Fantasy/Romance Several chapters. Work in progress. New file started for part 2.
|This is the first draft of a work in progress and still a bit rough. Please bear with any inconsistencies you may see as you read through.
At the sound of the cock crowing in the inn courtyard below, Misty sat up with a start. She tossed aside the threadbare blanket and hurriedly dressed in her best gown, one of her cousin Mona's old cast offs. It was far too big for her tiny frame, but at least it was not stained and falling to pieces like her work gown.
She ruthlessly twisted her long, wildly curling black hair into a tight bun, stabbing in dozens of pins to hold it firmly in place. Holding up a tiny silver hand mirror, her only legacy from her mother, she checked for any escaping stray curls, and made doubly sure that her sharply pointed ears were hidden. Those, and her sapphire eyes, were the unwanted legacy of her father. She needed to look restrained and demure, and most definitely purely human, if she was to be a fitting applicant to the Servant's Guild. She must remember to keep her eyes lowered and those ears hidden.
Today was the Great Roscetta Guild Faire. It was her last chance to earn a spot in a guild and to escape from a future of unpaid servitude in her Uncle Gossett's inn. She lived on their charity, as she was often reminded. Her father had passed through the inn some seventeen years earlier and bespelled and bedded the owner's pretty young daughter. He'd gone on his way, unaware and uncaring that he had planted the seed of that young girl's death, for the birth of a mage's child was death for a human woman.
Not every family would be willing to take in a bastard girlchild, fathered by some weirdling mage, she had been told for years. In payment for her mother's sins, she had spent her life as a slave to her uncle and his family, doing the meanest drudgework and hardest chores, and eating scraps that weren't fit for the dogs. This year was going to be the last, she swore it!
Misty tucked the mirror into the small bundle of belongings she had packed. Not much, just the silver mirror and comb, her work dress, a few pretty stones, her needles and thread, and a stale heel of bread for her noon meal. Those, and the clothes on her back, were all she had to show for seventeen years of drudgery.
She slipped quietly down the stairs, and then paused, seeing her cousin Jack sprawled in a chair at the bottom. His eyes were closed and he was snoring loudly. It looked like her nastiest cousin had drawn the short straw this year and was set to guard duty. They might actually have to pay for a guild servant if they lost Misty's free labor. Or worse yet, one of her cousins might have to do a little work.
She had hoped not to have to use her little talent, although she had been practicing all year just for this moment. The last thing she needed today was one of her headaches. There was no hope for it though. Closing her eyes, she concentrated, feeling the headache begin to build behind her eyes. Not here, silent, still, not here, she thought.
She eased her way down the rickety stair. It creaked loudly and Jack sat up, looking about blearily.
You see nothing, I am not here, she thought frantically. The pain in her head was near blinding now.
He settled back in the chair, alert now. She walked carefully past him and out the door to freedom. She just barely managed to hold the magic until she reached a nearby alley. She dropped to her knees and retched from the pain. When using magic, an empty stomach can be a good thing, she thought ruefully, staggering to her feet. Straightening her gown, she set off to enter herself in the guild biddings.
Misty was caught up in the steady flow of people heading towards the castle courtyard of the baron of Tiassa. It was early yet and most were street vendors and cookcarts, jostling for the best positions lining the edges of the thoroughfare leading to the castle. They were all there to take advantage of the free-flowing gold during the biggest yearly event in Roscetta, if not the whole kingdom. Even the whispered talk of renewed border clashes with Goranga had not dampened the festive spirit of the town.
Only contenders for guild positions and the guild representatives were allowed in the courtyard proper. She paused before the great bronze gates. This was it; no turning back now. No matter what happened, by entering here she was signing her next seven years of service to whatever stranger bid the highest. And if no one bid, she would be sent off to the Night Guild, home of beggars, whores, and, less officially, thieves and assassins.
A large, age-darkened oak barrel stood before the gate. At her gesture, the clerk tending it reached in, pulled out a random lot number, and handed it to Misty. She sighed when she looked at it--a high number. She was in for a very long day.
But even so, she smiled as she entered the courtyard. The odds were stacked in her favor. Her best friend, Kris, had been bought by the Servant's Guild last year and now worked in the castle kitchens. Kris' mother was head cook there and had asked the guild bidder to purchase Mistral for a place in the scullery. Castle servants were well treated and respected, even scullery maids, and she'd be able to share a room with Kris. It may not be her dream future, but it was comfortable and she could be happy there.
