Chapter One: Paulette Gets Her Magic
Magics in and magics out, what is all the fuss about?
Kingdom of Bleuve, River camp, Three Weeks Before Mitte Moon
In the chilly night, Paulette huddled over the fire and rubbed her hands. They shook. She clamped tight her jaw. No more weakness. She had to have fighting magics. She had to be able to defend herself, like her friends could.
Henrietta had her military skills, Franc too. Jaxter had his quarterstaff. What did she have? Her puny fire magic could barely create a diversion in the middle of a fight.
She threw more fire bane herbs onto the near-dead coals. Mistress Jenny would not approve of what she was about to do. Mistress Jenny wasn’t here, on the trail beside a Kingdom of Bleuve forest, confronted with mad knights who wanted to kill them for no reason.
She glanced over her shoulder. Henrietta slept, facing the river. Jaxter slept in his bedroll not far from the fire, snoring softly. Franc stood watch over his fallen—what? Companions? No, betrayers—those knights of Oro who had charged up the riverbank toward them with murder in their eyes.
Paulette shivered and hunched over her work. The night pressed in cold all around like a wet blanket. She wished she could burn it all down and gulped back her tears. She wouldn’t become a powerful witch with tears but with action.
“I call forth the ancient magic power of fire from the depths of the earth, from the five corners of the known kingdoms, from the stars above,” Paulette chanted. “Come to me. I am willing to pay the price.”
Should she prick her finger and give up a drop of blood to symbolize the price? She felt about for a twig or sharp stone, but found nothing. Her cooking knives were wrapped in her pack, out of reach.
The wind picked up. A whooshing assaulted her ears. She covered them and squeezed shut her eyes against the debris that kicked up. A glow colored her eyelids orange. She cracked open her eyes and sucked in a breath at the vision before her.
A flame jumped and wavered beside the dead coals, not rooted in anything, but floating above the ground, free. Inside the flame the face of an ancient woman appeared, gnarled like the oldest trees in the forest.
“Do you really want to pay that price, my child?” a sandpapery voice hissed.
Paulette gulped and nodded at the ancient witch she’d summoned. The price was life force. At fourteen suns, she could afford it. She’d gladly shorten her life for a few suns for the ability to bravely fight with fire powers.
“Speak,” the woman said, her voice at once grating and commanding. “Are you certain this is what you want?” The ancient witch’s fire threw off no heat as it flickered and danced, independent of the frigid winter wind.
“I-I do.” Paulette cleared the lump in her throat, clenched her hands to stop their shaking, and said again, “I am willing to pay the price.”
“You know the price,” the ancient witch insisted.
“Yes, yes.” Paulette sobbed, her tears overtaking her in a flash. She hunched over the embers in the campfire, the flames suddenly hot and glowing.
“Be certain, child. The price of the fire rage is very high. Few seek it.”
A lightning bolt shot up from the ground.
Paulette gasped at the brightness, and to keep from jumping in fright, clutched her arms around her bent knees. “I know. But I need it!”
She couldn’t hide the desperation and agony in her voice. There was no shame in asking for what you wanted and for being willing to pay the price, whatever it was. She needed to be able to protect herself.
The ancient witch shimmered and increased in size, taking up the entire camp. The weight of the witch’s presence surrounded Paulette and squeezed her chest and back. She could only take shallow breaths and shut her eyes against the brightness to no avail. The red of the fire burned behind her eyelids.
“Fire rage for a girl, who must give up her pearl,” the great witch’s voice screeched.
“What pearl?” Paulette blurted, eyes clamped shut. Was that different from the price?
“It is never that simple,” the witch whispered.
Paulette opened her eyes. She wanted to protest—magics could be that simple.
The ancient fire witch grinned at her, her fiery hair whipping around, as if in a wild windstorm. Paulette gulped and threw the rosemary herb mixture on the fire to end the ritual.
The great whooshing swelled to a scathing whine and then dropped to nothing. The witch and her overpowering glow vanished.
The forest was silent, the air cold. Paulette was still a lowly witch’s apprentice. She didn’t feel any different, except she was very, very tired. Had she really paid the price for the most powerful fire magics there was?
The next day, Paulette led her horse on the narrow trail, the snow a sprinkling on the ground, pretty as lace. It was Jaxter’s turn to ride her mare. The grey day was fresh and smelled of more snow. They were both behind Henrietta in single file, with Franc striding behind their small group. Henrietta led her horse. The bound and gagged prisoner, the remaining Oro knight, flopped a bit on the back of Henrietta’s horse.
