The boy’s first clear memory was of a face. It had rosy cheeks and a small nose and bright eyes the color of honey. “I’m Tomas,” said the face. “Tomas Orellen. Can you say it? Come on. You can do it!”
The face smiled. Grimy hands grabbed the boy’s cheeks gently. “To-mas. It’s important you remember, okay? I’m your big brother. I’m nine years old. I bet you’re only four. You look four to me. That means I’m much smarter than you, and you have to do what I say.”
The boy’s big brother talked a lot. He talked and talked while the boy blinked, looking around himself. There wasn’t much to see. He and Tomas were sitting together in very tall, thick grass. The grass was dark green and golden yellow and brown.
Tomas was wearing a silky blue shirt that matched the sky.
“Tomas,” said the boy, trying out the name.
Tomas trilled with delight. “That’s perfect! I’m Tomas, and you’re my little brother.” He tapped his hand against a slip of parchment that had been affixed to the boy’s ragged tunic with a pin. “I don’t know if you can read, but it says on your tag that your name will be Kalenerth. But that’s too long, so you should call yourself Kalen or Kal or Lenert.”
He paused for the briefest of moments, as if waiting for something. But when the boy remained quiet, he said. “Kalen. That’s what you should choose.”
“Kalen,” said the boy obligingly.
Tomas beamed. “Kalen, you’re a great little brother. I can tell. Now listen. There are lots of things you need to learn before I take you back. We don’t have much time. If they notice you missing, I don’t know what they’ll do. So you have to try hard and remember everything, and if you do, I’ll give you a chocolate.”
The boy had a second name. It was Orellen, the same as Tomas’s. But he must never tell anyone. This was the most important thing to remember. If he remembered this one thing, he would receive two chocolates.
(Kalen Orellen wasn’t sure what chocolates were for, but Tomas had made it clear that they were an extraordinary reward.)
The second thing for Kalen to remember, said Tomas, was that he was one of many. Tomas didn’t know how many, but it was “definitely more than thirty” because he had seen that many in the room he stole Kalen from this morning.
If Kalen remembered this, perhaps he would not feel lonely when he was separated from the others.
“Because…they’re sending you all away,” said Tomas, his face falling for the first time. “They’re sending all of us away to different places. And lots of the adults are leaving the Enclave, too… except for the stupid ones, Uncle Lan says, because they don’t know their butts from their noses."
Tomas dug a pebble out of the ground with his fingers and tossed it into the wall of grass that surrounded them. "We have to run away because bad magicians and mages from the other families will be looking for us soon. Maybe even some sorcerers. That’s why you little brothers and sisters aren’t supposed to know who you are. That’s why we’re never even supposed to meet. So that I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, and if someone catches one of us we can never turn rat on the others.”
Turning rat, he explained, would send you straight to the worst pit in the hells.
“I’d die first,” he said confidently. “As a big brother should! I told them so, but they still wouldn’t let me meet any of you. Which is why I had to steal you away.”
Kalen felt happy to have such a brave older brother. He tried harder than ever to remember everything Tomas had to say.
They were from an important family. The Orellens. A family whose children were almost always born with some magic, even if they weren’t the most powerful. One day, Tomas was going to be able to rip holes in the air big enough for elephants to pass through. (Elephants were big, he explained. Bigger than twenty men combined.)
“Will I be able to do that, too?” This was the longest sentence Kalen had ever spoken. Tomas spent a while praising him for it before he answered.
“I bet you will! If you study really hard. I guess you won’t be able to use our family archives or the school…but I’m sure they’ll send you somewhere that has those sorts of things. Make sure you learn to read, okay? You should have started already.”
In a family of practitioners, everyone could read. Tomas had never even met anyone who couldn’t, he said, except for young children.
Tomas went on to tell Kalen about some of their other brothers and sisters. The ones who were older. For some reason, they didn’t want to meet Kalen or the others like him, but Tomas thought they were being almost as stupid as the people who got their noses confused with their butts.
“You’re my little brother, and I love you,” Tomas declared so loudly that his voice startled a bird out of the grass. It flew up and away into the blue sky, chittering with alarm.
“I love you, too,” said Kalen.
The answer was automatic. It felt like he’d given it to someone many times before. But to whom?
His brother Tomas was the only person he knew.
Tomas’s cheeks reddened. “Good. Now, tell me everything you remember, and maybe I’ll give you three chocolates.”
Kalen woke hours later to the quiet sound of whispering.
He lay on his mat, in the room Tomas had returned him to. It was a large space, full of tables and chairs and colorful glass lamps. It had a polished wood floor and windows with curtains that couldn’t be opened. Kalen had heard one of the adults call it “the Seniors’ study” when they were unrolling the sleeping mats that evening.
There had been other children here. A few of them were smaller than Kalen, but most were larger.
Many of the others could talk, but not having met Tomas, few of them had anything to talk about.
For a while, they had all played together with a box full of balls and wooden dolls in the corner.
It was boring. Kalen didn’t like it. None of these brothers and sisters were as fascinating as Tomas had been. The only interesting thing to do was stare at them all and note their differences. Some had dark hair and some had blond or red. One had brown skin, and another was so pale she seemed to glow in the lamplight. The others were in between.
Judging from the backs of his hands, Kalen’s skin was precisely in the middle. He pulled out a few strands of his hair and found that it was blond. He held it under one of the lamps to examine it.
“Why is it like that?” said one of his sisters, peering over his shoulder.
Kalen didn't know any of their names. None of them could read their own tags.
She made a spiraling gesture with her finger. “Why is your hair so round?”
“Oh,” she said, looking suddenly enlightened. “Oh, yes. I know that word.”
Apparently fascinated, she took the hair from him without asking. But Kalen didn’t protest. She was bigger than him.
In the process of comparing himself to his siblings, he had discovered that he didn’t seem to be as well put together as they were. Even when he judged himself by the ones who were closest to his own height, he came up lacking. His arms and legs were thinner than theirs. When he chased after the balls, he grew tired in moments. Sometimes, his hands shook without his permission.
A word came to his mind to describe himself--sickly.
But he wasn’t sure if it was a real word or if he'd just made it up.
Throughout the day, his chances for comparison had disappeared. Periodically, an adult would come for one of the children. They were told to leave behind their toys.
And once they left the Senior’s study, they never returned.
There had been seven of them remaining when Kalen went to sleep, but now, peering around the dimmed room, he saw that he was alone except for the two adults who’d woken him with their whispers.
“He hasn’t had time to finish the scrying, Dowither,” said the woman. “Shouldn’t we at least tell him before we send the boy off?”
“Iven’s half dead from exhaustion as it is, Elyna,” said the man. “Let him sleep while he can. He’d nearly finished the process when he collapsed. Narrowed it down to three, they said. It will have to be enough. The evacuation of the family starts at dawn, and the children must be gone by then.”
“Well, at least let me be the one to fetch the boy,” said Elyna. “You made the last one cry.”
“Hmmph...it’s not my fault I haven’t had time to trim my beard in a few weeks.”
Soft footsteps approached Kalen’s mat.
“Oh!” the elderly woman exclaimed when she saw him sitting there with his eyes wide open. “Well, I guess you’re ready to go, aren’t you?”
Where’s Tomas? thought Kalen. I want to say goodbye to Tomas.
But he didn’t say it. He placed his hand over the hidden pocket his big brother had stitched to the inside of his shirt and remembered. He must never tell anyone. He had promised.
And promise breakers went to the worst pit in the hells to live with the rats.
“Come, child,” said Elyna, reaching out to lift him from the mat. “Today is a very special day. It’s your birthday! Everything starts for you right now.”