Lisette flew over an undulating forest rippling in shades of green. Her wings stretched out from her back, catching the light she drew against them. Thin and metallic, they were composed of several narrow horizontal sections she could manipulate either singly or in groups. They flashed as she bent and broke light around herself, generating both lift and forward motion.
If some hunter in the forest below looked up right now, would he think she was a mythical Snoutbeck? A small smile tugged at Lisette’s mouth.
Up ahead the verdant foothills gave way to taller mountains, blue in the distance. The highest peaks were an ice pale wall, masses of cloud bunched up against the top of it.
There’d be rain coming, but that was nothing unusual.
Lisette bent the light in front of her face and the Wall sprang into closer focus, showing individual mountains and summits wreathed in the mist. The cloud stuff was an innocuous white, with no ominous tinges of green or purple.
Good. Lisette released the rays, and the Wall once again retreated into the distance. She banked and turned back the way she’d come. The railway they’d ridden on earlier climbed down from Last Chance Pass to come to an end in Dismal Hollow, a dingy town about as attractive as its name. After spending a restless night in the town’s best hotel, the four girls had hitched a cart ride to a village several miles down a narrow dirt track, then hiked into the woods on foot to an empty rest area for the night.
Tomorrow they’d be in the wilds. A nervous quiver ran down Lisette’s spine. For one panicked moment, she wanted to arrow straight towards the Pass, to flee homewards.
She gave her head a savage shake. You’re a Heartwood mage, she told herself. The thought is unworthy.
Besides, how could she leave Tamsin all alone with the two newbies?
Below, the woods gave way to a clearing, the steep-pitched slate roof of the rest area starkly visible. Lisette changed the angles of her wings, swung her legs. She hovered in the air for a moment, then drifted down to land feather-light on her feet. The magic drained out of her wings, and they fell limp, whisper-sighing against her back.
Naia stood next to the nearby well, a bucket on the ground in front of her. Lisette watched as the Kaidan girl screwed up her face in concentration. A ribbon of water arced out of the well and dove for the bucket. The stream lost shape as it entered the container. Water slopped over the rim and spattered down the sides. Naia made a frustrated sound.
Lisette grimaced in sympathy, but Naia was already calling up more water from the well. Leaving the girl to her training, Lisette ducked into the rest house.
Inside, Amber was arranging her pack and bedroll upon one of the wooden platforms that served as bunks. Not a wrinkle marred the smooth surface of her precisely-folded blanket. Her unrolled bedding was so precisely lined with the edges of the platform, Lisette wondered if the other mage had used a ruler.
Amber’s spellwork brushed like cobwebs across Lisette’s face. She almost swiped them free of her cheek, then thought better of it. No doubt Amber was setting up mosquito-repellent spells, among the rest. Lisette approved of pest control.
Tamsin squatted near the hearth, coaxing a flicker of fire to life. Back in sensible shirt, trousers, and boots, she looked more like herself. Her hair no longer had that unwonted golden sheen.
She looked up at Lisette.
“I didn’t see anything amiss,” Lisette reported.
Tamsin nodded. “Thanks for checking.”
“No problem,” said Lisette, though they both knew that the only reason Tamsin had sent her out was to work out her nerves.
Tamsin tilted her head towards a sack of supplies. “Help cut up the vegetables?”
“Sure.” This would be the last hearty meal they’d have until they reached the surveyor’s camp where Tamsin’s two associates waited.
Naia bustled in behind Lisette. “Got the water!” she called out cheerfully.
“I’ll scrub the potatoes,” Amber announced, and soon the little camp was bustling with dinner preparations.
After dinner had been cleaned up, Amber sat cross-legged on her bunk and said, “Tamsin, you said you’d been called before there was even a Heartwood. What’d you mean by that?” She leaned forward slightly, her braid over one shoulder, her face half in shadows, but her eyes intent, focused.
Lisette, pleasantly full, was lying on her back on her own not-as-neat bedding, but she turned over on to her side to see how Tamsin would respond. Naia, sprawled on her stomach, propped her chin onto her hands, her eyes bright and curious.
Tamsin sat with her back to the wall, her legs stretched out. Her mobile mouth, always ready to laugh, quirked in an amused way. “Well, before there was a Heartwood, there was only the tree on the hill and a shack beside it. The Headmaster lived there back then—only he wasn’t the Headmaster, of course. It’s a place of strong magic, and that’s what attracted kids like me.” She glanced at Amber. “You know the kinds of kids that end up at Heartwood, right? The outcasts, the misfits, the ones with nowhere else to go.”
“You don’t have to tell me about your past, if you’d rather not,” said Amber hastily.
Lisette raised her eyebrows. So she’s learned not to pry, huh?
