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6: Formal Training

Joining the military was not Iliya’s goal from the beginning. Nor was it anyone else’s ambition for him.

Borelle let him study the old tomes and borrow some of the books to read at home. She taught Iliya to decipher and pronounce the old tongue of magic. She showed him how to make a potion that could cure nausea and how to keep herbs dry. She instructed him in lighting the fireplace with an incantation and a flick of his hand and allowed Iliya to try it for himself. But she never did take him as an apprentice.

Iliya’s parents knew he visited the witch and that the old woman was fond of him. But they probably had not expected Borelle to knock on their front door one day. Iliya thought he had forgotten an appointment until the witch told him that she had come to speak to Mr or Mrs Radov. Iliya showed her in, and his mother apologised for the mess in the kitchen that wasn’t really there, at least not compared to the old woman’s home, and poured the witch a cup of tea and apologised for the quality of it.

“I’m not here to criticise anyone’s tea,” Borelle said with a smile. “Besides, whoever steps unannounced into the home of another and takes anything for granted is a fool. I am happy to be offered tea at all.”

Iliya’s mother thanked her, though Iliya couldn’t really say what for. While she was fussing about with the tea, Borelle told her that she wanted to discuss her son. Iliya’s mother frowned and shot Iliya a glance. The day was badly chosen for the visit. Iliya had gotten into a fight with two other children and was sporting a black eye. The others looked worse, he had reassured his mother, but she did not care. She didn’t even care that it had happened because of something they had said about Iliya’s foreign heritage. It was better to walk away and ignore them according to her.

“What has he done?” she asked the witch. Her hands were clutching her apron and wringing it as if she expected water to come out of it.

Iliya’s mind was racing. He couldn’t think of anything that he had done. Well, except for spontaneously trying out a few spells from one of the books a couple of days ago. But he hadn’t succeeded anyway. He had felt them partly working, felt magic gathering, but then nothing happened. Except a bit of a headache. But there was no way the witch could know he had tried, was there?

“Nothing bad, I assure you,” Borelle said. “Nothing bad or wrong, no. Mrs Radov, do you know how gifted your son is?”

His mother glanced at Iliya again. “Gifted?” she repeated.

“This is a very talented young man,” continued Borelle and pointed one thin finger at Iliya. “And he should be schooled properly.”

Iliya’s heart leapt into his throat. He looked at his mother and back at the witch.

“Schooled?” she asked. “In magic, you mean?”

“Yes, that is exactly what I mean.”

She nodded and reached out to pat Iliya’s head. It was an annoying habit. He wasn’t a small child or a dog. “Thank you very much. We knew he has some … interest in magic. And also that he can recite a few spells successfully, but ...” She distractedly twisted Iliya’s curly locks around her fingers. “But we did not know that his gift was so unusual.”

The witch smiled at her, then looked at Iliya and nodded. “It is. He is a very special boy indeed. I am too old to take another apprentice, and he should be taught a greater variety of skills than I can give him in any case. He needs proper schooling.”

“At a … school of magic,” his mother concluded.

“Yes, at a school of magic indeed,” Borelle agreed.

Iliya stared, first at Borelle, and then up at his mother. He knew what the answer would be. He was going to be a thatcher like his father and his older brother regardless of how much he dreamed of becoming a wizard. They could not afford it. It was simply not possible to send him away to the city to go to school there.

“Well, I … Thank you. It’s very kind of you to tell us, but I don’t think we can … That is to say ...” Iliya’s mother’s hands were back at her apron, wringing it like a dirty wash cloth. Iliya rarely wished for great wealth, but just then, it would have been his ticket to a fantastic future.

“I am aware that it is not within everybody’s reach, ma’am,” said Borelle. “But I think perhaps we can arrange something. As I said, I cannot agree to be his teacher myself, but it would be foolish of me not to acknowledge his talent and do my best to help him explore it.” She took a sip of the tea and didn’t look like it was bad at all. “If the boy’s father can manage work without him, I am sure I can help with a place at a good school.”

Iliya’s mother’s face grew red. Iliya wasn’t sure why. Was she angry with the witch for offering to help? No, it was not anger on her face. It was embarrassment. But why? Having a wizard for a son was not a bad thing. Not at all.

“That is very kind of you,” said his mother. “I am sure Iliya would like to go. But I don’t know … That is to say, we would appreciate it, of course, but that is too generous of you.”

The old witch’s face lit up in a smile once more. “I owe it to the boy. And to our community,” she said.

