Attania Revisited, Chapter 1:
It was a real effort to remember to take physical form. Dad did it without really thinking about it, and Mom actually preferred it, truth be told. But Attan struggled with it sometimes, especially when he'd rather be elsewhere. Like now.
He didn't see why he had to go to school anyway. The big, airy building on the banks of the Mattick River was open on one side to the river so the Family kids who went there could learn to embrace their water essences as well as their other ones. Attan didn't need to learn; he was water, and air and fire and shadow and whatever else he felt like being. It was stupid, in his opinion. Dad said the others would learn from his example and he would learn from them, too, whether he thought so or not.
"Prince Attan." The instructor, stuffy old Uncle Macek, looked him up and down, frowning slightly. "Pay attention."
Oh. Attan solidified his form and stood with the others, Family and non-family together, with their backs to the river. Non-family attended these classes also, by decree of his father, who wanted them all to work together for the good of Attania. Supposedly, the non-family wouldn't be so scared of Family if they grew up seeing them use their gifts routinely, including their ability to transform into their elements. Attan guessed it was working. His non-family classmates weren't afraid of him because he was an Elemental; they were afraid of him because his father was the King.
"Merge." Uncle Macek let go of his physical form and so did all the Family students, leaving the wide room seemingly empty except for the scattering of non-family students who by now were used to this. They ranged in age from five to fifteen and came from all sorts of backgrounds, from fishermen families to upper-class ones. Not one of them seemed to feel it when the Elementals swarmed through their bodies.
Attan merged his essence through one of the farmer boys and out the other side. Nothing. Merging with non-family was like merging through furniture or walls. Oh, there was flesh and bones and blood, but no spark, no spirit, if you could call what Elementals were 'spirit.'
The sparkling water beckoned. Attan knew he was supposed to work with his non-family partner, Greg, the boy with the orange hair—that was his only interesting asset, as far as Attan was concerned. Family all had coal-black hair although their eyes sometimes varied in color, but non-family came in a variety of colors—skin, eyes, hair. The fact that Greg's was bright orange made him stand out, and when they were choosing partners, Attan had immediately chosen Greg because of his hair. But now, after weeks of working with the heavy-set farmboy, Attan was starting to regret his choice. It wasn't so much that Greg was stupid—he wasn't, really—but he had no interest in Family or Elementals or even getting along. He attended the mixed school because his parents told him he had to. But he didn't want to be there any more than Attan did. Attan supposed they had that in common, too.
The other Elementals in Attan's group made the change to water and flowed swiftly into the Mattick, leaving their non-family partners behind. They each had jobs to do: the non-family, to ready nets along the open wall by the river where the Family Elementals had all disappeared into the water, and the Family to drive fish into those nets.
The Mattick swirled ominously, and then it started raining fish, or so it seemed, as the fish flew up and out of the water to land by the tens and twenties in the waiting nets. Attan was aware that he should have gone with the others, but it was too late now. Not that Greg even noticed. He industriously pulled the swollen netting up from the edge of the river along with the rest of the non-family who struggled with the multitude of fish. He would have his share tonight to take back to his family. Attan caught the self-satisfied grunt the boy made, and it reminded him he hadn't done his fair share yet. He slid into the river, becoming water as he touched that element. Attan really liked water; it was hard to concentrate on what he was supposed to do. He'd rather just be. Giving himself a mental shake, Attan went to work.
Attan had always had a problem focusing on purely physical activities. He was slightly different from the other Elementals in the Family because he had been conceived as an Elemental. For a time his parents wondered if he would be born that way as well, but he had form as well as spirit, and was born a little baby Elemental, already knowing how to let go of his physical self and become his elemental self. The other Family Elementals were born physical with certain talent over the elements; they had to learn to let go of their physical bodies and become Elementals in actuality. Perhaps because they were physical first, and Attan was elemental first, the Family Elementals had an easier time doing physical things. Attan was lucky if he could remember to keep his physical form.
Water flowed, so Attan flowed, 'round and 'round, drawing the other Elementals and all the denizens of Mattick River to his center. He released them so suddenly the swirling tower of Elementals, water, fish, plants and riverbottom all sprayed outwards before the water, minus its Elemental brethren, whomped back into its bed and rocked crazily for a few moments, threatening to swamp the already overflowing fishing nets on the open floor of the school. Those Elementals who had been lucky enough to be thrown towards the school now sprawled, human again, among the flopping fish and river detritus Attan had managed to sling towards his target. The unlucky ones ended up at every other point of the compass, some of them getting a nasty dunking as they regained their human forms in the middle of the river.
The river water looked distinctly clearer. However, the school floor was covered in mud and debris—and fish—all the way back to the far wall. Attan, who had followed his water cyclone down and landed without a sound in the middle of the floor, looked around in surprise. Greg, he noted, was impressed, for once. His teacher and cousin, Macek Merrell, was not.
