The next morning, Aleckster leapt with excitement from his bed. The pain of losing his mother receded into his pack. Every wolf in the forest offered to support him by carrying a small part of the emotion. He cried for the first time last night, and called out for his mother in pitiful whimpers, knowing his words remained unheard. Still, it made him feel better. His tears led him to the forest, floating from the mind of one wolf to another. Rather than spectate, he discovered the ability to take control of the pack, forcing them to do his bidding. They resisted surrender, some more than others, but all succumbed to the superiority of his mind.
I’m getting better.
While awake, it took a great deal of concentration to reach out to the pack and take control of a wolf. In his dreams, he reigned supreme. Still, the wolves responded to his suggestions better than being made into puppets. Projecting commands or suggestions for where to find prey, and only a few rebellious males disobeyed. The others revered him as a god.
The Great Alpha.
Wolves knew no words, save for Gemma, but understood emotion and intent. In their minds, Aleckster prowled on all fours, fangs bared to take down prey. While physically smaller than even the most ragged tramp among them, they saw him as gargantuan.
Let Ryon keep his magic. What I have is better.
He frowned at the thought. After mulling it over in his mind, he knew what must be done about the situation concerning his friend’s newfound gift. That conversation would come soon after breakfast, but Aleckster wondered what the Circle might think of his own abilities. He did not possess the spark; that much he knew. People always said, “If you have the spark, you’ll know it.”
Old Magic. Elf magic.
Perhaps one being in all of Espiria knew the answers, but Aleckster would never enter the forest again if his life depended on it. Recalling the night the elf maid first came to him, he remembered loving her at once. Her memory left his heart stricken with fear. What kind of being could change a man so profoundly? And with nothing more than a song?
Grabbing a bulging leather pouch he’d prepared the night before, he tied it to his belt along with his sword. Hurrying to the kitchen, he chased away the thoughts with a full helping of scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. After washing it down with some mulled wine when the cook wasn’t looking, Aleckster bolted from the kitchen and navigated through the castle. Just before he cleared the door, Charles caught him by the arm.
“And where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I’m going to see Malyn and Ryon,” Aleckster replied. He saw no reason to lie; there was nothing suspicious about him going to see his friends.
“You’re supposed to be looking after Jessa,” Charles scolded. “You ran off all day yesterday, and I had to take care of her. I’m too busy for that right now.”
“The funeral is over,” Aleckster objected. “Father can go back to being lord, and you can go back to being the golden son.”
“It’s my duty as firstborn to be groomed to rule. I’ll be Lord of the Eastlands after Father someday.”
“Get groomed another day,” Aleckster complained. “I want to play with my friends, not babysit Jessa.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what you want!” Charles barked. “If you want to play your friends then fine. Go. But you’re taking Jessa with you.”
There was no point in arguing. If Aleckster fought it, Charles would tell Father, and Father would make him bring Jessa along. He relented, and waited at the gate until his little sister came sauntering down the hall. Red-faced and puffy-eyed, the grief of losing their mother still stung her expression. Try as he might not to, Aleckster took pity upon her. Inconvenient as her presence was in the moment, she was still his little sister.
“Jessa, you’re going to go with Aleckster,” Charles said. “Would you like that?”
She nodded meekly.
Aleckster took her by the hand, but not before giving Charles a look of disdain. His brother only rolled his eyes and turned around to continue his grooming.
The walk through the castle grounds went at a slow pace. Perhaps some exercise and fresh air might do Jessa some good.
“How are you, Sister?”
She shrugged, unwilling to vocalize her reply.
“Yeah,” Aleckster agreed. “Me too.”
Clearing the gate, the two of them walked hand-in-hand down the wide dirt path leading to the village outside. Bustling with life, peasants working fields and other various trades crisscrossed through the walkway. From the bakery, the aroma of fresh yeast rolls pulled from the oven filled the air. From the smith, the relentless clang-clang-clang of hammer smashing into anvil rang out. Inside, Tommen and Kirk huddled around their father, watching and learning. Aleckster flashed a smile and gave a wave.
The boys smiled and returned the gesture. Neither left their father’s side, unable to escape their lesson. Aaron was nowhere to be found, probably running drills with the other cadets. Aleckster didn’t like the idea of someone like Aaron Smithson with a sword. The familiar weight of the one hanging from the belt tied around Aleckster’s tunic reminded him of something.
He turned to walk back to the smith, dragging Jessa behind him. She gave no resistance, and fell in line beside him.
