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Princess Nenji David D. Carroll Published by Grendelmen Publishing 6201 S 99th Ave. Tolleson, AZ 85353 Copyright 2010 David D. Carroll All right reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Cover art by Chris Bryson Print copies are available through Smashwords Edition, License Notes This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Special thanks to the following: Christie, for believing in me Jenn, for enduring the long nights Cory, for inventing the name The East Valley Writers Group, for getting me started The Grendelmen Writers Group, for your edits

Princess Nenji Part 1 Dreams Take Flight Prologue

Selorac watched the countryside roll past through the coach window. His mother, Queen Akeeba sat opposite him, gazing out the other window. Their brief holiday at the beach had been cut short by word Zander the Mage had returned from several years abroad on assignment with the Mage’s Council. The messenger had been quite explicit about the need to return with haste and secrecy. The message warned of a plot on the lives of the entire royal family. Selorac sighed. Wizards were always seeing Thralls around every corner. The noise of the galloping horses drowned out the sounds of chirping birds. Five hours after the message arrived they were approaching the boundary of the kingdom. There were no walls or guards or even a sign to declare this the edge of their domain. Just a transition from prairie to forest. Yet there was comfort in being back in a land where every man woman and child obeyed his voice. There was no reason to linger here, yet the coach slowed. They quickly came to a halt and Selorac jumped out. The cause of the delay became obvious as soon as he’d set his foot to the ground. The meadow ahead had been set ablaze. A lone man stood on the road, sword drawn. Although he did not recognize the stranger, he knew the fighting stance. As sweat began dripping down the Prince’s face, he realized the stranger showed no effects from the heat. He just glared into Selorac’s eyes. The royal guard came running forward, taking positions in front of the prince. “Get back in the coach, Your Highness,” Grenya called out. “We can handle this.” “Maybe he just wants to talk. Let me try.” Grenya squinted in a face Selorac knew to mean he didn’t agree, but didn’t want to argue. Selorac stepped carefully through the line of guards. Resting one hand on his sword, he addressed the challenger. “I am Prince Selorac. You are impeding the…” The stranger ignored the Prince’s attempts at diplomacy. His attack was swift and deadly. Selorac’s sword barely cleared the scabbard in time to parry the blow. He could feel the enormous strength behind the attacker’s blade. Another stroke knocked the Prince’s blade aside. Selorac was able to put his weapon between himself and the attacker before the next strike hammered into him, knocking him off his feet. The royal guard swarmed in, engaging the threat while others pulled the Prince out of immediate harm. The first guard went down, but to their credit, none of the others flinched or backed away. Selorac heard the well-known cues of finger snapping and shouts coming from the captain of the guard, guiding their timing in a well practiced, synchronized attack. Four guards thrust with their blades simultaneously, only to have the enemy parry them all with a speed beyond mortal ability. Four others swung their weapons at different heights and from different directions, which should have left no place for the stranger to retreat. The enemy’s sword moved so quickly, his blade cut through the arm of one guard, the neck of another, stopping halfway through the chest of the third while he sidestepped the fourth. Selorac leapt to his feet as two of his best friends fell. He shouted to the driver, “Get everyone out of here! Abandon the coaches! Save the Queen!” He then ran forward to join the battle. But the Captain held him back. “No, Sire, you must let us protect you!” The coachman took out his blade and hacked the harness from the horses of the lead carriage. “You need my help! This is no mortal we face! He’s too fast, and too well trained for your men. With my help we can give my family time to escape.”

The captain nodded, and they both joined the men trying to hold the man-shaped beast at bay. Four more lay dead in the time it took for their short conversation. The head coachman was making good use of his time, putting Queen Akeeba on the fastest horse. Further back on the road, another coachman was putting Selorac’s wife, Princess Wilma on a horse. Three other guards were taking the Prince’s children in other directions. Selorac jumped into the fray, deflecting a blow aimed to decapitate his friend Grenya. The attacker scowled at the Prince, then turned to face him properly. The sound of retreating horse’s hooves gave Selorac an added measure of courage. The dark blade seemed a blur as the enemy stepped forward. Deep in his mind, the memories of his ancestors guided his arm, deflecting the blow. The stranger growled low and menacingly at his own failure. The beast came at Selorac again, but the memory of a thousand sword fights saw what mortal eyes could not, and parried death once more. Selorac’s arms brought his blade around to attack, but the enemy was too quick, even for him, breaking the Prince’s sword in half. At the same time, Grenya thrust his blade into the back of the attacker. What should have mortally wounded any human, merely broke Grenya’s arm, the same as if he’d thrust full strength into a stone. Grenya fell backward with a cry, clutching his wounded arm. “Run!” Selorac called out instinctively. “He’s magically protected! Protect the…” The attacker stepped forward and thrust his blade through Selorac’s lung, cutting off his dying request. The world seemed to stand still for a moment as pain flooded his body. Galloping hooves were still audible, bringing a smile to Selorac’s face as he fell backwards. Despite the villain’s skill and speed with the blade, surely he could not outdistance horses. The shock of large black wings appearing out of his killer’s back drained the last hope from Selorac’s dying heart.

ONE Zander focused on the weave of magic over the rooster’s vocal chords, tying the ends off very carefully. Normally, he wouldn’t take such extra precautions, but this was a special case. This was an invitation to a test. He didn’t want a poorly crafted speech spell to be the first magic she was exposed to. Five years of service as a covert messenger had proven the bird’s ability to avoid attention from mages and kings, not to mention the dragons, or the Thralls who worshiped them. The bird was now smarter than the average dog and a gravity spell aided his flight and speed. Every spell on the bird was crafted so well, it would be nearly impossible to infect a Hopeful. Half of these spells were already banned for use in testing a Hopeful, based on passed mages who’d lost control. There would be plenty of people looking for magical messengers tonight, so an owl or a raven was out of the question. They would be shot down immediately. But while a flying rooster wasn’t common, most guards wouldn’t even report it. Randy had never needed the power of speech to deliver messages in the past, but this message required a little more magic than most. Zander wanted to go immediately, but duty dictated he remain here. Also, he liked the now lapsing tradition of testing on the night of the full moon. King Greggor had already forbidden Nenji be tested. Any lesser wizard would have obeyed. However, with the authority of a Councilman, and his relationship to the family, no king could deny him the right. With the deaths of Prince Selorac and Queen Akeeba a couple days before, King Greggor had become

unpredictable. Many had already died because of the prophecy Zander had spent the last five years obtaining. Only one child of the line of Lorac remained, and Zander wasn’t the only one who had hopes for her future. This wasn’t an easy time for kings or wizards and the politics of sending this message would only draw extra fire. Zander had locked himself in his lavish quarters at the castle, magically guarding against eavesdropping of all kinds. He didn’t want anyone to learn he was sending a message, let alone reveal the intended recipient. Zander gave the rooster one last look, making sure the voice spell didn’t have any loose ends. Satisfied with his work, he set about teaching the bird what to say. *** Nenji sat at her desk trying to practice her handwriting. The beautiful spring day outside kept stealing her attention. She enjoyed playing out in the woods more than doing the lessons her mother insisted she complete. Perhaps if she were allowed to spend more time outdoors, her mother wouldn’t criticize her weight. Nenji knew she was overweight, but she didn’t think of herself as fat. Her mother, however, had a high standard when it came to physical appearance. She glanced up at the calendar on the wall. The thirteenth day of the month of Glaminos, in the year of the dragon, 1628. Exactly two months till her fifteenth birthday. Five years ago today she’d found her father’s body in the woods. If he were still here, he would already be teasing her with the birthday plans. Nenji’s mother hadn’t even mentioned her impending birthday yet. In the past month, her lessons had grown longer and stricter. Excellent wasn’t enough anymore. It had to be perfect. Nenji wondered if her mother thought extra lessons would distract her from the memory. If so, it was working in reverse with the calendar staring down at her. Her tongue sticking out slightly, her young freckled face focused on her paper for the moment as her small hands worked the quill across the page. A movement in a nearby pine tree caught her eye. Her light brown hair flipped in front of her bright blue eyes as she turned to see a multi-colored bird resting near the top of the tree. The bird turned in her direction and she realized it was a rooster. There were a few wild roosters still in the woods, but they rarely came this close to the farm. She stared at the rooster, imagining the freedom of flying. A noise from the next room broke her attention and she turned back to the page once more. She wrote the phrase, ‘Quickly raised the Eastern sun.’ As she started the next line, she was startled by the rooster landing on her windowsill. She tried to ignore it. “You are Nenji!” the rooster squawked. The shock of the animal speaking shattered her concentration. Her hand pulled the feather down the page, making a large stray mark. The tip of the quill broke, leaving a large black splatter where her remaining ten lines were supposed to go. “Not again!” she exclaimed, standing quickly. She checked her modest dress for ink stains. Thankfully, there was none. “You have had another messenger today? You are not Nenji?” The rooster bobbed its head up and down as it asked its questions. “You talk!” The rooster bobbed its head up and down a few times. “How do you do that?” “Do what? Do what?” “Talk! I’ve never met a talking animal before.” “A message. Master taught me so I can deliver a message.” “Sounds important. Maybe I should write it down?” The rooster’s head bobbed up and down.

