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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1061952-The-White-Flame-Part-A
Rated: 13+ · Novel · Fantasy · #1061952
The rough draft of a story of a girl coming into her magic and her life.
Prologue

Soft footsteps could be heard pattering up and down the hall. The noise paused with the girl, as she gasped for breath. She mustn't be late for Master Signew's lecture today. There were strict punishments for tardiness at the Academy, as there were strict punishments for everything else there, even on a first offense. It wasn't her fault she'd misplaced her notes.

She caught her breath and hurried on. The last thing she wanted right now was a punishment. The famous Master Kiomo would be visiting the Academy tomorrow, and she desperately wanted to see him. It was said that he was even stronger than Grand Master Danjay. All the students of the academy were anxious to meet the man. Not that they'd be permitted to speak, but even the sight of such a great Adept would be awe-inspiring.

So the girl ran, a blur of brown Prentice robes and long, flame-colored hair. She barely noticed where she was going. It was almost understandable when she ran headlong into the Grand Master.

The elderly man was practically knocked to the stone floor of the hallway. Stronger than his wiry frame made him appear, he composed himself in half a moment and fixed his stern gaze on the perpetrator. Grand Master Danjay knew all of the students at the Academy, so it was no surprise when he called her by name. "Andellyn, where should you be right now?" Torchlight flickered, reflecting off his bald head in a menacing way. His hooked nose seemed to be pointing at the girl in an accusing way.

She looked down at her feet meekly as she bowed to her superior, and said in a barely audible voice, "I should be in Master Signew's class, Grand Master." Her voice had a lilt to it, as if it were out of practice. It was a common trait in students of the Academy. They spoke only when one of the Masters required them to, and they were trained to be laconic.

"And why, pray tell, are you here instead?" Danjay was growing impatient. He had important matters to attend to, and he did not wish to linger. He didn't think the Prentice had seen the man he was walking with.

"After breaking the fast, I went to my room to get my notes for class, but I could not find them, sir." She fought the stinging in her eyes. She would not cry. That would bring more punishment. If she was only late, perhaps they would still let her see Master Kiomo.

"Is your room too large, Andellyn, that it took you so long to retrieve your notes? Or is it too cluttered? We could arrange to change that." These were both absurd notions, of course. Academy rooms were small, with few furnishings. Only things that would further the education of the students were permitted.

"No, Grand Master. My notes were all mixed together. I accidentally dropped them the other day, and I did not have time before dusk to sort them. I am sorry." she blinked her green eyes until they were clear. She would not cry.

"I see. You will have no dinner at noon today, neither shall you have any supper this evening. You will sit in the dining hall and watch your peers dine. I shall notify the cooks not to give you anything. Is that understood?"

Andellyn was so relieved she almost smiled. She would still see Master Kiomo tomorrow.

"Yes, Grand Master. I will not let this happen again."

"I hope not. You shall tell Master Signew that I have already punished you when he asks. Now, Andellyn, you have been rude long enough. Greet our guest." He gestured to the man at his side.

Shocked, the girl looked up. Sure enough, there was a man there. She had seen his face before. His portrait was in the Academy's library, though the portrait lacked the gray streaks in the raven hair. Her eyes widened, and her mouth fell open. It was some time before she managed to speak. "Master Kiomo? I thought you would not arrive until tomorrow?"

Danjay frowned. He was glad that his student recognized Kiomo, but he'd told her to greet him, not gape at him. "Andellyn, do you want to go without breakfast tomorrow as well? When anyone arrives or leaves is not your concern. Show some respect."

"I'm sorry, Grand Master." She turned back towards Master Kiomo and bowed. "Welcome to the Academy, Master."

He bowed in return. "It is an honor to be here."

"Now run along. You should be able to hear most of the lecture," the Grand Master snapped.

As the girl hurried off, Danjay and Kiomo continued walking, and the Grand Master spoke. "She's usually well-behaved, that one."

"Is that why you let her off so easy? Or has the Academy gotten lenient since I left thirty years ago?" Kiomo smiled and stroked his long, black mustaches. He was a stocky, muscular man, of medium height. He, like the Grand Master, walked with a staff, which - along with the grey robes they both wore - was a symbol of their status as Adepts.

"Has it really been thirty years since you left? Time flies. I was young then, only sixty-eight. I suppose you thought I was old even then?"

"To a twenty-two year old, thirty is ancient. We all thought you were decrepit. So what's her story? Her rich parents thought it might be charming to develop that ounce of Talent she was born with?"

"No, far from it. She was an oblate. We don't get many, these days, but we do get them occaisionally. Her parents - dirt poor, and probably criminals or beggars - dedicated her as soon as she was old enough to leave her mother. She was a week old. The crone who served as midwife sensed the Talent in her and suggested the idea."

"A gifted crone, then. Had the woman had informal training?"

"I don't know. I doubt it. Anyone with Talent, even undeveloped and untrained, could've sensed little Andy's power then. She's strong, Kiomo. Strongest we've had in years. Maybe as strong as you."

