Summary: A young man risks his life to save a magical creature and discovers he has the gift to become a wizard. Thrust into a world of magic, politics and intrigue, he finds himself caught up in the struggle for control of a kingdom.
Chapter 1: Kieran
It was too dark to see the black clouds scudding across the night sky, even when the tree branches crowding over the path separated enough to reveal them. But the thick white blanket of snow that covered the ground knee deep in the open places and weighed the branches down until they creaked under the weight gave ample evidence of the storm that had just passed through, leaving the remnant of clouds behind.
Kieran trudged carefully through the snow, clutching his thin cloak to his chest with his right hand. He held his left out in front of him, chest high. A bright yellow ball of witch fire danced above his palm, casting just enough light for him to see where he was going. Kieran wished the fire also made heat. He was chilled to the bone. He had to clamp his teeth together to keep them from chattering. But witch fire was a spell of light only. That's what made it safe to use and no one ever got thrown in prison for creating a little witch fire. But getting caught performing a dangerous spell could get you locked up for weeks, or even months, while the king's royal wizards conditioned you. Kieran knew personally only one person who had been through the wizard's conditioning and she had never been the same after her release. She had been terrified of even the simplest magic and had finally moved away to live all alone on an island just off the coast.
Of course, everyone knew the wizards themselves performed magic of all kinds, even the dark spells that summoned demons to do their bidding, but no one talked about it. It was safer not to.
Kieran's breath puffed out in a white cloud as he walked. The crunch of his boots and his own labored breathing were the only sounds he heard in the snow-muffled darkness. He wasn't surprised. Any creature with sense was huddled somewhere warm, sheltering from the cold night. But the poor did not always have options, and Kieran's master had insisted that he go into town and buy fever medicine from the apothecary as soon as the storm ended. No one at the estate had a fever at the moment, but the master was always sure he was about to get terribly sick, especially after a storm, and he had to have fever medicine on hand at all times, just in case. Perhaps it was because his father and one of his cousins had died of fever. But the reason didn't matter. Kieran was a servant and he did as he was told.
A faint whining sound made Kieran stop in his tracks and look around in alarm. There were normally no dangerous animals in these woods, but anything could happen after a storm. He whispered a spell and the witch fire got bigger, casting light a short way into the trees on either side. A flicker of light off to his right drew his attention and he lifted his hand, raising the witch fire higher. Two points of golden light shone back at him. Then the lights disappeared for a moment and reappeared. Kieran took a step backward. Something had just blinked at him.
As he stared, a shape moved uncertainly in the shadows. It wasn't large, about the size of a badger, but Kieran could not tell what it was. He took another worried step backward and the creature came forward into the light.
Big golden eyes that were only a little darker at the center blinked at him from above a short wide muzzle with a pink triangular nose. Its slender paws had four stubby toes, each tipped with a short, sharp claw. As it stepped tentatively forward, its toes splayed out naturally to give it stable footing in the wet snow. When Kieran remained frozen in place, it took another careful step forward and its whole body came into view. Thick dark-brown fur clad its short, lean body and shed moisture from the snow in steady drips. The fur thinned as it went down the slender legs, exposing dark smooth skin that gleamed wetly. Its back legs were a little shorter than the front and a little closer together, making the hips narrower than the chest. Sharply pointed ears rose from the top of its head, separated by a slight ridge that started just above the creature's nose and ran up between its eyes and over its head. It had a short tail whose tip, like the creature's legs, was furless and smooth.
Kieran held his breath, afraid to move. He had heard tales about these creatures, but had hoped never in his life to see one. They were called madrin and were said to be ferocious killers. Everyone knew at least one story about someone, usually from another town, who had been torn to shreds by a madrin. But the stories also said that if you killed one and made its fur into a cloak, you could not be killed. It was also said that if you ground its bones into a powder, mixed it with water and drank it, you would stop aging.