"That wasn't supposed to happen," Attan quickly said, wondering how he could fix it without sending all the fish he had just caught right back into the river.
"It never is," Macek said with a sigh. "Well, new lesson. Group clean-up. Everybody get with your partners and figure out how to put everything back where it belongs." He frowned. "Not you, Attan. You've done enough."
Attan would have disappeared right then, but a thick hand clapped around his wrist, pulling is attention back to the physical. Greg glared at him through thick, orange bangs. "Stay here," the boy growled, annoyed, no doubt, that he had to do all the work. Attan shrugged and sat down, cross-legged, with his back against the far wall and watched as his classmates worked together to clean up the mess he'd inadvertently made. He wasn't stupid either, or at least he didn't think he was, but sometimes he didn't think. His mother said it's because at heart he was pure elemental. Maybe she was right. He sure wanted to be.
Attan had managed to throw up a fair number of fish, nearly as much as all the other Elementals put together, so in the end not even Greg was mad at him. All the kids went home early, and with enough fish to feed their families as well as to sell to the local markets. Macek kept the King's share, which would be shipped in ice across Attania is specially-equipped flitters. Even Attan was sent home with a fish. He didn't particularly like fish; he didn't particularly like food much at all. He couldn't wait for this day to be over.
Greg caught his arm as Attan was leaving. "You wanna go rowboating or something this afternoon?"
Attan stared at him in surprise. Greg had hardly talked to him before today. He mostly kept to himself and went straight home after class. Attan figured he had farm work to do or something. Except for in Low City proper, the non-family in this area, no, the non-family across most of Attania, were rather poor. "Uh sure," he replied. "When?"
Greg grinned, and his face became alive as it usually never was during class. "Come with me now and we'll go after I drop these off."
It was on the tip of Attan's tongue to ask him why, but he hesitated. He found that he really did want to go with Greg and do normal, physical stuff for a change. "Can I help you with that?" he asked, gesturing towards the bushel of fish.
Greg thrust the whole bushel into Attan's seemingly skinny arms. He had been paying enough attention during class, it seemed, to realize that Family were stronger than non-family, even though they were slender. "Follow me."
Attan could barely see over the top of the bushel. He could have floated it on air and thus proclaimed his superiority to Greg by doing so, but he suddenly didn't want to. They didn't have to go far, anyway. Greg led him to an old beat-up truck. Attan put the basket of fish inside the back, tilting his head to ask Greg what next, but an old, gnarled man nearly as skinny as Attan but browned from the sun and as dried out as a raisin got out of the cab and hurried over to the boys.
"Nice catch!" the old man said with a sleepy yawn as he peered into the bushel basket. He eyed Attan curiously. "You're the Family kid who did this?"
"He's the Prince," Greg said shortly, all his earlier friendliness disappeared. "He's one of them, but we all did it." His glare dared Attan to contradict him.
Mention of Attan's title made the old man's eyes widen. He glanced at Greg. "The Prince," he repeated mildly. "Are you sure-?"
Greg scowled. "We're going fishing. I'll be home later. Don't eat all my catch."
The old man climbed back into the cab of the truck and started up the engine. "Be back before dark." He nodded at Attan. "Prince."
As soon as he drove off, Greg grabbed Attan's arm. "Come on," he said, pulling him further down the docks and eventually under them to where he had a rowboat stashed. He hopped into the rowboat, rocking it, and untied it from the posts underneath the big commercial dock. "Get in."
Attan wasn't sure why Greg had invited him along. Fishing, he had told the old man. Hadn't they just gone fishing at the school? Greg now seemed as unfriendly as ever. He handed Attan an oar and impatiently directed him in how to use it. They sat next to each other on the damp seat and rowed together to the south of Low City. The Mattick eventually dumped out into the great sea which surrounded Attania, but not for a long way. As they pulled slowly away from Low City, Attan saw farmland green and gold with growing things. This was quite a change from even ten years ago, when most of the land around here, and especially to the east of Low City, was arid and barren. King Jet's new policies had reclaimed much of Attania's fallow land for farming.
About an hour later, Greg told Attan to stop rowing. Even the farmland had disappeared and now dense green bushes and young trees grew close together right up to the water's edge. "This is far enough." Greg put down his oar and stood, rocking the small boat precariously. They were in sight of the shore, and although no houses were visible, Attan could see occasional cleared patches of land which proved that this area, at least, was inhabited. Further down, the river curved sharply and cut into rolling meadows, leaving stark cliffs on either side.
Greg motioned to Attan. "Go on, do what it is you do and fish." He glanced down at the thinner boy through shaggy red bangs. "You can leave the fish in the bottom of the boat."