“Master Smith,” Aleckster called out.
Garrett Smithson was a hulk of a man. He stood shorter than Terrance or Charles, but twice as wide. The outline of bulky muscles hiding under a healthy layer of fat was enough to intimidate any man. Aleckster figured he was the strongest man in the village. Every last inch of him was covered in course hair, and while he shaved his head bald with a razor, he wore a thick, shaggy beard. He looked more bear than man. But his beady blue eyes beneath furrowed brows were kind, and he had a reputation for being gentle.
“Good day, Lord Aleckster.”
“Oh, I’m not a lord. That’s my father.”
“You’re a man now,” Garrett reminded him. “Your father’s authority extends to you just as it does your brother.”
The thought amused Aleckster. He had no interest in ordering people about, collecting taxes, making laws, or any other mundane chores belonging to a lord.
“I just came to say thank you for making my sword.”
“It is my pleasure to obey, little lord,” Garrett smiled.
“I know you had to do it, but I just wanted you to know that I appreciate the make of it. You do fine work.”
Garrett grinned, swelling with pride as he gave a slight bow of his head.
“It’s very kind of you to say so. I’ve got to tend to my work now, and my boys have lots to learn today. Anything else I can do for you, little lord?”
“No,” Aleckster replied. “I’m sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to say thank you. Good day.”
He turned and led his sister further into the village, passing the post master’s house. Ryon lived closer to the castle, but Aleckster wanted to meet up with Malyn first. She’d be cross with him if he went without her. Besides, the plan was to meet up at her father’s mill and then go to Ryon’s together. No need to change the plan.
What to do about Jessa…
His little sister couldn’t keep a secret to save her life. If she found out Ryon possessed the spark, she would go pronouncing it from the castle walls. Perhaps her grief might keep her subdued, but Aleckster did not want to rely on that.
If everything goes as planned, there will be no need to keep it secret.
Malyn waited at the edge of the road for him, waving excitedly. Her enthusiasm stopped abruptly when she saw Jessa. Concerned, she approached with a befuddled look on her face.
“Good morning, Lady Jessa,” she greeted. “You look well.”
“I didn’t expect you to be with us today.”
Malyn shot a look at Aleckster, so quick Jessa couldn’t have seen it. No matter the circumstances, she would be mindful of Jessa’s feelings.
“Father said I’m to go with Aleckster while he’s giving Charles lessons to be lord.”
“We’re going to the post master’s station to go see Ryon,” Malyn said. “Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
Jessa gave another nonchalant shrug. Malyn stroked her head affectionately and motioned for them to start down the road. Looking over the little girl’s head, she gave Aleckster a look of bewilderment and frustration. Rather than verbalize, he gave her look to tell her everything would be okay. Seemingly unconvinced, she gave a wry expression and continued back up the road.
“How much longer will you be in Oakheart?” Malyn asked.
“No telling,” Aleckster replied. “Any day now Father will tell us we’re to return to Wolf Haven.”
“He said until the end of the week,” Jessa chimed in. “He told me this morning at breakfast. Where were you?”
“I ate in the kitchen,” Aleckster replied.
“Because I was in a hurry to go see Malyn and Ryon.”
“Aren’t you excited when it’s time to see your friends? Stop asking questions, Jessa.”
“I don’t have any friends in Oakheart,” she said sadly.
“That’s not true,” Malyn said, reaching down to take Jessa’s hand. “I’m your friend.”
“You’re Aleckster’s friend. You’re only being nice to me because I’m his sister.”
Malyn raised her eyebrows in surprise. Rather than argue, she held fast to Jessa’s hand and took a right turn towards the post master’s house. The house had been erected as a great log cabin and stood as one of the oldest structures in Oakheart. Dry splintered beams interlocked to form a sturdy house. His uncle, Sir Richard Greenglade offered to have a new post office and rookery built half a hundred times, but Ryon’s father refused each time. He said the old cabin possessed “classic charm.”
Having crossed the threshold many times before, Aleckster led them in. A few clerks sat behind tables either reading or rolling scrolls. The squawking of ravens from the back echoed through the high-ceiling building. Edgar, Ryon’s father, stood holding a sack of corn to toss into the cages for the noisy birds. He was a short, skinny man with long auburn hair pulled back into a loose pony tail. His ginger and gray beard consumed most of his face, save for his hooked nose and bright blue eyes.