Misty joined the few other applicants in line and settled in to wait for the official bidding to begin at noon. More hopeful young people were flooding into the courtyard. She watched wistfully as they kissed and hugged their parents goodbye at the gates. They formed a loose circle around an ancient oak platform with a scarred pole in its center thrusting skyward. The setting betrayed its origin as a slave auction. In the olden days, when Roscetta was warring with its neighbor Goranga, prisoners had been brought to the small Roscetta border town of Tiassa. There they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Some enlightened monarch in the distant past had outlawed slavery, but the tradition continued in this more benign form, and had grown until the entire nation's guilds came to Tiassa to pick their apprentices.
As the sun rose higher, a few of the Guild bidders entered the gates and began circulating through the courtyard, looking over the crowd of mostly young children. Officially, the bidding was open to children age nine to eighteen, but nearly all the candidates were much younger than Misty.
Soon Drusilla, a gaunt, elderly woman who was the senior bidder from the Servant's Guild, approached Misty and looked her over with sharp eyes. Misty hurriedly tucked her escaping curls back into her bun.
"Well, girl, you are a little old to be starting out, but you look like a good child, and Kris speaks well of you. I do believe you will do. You may count on a bid from me, come noontime." She nodded sharply and turned away.
Misty heaved a sigh of relief and almost danced in her place. Yes! Her future was secure. She would never, ever live on her uncle's charity again!
She was still smiling broadly as Gorlick, the Night Guild bidder paced down the line, and stopped before her. Her smile froze and she dropped her eyes.
A dimpled smile broke his plump face, very at odds with his cold, cold eyes. "Such a beautiful smile you have there, sweet child. And such lovely hair. You are a bit older than the others like to bid on," he reached out and toyed with one of her curls that had escaped the pins yet again, "but you are just perfect for the Night."
She jerked backwards out of his reach and glared. "I have a place ready for me, vulture," she hissed.
"And spirited too! I saw Drusilla look you over. You would be wasted on the Servant's guild, all the petty lordlings getting for free what I could have them pay for. You would do very well for me and my guild, I think." He smiled again and Misty watched him uneasily as he joined the crowd of other bidders.
At noon, the guards began pushing the great gates closed so bidding could commence. Suddenly, they froze solid and would not move an inch. The noise of the courtyard dropped into silence as everyone stopped and stared at the gates in bewilderment.
A stranger stepped through the rigid gates and into the courtyard. "Hold please, my good men and women! I was just running a tad late; the war, you know. It does cause such inconvenient delays in one's plans." He waved his hand and the gates slammed shut behind him, sending the guards staggering off balance.
Misty's eyes were drawn to him, as were everyone's. Not so much for his clothing, which was outlandish, but because of what those garish purple and gold robes signified. A bidder from the Mage Guild had not been in Roscetta in many years. Although she supposed, even the long-lived mages must take apprentices some time, especially if war was truly coming.
"Again, I humbly beg your pardon, kind fellow masters, but I wish a brief moment to review these eager candidates." He smiled lazily at his peers and began meandering down the line. No one said a word. The power of a true mage made Misty's little vanishing trick look like child's play. No one in their right mind ever crossed a mage, even if he was breaking a few hundred years of tradition.
Misty watched from the corner of her eye as he drew nearer. The pointed ears peeking out of his thick, dark, curling hair, his slight stature, and his brilliant jade green eyes all betrayed his heritage as a mixed blood mage. He looked not a day over twenty-five, although with mages, age was very hard to judge. Despite the truly hideous robe, he was quite handsome, she thought.
Those gemlike eyes seemed to pierce into her very heart as he stopped in front of her. She froze, captured by that gaze, then blushed to be caught staring.
"Yes, the robes ARE a bit much, but see if you can convince the council to change tradition just so a fellow can be a little more fashionable... I did try..." he sighed, the sharp gaze swiftly gone and replaced by a vague look and a dreamy smile.
As she stood looking at him in speechless astonishment he gave her a wink, and tugged her wayward curl.
"No child, I can't read your mind, but I did see that look you gave me. These robes are a terrible trial to me. Very pleased, I am, to meet someone who has the good taste to abhor them as much as I do. Might I have your name?"
