This is the very first episode in a brand-new serial fantasy that you can read for free. A young mage finds herself stuck in a dead-end town, but change is right around the corner…
Amberlin stood on the cracked stone pier looking out across the choppy water and thought, for the thousandth time, about going home.
The sky over the sea was a uniform grey; she couldn’t even pretend to make out a smudge on the horizon that might be the western tip of Ravin, her island home. A clammy wind, smelling of brine and sewage, poked warm fingers through the holes in her knitted jacket, tugged the hem of her skirt. Amber grimaced and smoothed her skirt back down.
Stop torturing yourself, she scolded. Going home was not an option. Going home meant giving up. Amber wasn’t ready to do that just yet, not even when her purse was almost as empty as her belly. It hadn’t even been a year since she’d left.
Brushing light brown strands of hair from her face, Amber resolutely turned away from the sea and back towards Hopeswell.
None of the promise of its name had come to fruition in Hopeswell. It was a seedy, rundown seaside town, full of sagging buildings, rusting iron roofs, and shiftless and shifty-eyed people. Amber had expected this port of the wild and wonderful mainland she’d dreamed of since she’d been a small girl to be drenched in magic and mystery. Stepping off the boat two months ago had been a shock. The dock areas were the kind of places Mama would never allow Amber to walk alone back in Oaktown, and the rest of Hopeswell wasn’t much better.
Still, there was all the rest of the Ravinian colony to explore: the uplands where the wealthy had summer homes, the picturesque towns that lay nestled along the riverside. There had to be something better beyond Hopeswell. She just needed to get out and make her way there.
Amber left the pier, her hands buried deep in her pockets. A damp newspaper wrapped itself around her foot; she twitched it loose. Broken glass, ground into dust, glistened in cracks and between cobbles. Wavelets sucked and gulped against the docks and retaining walls. A smear of green slime spread up the stone to the high-water mark. The few boats at anchor were weathered and worn-looking, paint faded and chipped. They bobbed tiredly as she went past.
From the north of Hopeswell came the long whistle of a train. It sounded unbearably lonely, as if the train, too, were homesick.
Amber scuffed her way through streets filled with deepening gloom. Most of the shops were closed by now, metal grills down over their display windows and big padlocks on the doors. Their signs, corroded and faded in the sea air, swung sadly in the breeze. Scrumptious Seconds… Bargain Prices! Dazzle Fashions… Oldsmills’ Books… Stunning Spells
Amber stopped in front of the spell shop, as she always did, and once again read the Help Wanted sign taped to the door, as she always did. With many exclamation marks and much misuse of quotation marks, the sign promised her an “exciting” position! with an “innovative” company! with many “opportunities” for promotion!
Amber considered the sinister connotations of the quoted words. The shop was a small operation, and she knew exactly what opportunity consisted of: packed into a small backroom with four or five other magic users, churning out copy after copy of the same spell.
It was soul-crushing work, and Amber had already put in her time at such a place back in Ravin. The spells, she knew, would promise the world and deliver nothing. In their quest to be all-inclusive, they’d end up being vague and useless. Yet people kept buying these charms for finding misplaced items, for good luck, for fair weather and pest control and more, by the dozen.
They’d be better off with custom spells from licensed mages. Sure, those were more expensive, but worth every coppa. And in the colonies, enough people had realized this that a licensed mage could make a comfortable living anywhere in Ravin territory.
Licensed. There was the rub.
Amber wound her way between more streets and stopped when she realized she was following her nose. A heavenly aroma of cinnamon and yeast had guided her this far; already her mouth watered in anticipation. Her stomach, protesting the reduced rations of the past three days, rumbled.
She couldn’t resist. Her feet took control and hurried her across the cobblestones to the source of the smell.
It was a bakery, in what passed for an upscale area in Hopeswell. Tucked between a luxury goods store and a haberdashery, it was neither large nor opulent. Yet the dandelion yellow paint was fresh and cheerful, the blue door with its strand of silver bells welcoming. The display windows gleamed, all manner of cakes, pastries, and breads placed to full advantage behind them.
Amber’s gaze darted from flaky pastries covered in almonds to pies oozing with berry filling. A tall chocolate cake covered in sugar flowers and chocolate curls had her nearly swooning. Then she caught sight of a white cake, light and frothy, made of layers glued together with lemon filling and whimpered.
A slight movement to her right. Amber looked down at an urchin next to her, his palms against the glass, the tip of his nose almost touching the window. His eyes were round and his mouth open. Hunger and yearning were written all over his face.