Nothing was decided on the spot, and Borelle left them to talk it over, as she put it. When Iliya’s father came home, he reacted almost like his mother, and while Iliya’s siblings demanded to see him perform some magic and he made a little show for them that he knew would never impress a real witch or wizard, but which did amuse the other children, his parents talked.

No one asked Iliya what he wanted. Not Borelle, not his parents, not his siblings. But they all knew. He went to bed that night in the bedroom he shared with his two brothers without knowing what was being decided. His heart threatened to break out of his chest every time he thought of the possibility of learning magic at a school. He had never seen one, but he knew there was one in each of the big cities. The closest one was in Markandberg. It would take at least two days to get there on a horse or in a coach.

Iliya closed his eyes and imagined what it would be like. In his mind, all the teachers looked like Borelle, and all the students were walking around with big books cradled in their arms and blissful smiles plastered on their faces. They were all going to become wizards and witches, after all. And he was one of them. He would learn how to create illusions and fire magic bolts that could kill a person or break in a door, and he would be taught how to fly and make all sorts of potions and medicines that could save people’s lives, and he would find out exactly how all the spells in Borelle’s books worked. And best of all, the school would be full of the delicious feeling of magic that sent shivers down his spine. As he was finally drifting off to sleep, he thought about graduating as a wizard and moving into a house in a town somewhere in order to help people of that town.

The next morning, Iliya’s parents announced that they were going to take Borelle’s offer. Had it been any other kind of charity, they would have declined and found their own way around it, but since Iliya was magically gifted, it was something that needed to be honoured. They would find a way to pay the old woman back for her help.

For a whole month, Iliya pranced around and got used to the idea of going to school. He studied more furiously than ever because he did not want to look unprepared. And he let all his friends and neighbours know that he was going to be a wizard. One night when they were sitting alone on the garden fence, his neighbour Anella told him that she wanted to marry him if he really were a wizard. She was blushing as she said it and sounded very sincere. Iliya didn’t quite know what to answer. He supposed he would marry someone someday, but he hadn’t given it much thought, and if he was honest, he liked her older brother Aren better. Still, it was nice to know that someone would want him, so he told her thank you and that right now it was important that he studied so he could make Borelle and his parents and the whole town proud. But maybe when when he was a wizard in his own right. She seemed to accept that. He thought that it was so many years into the future that anything could happen. He was more right, of course, than he could ever have known.

Still, being on his way to becoming a wizard didn’t earn Iliya all that much respect, not as much as he had hoped. The butcher’s son said that his mother said it wasn’t a real job, that wizards were fat and lazy and sat around all day, waving their hand when they wanted something done instead of getting up and doing it themselves. He completed the picture with a slow and lazy gesture. Iliya decided to beat him up for it. It didn’t work out quite as he had hoped, and little did it help to be able to levitate a spoon or heat a cup of water or to read a strange, foreign language in a fistfight. Sporting a bloody nose, Iliya silently swore to have his revenge and show the older boy what wizards were really made of when he returned from school.

Everything in the city was bigger than he had imagined. And that was saying something, for Iliya was often told that he had too much of an imagination. Markandberg was so huge that one may easily get lost in the alleys crisscrossing between the multi-storey houses and connecting streets named after famous people. In the centre stood the royal castle with its gleaming towers, elevated above the rest of the city on a hill. It almost seemed that the houses had grown out of the ground at its feet.

The school itself was nowhere near the castle, but the shining spires could be made out from the windows facing towards the east. And although the castle was magnificent and the city was full of new sights and sounds and smells and more people than he’d ever seen in his life, Iliya was more taken with the school than anything else.

He was handed a study plan upon his arrival, and it was full of all kinds of subjects. It quickly turned out that the teachers didn’t all look like the Borelle. They were men and women who were all different from each other. An old witch, who seemed to know every language in the world, taught the students the art of reading and writing spells and forced them to rewrite everything if their hand wasn’t satisfactory. A young wizard with long hair tied back in a knot taught them to make magical amulets and seals and a tall witch in tight clothes was their physical instructor. Iliya hadn’t expected to have to get up early in the morning to run around the school grounds, but magic was not only in their heads, the witch told them. If a magic user’s physical condition was not good, it could result in serious injuries and dangerous stress on the body.

There was so much to take in. So many things to learn and a lot of fellow students to get to know. Some were his age, others a little older or younger. Some already knew a lot of magic, others had no idea how to read a simple incantation. Iliya was eager to learn how to do really impressive magic. Elemental magic to summon up a hurricane, lightning that could be thrown like a spear … But although they did learn about the history and development of battle magic, practical destructive magic was not on the curriculum for the first two years. And Iliya never got beyond the first year.

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