Jaxter sang, “On the road again.”
“I know that song.” Paulette smiled.
Jaxter chuckled. “Yes? I just made it up.”
Paulette laughed, joy bubbling out. “Oh, I’m so happy! I’m almost home!” The reins jingled in her hands. Last night’s ritual bloomed as a vivid memory, lodged in her heart like a coming spring flower. She was going home. She had her powerful fire magics. And a pleasant storyteller to chat with. She smiled. What a homecoming feast they would have.
A quarter day later of travelling the narrow forest trail, the garrison longhouse came into view at the top of a small rise. Paulette clapped her hands as her horse pranced. She was now riding, and Jaxter walking beside her. “Laonne—my village, my home—it’s just beyond the ridge!”
She was returning home after seven suns, almost away as long as Jaxter had been away from his home—ten suns. She’d stay with her family for the winter and return to Mistress Jenny to resume her witch training in the spring.
“Then I guess this is goodbye,” Henrietta said.
“I suppose so. My parents will want to meet all of you. The rest of the family is too far away to come for the festivities. Well, not family exactly, but villagers who have known me all my life. Mama and Papa didn’t know exactly I’d be coming home, but I’m sure they can take one evening to still the mill.” She chuckled at her rhyme and eyed Henrietta, who was frowning.
“You must come, Henri. My parents will want to meet you. They will fill your food sack for your journey ahead, and you must rest at our house in Laonne.” She grinned. That ought to make the warrior happy since she was always thinking with her stomach. “I’m sure they will prepare a feast in my return. Actually, they said they would when I saw them at the last feast day, when they came to visit.” She took a breath and turned to glance at Jaxter.
“And they will need a storyteller at the feast,” Paulette said softly, her heart thumping.
They halted ten paces from the garrison entrance. Paulette eyed Franc and spoke softly, “Franc, my parents will thank you, too.”
A guard in a pristine blue uniform looked on, impassive, as if they weren’t having a conversation in front of him.
Franc nodded, solemn. She nodded back in thanks.
Paulette turned to the guard, broke into a huge smile, and squealed. “Is it? It is!” She dismounted her horse with a quick, graceful leap and sprinted to the young soldier. “Pierre, is that you?”
The young man blushed, looking exactly like the shy boy she remembered from their hide-and-seek games in Laonne. Then he went white and stilled. He opened his mouth and shut it, like a river fish out of the water.
“Pierre, what’s wrong? Are you feeling well?” She reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Paulette, the miller’s daughter,” the young man said and blinked, as if seeing her for the first time. Then he stood straight, out of Paulette’s reach. He eyed Franc and the prisoner hanging over Henrietta’s horse’s back.
“This is too much,” said Henrietta under her breath. “Homecomings.” Louder, she said, “Soldier, what’s your rank?” She strode forward, the horse and captive in Franc’s hands.
The guard shifted his gaze back to Henrietta then Paulette. “Second lieutenant, Fourth Regiment of Bleuve.”
“Under whose command?” Henrietta shouted.
“Capitaine Geoffrey of the Laonne Village Garrison.”
“I need to speak with him,” Henrietta said. “Our—the prisoner must be treated accordingly.”
“He is not here.”
“Then his second in command.”
“I will summon him for you, but Paulette … ” Pierre faltered and looked again like the shy boy Paulette used to know. He took a deep breath and touched Paulette’s shoulder. “I am deeply sorry, Paulette. But there’s been a terrible accident at the mill.”
“What? Where’s Papa? Mama?” Her voice rose to a hysterical pitch and she clutched at her throat.
“I am deeply sorry,” Pierre said again, his voice gravely.
Suddenly Henrietta was beside her. Jaxter stood at her other side, his shoulder against hers.
“There was an accident,” Pierre said in a whisper. “A very strange accident. They don’t know what happened. Your parents—I am so very sorry. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you. I’m so sorry—”
“Stop saying that and tell us what happened, soldier,” Henrietta snapped.
“Her parents—” The guard eyed Henrietta. He dropped his shaking hand from Paulette’s shoulder and faced her, holding her gaze, no longer shy, but being the soldier he was now. Paulette couldn’t move. She was frozen as a lake in winter. “Your parents died in a strange fire last night at the mill.”
Paulette gasped, heat flooding her chest, arms, and legs. “What? How?”
The guard lowered his voice. “Some say it was dark magics.”
Paulette shivered, chilled yet hot. “No, it couldn’t be. This can’t be the price,” she whispered. Seeing no one and nothing, she clutched her horse’s mane and mounted the mare, urging her over the ridge toward her village. She had to see for herself. Her parents couldn’t be dead.