“Eh, it’s no big deal.” Tamsin stared up at the ceiling. “I have a pretty mundane past compared to some. My dad died when I was little—he was crushed by machinery at the factory where he worked. Mom couldn’t keep us kids all fed and clothed and sheltered on her cleaner’s pay, so she got us older ones positions and apprenticeships were she could. I went into to service at a great house south of Carradia, where my aunt was the housekeeper. It was miserable work, so when my magic awoke and I got the call, it didn’t take much for me to answer.” Her mouth quirked. “Of course, I didn’t have far to go, only a few miles’ walk. I’d gone into Carradia a time or two before and knew it was the place up on the hill that was calling to me. I wasn’t like some of the others who traveled for days and weeks to get there.”
Amber frowned. “What exactly was calling to you?”
“The tree, the hill.” Tamsin shrugged. “The Headmaster would know. He’s been there a while, called by the same thing. He’s been studying it for decades, twining his magic with it. That’s why he can’t travel far from it any more, did you know?”
Naia’s eyes were round. “No, I didn’t.”
Lisette said nothing. She hadn’t known—not in so many words—but it made sense, and it was fitting. The Headmaster belonged at Heartwood; he was one of its few unchanging features. Other people might move on—even Master Zoya might be called back to Serepentina—but the Headmaster would always remain.
As it should be.
Amber was still frowning. “I don’t think it’s quite that.”
“Oh, you do, do you?” Lisette broke in, half-exasperated. “Then tell us about it.”
“When I’ve figured it out, I might,” said Amber coolly. Lisette shrugged; it didn’t matter anyway.
“How many of you were there at the start?” Naia asked. “Was it all kids?”
“There were only ever about half-a-dozen of us at a time,” said Tamsin, “and the Headmaster, of course. Not all of us were children, there were some youth and even an adult or two. Most moved on—the hill was only a place of temporary refuge or instructions. The adults never stayed longer than a week or so. Until Master Zoya came along, with Kael in tow.”
Lisette, watching Amber, didn’t miss the sharpening of the other girl’s interest. “Kael was Master Zoya’s ward,” she explained. “The karth—do you know of them?—gave him over to her guardianship.”
“But I—and a few others—were there first,” Tamsin broke in, her eyes gleaming briefly as the firelight caught them. “Zoya persuaded the Headmaster to create the Academy with her. We were the first students. That was about, oh, nine years ago? Lisette joined us just a little bit after.”
Amber raised her eyebrows. “So recently? The house feels so much older.”
“You students nowadays have it cushy,” commented Tamsin. “Back then, it wasn’t much of a house, and it couldn’t make up its mind what shape it wanted to be. You remember, Lisette?”
“Of course,” said Lisette fervently. “The kitchen was up in an attic for a while, and the bathroom was outdoors. The Headmaster didn’t seem to care much—he’d have lived in the gardens all year round. Master Zoya had to get very stern with him so he would make the house behave.”
“The rooms changed all the time,” Tamsin went on. “Except for the Great Hall—we would keep all things in there in case a room disappeared, carrying away our clothes and shoes and books.”
“I slept in the Hall most nights,” Lisette confessed.
Naia sighed. “Wish I could’ve been there. It sounds exciting. A mysteriously changing school!” Her envy was in marked contrast to Amber’s slight shudder.
Lisette grinned. “It was fun exploring all the new parts, but I’m glad it settled down before we lost any students.”
“I was glad when they built the dormitories,” said Tamsin. “Nothing magical and mysterious about them at all—all constructed with brick and wood by Carradian workers.”
“Who were the other kids who started with you, Tamsin?” Naia asked. “Will we meet them? Do they come around much?”
Lisette tensed, but Tamsin stood up, brushing her trousers and shaking her head. “No more questions tonight, ladies. We have an early start tomorrow morning.”
A chorus of groans answered her.
“This is the way?” Amber stared at the trail that threaded uphill and into the forest, away from the cart track they’d been following for half the morning.
Lisette looked over her shoulder. “What did you expect? A paved road all the way to the surveyors’ camp?”
Amber didn’t respond, but her expression clearly indicated her unhappiness.
Tamsin consulted the glowing red map that hung in the air in front of her, produced by a twist of the magic bracelet she wore on her wrist, an upgraded version of the crysts used at Heartwood. “Yes, we need to follow that route. Lisette, can you lead the way and make sure we don’t wander off-course? You know this forest best.”
It had been eight years since she’d been here, but Lisette nodded. She could name every tree and vine and fungus in the landscape unscrolling before them. The drone of insects in her ear and the cool, clammy feel of the air on her skin was as familiar to her as if she’d left only yesterday.
“Let’s go,” she said, setting her feet upon the trail. Behind her, Naia exclaimed over the cryst Tamsin’s employer had provided, and Amber made an unhappy resigned remark. Lisette ignored them both as she headed up the trail, the forest closing around her in a way she couldn’t decide was welcoming or ominous.
“Oh, how pretty!” Naia stopped to look at a scattering of bright purple mushrooms.
They’d been hiking for over two hours, Lisette watchful and on edge, Tamsin alert but relaxed, Amber grim and silent, but not even the hard toil could dampen Naia’s enthusiasm. Now the Kaidan mage reached out a finger to touch the downy cap of a fungus.
“Don’t,” Lisette said. “Unless you want to think you’re a chicken for the next day or so.”
