The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Seven - The Hard Decision

TThe inn’s dining room was empty, save for the confused girl who sat at the head of its table. She was anxious, wondering about the splendor she was going to learn about. Her mother had told her earlier that day that she would return before nightfall to teach her about magic – as well as she could, considering the limited knowledge that existed outside of folklore for Alida’s strengths – and to show Alida the powers she supposedly possessed.

So far, all the tea did to her was cover her face with the ivy veins. She hadn’t experienced any actual powers – no fireballs flying from her hands, or no stench of death protruding from her veins, as she’d heard was commonplace for traveling show mages. Alida suspected that there was more to her string of powers than simply the veins, there had to be. She had discussed it with Kasall in the evening after discovering her veins and they’d both concluded what the other teas could do.

“The ash had to be fire – something to do with fire, Ali,” Kasall had said. “After all, your mother said the tea would be hot.” She accepted his logic – the wonderful logic of a confused youth. The only logic she would accept from a man like Kasall. “And if that was fire, then there’s probably water too, right? After all, opposites attract, right? Seawater could be some sort of water powers.”

He continued to be correct. From what her father had said they, figured out what granite did but hadn’t yet pieced together the coal or ivy.

She continued to sit at the table. It was set perfectly, for twenty four people with proper forks and knives at each seat, silver plates lined up and a barrel of water in the corner of the room. Nobody was staying at the inn, but Alida felt a certain joy in setting up the room as she had. It was a treat for her – like having a properly cleaned bedroom, or bedding that smelled of a fresh, spring air. Waiting for her mother’s return was difficult, though, Alida’s excitement making it difficult for her to sit down and relax until her mother returned.

Kasall was gone for the day, too. He went out to get wood with Lor, her father was with her mother and Alida was alone. They hadn’t received word of any approaching travelers, so Alida decided to go out and explore. She had never gone out into the world alone, and wondered what kind of thrills it could bring.

She walked out the way she’d gone with Kasall. It felt different today though – like she was almost floating through the woods. She heard the leaves on the crowns of trees far above her rustling in the wind, and she felt her body swaying in motion – somehow weightless and removed from the world, while also existing within it. Small animals coiled around her as she moved, not running away from, but toward her, and as she moved she could somehow feel the grasses and plants around her. She moved quickly through the woods toward the place she’d gone with Kasall.

When she arrived at the hilltop she saw a bear sitting between the trees. She felt her body seize as she stared onward at it. The bear turned its head, looking at Alida briefly. Their eyes locked and they stared at each other – the black eyes of the bear, the green eyes of Alida meshing together and communicating in ways Alida doubted she would ever understand. After a moment, the bear turned its hairy, black, head back to the thicket beyond.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but soon Alida found herself drifting slowly towards the bear. It didn’t run or snarl or react in any way to the girl’s presence. She kept moving until she stood directly beside it. Her body froze again, and before she knew what she was doing, she found her hand slowly patting the bear on its head. To her surprise, once she finished stroking the bear’s head, her hand was still attached to her body.

She sat down beside the hulking animal and stared into the thicket with it. She couldn’t see into the thick trees around it, but she no longer felt a faint desire to jump into it. It was no longer the idea of the consumption of the trees that filled her mind, but instead the idea of its potential. An unknown mass of trees and land with an infinite amount of possibility for what could be hidden within them. The trees were too tall, she believed, for light to penetrate properly to the grass below. Could life exist within it? True life – not just mushrooms and worms, life like out here.

Lost in thought, she was startled by the bear standing up and walking down into it. Retreating, or hunting? She wondered. It stood briefly before the entrance, looking back at her and seemingly waiting for her to come with it. She didn’t, though, knowing that her aptitude within the forest wasn’t something she’d want to experiment with further without telling her family

She coasted back to the inn, deciding she’d spent enough time pondering. She hoped that her mother and father would be back, or even just Kasall and Lor. She wanted her mother to teach her more, but for now she’d be happy to just have any company. With Sim gone, it meant that if two jobs are being done, she’d be alone at the inn, and the other four would be gone.

It was straining on her, she found herself alone far more than usual and, to make matters worse, Kasall was often returning later into the night, incredibly tired and unwilling to spend time with her.

When she arrived back at the inn, she found that Kasall and Lor were back. Kasall was covered in mud, sitting at the table. He’d moved a place setting forward, and sat with his head down on top of a plate, likely riddling it with dirt and grime. This irked her greatly, but she ignored it for the time being.

“How’d it go out there?” she called to him.