Taking this for a yes, Nenji went to dip the quill in ink, only to find the tip was still broken. She let out a long sigh. “You are ready to listen? Ready to listen?” “No, no. I just broke another quill.” She growled as she spoke, holding back a tantrum so her mother would not rush in and scare away the talking rooster. Her steps were stiff and careful as she walked over to her mother’s pristine and rarely used desk. There were no more feathers in the jar. Both hands squeezed tightly on her broken quill. The feather snapped in half, and Nenji took a few moments to breathe deeply. She tossed the useless quill on the desk before pulling herself back to her own chair and sitting down with a plop. “I have to finish this last page soon, or my mother will keep me indoors even longer. I don’t have any more feathers.” Her head fell on the page, getting an ink stain on her nose. “Feathers I have, and a message too. Perhaps you could have one of each? One of each?” The rooster turned his tail toward her. The bright long feathers looked perfect for calligraphy. “That’s very kind of you.” She took a feather from the offered tail, then reached into the desk for a knife. “What’s your name?” “Name? Name... Ah, yes. A name I have, but it is not the important name. Zander my Master wishes to speak with you at the rise of the full moon on top of Tarna Hill. Can you come, can you come?” “Zander? Where have I heard that name before?” Nenji asked herself. “Nanny told me something about a wizard named Zander sealing The Breach when her grandmother was little. Is he the same one?” “Don’t know. Come ask. Come ask!” The rooster bobbed his head up and down, its whole body moving with the motion. Nenji laughed. “I don’t think my mother would want me to go. My parents have been quite rude to the wizards who have come here to call since my fourteenth birthday.” “Parents not know! Parents must not be told. Alone you must come, or the test will not be. No one can know. No one can come. Just Nenji. Nenji alone.” “I have to come alone? But my parents never let me leave the house by myself.” She waved her arms as she spoke, knocking the ruined paper to the floor. She hated writing lines. Why her mother insisted remained a mystery to Nenji. Her mother spoke highly of her education as a Lady. As if some day she would be courting a prince or dancing at a royal ball. Who ever heard of a Lady-in-Waiting from a farm on the edge of the kingdom? She was as far from the castle as she could get and still be inside the borders of Puji. Something inside her whispered that if she didn’t go, she’d be like the paper on the floor. Unfinished, useless. She left it there. The rooster bobbed its head up and down faster. She didn’t want to waste her life writing papers or ‘learning her place’. She knew her place. She wasn’t anyone special, just the daughter of a landowner, far from the castle. But a wizard. That was someone. Just to meet one would give her enough adventure to last a year. Her parents had been complaining about the wizards who started coming by in the last twelve months. She never got to meet them. “I’ll find a way to come alone,” she told the bird. She stuck her tongue out a bit as she contemplated how to escape from this prison called a farm. “Full moon. Tarna Hill. Alone. Master says so.” The rooster was waiting for something, but she wasn’t sure what. “Thank you for the feather,” she said uncertainly, waving it a bit. The rooster, satisfied at last, turned and flew away.

When he’d disappeared into the trees, Nenji took the knife and started sharpening the feather. She got a bit careless and jabbed herself with the quill, drawing a small drop of blood. Instinctively, she stuck the finger in her mouth to keep the blood from dripping. Satisfied the feather was sharp enough, she dipped the fresh quill in ink, took a fresh piece of paper and began writing, ‘Quickly raised the Eastern sun.’ Line after line. Her mother came in to check on her half an hour later. Nenji was writing the last line as she came into the room. Tetva stood behind her while she formed the last few words. “Very good, Nenji. You may go play.” Nenji turned to face her mother with a big smile. “Yay!” “My dear little child, what have you done to your nose?” Nenji’s smile vanished as she touched her nose, trying to feel what she was being scolded for. There was nothing there. “How am I ever going to make a proper Lady out of you? Go get Nanny to scrub off that ink.” “Yes, ma’am,” Nenji nodded. Without another word, she bolted from the room before her mother could find more to criticize. It didn’t take long to find Nanny. Her aging frame was bent over the washbasin, clad in the traditional dull garb of a common house servant. She’d been with the family since Nenji’s father was little. She carried her weight better than most of the servants here. Despite her age, Nanny’s hair remained a vibrant red. She was washing the dress Nenji had gotten so very dirty the day before. “Nanny, I’ve finished my lines.” Nanny looked up with a smile that broke out into a short chuckle. She pulled a rag from the washbasin and rubbed Nenji’s nose. “I see you saved the final mark for your face. At least this time your clothes seemed to fare better than the rest of you.” “Come on, let’s go!” Nenji pleaded when Nanny gave up on the stubborn spot. “And where are we going today?” Nenji whispered in Nanny’s ear, “Branson agreed to train me.” Nanny’s eyes went wide. “I still don’t understand why you want to learn the sword so badly.” *** That night she lay in bed, staring out the window at the stars. The slight crescent moon had set a few hours before, shortly after the sun. It would be a couple of weeks before she could meet the wizard. That should give her enough time to figure out how to escape undetected. Sleep eventually quieted her thoughts and brought dreams of flying back with the rooster to see Zander. For the next several days, Nenji couldn’t stop thinking about meeting an actual wizard. Why would he want to see her? She had to find a way to get into the woods without her usual chaperone of Nanny or a house guard. Each night that went by it was harder and harder to fall asleep as she pondered what kind of magic he could show her. When she did sleep, she dreamed of soaring through the clouds, free as a bird. Each day she ate less and less. On Kronday, she wasn’t hungry for her usual mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. By Venday night, she just couldn’t take a single bite of dinner. She tried not to draw attention to herself, but Tetva noticed her lack of appetite. “Nenji, dear,” she said ten minutes into dinner, “I know you’ve been watching your weight, but you really must eat SOMEthing.” “But I’m just not hungry today.”

“You said the same yesterday. Have you been sneaking sweets?” her stepfather Natsinew asked. “No.” As Nenji said it, she realized she’d stopped being hungry between meals. She’d even stopped sneaking snacks. “You don’t sound very convincing,” Tetva commented. “You will sit there until all the adults have finished, or until your plate is empty.” Nenji was the last to leave the table and her untouched dinner. Two days later, on the night of the quarter moon, she was following Nanny home from another training session with Branson. He said she had her father’s gift, whatever that meant. Her mind wasn’t on her lessons, but on how to escape without an escort. Each idea seemed less believable than the last, but she remained confident she could figure it out. Her thoughts drifted off into what kinds of things the wizard could teach her and why he had chosen her. She was so happy, she felt like she was walking on air. The stars seemed closer than they ever had before. A bird flew past her. She watched as it dove and swerved between the branches of the trees. It wasn’t until the bird flew down far enough that she realized she was looking down on a flying bird! Her heart started racing as she took in what was happening. She was at least thirty feet off the ground, with nothing holding her up! She tried taking a step forward and started to fall. She screamed as the ground came rushing up to meet her. Not knowing why, she closed her eyes, stretched her arms out, willing herself to stop falling. Her ears told her the wind wasn’t rushing past anymore. Slowly, she opened her eyes. The ground was less than a foot away. She was so relieved she collapsed. Blackness took her before she hit the forest floor.

TWO Nenji awoke the next day feeling like she’d lost a wrestling match with a pig. She found herself in her own bed, but unsure how she got there. A vase on her nightstand contained wildflowers, filling the room with a beautiful aroma. The height of the sun in her window told her it was well into mid-morning. She threw back the sheets, calling for Nanny. Her kind face appeared around the corner almost immediately. “Good, you’re finally up. Your mother’s very worried about you, Nenji. She wants to know what happened out in the woods last night.” “So do I,” Nenji replied. “Your bath is warm and waiting. I suggest you come up with something to tell your mother and father about what happened, or she’ll restrict you to the house for a month.” Nenji followed Nanny to the bath with her mind full of questions. What did happen last night? At first, all she could remember was falling. She removed her nightgown and gazed at herself in the mirror for a moment. Her womanhood was just beginning to show. She was tall for her age, but still short for a woman. Fifteen was the age she was supposed to be allowed to date, but there were no boys her age for a hundred miles. She let her gaze drop to the floor. The image of staring down at the ground just before passing out popped into her mind. She stepped into the tub in such a daze the warm water was a shock to her skin. She shuddered and stepped back.

“Do you feel ill, Nenji?” Nanny asked. “Hmmm? Oh, no. I’m fine. Just preoccupied. That’s all.” The older woman seemed to look right through her. Nanny could always tell when Nenji was lying. A bird settled on the high window and began singing. Nenji was washing behind her ears when the memory of last night came back as clear as the sky was blue. The bird. She had been looking down on a flying bird! Either she had flown, or it was the most vivid dream she’d ever had. She had to know which and she had to know now. Nenji rinsed off quickly and got dressed without calling for Nanny. She ran out the door and into the woods. She could hear the guards calling to her from the garden as she ran into the trees. She took two long steps and jumped. She stretched out her arms and willed herself to fly. Her next step was on air. Then another and another. The thrill of flying pulsed through her entire body, giving her a sense of euphoria she’d never felt before. She shot upward faster than she expected quickly turning the euphoria to panic. It was all she could do to grab a tree branch high up on an oak as three of the house guards went running past. She heard the guards calling out her name. She wanted to cry out for help, but didn’t want to explain how she got so high in the tree. Slowly, she pulled herself inward, toward the center of the oak, where there were thicker branches and more safety. A few birds chirped angrily at her for invading their tree. She wrapped her arms as far as she could around the trunk of the tree, feeling the rough bark press into her delicate skin. The texture helped to soothe her and settle her pulse. She took several deep breaths. The smell of sap and fresh leaves in the heat of the day filled her nostrils, helping calm the frenzy. She slowly turned her head and looked down. The height made her a bit dizzy. “Alright, Nenji,” she told herself, “it’s now or never. You’ve got to do this.” She took two more deep breaths, pushing the fear deep inside. Her grip relaxed slowly, and she took a tentative step away from the trunk. One hand remained on the rough bark to steady herself. Another couple deep breaths, and she was able to get the courage to move that hand to a sturdy branch at the height of her shoulders. Another two steps, another couple deep breaths. A little farther out and the branch she stood on started bending under her weight. Her first thought was to try flying again, but she was worried about flying off into the clouds. Her knuckles went white as she gripped the higher branch and concentrated on reducing her weight just a bit. The branch responded by bending back into place. Her grip relaxed as she let out a long sigh of relief. A few more steps, a little more concentration, and she was halfway to the end of the branch. Each step became easier until she was a few steps from the end of the branch. There was no other branch close enough to hold onto. She took the next two steps on air, and a rush of confidence went straight to her head. A small giggle turned into a full-blown laughing fit. She wanted to try some more, but knew her mother was worried about her. Increasing her weight slightly, she let herself fall slowly and gently downward. When Nenji’s feet touched solid ground again, she relaxed her concentration, releasing a great sigh of relief. Nanny was standing there, tapping her foot. “Well, that explains a few things.” Nenji blushed, unable to find words to explain. Nanny waited for a minute, but when Nenji didn’t say anything, she simply took her hand and led her back to the house. As they cleared the forest, she heard a hunting horn sound. She walked gracefully up to the back entrance.

