Galen Ellis sat on one of the highest hills just outside of Winsdell. It was early spring, and the late morning air still held a chill. Galen wrapped his dark cloak around his body and took a deep breath. It was the last few weeks of freedom for him.
As an eighteen-year-old, soon he would face his future. He had recently returned from two years at the lower academy of Cacia. He now would either attend the Royal Academy, work in an apprenticeship, or if he got his greatest wish, he would train to try to become one of the Elite of the kingdom.
Galen curled his fingers towards his palms and several fist-sized rocks rolled towards him into a neat pile. He spread the fingers in his hand and a spark flew out of his fingers, hitting the rocks, causing a small fire to burn. Galen placed his hands over the fire to feel the warmth.
“Great gods of our king, Galen, where did you learn how to do that?” asked Martin Nest as he walked up the side of the hill to sit by Galen.
“The same place you should have, Martin, from Alvis in our lessons,” replied Galen pulling back a lock of his black hair out of his eyes. Martin had attended the lower academy with Galen.
“He may have taught us to spark fire, but I don’t think even he could do it as easy as you just did, and the trick with the stones, do you even have to try at all?”
“Of course, I have to try; I’ve just had a lot of practice. Perhaps if you took your Mystics as seriously as you should, it would be as easy for you.”
“Why should I take it seriously? Besides casual use, when will I ever need it?” asked Martin as he picked up a small stone.
Galen supposed Martin was right. As the only son of Lord Nest, he would take over for his father someday. He would serve on the king’s council and oversee the Nest’s lands and home. He would not have to use Mystics to fight or work as a healer or teacher, or anything else. He would not have to forge his own way as Galen would.
Galen was the youngest son of Lord Ellis of the Low Hill. It was a minor house of the Cassendar court but still respected. Galen’s oldest brother Alaric was already Lord Ellis. Galen’s father had died fifteen years ago from a fever when Galen was just three. Galen’s other older brother Roderick was a second to the High Captain of the Sentinel of Cassendar.
“So, what are you going to do with your impressive skills, Galen?” asked Martin. “You could be a healer. Our city hasn’t had a powerful Mystics healer in a long time. My father says our healers today couldn’t cure a simple cough.”
“I have applied to attend the Royal Academy as well as for a few other positions,” said Galen putting his hand over the fire and calling a small flame to jump into his palm.
Martin smiled slightly. “Would I be able to guess at least one position, Galen?”
“What are you trying to guess, Martin? Is it how useless you really are?” asked Tomas as he sat down heavily on Galen’s other side. “Because I can tell you if you would like.”
Tomas held out his hand and curled his fingers in and out. The flame from Galen’s hand jumped into Tomas’s. Tomas had been in almost all of the same classes as Galen in the lower academy. They had spent many hours working on their Mystics together.
“Jump off the highest hill, Tomas. I care not for your opinion. You’re just sour because your father has said you have to apply at the Royal Academy to learn apothecary.”
“And runes,” said Tomas miserably. “While my stupid older brother can do whatever he wants as the next lord. Still, father doesn’t know what else I’ve applied to do.”
Galen smiled slightly. “What happens if you actually get selected? Do you think he will actually let you do it?”
“He will have no say. I am of age. I can choose my own path,” said Tomas.
“He can cut you off from your inheritance and his support,” said Martin. “Are you really prepared for that to happen?”
“I am,” said Tomas. “If I am selected, I will have no use for his support, anyway. I will have all I need with my fellow Elites.”
“What if you go to training and you aren’t selected. What will your father do then?” asked Martin. “Do you think he will take you back?”
“I don’t plan on failing,” said Tomas simply as he threw the small flame in his hand back into the fire on the stones.
Galen looked at Tomas and wondered what would happen if Tomas failed to make it as a full Elite. His father wanted Tomas to have no part of the Sentinel. Many parents did not like their children joining the Sentinel. It was a dangerous position with little or no chance for personal glory or riches. Would his father disown him for good? Galen supposed Tomas could make his way on his own. He was very good at Mystics. He was smart and could find work in many different areas of the kingdom. Galen thought Tomas might even be a good instructor one day if he ever learned to hold his tongue.
“I suppose you are for certain going to get called by the Sentinel for training, Galen,” said Tomas sitting back with his hands on the ground.
“Why do you say that, Tomas?” asked Galen. “I imagine my marks in the lower academy have been about the same as yours. What makes you think I have any more chance than you?”
Martin rolled his eyes. “Your brother is a second to the High Captain. Shouldn’t that at least count for something?”
Galen shook his head. “If anything, Roderick having the ear of the High Captain does me no favors. Mother does not want me to join the Sentinel. I know she has written Roderick to see if he will step in and see that my application is denied.”