“Miserably. Nothing was down, we need a storm to knock over some trees and give us something to work with. Where were you?” he asked her.

Alida wasn’t sure what to say. She wanted to tell him all about the bear and everything that happened on the hill but she was also afraid of what happened.

“I went to the hill from the other day and just stared at the trees.”

“Did you get to see any animals? I only saw squirrels today.”

She paused. “N- No. Nothing was there, just me and some trees. I found some berries and ate them – they were good, but a bit sour.”

“That’s too bad.” Kasall replied, seemingly ignoring her berry talk. “There should be some way we can test you.”

“Test me?”

“Yeah, to see how the powers work. Like, say you were a mage of food – I don’t think such a thing exists, but bear with me – and we were trying to figure out how your powers worked. So, maybe we would feed you a bunch of berries, and you would know how many berries you could normally eat, and then if you ate more, you’d realize that your power was to eat berries.”

He must be exhausted. “Kasall, that is quite possibly the stupidest example you’ve come up with,” she replied, thinking for a moment. “And, yet, I understand – more or less – what you meant. But, I don’t have some basic understanding of how powerful I was in certain things before, and I don’t know if my powers really effect such mundane things that would be easy to test.”

Kasall had a disappointed look on his face, and Alida felt it was the right time to tell him about the bear. She wanted privacy though.

“Lor,” she said to the fat man. “Surely you need more wine than that.”

His goblet was full, but – oddly – he held only one. He mumbled something with a thick smile and left the room.

Alida grabbed Kasall’s hand and rushed him off into the basement. She wasn’t sure why she wanted this privacy, away from Lor who was already out of the room and getting far drunker than she could understand.

“Kasall. There was a bear, sitting. Just sitting and staring at the thicket. He sat on the hill and… and I moved so differently through the woods. It was like the woods were mine and I coasted through them to the bear and the bear looked at me, unthreateningly. I went over to him and patted him on the head and sat beside him and he wanted me to go into the thicket with him, I think he was scared of something but I don’t really know what, to be honest, and then I began to wonder about that thicket. There’s something odd about it – I’m sure of it – the trees are so much taller than the rest of the woods and I wonder – the bear went in it, but can other life exist in there? Surely there isn’t the sunlight for much more than worms and mushrooms, but then why did the bear go in?”

Kasall stared at her for a long time as the words she spewed sank in. Eventually he choked out a reply. “The bear didn’t eat you?” His comment brought Alida out of her sprawling train of thought, causing her to laugh maniacally and realize how absurd what she had said must seem to someone who hadn’t been there. Perhaps that is how to test my powers – see if what I did for the day seems insane to a normal person.

“No. It was calm and happy to see me. Even chipmunks and squirrels didn’t run from me as I crossed the forest. I think this ivy makes me a part of nature or something like that. I think it makes me have control over animals or a bond or something.”

Kasall went silent. They were both silent for a long time, until Kasall muttered a single sentence that tore Alida apart. “I wish I could be special, too.”

She hadn’t for a moment considered what Kasall thought of her magic, and realized how alone he must feel. She started to understand why he was always too tired to stay up and listen to her talk about what she’d learned about herself and magic during the day.

She walked over to him and held him close to her, feeling him squeezing her. She pulled his body in close to hers and rested her head on his chest. They held each other until they heard the door upstairs slam as Jere and Catherine returned home.

Alida and Kasall clambered off of each other and rushed upstairs to Alida’s awaiting parents. Kasall’s face was as red as the wine Lor had been instructed to drink, and Alida suspected hers was too. When they got upstairs to see their family, Alida noticed Kasall stood at the opposite end of the room from her, likely uncomfortable with the idea of being so close to her. She wondered if he was being shy, or protective of her feelings.

Alida hadn’t noticed any negative aspects to her magic awakening, except one: she found her face to be weighted down if she leant over and it gave her occasional headaches to quickly turn her head. She did just this when her newly arrived mother introduced her to the inn’s new guest.

“Ali, Kasall. I’ve got us a cat. He’s a big cat, as you can see, and Jere figures he can do the mousing around here, among other things.” She didn’t like the sound of her mother’s final words. What else could she possibly need a cat to do? Alida thought. “Alida, can we speak in the back room? While Kasall, oh I don’t know, brings in firewood?”

“No, Kasall stays with us.” She said, without a moment’s thought.

“Ali, this isn’t something Kasall needs to be a part of,” Catherine said, in a more defensive tone.

“Kasall doesn’t need to be a part of anything, but I want him to be, mother. Let him join us.”

