Chapter 1: Anticipating Adventure
Rose Spellshield had always dreamed of reaching the castle that floated among the clouds. Only there, at the Skyhome Academy, could she learn magic powerful enough to help protect her family and her kingdom.
But today she was in the place that felt furthest in all the world from that castle—the fishing village of Smallport. Humble wooden buildings surrounded the cobblestone marketplace where she sat on a bench. A few seagulls drifted above, and the scent of the ocean was unmistakable. Despite the summer morning’s unrelenting sun, local peasants haggled at booths and hurried about.
Rose was content to sit in the shade. Even alchemical sunscreen could not entirely protect her pale skin, and she had the freckles to prove this. Her red hair with its gentle curls was tied back in her usual ponytail. She wore a linen tunic and trousers that were beneath her station.
“I just know today is the day,” Rose said to her companion beside her on the bench.
“I hope you’re right, My Lady,” the soft-spoken handmaiden answered. Like Rose, Emma was fourteen years old. She had long brunette hair, bangs, and brown eyes. Her dress was plain, as was appropriate for a serf—a member of the lowest social class in the Graylands Kingdom.
“Still, maybe I should go back to the manor,” Emma added. “I do need to clean your room.”
“You can get to that later. I know you want to see your entrance exam results as much as I do.”
Emma smiled. “Thank you.”
“There’s the mail!” Rose pointed to the road some distance off, where the village postman brought his horse-drawn cart to a stop before stepping down from the vehicle. She led her handmaiden in his direction. But before they could arrive, she saw a disheveled and much older peasant stumble toward the postman.
“Who is that?” Rose asked Emma. “I can’t believe he’s drunk so early.”
“Poor Hugh. His addiction always seems to be getting worse. I wish there were a way to help him.”
“Wait, isn’t he the guy who yells at you when you’re on errands?”
“Well, sometimes. But I don’t want him to be ill.”
Rose was alarmed when Hugh drew a wand from his belt and accosted the postman. “You broke my gate!”
“Your gate was already broken last time I saw it! You probably did it while blacked out, you old fool.” Some of the peasants nearby stopped to watch the altercation unfold, while others moved away.
Though Rose suspected that Hugh was too intoxicated to successfully use his weapon, she did not want to take any chances. Especially since his wand was an older iron model that was starting to rust—that meant there was danger of a misfire.
“Shields,” Rose said to Emma as she quickened her pace. She drew her own wand—a slender, unadorned steel rod. A flash of light surrounded both girls as they silently cast the spells. Their protective force fields then turned invisible.
Rose stopped with Emma a couple yards away from the quarreling men before addressing them. “Let’s all calm down. I’ll pay to fix your gate.”
“My Lady,” the postman said.
Unfortunately, Hugh missed his words by shouting over them. “Who the hell are you?”
“Don’t you recognize—” Emma began.
“Shut up! If I wanted to hear from you…well, I don’t wanna hear from you! Think you’re so much better than the rest of us, with your book magic and livin’ in the manor.”
Emma drew back as if struck. “I don’t think that.”
“Don’t talk to her that way!” Rose shouted. “And put away that wand.”
“He broke my gate! I’m gonna burn his stupid cart to the ground.” Hugh clumsily gestured toward it with his wand.
Rose reluctantly pointed her wand at him and concentrated on an arcane bolt. The small burst of white energy shot across the distance between them, accompanied by a quiet hum. She had limited the mana used by the spell so that it would be non-lethal. When the bolt struck Hugh’s wand arm, he cried out and dropped his weapon.
After this Rose cast a telekinetic spell. She floated the dropped wand slowly in her direction. Then she grasped it with her free hand, though she had to let her shield lapse to do so. There was no visible sign when her protective spell ended. Hugh looked to her furiously and clutched his hurt arm.
“I realize I’m dressed down a bit. But do you still not realize that I’m Lady Rose?” She put her wand back on her belt.
“My Lady!” Hugh cried. The postman shook his head in exasperation.
Rose heard someone approaching behind her, and glanced back. “Dad!” The family resemblance was obvious from their hair and green eyes—though her father was considerably taller than her, and kept his hair shorter. He was dressed in the typical style for noblemen, which included a fine surcoat and breeches.
“I saw what happened,” he said to Rose before addressing Hugh. “What is my father going to think, when he hears that one of his former soldiers has been behaving this way? Not to mention that threatening to destroy the mail is an offense against the Crown.”