"Is she one of the ones you wanted me to look at, then?"

"No. She's afraid of her power. She won't use it. She's locked it away." Danjay sighed. "She was five when it happened - a Novice. Master Appluxia was in charge of the lesson. I don't believe you've met Appluxia, she came to us after you left. A dog had given birth in town, and Appluxia took one of the pups. It was a double-lesson. First, the five Novices in the group were to calm down the dog, then they were to plant impulses in its mind. Ideally, it should have taken all five children to subdue the dog, but first they were to try to do it alone. They were supposed to decide to work together on their own. Andellyn was the last to try. She had no control - she still doesn't. The dog lay down almost immediately after she started, it was suddenly exhausted. Then, it just died. She doesn't remember it, but she won't really try using her magic anymore." Anxious to change the subject, Danjay turned to Kiomo's question again. "No, don't take Andellyn. She's not ready. There are a couple Prentices I have in mind. Wanita and Kobb both have power and discipline. Either would be a perfect choice."

"Why not this Andellyn? How old is she?"

"She'll be eighteen in two weeks," the Grand Master recited. He knew everything about every student of the Academy by heart. "I thought you wanted a Prentince who was already skilled. One whose abilities you could hone. You'd have to work everything from the basics with Andellyn. She knows it all in theory. I think part of her may be perfectly able to do everything she's been taught. But first you'd have to crack her shell, and then you'd have to teach her control. It would be a lot of work."

"Danjay, you've been Grand Master of the order for almost fifty years, and you have always told your students that work is good and that challenges are there to be risen to."

"What about Wanita and Kobb? They deserve this."

"There are other Itinerants, Danjay. Wanita and Kobb will get their chances. This could be Andellyn's only chance."

"What makes you say that? And why does she need to leave these walls?"

"Your words imply - and your tone makes clear - that she could be dangerous. Who else will risk it? I don't mean to be arrogant, Danjay, but I'm either better than the others or I'm just extremely stupid. Either way, it would be a hard task indeed to get another Itinerant to take her. She needs one-on-one attention, so she has to leave. I'm sorry, Danjay, but I've made up my mind. I'm taking Andellyn. We will leave at dawn on the day after tomorrow."

The archaic Grand Master sighed in submission as they entered his study for tea.

Chapter 1

Andellyn had put her hair into two long braids, and wound each into a bun at the back of her head. She held in her hands a saddlebag, which she was supposed to fill with all her belongings. She put in it the second of the two brown robes she owned. She was, of course, wearing the first. She rolled up all the notes she'd taken at lectures and bound them in the roll with a leather thong before placing them in the bag as well. She had tried to return her quill the previous day, when they'd told her, but they insisted she keep it, so she put it in the bag as well, along with a sheaf of parchment.

Slipping her feet into her brown slippers, she left her room for the last time, but lingered for one long moment. She'd lived here longer than she could remember. A great, aching cavern opening in her heart, she turned away, and walked quickly to the courtyard.

She had been both pleased and shocked when she had been told that she would accompany the great Master Kiomo in his travels. She wasn't worthy, she knew. She was a hard worker, and always tried very hard, but magic never came. Sometimes she wondered if perhaps her parents had been mistaken when they thought she had Talent. She couldn't remember a time when she showed any evidence of it.

She reached the courtyard of the Academy with a bowed head. All of her teachers were there, as well as Master Kiomo - who was garbed still in grey, but grey trousers, boots, and shirt - and there were two horses. It was all Andellyn could do not to stop in her tracks at the sight of the beasts. She'd never seen horses before. Grand Master Danjay and Master Kiomo stood by the creatures, waiting for her.

Kiomo took her saddlebag and tied it onto the back of the large black mare as Danjay greeted the girl. "Prentice Andellyn, it grieves us all to see you go. It has been a pleasure teaching you, but that pleasure falls to Master Kiomo now." The other teachers bowed with the Grand Master. Andellyn bowed in return, and cautiously approached the horse. Kiomo gave her a boost up before mounting his own chestnut stallion. Without any further ado, the tall gates were opened, and they left. Andellyn wondered if she'd ever see the Academy again.

Kiomo lost no time in teaching. "First rule, Andellyn. Speak whenever you like, whatever you like. I can't teach you if there is no communication. Got it?"

Andellyn was shocked, but managed to answer. "Yes, Master Kiomo. Please, what am I riding?"

Kiomo laughed a deep, hearty chuckle. "It's a horse, girl. An animal as well as a mode of transportation. She belonged to my last Prentice, before he went off to be a hermit. Couldn't take living outside a place like the Academy, but too ashamed to go back. Her name is Ebony."

"Like the wood?" Andellyn asked timidly.

The old man chuckled again. "So they do teach you things, then? Yes, like the wood. And this is Hipono. Are you having any troubles staying mounted?"

Andellyn was being jounced about quite harshly, and said so.