Catherine was staring into her eyes. Alida wondered what she could possibly want to tell her that meant dividing her from her sibling. After what felt like days of staring, Catherine’s decision was changed. “Alright. If we’re all discussing it, I guess there’s no need to go to a separate room. Sit, children.”

The two cooperated. Kasall sat beside Alida, while her parents’ sat across from them. The cat swiftly jumped onto the table and lay in the middle of the table. It was a massive cat, at a glance it looked like a lynx, but up close it was clearly smaller. Its ears had large tufts of dark fur at the top of them, and its paws were nearly the size of Alida’s own hands. Kasall began petting the cat, and quickly the uncomfortable silence in the room was replaced by the mechanical purring of the beast.

“Alida, your powers mean much for you and for our family.” Jere began for once. “Having a mage in the family, especially one of such a rare sect is a gigantic asset for the growth of a family. Rebellions and wars have been won purely because of the power of mages, and that is going to remain true. There is only one constant in this world, Alida. Death. Thus far, there seems to be only one person that can counteract that constant.”

Alida let the words sink in. She was unsure whether her father truly admired the powers she’d discovered or if he was focused more on the growth of their family. Perhaps, she thought, his family advancement views are purely a ruse to dissuade me from thinking he is proud?

“As such, my child, I feel you should choose a family name for us. We’ve never had one, since we’ve never needed to be known. You’re our power, you have the choice.”

Alida sat back in her chair and began to rack her brain for names that would suit their family. All the names that entered her mind were names she’d already heard, or people she knew. She wondered if Kasall would take this name to or just her. Her mind flooded, and after a moment of thinking, she told her father that she’d decide later.

“Secondly,” Catherine began this time. Catherine always had a knack for telling bad news. “Alida, we need to find a way to train your magic and to hone your skills. Your father and I have been talking and we’ve found that there is only one acceptable option for your teaching. We’ll have to leave the inn.”

“To go to Skyhull?” She asked. The veins in her face throbbed with excitement, as she remembered the wonderful stories she’d heard occasionally about the place with its mages of all types performing feats of strength and showing the public how they can create spells.

“No, my dear. I’m afraid it’s something a bit more dangerous than that.” Catherine’s face was full of dread, as was Jere’s. “We have to go west first, then we can wrap up to the home of the mages. You see, no one really knows much about the magic you have access to now. We need to find the source of it, or something to better teach us and prepare us for what you’re capable of.”

“Where will we go?”

“Well, I’m unsure right now. Into the woods, work through the forests.”

“But you said…” Kasall began. “You told us there was nothing further into the forests.” Kasall received judgmental glares from most of the people around him. Alida looked at him with a look of concern.

“There was a city once. Hundreds of years ago where mages like yourself lived and if we can find it, perhaps we can find information on their spells. We need not find anyone alive – the dead shall live in the writing.

“The issue, though,” Jere began again. “Is that someone has to stay at the inn.”

Alida’s eyes welled up with tears. She didn’t want to leave her family, but understood that she needed to go learn about herself. “Who will stay?”

“Well,” he began, his words filled with sighs and invisible sorrow. “I figure, since you’re so fond of Kasall and your mother knows how to set up camps and hunt, Lor and I would be the best ones to stay back here and work the inn. If you can handle being awa-“

“Jere.” Alida proclaimed. “The family name will be Jere. I love you father.” Quickly she stood up and ran over to him, hugging him with the hope of never having to let go but the understanding that at some point she would. “I’m sorry the family name doesn’t work well with your own, but it’ll be a good way to remember you at the inn, just like my ring helps me remember Sim.”

She held up the green cascade that coiled around her finger and looked at it. So too did her mother.

“And the cat,” Alida began. “Let’s name the cat Jade. I hope she keeps you good company, father.”

“No, my sweet. The cat will come with us, too. Jade is a hunting cat and will help us to gather food,” Catherine explained. She was still looking at Alida’s ring. “Alida, where did you get your ring?”

“From Sim. He said a bird flying past dropped it, but I think he looted it off a dead man’s hand.” She chuckled as she finished her thought. Her mother continued to stare quizzically.

“You all will be leaving in the morning, then.” Jere began. “I believe you’ll need to head west to find the city, probably near a forest.”

The group disbanded and Alida retreated to her bedroom. She sat in the bed, looking at the wall for a while until her heart filled with the sorrow of loss. She lay back in her bed, and carefully cried herself to sleep, both tears of joy and tears of regret.

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