They buried Gemma in Oakheart. A cemetery atop a hill growing with roses from all over the realm acted as the final resting place for many a Greenglade, and now it served as hers too.
“She always considered herself a Greenglade,” Terrance said, “and she was happiest in Oakheart. It’s only right that her bones go to her family.”
“We were going to visit,” Aleckster said. “She and I were going to go—just the two of us. If she was happiest here, then why did she—?” He found himself unable to finish the question aloud.
Terrance made all of the arrangements, letting Charles attend to the daily affairs as Lord. To Aleckster, they gave the responsibility of caring for and comforting his younger sister. Jessa stayed quiet most of the time, and when not, she cried. Aleckster held her close and said nothing, nor did he share her tears. Not when they lowered their mother’s body all wrapped in linen down into the ground. Not even when the bearers covered her in dirt one shovelful at a time. Aleckster could only watch. Numb. He couldn’t say why. Deep down inside, hidden somewhere beneath the chaotic silence, he felt grief. Sorrow. Mourning.
Why are there so many words for pain?
Despite the emotions, he could not find himself capable of expressing. Perhaps he felt the need to be strong for his sister, but even after the funeral, alone and in private, he shed no tears. He might have his father and brother fooled. They told him from time to time they were proud of how strong he was. If only they knew..but the pack knew better. From the wolves, he hid nothing.
It’s not as if I have a choice.
They followed him wherever he went, or perhaps there really were that many wolves in the forest. Hundreds. More. And the turmoil roiling in Aleckster’s heart bled into the wolves as they shared and carried his burden. Long, low howls and anxious whines filled his head like a dirge without melody or meter.
His aunts, uncles, and cousins offered all the sympathy one might hope for. Hugs, kisses, encouraging pats on the back.
“If there is anything I can do…” and then they trailed off because everyone knew there was nothing to be done.
“Can you bring my mother back to life?” Aleckster wanted to ask, but found himself saying, “Thank you,” but unsure as why. Reflex, perhaps. How could he take offense at their inability to say or do the right thing? His own mother was dead and he hadn’t the slightest idea what to say.
A few days after they buried Gemma, Aleckster found himself sitting alone on a fallen mossy log. He recognized the place. The youth of Oakheart came to play here. The trees grew really far apart for a square mile of terrain, leaving lots of room to run and play. It was here his fight with Aaron Smithson transpired.
This is where it all started.
Woods surrounded him, serene save for the occasional critter or creeper scurrying around and rustling the leaves, but no voices. No people. No wolves. Aleckster reached for his emotion, stabbing at the pain. All attempts to evoke a response yielded naught. It concerned him.
Feel something. Anything.
No amount of will power could change his state. He shrugged, snapping a twig he had been fiddling with. He let it drop, picked up another, and repeated his actions. Over and over, one after the other. He collected his kindling in a pile growing with gradual monotony. Hours, days, years, for all he knew, droned on. He forgot about his pain and inability to feel it. He forgot about everything until a voice broke the silence.
He turned and saw Malyn, the miller’s daughter. Taller than him by no more than a finger’s length, she dressed in commoner’s clothes. Boots, trousers, a white linen shirt laced to the neck, and a thick leather belt at her waist. Boy’s clothes. Malyn wore her hair cropped short, much to her mother’s chagrin. Thin and nimble like Aleckster, she tread lightly, continuing her approach.
My hair is longer than hers is, Aleckster mused, running a finger through his sandy blond locks.
The other kids made fun of Malyn and said she looked like a boy. They called her crass names and shamed her for her looks. Society expected certain things from girls. Long hair. Dresses. Perfume. Malyn preferred sticks, and dirt, and races. She was one of Aleckster’s best friends.
She’s too pretty to be a boy.
With a bright smile, dark blue eyes, long neck, and narrow jawline, Malyn would grow to be a beautiful woman. No one else could see it. No the other boys and especially not her family, but Aleckster saw her. He wanted to smile at the thought, but joy, like pain, proved out of his reach as well. He’d never thought of her this way until now.
“How long have you been out here?”
“You’ve just been sitting here?” she asked. He nodded. “Are you okay? Wait! Sorry! Of course you’re not. Stupid question.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Aleckster said. “It’s fine. No one knows what to say or to ask in situations like this. There’s no right or wrong thing, I guess. But yeah, I came out here to clear my head. Get some quiet.”
“Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“No,” Aleckster said at once, and reached for her arm before he realized it. “Stay. Please.”
Malyn closed the distance between them and took a seat next to Aleckster on the log. She didn’t say anything for a while. They two sat together and kicked at the dirt with their boots in comfortable companionship.
“You’re all covered with dust,” Aleckster pointed out.
“It’s flour, “Malyn explained. “Papa had me grind up a bunch of wheat today. It’s in my hair too. Watch.”
She ruffled her hair like feathers and a faint, powdery cloud wafted from the crown of her head. Aleckster tried to laugh with her, but could conjure nothing. Not even a smile. But just a few minutes in Malyn’s company made him feel better—or some equivalent of that. A distraction, albeit a welcome one, proved to be just what he needed.
“Anything exciting happen since the last time I was here?” he asked hopefully. Malyn shook her head. He nodded, unsure of what to say next.
“Aaron Smithson is going to join the army,” she offered. “I heard his Papa yelling at him one day about how he gets into too many fights. Says it would do him some good to be in a place where he’s the smallest, weakest one.”
“What about Kirk and Tommen?” Aleckster inquired. “Last I heard, they wanted to be soldiers too. If all three of them join them army then who will be Oakheart’s smith?”
Malyn shrugged. Suddenly, her eyes widened as her face lit up with excitement. Something must have dawned on her. As quick as the expression materialized, it dissolved into apparent hesitation.
“What?” Aleckster pressed. “Tell me.”
“I’m not supposed to say anything.”
“You can’t make a face like that and not say anything,” he complained.
“Fine,” Malyn relented, “but you have to promise not to tell.”
He reached for her hand again. This time, he cupped his hands around her for just a moment, looking her in the eye as he gave it an affectionate squeeze.
“I won’t tell.”
“Okay,” Malyn sighed. “Ryon has the spark.”
Aleckster’s eyes widened. Having “the spark” meant Ryon developed a rare and coveted ability: to access the energy in his spirit with his mind, granting him the gift of magic. He read in one of his history books that only one in ten thousand people possessed the gift.
“Is he a spellweaver or a spellbinder?” Aleckster asked.
“Spellbinder,” Malyn replied. “That’s why we have to keep it a secret.”
Most people with the spark were spellbinders. Their use of magic was limited to the arcane language. Spellweavers, on the other hand, could conjure magic from sheer force of will and imagination. If one in ten thousand people possessed the spark, one in ten thousand of those emerged a spellweaver.
“He’s afraid Sanctus Dei is going to make him meek,” Aleckster realized aloud. Malyn offered a grim nod.
“I’ve never seen him so happy when he found out, and it would devastate him if he had to give it up.”
The Circle regulated magic and law in the land. Any person possessing the spark must be put to the test. If deemed worthy, they were offered acceptance to learn from the Sages, masters of magic in the kingdom of Azur’nth. Spellweavers got in for free, but for spellbinders, the tuition was expensive, and most common folk couldn’t afford it. Unsupervised magic was a criminal offense, and to prevent its practice, the Circle would summon a cleric from Sanctus Dei to make the person meek. This meant cutting off the person’s connection to their spirit and returning them to normal.
“He found a book of spells and he’s been practicing some of the easier ones,” Malyn continued.
“He found a book of spells,” Aleckster said skeptically. “You mean he stole it.”
“He did not! A woods witch gave it to him.”
She grimaced and put her hand over her mouth as if to try to catch the words and put them back. Aleckster understood why she meant not to divulge that detail. It would be far better to steal a book from Oakheart’s library than receive one from a woods witch.
“Malyn, he could get in so much trouble,” Aleckster warned. “You know the Circle puts rogue mages to death if they’re caught practicing unsanctioned magic.”
“I told him the same thing, but he wouldn’t listen. He is so eager to learn and he has no one to teach him. His papa can’t afford the tuition, but he’s really good. You should see some of the things he’s learned to do!”
“What sorts of things?” Aleckster asked, curious.
“He knows the magic word to make fire! It’s Incendiaria. He taught it to me. He says there’s no harm in teaching it to me because it will only work when he says it.”