"Mistral, Mistral Innsdottir," she stammered out.
"Well, Mistral Innsdottir, perhaps I will see more of you later." His fingers dropped her curl and traced the curve of her cheek briefly before he turned away and continued down the line.
Mistral gazed after him, still slightly off balance from the encounter. Her cheek burned where his fingers had brushed against it. What a very odd man... Her eyes followed him until he finally joined his fellow bidders and waved at the auctioneer to begin the bidding.
The first lot was called and a sturdy young boy of nine climbed the steps to the platform. The bidding was spirited as the Farm, Smith, and Mason Guilds shouted bids, topping each other several times. The Smith Guild finally outbid the others. The boy glowed with pride when he took his place next to his new master. A fine start to the bidding, two silvers and eight coppers would go to swell the Baron's treasury.
Misty settled in for the long wait until her number was called, taking a mug of water from the water carriers serving the crowds and nibbling on the bit of bread from her pack.
She looked wistfully at the meal that the skinny blonde lad next to her had spread out before him. Two meat pies, a red apple, a hunk of cheese, and an iced cake. Her stomach rumbled loudly and he glanced over at her and caught her look.
"That all you got to eat? You'll be starved by the end of the day!" He shook his head and gave her the apple. "Take this, Mum says they're good for me, but I can't stand 'em! Anyways I been dying to ask ya what the Archmage said to you! He touched you! Weren't you scared he'd put a hex on you? Wonder what he's doing here!" he chattered, "Oh! and my name's Jess, my da owns a farm near the Academy and I am sick of pulling weeds and digging dirt! What's your name?" He paused for breathe and passed her a meat pie. "Take this too!
"I'm Misty, and I can't take all your food!" she protested and tried to hand it back. "and that can't possibly be the Archmage! The Archmage is over 300 years old and a pure blood mage!"
Jess dropped the pie back in her hand, "Keep it! All I really want is the cake and anyways my lot is up soon. And that WAS the Archmage! Didn't the news reach here yet? The old archmage dropped dead after helping in some border battle! Too old to focus the powers anymore and he just keeled over! This new guy's young, and a halfie to boot, and a lot of people are mad he got the job. He's supposed to be the strongest mage in years. No one else's even close. You're lucky you didn't go poof, up in smoke, when he touched you!"
A hysterical wail from the platform caught their attention, as a raggedly dressed teen girl was pulled off by the guards and led over to join the growing crowd of sullen teens at Gorlick's side. Most masters preferred the younger candidates who had fewer bad habits to unlearn, so many older children fell to him.
Gorlick turned his head and stared at Misty. She felt a chill go down her spine as he caught her eyes. He knew she had a bid. His interest should have ended there! Surely he would never actually bid on her? She cursed her sharp tongue. If she had remained silent and passive, he would not have looked at her twice! If he truly chose to bid, she was lost. The amassed wealth of the Night Guild was legendary. Her stomach knotted, and suddenly she wished she had not eaten so much.
Oblivious to her distress, Jess chattered on. "Oh! Bad luck for her, I hope I don't end up with no bids and go to Greasy Gorlick! Being a thief might be fun though! Maybe the Archmage will bid on me and I can go off to learn to throw fireballs! But I really want to be a soldier!" Jess sprang to his feet and danced about making pretend sword thrusts.
"My lot's next. Wish me luck!" Jess crammed the whole cake in his mouth and took off for the bidding platform in a whirl of skinny arms and legs.
His antics dispelled her unease, and Misty could not help but laugh as Jess announced loudly to the auctioneer that he wanted to be a soldier, and please, sir, anything but a farmer! The bidder for the Mercenaries' Guild must have liked his spirit because the lad got his wish. Jess turned to wave at her and shouted, "Good luck!" as he vanished into the crowd.
The day stretched on and the crowds thinned as Bidders reached their quotas and left with their chosen apprentices. Only a few bidders were still left so late in the day. Drusilla was still there, and Gorlick of course, and a few of the workmen's guilds who were still hoping for children with special skills. The Archmage was restlessly wandering about the court. He alone had made no bids. As she watched, a page came hurriedly out of the castle and led him away.
She sighed--did she really think he was waiting for her? She could barely hold a spell for a few seconds without retching from pain! He must have just been passing time by watching the bidding while awaiting his audience with Baron Powell.