“Will Roderick do it, do you think?” asked Tomas looking over at Galen.
Galen shrugged. “Roderick doesn’t talk much about his life in the Sentinel when he visits. He says he cannot discuss the secrets of his fellow Elites or his High Captain.”
“He will tell you nothing of the High Captain?” asked Martin. “I wonder what she is really like. I have barely gotten a peek at her since we have returned except from far away.”
“I hear she is built like a man, tall and boxy with a flat chest. I hear she even has facial hair,” said Tomas grinning.
Martin snorted. “And I hear she is a great beauty that no man can look away from. I hear the only reason she was chosen as High Captain is because she seduced Valian with her womanly ways.”
Galen rolled his eyes. “She was chosen as the High Captain because she was worthy. Roderick would not serve her if it were not so. As far as the rest, I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle as it is with most gossip and rumors.”
“Besides, Martin, what do you know of womanly ways?” asked Tomas. “Have you even ever talked to a girl? I know you haven’t kissed one.”
Martin grew red in the face. “You know nothing of women and me, Tomas. I have more experience than you know. It does not matter because I am already promised to a great beauty from Northonton, the Lady Isadale.”
“Who says she is a great beauty?” asked Tomas. “Is it your father? What would he know of beauty? I mean, look at your mother. You should be glad you didn’t get her nose.”
Martin stood up abruptly with his hands at his side in fists. “Do not talk about my mother, Tomas, unless you are prepared to handle the consequences.”
Tomas stood up and dusted off his dark pants. He held his hand up and three large rocks rotated around him. “I am very prepared to handle anything you can throw at me, my lord.”
Galen jumped up and stood between them. “Stop it, now. Martin, I am sure Tomas was only joking. Your mother is a fine woman from a good family. He is always just trying to get under your skin. You need to learn to ignore him. Tomas, how would you like it if I talked about your mother and the rumors that run through the village about her?”
“Yes, Tomas, if you want to talk about noses, yours doesn’t look like your mother’s or your father’s. Some say it looks exactly like Axen, the head of the armory,” said Martin angrily.
“Did you just insinuate I am a bastard, Martin?” asked Tomas with deadly calm.
“Perhaps, I did,” said Martin. He raised his hand and the wind picked up all around them.
Galen took a deep breath and threw his hands out. The rocks by Tomas’s side burst into dust. He pushed out his hands, and the wind swirled around them. He threw his hands down and Tomas and Martin were both sat down hard on their backsides.
“You are both too old and have been friends for too long for this pettiness. You both need to leave this childish behavior behind,” said Galen looking at them both. He turned to Martin. “Martin, you will be a high lord of the court of Cassendar. You cannot bite at every little baiting that comes your way.” Galen looked at Tomas. “Tomas, if you want to become an Elite of the Sentinel, you will have to learn to keep your mouth shut and control your temper.”
Tomas leaned back with a huff. He picked up a rock and threw it down the hill. Martin looked at Tomas and then leaned forward with a sigh. Galen took his place between them and looked out over the hills. He could see someone on a black horse riding towards them. As the horse came to the crest of a few hills over, Galen realized who was riding their way.
“Is that your brother?” asked Martin, shielding his eyes from the small amount of sun that was peeking through a cloud.
“I believe so,” said Galen. “I wonder what he is doing out here.”
“I would guess looking for you, Galen,” said Tomas as he picked up a rock and then levitated it over his hand.
All three watched as Galen’s brother, Roderick, rode up to them. His horse, like all horses of the Sentinel, was black. The horse had two white markings on each of its back legs, but the rest was jet black. The horse was handsome, large, fast, and very sure-footed. Galen watched as the horse made its way over the rocks of the hills with ease.
Roderick stopped a little ways from them. He gracefully got off his horse and stretched. He was dressed in the usual Sentinel attire. His britches and shirt were black. On his shirt was the Sentinel’s standard, a tower with vines around it, stitched in silver. He had on a long black cloak that was edged in silver embroidery. It was fastened around his neck with a large silver clasp. He wore a long silver chain, with a shield on it, marking him as a second of the High Captain. Combined with his dark hair and light blue eyes, Roderick cut quite a figure as an Elite of the Sentinel.
He whispered something to his horse and then smiled at Galen and his friends. He walked in front of them and nodded to each one. “Martin, Tomas, it is good to see you back in Winsdell. I trust your studies went well.”
“As well as they needed to for me,” said Martin, good-naturedly.
Tomas rolled his eyes and caught the rock that he was levitating in his hands. “Things seem to be going well for you Roderick. Why don’t you have a seat and speak with us.” Tomas scooted over slightly, giving Roderick room to sit next to Galen.