But of course, these same stories never said how anyone managed to kill one of these terrible creatures. Kieran stared at the madrin and wondered if he was going to die. The madrin stared back at him, unmoving. Then it looked back over its shoulder and whined. When it looked at Kieran again, it flicked out a bright blue tongue and quickly licked its nose. It took another step toward Kieran and whined again.
Kieran frowned. The creature did not look dangerous, it looked frightened. Quite suddenly, it dashed across the path and into the darkness on the other side. Kieran whirled around to watch it and then he looked down in surprise. The creature had left no tracks in the snow. He looked up again but the madrin was no longer in sight. Kieran swallowed. Staying out here alone in the woods at night with the madrin seemed worse than foolish. He turned to continue on his way, but after three steps, he stopped. He could hear voices.
"This way, my lord!" a voice cried shrilly. "I sense the creature in this direction!"
"You had better be right this time, Kromel!"
"I am sure of it, my lord! Look, I see a light!"
Kieran immediately wished he had extinguished his witch light. Now he dared not. He turned to face the approaching men fearfully. When three riders finally came into view, Kieran immediately dropped to one knee and lowered his head, despite the snow. Only an idiot would fail to recognize the trappings of a nobleman and his attendants.
"This is no madrin, Kromel," the nobleman said, his voice dripping with contempt.
"You, boy!" The third man said. "What are you doing here?"
Kieran replied without raising his head. "I am returning from an errand for my master Lord Inchor, honored sir."
"Inchor?" muttered the nobleman. "We must be near to his estate. You fool, Kromel! There are no madrin on Inchor's land. Do you think he would not have taken advantage of it by now?"
"But my lord...!"
"Tell me, boy, have you seen or heard anything unusual tonight?"
Kieran's mind raced. These men were hunting the madrin, no doubt because they believed the stories about the powers to be gained from it. But the creature had not attacked him, which made Kieran wonder if the stories about its ferocity were true. And if those stories were untrue, what about the other stories?
"I have not seen anything, honored sir," Kieran said carefully. Many servants believed it was dangerous to lie to noblemen, but Kieran knew otherwise. Noblemen believed no one would dare lie to them, therefore they believed everything they were told was the truth. If a servant was caught in a lie, all he had to do was admit to being a fool and mistaken.
"There, Kromel! This boy kneeling here unscathed is proof enough there is no madrin here. We're returning. I'm cold and hungry and tired of your incompetence. I'm going to hire a new wizard."
"No, my lord!" The wizard reined his horse around anxiously and followed his retreating master. He continued to plead for his job as their voices receded.
Kieran stood up to find the third man still regarding him.
"Using witch fire to light your way?"
"Yes, honored sir. It is too dark to see the path."
"Do you know any other spells?" The faint suspicion in the man's tone made Kieran answer very carefully.
"Just the spell to make stagnant water fresh, honored sir."
"I see. Well, you should make haste. Despite our wizard's incompetence, there was a madrin in this area not long ago."
"I will. Thank you, honored sir."
The man rode into the trees and disappeared. Kieran remained where he was until he could no longer hear anything, then he turned around and stepped into the trees on the far side of the path.
"Hey, little madrin, where are you?" There was a soft whine off to his left and Kieran moved in that direction. After a little searching, he found the madrin huddled at the base of a tree. It blinked at him and scrunched down smaller against the ground. "There, there, little fellow; I'm not going to hurt you." Kieran dropped his witch fire and carefully leaned down to encircle the creature with his arms. It whimpered slightly but did not resist as he lifted it. Kieran cradled the madrin against his chest. "Poor thing. You're just as scared as you can be, aren't you?" The madrin was heavier than he expected and its sharp little claws kept poking into him in unexpected places. Kieran shifted it around in his grip until he had it nestled more or less above his right hip, resting in the curve of his right arm with its back legs curled up against his side and its front paws resting on his shoulders. With its wide face so close to his, he discovered it had an earthy kind of scent and its pink nose was warm. "You're kind of cute, you know that?" Kieran held his left hand out and recreated his witch fire. "Let's get home and find something to eat, eh?"