"Grip with your knees," he instructed. "Hold on to the reins, but don't pull at them. There you are. Better?"

She nodded, and thanked him, but said no more. They rode on in silence; Kiomo decided not to push the talking issue that day, and it would take a while before he'd be ready to get to magic. So they rode down the hill on which the Academy stood, and down into the valley. They were headed to a small cottage near the town of Rorton, and it would take a few days of hard riding.

During the days of the journey, Kiomo told Andellyn about his life. He grew up at the Academy, of course. He was a star pupil, and when he was nineteen Master Frell had taken him out of the Academy. After two eventful years with Master Frell, Kiomo returned to the Academy for another year of study before leaving for good. Then he told her of various small adventures he'd been on since, leaving out and inserting details wherever he saw fit. Andellyn spoke very little in this time, asking questions only when suspense and curiosity were strong enough to overrule training.

Just after the man told her of the time he and a knight called Trempin had battled a dragon to save Trempin's children, their destination came into view. Kiomo still had yet to tell Andellyn where they'd been headed and why. They rode up to the cottage, dismounted, and the Master knocked.

A short, plump, pleasant-faced woman answered. Her hair was grey-brown, and up in an untidy bun. She wore a flour-covered apron over a green dress, and at the sight of the Adept, her face lit up. "Kiomo!"

"Miri!" He swept the woman into a bearhug and kissed each cheek. "I hope you don't mind me stopping by on short notice. I just picked up a new Prentice."

"Of course I don't mind. I was wondering if you'd ever come! Now let me see the child." She pushed him aside to find Andellyn, standing next to the horses, looking down at her feet. "Hello, m'dear. I'm Miriam Kettlewash, an old friend of Kiomo's. What might your name be?"

Andellyn's gaze remained lowered, and her voice was soft. "Andellyn, ma'am. My name is Andellyn. It's nice to meet you."

Miriam siezed Andellyn by the hand and drew her inside. "Kiomo, be a dear and put up the horses. And hurry along, someone's expecting you!" She brought Andellyn inside the cottage, set the girl in a chair, and went to fetch a cup of tea. Andellyn barely had time to glance at the man in the chair across the room. The hostess watched Andellyn closely to be sure the girl drank up the tea, and soon enough, Kiomo came in, rubbing his hands.

He spotted the man in the corner. "By the Hundred Hounding Hills! Gerik, what are you doing here, lad?"

The man Gerik stood up. He was perhaps two or three inches taller than Kiomo, and in his early or middle twenties. His blonde hair fell loose to his chin, and his eyes were the blue of a deep, fresh well. "I'm calling in my favor, Kiomo."

The Adept asked the women to leave, and once they had, replied in a tense voice. "Now? Gerik, I've just taken a new Prentice! She has plenty of power and no control. She's dangerous. I need time. Give me a year, or at least a few months, and I'll do whatever you ask, but I cannot help you now."

Gerik sighed. "It can't wait."

"Then next time. I'd only hinder you now."

"If you don't help me now, I doubt there'll be a 'next time.'" Gerik's eyes met Kiomo's - the older pair was a darker blue, but both were equally grave.

"This isn't just another foolish venture, then. Is it really that bad?"

"It's the worst it could be, Kiomo."

Shock spread over the Adept's face. "Then it's Gorden?"

Gerik nodded, a pained expression on his face. "He's really going for it this time."

"I see. I suppose I must help you then. Do you think you can do it?"

The younger man pondered this for a moment. "Yes. But I will need Braeden's help as well as yours."

"Do you think Braeden will come? He's stubborn, and he doesn't like fighting."

"I know Braeden almost as well as I know myself. He won't let me down. We're like brothers. As soon as he hears I need his help, he'll be willing."

"It's spring, Gerik. Where do you expect to find him? Spring is the season for wandering, and Brae lives for it."

"I found you, didn't I? I had to wait a few days, mind you, but I knew you'd be wandering this time of year, and I knew you'd stop by Miri's as often as possible. Brae will be just as easy. There's a grove of trees on a hill about a week's ride from here. Braeden says the air is clearer there. He goes there to think. It's still early spring, and he spends some time there this time of year. If he's already left when we arrive, then we can track him from there."