Attan still didn't understand why Greg wanted even more fish. Was he planning to sell them to the nearby town for a profit? But he shrugged. What did he care? It was a relief to shed his mortal body and become water instead. For a moment or two Attan forgot why he was there in the sheer joy of being water. But then he remembered and began to form a whirlpool.
He dragged up half the bottom of the Mattick River and only two fishes this time. Greg scowled at him from the filthy boat which now hung low in the water. Attan, human again, floated next to it.
"That's all? Two fish? I asked you for fish, not dirt!" Greg kicked the mud in the bottom of the boat. "I thought you were some kind of Elemental genius," he muttered. "I could have caught more fish than that—with my bare hands!"
Attan, stung, momentarily lost his hold on his body and faded into the water. With effort, he regained it and flipped easily inside the boat, sinking it even further. He was completely dry. "There's no fish here," he said in his own defense. There wasn't. The non-family didn't know, but King Jet stocked the river near Low City so he could train Family and non-family children to work together. And feeding the populace didn't hurt his own image any, either.
"You just don't want to do it," Greg said stubbornly. "Get out of my way." He pushed Attan aside and grabbed both oars, trying to row towards shore so he could dump out the rapidly sinking boat.
Unfortunately, the boat sank completely about halfway there. The two small fish Attan had caught floated away, while Greg valiantly tried to right the sunken rowboat. Attan salvaged the oars, holding them with ties of shadow so they wouldn't float away too. He was proud of himself for remaining corporeal.
Greg just glared at him. What were oars without a boat? "You're useless," he muttered, slogging the last few feet to shore. He sat with his head in his hands and wouldn't even look at Attan. "Just go. Leave me alone."
Attan didn't know what to do. He faded in and out, and finally thought to drag up the sunken rowboat from the muddy riverbottom. It took no effort at all. He floated the boat on a cushion of air and set it gently on shore next to Greg, who looked up in startlement before frowning. The boat was still full of mud, and now it was nowhere near the water where Greg might have had a chance of flipping it over and cleaning it out.
"Useless!" Greg yelled again, shooting to his feet. He lunged at Attan, who disappeared before Greg could touch him, which only served to anger the non-family boy more. Greg dashed around the small clearing, waving his arms and stomping his feet, yelling incoherently. He was trying to hit Attan even though the young Prince was incorporeal at the moment. Greg's body did pass through Attan's essence several times, although Attan still felt nothing and neither, apparently, did Greg.
But the entire incident frightened Attan badly. He shot into the air on a cloud of moisture and became a wind which roared south with a velocity that shredded leaves from the nearby trees.
Hurtling through the canyons formed by the cliff walls on either side of the river, Attan felt the gentle inquiries of free elementals all around him and gradually he relaxed. Free wind elementals merged with him, becoming him as he became them, and life made sense once more. These were his friends, his only friends, his kind.
Eventually he slowed, realizing he had traveled rather far. The sun was setting in the distance, turning the sky red and yellow. Attan shot up high in the air. Where was he, exactly? He could see the Mattick River winding lazily towards the southern sea. He could see the sea! In the distance the endless water sparkled invitingly.
Attan swooped lower, his attention caught by a slight movement on a hilltop. Here, the steep cliffs ended abruptly as the land began to slow its descent towards the mouth of the river. But on the edge of the last cliff Attan spotted a person, a small child, who sat with her feet dangling over the sheer drop.
Attan circled the area in the form of a light breeze, not wanting to endanger the little girl as she gazed out towards the setting sun. As he passed by her, noting with disappointment her fair hair which marked her as non-family, she looked up, almost as if she were tracking his movements. It must have been the wind she felt as he brushed past her. He did it again, and again her eyes followed his track.
Attan took human form and materialized next to the child, ready to reach out and grab her with tethers of shadow, should she startle and fall, but she showed little reaction to his sudden appearance. She really was little, younger than Attan, about six or seven, and painfully thin. She regarded Attan with serious hazel-brown eyes.
"What's your name?" Attan asked, squatting down beside the girl. "Do you live around here?" He hadn't seen any towns or even houses nearby. "What are you doing up here all by yourself?"
The girl was clean, obviously well cared-for. Her light hair was braided in two long rows down her back, and her clothes looked new. She blinked up at him but did not speak.
"My name's Attan Estee," Attan said, thinking that if she knew he was the Prince, it would jar her out of her silence. "I'm Family, as you can see." He pointed to his jet black hair which, along with his ultra-pale skin, marked him as one of the Family. The little girl's skin was browned from the sun, something that never happened to Family no matter how long they exposed themselves to sunlight.
Still no response. Attan followed her gaze to the red ball on the horizon that marked the setting sun and felt slightly uneasy. Once it was dark, how was she going to get down off this cliff on her own? "Do you want me to walk you home?"
