if her foot fell asleep and the feeling spread up to her ears. But it would fade.
“You—you still have magic!” Gerna’s eyes flashed yellow and a bolt of pain rocketed through Casrein. She fell to her knees. “I can’t let you interfere. I wish it hadn’t come to this.”
Through grunts of pain, Casrayn muttered, “Stupid…you always….attacked…too heavily.”
“Too….reliant…on spells….” Casrein unsheathed her dagger and dragged it across the back of Gerna’s knee. The pain flooded away.
Gerna fell to one knee, while Casrein pulled herself to her feet and drove her heel into his jaw. The Magi fell to the floor, unconscious.
She wiped her dagger on her breeched and then turned to Marys.
“Kerri, we’ll be family again. That horrid, accursed magic will never come into our lives again.” She laughed. The mirth set Casrein on edge. “The Magi will cure you. You’ll be safe.”
The Magi cannot cure your daughter. You, on the other hand… Casrein looked into her eyes. His own flashed red. “Sleep,” she said, and Marys crumpled in her arms. She left her on the floor next to the unconscious Magi. He checked the window for more Councilmen, but all she found was Gerna’s horse.
She could use a horse…
Casrein booted Gerna’s horse onward toward the gates of Hallowhold. Her cloak trailed behind her like a war banner. They’d have Magi at the gates. She knew this.
Her predictions were right. Casrein squinted at the two Magi on horseback, blocking the way to Hallowhold. Both had notched longbows in hand. “I know you two,” she muttered to herself. “I served with you. Do not fail me now.”
She galloped up to the gate and spread her arms wide. “Brothers! Fellow Councilmen! I come with good tidings!” The two hesitated. They expect a trap, she thought. They’ll get one….more or less.
When she was close enough, Casrein leapt off her horse and tackled one of the Magi off of his own. The two fell in a tangle of limbs.
She heard the twang of bowstring and pain exploded in her back. She bit her lip. “Idiot!” Casrein roared. “You blasted idiot!”
“I’m under orders to keep everyone away from Hallowhold,” the Magi said.
Casrein grunted to her feet. She clutched the side of the entrance gate for support. I can use this…I can work with it. “Let me see Kerri Hallow.”
“Did you not hear me?”
“I heard you! I just thought you might be decent enough to grant a woman her dying wish!”
The Magi raised an eyebrow. “Dying?”
“Yes, dying. You shot me.”
“That wound is not fatal.”
“And because of this I should send you to see the heir of House Hallow? You concussed one of the Magi.”
“And in return I got an arrow in my back. Fair’s fair.” Casrein grunted. She looked to the castle. “The crypts are on the other side of that tower. Twelve of you there are, and I’ll bet not one of you has entered yet. You’re scared she’ll kill you.”
“Her magic exceeds yours,” Casrein continued, as if she hadn’t heard. “So let me go down there. Let me talk to her. If none of you will, then let me do it. Grant me that much, at least.” She stumbled toward the Magi, sparing a cursory glance to ensure the others were sufficiently busy.
And then she seized his bow and used it to haul him off his horse face-first.
She snapped the arrow shaft and worked to unlace the unconscious Magi’s clothes and armor. Only a Magi was allowed in the crypts. So she would become a Magi once more.
The steps to the crypts smelled like moss and lake water. She hadn’t said much to the Magi present, only that she would volunteer to be the first to go down. The others, in their state of fear, did little to object to the notion.
“Kerri,” she called. Her voice was hoarse. “Kerri Hallow. I know you’re here.”
Silence was her only answer. She could feel her heartbeat in her wound. “Your mother sent me,” she said, and then added, “I can’t imagine how many people have told you that, today. Your mother paid me—lowborn scum from Water’s End—to find you.”
He fell to his knees. Mustering her strength, she shouted, “Get out here, damn you! Or shall I call the Magi?”
Kerri Hallow jumped out from behind the statue of a dead ancestor. Her eyes glowed yellow, and an unseen force sent Casrein skidding across the floor.