Hugh’s expression became anguished, and he wiped away tears as they appeared. “I don’t care how I’m punished, My Lord. But I couldn’t bear it if Mage Gerard knew about this. I’m sorry.”
Emma looked to Rose in concern. “May I heal him, My Lady?”
Rose noticed a bruise forming where her bolt had struck. She nodded in reply. Emma approached Hugh and held out a hand toward his arm. Within seconds his injury went through the equivalent of days of healing, turning yellow before vanishing.
“Thanks,” he mumbled despondently. The handmaiden returned to Rose’s side.
Though she had lost her temper when he had insulted Emma, Rose now felt badly for the man. “Could you drop the charge if he agrees to get help with his drinking?” she asked her father.
“I could do that.” He looked to Hugh. “The village healer can help you through withdrawal, if you’re willing to make the attempt?”
“Thank you, Lord Spellshield!”
“I’ll take you there,” the postman offered.
Rose then recalled why she had been waiting in the marketplace to begin with. “The mail!” She gave Hugh’s wand to her father before hurrying to the postman. “Do you have anything for the manor?”
“Yes, My Lady.” He went to the back of his cart, briefly opened the rear door, and returned to hand her two letters. Rose’s heart leapt when she saw that the return addresses were for the Skyhome Academy. She passed Emma’s letter to her, and they opened them together.
“I’m going to the academy!” Rose cried.
Emma smiled at her. “We’re going.”
The postman helped Hugh onto his cart and soon departed. Meanwhile, the crowd who had watched the trouble dispersed.
“Let’s go home,” Rose’s father said. Both girls walked with him.
“You know, it’s amazing you can already cast without a wand,” Rose said to Emma.
“They were just minor spells.” She sounded self-conscious at the praise. But it was an impressive ability, especially given that her formal schooling in magic had not yet begun.
“Emma, would you draw Rose a bath?”
“Right away, Lord Spellshield.” After a deferential nod to him, the handmaiden hurried ahead. Rose and her father followed at a more leisurely pace.
“It wouldn’t hurt to encourage her once in a while,” she said once Emma was out of earshot.
“I know you grew up together, but don’t forget that she is a serf. Nobles should treat those of lower stations fairly—but we shouldn’t be overly familiar. The truth is, Emma can’t be both your servant and your friend.”
“I guess,” Rose groused.
“You’ll understand when you’re older. And by the way, you’re a bit past the age where you should be wearing your clothes from combat practice into the village.”
“Do I really need to take a bath and put on a dress just to get the mail?”
“You do if you want to spare me your mother’s wrath.”
“Oh, a guilt trip.” Rose could not help but smile. “You don’t fight fair.”
“That’s true. But don’t worry—I’m not going to lecture you any more on a day like today.” Her father gave her a mischievous look. “Are you excited?”
“Of course I’m excited—I’m going to the Skyhome Academy! …Just think, in three years we’ll be fighting together. If this stupid war isn’t over by then, the traitors will have to face two Spellshields.”
“I almost pity them. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—you still need to graduate first. Have you been keeping up with your studies?”
Rose nodded. “Ask me anything!”
“Fastest flier over fifty miles?”
“Approximately one point eight seven five.”
“The Chivalric Code of the Mage?”
Rose rolled her eyes. “You can’t seriously think I don’t remember that.” Mages were noble spellcasters, those who had replaced knights in the kingdom’s military once magic had become widespread.
Her father did look serious, so she recited the answer from memory. “‘A mage is dutiful, showing fealty to her liege and the Crown. She is brave, never retreating from battle while hope of victory remains. She is protective, safeguarding her vassals and those too weak to fight. She is honest, never breaking a sworn oath. And she is generous, justly rewarding those who show her loyalty.’”
By this time, they had left the marketplace behind and could see before them a grassy hill and the driveway up to their home—the stately Spellshield Manor. The three-story stone building had columns supporting a wide overhang at the entrance, large windows, and a decorative railing on the flat roof.
“I asked you that last question as a reminder,” Rose’s father explained. “Soon you’ll be stepping into a world more complicated than the one you’ve known. Your enemies won’t live up to that code. …Some of your allies won’t either. But I hope you always will. Your integrity is your most precious possession—the only thing you have that can never be taken from you.”
“I understand. I promise to always fight for what’s right.”
“I know you’ll make me proud.” Her father smiled at her, and she returned the expression.