Kiomo sighed. "I hope you know what you're doing. I'd think Gorden would've waited longer."

~~~

Andellyn followed Miriam into the kitchen as Kiomo stayed to talk to the young man. Miriam found the girl a chair before going back to the dough she'd left when she'd heard the knock at the door. She touched her hands to her cheeks. "All these years, and he still sets me blushing! Andellyn, girl, I'm a pathetic old maid, that's what I am."

Andellyn was slightly confused, but she caught on a little. "You two... you are special to each other?"

Miriam smiled. "You could say that, yes. I've loved Kiomo since the moment I clapped eyes on him. We were both young then. I still lived here, but my dear father and mother were alive then. Kiomo was fresh out of the Academy, brand new staff and greys, the whole getup. And me just a poor, uneducated country girl. We were both taken with each other, right from the start. But he was on his way around the country, to work magic for the good of all. He would always come visit a few times a year. A few of the boys from around here were after my hand, but I would have no one if not Kiomo.

"A part of me knew that it could never happen. We loved each other, but we were too different. He was happiest when on the move, and I was settled here. Things have never changed. I love him, and he knows it. He loves me, and I know it. But we're both too devoted to our own lives." She wiped the moisture from her eyes with the hem of her apron, and went back to kneading dough.

"What does 'love' mean, ma'am? I have never heard that word before."

Miriam put the loaf in the oven. "Never heard of love? Whatever do they teach in that school? Love is what makes life worth the living, child. Love is... warm feeling towards other people. There are different kinds of love. There is the kind of love you feel for your friends. There's the kind you feel for your family, and above those, the kind of love Kiomo and I share."

Andellyn looked at her feet again. "I have never had any friends, or family, or someone special. We have none of those things at the Academy."

The old woman stroked Andellyn's hair with a sympathetic hand. "You're young, yet, child. Give it time. You're not in the Academy any more. Now come with me to the fireplace and I'll show you how to cook a stew."

~~~

The four of them ate well that night. There was the rabbit and vegetable stew with the fresh loaf of bread. Miriam apoligized for not having anything special for the other three, but they each insisted that the meal was perfect as it was. Once the dishes were put away, they spoke.

It started simply enough. Miriam asked a perfectly normal question. "How long are you staying this time?"

"We leave tomorrow at dawn." But it was Gerik who answered, when the question had plainly been addressed to Kiomo.

The adept gave Gerik a stern look. "I haven't decided yet. I have business to attend to in town before we leave."

"Kiomo, we must leave as soon as possible if we're to get Braeden. You know that as well as I do. We must leave tomorrow."

Before Kiomo could protest, Miri was speaking again. "Kiomo, you're going with Gerik? And why do you need Braeden?"

The younger man turned to his hostess. "Miri, its a long story. Suffice it to say it involves Gorden."

"Gorden? No! You can't be serious, Gerik. Gorden couldn't possibly be strong enough right now to try anything that would need you and Brae."

"He could, Miri, and he is. He -"