Roderick nodded and sat down next to Galen with ease and grace. “How are you today, little brother?” he asked as he lightly bumped his shoulder against Galen.
“As well as I was a week ago when you came by,” answered Galen. “What are you doing out here?”
“I went to see you at the house. Jerr in the stable said you were out in the hills with your friends, so I came looking for you,” said Roderick as he looked at the fire in front of them. “Which one of you took the time to build this little fire pit?”
“Galen did it in about ten seconds,” said Martin. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Roderick glanced at Galen with one eyebrow raised.
Galen shrugged. “It’s nothing really. Anyone who paid attention at the lower academy and applied themselves could do the same.”
Tomas laughed. “Your modesty does get old after a while, Galen. You do know it is alright to be good at something, don’t you?”
“And when I have an achievement that actually means something, I will take great pride in it,” replied Galen. “Making a fire barely big enough for three people isn’t all that impressive.
“Maybe not,” said Roderick. “But you should take pride in the skills you have learned. Mother and Alaric both seem to be impressed with your Mystics skills. Mother is actually worried and delighted about what you have learned.”
“Worried?” asked Martin. “Why would she be worried?”
Galen sighed. “She doesn’t want two sons belonging to the Sentinel.”
“You mean she doesn’t want her precious Galen in the Sentinel,” said Roderick with a chuckle. “You know you are mother’s favorite.”
“I doubt that, especially since she depends on Alaric for her safety and comfort. He is the lord, after all.”
Roderick shook his head and laughed. “You are right, Tomas. His modesty does get on your nerves after a while.”
“Why were you looking for me, Roderick?” asked Galen a little annoyed.
“I was hoping to catch you alone. I would like to have a talk with you. Perhaps you will take a walk with me?”
“No, you two can stay here. I should probably get back to the house,” said Martin. “I am sure my father will be looking for me for some lesson he has for me today.” He stood up and dusted off his pants.
“Yes, I should go home too. I am hoping to get a message soon,” said Tomas, giving a look to Roderick and then standing up.
“I do hope you get the news you are hoping for, Tomas. If you do get it, I hear you will want to make sure you receive the message before your father does,” said Roderick with some significance.
Tomas smiled slightly. “I will hurry on my way then. Martin, walk with me.” Tomas grabbed Martin’s arm to move him along.
“Wait,” said Martin stopping. “Roderick, will you really tell us nothing about the High Captain?
“That depends on what you want to know. I will tell you she is very respected and skilled, and I serve her with much pride.”
“Yes, I am sure, but Tomas says she looks like a man with a beard. I hear she is a great beauty. Which is it?
Roderick rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I am sure you will see for yourself someday soon. You shouldn’t listen to the town’s rumors.”
“So, you will tell us nothing?” asked Martin as Tomas tried to drag him away.
Roderick looked at Martin with a small smile. “I will tell you the High Captain does not have a beard, and she definitely doesn’t look like a man. Beyond that, you will have to see her with your own eyes.”
“Come on, you idiot,” said Tomas pulling Martin harder.
“I told you she didn’t look like a man, Tomas. You thought she had a beard. I think you might be an idiot,” said Martin and he and Tomas walked away.
Galen turned to Roderick. “I think they are probably both idiots.”
Roderick laughed. “I think almost all young men can be idiots at times, Galen. I know I was. I find that I still slip up and find myself saying or doing something rather stupid. I’m not sure about you, though. You always seem so careful.”
Galen bristled. “What is wrong with being careful?”
“Nothing, but I’d like to see you have a little fun sometimes. You’ve always been very serious.”
“There are plenty of things I enjoy. Just because they aren’t the usual vices of young men, it does not mean I don’t enjoy life. Besides, I have been known to have a drink or two. I might have even had my head turned by a pretty girl while away in Cacia.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Roderick smiling.
“Was there something you wanted to speak of with me?” asked Galen. He pulled a few blades of grass from the ground and held them in his hands. He blew lightly on them and watched them dance in front of his face. He moved his hands and they made small loops in the air.
Roderick watched him for a moment before he held out his hand, summoning the blades of grass to him. He caught them and closed his fist. When he opened his fist, the blades were knotted into a perfect bow. He handed it to Galen, who looked at it, impressed at his brother’s Mystics ability.
“I have something for you, Galen. I asked the High Captain if I could deliver it myself. I didn’t want you to receive it in front of mother. I also wanted to talk to you about it,” said Roderick as he opened his cloak and took out a black envelope from a pocket inside.
He handed the envelope to Galen who turned it over. His name was written on the front in silver writing. The envelope was sealed with the silver seal of the Sentinel. Galen looked up at Roderick before opening it.
“I think you know what it says already, but you should open it and read it,” said Roderick smiling slightly.