Amber realized that she mirrored his position, and quite probably, his expression. The urchin looked up at her. He was a sharp-featured fellow with a dirty face and a shock of unkempt hair the color of mud. Bony wrists stuck out from his too-small coat and his feet were wrapped in waxed paper. His eyes were young-old, and he was probably a smooth liar and light-fingered thief.
He had to be, living on the streets in Hopeswell. This was the kind of kid that poor or drunk parents all too easily abandoned.
And yet, as their eyes met, a camaraderie flashed between them. They were united in their hunger and their desire, not for healthy stews and warm coarse bread, but for sinfully rich, lusciously sweet, bad-for-you-and-your-purse desserts.
Amber grinned at the boy. “Let’s not stand here gawking, all right? Let’s go eat.” Her fingers curled around the money-pouch in her pocket. There was enough. There had to be enough.
The urchin grinned back, revealing ill-kept teeth. Amber flung open the door with unnecessary vigor, its bells jangling madly. The plump lady behind the counter looked up, face clouding, as Amber marched across her gleaming floor.
“I’ll have an apple past… no make that almond… no, both. An apple and an almond pastry. A big slice of the white cake. And he’ll have…” She put an expectant hand on the urchin’s shoulder.
Not slow on the uptake, the boy pointed to a cherry pie and a pile of sticky pink-sugar-coated buns.
“He’ll have a slice of the pie and two of the buns,” Amber went on. And before the woman could embarrass her, she pulled out her money pouch and asked, “How much will that be?”
Relieved that her customers intended to pay in good faith, the woman bustled around, putting the goodies in paper bags and becoming downright chatty. “What a miserable spring we’ve been having, eh…. Look, how hungry that poor mite looks… what a kind miss you are… that’ll be fifteen coppas, then.”
Amber let her expression go blank as she struggled to keep the dismay off her face. Parting with those fifteen coppas depleted her meager hoard pretty much down to a few coins—and they were not of high denominations. But she placed the money on the counter with an air of reckless bravado. She might end up on the streets tomorrow, but by the Maker, she would eat good, rich food tonight!
The baker swiped the money into her cash-box with practiced swiftness, still talking. “Ah, I see you’re a mage, then, miss.”
Amberlin touched the blue and yellow band at her wrist, which more or less proclaimed her to be an unlicensed and nigh on unemployable mage. It was her shame, lumping her in with those of little talent or few ethics, or both.
She managed a smile. “Yes, ma’am.” The words came out with practiced cheerfulness and her look was open and direct. There’s nothing wrong with being a banded mage! I’m like all those other masons and metal workers looking for jobs. Nothing to be worried about here, at all.
The baker pursed her lips, looked at Amber out of shrewd, black-currant eyes. Amber beamed back.
“We-ell,” said the baker. “I put in a spell against pests just the other day, but I’m scared that I didn’t do it right. Magic gives me the prickles, if you know what I mean.” She twitched her shoulders in a ripple that took several moments to make its way all over her body. The urchin watched, fascinated. “If you could give it a quick look later on–?”
“I’d be happy to,” Amber assured her. She gathered up the all-too-expensive goodies and retreated, urchin in tow, to a round marble-topped table in the corner.
Soon, the two were eating in companionable silence; the urchin with a sticky bun in each hand, alternating bites between the two. Amber put a creamy forkful of cake in her mouth, savoring the texture and taste. She was only halfway through when the urchin crammed the last of his cherry pie in his mouth, then sat eyeing her pastries.
“Here.” Amber pushed the almond pastry toward him. “I think my eyes are bigger than my stomach.” She felt slightly queasy. Perhaps the rich cake after her strict diet hadn’t been the best idea.
The boy must have a cast-iron stomach. He inhaled the pastry. Amber looked idly out the window, let her magical senses reach out over the bakery. There were several small spells here, most of them unfurled and running. The pest control spell, though, was a tight, hard knot, still coiled up into itself. The baker was right; she hadn’t set it properly and—Amber sighed—it wasn’t a very good one. In fact, none of the spells were of high quality. What was worse, they didn’t fit together very well, grating and getting in each other’s way. But Amber could fix that easily enough.
She could do it right now, sitting here, but Amber knew that it’d be more impressive if she put herself in a meditative pose and added a few sparkles to the process. She could charge a premium for the show, even though her integrity rebelled against it. She may not be a powerful mage with an impressive talent, but what she could do, she did very well, with minimum fuss. She was quick, quiet, and tidy.
Qualities better suited to a housemaid than a successful mage unfortunately.