Before Gerik could continue, Kiomo stood up and banged his fist on the table. "That's enough out of you, Gerik. I am capable of speaking for myself, and I'll have you know that we'll leave when I'm damn well ready. Pardon the expression, Miri." Kiomo stroked his mustaches for a moment. "Tomorrow I will go to town. Gerik, you may come if you like. Andellyn, I want you to stay here with Miriam. It won't take more than an hour or so. We'll have dinner here at noon, and then the three of us will leave for wherever in Gwinn's name we're supposed to be looking for Braeden." He sat down to a silent table.

~~~

Andellyn spent the next morning helping Miriam tidy up the cottage. She didn't know what Master Kiomo was doing in town, and although she liked the little house, and found Miriam a pleasure to be with, a part of her wished she could have gone. She'd never seen a town up close before. But Master Kiomo undoubtedly knew best, so she accepted her fate and worked alongside her hostess.

Truly told, the house was already fairly clean when they started, and it didn't take them long at all to finish it off. Once they did finish, Miriam beckoned Andellyn to a small room at the back of the cottage. Miri went to a wooden chest at the foot of the bed there, knelt, and opened it. After a moment, she pulled out a dress, ankle-length and sleeveless, made of a brown homespun material, and a shirt, a lighter shade and weight, but of the same type of cloth, and meant to be worn under the dress. She held them up to Andellyn in a scrutinizing way. Then she nodded. "I'll have to let out the hem a few inches, and take in the waist a bit, but it will fit you fine."

Andellyn watched in wonder as Miriam's hand flew with needle and thread, and before she knew it, she was out of her robes and into a dress. Miriam smiled as she admired her own handiwork. "It was mine, once, when I was young. It's yours now." She laughed a bit. "You're a skinny little thing, I tell you. Don't they feed you at the Academy?"

Andellyn, not hearing the humor in the woman's voice, assumed it was a serious question. "Usually. But the food wasn't nearly as good as yours is, Miss Kettlewash. I never had stew like you make when I was at the Academy."

"Well, I'm flattered, Andy." After a moment, she noticed something. "Don't hunch your shoulders and cross your arms like that. It's unbecoming to you."

Andellyn looked embarassed. "But, Miss Kettlewash, the dress shows my... my abnormality."

Miriam's brow knitted in confusion. "What abnormality, child?"

Blushing, Andellyn stood straight and uncrossed her arms. She gestured at her chest. "The lumps started when I was twelve or so. The robes always hid them."

Miriam burst out laughing. Then she was suddenly angry. "What sort of people run that Academy, that they would make young people think themselves deformed? Andellyn, dear, there's nothing wrong with you. All women grow breasts." She chuckled some more. "It doesn't show so on me because I'm a bit round all 'round, I suppose. But it's perfectly natural. I suppose they make you wear those baggy robes that shroud them so the young men don't get distracted." Her voice softened. "Is there anything else you need to know about, Andy? Any other 'abnormalities'?"

Andellyn was trying to figure out why the young men would be distracted by a girl's chest when Miriam asked her question, and decided that it didn't matter. "Well, once each month, for about five days, I... " She trailed off, uncomfortable about putting what she wanted to say into words.

"That's normal, too, dear."

"Is it supposed to hurt so badly?" There was an ache in her voice.

Miriam nodded. "I'm afraid so. But I can give you some herbs to take with you that will ease the pain, if you like."

"Herbs can do that?" Andellyn's jaw took up new residency in the region of her feet.

"I thought they taught you about the properties of herbs at the Academy? Did they stop doing that?"

"Oh, we learn all sorts of things about the healing properties of herbs, but they never taught us that they could relieve pain. Pain builds character."

Miri smirked. "Then I suspect that must be why women have so much more character than men." When this illicited no response from Andellyn, the woman said, "Andy, dear, that was a joke. It was supposed to be amusing. You can laugh if you want to."

Andellyn thought about it for a moment. Then she got it, and the room was filled with airy laughter, and for the first time, Miriam Kettlewash saw the girl smile. She joined in the laughter, and the cottage was resounding with glee when Kiomo and Gerik returned.

They dismounted, put up their horses, and hurried into the house to see what was wrong. Kiomo entered the room first, and stopped in his tracks when he saw them. "Miri, how could you? You've turned my Prentice into a girl!" The gleam in his eye and the grin on his face belied the sternness in his tone.

Gerik was unammused. He sat down in the nearest chair with a sigh. Oh, the girl was pretty enough, now that she had a visible figure to go with her angular face, but she was so young, so naive. There were times when his tastes ran along that line, but in general he prefered a more mature, experienced woman. He had rather hoped that Kiomo might have a female Prentice, but perhaps one a little more worldly - a girl who'd been around the block before. This could be a long trip without any proper female companionship. And there was no chance that Braeden would have any women hanging about. If there was one thing Gerik couldn't abide about bards it was their high-and-mighty attitude on virtue.

Gerik - like most knights of Creddarn - followed the Code when it suited him and ignored it when it didn't. But bards were superstitious. If they broke the Code and lost their virtue, their voices would rasp and their hands would cripple and they'd be without a job. And to a bard, music was life. Braeden was Gerik's best friend, true. But Braeden was a bard to the core, and therefor, Gerik found him an idiot.

The knight focused his attention once more on the conversation at hand.

"...The knife is an early birthday present. You do know you'll be eighteen next week, don't you? I'll teach you to whittle as we go; it's good for passing the time."

"Thank you, Master Kiomo. Thank you very much."

"And we picked up something extra in town. It's in the barn with the horses. Come on, Andy, I'll show you."

Miri and Gerik remained in the house as Andellyn followed Kiomo out curiously. He led her first into the barn and then to a stall. He opened the stall door to reveal a young dog, asleep in the straw.

Andellyn recoiled at the sight. "It's a dog!"

Kiomo smiled, pretending not to notice her distress. He'd expected it. But this was the only way to get her to trust herself. "I bought him off an innkeeper whose guard dog had a litter a few months ago. Couldn't afford to keep them all. I thought it might be pleasant to have him around. What do you think?"

Andellyn was backing up slowly. Her face had gone ghostly pale. "I don't like dogs, Master Kiomo."

"Were there dogs at the Academy, then? I thought they didn't have any animals there. They must have changed their policy." He treaded carefully. He mustn't push her too hard.

"No. There were no animals at the Academy. I think I must have seen one on the hill one day, from the top of the wall. Dogs are in every nightmare I've ever had, as far back as I can remember. I don't like them." Andellyn had, of course, never been permitted to be on the top of the wall. No prentices were.

"How far back can you remember?"

"Since I was around five, I suppose. But I don't see why that matters, Master Kiomo. I don't like dogs! Can't we give it back, or sell it to someone else?"

The puppy began to wake up, and Kiomo knelt by it and scratched its ears. "I can't think of anyone who'd take him. And we can't just let him go: he can't fend for himself. He'll die if we don't take care of him. You don't want him to die, now, do you?" His use of the word "die" was very deliberate.

The girl's voice trembled. "No. I wouldn't want anything to die."

Kiomo gestured her forward. "Come over here and pet him."

Slowly she started walking towards the dog. It was black and brown and gray, with short fur and a long, powerful tail. She held out her hand to its long nose. After a quick sniff, it licked her fingers. She smiled, just a little.

Kiomo grinned. This was excellent progress. His plan hadn't come full circle yet, but this was a promising beginning. "He doesn't have a name yet, you know. What should we call him?"

Stroking the dog's neck slowly, she said after thinking a moment, "We should call him Finn."

"That's an unusual name for a dog. Why Finn?"

She laughed softly. "Because he looks a bit like Master Finnian."

Chapter 2

Andellyn sat on Ebony, uneasily watching Finn at the horse’s hooves. Gerik was strapping his saddle bag onto the back of his dapple stallion, Shendi. Inside, Kiomo finished packing, and hefted his bag onto his shoulder to carry out to Hipono. He was almost to the door when he felt a hand on his elbow. He turned to find Miri, as he’d known he would. He set the bag down.

He slipped one arm around her waist, and caressed her face with the other hand. He raised her chin, and craned his neck, but she turned her face before he could kiss her.

“I wish you wouldn’t go, Kiomo.”

“You know I have to,” he murmured into her hair.

“But this is dangerous.”

He wrapped a second arm around her. “It’s always dangerous, love. Life is dangerous.”

“It’s different this time. It’s Gorden. He’ll want to cause pain in all of you. Especially the boys. Those two are like sons to me. They’re the children I never had. And what about the girl? She’s a dear, Kiomo, and so young. She’s liable to get hurt. And, well, Gerik won’t think twice about protecting himself, but what if Brae refuses to fight Gorden? Gorden would kill him without a second thought.”

“I won’t let Gorden hurt Andy or Gerik or Brae. But this is really Gerik’s mission, not mine. I only met Gorden once. And that was a long time ago. He was so young then, but he was so eager. And you’ve never met him – I don’t know why you’re so sure of what he’d do or not do. It’s Gerik who wants to do this. Braeden will help him, but he’ll be reluctant. I’ll do what I can, but this is their battle. And I’ll keep Andellyn out of it.”

She looked him in the eye. “Go then. The sooner you leave, the sooner you’ll return.”

He kissed her softly. “If we come back this way at all, we’ll be by to see you.”