Galen smiled a little to himself as he carefully opened the black envelope. The paper inside was thick and soft. It was a short note with elegant handwriting. The following was written on it:
Galen Ellis, youngest son of Lord Ellis of the Low Hill,
Your application to serve as an Elite of the Sentinel of Cassendar has been received. We are pleased to invite you to attend the Sentinel Disciplines as a third level novice. If you would like to accept, you should respond to this message no later than mid-spring day. If you accept, you are required to report to the Fortress of the Sentinel on the first day of summer.
Strong and True,
Dracia Yates, High Captain of the Sentinel of Cassendar.
Galen read over the message three times to make sure he had read it correctly. He had been accepted to train as an Elite of the Sentinel, and to go in as a third level novice. That was only two steps down from a full Elite. It was much more than he expected. Galen looked up at Roderick.
“A third level novice?” he asked, having a hard time truly believing it.
Roderick smiled. “Yes, your reports from the lower academy were very impressive, especially your recommendations from your instructors. The High Captain is very hopeful you will accept.”
“Of course, I will accept. Why would I not?” asked Galen smiling.
“You need to think this through, Galen. You have multiple opportunities in front of you. I am sure you will be accepted to the Royal Academy. There are so many things you could do with an education from there. There are things you could choose that would make your life much easier. Things that would bring you riches, acclaim, and much more. The life of an Elite is a life of service and duty.”
“You sound like mother,” said Galen, carefully putting his acceptance letter back in its envelope.
“She has a good point, Galen,” said Roderick looking at Galen. “A life as an Elite is not easy. You own nothing, and you depend on the Sentinel for everything. Most of your time is not your own. If you ever wanted a family, it is nearly impossible. What woman wants to marry an Elite? Your life is one of obligation to the Sentinel and the royal family.”
“There are those who serve the Sentinel who marry,” said Galen.
“True, but they are few, and they never rise beyond a first-level Elite. Love and duty don’t mix well, Galen. You need to remember it.”
“Do you regret becoming an Elite, Roderick?” asked Galen.
Roderick sighed and picked up a rock. He threw it and watched it roll down the hill. “No, I do not. I feel that I have found my purpose serving the Sentinel and my High Captain, but not everyone is the same, Galen. I didn’t have the opportunities that you have. I am not as clever or as gifted as you. I don’t know if you realize it or just don’t like to say it, but your instructors said you were the most impressive student they had seen at the academy in many years,” said Roderick looking at Galen closely. “You need to decide what you want for yourself.”
Galen took a breath and put his message in a pocket inside his dark gray cloak. He knew he had impressed his instructors. Galen knew he was good at most things he tried, but pride wasn’t one of his vices. He didn’t like to dwell on his own accomplishments. Galen liked to push himself; he liked to find new things to learn. He wanted to see how talented he could become with Mystics, and he wanted to improve himself in many areas.
Galen knew the Royal Academy would be a place he would flourish. He was always good in an academic setting, but he felt pulled to join the Sentinel. He felt he would grow more as a person learning as a novice in the Disciplines. He would be thrilled bettering himself as an eventual Elite in the Sentinel. He could still study all the things he would learn in the Academy as a novice and Elite in the Sentinel. As a member of the Sentinel, he would always have a place. He would always have a purpose.
“I think I know what I want, Roderick. I have thought over this for many hours.”
“I still want you to take some time. You don’t have to decide for at least three weeks,” said Roderick as he stood up. He offered his hand to Galen, who took it, allowing Roderick to pull him to standing.
“Come on; you can walk home with me. You will have to tell mother your news.”
Galen dropped his shoulders and looked down. “You know what she will say.”
“I do,” said Roderick as they both started walking towards Roderick’s horse. “But I also know if you do pick the Sentinel, she will still love you. She will also support you.”
“And what of Alaric? What will he say, do you think?” asked Galen as they approached Roderick’s horse.
“Alaric will be fine with whatever you do as long as it doesn’t cost him much money or effort. You being in the Sentinel would be a way he could show you support with little money or time,” replied Roderick. He patted his horse and whispered a greeting.
“I will think on it, Roderick, but I don’t think I will change my mind. I feel I am very sure of what I want to do. I believe I know I want to be an Elite someday. It feels right.”
Roderick held the reins to his horse and looked at Galen. “Good, you will need to be sure if you are planning to pass Disciplines and be chosen by the High Captain. An Elite who is unsure of his choices would be a weak link the Sentinel cannot afford.”
Galen nodded as he started walking next to Roderick, who was leading his horse. Galen knew he was sure of what he wanted, but he still did not look forward to telling his mother. He hated to disappoint her in any way. Still, it was his life, and he would decide what was best for him.