Barnaby Wilkins was a disappointment. Everyone knew that, perhaps best of all Barnaby himself. To be fair, it was difficult not to know something when one heard it at least five times a day.
Admittedly, it wasn’t easy to live up people’s expectations when you were the son of an important Minister. Of course, everyone simply assumed that you too would one day become a Master Elementalist and take over your father’s position. How wrong everyone had been.
Then again, not living up to people’s expectations is one thing; completely crushing their hopes and dreams is something else altogether.
Something had been amiss with Barnaby ever since he was born. He came into the world too early, and he was tiny and pink and altogether very odd. His father didn’t think he would survive the night, but his mother had refused to give up on him (which she continued to do for several years afterwards) As it was, Barnaby had lived, something which he often regretted in the years to come.
His grandmother had named him Barnaby, after one of their ancestors, and for a while, he had been a great comfort to the family, for his mother had borne only girls until then-three of them, in fact-and a son was a welcome change.
Alana was the oldest, and she was known for little other than her beauty. She had been married off when she was twenty-one, to a powerful Elementalist, the son of one of Mr. Wilkins’ friends. It was a good match, and an even better connection to have.
Grusha, the second daughter, was Barnaby’s favourite sister. She was not as rude or reserved as the other two and preferred to run wild. She was a Wood Manipulator, and spent hours in the forest near the County, where they lived.
Imara was still in school, being only two years older than Barnaby. She was a Metal Manipulator, the top of her class.
And then came Barnaby. He wasn’t good looking, like Alana: he was taller than average, with curly brown hair that stuck out of his scalp. He was also pudgy, since he never did any sort of activity. He wasn’t passionate and athletic like Grusha: in fact, Barnaby hated going outdoors, and sat around at home most of the time, reading the books his mother had bought for him, and he certainly wasn’t as powerful as Imara.
For a long time, nobody in the family-and those around them, also-could believe that the boy was a failure. After all, his father-the honourable Leighton Wilkins, was a powerful Minister, and personal advisor to the king himself.
They tried all sorts of things to get him to reveal his hidden powers: Alana had pushed him into the lake when he was ten and waited to see if he would take control over the water. He didn’t, and she had had to save him from drowning.
Grusha had taken him to the forest several times and asked him to listen to the trees. But all Barnaby heard was the faint rustling of leaves and the chirping of the birds. (it had been sort of fun though, and they had ended up having a picnic; Grusha taught him the name of several different plants, though Barnaby already knew most of them, having read about them in some book or the other)
Imara had adopted a slightly different approach, hitting him repeatedly with a metal saucepan in an attempt to figure out whether he was a Metal Manipulator; she had only stopped when their mother heard the clanging and rushed into the room to save her little boy. Barnaby had always been scared about being left alone in the same room as Imara since that incident.
‘I can’t believe you’re this weak’ commented Nan-Barnaby’s grandmother-during her weekly visit. She was a Water Manipulator herself (one of the best of her generation, she was sure to mention at least once in every conversation) and one of her favourite topics to bring up when she visited was Barnaby’s evident lack of powers.
Barnaby was already fourteen years old, and he was well on the path of becoming one of the Retrograde: those without any powers.
‘I don’t mind’ he said in a quiet voice, and he didn’t, really. The only activity he got any joy out of was reading, and he was seldom found without a book in his hands.
‘Of course, he doesn’t have to mind. It’s not his fault’ his mother was quick to defend him, hugging Barnaby close to her. He supposed it was the fact that she had come so close to losing him that made her so protective of him. His mother didn’t really look very threatening at first glance: she was short and mousy, with a pair of large glasses perched atop a button nose. But looks could be deceptive, as everyone who knew Gretel Wilkins soon came to realize.
This one time, a couple of teenagers in the neighbourhood had made fun of Barnaby for being such a wimp. Moments later, they had been pushed back with such a force that they ended up beaten and bruised. Nobody knew for sure who or what had caused it, but Barnaby was certain that his mother had been responsible, for she was, after all, the best Air Manipulator in the County.
‘Even then, dear, it’s baffling, that’s what it is. With both you and Leighton as his parents …’ and Nan leaned forward in her chair to peer at Barnaby’s face.
The boy immediately felt self-conscious and attempted to hide behind his mother’s sleeve.
‘I’ll have none of that now, boy!’ Nan scolded, ‘If you aren’t going to be an Elementalist, at least try to be a decent man.’
’It’s because I’m introverted. And I’m not that bad, really’ Barnaby mumbled.
‘Oh yes you are! Always whining about your asthma and how everyone hates you’
‘It’s true, they do. They’re imbeciles’
‘Oh, and you think all these fancy words you like using are going to get you very far in life, do you? You want to know why everyone picks on you?’ Nan went on, ‘Because you’re a whiny little brat who-’
She didn’t get to complete her sentence, for at that moment, the water glass on the table in front of her tipped, causing the water to drip onto her voluminous skirt. Nan gasped, and Barnaby’s eyes widened.
‘Did you do that, boy?’ she demanded of him.
‘No!’ he was quick to protest, not wanting to admit that yes, he had been willing the glass to topple over, but it could have just been a coincidence, right?
He looked at his mother with an imploring expression, but instead of looking supportive or comforting, as she usually did, her eyes were shining.
‘There’s no need to be scared, dear’ she sounded excited, ‘Was that of your doing?’
Barnaby contemplated his reply for a few seconds before nodding slowly. ‘I think so’
His mother jumped up, and Barnaby fell to the left, for he had been leaning against his mother up until then.
‘He’s got powers!’ she shouted; until now, Barnaby hadn’t realized just how much that mattered to her.
‘Calm down, Gretel’ Nan scolded, but she had stood up to hug her daughter-in-law, looking just as pleased. ‘And just in time too’ she added, beaming, ‘Ludwin’s School of Elements opens in less than a month!’