The guard who had sounded the horn gave her the evil eye. “Why did you run off like that? Your mother and father are worried sick.” “Take me to them, please.” Nenji hoped she could come up with an excuse by the time they got there. Her tongue popped out half an inch between her lips. She had to explain last night and this morning without getting restrictions placed on her access to the forest. Nanny stayed outside while the guard led her to the kitchen, where her mother was complaining to the cook about the spices in her breakfast omelet while tasting the soup for lunch. From the smell in the air, the soup was lentil and was going to be very good. When Tetva had let out enough frustrations on the cook, she turned to Nenji. “Nenji, dear, why don’t we go into the parlor?” “Yes, Mother,” Nenji said. The guard returned to his post as Nenji and her mother went up the stairs into the parlor. Her mother sat in an armchair, then directed Nenji to sit on the couch. She asked a servant for some tea. He left and Natsinew came in a moment later with the tea. “You’ve been a very busy girl lately,” Tetva said, taking a sip. “Yes, Mother,” Nenji agreed. “Can you tell me what happened last night in the woods?” Tetva looked down at the pattern in the china. Nenji smiled. Her mother didn’t want to hear the truth if it was something terrible. She wanted an easy to swallow lie. Natsinew didn’t look nearly as concerned. He didn’t bother with involving himself in her life. “I was climbing a tree and I fell.” “You know you aren’t supposed to climb trees, little Nenji.” Tetva turned the teacup around on the saucer with no apparent focus. “I know, Mother. But there was a toad and I wanted a closer look.” Nenji stared at the teacup too. It helped keep her expression blank. “A toad? You climbed a tree to catch a toad?” Natsinew looked from her shoulder-length hair to her very modest skirt. She returned his gaze, realizing from his stare he had a hard time imagining her climbing a tree in her dress. “Yes.” Nenji folded her hands on her lap to prevent them from giving away the lie with their fidgeting. “What did I tell you about leaving nature in its own home?” Tetva replied. Still she did not look up from her cup and saucer, turning the handle to the other side of the plate. “It’s why I ran out so suddenly this morning. I found the toad was still in my pocket and I had to release it.” Nenji had to restrain a smile from leaking through the lie. She looked back at the cup. “I see. Well, you put things back the way they should be. That’s what’s important. But you must be punished for climbing trees.” Tetva took another sip. “Yes, Mother.” Nenji nodded. She had learned not to argue about punishment. “Why don’t you tell me what an appropriate punishment would be?” Tetva asked. She looked up from her cup into Nenji’s eyes. Nenji hated this part. If she chose a punishment that wasn’t enough, her mother would add to it. But if she chose one too severe, her mother would just go with it. “Since I was inconsiderate towards nature, I think I should work in the garden for a week.” Tetva smiled. “That sounds about right. Very good, Nenji. Go see the head gardener and let him know. I’m sure he’ll be grateful for the help.”

“Of course, Mother.” Nenji got up and left. She was very pleased with herself for not getting her forest access restricted. It was still a week before her meeting with the wizard, which would be just long enough to complete her penance for crimes she didn’t commit. She went outside to find the gardener, but Nanny found her first. “Come with me, little one.” Nanny walked sternly towards the barn. Nenji almost had to run to keep up. She knew Nanny was upset. Usually she saved the barn for the punishments she didn’t want Tetva to know about. The ones Nenji usually deserved, but her mother was too soft to dish out. In the short run to the barn, Nenji dismissed using the same story with Nanny. She couldn’t think of anything Nanny would believe before the barn door was closed behind her, giving them some privacy. Nanny put the board on the door to keep people out and turned around with a huge smile on her face. “Oh, Nenji! I’m so proud of you! Tell me about the wizard who gave you the test!” Nenji took a step back. She’d never seen Nanny like this. She almost looked like a little girl with her amused expression and sporting dimples. Something Nenji rarely saw on her Nanny. “What… You… You’re not mad at me?” “Mad? How could I be mad at you? You passed!” Nanny ran over and gave her a great big hug. “Passed? What are you talking about?” “Don’t play dumb with me… I know your mother hates mages. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her. Just tell me what the wizard was like. I haven’t seen a wizard since before you were born.” “Neither have I.” Nanny frowned. “Come on. Give up the charade. How did he get past the guards?” “Who?” Nenji’s eyes were wide; searching Nanny’s face for answers. Nanny’s expression deflated. “You… haven’t been tested yet?” “I don’t think so,” Nenji said honestly. This was not going at all like she’d expected. “I’m not even supposed to meet him for another week.” “Meet who?” “Zander.” “Where did you hear that name?” Now it was Nanny’s turn to be surprised. “From the rooster. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Nenji asked. “I’m not sure myself,” Nanny said, staring at something off in the barn. “Tell me what you know and I’ll see what I can do to help.” “But he said I couldn’t tell anyone,” Nenji protested. “Perhaps, but I’m not just anyone. And I wasn’t the only one watching, either.” Nenji’s heart raced. “Did one of the guards see me flying?” Nanny shook her head. “No. This was more of a creature. Dark skin, short fur, like something half-way between a man and a gorilla.” Nenji’s eyes went wide. “And he was watching me?” “Sorry, poor choice of words. I think it was blind. More like it smelled you. The woods really aren’t safe for children.” “Oh, him!” Nenji blurted out. “I’ve seen him before. He’s lived in the woods for years.” “You’ve seen him before?” Nanny repeated. Nenji nodded. “He walks on all fours, touching everything with his long fingers.” “Yes, that sounds like the thing I saw. The Forgotten Forest has been known to erase people’s humanity. Stay out there long enough, and you’ll be nothing but a dumb animal. But

you’re changing the subject. Now, you’ll tell me the whole story, or I’ll tell your mother what you were really doing in that tree.” Nenji tucked her chin to her chest. She didn’t want to miss meeting Zander, but if she didn’t tell Nanny, she knew there was no way she’d ever be left alone again. So she told the story of the rooster flying in the window, of his strange way of talking and how she needed to meet Zander on Tarna Hill at the rise of the full moon. “When is the next full moon?” Nanny asked when Nenji had finished. “A week from tomorrow,” Nenji replied. “Eight days. There must have been a dozen wizards come to call since your fourteenth birthday. How odd that Zander would wait this long. I wonder if this has something to do with your uncle.” “Uncle Terton? What would he have to do with a wizard?” “Nothing. I meant your uncle Selorac.” “Who is Uncle Selorac?” Nenji asked. “How come I’ve never heard of him?” “He was your father’s brother. When your father died, your mother swore to have nothing to do with his family, ever again.” “Why?” “Hurt feelings. The important thing is, we have to find a way to get you to the meeting without your mother knowing. I think I know the perfect way, my little apprentice. It’s probably best if you don’t mention your flight to anyone. Not even the wizard.” “Why not? Isn’t magic his business?” Nanny shook her head. “He won’t be looking for people who already have magic. He’ll be testing you for magical potential, not magical ability. It’s better if you don’t tell him, yet.” “I don’t understand.” Nenji was so confused. “I know you don’t, little one. But there’s so much going on right now. Just don’t tell anyone about flying for now.” Nenji shook her head. “Why can’t you just tell me what’s going on?” “Because your mother would fire me if I did that. Can you just trust me on this, little one?” Nenji gave her a hug. “Always.”

THREE Stickle crept slowly from the trees into the blood-strewn clearing, feeling his way along with his long hands. The coppery scent of blood drew him from his dark hole in the Forgotten Woods. He proceeded slowly, fearing a trap, but driven by need. It had been a decade since the wizard had taken everything from him, all because the man he used to be stole a necklace. The city guard had given chase. He would have escaped if the scent hound hadn’t bitten him in the leg. While in prison his leg developed gangrene. One day the pain was too much to bear. The guards came running to see who was screaming. He didn’t even know what he was doing when he killed the prison guards. His magic acted of its own accord. But the guards were already dead. He took the keys and escaped. It was just rotten luck one of them was a friend of the king’s son. The wizard sent to catch him didn’t care if it was an accident. Wizards don’t care about anyone but their own kind. He didn’t want to battle the wizard. He just wanted to be left alone. That was the day he died and was reborn. The explosion of their two magics crossing had

destroyed his eyes, ears, and tongue, scarring his beautiful face. All because an overzealous wizard was trying to avenge a crime which was nothing more than an accident. Adding insult to injury, the healer who found him had cut off the gangrenous leg. Unable to see, speak, walk, or even hear very well, he found new resolve as his magic gave him a way back. Piece by piece he’d taken back what the wizard had destroyed, and now he lacked only his eyesight. The leg was the first piece he’d taken back, tearing the limb from a dying man. The tongue came next, though he should have been more selective. The body was shaped like a man, but was in fact a snake magically transformed into a soldier. This tongue had the tendency to hiss as he spoke. Perhaps he’d replace it when his revenge was complete. The ears had been more difficult. He needed more than just the flap of skin on the outside. It had taken three tries before he got it right. But he was confident enough now to try and replace his useless eyes. His fingers and ears had become quite adept at showing him what was out there. His long fingers came across a warm body with blood pooling about the neck. The scent of recent death hung over the corpse, so Stickle moved on. It didn’t take long to find another body, this one with blood still pouring from one leg. He would be dead soon, but life still filled and emptied his lungs in a slow, jagged rhythm. Stickle felt along the entire body, checking for injuries. Fear now joined the scent of life but the man did not cry out. He kept hope inside his dying heart. That was good. Even hope, though, gave way to terror. As Stickle’s long slender fingers felt along the man’s face, the man let out a scream. No one called back. Stickle smiled. His eyes were still fully attached. Stickle whispered to him, “Be ssstill. Deathhh comesss sssoon and none can ssstop it. What isss your name, sssir?” “H-Harrison. Salgoud Harrison. Can you stop the bleeding?” The man’s voice was shaky. “Where are your ssspectaclesss?” “I don’t need spectacles. I can see just fine without them. What do you want with me?” “Be ssstill, Sssalgoud. Poor SSstickle has no want. SSstickle only hasss need!” Stickle pressed his lips over the man’s eyes, using his magic to take what he needed. Still, Stickle could not see, but he knew what more he must do. Stickle bent over, pressed his mouth around Salgoud’s, sucking out the man’s last breath. The body went limp as the eyes came to life. Night shadows of a forest clearing played across the newly acquired retinas. He could now see the coach laying on its side, one of the wheels snapped in half. The horses were nowhere to be seen. Stickle had taken life from this poor soul and something of him lived on. This required Stickle to change his own name to remind himself of that which he had taken. He’d killed a few witches in his day, but they didn’t deserve to live on as part of his name. What did the man say his name was? Harrison. That was it. A double R. Certainly he could take one of the R’s for himself. He didn’t ponder long before deciding his name must now be Strickle. The newly named Strickle, with his new eyes, ran for the first time in ten years. He ran long and hard from the scene of the accident, heading back to his hole. He tripped more than once in the dim moonlight, but didn’t care. His body once more had all it needed to seek revenge on the man who took his sight, his hearing and his voice. Now he could finally hunt the one who had done him so much wrong. The name rang out in his head over and over. Zander… Zander… Zander…