The rest of his trek through the forest went quickly. It was good to have company, even a near-mystical creature like a madrin. At his master's estate, Kieran went first to the long, low building where most of the servants lived. Only the best quality servants got to live in the manor house with the noble family. Everyone else lived outside in the servant quarters. The advantage to the servant quarters, however, was that each servant had a private room. In fact, it was rather like a stable and among themselves the servants called it that. But each room had its own door, a small window in the back, a cot, a stool, a washstand and a small iron stove for heating.
Inside his small room, Kieran put the madrin on his cot. "Now you stay here and be quiet until I get back. I have to take the master his medicine and then I'll get some food for us." The madrin blinked at him and sat down.
Kieran closed the door carefully and hurried to the manor house. He entered through the kitchen door and was immediately accosted by the cook.
"Where have you been? The master's been calling for his medicine for an hour!"
"I'm sorry," Kieran said quickly. "The apothecary made me wait. I hurried as best I could but the footing's bad from the snow." He held out the little pouch which he'd kept tucked inside his shirt to stay dry.
"Such excuses!" the cook said, but there was no anger in her tone. She pointed to a wooden trencher with a cloth over it sitting on the long counter by the stove. "Your supper's over there. And I put some coals for your stove in that sand pot next to it. You look about frozen solid."
"Right, then. Don't you make a mess in my kitchen while I'm gone."
When she was gone, Kieran quickly tucked the sand pot into the crook of one arm, grabbed his supper and hurried back to his room. The madrin was sitting exactly where he'd left it, watching the door expectantly. Kieran put the trencher on his stool and carried the sand pot to the stove. "If you don't mind, I'm going to do this first," he said. He had placed a few lumps of charcoal in the stove that morning, so now he opened the flue and used his tongs to carefully remove the hot coals from the sand pot and nestle them into the middle of the pile. He blew on the coals until they glowed bright red and little flickers of blue fire began licking at the charcoal. "There! That should start warming things up in a bit." He closed the grill and turned back to the madrin. It was watching him with what Kieran almost took to be curiosity.
"Hungry? I sure am." Kieran uncovered his supper. The trencher was filled with a thick meat and vegetable stew. A chunk of coarse white bread was sitting on top and a spoon was tucked along one side. Kieran sat down next to the madrin. The bread had already soaked up some of the gravy, so Kieran tore off a chunk and offered it to the madrin. "Go ahead. Try it."
The madrin stuck out its tongue, delicately lifted the bread from Kieran's fingers and pulled the morsel into its mouth. It blinked several times and licked its nose.
"Yeah, it's pretty good." Kieran tore the bread up into bite-size chunks and stirred it into the stew. "I think it's better this way." He inched over and set the trencher down between them. He pointed with his spoon. "You eat that side and I'll eat this side. It looks like there's plenty for both of us."
It was almost as if the madrin understood him. It lowered its head and began munching the stew from the end nearest itself neatly. Kieran watched the madrin as he spooned stew into his own mouth. When the madrin pulled its lips back from its mouth, he could see a row of short sharp fangs right at the front on the top and bottom that closed like scissors and looked able to cut through anything. But the teeth further back were wide and blunt, like the molars in his own mouth. Although those sharp front teeth were clearly designed for cutting and tearing meat, the rear teeth allowed the madrin to grind up plant matter. Its long, prehensile tongue probably allowed it to eat insects as well. Kieran thought about that as he ate. The madrin must be omnivorous. But that belied its reputation as a savage meat-eater. None of the stories about madrin made sense.
But then he remembered that the madrin had left no tracks in the snow and he began to wonder. He could see indentations in the blanket where the madrin had stepped, so why had it left no marks in the snow? It was a puzzle.
They finished the stew and the madrin sat up, licking its lips. Its eyelids were starting to droop over its big eyes and it yawned.
