In the market, the warm spring sun beating down on his back, Khayn walked hand in hand with his eight-year-old sister, Shalayn, who pulled him first one direction, then another, in search of something they could buy with the ten miras their mother had given them to spend. Shalayn had come with her heart set on sugar oranges, her (usually) favorite treat, but then she'd seen some sap-taffy, made from red-maple sap that was now running in the forests, and rushed toward the taffy booth.
"We could buy--" she counted on her fingers-"Five pieces."
Khayn frowned. He didn't want sap-taffy, or sugar oranges, for that matter. He wanted a saddle for his horse, Stesha. But for that, he'd have to ask his father for some extra money, and besides, Mother had meant this allowance for both him and Shalayn. Though he could make the argument that he'd give Shalayn rides with the saddle too…
The old woman near the booth frowned at them. "Are you buying or not?"
Khayn looked down at the fat, tan lumps of candy, and fingered the copper coins in his hand. "Okay, I would like--"
"Ooh, look!" Shalayn shouted.
She tugged at his arm. He turned and saw, in the booth slightly behind and to the left of them, shimmering silverwood animal carvings.
Leaving the candy booth, Shalayn darted toward the next table, dragging Khayn with her. One of her fingers reached out toward the tiny tip of a wooden unicorn's horn.
"Please, don't touch it," said the man behind the table. He was thin, with dark brown hair bound in a braid at his back. His skin shone with a faint silver sheen, revealing that he was a Forester. Though they usually stayed close to their trees, Foresters sometimes ventured to Letha to trade.
Even when he'd visited his grandfather in Silverwood Forest, Khayn had never seen carvings as lifelike as these.
"These are beautiful," said Khayn. "How much are they?"
"I do not like to put a price on them. But since I am selling them, they are seventy miras."
"I wish I could buy one. But I don't have enough money."
"I'd be willing to trade for something of the same value."
"Can I go ask Mom?" said Shalayn. Khayn nodded, though he knew what Mother would say. There were other things they needed more from the money Mother had earned by selling her weavings: a new plow, a couple of geese, or a gun to ward the forces of Lord Massed away from their farm when they came this way after the harsh winter, looking for new conscripts as they had every year for the five years since the start of the tyrant's reign.
As Shalayn disappeared among the crowd, Khayn spotted his father talking to their neighbor Stell two tables down, the half-wolf Amika flapping her tail lazily in the dust. He was about to join Father when the Forester spoke again.
"Forgive me for asking, but are you all right?"
"What do you mean?"
"Young wizards' eyes darken during the Changing."
Khayn's heart jumped. It was true that he hadn't felt well the past several days, and he had noticed the change in his eyes: they were a dark evergreen instead of their usual rather muddy green color. But it couldn't be because of magic, since all magic was detected by the temple priests when you were five. Unless, of course, you had the most powerful kind of magic. That meant you'd have to train under a wizard to become one someday, or die from not using the magic, or go mad from using it improperly as had happened with Lord Massed's "self-trained" wizard, Dexahff.
Khayn tore away from the silverwood vendor to the booth where Father was talking to their neighbor, Stell, his table draped with colorful wool garments that his wife had made over the winter. Khayn, his heart drumming furiously, knelt beside Amika. He didn't, couldn't, believe what the Forester had told him. Everything would go on the same as before: he'd start helping Father with the spring planting, he'd have his fifteenth birthday party, he'd go to school in the summer and see Mirani every day--Things wouldn't change drastically like they would have to if he had magic.
Ami flipped over onto her back for him to scratch her stomach. The moment he buried his hand into her thick gray fur, though, she twisted back to her feet and trotted a few feet from the table, gazing intently across the square, ears pricked, like the time she'd smelled the pack of wolves that had attacked the cattle.
At the edge of town near River Stem, a cluster of horses emerged from the willows. They cantered down the northwestern road to the center of the market, splattering those nearest with mud. Men with gleaming silver-plated armor slid from their saddles, their horses dripping with river-water. Foam cascaded from their bits, and red spur-cuts showed on some of their flanks.
A green banner emblazoned with a black dragon spewing golden fire waved in the breeze. The man at the center of the pack rode a tall golden horse, and had a black beard trimmed to a fine point. A golden sash ran across his armored chest. After pulling off his glove, he snapped his fingers. His men, unwrapping scrolls from behind their saddles, rode in twos down each of Letha's four roads. Only the man holding the banner on his left and another soldier on his right remained.
The man with the golden sash steered his horse to the center of the square. "Do you have a leader here?" he said, eyes scanning the crowd.
Shuffles of feet, clearing of throats. A big man two booths down, the butcher Delent, crossed his arms across his massive chest. The old woman who owned the booth with the copper-colored, half-melted sap taffy made an audible "humph."
One man said, "The elders of Letha are our leaders. But if you're seeking a Mayor, only the Cities have them."
The leader leaned his elbow across the pommel of his silver-gilt saddle. "Well, then. Here is as good a place as any."
He grabbed the scroll that the man on his right handed to him and read: "'By order of Drayk Massed, Dragonslayer, Lord of Ardaynenn, all able-bodied males sixteen and older are to report to our local headquarters within two days of the posting of this proclamation. Then we are to proceed to Hayet so they can incorporate into the Free Army of Ardaynenn, which will drive back the infidel invaders, who dare to use sorcerers' magic against our king. Those who refuse to report for the Army will be hung and burned as traitors.'
"I am Commander Idren of Lord Massed's recruitment corps. Training will be grueling and quick, since the Sheshan are marching their way through the Forest as we speak."
Commander Idren spurred his horse forward toward the Forester. He slipped his whip from his black leather boot and slid its tip under the Forester's chin, lifting it. The sunlight glanced across the silver sheen of his skin.
"You're from Silverwood." The commander's face darkened. "Word has it that you Foresters are assisting the infidel army. But then, you are practically infidels yourselves."
"I have never assisted the Sheshan army."
"No? The King has another proclamation. All Foresters are to be taken in and questioned about where their loyalty lies." He made a quick motion with his hand. The soldier on his right slid from his horse and walked toward the Forester.
"Wait." A voice rang out across the square.
Mother. She strode toward them, bright blue skirt flowing behind her. She reached the Forester, and stood in front of him. "I have Silverwood blood, will you arrest me too? Many of us have fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, from Silverwood. Will you arrest all of us?"
For the first time in his life, Khayn saw what he thought was fear in his father's eyes. Fear, mixed with admiration, as he stood there beside Khayn, fists clenched, watching her.
"I only need to arrest those who are pure Forester," said the commander. "Which this man is. Go ahead, Lieutenant."
The soldier pushed Mother aside to get to the Forester. Father lurched forward, grabbing the man's arm. "Don't touch her!"
The soldier yanked his arm away from Father, and punched him in the mouth with his gauntleted hand.
Father fell to his knees, his face dark with blood.
Khayn rushed to Father, but before he could get to him, strong hands grabbed him, held him tightly.
He looked up into a face. The face of the lieutenant who had hit Father, dark green eyes gleaming with amusement.
When they brought Father in to be drafted, they brought Khayn as well. Lieutenant Trefahd was in need of a new slave, since, he said, his old one had sickened and died.
Soon Khayn found himself on the road to the great city of Hayet, leaving his mother and sister and all he had known behind, the dust from the cantering horses obscuring his vision of the town, his heart aching as he rode off into an unknown future.