She looked at him then, and slowly nodded. At least she understood him. Attan was beginning to wonder if perhaps she was simple. He took her hand and walked with her down the grassy hillside on the back edge of the cliff. There was a road of sorts near the bottom, more of a gravel path than an actual road, but it led around the bottom of the hill and then meandered off into a meadow. Attan still couldn't see any houses. "Where do you live?"
The little girl tugged his hand and led him along the path that curled back towards the Mattick.
"Elea!" A frantic voice called from around the bend, followed closely by a non-family woman with frizzled reddish brown hair and a worried frown on her face. "There you are! I told you . . ." Her voice fell away as she realized Elea was not alone. She recognized Attan immediately as Family, if not the Prince, and her eyes widened in apprehension. Attan flickered, held to reality only by Elea's small hand. He steadied. He was the Prince.
"I'm sorry if she bothered you," the woman said quickly. She took Elea's hand in her own and hustled her up the road back the way she'd come, towards the river.
Attan was left staring after them wondering what had just happened. But he shrugged. Not his problem. At least the little girl was safe now. Letting go of his body, Attan became wind once more and followed the Mattick back to Low City.
It was dark by the time Attan made it home. He saw the glowing core of his mother and made a beeline for it, becoming fire and melding with her. Mother's fire was his earliest memory, and his most comforting. For a while he lost himself in her and let the outside world fade from his memory.
In their Elemental state they needed no words; indeed, physical concerns became unimportant in the joy of just being. But those concerns didn't disappear completely. If they did, then the Elemental would have made the transition to pure elemental and left the physical world behind forever. Doll Spencer wasn't ready to do that yet, and not even Attan wanted to give it up completely, although for him it was often a struggle. He loved his mother, though. With a shudder that rippled through him as he took back his human form, Attan knelt by his mother's feet and gazed up at her.
With their merge, she had seen what he had experienced today, so Attan had no need to tell her again. He'd felt her fear for him—missing for hours—as if anything could truly happen to him. But Doll had been physical first, and thought like a physical being still. Attan couldn't be killed no matter what happened to him, any more than his father could, anymore. "Where's Dad?" Attan asked, realizing that King Jet was not here. The royal Family kept a very low profile in Low City where the King chose to live. Their house was in an ordinary neighborhood. When the King needed to act in an official capacity, he used the Family residence further uptown—or he traveled back to Darcy, the traditional seat of the royal Family.
His mother kissed his forehead. "He had to go to Parrion for a few days."
Parrion! And Attan had missed it! All for the sake of a friendship he didn't even want with some human kid. But that explained why he wasn't in more trouble for coming home so late.
"Your father trusts you," Doll said intuitively. But then again, they had just shared experiences mind-to-mind so it was no surprise she guessed what Attan was thinking. "He wants you to go to Macek's school. It's good for the other children to see the King's son is also part of the program."
Attan grimaced, but he dutifully kissed his mother good-night. The other children didn't think much of him, King's son or not.
At school the next morning, Greg avoided his gaze, which suited Attan just fine. He wondered what time the non-family boy had made it home last night and if he had gotten in trouble for being late. Belatedly, Attan realized Greg could have been stranded on that little beach, or the boat could have sunk on the trip home. He should have checked. But Greg was here, so somehow he had made it back in one piece.
After their lesson, where Attan was careful to catch fish like the other Elementals, Greg took his allotted portion and left without having said one word to Attan.
Curious, and a little annoyed—he hadn't started the fight—Attan followed him to the old man's truck. Greg knocked loudly on the hood, startling the old man into wakefulness. "Let's go, Dad."
Dad? The shadow that was Attan detached itself from a nearby wall and stared after the truck as it chugged down the street. That old man was Greg's father? Without really knowing why he was suddenly so interested, Attan followed the truck in the form of wind. As Attan had half-suspected, the pair did not drive out to Greg's farm on the outskirts of Low City, but instead followed the main road south, paralleling the route Attan and Greg had taken by river the day before.
At an inland village which was roughly close to where Greg and Attan had stopped yesterday, the two got of the truck and handed over Greg's entire allotment of fishes without taking any payment for it that Attan could see. They didn't stay long, almost immediately getting back into their truck and driving back the way they came. Attan would have left them at that point, but the truck veered off the main road several miles north of the village and headed towards the Mattick River. His curiosity piqued, Attan watched while father and son hauled out tattered nets and waded into the river in an isolated spot. They cast their nets again and again, and eventually came away with three fishes, which they carefully put inside Greg's basket. Then they drove back, this time all the way to Greg's own farm where he passed the fishes off as his own.
Why the elaborate game, Attan wondered. Why did they give away Greg's allotment of fishes and then try to catch more for their own use? That must have been what Greg wanted Attan to do yesterday—but why were he and his father feeding this other village? Something was going on, and Attan was going to find out what it was, even if it meant winning back Greg's trust. It's what his father would want him to do.