"You're tired, eh? Well, you've had a rough day, I guess." Kieran put the trencher on the floor. "Let's get under the blanket. It will be warmer." The madrin hopped off the bed and Kieran slid under the blanket. He held the edge up and beckoned to the madrin. "Get in." The madrin put its front paws on the bed and looked at him. "It's all right. Get in." The madrin crawled onto the cot and snuggled up against his side. Warmth radiated from its thick fur and Kieran put his arm around it. "Go to sleep. You're safe here." The madrin's eyes closed and its side rose and fell steadily. Kieran closed his eyes too. He had never had a pet before, but the madrin did not seem like a pet. It felt more like having a friend.
In the morning, the coals had burned down and the room was chilly. His wash water was cold, but at least no ice had formed in it. Kieran splashed water on his face, shuddering as the cold water ran down his neck and onto his chest. He grinned at the madrin, which was carefully washing its face and paws with its long blue tongue. "I wish I could bathe that way." Kieran poured some of his water into the trencher and spoke a spell to freshen it. The madrin lapped the water gratefully.
Kieran sat down on the cot and stroked the madrin's soft fur. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you today. We have to be careful. If anyone sees you, it will cause trouble. I'll try to get you back into the woods somehow, but then I'm afraid you'll be on your own. I just hope you'll be all right."
The madrin put a paw on his knee and mewed at him. Kieran stroked a finger along one of its claws. The tip was razor sharp.
"You could hurt somebody pretty badly if you wanted to, but you don't really want to, do you?" Kieran stood up. "I need you to stay here for now. As soon as I figure out what to do, I'll come back."
As he expected, other servants were already up. Kieran went about his own chores as if there were nothing unusual going on. He collected the eggs out of the chicken coop and brought them to the kitchen for the cook. He got some bread and jam for his breakfast and slipped an extra slice of bread inside his shirt when no one was looking. He was about to go back to his room to give the bread to the madrin when one of the maids dashed in, breathless with excitement.
"Wait 'til you hear!" she cried. "A gentleman named Lord Machura is here with his wizard. They say there is a madrin on the estate!"
"A madrin?!" the cook exclaimed in horror. "But that's terrible! Everyone must come inside at once!"
"They're hunting it," the maid continued, "but since it's here, they have had to promise Lord Inchor a share in its magic. That Lord Machura didn't look happy about that, but the master is very happy. He just gave them permission to search the estate."
Kieran paled. "I'll go warn everyone to come inside!" he called out and dashed out of the kitchen. He raced across the yard to his room in a panic. No one was in sight near the servant quarters, but when he looked back over his shoulder, five men on horseback came around the side of the manor, led by the wizard from the night before.
Kieran plunged into his room. "Come with me!" He held his cloak open and wrapped his arms and the cloak around the madrin. Quickly, he slipped back out of the room and scurried along the front of the servant quarters, heading for the woods.
"My lord! There it is!" It was the wizard's voice.
"That's not a madrin!"
"It's the same boy!" cried the third man from last night. "Stop him!"
Kieran broke into a run, but it was no use. He could not outrun horses. They caught him just steps away from the edge of the woods, surrounding him.
Lord Machura leaned forward, his face dark with anger. "You lied to me last night, boy! What are you hiding under your cloak?"
Kieran shook his head. He could feel the madrin trembling. It was terrified. "It's nothing, just a stray dog!"
"It's a madrin!" the wizard exclaimed. "I can feel its magic."
Lord Machura urged his horse forward. "I mean to kill that madrin, boy, and it doesn't matter to me if you die, too." He drew his sword and pointed it at Kieran. "Release the creature and I'll spare you."
"So be it!" Lord Machura raised his sword and struck.
Kieran whirled around, protecting the madrin with his own body. The blow from the sword shocked him. It slashed across his back and he felt his spine sever. He collapsed to the ground, his arms still clasping the madrin, but he could no longer feel its warmth against his chest. It seemed like he should be in pain, but he was not, even though he knew the wound was fatal. The madrin's head poked out of his cloak and it stared at him.
"I see it, my lord! Kill it!"
Kieran wished there was something else he could do, but he could not move. His vision was already fading. He stared back into the madrin's big golden eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
A deafening roar shook the ground and made all the trees shed their burden of snow.