FOUR Nenji lay in bed thinking about how Nanny would get her past the guard. She heard some footsteps outside her door. “Nanny? Is that you?” Nanny opened the door. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” Nenji sat up on her bed. “No. I can’t sleep.” Nanny came in, taking the chair from the vanity to sit next to Nenji’s bed. “Neither could I.” “Could you tell me a bedtime story?” Nenji asked. “It’s been a few years since you’ve wanted to hear my stories.” “It’s been a few years since I’ve had this much trouble sleeping,” Nenji replied. Nanny nodded at this. “Do you remember the story of the Dragon King?” Nenji’s eyes lit up. Nanny always told the most interesting stories about dragons. It was as if she had actually met them. “No, Nanny. I didn’t know the dragons had a king.” “Well, once upon a time, back when the lands were all one, a mighty king named Cortiban conquered all ten kingdoms. He was a master of strategy on the battlefield and loved by those who knew him best, but hated by all the rest. There were many attempts on his life after he declared himself High King. He had only one daughter, and he knew she wasn’t strong enough to hold the kingdoms together. If he passed without a strong heir, war would rip the kingdoms apart, killing thousands. Instead, he sought a way to become immortal.” “Immortal?” Nenji asked. “Can magic do that?” “It took years of research and preparation, but the mages finally found a way. Ancient texts spoke of the immortals who brought them to this planet. There was enough magic left in the moon to make one man immortal. The mages cast spells for three years in preparation. They altered the course of the four inner planets so at the right moment they all formed a straight line. Then, at midnight, on the first day of spring, at the exact moment of the new moon, King Cortiban stood on his throne at the center of the capital city of Torrin at the precise center of the continent, back when all the lands were still joined. “The mages surrounded him in three concentric circles, all weaving their magic to the same end. They totaled one thousand mages in all. When midnight came and the planets, sun and moon had aligned, the special weave activated. If someone could have watched from way up in the sky, they would have seen a ray of magical light extend from the sun through the four inner planets, focused by the Moon, and shooting through the planet Qabalah and out the other side where Cortiban stood to receive all that power.” Nenji tried to picture the scene in her mind. She knew from her lessons the sun was hundreds of millions of miles away. One thousand mages sounded like a lot. She wasn’t sure there were that many mages in the whole world today. “How many mages are there now?” “Not as many as there once were,” Nanny replied. “The mages cheered their success as Cortiban was lifted into the air by the magic as it transformed his body. Then the planet started to quake. The castle fell to pieces first, followed by the entire continent. That was the day the lands broke apart. All the mages were killed, as was everyone in the entire city of Torrin. The ground itself fell into the sea which boiled as a massive jet of lava shot out, gobbling up castle, city and mages alike.” Nenji sat up in her bed. “All those people…” Nanny smiled. “No one saw King Cortiban for several months. The lower kings assumed he was dead and had their hands full dealing with the destruction of the land being torn apart. When King Cortiban finally did return, he tried to resume his role as High King. Unfortunately, his

most loyal followers died in the earthquake and volcano. One king even tried to have him arrested. That was a horrible mistake. “King Cortiban fought the guards who tried to take him. His temper taking over, he transformed into a dragon. He was a fierce beast to be sure, covered in horns and spikes, great wings coming out of his back and his hands and feet transformed into massive paws with giant claws.” Nenji drew the sheets closer as she shrank back against the wall. She hoped she never had to face an angry dragon. “King Cortiban never bothered to change back into a human after that. Some people started to obey him again, but others rebelled. He became more strict and controlling as time went on and people still resisted having him as High King. He used his new powers to teach the rebellious leaders a lesson, but this only led to more and more rebellion. “The mages who were still alive joined the rebellion. A few of them tried attacking him directly, but their magic was completely ineffective. So instead, the Council went after those who tried to exercise King Cortiban’s orders. He formed a group of dragons from his most trusted advisors, but even they weren’t enough. It was a couple hundred years before they retreated to the volcanic island formed where the city of Torrin used to be, at the center of all the lands. They named it Dragon Island.” Nenji pictured in her mind a large island with a giant volcano in the middle, with dozens of dragons flying around or laying in the grass, or swimming in the sea. “Do they ever let humans go there? To Dragon Island?” Nanny nodded. “There are some people who still believe Cortiban is the true king. They worship the dragons like gods.” “I bet they have great feasts where they serve all kinds of sweets and meats and tell stories all night long,” Nenji said in a dreamy voice. “That’s right!” Nanny agreed. “And they reward their followers with magical gifts and treasure. But if you ever make them angry…” “They eat you alive!” Nenji said enthusiastically. “You’ve heard this one before!” Nanny teased. Nenji shook her head. “But if I were a dragon and someone made me mad, they’d be snack food quicker than they could sneeze.” They both laughed. Finally, Nanny tucked Nenji into bed and she tried once more to fall asleep. Images of parties on Dragon Island drove sleep from her mind, dancing in her head until the sun rose.

FIVE Nenji began going on long walks with Nanny in the woods after supper. At first Tetva insisted on sending a guard with them every night. Nanny quizzed her constantly on the creatures and plants of the forest. Nenji enjoyed learning the names of the plants and how to tell the difference between a robin’s song and the call of the blue jay. Despite the long evening walks, she still had trouble sleeping. Most nights she just stared up at her ceiling until the sun came up, thinking about when she could try flying again. On the fourth night, the guard let them go out alone. On the last two nights before the full moon, they hadn’t come back until the night guard was the only one up.

The day she was supposed to meet Zander, everyone in the house was tense, and they all wore black. When she asked why, Nanny told her a distant family member had died recently, and the whole house was in mourning. She didn’t see her mother until supper. Once more, she couldn’t force herself to eat more than a couple of bites. She still felt full from the night before, when she’d actually had an appetite for once. Nanny had stopped making her breakfast and lunch since she just couldn’t eat them. “I hear your nanny has been teaching you the plants and sounds of the woods,” Tetva began. “That’s right,” Nenji replied. “I don’t approve of you spending so much time in the forest.” Tetva scowled at her soup. “It’s a dangerous place. A dozen young women died in there one year.” “I know, Mother. I remember the story. Two of them were your nieces. Your brother abandoned the farm after that, and you felt obliged to come here a few years later to tend it.” Tetva nodded without looking up from her supper. “I know it was many years ago, but they never did find the beast that slew those girls. It could still be there.” “You’ve been spending lots of time in the woods lately.” Natsinew broke into the conversation. Nenji wasn’t sure he’d been paying attention. “Been chasing any more toads up trees?” Neither of Nenji’s parents looked up from their food as they spoke. “No, sir. Nanny has been teaching me to respect the woods and its creatures.” “I shall be sure to thank her,” Tetva said blandly. Nenji wondered if Tetva had even spoken to Nanny in the last three months. “She’d like that,” Nenji lied. “Be careful out there tonight,” Tetva continued. “Just last night a wagon overturned on the road, killing two full grown men.” Nenji assured her they didn’t have to go far into the woods to find plenty of things to learn. Tetva seemed satisfied and let the matter drop. Despite Tetva’s concerns, it was with a happy heart she walked into the woods with Nanny that night as the sun began to set. They walked far enough into the trees so they couldn’t be seen from the house before Nenji spoke. “If I have to walk, I’ll be late.” “I understand. Run along and meet the wizard. Tell me everything when you get back.” Nanny gave her a big hug. Nenji started running as soon as she’d escaped Nanny’s arms. Within a dozen steps her feet left the ground completely.

SIX Gartu bent over the body of the young brown-haired woman. His fox nose told him she couldn’t have been dead more than a few hours. His fur-covered hands held his walking stick and gave him balance. The humans standing around him smelled of fear and curiosity. It was like a mix of musk and fresh cream. He tried not to wonder if their fear was from the dead body before them or from his own appearance. On top of his red fur and long tail, he also carried a sword with as much a reputation as its owner. The shield on his back didn’t show any signs of damage, despite the many battles he’d faced. He straightened up and said, “She’s been dead for a couple of hours. It won’t take long to find this killer. Standard fee.”

The mayor counted out five gold pieces and handed them to Gartu. He slipped them into his money purse and walked outside the house. The trail of guilt was still strong. It smelled worse than chicken droppings and rotten fish. The emotions he smelled were decidedly male. This was probably the culprit’s first murder. “But how will you catch him?” a woman asked. “Magic,” Gartu replied. He walked purposefully among the buildings of the village, following the guilt. The village looked well constructed. The houses were made of milled wood, the roofs made of thatch. He reminded himself this village was dealing with his fox features better than most. He’d been called a demon and worse. However, when there was a murder to be solved, they all knew his name and reputation. Gartu walked inside another building, sniffing the air. The air was stale with the stench of guilt. His tail dragged on the ground as he came back out. “He stayed here for a short while. We are almost there.” The villagers muttered ‘Who is it?’ and ‘How does he know?’ Gartu walked to the stream, the villagers in tow. He saw a man cleaning a sword. Though the sword was spotless, the man still wet the cloth and rubbed it up and down frantically. The trail led right to him, the scent of his guilt still strong around him. Gartu had learned through years of experience not to flinch at the horrible stench the guilty gave off. Still, his tail drooped when he smelled strong negative emotions. Sometimes the scent was weak, and sometimes overpowering. Gartu was able to stomach the smell long enough to get his job done. He pointed, calling out, “There he is. That’s the man.” The villagers rushed forward, grabbing the man and ignoring his protests. The mayor made his way through the crowd. “Seekater, the Magic Man has accused you of murder. Marta was found dead a few hours ago and we find you here, cleaning your sword. What do you have to say for yourself?” “I did no such thing! You can’t prove that I did!” Gartu stepped forward. “My sword will give us all the proof we need. Only justice will remain.” Gartu pulled out his sword and pressed the flat side against the man’s neck. The man’s guilt was so near the surface, only a slight shock from the sword was needed. Gartu channeled the familiar spell in his mind. A small flash of light collected at the hilt, then raced down the blade into the man’s neck. The man cried out as if stung. “May your guilt now be revealed,” Gartu commanded. “I killed her,” Seekater whispered. “She refused me.” “Speak so the entire village can hear,” Gartu growled. He pulled against those holding him. Suddenly his eyes rolled back, his body went limp and he screamed, “I killed her! I loved her, but she refused me! If I can’t have her, no one can!” Strength returned to his limbs and he broke free of those holding him. He bent over, screaming again. The stench increased in Gartu’s nose, as if he’d just opened the lid hiding something rotten. Gartu flinched, but resisted the urge to cover his nose. “I killed her! I can see her blood still on my hands! I must get rid of the blood!” He ran to the stream and started washing himself. Grabbing sharp rocks, he scrubbed himself vigorously. “The blood! I can’t get the blood off!” He rubbed harder, the rocks cutting into his skin and soon there actually was blood. This only heightened his efforts to clean himself. He tore off his shirt and rubbed harder. An older woman ran forward, crying, “Seekater! No!” Gartu held her back. “You can’t help him now.” He’d seen people try to stop the magic in the past. It wasn’t pleasant to watch.