However, she couldn’t just sit here now that she’d seen the mis-alignment of the bakery spells. It rasped down her nerves and whined, mosquito-like, in her ears. Such imbalance ought to be criminal. Amber reached out with her magic. A twitch here, a tweak here, a little nudge to this spell and a harder shove to that one and—
Buttery-yellow lines shone in her mage-sight. Now the spells were actually talking to each other, reinforcing each other, humming along contentedly and usefully, set in a classic star-shaped pattern. It felt right. Amber felt a warm flush of pride. This was why she’d become a mage in the first place.
I do good work. Even if she did feel like she’d just broken into someone else’s house in order to wash the dishes and dust the china. I’ll save the sparkles for that pest spell, she promised herself.
She brought her focus back to the real world.
There was a boy on the other side of the window and he was grinning at her. Unruly brown hair, peculiar gold eyes, and were those feathers trailing down behind his ear?
The boy cocked his head, yelled something over his shoulder. More boys came running up.
Relief rushed over Amber. She hadn’t been caught red-handed, after all, illicitly pruning someone else’s rose bushes. He wasn’t looking at you, dummy. He’s staring at the FOOD.
Amber had three little brothers, all younger than the boy outside the window, but she had a healthy respect for masculine appetites.
The next moment, she was squeezing further into her corner, as the door crashed open and boys poured into the bakery in a stampede of feet and rush of voices. Round lights dotted Amber’s vision; it took her a second to realize that her mage-sight was showing her the boys’ magic as smooth and compact spheres of light, hidden from most other mages by well-formed shields.
Amber was not most mages.
“Look at those–!”
“… buns as big round as…”
“Nice job finding this place, Kael. Knew we could trust your nose.”
Amber’s urchin companion had slipped away in the crush, but Amber knew she wouldn’t be so lucky. She counted only five boys, ranging in age from early to late teens, but they seemed to take up all the space in the shop. All of them wore sober clothes that gave the impression of being uniforms without being, well, obviously uniforms.
Boys from a magic school on some kind of field trip? Amber wondered. She had no idea why anyone would think Hopeswell a likely destination, and she couldn’t think of any magic schools nearby. She knew there were many in the islands and some dotted down the mainland coasts, but she had never looked into them. Mama and Papa couldn’t afford the tuition, and she didn’t have the impressive talent needed to secure a scholarship.
The boy with the feathers—Kael—leaned his hands on the counter and beamed at the bemused baker. “I’m starving,” he said, “and I can tell by the smell that this is the best bakery in Hopeswell. I’ll take one of everything.”
The poor-starving-boy-look and the flattery did their work. The baker melted into dimpled smiles, and her voice was motherly and indulgent. “You poor things. Came in on the evening train, did you? No good food there, that’s for sure.”
A chorus of assents rose up. “Only old sandwiches.” “I’m sure the cookies are made of concrete. I chipped a tooth on one.” “Wilted lettuce and limp chicken in my lunch.”
One of the boys had an insignia of a stylized tree on his upturned collar. Amber stared it, trying to call up a name. She was just about to look away when another boy, this one tall and icy-eyed and bored-looking, caught her staring.
Amber flushed, looked down. The bored-looking boy whacked his companion on the head.
“Ow, what’d you do that for, Troi?” yelped the other.
“Turn down your collar, or you’ll have all the sycophants after us,” said Troi in a contemptuous drawl.
Heat rose up her cheeks. He didn’t even bother to lower his voice! Why should I care which stupid magic school he’s from? Amber wanted nothing more but to flounce away, but Mr. High-and-Mighty stood right next to the door. Since she wanted no accidental contact with any part of him, she sat where she was, stared stonily at a rack of buns, and fumed silently.
Kael hadn’t been joking when he said he’d wanted one of everything. The baker bustled about, snatching food off shelves, and the piles on the counter kept growing. Boys rained coins on the counter, in a joyful abandon of coppas that made Amber wince. Already she was regretting her earlier extravagance. Her leftover lemon cake was sad and sagging. Moodily, she cut it to pieces with her fork.
The baker gave Amber a harried look as she reached for sticky buns. “Miss, that pest spell–?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll be right over.” Amber pushed the plate away from her, pushed herself away from the table, and hurried over to the counter.
Just then Kael turned around, arms laden with baked goods.
Uh-oh. Great, crashing into a walking bakery is just what I need to cap this ridiculous evening, flashed through Amber’s mind, and suddenly the boy was no longer in front of her, but passing her. His trailing feathers brushed against her cheek as she stared, stupefied. How’d he move so fast? I didn’t even see him change course.
“Hey, you want to help me eat some of this?” Kael waved a scone at her.
“No picking up strays,” called Troi.