"What was that?!" Lord Machura cried.
Other exclamations echoed his and then a riot of screams broke out, accompanied by a terrible howling. A giant paw, like the madrin's only much bigger, stepped momentarily into Kieran's field of view. The madrin squirmed in his embrace and Kieran let it go. The creature scampered away, mewing excitedly. Something struck Kieran on the shoulder and he tumbled over. Now he could see the manor house and the grounds. A madrin the size of a horse stood over the corpse of Lord Machura's wizard. Lord Machura himself was struggling to escape from under his fallen horse, defended by two of his soldiers. The body of the third soldier was sprawled in a pool of blood behind the giant madrin. The smaller madrin stood underneath the larger, its front paws resting on the dead wizard's chest.
As Kieran watched, the madrin backed up slowly, moving in his direction. Then they turned their backs on the men and trotted purposefully toward Kieran. The soldiers immediately rushed to help their master.
The giant madrin stopped over Kieran and stared down at him. Its golden eyes were the size of dinner plates. The little madrin nudged him with its pink nose and then licked his face with its bright blue tongue.
"You're just a baby," Kieran breathed. "No wonder you were so scared."
The big madrin slowly lowered its head until its giant pink nose touched Kieran's face. It sniffed slowly down his body and stopped when it got to his wounded back. It licked Kieran's wound with a tongue that was bigger than Kieran's arm. A shock as sudden and as painful as the sword strike shot through Kieran's body. He would have screamed, but his body went rigid and the air was forced from his lungs. He stared up at the madrin helplessly as tears of pain leaked from the corners of his eyes. The pain receded slowly. When Kieran could finally draw a breath again, the gasp that filled his lungs made his arms and legs jerk. The realization made him freeze again.
"My legs!" he gasped. "I can feel my legs!" Kieran sat up and looked down at himself. His clothes were soaked with blood. His cloak and shirt had been cut nearly in half and hung in tatters. But his skin beneath was whole and unmarked. He put his hand on his back, but there was no scar. He looked at the madrin. "Thank you," he whispered.
The big madrin dipped its head in a brief bow. The little madrin licked Kieran's face again. Then the two creatures trotted away into the woods and were quickly lost from view.
Kieran rose slowly to his feet and looked around. Lord Machura and his soldiers were staring at him. Beyond them, he could see Lord Inchor and several servants huddled near the kitchen door. Not knowing what else to do, Kieran walked toward them. Seeing it was only him, Lord Inchor rushed forward.
"What happened, Kieran? What did you do? Why didn't the madrin eat you?"
Kieran stopped in front of his master and bowed. "The madrin aren't killers, honored master. I protected the young one from Lord Machura's sword and was rewarded with my life."
A man Kieran had never seen before stepped out from among the cluster of servants. He pushed back his cloak and revealed the robe of a wizard. "How did you come to know the madrin are not murderous creatures, boy? Do you have the sight?"
Kieran quickly dropped to one knee and bowed his head, as did the other servants, who apparently had not been aware that a wizard stood in their midst. Kieran shuddered, for the wizard bore the crest of the king on his shoulder. He was a royal wizard!
"Answer me, boy."
"I do not have the sight, honored sir," Kieran said nervously. "But last night I fed the baby madrin and slept with it in my room. It did me no harm."
The wizard chuckled. "Perhaps you have not the sight, but you do have the gift. Did you not know that only a wizard can touch a live madrin with his bare hand?"
Kieran looked up at the wizard in surprise. "I do not understand."
The wizard reached out and rested his hand gently on Kieran's head. "Person's born with the wizard's gift do not always come to our attention in time for us to train them, unfortunately. Often we do not learn of them until they are sent to us for conditioning against the use of dangerous magic." He smiled down at Kieran. "I am glad I found you, although I originally came hoping to protect the madrin." The wizard bent over and whispered to Kieran, "It is a rare individual who offers his life to save another's." The wizard straightened and turned to Lord Inchor.