“But he’s my son! Please, he’s killing himself. Please, Magic Man, don’t kill my son!” Gartu reaffirmed his grip on the woman. “I’m truly sorry, ma’am. He is gripped by the pain of his own guilt. If he believes in his heart he should die, no one can stop it now. If he begs for mercy, it will be provided.” Turning back, Gartu watched the last few frantic efforts of Seekater to clean off the blood before he passed out and fell into the river. Some of the villagers turned away in horror as the man bled to death, turning the stream red. Finally, the stench died out and Gartu took a deep breath of fresh air. The scent of horror was far better than that of a guilty murderer. He looked down at the blade which had taken another life. He rarely used it for combat anymore. He hadn’t been approached by a Thrall in months, and the guilty were usually too busy wrestling with their own consciences to bother fighting their fate. The Mayor took a moment to compose himself, tearing his gaze from the scene. “How can we ever thank you, Magic Man?” the Mayor asked. “A hot meal will suffice.” Gartu put away his sword. For him, the death of the woman was more horrible, but clearly some of the others there disagreed. This village was fairly peaceful, the kind which usually saw a murder no more than once in ten years. How odd that he should be so near when one was committed. He thought back on how his life had changed since he’d slain Targash. Since that day, he could smell people’s emotions better than he could smell his prey in the woods. Crimes always left their mark in the area. The scent of a murderer stank worse than a rotting corpse. “Please, sir, you must dine with my family today,” the Mayor said. He led the way to his own house. The crowd dispersed and Gartu followed the man inside. Two young men and a young woman came in as well. Gartu’s tail perked up and wagged a little. There was a beautiful smell inside, fresh and clean of hatred. A woman gasped for breath as Gartu came into view. “Don’t worry, Metan, he’s a friend.” “It’s the Magic Man,” she muttered to herself. “Yes, dear. He’s staying for supper.” He turned to the three people who’d followed them inside. “Magic Man, this is my son, Kurk, my daughter, Nami, and her husband, Puel.” “A pleasure to meet you all.” Metan seemed to notice her husband for the first time. “What is he doing in our village? Did he find out who killed Marta?” “Yes. The killer has already been exposed.” Gartu replied. “But I was just passing through by chance.” Kurk laughed. “Why is that funny?” Metan asked. Her son cut off the laugh with an apology. Metan looked from her husband to the fox-man. “Staying, you say? I shall have to add more meat to the stew.” All four men smiled. The scent of love, like a sweet perfume filled the air and Gartu felt at peace once more. Strong emotions were dangerous and intoxicating for Gartu, especially the negative ones. He’d worked hard over the past few years at avoiding anger. There was always a danger of becoming intoxicated with his own rage, but it was getting easier to separate his own emotions from the feelings of those around him. The smell of love helped remove the last remnants of the villagers’ vengeance from his heart. The two deaths were laid to rest in his mind and he could move on. He

sat with the Mayor at the table to await the stew. Gartu could smell it cooking from the other side of the room. Potatoes, onions, carrots, peas, beef, garlic and parsley. “So, Magic Man. What brings you to our small village?” Nami asked. “I am on the hunt.” “What are you hunting?” Puel asked. “A murderer, as usual. I believe she was here three days ago.” The Mayor stared at the wall a minute before answering. “Can’t say anyone comes to mind. We do get the occasional traveler, but usually not a woman.” “This is no usual woman. She killed her husband almost two years ago. She didn’t run until she heard they sent someone to find me. By the time I got there, she’d been gone for over a week. I’ve been hunting her ever since.” “I see. How disturbing. How did she do it?” Kurk asked. “She slit his throat.” Everyone but Kurk looked at him, shock filling their faces and the air around them. Kurk seemed more intrigued, smelling heavily of curiosity. “Why?” Metan stirred the stew, but her eyes were fixed on Gartu’s snout. “That is a good question,” Gartu replied. “One I usually don’t bother to ask.” “Shouldn’t you know the motives behind the crimes you are punishing?” Kurk asked. “No. The sword tells me what I need to know, and if necessary metes out justice without explanation.” “How did you get the sword?” Kurk pressed. “A dragon gave it to me.” “Amazing! So the sword’s magic comes from the dragon?” Gartu pondered this a moment. “I used to think so, but I’m not sure anymore.” “Why?” “I used to attribute the changes I experienced to the sword’s magic and the magic of the dragon I slew.” “You slew a dragon?” Kurk interrupted. “I thought that was impossible.” Gartu smiled. “Nothing is impossible. Dragons kill each other from time to time. But I digress. I used to think all the changes since that day were part of the dragon’s magic. However, the more I learn of history and my mother’s family, I think most of it is part of my heritage.” “Do you think the dragon would give me a sword like that if I asked?” He looked Kurk in the eye. “This sword is as much a curse as it is a boon. I carry it to keep it from the hands of those who would use it for evil. I would not give a sword like this to my best friend or wish this curse on my worst enemy.” An awkward moment stretched the silence between them, no one sure what to say in reply. The soup’s bubbling was the only noise in the large hut. Finally, the mayor found his courage. “Will you be spending the night in the village?” “No. She’s been moving mostly at night and I don’t intend to give her any more leeway than she already has.” “Your sword,” Kurk asked. “What does it do?” Gartu frowned. “Let’s just say that it brings justice and leave it at that.” Experience had taught him most people didn’t want more detail. They merely needed reassurance his ways were just, that the guilty deserved what happened to them.

“Have you ever used your sword on an innocent person?” Kurk refused to be dissuaded from his questioning. Metan dished out the stew. “Yes.” Gartu’s frown showed off his large canine teeth and brought the scent of fear back into the hut. “And what happened?” The Mayor’s question was reflected in everyone else’s face as well. “Nothing.” Gartu spooned a large chunk of meat from his bowl, chewing it slowly. The family just stared blankly at him until he finished. “She smelled of guilt stronger than any in the village. I touched her with my sword and nothing happened.” “So she didn’t do it?” Metan finally took some stew as well and some of the Mayor’s attention finally returned to the meal. “She did. She admitted it.” Gartu took another bite and slowly chewed. The silence in the hut was refreshing. “The man she killed had tried to force himself on her.” “So your sword won’t punish the innocent?” Nami mimicked Gartu’s method of chewing slowly. “I have never regretted the outcome of using the sword, but it’s rare to find someone the sword does not affect in some way.” Metan refilled Gartu’s small bowl and he gave a nod of thanks. He finished his second bowl in silence. The family exchanged glances as they ate, but none of them said another word. Finally Gartu stood. “Thank you for the wonderful stew and the peace of your home to dine in.” He turned without waiting for a response and left the hut. Night had fallen and a nearly full moon gave plenty of light to continue the chase.

SEVEN Strickle waited for the light of day to fully illuminate the home he’d made for the last ten years. The small hole in the ground was even more miserable in the daylight than it had seemed in the bright moonlight the night before. The trees clumped closely around one side didn’t offer nearly as much camouflage as his fingers had led him to believe. His bed of leaves, which he’d pictured as a luscious green was really yellow and brown. The stream was smaller than he’d pictured it, but that may have been because it ran deep. Darkness crept into Strickle’s heart as he took in just how far he’d fallen. Street urchins lived better than this. The cloud of depression solidified around the memory of the one who’d brought him this low. Revenge would make all those years worth it. He salivated over what he could do to the old wizard. Different ways he would make him pay. He could take away his sight, maim him and cut out his tongue. That would be a start. He looked around the small hole in the ground. Nothing here would help him in his quest. He needed to travel light and fast. It was easy to pick up the scent of magic. Now that he was finally able to run, he’d soon catch up with the mage who’d been in the area for the last few months. The scent had taunted poor Stickle who could not run. But Stickle was dead now. There was only Strickle. His desire for revenge swelled with new life as Harrison had lost his. It was unlikely the local wizard was the one Strickle sought, but it didn’t matter. He needed a fresh infusion of magic to seek out and destroy the evil Zander. Each time he killed a mage, he took from them their imprinted ability;

the one spell they could cast without preparation. He already had three such abilities, but one more could help when facing Zander. One he didn’t have last time he’d faced the evil mage. It took two full days of running for Strickle to find the wizard who’d left his scent all over the forest. Based on how sloppy his spells were, he couldn’t be more than a hundred years old. That should make him an easy catch. When Strickle finally did find him, he was in the middle of a levitation spell, concentrating very hard on getting the right combination of earth and wind. Strickle could smell the web of magic around the log bobbing up and down five feet off the ground. The scent reminded him of fresh pancakes. He salivated at the thought of being able to levitate. It was a perfect opportunity. He scrambled up a nearby tree without making a sound. When the right moment came, he leapt off, landing squarely on the hovering log. The startled wizard lost control of his magic and Strickle quickly absorbed it before it could dissipate. The wizard managed a quick “Who?” before Strickle was on him, choking off his air supply. “The name isss Sssstrickle!” As the last breath eased its way out of the wizard, Strickle sucked it up greedily, absorbing with it the wizard’s innate magic. He felt the ripple of magic course through his veins, but something wasn’t quite right. The new ability was certainly a mixture of Air and Earth, but it had nothing to do with levitation. Strickle called on the magic, a bit uncertain what it would do. He looked down at his hand. It was green with yellow spots. It wasn’t levitation, but the power of illusions could still be a useful tool on his quest. *** Nenji spotted a man in the clearing at the top of Tarna Hill. She flew down to the ground for a closer look. He was wearing a light brown robe with long sleeves. The hood was back, exposing his kindly face and bright red hair. Stubble from a half-grown beard shaded his otherwise light colored face, but the look in his eye suggested shaving wasn’t high on his priority list. He was tall and a bit wiry. She watched him pull a small clear crystal ball from one of his pockets and gaze into its depths, muttering something. The ball lit up. Nenji stepped out of the forest into the clearing, hoping there wasn’t more than one wizard on Tarna Hill tonight. The last rays of the sun had already disappeared over the horizon and the moon was peeking through the trees in the other direction. “Right on time, I see,” Zander said. “I like that. And all alone. Was it hard to slip away from the farm undetected?” Nenji shook her head. “Mother doesn’t even suspect a thing.” She walked closer. Zander paused before forging ahead. “I suppose you know why you are here?” “Because the talking rooster said you wanted me to come.” Nenji gave a big smile. Zander frowned. “You are here because of your heritage. Your great-grandmother is a witch and your great-uncle is a wizard. One on each side of your family. Therefore there is a fair chance you can become a witch.” Nenji wanted to shout at him that she could fly. Her eyes went wide and decided to play dumb. “Me? A witch?” “Yes, you. A witch.” Zander smiled. “You have been invited here to be tested, by me, your grandfather, eleven generations back.” Nenji’s eyes went wide. “The rooster didn’t say anything about a test! I didn’t study. I’m not prepared. I… How old are you?” The rooster squawked from his perch atop a nearby tree. “Test, test. I told her it was a test.”