“Good morning, Lord Aleckster!” he greeted. “Lady Jessa, and Malyn. I assume the three of you are looking for Ryon.”
“Don’t call me that, Edgar,” Aleckster whined.
“You’re a man now, and I’m to address you as lord.”
“Everyone keeps reminding me. You can call me by my first name; I give you permission.”
“So long as I have your leave,” Edgar smiled. “Ryon is in the study upstairs with his nose buried in his books. I tell him all the time that studies are important, but so is fresh air and sunshine. Do me a favor and get him out of the house. It’ll do him some good.”
“I’ll do just that, Edgar,” Aleckster said with a smile. “You have my word—as lord.”
Leaving Edgar to tend the ravens, they started up the steep cabin stairs. Jessa, short as she was, put both feet on one stair before ascending to the next. Malyn took long-legged bounding leaps to get ahead of them.
“Show off,” Aleckster huffed. Tempted to follow after her, he deigned to stay with his sister until she made it to the top. They found Ryon sitting crossed-legged on the floor, throwing a blanket over whatever he had been working on.
The spell book from the woods witch no doubt…
Glass beads and baubles lay scatter over the floor, falling into the tiny grooves between the boards. Open jars filled with various reagents arranged in no particular order on the desk caught Aleckster’s eye. It didn’t take a scholar or acolyte to recognize magic reagents. Dusts, powders, metals, crushed up leaves. All of it reeked of magic.
“Could you be more obvious?” Aleckster asked.
Ryon gave him a sour expression, his blue eyes flicking in annoyance. He pushed his long ginger hair away from his eyes and stood to his feet. He was a little shorter than Aleckster and a little thicker around the middle. Barefoot and shirtless, he walked over to the dresser and threw his tunic over his head without his belt.
“I wasn’t expecting company so early in the morning,” he complained.
“It’s only a few hours from midday,” Malyn pointed out.
“Why are you here?”
“Is this silverthorn?” Jessa asked. It took her only a few seconds to float over to the table with the magic reagents. “And starbloom! Where did you get that? It’s really rare. Wow, you even have magnesium and sulfur too.”
“Don’t touch those!” Ryon shouted, moving to swat Jessa’s hand away.
“Leave her alone,” Aleckster said. It was the first excitement he’d seen from his sister in weeks, and he was not about to have Ryon ruin it. “She’s been studying the arcane longer than you have; she might be able to teach you a thing or two.”
Ryon’s eyes went wide with fear.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you?” Aleckster demanded. He said no more, staring his friend down in cold anger. With gritted teeth, Ryon scowled at Malyn who looked away in shame.
“Stop being such a prick. You should have told me right away.”
“I was afraid,” Ryon admitted, his expression softening.
“Told you what?” Jessa demanded. “Afraid of what?”
“I’m your best friend, you idiot,” Aleckster countered. “You’re like a brother to me. What did you think I would do?”
“I was going to tell you eventually.”
“You told Malyn,” Aleckster pointed out.
“Who was supposed to keep it a secret,” Ryon snapped, turning again to Malyn who bit her lower lip in guilt.
“Don’t treat her that way,” Aleckster said. “It’s not like she told the constable.”
“What secret?” Jessa interjected. “What are you talking about?”
Defeated, Ryon shook his head. Brooding and quiet most of the time, this anger brought more words from his friend than Aleckster had heard in a long time. He caught sight of his clenched fists and trembling lip and knew he was about to cry.
“Don’t start that,” Aleckster said.
“Easy for you to say,” Ryon sniffed, wiping furiously at a runaway tear trickling down his cheek. His pale skin went red and puffy in a second. “You know what they’ll do once they find out.”
“What who is going to do?” Jessa said, raising her voice. “What’s going on?”
“Show her,” Aleckster said. “Show all of us. That’s why we came; and you might have everyone else convinced with your quiet and mysterious act. I know you like to show off.”
“Aleckster…” Ryon whined.
“It will be fine. I promise. Now go on. I’m dying to see this.”
“Fine,” Ryon relented. “Here goes. Illuminara!”
All at once the glass beads on the floor blossomed with prismatic illumination. Reds, blues, greens, whites, and colors on the spectrum Aleckster could not recall glowed with awe inspiring brilliance. He gasped, unable to contain his reaction. Jessa squealed with delight. Malyn only smiled, having seen this before.