~~~

The going was fast-paced, but Andellyn didn't mind. She was getting used to riding all day, although she still got sore from the saddle. Sir Gerik led the way, followed by Kiomo; Andy brought up the rear, with Finn trotting happily at Ebony's heels. In the evenings, as they made camp, Kiomo would discuss some magic theory, enough to make Andellyn believe that his teaching had begun. In truth, he was still waiting for his plan to play out. There was very little time for actual training in any case - Gerik kept them going from before dawn until after dusk.

During this first week, Andellyn became very conscious of the knight. He was, after all, very handsome, and the first young man she'd seen outside of the academy. Having just heard of the strange concept of love, she wondered what exactly love felt like. Could the fluttering, dizzy feeling she had when she looked at Gerik be love? She wasn't sure.

She also grew conscious of Finn. He seemed a nice animal, and part of her wanted to trust him and pet him. But the nightmares didn't stop. On the contrary, they worsened. So when Finn begged for scraps of her supper (when he'd just finished eating, no less) and curled up at her feet every night, she felt uneasy. She didn't voice her discomfort, though. It was best not to trouble Master Kiomo.

So they rode through the prairieland and up into the foothills of the Cairn mountains until they reached the hill that Gerik insisted was where they'd find Braeden. No one had bothered to explain to Andellyn who Braeden was or who Gorden was or what they were doing or why. She didn't mind. She was just there because Master Kiomo was there. She was merely a student who had to keep moving to keep learning.

They camped out at the foot of the hill at the end of the seventh day since leaving Miri's home. The next morning they rose, ate, and packed up camp the same as they had been all week. Gerik led them up the hill determinedly.

It was nearing noon when it became evident that Braeden was in fact there. They heard him long before they saw him. Or rather, they heard his harp. A sweet melody floated down from the crest of the hill, drawing the company onward and upward. They reached the summit at last, and found Braeden sitting cross-legged on a stone at the center of a grove of trees. His dark brown hair fell loose, tapering to the nape of his neck, and his eyes were closed. His simple harp rested on a thigh, and his cheek rested against the carved wood. He wore plain-looking traveling clothes, and appeared to be about Gerik's age, perhaps a little younger.

Gerik grinned and dismounted, and the others followed suit. Before the knight could call a greeting, Braeden stilled the strings with his palms, eyes still unopened.

"Brae, it's good to see you!" Gerik walked briskly to his friend.

"No," said Braeden simply. His voice was pleasant and rich, as a bard's ought to be. He kept his eyes shut.

"What do you mean, 'no?'"

Eyelids parted with a snap, revealing stone grey eyes. Braeden stood up, setting his harp on the rock as he did so, and rose, standing several inches above Gerik. He was lean and long. "I won't help you this time. Get yourself out of whatever scrape you’re in. I won't waste my time on a lost cause."

Gerik frowned slightly. "I wouldn't have come if it wasn't urgent."

"I wonder why you bother coming at all. Sometimes I wonder why you count me as your friend when you only acknowledge my existence when your hide is in danger of being tanned."

"Come on, Brae, you don't mean that!" Brae's face indicated otherwise. "Braeden, it's serious this time. It's Gorden."

"He's neither stupid enough nor hasty enough to act now. Try another one, Gerik."

"I didn't believe it at first either, but all signs say he is making his move." He was desperate now. "I need you for this, and you know it."