The sun dipped lower in the sky. The front gate had been cast open, allowing groups of guildmasters and their new apprentices to pass through. Finally, her lot number was due to be called next. She checked her appearance in the mirror quickly. Ears covered; eyes lowered; hair subdued. The sturdy lad before her was quickly bid and won by the Mercenary Bidder. She spotted Jess peeking out at her from the group of new Mercenary students. He grinned and waved at her as she mounted the platform.
"How much are we bid for this pretty young woman? She looks like a fine, healthy worker!" the auctioneer began his spiel.
Drusilla stepped forward, raising her hand to signal the auctioneer. "Two coppers!" Misty smiled, turning towards Drusilla.
"Any other offers?" called the auctioneer.
"One silver for a fine investment. I am tired of taking the leavings today. I like her spirit... I will enjoy breaking it." came the oily voice of Gorlick from behind her.
Her heart dropped like a stone as her worst fears came true. One silver! She looked pleadingly at Drusilla.
"One silver, one copper," countered Drusilla, hesitantly.
"Oh let's just end this farce," Gorlick laughed, "Three silvers."
Drusilla looked pityingly at Misty, shook her head, and stepped back. "I am so sorry, child, too rich for me."
Gorlick mounted the platform, tossed three silver coins at the auctioneer, and grabbed Misty's wrist in a cruel grip. "Come along girl. I am eager to begin your training."
Before he could take another step, the air flickered before them, and the Archmage appeared.
"Ah, I see I was almost too late again. I really must work on my punctuality." He tossed a bag of clinking coins to the auctioneer, who opened it to reveal the glint of gold.
"This should cover the cost of the girl. Barbaric really, this custom of selling children, but when in Roscetta, one must, I suppose, do as the Roscettans do."
He turned to Gorlick and smiled lazily. "And now my friend, if you would kindly remove your hands from my hmm... property."
Gorlick's grip tightened and Misty winced. "The bidding was over. You were too late!" he snarled.
"No you are quite wrong on that count," the mage's eyes sharpened and a dangerous note crept into his languid voice. He raised a hand and lightening played across his fingertips. "Perhaps you need a little encouragement? Release her NOW."
As Gorlick froze at the sight of the glittering sparks, Misty saw her chance and yanked free of his grasp. The mage flicked his fingertips absently and a bolt crackled at Gorlick's feet. The Night Bidder stumbled back, babbling in terror, then fled into the stunned crowd.
The Archmage turned toward Misty, that strange intensity still in his eyes. "Now, little one, you are mine."
So quickly that she almost thought she had imagined it, the dangerous spark in his eyes was gone, lazily hooded. Back was the slightly mocking smile. He spun about to face the crowd and bowed. "I hope you have enjoyed this bit of entertainment as much as I enjoyed providing it. I hope I have not too badly disrupted your little tradition. Do please continue." Turning to Misty, "And now what do I do with you, I wonder? Come along and I will have a servant find a room for you at least. I must get back to the Baron. He has probably had an apoplexy over my disappearance in the middle of such a touchy discussion, poor fellow."
He sprang down from the platform and extended a hand to help her descend. She hesitated briefly, and to her shock thought she saw a quick flash of hurt in his face, as his hand withdrew slightly. She reached out and grabbed it firmly and allowed him to lead her to the corner of the courtyard. There were many whispers as they passed and she flushed slightly.
She tugged him to a stop, and he turned to look at her quizzically.
She burst out, "I just want to thank you very much for bidding on me. I could not have stood being Gorlick's apprentice. I don't know how to thank you, but whatever you need done I will do it... I can clean and cook, sew, run your kitchens or stables. Anything you need! I owe you my life!"
"Such touching melodrama, but save your thanks, child. We halfies need to watch out for each other." He reached out and gently touched the tip of her ear where it had managed to peek out though her hair, despite her earlier care. Warmth spread from his touch. She flushed and drew in a sharp breath as her eyes flew up and met his gently amused ones. Their eyes locked and Misty felt as though she were sinking into a warm pool of emerald light. She leaned closer... And felt a cold shock as he pulled abruptly away, dropping her hand. She barely heard him whisper just under his breath "You old fool!"
In a harsh, abrupt voice he shouted at the nearest footman. "You there, find my apprentice a room. I have important business to attend to." He spun on his heel and strode off into the castle.