“Well,” Malyn said in a pondering tone, “he can hide light inside of glass beads. He says a spell over them, and they look just like ordinary glass beads. But when he says Illuminara they glow. Not for very long though. He’s practicing to get better. Yesterday he learned how to make the light different colors.”
“I want to see,” Aleckster decided. “Let’s go find him.”
“He’s going to be so mad at me for telling you.”
Aleckster doubted that. He and Ryon grew up friends their whole lives. Quiet, shy Ryon and talkative, boisterous Aleckster. Different as night and day in temperament, the two of them shared a passion for the written word. When Aleckster visited his family in Oakheart, his mother used to let Ryon stay in the castle and sleep over with Aleckster, his brother, and cousins. The two of them stayed up all night taking turns reading stories aloud.
“He would have told me eventually,” Aleckster reasoned. “And don’t worry; I won’t say anything. About the spark. Or the woods witch.”
“Please don’t mention that part,” Malyn pleaded. “Just tell him I told you about the spark. Pretend you don’t even know about the book or where he got it.”
“Fine, I’ll go along with that, but he’ll tell me himself. Just you wait and see. We tell each other everything.”
“Do you want to go now?” Malyn asked. Aleckster nodded. The two of them stood up from the fallen log, leaving only a bundle of broken twigs and kicked up dirt in their wake. Turning towards the town, they started off in a sprint, but stopped short after a few strides. Malyn gasped. Aleckster remained silent.
A wolf the size of a pony stood in their path, watching them with wary eyes. Sniffing and pacing back and forth, the she wolf whined and growled. Malyn let out a whimper and hid behind Aleckster in fright. This provoked the wolf to barking, and in turn made the poor girl scream.
“It’s alright!” Aleckster said, holding her close. The flour dust from her day’s work powdered onto his clothing, but he didn’t care. He liked the feeling of her body pressed close against his, and relished in wrapping his arms around her.
“It’s alright,” he repeated. “She’s not going to hurt us; she’s just curious. And she’s alone, separated from her pack.”
Malyn trembled, tears streaking her cheeks as she trembled in fright. He didn’t like the idea of her afraid and upset, but released her from his embrace long enough to take a few steps forward.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. “Don’t provoke him.”
“She,” Aleckster corrected. He ignored her plea and reached his hand towards the she wolf. This sent the animal in a skittish retreat, but she circled back, growling. Her tail wagged in excitement, but apprehension flooded her emotions. Aleckster could feel them.
It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.
The wolf stopped and tilted her head, as if she heard his thoughts. Aleckster wanted her to hear. With no better way to describe it, he tried to think at her instead of just inside his own mind.
My name is Aleckster, and this is Malyn. We’re just children playing in the forest. We won’t hurt you. Come. Be our friend.
He dared to take a step forward, and the wolf did not retreat. In deliberate strides, low to the ground, she silently moved towards Aleckster.
“What are you doing?” Malyn whispered hysterically. “Stop! He’ll bite you!”
“She,” Aleckster repeated. “This is a she wolf. She’s not going to bite me. Watch.”
It took a full minute of the two of them cautiously moving toward one another before they made contact. She sniffed furiously at his hand, and when she decided it was safe, moved to let Aleckster pet her.
She stunk. He could smell wild animal musk wafting off her. Her coat was matted and dirty, and she looked a little skinnier than most other wolves—like she hadn’t eaten in a while. Aleckster closed his eyes and opened his mind, diving into the wolf’s memories. Another female exiled her from the pack and stole her mate. Deeming her as odd, the pack would attack her if she came anywhere near them after a hunt, refusing to let her eat.
A lone wolf. Like me.
He reached for the leather satchel hanging over his shoulder. He brought some rashers of bacon from the kitchen before he left, in case he got hungry. This motion sent the wolf skittering away again, barking in agitation.
“Leave her alone, Aleckster,” Malyn begged. “Please! Make her go away. Shoo! Get out of here.”
“Stop it,” he countered. “She’s just hungry. I’m going to give her some food. Here, girl. Here. It’s bacon. You probably smelled it from a mile away. I bet that’s why you’re here.”