"It still hasn't a chance. You'd need powerful magic backing you up, Gerik. You know mine isn't strong enough." He folded his arms, a lump of immovable adamant.

"I've got Kiomo," he gestured. "See? I know what I'm doing. I've got it all planned out. I just need you."

Braeden turned to Kiomo and bowed. It was a different bow than Andy was used to. Instead of a feet-together full bend at the waist, Braeden stepped back with one foot as he bent, sweeping one hand back with it, and making a little flourish with the other. "Good health to you, Kiomo. How did he sucker you in?"

Kiomo grinned. "He saved my life once, if you'll believe it. I don't, myself."

"Who's the girl?" Braeden's voice held an odd tone. He was unsure whether Andellyn was there because of Kiomo (in which case he approved, because she would no doubt be a student) or because of Gerik (in which case he greatly dissapproved, because he knew Gerik).

"My Prentice," the Adept replied. "Her name is Andellyn."

Braeden bowed again. "Good health to you, Andellyn. I'm sorry you got stuck with Gerik. I do hope you don't get harmed in any way on this wild goose chase."

She bowed back, but was unsure of what to say, so she remained silent.

Gerik grabbed Braeden by the shoulder. "You have to come with us! You know what he'll do if you don't."

Braeden nodded. "I know. I've known since you said it was him. But I don't like it at all."

“We’re staying here for the rest of the day,” announced Kiomo. “Gerik, you’ve been pushing too hard. We need a break, and we’re no longer rushing to keep from missing Braeden. We stay here. Andy, take Finn and get firewood. Gerik, put up the horses. I must speak with our bard.”

So Andellyn and Gerik did as they were told, however reluctantly, and Kiomo settled himself on the ground cross-legged, with his staff across his knees. Braeden settled himself near Kiomo like a child eager for a story from his elder.

“It’s good to see you, boy. Miri sends her love. How have you been?”

Braeden grinned warmly. “I’ve been happy, which is one thing I trust the future will change, now that I’m mixed up with this. I’m glad to see a friendly face, though. And how is Miri?”

“Radiant and graceful as ever.”

“What exactly is going on, anyway? Do we know any specifics on Gorden – where exactly he’s been holing up all these years, what he’s got up his sleeve, when he plans to strike?

”Kiomo shrugged. “If Gerik knows anything like that, he’s not telling. You miss him, don’t you?”

Braeden looked up, following the flight of some birds. “I miss him more than I missed Gerik; that’s certain. I just keep seeing him in my mind like he was the last time I saw him – young and powerful and anxious. Thirteen years ago. The last time I got a letter from him was eight years ago, when he told me he’d finally gotten his greys and his staff. I was so proud of him. I was still a year away from earning my brooch and harp, but Gerik got his sword and sheild that year. I was so proud of both of them.

“I suppose if I’d looked closer, I could have figured out from the start where both were headed. But they were my role models, Kiomo. They were the closest friends I’d ever had. We were practically brothers! I only saw what I wanted to see, until we parted ways. Gerik hit puberty and discovered women. Gorden – calm, collected, quiet Gorden – learned magic and discovered power.” His expression was something like a frown, but it showed more pity than anything.

“And you discovered the joys of music and life.”

Braeden shook his head. “I didn’t discover anything, Kiomo. Those two found their callings after a few years, but I was always a bard at heart. I simply delved more deeply into what was already here.” He tapped his chest. His tone changed, as if he was lecturing himself. “I was sixteen when I became a bard. That’s a little on the young side for any of the three High Classes, especially for bards. There’s extensive knowledge of music and history and legend required. But it was in my blood." He blinked, and he was talking to Kiomo again. "Of course, the others were a bit young, too. Gerik was seventeen, and Gorden twenty. And Gorden started learning later than most Adepts, too. He had such power, Kiomo. The Adept who first taught him said he could rival you!”

Kiomo smiled. “I’ve heard that said of another.”

The bard knitted his brow, curious. “Who?”

Kiomo turned at the sound of a playful bark. Andy was all but dropping the armful of wood she held in tow each time Finn barked. She didn’t seem to understand that he just wanted to play. He was only a puppy after all. Kiomo jerked his head at the girl. “Andy.”

Braeden half-closed his eyes for a moment. “I don’t sense a thing. Mind you, my magic has never been strong, but I ought to be able to feel that much power.”

Kiomo chuckled. “Great power, like mine, and Gorden’s, and Andellyn’s is a curse just as much as a blessing. Andy could surpass me; I’m sure of it. But she’s been afraid of her power for years. It’s locked away inside her. Undetectable, but also unusable. I’ve got a plan to crack her shell, but it will take time. And then I’ll have to teach her control in a hurry, or she’ll kill us all.” He looked back at Braeden, but the young man was still intently watching the prentice. “Today is her eighteenth birthday, if I haven’t lost count of days. That’s one reason I decided we’d rest here the second half of the day. I’m glad I got her out of the Academy before she turned eighteen. It’s an important day for anyone, but she wouldn’t have gotten any sort of celebration there. I’d hoped we could celebrate here, though.” There was a hint of a question in the last sentence.

