"Miss Aralyn! Miss Aralyn!"
Aralyn turned around from saddling up her horse. A grizzled old man was loping towards her, remarkably spry in his old age.
"Miss Aralyn! Ye wouldn' leave wit'out sayin' goodbye to yer old teacher, would ye?"
Aralyn scowled, mock anger in her voice. "Of course I wouldn't, Jefe. And how many times have I told you to call me Aralyn?"
Jefe stopped in front of Aralyn, looking closely at her. Aralyn's swordplay teacher was quite close to her, as she reminded him of his daughter. His daughter had been killed when she was only six, by invaders from the southern tribes of Arnia. Jefe was not bitter over her death, but he had grieved for many years.
Aralyn tried to stop the tears slipping down her cheeks. She wasn't afraid of Death, but what would happen if she died also? She wasn't sure Jefe would stand losing his surrogate daughter.
"If I return-" Aralyn started.
"When ye return," Jefe interrupted. "O' course ye'll return."
Aralyn managed a small smile. "You're right. I'll return."
Jefe held out a long package. "Here, this is for ye."
"Your old sword! You can't-"
"O' course I can! It's mine, ain't it?" Jefe retorted.
"Yes…" Aralyn reluctantly agreed. She grasped the package, ripping off the string and brown paper that enclosed it. Inside lay a sword, sheathed in black leather. Aralyn drew the sword, sunlight flickering on the cold steel. It was plain but well-made, and deadly.
"Thank you ever so much," she whispered, awed by the gesture.
Jefe swept her up in a tight embrace, tight enough to make her squeak slightly in protest. "I'll miss ye," he said to her. "Don't ferget the tricks yer old teacher taught ye."
"I won't," Aralyn assured him. "Don't worry."
"An' don't let that brother o' yourn get inta trouble." This was evidently Jefe's parting remark, for he turned around and trotted back to his hut.
"I won't," whispered Aralyn, more to herself than to Jefe. She gazed out at the manor and the surrounding lands.
How could I have been so stupid? All I thought about was the adventure, never thinking about what I'll leave behind. I've come to rely on Mother and Father so much, and now, I might lose them. Forever.
Zam tossed on his bed, thinking, at the moment, not of the future, but of the past. Who were his parents? How had he come here? He stared at the ceiling silently until he fell into an uneasy sleep.
Voices whispering. The pounding of feet as a cloud of dust arose around them. A pair of amber eyes, dark with fear and anger, shone above Zam. The face was so familiar to him, even in his dreams, yet it was so different.
He felt himself being cushioned in a small, secluded patch of tall grass, deep in the forest. Zam had the feeling that he would not be seen, that he would not be found unless someone knew who they were looking for, where he was.
The woman looked at him again. Her eyes, mysterious and beautiful, lightened as she gazed down at the figure below her.
"I will always love you." Her voice reverberated in the cool night air. She smiled tenderly at him, then bent down and brushed her lips against his forehead.
She dragged her eyes away from him, as if memorizing every detail of his face, then slowly walked away.
Zam could feel terror gripping him. Whatever was happening, he didn't want the woman to leave, to leave him and go face whatever danger was quickly approaching. He knew something was going to happen. The forest was different, the sounds of the insects and animals muted. It seemed as if the whole world was anticipating something, waiting for something to happen.
Then the sounds of battle came. Swords clashing together, the ring of steel coming like a knell in the enveloping darkness. A piercing female scream sounded suddenly, full of pain, followed by the sound of triumphant laughter. Then silence.
Zam awoke suddenly, covered in sweat, his face stained with tears. What was I dreaming about? He shook his head to clear it, slightly annoyed with himself. Since when do I take my dreams seriously? Aralyn is the one with the Sight, not me…
"I will always love you." The words echoed in his mind. Who was that woman?
His fierce, aching desire for a family who loved him, accepted him, who would befriend him had come back in intensity after his dream. He turned over, harsh, dry sobs racking his body and he bit his lower lip until it bled, the physical pain finally overcoming the emotional pain.
The storm outside raged, throwing itself against the manor. It echoed the turmoil of feelings Zam felt.
I will always love you…
Aralyn woke up to a beautiful spring morning. The sunlight beamed through the open windows, as the curtains fluttered lightly in the breeze. Aralyn inhaled deeply. It rained during the night, she noted. The rich, earthy aroma seeped into the room.
She glanced out of her window. The rain had rejuvenated the dusty roads and trails in front of the manor; the grass shimmered with gems of dew.
She swung her legs off of her bed, pulling on a pair of breeches and a blouse, then restoring some order to her hair. Opening the door, she jogged lightly through the hallways. Turning a corner in the hall, she heard footsteps, but unable to stop herself, she careened straight into Zam.
Instead of being angry, he leveled his gaze at Aralyn. His green eyes were serious. "I've been looking for you," he stated.
"Why?" Aralyn asked.
He shook his head. "You'll find out. Just follow me."
Zam set off at a brisk pace around the corridors of the manor. His robe fluttered after him, a dark amber that suited him surprisingly well. Soon Aralyn found herself in front of the library, but Zam passed the library and led Aralyn to a spiral staircase, winding up into a tower.
Aralyn hesitated, then followed Zam as he strode confidently up the stairs. She'd never been up in the tower, it was the mage's workroom, and she had been strictly informed that unless she was invited by a mage, she could not go.
Well, here's my chance. She would finally satisfy her curiosity about the room that had captivated her ever since she had been a small child.
Zam was waiting for her at the top of the steps, in front of an ordinary wooden door. The door looked common enough, but Aralyn knew that only a mage would be able to open it. The glow of magic surrounded it, faint even in her Sight.