Lord Inchor bowed hastily. "Honored sir, I was unaware that the madrin are protected creatures! I would never have allowed this hunt had I known."
Kieran stared. He had never heard a lord use the servant's form of address to another.
The wizard waved his hand dismissively. "I understand, Lord Inchor. There are more stories about madrin than there are madrin themselves. The creatures are rare and normally stay well clear of men. But sometimes their young will blunder too close to human settlements and get slaughtered for their bones. And you have seen the fury of the adults when their young are endangered." He gestured toward the dead. "But now that you are aware, I charge you to protect these creatures, should you find them on your land again."
"I will, honored sir!"
"Good." The wizard turned back to Kieran and held out his hand. "Come, young wizard, it is time to be on our way."
Kieran stood up slowly. "But where, honored sir?"
The wizard smiled. "You will come to the wizard's hall on Bright Isle to be trained. And I suspect many there will want to study you as well. I believe you are the only person to ever have been healed by a living madrin. While the powder made from their bones has incredible healing properties, it cannot stop death once death has taken its hold. I saw the sword strike you. The wound was fatal."
Kieran ducked his head to hide from the incredulous stares of his master and the other servants. "But I am only a servant, honored sir. I have no family and have benefited from Lord Inchor's generosity."
"I understand, but everything is different for you now. Call me Master Colwyn, Kieran. I will be your instructor until we return to Bright Isle." The wizard put an arm around Kieran's shoulders. "I am taking this young wizard-in-training out of your employment, Lord Inchor."
"Of course, honored sir!" Lord Inchor bowed hastily. "We are pleased to have been of service, however indirectly, to the wizards of Bright Isle."
Kieran glanced wistfully toward the forest. He remembered the soft feel of the madrin's fur and the warm touch of its pink nose. "Do you think I will ever see the madrin again, Master Colwyn?"
"I don't know. I never thought to see a man rise up from certain death; but all things, it seems are possible. Let us be on our way."
Lord Inchor gave Kieran a change of clothes that had been his when he was a boy. The rich fabric felt smooth and strange against Kieran's skin. It also felt odd to be standing outside in a thick cloak that actually kept out the cold. He had tried to say goodbye to the other servants, but they were afraid to talk to him now. Only the cook had given him a quick hug and a peck on the forehead, along with a hasty farewell. "You take good care of yourself, boy," she had whispered.
Now Kieran waited for Colwyn to finish his conversation with Lord Inchor. The wizard had come on horseback and Kieran held the reins as he waited. When at last Colwyn approached him, Kieran held out the reins.
"Can you ride, Kieran?"
"No, Master Colwyn."
"Very well. You can sit behind me. We have much to talk about."
They mounted the horse and started down the path to town.
"Am I really a… a wizard?"
"Not yet, but you have the gift to become one. The gift gives you a natural affinity for magic and draws magic to you. No doubt that is why the madrin sought shelter with you."
Kieran fell silent. Something flickered at the edge of his vision and when he turned his head, he realized it was snowing again. "We should hurry, Master, or we will be caught in the blizzard."
Colwyn chuckled. "You're going to be a very powerful wizard, Kieran. Only the very strongest can manipulate the weather."
"But I didn't…!"
"Did you not wish to protect the madrin?"
"Well, yes, but…"
"You caused the storm. I felt you pull it toward you as you lay dying, right before the larger madrin arrived." Colwyn chuckled again. "A wizard close to death has tremendous power and a blizzard will make pursuit of the madrin impossible, even for a rogue wizard. Yes, you will be a very powerful wizard one day." Colwyn clucked to the horse and prodded it with his heels. The animal broke into a rolling canter. "Therefore, I am heeding your advice. We will stop at the inn in town to wait out the blizzard. Welcome to the world of wizard's magic, young Kieran."
Kieran stared up at the snowfall as the horse trotted along the path. He was not sure he believed everything Colwyn had said, but he was glad he had saved the madrin's life. He closed his eyes and for a moment he could smell the earthy scent of the creature's fur. I will see the madrin again, he thought to himself, because the madrin is my friend.