Nenji looked up at him. She hadn’t seen him up there before. Zander smiled, ignoring her question. “You won’t have to do anything. I have here a collection of spells. With this crystal ball, I will be able to tell if a spell takes hold. If one of them does, you become a witch.” “And if not?” “Then I will test your children, when they come along.” Zander seemed to enjoy her frustration. “My ch-ch-children?” Nenji stuttered. “Enough about the future,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Let’s look at the present. I have here four spells for you to choose from.” His right hand held a blue crystal stone and a small bottle that looked like it held hundreds of tiny bug parts suspended in a thick green liquid. His left held a pouch and a piece of rolled up paper. “If you pass the test, the spell you chose will become your imprinted ability; the easiest magic for you to work. It took me a week to prepare each of these and they will only last for a few hours.” “What do they do?” Nenji asked. “So you volunteer for the test? Of your own choice?” “Why wouldn’t I?” Zander’s smile thinned out and disappeared. His expression became very serious. “Being a witch is not an easy path. You might live a normal life, if you never take the test. However, if you pass, your life will change forever. There will be no going back.” Nenji’s tongue poked out between her lips as she considered his words. The image of her half-finished calligraphy assignment came back to her. As soon as the rooster flew through the window, the assignment was ruined. The mere presence of a magical being had rendered the paper useless for its original purpose. Just like that paper, her life had been different since she met the talking rooster. If she tried to be a ‘Lady’ like her mother wanted, there would be no room in her life for magic. She would always wonder what would have happened if she’d taken the test. No, she couldn’t simply go back to being what her mother thought she was supposed to be. She might as well cut off an arm as try to forget all the adventures she’d had in the last two weeks. Another thought entered her mind, causing her to pause even longer. Since she could already fly, was it possible for the two magics to interfere? Would it be dangerous not to tell him? Nanny had told her not to tell. She seemed to know what the test was all about and she hadn’t spoken of any danger. Trusting in the wisdom of her Nanny, she boldly state, “I volunteer.” “Good! Then let’s get to the test.” He set down all four objects on a large flat stone. “This potion will give you phenomenal strength.” He pointed to the green liquid. “This powder,” he indicated the pouch “will make you invisible.” He picked up the blue crystal. “Holding this stone against your head will give you Mind Speak.” He set it down and waved his hand over the rolled parchment. “And I have a spell here that will let you levitate. Which will you chose?” Nenji considered her choices. She could already fly, so the levitation seemed useless. The potion looked like it was made from bog water and insect parts. She had no idea what ‘Mind Speak’ was, but she didn’t care much for invisibility. So the choice was easy. “I’ll try the stone.” “Alright. If the magic of the stone bonds with your soul, this ball will light up. It’s been enchanted to detect bonded magic, but it can only detect a very specific mix of the elements. I don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t work. Some people don’t imprint to the first spell.” Zander picked up the spells and put them one at a time into some of the many pockets

inside his robe. He touched the blue crystal to the crystal ball, then handed the crystal ball to Nenji. “Hold this to your head and tell me what you hear.” Nenji gently lifted the clear crystal ball to her forehead and closed her eyes. “I hear crickets chirping, I hear the wind blowing through the trees.” Nenji opened her eyes as she took the clear crystal ball from her forehead. It was as dark as before. Zander frowned for a second, but it disappeared quickly. “Well, that one didn’t work. What is your second choice?” Nenji pondered a moment. “How about the invisibility?” Zander put the blue crystal away and pulled out the bag of dust. He handed the glass ball to Nenji. “Hold this ball. If it works, you’ll become invisible. Otherwise, only the ball will become invisible. Please don’t drop it, even if you can’t see it.” “I understand.” Nenji held the ball firmly in her hand. Zander opened the bag and sprinkled dust on the crystal ball. It vanished. Nenji could still feel the weight of it, but could not see it. Zander looked her straight in the eye. “Hmmm…” He muttered. “Inrepella!” he shouted. The ball sprang out of Nenji’s hands and became visible as it flew into Zander’s waiting hand. It was still dark inside. “Well, not every witch imprints in the first two. There are still two spells left. Which would you like to try?” Nenji pondered a moment. She swallowed her fear of the ominous looking potion and said, “Let’s try the potion next.” Zander took the bottle out of his pocket, unstopped the cork and drank the whole thing himself. Nenji’s jaw dropped. The only reason she’d hesitated was to avoid drinking that vile looking liquid. Zander ignored her surprise and picked her up with one hand. Next, he walked over to a big dead tree and pushed it over. Then he held up the ball to Nenji. It was still dark. Zander set her down and let out a sigh of disappointment. “The only one left is levitation. I want you to hold the ball firmly with both hands. Imagine your body being light as a feather. If it works, the ball and you will both float upwards. Understand?” Nenji nodded as she held the ball for a third time. Zander put the empty bottle back in his pockets and pulled out the spell. Nenji thought this would be her last chance. She had one shot at becoming a witch and she wasn’t about to let it get away. Zander read the entire spell and the ball shot up into the air. It was all she could do to hold on. She couldn’t control it, too panicked to think about letting go. At twenty feet she started climbing more slowly. It soon took her up past the tops of the trees. Her heart leapt up into her throat. Finally a spell had worked! She heard shouting from below, but couldn’t hear the words. It must have been a counter spell, because the ball stopped going up and slowly started to fall. She allowed the weight of the ball to bring her back to the ground. She let go and dropped the last three feet. Zander caught the crystal ball. “It shouldn’t have done that. I must have over-estimated your weight.” Nenji scowled at him. He took the crystal ball and held it up to Nenji. It was still dark. “Hmmm… I guess it’s time to try the pure elements. Likely only one of these will work, so just be patient. “First I will try Air.” Zander concentrated on the crystal ball and it flew into Nenji’s hands. It was still dark. “Next is Fire.” Zander concentrated again and the crystal ball felt like it was on fire. Nenji dropped it instinctively and sucked on her burnt fingers. “Sorry,” Nenji said.

“No problem. I should have warned you. Go ahead. It’s cooled off again. I’ll try Water next.” Nenji picked up the ball in one hand. It was still dark. The ball became wet and slippery. Nenji fought to hold on to it, barely succeeding. Still nothing in the ball changed. “Still nothing. No matter. Next is Earth.” The ball became heavy and she had to use her other hand to keep from dropping it again. “Last is Spirit.” The ball rolled around in her open hands a couple times. It came to rest, just a normal crystal ball. Still dark, like the night around it. “I’m sorry Nenji. That’s the entirety of the test. It seems you just aren’t destined to become a witch.” Nenji hung her head in disappointment. “I should get home before Nanny starts to worry.” “Of course. Get back as quickly as you can,” Zander agreed. Nenji walked a few steps in disappointment and then lifted off and flew into the trees. She was so sure she would pass the test. It wouldn’t be hard to get back before she was missed. The test had only taken about an hour. Nanny was waiting for her at the edge of the woods. Her smile vanished when exposed to Nenji’s somber expression. Neither of them said a word as they walked back to the house. *** Zander watched Nenji as she flew off into the trees. He couldn’t believe it. Somehow, she’d encountered magic already. “But why didn’t the ball light up?” he asked the night. He’d tested her for levitation, so whatever allowed her to fly away, it wasn’t that. Then he had a thought and whistled for his rooster. “Randy, did you give your feathers to anyone?” Randy landed on a nearby branch. “Feathers? Names and feathers I gave Nenji. Nenji got names and feathers. She asked for both. Both she needed.” “Why did Nenji need a feather?” Randy the Rooster struggled to form the answer. It came out as a whistle the first time, improving in understandability as he repeated, “Quilligraphy, quilligraphy.” “I see…” Zander plucked one of Randy’s feathers. The rooster squawked in protest and flew to a safer distance. Zander broke the tip and held it up to the crystal ball. The ball lit up brightly for a moment, then faded slowly. He laughed.

EIGHT Strickle hunched over the body of the dead wizard. He had tried on the dead man’s clothes, but they were too large by half. A shiny object fell out of one of the pockets as he took the oversized clothing off. Strickle picked it up and saw a strange face staring back at him from the mirror. For the first time in ten years, Strickle took a good look at his body. He remembered being taller. He remembered his beautiful olive skin tone. He remembered his beautiful face. But his body wasn’t like it was before he’d gone blind. He’d spent so much time crawling on all fours somehow his body had physically changed to accommodate the use of his hands to feel his way along. It wasn’t easy to stand upright anymore. He hadn’t noticed the transformation before, but now he could clearly see how much the last ten years had distorted his once beautiful body. He