Amber clenched her teeth and ducked behind the counter. The baker waved a hand vaguely. “Over there, dear.”
Amber squeezed past racks and into a vast, silent kitchen filled with granite countertops and steel pots hanging from overhead hooks. Huge ovens, now sleeping, were set into one wall. Trays of rising dough, covered in cloth, sat upon a wooden table. The aroma of years of baking lingered in the air.
The pest spell was on a lower shelf; Amber crouched down and picked it up. Its physical form was a badly-cast ceramic blob with metal spikes sticking all over it. Someone had thought it a great idea to paint it purple, and the half-torn-off packaging read “…unning Spe…”
From outside, Amber heard Troi say, “… two-coppa witch… they’re the worst.” Kael responded, amiably, “Shut up or I’ll punch you.”
Amber activated the spell with an unnecessarily vigorous yank. Just as I thought, it’s a useless generic spell. It’ll be lucky if it repels a fly. Mouth set tight, she stripped out parts of the spell that were only getting in the way and strengthened the rest. Then she pinched and pulled the rest until she’d gotten it into shape, plugged it into her star-shaped pattern.
Without ruining the balance of the whole thing, thank you very much!
Amber pulled out a charcoal stick and carefully wrote some relevant runes on the outside of the spell, in case another mage came along. Most mages did not have the same mage-sight she did–they worked with runes instead of threads and patterns. Runic magic was standard, so Amber had had to adapt to it.
The baker looked in on her. “Ah, you got it working, didn’t you, dear? It’s glowing all right, just like the package said.”
It was indeed, glowing a violent purple. Amber smiled slightly. “I do have to warn you, ma’am, that these store spells will never be as good as custom ones. You should find a real mage to come and set spells designed for your shop.
The baker made agreeing noises, but they both knew that she’d put it off until a situation arose.
Some people just have to learn the hard way.
“Will twenty coppas be enough for your trouble? And take this bag of rolls with you, dear. I won’t be able to sell them after tonight.”
“Of course,” said Amber. I could’ve charged at least hundred if I’d been licensed, for the same work. This cursed band! She put her hand in her pocket.
Her empty pocket.
My money pouch is gone!
Amber dug through her other pocket, then the ones in her skirt, panic in her chest. The baker watched her knowingly, a gleam of sympathy in her shrewd dark eyes. “Rascal boy made off with your money-pouch, didn’t he? It’s not worth being kind to those street rats.” She tut-tutted.
The urchin! No wonder he ran out of here so fast! Apparently, I have to learn the hard way, too.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Amber weakly, stuffing the coppas in her pocket and putting the paper bag in the crook of her arm.
“And you can use the back door since it’s closer, too.” The baker was trying to spare her from any more of the haughty Troi’s remarks, Amber realized. To her horror, she found tears weren’t far away. She nodded at the baker and hurried out the kitchen.
Outside, evening had turned to night. Amber stood beside some rubbish bins in a dimly-lit alleyway, blinking. The familiar worry gnawed at her stomach again. Twenty coppas was all she had, not enough to buy a ticket out of Hopeswell, not enough for her rent coming due in less than a week. What had possessed her to indulge herself in the bakery this evening? What happened to her vaunted self-control? She, who had flitted from makeshift work to makeshift work for over a month, never knowing where the next coins were coming from? Amber gritted her teeth, furious with herself.
A human presence intruded on her consciousness. Angrily, she turned to confront it.
“Hey, Odd Job Girl.” The small man held out his hands appeasingly and spoke in an annoying whine. “No need to get all zappy and zingy with me.”
“Waleem,” sighed Amber. “What do you want?” Thanks to his habit of sidling up to people unexpectedly, Waleem had been on receiving end of her only offensive spell. Most normal people would’ve laughed it off (Amber readily admitted combat spells were not her forte), but Waleem was neither smart nor brave. He had a kind of low cunning, though, that could be very useful—and Waleem had survived the streets by filling a niche, much as cockroaches did.
Now he pouted. It was not an endearing look on him. “I’ve been waiting all evening for you to come out of there. That’s time slipping through my hand, one coppa at a time. Got a job that’s right up your alley. Unless”—he gave her a sly sideways look—“you don’t need the work?”
Amber thought of her stolen money pouch, the twenty coppas in her pocket. She sighed. “Spit it out, Waleem. I’m listening.”
Thanks for reading this far! What do you think so far? Next episode comes out on Thursday! Sign up to the Heartwood RSS feed in the sidebar so you don’t miss it!
Katharina Gerlach says
Can’t wait for the next one!
It’ll be up on Thursday. I already scheduled it. 🙂