“How did you do that?” Jessa asked. She reached down and grabbed one of the green ones and held it close to her face. Giggling with excitement, she assigned herself the task of picking up each individual bead and tucking them into her dress like an apron. As much as he enjoyed the light show, seeing his little sister smile again was more rewarding.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Ryon said sourly. “As soon as word gets out, they’ll send a Sage to have me assessed. And then cleric to have me made meek.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Aleckster said.
“Oh you expect Jessa to keep this a secret?”
“She won’t have to.”
“Damn it, Alecks! You can’t possibly know what this means. Your father is the most important man in the Eastlands. Mine is a lowly post master at Oakheart. Do you know that it cost a golden sun per year to study at Faewater? Two if I wanted to study in Glade Hill like a proper mage. The spark is the only thing special about me and now they’re going to take it away.”
“They won’t,” Aleckster assured.
“That’s what they do to common folk who can’t afford the tuition, Alecks!”
“I’m going to pay for your tuition.”
Malyn’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth with a gasp. Jessa stopped picking up the baubles and waited to see what would happen next. Ryon just froze, staring Aleckster down in disbelief.
“You…you what?” he managed. “You’d do that?”
“Sure. Do you know how much gold I got in gifts for my hunt?”
Aleckster reached to his belt for the bulging leather pouch and pulled the leather cord loose. Opening it to reveal its contents, twenty golden suns lay inside. To him, the son of a lord, it was pocket change, but to a commoner like Ryon, it was a fortune.
“Are you putting me on?” Ryon demanded. “Are you doing this to get back at me for keeping it from you?”
“Come on, man! I’m not that petty. I’m cross at you for not telling me, but I forgave you last night before I even came over. You deserve this. I’m not going to let anyone take this away from you. What’s the point in being the son of a lord if you can’t throw gold around every now and then?”
Ryon burst into tears. Hiding his face in his hands, he stood there sobbing and trembling.
“I thought you’d be happy.”
“He is happy, you moron!” Malyn interjected. She stood alongside Ryon and wrapped her arms around him. When Ryon weakly returned the gesture, she motioned for Aleckster to join her. Rolling his eyes, he cinched the bag and returned it to his belt.
“Come here, and stop blubbering like a girl,” Aleckster said, wrapping his friend in the manliest embrace he could conjure. Ryon could barely hug him back. Tears and snot dripping from his face found its way onto Aleckster’s tunic.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Malyn demanded. “Only girls cry?”
“Clearly not,” Aleckster tilted his head to Ryon. He chuckled a little between the tears, and tightened his embrace.
“You cannot know what this means to me,” he managed to say. “I’ll be able to tell Father now. I can become a Sage. I’ll be the first person in our family to do something worthwhile with his life in generations.”
“Do you know the three principle virtues of House Balewyn?” Aleckster asked, releasing his friend from the hug.
Ryon shook his head.
“Unity, charity, and justice!” Jessa took the liberty of answering.
“We are brothers, though not by blood. What is the point of wealth except to share it with others? And what justice it would it be to take away something that makes you so happy?”
“Your father is just going to let you give me this money?” Ryon stammered.
“It’s my money, not his,” Aleckster replied. “He literally told me it was mine to spend as I wish. This is how I wish to spend it, and as everyone loves to remind me of late, now I’m a lord too so what I say goes. And I say you’re going to be the finest mage in the Eastlands.”
“There’s one condition,” Aleckster said.
“Anything—just name it.”
Aleckster walked over to the blanket on the floor and plucked it up to reveal on old, leather-bound book open to lines of arcane symbols. He picked it up, slapped it shut and shoved into his friend’s chest.
“This book has to go back where it came from. You were worried they were going to make you meek because you couldn’t pay for the tuition. Do you have any idea what would happen if they caught you with that?”
“It was the only way I had to learn,” Ryon offered.
“Not anymore. We’re taking it back. Today. Right now. The four of us.”
“You’re right,” Ryon agreed. “It was stupid. I was just…desperate to learn.”
“And you,” Aleckster turned to Jessa. “If you speak a word of this,” he motioned to the book, “to anyone at all…I’m not sure what I’ll do to you, but rest assured it won’t be pretty.”
“I won’t say anything,” Jessa said in a neutral tone.
“Jess!” Aleckster pressed.
“I won’t!” she insisted. “I know I’m not very good at keeping a secret when it comes to things that aren’t important. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Ryon. I won’t say anything, I swear it.”
“Good. It’s settled then. Now get your shoes on, Ryon. The four of us have a date with a woods witch.”