Van Ella sniffed and wiped a tear away with the sleeve of her home-made wizard’s gown. It was too big, of course. Her aunt and uncle had reminded her so many times just how much it had cost them to get even this second hand gown. It was the end of Bonding Day, and all of the eligible young Wizard Apprentices had found a Wizard to take them.
All but Ella.
She sat there despondently in the village square as the last rays of the sun cast long shadows in front of her. Her oversized sleeves and floppy pointed hat - the traditional costume of Bonding Day - made her feel even more ridiculous now that all of the other prospective apprentices had been chosen.
She thought back to the eager anticipation that had shown on all of the young faces of the apprentice candidates at the beginning of the day. She recalled her own nervous excitement at the prospect of becoming an Apprentice.
Every year, Wizards, Sorcerers, Hedge Witches, and Mysterious Entities from all over the Realm would gather at this large village of HavenHold to choose an Apprentice. The villagers had turned it into a huge event over the years, with booths selling Bonding Day gifts, peddlers selling food, and other tents with acrobats, fortune tellers, and other diversions.
Van Ella had pinned all her hopes on this day. She lived in a small remote village many hours away, devoid of not only anything interesting to do, but of anyone to do it with. Her only friend had been a farmer’s son who was three years younger than her. His name was Ed, and like most farmers sons was dull as a box of rocks.
Van Ella had been a burden on her poor aunt and uncle for many years, as they were quick to remind her on every occasion they could find.
“It wasn’t my fault my parents died when I was little.” She thought to herself. A scrap of colored paper blew by in the courtyard. A remnant of the day’s celebration. Even the peddlers had packed up for the day and had left.
An official looking man came up to Ella, who was sitting on the raised lip of the stone water fountain that sat grandly in the center of the courtyard.
“Excuse me young lady, but shouldn’t you be heading home? Bonding Day is over.”
Ella sniffed again. “I know.” She said quietly.
“I’m waiting for my Aunt and Uncle to come get me” she lied. The man sauntered off to another more important errand.
The truth was her Aunt and Uncle were not coming to get her. She had begged them to let her go to Bonding Day, which they readily agreed as they saw this as a golden opportunity to be released from the obvious burden of caring for her, but beyond getting her a second hand Bonding Cloak and Hat, they left her to hitch a ride with one of the traveling merchants that was also going to Bonding Day to sell turnips and cabbages.
Ella couldn’t imagine why anyone would be inclined to buy such things on a day intended for celebration and magic, but the merchant had left an hour ago with empty boxes and a full purse of coppers.
Ella despondently reached into her small bag of personal belongings and found a stale half loaf of bread she had procured from her Aunt’s kitchen. She was sure her Aunt was angrily complaining about its disappearance right about now.
She had been so sure she would be picked today. She was of age, 16, and she had The Gift. She could SEE ley lines and forces of magic in the air. She had never attempted to actually use magic, because she had heard the stories. Stories of changelings, victims of wild magic gone wrong or improperly formed spells.
Her Aunt and Uncle had been terrified at first, when she had shyly spoken of her ability, but when she did not turn into a twisted beast after several months they went back to mostly ignoring her as before.
She sniffed again. Holding back tears.
Everything had seemed to be going so well. Wizards and powerful Sorcerers of all shapes and sizes had been milling about the huge courtyard when Ella had arrived. The Bondings had already started as she jumped awkwardly off the cart that morning, as evidenced from the squeals of delight or guffaws from pleased Wizards or Apprentices finding their Bonded
No one really knew why this place was so special, and why Apprentices were selected in this way, but some said it had been the result of a pact between the goddess The-ire and Man in order to ensure that the wielders of magic were chosen carefully and that the knowledge of magic was passed down successfully to younger generations.
Regardless of its origins, Bonding Day was the day when young men and women left their families and began incredible adventures as Apprentices to strange and magical people.
Many Wizards and Witches had shown ready interest in Ella. They were all dressed in interesting clothing - usually with stars or flowing robes. But after a few cursory questions, they would shy off, almost sharply.
Come to think of it, they almost always would fade away after hearing her name.
“My name? It’s Van Ella. I know it’s an unusual name, but it’s the one my parents gave me”
She had said to one bearded old man by the name of Celcior.
“Van Ella is it?” He had huffed. “Excuse me, I see someone I really must talk to.” And he was gone back into the crowd.
The sun had almost completely disappeared below the horizon, and the twilight sky was bringing with it a chill that gave Ella a shiver. She sighed. Bonding Day was just about over. And nobody wanted her.
It was then that she began to feel her feet shaking , or rather the ground beneath her feet. There was a rumbling sound in the distance, growing louder by the moment.
Suddenly, a horse and carriage burst into the courtyard. But it was not like any carriage Ella had ever seen in all her life. The horse was black as night itself, but had glowing blue eyes. Ella sucked in her breath at the sight of this unnatural creature. It’s sides heaved with exertion and was that steam coming from its nostrils?
She pulled her eyes from the thunderous horse and gazed at the carriage. It seemed to be made of metal, though smooth and not dull like most swords or tools that she had seen blacksmiths make. Also, she could see tiny arcs of lightning play across the various surfaces, and points of light shown along the outer edges, shining like stars even in this dimming light.
The ebony horse spotted Ella in the otherwise empty courtyard and turned sharply toward her. His hooves struck the cobblestones with such force that sparks flew with each step.
In the span of a girl’s heartbeat the metal carriage skidded to a stop right in front of her. It had moved so fast Ella yelped in surprise and fell backward. Her posterior splashed into the fountain’s pool and she found herself staring up at the goddess The-ire.
A moment later a firm warm hand grasped hers and gently lifted her from the pool.
The hand was attached to one of the most striking persons Ella had ever seen. His eyes were deep blue - almost aquamarine - and he was dressed head to toe in a supple red leather outfit. The trim of his legs and his jacket were studded with some sort of metal that seemed to catch what was left of the light and focus it back to Ella’s eyes. He had a very thin, tall build with a neat black goatee. His hair seemed dark, but Ella couldn’t tell very well as he wore a red leather broad brimmed hat like she’d seen animal herders wear in the fields to keep the sun from their eyes.
He gave her a genuine smile that revealed perfect teeth. It seemed his whole face lit up when he smiled, and Ella found herself short of breath between the stark chill of the pool water and the sheer presence of the man in front of her. She could even smell the slight aroma of leather and ... something else. Was that cinnamon?
“I’m terribly sorry my young lady. It seems I’ve arrived too late for Bonding Day. I never do seem to work out the timing right.”
He looked around the empty courtyard.
“Well, as you can see, all the Apprentices have been chosen and left with their Bonded.” Ella said somewhat bitterly. It was obvious now. This was a Wizard. One late to the party. She was sorry to say he was going to be disappointed.
He looked crestfallen. “That is most unfortunate. Most unfortunate indeed. I am in desperate need of an Apprentice.”
Ella bit her lip, “Well, it looks like you’re going to leave empty handed.” Her eyes began to tear up but she wiped them quickly before he could notice.
The huge horse turned his head and stared right at Ella with those glowing blue eyes and snorted. Ella shivered, and not from her wet backside.
“This is not good, not good at all. You see, I was not looking for just anyone. There was someone in particular I need. If she has been Bonded with another Wizard...”
For the briefest moments she saw his eyes pass from blue to purple to red before phasing back to the translucent blue that she felt she could fall into.
“I met many of the Apprentices when I came here.” She offered, her throat dry from more than a bit of apprehension. “Perhaps I would know their name and I could tell you who they Bonded with.”
He looked at her appraisingly. She shivered again.
“Her name is Ella. Van Ella”