smashed the mirror on the ground. No one should see him like this, not even himself. No one could know how low he’d fallen. Strickle wrapped his naked and deformed body in the comfortable cloak of magic, returning himself to his former height. The way he remembered himself before. Before Zander. A new scent of magic brought him back to the moment. The smell was strong, heavy with Spirit, like a spice cake with too much cinnamon. It dissipated quickly, though. Perhaps a spell of searching. Could someone be missing this wizard already? He cut his musings short when a fresh bouquet of magic grabbed his senses. This spell smelled strongly of Wind as well as Spirit. The smell of the other elements were there too, like the aroma of a masterfully prepared four-course meal with duck and mashed potatoes. He started running towards the smells. Perhaps there was a wizard battle going on. It would account for the way the spells seemed to spill into the surroundings. These were not imprinted abilities, which were usually so well crafted and self contained the scent didn’t carry. The third spell was so faint he almost missed it. Quick, clean, and barely any power. But the fourth spell gave off the musky odor of Earth mixed with Water, Spirit and Fire. This one lasted much longer. He kept running towards the powerful smells. After a short pause, another powerful scent blasted his magic nose. This one was mostly Air, mixed with a little Earth and Fire. This was no wizard battle. This was a Mages’ Test! Four powerful spells, each masterfully crafted, each overflowing with magic. The scent changed slightly before the spell faded slowly into nothingness again. Next would come the elements. Some wizards wouldn’t bother with a Hopeful who failed the first four tests, because the new mage was usually weak and unbalanced. The five elements came in rapid succession, each smell pure, powerful and equally portioned. That was the mark of a powerful and experienced wizard. That was the one thing the souls inside him held back; experience. He would have to be careful when he found whoever was popping off magic like a fountain. Whoever was giving the test could definitely put him on the right track to finding Zander, even if it required a little… persuasion. He hoped they wouldn’t be able to see through his new disguise. Strickle ran for almost an hour before he found the clearing. A new scent of magic hit his nose as he approached. It was sweet and pungent, like burnt sugar. He was too late. The wizard vanished into the shimmer of a teleportation spell. *** Nenji lay awake all night, thinking about her failure. In her heart, she knew she was meant to be a witch. The thrill of flying was too great to ignore. She needed to learn more magic, maybe then she could take the test again. She barely noticed the passage of time. All too quickly, the sun was peeking through the trees. “So good to see you up, Miss Nenji,” Nanny said in greeting. Nenji let out a great big yawn. “There’s no need for such formality, Nanny. I’m still just Nenji.” “Well, ‘Just Nenji’, you have two visitors come to call. I think they are from the castle.” “You mean Lorac Castle? Did the king send them?” Nenji’s face lit up. “Perhaps you can ask them yourself. Your mother has asked to see you as soon as you can be properly presentable, Miss Nenji.” Nenji wasn’t sure what ‘properly presentable’ meant, but she soon learned. After a quick breakfast of cheese and bread, Nanny washed and scrubbed her long and hard. Nanny wrapped a towel around her and led her back to her room where a beautiful, flowing light blue dress lay on

the bed. She’d never seen it before and didn’t know such a dress was within the means of the little farm. “Where did this come from?” Nanny smiled at her. “The short answer is, your mother has been saving this dress for your fifteenth birthday.” “Why?” “To make you a proper Lady.” Nenji rolled her eyes. She’d had enough of her mother’s plans. She let out a long sigh, realizing this was the only path left to her. Nenji put it on herself, but needed Nanny’s help with the buttons in the back. She looked at herself in the mirror and almost didn’t recognize whom she saw. The dress fit her body, but it definitely did not fit her. Her extra weight caused the dress to go from an A-line to more of a square shape. She frowned. Perhaps her new lack of appetite would lead to the weight loss her mother had been pressing for all her life. She let out a long sigh. “What’s wrong, little one?” “I don’t like this dress. It makes me look fat.” Nanny grabbed her up in a big hug. “That’s not important anymore, Miss Nenji. You are who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you something else.” The words bounced off the surface of her emotions at first, but Nanny held her until they sunk in a little. “Thanks, Nanny.” “Come on. Let’s finish getting you ready.” “We’re not finished?” One of the other servants brought in a jeweled box Nenji had seen in her mother’s dressing room. Nanny took it and set it on the vanity. She patted the little stool and Nenji obediently sat down. “Almost. We just have a couple minor adjustments to make.” Nanny pulled an ornate bottle from the box. She sprayed Nenji with the flowery fragrance of her mother’s perfume. There was more in the box, including a large brush, which Nanny used to straighten out Nenji’s hair. Finally, Nanny pulled out several tins Nenji had watched her mother use a couple times many years ago. Nenji picked one up and opened it. “Rouge? I have to wear rouge, too?” “Like the dress, your mother has been saving this for you.” Nenji’s face reflected her confusion, but Nanny proceeded to use the powder, sparingly. When she was done, Nenji looked again at the mirror. It really was like looking at a different person. The dress made her look more like a princess than a little farm girl, her hair shone brighter than ever before. The rouge highlighted what few mature features her face had acquired. For the first time in her life she could see the young Lady her mother wanted instead of the simple fourteen-year-old farm girl she always believed herself to be. As she stared at her reflection, she reminded herself this was the only fate left to her since she failed the test. A heavy weight pressed upon her heart as she contemplated all the lessons her mother still had planned. The promise of a dull future, becoming the perfect woman to attract the attention of some stuffy Duke or King’s Advisor, living on the outskirts of a society where she knew she would never belong. Maybe if she played her cards right she could win the heart of a knight. At least then, she’d get to hear the tales of his adventures, even if she didn’t have any of her own.

Finally, she was brought into the foyer, where she had to sit and wait with her stepfather. The dress was confining, the rouge felt foreign on her face and Natsinew’s pacing wasn’t doing anything to quiet the butterflies in her stomach. It was a full ten minutes before her mother came in. “Good morning, Nenji. My, but don’t you just look like a little Lady today,” Tetva said. The word ‘Lady’ seemed to drive home her fate even further and she couldn’t suppress her frown any more. “Tisk, tisk,” Tetva scolded. “We can’t allow any sourpusses today. It seems your past and future have caught up with you all in the same day. Although, I can’t tell which is which. Please don’t take this lightly.” A man came into the room wearing a deep purple uniform. The decorative outline of an eagle was emblazoned on his tunic in white; the royal crest of the House of Lorac. His light brown hair looked like he’d just come inside from a tornado. He wore leather gloves and riding boots. Nenji also saw the bright red hair of a slightly taller man standing behind him. When they both fully entered the room, she recognized the second man. “Zander! What are you doing here?” Nenji blurted out. Zander smiled at Nenji. “You passed my test.” Nenji’s eyes went wide with surprise and her frown melted into a grin from ear to ear. Passed? So Nanny was right after all! Tetva scowled at Nenji, but she ignored her mother’s anger. “Her future is clearly with me,” the guardsman chimed in. “The young Lady must come with me at once to the palace.” “The palace? But why?” Nenji asked. She couldn’t let anything stop her from going with Zander. Not now. Not when she had passed. “By royal command, the Lady Nenji has been summoned to appear before His Majesty, the King.” The royal guardsman was succinct and sharp in his delivery. Lady Nenji. That phrase caught in her brain and rolled around. A royal guard was here to collect the Lady Nenji. Her heart was racing. What could the King possibly want with her? Zander kept smiling as he calmly said, “By the right of the Mages’ Council, I have already taken the young Nenji as my apprentice. I performed the test and I observed her ability. The King will have no further need for her.” Despite the quiet manner of delivery, the guardsman looked like he’d been slapped in the face. “Apprenticeship or not, she has been ordered to appear before the King!” He waved a finger in Zander’s face for emphasis. “Your royal decrees no longer apply to her. The law of Magical Apprenticeship supersedes all others.” The two men were nose to nose now. Zander smiled calmly down at the slightly shorter guard. “How dare you! You knew the King had forbidden she be tested! Not until there was another heir! You mages are all alike with your stupid laws. But you don’t care about the laws of the kingdom now, do you?” “Now, now. We must keep our tempers,” Tetva chimed in. “Nenji, can you explain the claims of this so called ‘wizard’?” Zander kept his smile, though it was slowly curling up into a smirk. “I’m not sure. I thought I had failed the test.” Nenji wrinkled her brow.

“That’s what I thought,” Zander replied, “until you flew away.” His smile broadened again. Nenji found his smile contagious. Tetva, however, exploded. “How dare you accuse my daughter of witchcraft! Of course she failed your stupid test! She’s not a witch and never will be.” “Nenji, would you please demonstrate?” Zander looked like he was suppressing a laugh. “Right now? In this dress?” Nenji spread out her arms to indicate her confining clothing. Zander nodded. “If you insist.” Nenji took a deep breath in and slowly let it out. Mother is not going to like this, she thought. She made herself lighter than air and began to float higher and higher, until her head bumped the ceiling. From there she looked down and shouted, “I can fly!” Her mother fainted. The guardsman scowled. Zander broke out in laughter. Nenji smiled. Natsinew just watched the whole thing, then ran off to fetch a servant to revive Tetva. He did not return.

NINE When Nenji came down from the ceiling and Tetva had been revived, the four of them sat down to tea to discuss what was to be done. “It seems your mission is now pointless,” Zander smiled at the guard. “Witches cannot be Ladies, which means she isn’t Lady Nenji anymore.” “I don’t care if she’s a three-toed frog. I have my orders. She must come with me.” The guardsman’s scowl seemed to have stuck to his face. “How many days ride was it to arrive here?” Zander asked. “You were there when I left! You wizards and your questions.” “Yes, I was. That was three days ago. And you rode BigStorm, the flying horse, yes?” “What’s your point?” “Were you going to take the ‘Lady Nenji’ back the same way you came?” “Of course not! We will hire a coach to escort us back. Nenji, Tetva and the Nanny.” “Me?” Tetva broke in. “The King has finally requested my presence?” The guard’s scowl somehow deepened as he took in her reaction. “Yes. You’re not in exile. Of course you can come with your daughter.” “My point,” Zander butted in, “is that a coach will take several weeks to get to the castle. I can have her there in three days.” He kept that same smile as the guard eyed him carefully. “What are you after?” the guard asked. “I shall strike a bargain with you. Three days hence, I shall meet you inside the second gate and we shall all go see the King together.” “You will not!” Tetva cried. “I won’t allow you to take my daughter anywhere, you charlatan! Besides, there is no way I’m going to travel with you!” “Mother, please. This is what I want.” Nenji hoped beyond reason her mother would give in. “No! I won’t have it!” Tetva turned away to stare at something on the wall. “Madam,” Zander interjected, “your daughter is now a witch, whether you want to admit it, or not. By law, she is my apprentice. You have no say in the matter.” “Well, I never!” Tetva huffed. “Listen, I remember that stupid test you gave me like it was yesterday. I’ve known ever since that there’s no such thing as magic! I want you to get out of this house and stay out of my daughter’s life!”