“Nice to see you, too,” she groaned.
Kerri was a shapely woman—much like her mother. She looked to be thirteen. She scrambled towards Casrein. “Ohmygod! Ohmygod I’m sorry! Please don’t kill me! Please!”
“It’s all right,” Casrein said. “You were scared. Just save your magic. And don’t kill me. I’ve already got that taken care of.” She hauled her breastplate off and showed the girl the arrowhead. “A gift from the Magi, if your still convinced I’m one of them.
“What’s your name?” Kerri asked.
“Casrein. Your mother hired me to find you and bring you home safe.”
“I am home.”
“I can see that. Now if you can do me a favor?”
“Get this arrow out of my back. And maybe heal me?”
Kerri jumped back as if Casrein had drawn her dagger. “What? No! I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can,” she said.
“No,” Kerri muttered. “Magic is evil. Magic hurts.”
“Magic heals,” Casrein interrupted.
“Then heal yourself!” Kerri snapped.
“That requires energy. Energy enough to kill me in the attempt.” Casrein herself was not sure if she was bluffing.
“But I can’t heal you,” Kerri whimpered. “I can’t do that. Magic only hurts.”
“Magic can heal, magic can hurt.” Casrein said. “One just happens to be easier than the other.”
Kerri knelt beside her. She shied away from touching the woman, as if she were made of molten lead. “How—how do I do it?”
“Work through the pain.” Casrein said. “Work through the panic. Focus on what you want to do. We can start by getting this arrow out of my back.”
She had to bite her lip to stifle her scream. Bits of dead flesh draped from the arrowhead. Kerri tossed it aside. “Put your hands over the wound and focus on what you want on how you want to heal.” Casrein grunted. Blackness was etching the edges of her vision. “It’s like falling asleep, darling. You just have to let it happen.”
She closed her eyes and awaited the worst.
But her strength returned. Her wound tingled as flesh knitted itself together, and Casrein stood, helping Kerri up as she did so. “See?” she said. “Not so hard, is it?”
“Not so hard,” Kerri echoed. Her voice shook more than she did. “But…the Magi are out there…how do we leave?”
Casrein closed her eyes and thought of home. “Hold on tight,” she said. “You’ve done enough magic for one day. Allow me.” Her body went warm, and when she opened her eyes, they were in Water’s End.
Kerri’s jaw dropped. “This is your home?”
Casrein nodded. “It’s no Hallowhold, but it serves.”
“Hallowhold…” Kerri’s breath caught, as if the magnitude of her crimes had just struck her. “Can I heal my mother, too?”
Casrein said nothing for a moment. “I can get you a horse. From there, you must make a decision. One will be easier than the other. You can attempt to go to your mother to heal her. You could succeed, but if you do, you will most likely be caught and hanged. If you fail, you will be caught and hanged, and your mother will remain insane.”
“And what’s the other option?”
“Leave the Kingdom with your life—in the hopes that the Magi decide to heal your mother. She has done nothing to them. It is not unlikely.” She handed her the horse’s reins. “The choice is yours.”
Kerri nodded. She mounted her horse. Casrein lost track of time staring up at her. She stared off into the distance, contemplating her choice.
She tugged on the reins, and gave the horse her heels, and the horse went south. Hallowhold is east from here.
“Mother!” Annis called. “Mother, did you complete your task?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Casrein answered, “I did. Come outside, Annis. You need to come with me.”
Annis had burst through the door a moment later. “Where are we going?”
“We’re going to a secret place, with lots of children your age.” She knelt to look her son in the eye. “A place where we’ll be protected from the Magi. I’ve told you of a man named Faegen, yes?”
“We’re going to see him. For a long time.”
Annis frowned. “Oh.” He looked at the ground. “But doesn’t that mean you failed in your task?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” she said, and she took her son by the arm and led him through Water’s End, wondering which of the two choices had been easier for Kerri.