Naia froze. Her crouched posture and outstretched hand sparked a memory—
A small boy, towheaded, not even four, staring at a ring of dew-speckled brown mushrooms. Herself, sing-songing the rhymes she’d learn to distinguish between edible and poisonous varieties…
Ruthlessly, Lisette suppressed the image, sent it plunging back into the past where it belonged.
“Actually,” she went on, “I think it’s another similar fungus that has hallucinogenic properties. You’d have to eat it, though.”
Naia gave her a look.
“Seriously,” Lisette said, “don’t touch stuff if you don’t know what it is. Remember the burning creeper from before?” She’d been just in time to prevent Naia from handling a plant that secreted a strong irritant.
“Point taken,” said Naia ruefully and moved on to follow Tamsin, now in the lead. Rope hung at her side and twined around her arm. One of the loops had a bunch of metal hooks dangling from one end. Tamsin’s weapon, designed to take advantage of her magic—her ability to manipulate woven cords.
Lisette dropped back to where Amber straggled in the rear. Out of them all, this trek was hardest on the pattern mage. Not only did she lack physical conditioning compared to the rest of them, she didn’t have the strength and endurance sun mages took for granted.
I should’ve thought of that. Lisette watched as Amber panted up the slope, cheeks red and damp from heat and exertion, hair strands plastered to her forehead. “You okay?” she asked the pattern mage.
Amber raised her head, and unease wriggled inside Lisette. The other girl’s eyes held a bright, almost feverish gleam.
“So much… to… see,” she gasped, “if only… I could… take… all in!”
She wasn’t just talking about the scenery. Lisette grasped Amber’s shoulder and gave her a hard shake. “Snap out of it,” she ordered. Some of that alien gleam faded from Amber’s eyes; she looked at Lisette with her Why are you touching me? expression.
Lisette thrust a strip of dried fruit pulp into her hand. “Eat,” she ordered. “You need your strength.” She jerked her head in the Tamsin and Naia’s direction. “And get a move on. I’m going to be in the rear now, and I don’t want to have to keep running into your heels.”
The next day was even worse, but Naia bore the brunt of it this time. They woke stiff-limbed and ate a plain breakfast of bland oatmeal, washed down with tea. By the time they cleaned up and broke camp, rain was dripping through the leaves overhead.
It rained all day, sometimes a misty drizzle, sometimes a downpour. Lisette, used to damp and discomfort, put up with it without complaint. Amber’s faint gossamer spells kept most of the rain off her, though she obviously didn’t relish the mud spattering her boots and trousers. Tamsin endured it with a few muttered complaints.
Naia, on the other hand, was soaked to the skin. Having decided not to miss a practice opportunity, she was trying to manipulate the rain and failing miserably.
Lisette didn’t think Naia was intentionally trying to attract the rain, but the results would not have been any different if she had.
“Enough of that now,” she scolded as she kept Naia from losing her footing in yet another stream, swollen with rain water. “You’ll have plenty of time to practice later. Right now, try not to break a leg. I don’t want to have to carry you.”
“Besides”—Amber splashed past the pair, her gaze directed groundward—“you’re not doing it right anyway, Naia. Your suns are all in funny shapes. I don’t think they should be like that.”
Naia and Lisette looked at each other.
“What she said,” said Lisette. “Also, magic use attracts predators in these parts. Don’t give them any reason to attack us.” Naia, water trickling down her cheeks, blinked owlishly and nodded.
They spent a miserable night in a small clearing that was more mud than anything else, but was still the driest place they’d found. They huddled together in the shade of some boulders and ate handfuls of dried meat and dense brown bread. There was no cheery, warming fire; instead they sat against the rock and tried to get whatever sleep they could as the leaves overhead dripped water onto their heads.
It wasn’t much, but Lisette, waking up in a grey dawn, felt a light freshness in the air. She didn’t even have to peer up at the sky to know that it would be clear and cloudless.
It had rained itself out last night.
Lisette pushed herself off the rock, stretched her arms above her head. Beside her, Amber was still wrapped in her shimmery cloak, frowning in her sleep.
Maybe she’s dreaming about scolding Kael. Lisette grinned.
Tamsin was already up, boiling water over the fire. A small sack with a loosened top sat on a nearby flat rock. The smell of coffee rose into the air.
Naia had given up on the boulders last night and was stretched out on the ground, regardless of mud. She was burrowed into her bedroll, her loosened hair over her face.
They’d better wake up soon, but maybe I should collect some dewberries for breakfast. It’s the right season for them. Lisette squinted into the shade under the trees, probing for the sight of the silvery berries.
A scream shattered the morning quiet.
Author’s Note: Were you surprised to learn that Heartwood is a lot younger than you’d thought? My husband called that out as a “huh” moment for him when he beta-read this episode. There’s still a lot of mystery about the Academy’s origins (and what is with this “being called” stuff?), but I’m excited to explore it more–in future arcs. In the meantime, I had fun writing Lisette and company’s “Miserable Wilderness Experience” from the warm, dry comfort of my own home! Questions or comments? Let me know!