He unwrapped the salted meat from the brown butcher’s paper. Sniffing again at the air, the wolf paced back and forth, growling and barking, letting him know she wanted it. With her so excited and nervous, he knew he’d never get her to approach while he held food in his hand. Setting it down, he took a few steps back.
“Go on, girl,” he encouraged. “It’s okay. Eat it. You know you want to.”
Eat it, he urged.
The she wolf gobbled the whole mound of meat in a frenzy, barely bothering to chew. Still, Aleckster tasted the smoky salty meat in his mouth when she did. Salivating, he wiped his mouth and chuckled, marveling at the connection they shared. Her hunger, desperation, and anxiety at interacting with humans rang through his mind like a crashing symbol.
“She got kicked out of her pack,” Aleckster explained. “She’s all alone out here.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just know.”
Forgetting all about their appointment to go see Ryon, the two of them stayed with the she wolf until the sun started to set. It took several tries, but eventually, the wolf let them pet her. Malyn grew comfortable enough to reach out and stroke her dusty coat a few times. Over her fear in no time, soon she delighted in having befriended a wolf.
“She needs a name,” Malyn said. “Or maybe not. It’s not like we’ll ever see her again.”
“I think I’ll call her Gemma. For my mother.”
That brought a somber silence, but Aleckster stood firm in his decision.
“Would you like that, girl? Why don’t we call you Gemma?”
“It’s getting dark,” Malyn pointed out. “We need to get back. I guess we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to go see Ryon.”
Eager as Aleckster was to see Ryon’s new gift in action, he would have to wait until tomorrow. It would be nightfall before they reached Oakheart. Disappointed, he turned towards the town to finish the journey they started hours ago. Gemma whined and chased after them, wanting expressed permission to stay.
“You can’t come with us, Gemma,” Aleckster said. “Wolves aren’t allowed in town.” This set the wolf to whining and a few barks of protest. “We’ll come back tomorrow and see you. I promise. I’ll bring you some more bacon. Go on now! Leave us be.”
Go, he commanded. Gemma obeyed. She turned and darted into the woods.
“Bye, Gemma!” Malyn called out. She sprinted to catch up with Aleckster and then matched her pace to his. They walked side-by-side in tandem, sending up a steady rhythm of crushed grass with each step.
“How did you do that?” Malyn demanded.
“You know exactly what. How did you get Gemma to trust you? How did you know she wasn’t going to eat us?”
Aleckster didn’t reply at first, but offered his friend a grave expression telling her the answer to her question was not easy. Unsure as whether to tell her, he contemplated it for a while.
“I’m not going to go into it now,” he decided, “but only because I want to tell Ryon too. It’s a long story, and rather than taking the time to tell it twice, I’ll tell you both at once.”
“Tomorrow,” Malyn said. “You’ll tell us tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” Aleckster agreed.
Malyn stopped and extended her hand for him to shake. Any promises made among their group of friends were not considered official until sealed with a handshake. Aleckster reached out, took her hand, and gave it a firm shake.
“If we run, we can make it back home before the sun sets,” Malyn pointed out. “I’ll race you.”
“Ready?” Aleckster said. “Go!”
“Hey that’s no fair! You got a head start!”
He needed it. No one ran faster than Malyn. Laughing, the two of them sprinted towards the town. It was the first time Aleckster felt anything in days. The first time he’d smiled since his mother’s death. Grateful in knowing he was not doomed to linger in despair, he relished in the joy while the opportunity presented itself. Despite the circumstances, he decided that this day one was of the best days of his life. After so much sorrow as of late, it was a relief to know that happiness was still possible.
They made it into town just as the sun started to disappear. He bid Malyn farewell in front of her house, and she took him by surprise with a hug. She skipped forward and threw her arms around him. Blushing, she pulled away and ran the rest of the way to her house.
Grinning from ear to ear, Aleckster ran the rest of the way to castle, eager to go straight to bed. The sooner he fell asleep, the sooner he would wake up. And the sooner he woke up, the sooner he could watch Ryon do magic.
And see Gemma again.
Reaching out with his mind, he became keenly aware of her lying down in a makeshift den a few miles from where they’d spent so much time together. Lonely and sad, he sympathized. She felt so alone. Abandoned. In need of a friend.
Me too, girl. I’ll see you tomorrow. I promise.