In the space of a few breaths, Paulette’s mare had brought her up and over the ridge. There was the mill at the edge of town, straddling the waterway. Or what was left of it. The mill was a mottled husk of itself, all blackened and broken walls. Smoke curled up into the grey, grey sky.
“No!” she screamed as she nudged the mare into full speed.
A big bear of a man rushed to her as she neared the bridge. He managed to grab the reins and stop the mare. Paulette couldn’t see who it was through her sobs and yells of denial.
“I’m sorry, Paulette. They’re gone. It was so sudden. In the middle of the night. We’ve only now managed to put out the fire.”
Paulette slipped from her horse and attempted to cross the bridge. The man grabbed her arms. She recognized him now. The village elder.
“You can’t—” He gulped at her glare, face as pale as the grey sky.
“I have to see them.”
Then he gripped her tighter and lowered his voice. “They’re gone, Paulette dear. There is nothing you can do for them now.”
She clenched her fists. “Nothing I can do?”
The elder took a step back, fear in his gaze.
Hooves pounded behind her, up the hill. Jaxter had taken a horse to follow her, his elbows out as he gripped the reins. She’d have laughed if she weren’t so upset.
“I have to see them, Elder Alderon.” His name finally came to her.
Without waiting for his reply, she twisted out of his grip and mounted her mare. The horse’s hooves clattered across the wooden bridge. In two breaths, she was in the mill that had also been her home. At the hearth lay two forms covered in blankets.
Villagers stared at her.
“What?” she shouted, grief making her feel outrageous, at once large and small, defeated and mad with pain.
A matron smiled sadly. “You can come stay with me, Paulette.”
Paulette ignored her, the woman’s offer not making sense. She dismounted the mare and rushed to her parents.
“No,” the matron said, reaching for Paulette’s arm.
Paulette brushed her off and knelt beside one and then the other, holding her breath as she lifted the blankets.
Her mother’s metal knitting needles lay atop the blackened body, melted but recognizable. Paulette gasped, breath hard to come by, her father’s misshapen pipe somehow still recognizable beside his unrecognizable body.
Without seeing the villagers who had to be there, Paulette vaulted to the back of her mare and rushed out of the soot and grey and ragged structure that had been her parents’ home and livelihood, and her home, too.
She panted. Her arms and hands tingled. She’d caused this. The life force she thought she’d exchanged had not been her own, but her parents’. How could she have known? Maybe that had been the pearl. No matter. What mattered was the fire rising within her. And she knew just who to direct it to.
Jaxter was slipping awkwardly off his horse on the other side of the bridge. She galloped past him and back over the ridge, as fast as the mare could go. Quick as a hare, she leapt from the horse and sprinted over to the prisoner. Jaxter followed, riding hard behind her.
Henrietta broke into a run toward her and the prisoner.
Paulette panted hard, her face hot. She raised her hands, palms facing the man on the ground, her arms straightened and locked. A curse, ugly and primal, burst out of her and startled the horses. A flash jumped from her hands and arced to the prisoner, and out came the most delicious, all-consuming rage.
Henrietta yelled. “No!”
Flames crackled and shot purple and orange, green and red. Thunder boomed. Daylight disappeared. The prisoner screamed. A horrible acrid smell rose up.
Jaxter cried, “Paulette! No!”
At the same moment, a captain shouted. But his words were incomprehensible over the sound of the wind.
Henrietta coughed. “Girl, what have you done?”
Her arms still out and shooting flames, Paulette turned to Henrietta. Henrietta sidestepped the flames.
Cold and hot, feverish, all-powerful—that was how it felt to shoot fire out of her hands at the one responsible. “That will teach them to never attack me ever again!” Paulette turned back to the body on the ground.
But Henrietta yanked her by the elbows, gripping her arms behind her back and pulled her away. “Stop! He’s dead! You killed him!”
The flames stopped. Paulette struggled against Henrietta’s hold. For a moment, everything was quiet, even the wind. Snow swirled gently down. No one spoke. Then a bitter wind gusted, twirling leaves and debris. More thunder boomed and lightning cracked simultaneously. The clouds spilled and icy rain doused the smoldering body. In seconds Paulette was soaked, but she didn’t feel it.
“How could you?” Jaxter’s tears mingled with the rain. His voice was ragged. His shoulders shook. His bouncy blond curls had been flattened by the rain.
Paulette strained to break free of Henrietta’s hold. “Don’t you see? I had to!”
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