The door briefly flared green, then swung open on its own accord.
Aralyn gasped in surprise. The room was breathtaking, even to her eyes, which had seen castles of many noblemen throughout the country. The space, hexagonal in shape, had walls made of glass to offer a sweeping, panoramic view of its surroundings. Though ordinary glass would not have been able to withstand the weight of the ceiling, Aralyn could see glimmers of magic, fortifying the structure.
The room was also well-stocked, Aralyn noted, full of useful items, such as jewels that could amplify certain spells, herbs, and weapons that could be enchanted to become more powerful. Aralyn stopped, her eyes widening slightly. Weapons? I can understand having a few, but this is like a storehouse! All enchanted and ready for battle…
Zam noticed her pondering gaze and quickly changed the subject. He cleared his throat, then asked, "Do know why I brought you here?"
Aralyn shook her head, curious.
"The Sight is a wonderful gift," Zam began.
"Yes, I know," Aralyn sighed. How many times have I heard this?
"I do realize you have heard this many times," Zam commented, allowing a small smile to touch his lips. "However, there are always drawbacks to such a gift."
Aralyn frowned. "Such as-?"
"With any of the magical abilities, such as the Sight, a period of dormancy can lead to the reduction, and even the loss, of the talent. Yet with the proper training, we can enhance your Sight, and realize its true power. You have the aptitude needed to grasp magic, Aralyn, along with the power needed to succeed.
"The magic of Arnia is a magic that is granted to very few," Zam continued. "Some say that perhaps the gods grant such gifts upon their chosen ones."
Zam heard Aralyn gasp quietly, but chose to ignore it. "We have no need for the incantations and spells the Alonians, Dalanians, and Karanese mages-" he named a quick succession of bordering countries, the last being the country Abkhaz's tribe inhabited "-use for their magic. But as a substitute for a good memory, Arnian magic requires a strong will. You certainly have enough will." This was said with the faintest trace of a smile.
His eyes met hers, emerald jewels sparkling almost feverishly. "Don't you understand me, Aralyn? We need your magic; we don't have much of a chance against Abkhaz anyway! Look at this beautiful land," he cried. "Under Abkhaz's rule, it has been slowly wasting away. Poverty and famine have been prowling the borders of Arnia, waiting for the country to weaken."
Aralyn nodded slowly. Zam is right, maybe I should study magic. Throughout history, Arnia has been a peaceful, bountiful country. It needs to be restored to what it once was. And sometimes, the price of peace is war.
Zam looked pleased with her decision, which, thought Aralyn, is a good thing, considering he's the one who wants me to study magic.
"Very well," said Zam, jubilant. "Are you ready to begin?"
"What?" Aralyn cried. "Now? Are you insane? I need to pack; we are leaving tomorrow, in case you've forgotten!"
Zam smiled tightly. "Just a short lesson. We need all the help we can get in this battle, Aralyn."
He cut her off. "You can pack later, surely?"
Aralyn nodded reluctantly.
"Well then, let's get started. I know you can start fires, so-" he pointed to a fireplace that Aralyn hadn't noticed; it was partially obscured by a cabinet of various herbs. She barely had to concentrate before flames roared to life, crackling merrily and spitting sparks.
The pair gradually moved to more difficult things. "There is nothing magic cannot do, as long as one wants it hard enough," lectured Zam, before hastily correcting himself. "Well… almost nothing."
Aralyn nodded grimly as she levitated a small pebble, concentrating fiercely. It didn't move at all, although not for the lack of effort.
She sank back onto her knees, her muscles shaking. "I can't do this," the girl whispered, looking down at the ground.
"Don't worry," Zam assured her. "Each person's magic works in different ways. Obviously you have a talent with fire, and we may be able to find how your magic works and what amplifies it."
Zam called forth a pale green magical breeze that slowly brought the pebble to hover over the tabletop.
"It's beautiful," breathed Aralyn.
"You can see magic?" Zam demanded, jealousy flickering in his eyes. "That's an unusual talent."
He appeared to brush the thought aside. "But you must remember," commented Zam, "that even the most powerful magic is not unlimited. Magic does not create the tangible from the intangible; rather, it simply moves the desired object or effect from somewhere else. For example, this wind" he gestured to the shimmering light, "may have come from a breeze outside. Thus, the outside winds will have lessened or stopped, while a nonexistent one will spring to life in here."
As Aralyn tried to process this information, they both heard Firian calling throughout the manor for Aralyn.
She turned to Zam. "I'd better go see what he wants."
Zam nodded and managed a smile. "Don't forget to pack."
Hope was slowly draining out of Arnia. It had been eighteen years since The War. Memories and thoughts of it were still so painful that it had been dubbed The War by the country, and nothing more.
In the years following The War, it seemed as if the entire country had been holding its breath, waiting for Bergen, or another of royal – Kadiani – blood, to reclaim the throne. Even the land held an unnatural stillness. No friendly breeze whistled through the trees; the forest didn't hold the normal bustle of animal life.
Many hopes had been shattered the day, a few months after The War, when Arnia's queen had been found. A peasant had found the queen, her dark hair spread beneath her like a fan. At first glance, she appeared to be asleep; the peasant had tried shaking her to wake her. His hand had come back sticky with blood.
The rich crimson fabric of the queen's cloak held a secret; it concealed the mortal wound that lay beneath.
Arnia had lost its king, its queen, and their son, two years old at the time of The War, was presumably dead also, though no one had found his little body. Still the Arnians hoped that someday, someone would overthrow Abkhaz from his throne of blood and terror.
Eighteen long years – and their savior still hadn't come.