Braeden nodded, eyes still fixed on the girl. “Yes, I’ll play something. But there must be gifts, as well. Do you have gifts?” He looked back at the Adept.

“I gave her a knife already. I thought she should have at least a small blade, but I still have a gift for her from Miri that she doesn’t know about. Gerik does, too.”

“All right. I’ll think of something to give her, Kiomo.”

Gerik had long since finished putting up the horses and had left the camp to hunt some supper, and Andellyn was finishing with the wood. She was unsure of what to do, but Kiomo beckoned her over to where he sat with Braeden. She obeyed, of course.

“Have a seat, Andy.” She did. “You haven’t properly met Braeden. He is a friend of Gerik’s, Miri’s, and mine. And he’s a bard.”

She nodded. “Hello, Bard Braeden.”

He was going to insist that she drop the title, but a glance from Kiomo told him not to argue with her training at this point. “It’s nice to meet you, Andellyn.”

The conversation continued for a few more moments, but it was strained and formal. It wasn’t long before Kiomo told her to go entertain Finn. The old man turned to the young. “What do you think?”

“She has an amazing tonal quality in her voice,” he commented. “I want to hear her sing.”

Kiomo cracked a grin. Typical bard. “They hardly ever speak at the Academy. Until she came with me, she probably spoke once or twice a month, if that. It gives them all that lilt. Most of them lose it after they get their greys. I highly doubt she’s ever sung before, but if you want her to, convince her to try her hand at it.”

~~~

Kiomo cooked their supper that night. He roasted two hares and a pheasant, which Gerik had caught. Before he served the food however, he turned to Andellyn. “Andy, do you know what day it is?”

She thought about it. “The month is Parillo, I think. But I am unsure of the date.”

The old man feigned annoyance. “No, silly girl. It’s your birthday! Eighteen years ago, this very day, you came into this world. So we celebrate.”

They feasted first, and although Andellyn thought the food was delicious, Gerik complained that Kiomo didn’t season it.

“Gerik, my boy, if you want to taste sage or thyme, go pick some and eat it raw. I was under the impression that we wanted meat for supper.”

Braeden grinned and raised his wooden cup. “Here, here! That’s a gem, Kiomo.”

As they finished the meal, Finn approached, dropped something at Andellyn’s feet and took the portion of the meal that Kiomo had left for him. Andy looked at the dropped object. It was some kind of rodent.

“Finn is exaclty right,” said Kiomo. “It’s time for gifts. Don’t gape at it like that, Andy; its just a dead gopher.” He turned to the others. “Well, the dog’s gone first. Who’s next?”

“Might as well be me,” said Gerik. He stepped forward and handed Andellyn a small furry object on a chain. On closer examination, she discovered that it was a foot. “It’s good luck,” he explained.

She managed a weak thank you as her heart beat like a wild bird trapped in her ribcage, trying to get out. Gerik didn’t seem to notice her thanks, much less her flustered behavior.

Braeden came next, offering a necklace. It was a slim silver chain, bearing a black onyx talisman that was carved to resemble a sun or a star. The bard who had taught him had suggested he buy it long ago; it was a protective talisman, but he never wore it. He could look out for himself, and magical safety came with inconveniences. It would be far more useful for her, at least until she learned to protect herself. “It will keep you safe from harmful magic. Hopefully you won’t need it, but you never know - especially when you associate with men like Gerik and Kiomo. It’s a good thing to have.”

Although she was slightly awed by the finery, she had been mored awed by Gerik, and found it much easier to murmur her thanks. He bowed, smiled, and stepped aside.

Kiomo looked pensive. “Let’s see, a knife, a gopher, a rabbit’s foot, and a Black Sun; what else could a young lady need? Well, for some reason Miri thought you’d need this.” He produced a bracelet of green glass beads from a pocket.

Andellyn eagerly accepted and studied this new gift. It caught the light from the fire and glimmered softly in the flickering glow. She’d never seen an object so simple – yet so beautiful. “Oh, I wish Miss Kettlewash was here so I could thank her!”

Kiomo grinned. “Don’t worry, Andy. You’ll see her again. We may send her a letter from the next town we get to.” He glanced at Braeden. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Brae nodded. He was holding his harp now, checking the tuning. Satisfied, he turned to the others. “If you’ll all take a seat, please.” They sat, Andellyn on the rock where they’d first found the bard, and the others on the ground.

Braeden’s fingers rippled over the strings, bringing forth a graceful, flowing melody. After a moment, he opened his mouth, and an amazing sound rose from him. Braeden had a very expressive, rich, wonderful tenor voice. He sang for them traditional songs for such an occaision. First “Turning of the Seasons”, then “The Princess Wakes”, and finally “Love’s Sweet Face.” They applauded, and Gerik insisted they have another song, but Braeden declined.
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