Nenji reached over and took her mother’s hand. “Please, calm yourself, Mother. I am a witch. I can fly. You saw it yourself. Denying it won’t make it go away.” Tetva’s breathing became rapid, her cheeks filling with color. She started to speak several times, but cut herself off before she could get out a single word. Finally, she scowled at Zander one last time before turning back to Nenji. “Well then, Nenji, if you are determined to do this, it seems I have no choice. I will expect to see you at the castle when I arrive.” With that, she left the room. They heard her barking orders to the staff to pack her things at once. “Well, guardsman, what say you?” Zander still had that infuriating smile on his face. The guard’s face had finally relaxed. “You will meet me at the second gate, at sundown three days hence?” “Yes.” Zander said it flatly and with finality. “May I have your name and your word that you will not break this oath?” A frown replaced the smile at last. “You know my name, silly. And you would doubt my word?” The guard shook his head. “Don’t misunderstand me, Zander. I must do my job, same as you. I need your oath on this so I can be blameless should you change your mind with some wizard trickery about laws and rules.” Zander took a deep breath and slowly let it out. As he did so, the frown melted back into a smile. “I, Zander Bartholomew Lorac the Mage, give my word as a wizard that Nenji and I will be at the second gate at the hour of sunset, three days hence.” Nenji got goose bumps as he said it. The air seemed charged with more than just tension. The guard watched Zander’s face for a few seconds without speaking. Finally he said, “Well, I don’t know why you wish to travel separate, but I will agree to your terms.” “Thank you.” Zander turned to Nenji. “Let’s get you out of that silly dress and into your apprentice robes. “Oh, thank you.” Nenji stood up stiffly, slowly following Zander back to her bedroom. She went to her closet to find something softer to wear, but all her clothes had already been packed. Zander pulled a toy-sized chest out of one of his pockets. He carefully held it between two fingers as he placed it on the floor and shouted, “Maxim Largatum!” The chest grew to one of the largest Nenji had ever seen. Nenji laughed as it pushed her bed out of the way. “I see the next three days are going to be very fun.” Zander chuckled. He pulled a key out of another pocket. “Can’t be too careful.” He unlocked the chest, rummaged around and found a plain brown robe, a smaller version of the one he was wearing. “Here. Put this on.” Nenji took the robe and waited as Zander made the chest shrink again so he could put it in his pocket, then he left. Nanny appeared without being called. She undid the buttons on the back of Nenji’s dress, helping her take it off without damaging it. “Oh, isn’t this exciting, Nanny! I’m a witch! And we’ve been summoned to the castle!” “Yes. I heard Tetva barking orders to have her things packed at once.” Her smile was very wide. Nenji turned and took Nanny’s hands as she was reaching to remove the underclothes. “You’ve been summoned as well.” Nanny’s eyes went wide. “What exactly did the guard say about me?” Nenji’s nose wrinkled. “What does that matter? The King wants you to come to the castle. Isn’t that exciting?” “Please, Nenji,” Nanny said rapidly. “How did he refer to me?”

Nenji thought a moment. “He just said the Lady Nenji, her Nanny and Tetva have been summoned to stand before the king.” She let out a large sigh as both her face and stance relaxed. She recovered quickly. “So we are to ride in a coach then?” “Well, I suppose you and Mother shall be riding, but Zander will take me. I’m his apprentice now.” “Just like that? Didn’t you fail the test?” Nanny’s smile indicated she already knew the answer. “He said I passed because I can fly!” Nenji spread out her arms and walked around the room as if flying. Nanny stopped her, and quickly got her changed into more appropriate underwear. Then she put the robe on. It was very comfortable, fitting her large frame perfectly. She could easily imagine flying around in it. Nenji slipped her feet into durable shoes and gave Nanny a great big hug. “I’ll see you when you get to the castle.” “When is that, exactly?” Nanny asked as she released the hug. “Zander says we’ll meet the guard inside the gate, I mean the second gate at sunset in three days. It’ll probably take you a few weeks to get there by coach.” Nanny smiled. “Well, we’ll see about that. Now go find Zander. I’m sure we’ll have much to talk about when we see each other next.” Nenji left the room. Everywhere she went, everyone was busy packing up the house. It looked as if her mother intended to move into the castle. She found Zander in the foyer. “I have much to tell you and there is only three days to do so.” Zander walked out the front door. Nenji had little choice but to follow. They walked across the garden and off into the woods. They walked back to Tarna Hill in silence. Nenji was all mixed up inside. She was excited about the adventure of being a witch, but she was already missing Nanny. So many people were trying to demand things of her today and the realization she’d gotten her wish was still settling in her mind. When they reached the hill, Zander stopped. “The first thing to learn is that the most complex spells must be done in special places, where the magic is most abundant. We are here because an abundance of Spirit is mixed with Earth and Wind. And I have my word to keep.” “Why did the guard make you swear like that?” “That’s complicated,” Zander began. “But the short explanation is that I released him from his duty and took the responsibility on myself. If I fail to do as I swore, the punishment would be on me, not him. Since we can’t have that…” Zander proceeded to spew out words Nenji had never heard. He waved his hands in the air as well. She couldn’t see anything happening. He went on and on, seemingly speaking to the trees or to the sky. She wondered if he was seeing something she couldn’t. She recalled what he said about spending a week on each of those spells and wondered if he intended to chant all day. Slowly she realized she recognized the words he was using. Not because she’d heard them before, but because he was repeating a very long phrase. “It’s done,” he said at last. “No matter what happens in the mean time, we will instantly be transported to a secret passage inside the second gate at sunset on the third day.” “Well, if we can travel instantly, why not go now?” Nenji asked. Part of her wanted to go see the King and get it over with so she could focus on learning magic, but she was also worried what the King wanted with ‘Lady Nenji’.

“There are things you need to know before we meet with the King. With only three days, I don’t have time to teach you anything useful in magic. Instead, I must explain why the King wishes to see you. Your father was the second son of the King. As he was not the crown prince, he married, determined to live the simple life here, with your mother. This worked fine for ten years, until your father died while wandering through this very forest. Did your mother tell you how your father died?” “She didn’t have to.” Nenji felt tears building up behind her eyes as the memory came flooding back. “I’m the one that found him.” “But you were only nine years old.” Nenji hung her head. She could still see the bloody places where his ears had been. Why would anyone take his ears? Sometimes in her dreams, she could still hear him screaming. “Sorry, I didn’t know. I don’t mean to be rude, but I have quite a bit to tell you still. Can we continue?” Nenji nodded, anxious to drive that memory from her mind. “Ssssorry to interrupt…” Nenji turned around and saw an old woman, no taller than herself. She was wearing a flower print dress and leaning on a cane. “Well, hello there,” Nenji said. “Where did you come from?” She gave a smile to reassure the woman she was among friends. “I live here in the woodsss…” the woman began. Nenji’s smile disappeared. “You live in my woods?” Nenji looked more closely at the woman. She’d never seen her before. Zander squinted his eyes for a moment. He made a sweeping motion with his hand and said, “Finitum.” Nenji screamed. The old woman was gone and in her place stood a short man with mismatched body parts. Most of his skin was olive toned and covered in short dark fur, but his right leg below the knee was much lighter and free of fur. His ears also didn’t match the rest of his skin tone. This was the creature she’d seen creeping around the woods from time to time, but she’d always thought he was blind. His bright blue eyes looked out of place on the dark face. His unnaturally elongated muscled arms and body posture made him look more like a large chimpanzee than a small man. After that, everything happened very quickly. The man waved his arm in Zander’s direction, the way Zander had done while casting the spell. Zander raised his arm as if to catch something. Though she couldn’t see what he caught, the force of it knocked him over. The short man moved very fast for someone so small. He grabbed Nenji under one of his thick arms and ran off into the woods. She screamed again. Panic filled her mind as she saw Zander struggling on the ground against some invisible foe. She fought against the little man’s grip, but he was very strong. She knew if she could just escape his grip for a second, she could fly away. The opportunity never came. She quickly lost track of where he was running. The man stopped. Nenji kicked at him and dug her nails into his back, but the skin was hard and firm. None of her efforts seemed to make a difference. Escape was the only thing left in her mind. She pushed against his arm again, but it was useless. Ignoring her efforts, he inhaled deeply through his nose, then started running again, still not saying a word. He ran into a clump of trees and the world went black for a second.

When the world came back into focus, the forest was gone. Instead, there was barren ground, a stiff cool breeze and a view that stretched on for miles. As she took in the scene a bit more, she saw they were up on a mountain. They were past the tree line. The man set her down, waving his hands without a word. Her arms and legs were pressed against her side. It felt like she was wrapped in big fluffy pillows. She tried to take a deep breath to scream again, but it felt like that same pillow was being shoved down her throat. Her lungs struggled against the invisible gag for air, but none came. Slowly, the force diminished until she was able to breathe normally. “What did you do?” she asked. “Took you sssomewhere far away. Sssomewhere Zzzander will never find you.” “What? How?” “Magic…” the man said. “Perhapsss you’ve heard of it.” She studied the man as he paced in front of her. Nanny was right. He really looked like a cross between a monkey and a man. “What are you?” “Revenge…” he spat out. “Ssstrickle isss revenge!” Anger pushed the panic out of her mind. “What did I ever do to you? I don’t even know you.” “Fat little girl alwaysss in the woodsss. Ssstrickle knowsss you. Have you not ssseen me?” Strickle’s tongue flicked in and out a few inches from Nenji’s face. She couldn’t help but see it was forked. Nenji’s face grew red, her nose scrunched up. She struggled against the pillows of air, trying to get at him. Finding the task futile, she tried diplomacy again. “Yes, I’ve seen you a few times. I’ve never done anything to you. I thought you were just a forest creature.” “Ssstrickle isss not a creature!” He picked up a large rock nearby and threw it at her. The rock bounced off the invisible barrier. “Ssstupid fat little girl. Thhhisss isss not your fight. Ssstay out of my way.” “What do you want?” “Zzzander! I want Zzzander! He dessstroyed my beautiful body. He ruined my life!” Nenji opened her mouth to speak, but a pillow of air clamped down again. “Enough of thhhissss!” Strickle walked a few feet away, waving his arm, and the air in front of him shimmered. He stepped into the shimmer and disappeared. *** Thank you for reading this eBook version. The adventure continues in Royal Reunions. Share your enjoyment of this book with your friends by telling them where they can get their own copy. More books by this author will be coming soon! About the Author David D. Carroll grew up in Colorado in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. He is a graduate of Brigham Young University and currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona. His short story, Grenya’s Revenge, was published in The Furly Edition in 2005. He has been writing for the past three decades and minored in English in college, focused on writing fiction. He is a Test Engineer working on space programs with experience in technical writing. Writing has always been his first passion and he intends to pursue it as a career.

You can connect with David in the following ways: Facebook: Livejournal: gartu_mesk Email: Website:

Dreams Take Flight  
Dreams Take Flight  

Princess Nenji Part 1, Dreams Take Flight. This is the first of four chapter books from Princess Nenji. A young witch is next in line to the...