The previous year, on a night when a blizzard howled around the cabin, Kalen’s family had sat warming themselves by the fire and telling stories. At some point, the stories had turned into tall-tales about Yarda Strongback, who was definitely the largest woman on Hemarland and quite possibly the largest in the world.
Yarda was in her forties. She lived in Baitown. And though it was hardly worth mentioning when the description applied to so many people on an island with a small population, she was distantly related to Kalen’s father and uncle.
Like many of the adults on Hemarland, Yarda’s favorite winter pastime was wrestling. But unlike anyone else on the island, she was famous for refusing to spend the night under a roof unless all the men of the house who were known to wrestle for sport agreed to wrestle her.
Kalen couldn’t quite remember Yarda’s reasoning, though he supposed it must have something to do with demanding respect.
He did remember that he was upset to learn Yarda would never stay under his family’s roof because the adults all had different opinions when it came to the matter of men and women engaging in combat with each other.
Kalen’s father and Aunt Jayne held that it shouldn’t be done even if it was good-natured and by mutual agreement. Because it wasn’t proper.
On the other hand, Uncle Holv and Kalen’s mother said that anyone who was brave enough to ask for a fight, and wise enough to know what they’d asked for, should get one.
Kalen felt Shelba’s position was terribly hypocritical, given her own refusal to let him have his eighth birthday on schedule. So, he’d sided with his father and declared that he would never fight a woman lest he bring dishonor to himself.
But when Zevnie interrupted his first ever life magic cantrip, trespassed on his rock, and slapped him for no reason, Kalen discovered he was every bit as much of a hypocrite as his mother.
The slap knocked him down onto hard stone. He lay there for a breath, dizzied by shock and adrenaline, then he yelled an incoherent battlecry and launched himself at the enemy’s knees.
Apparently unprepared for any retaliation, Zevnie shrieked and landed with an audible thwack. Her breath rushed out of her.
Kalen lunged. He landed on her stomach and grabbed hold of one of her arms, but he was still so scramble-brained from the sudden attack that he couldn’t figure out what to do with the appendage. For a moment, he just sat on top of Zevnie, holding the arm and blinking at it stupidly.
Then the hand attached to the arm balled up in a fist and delivered a punch to his chin.
Kalen bit his tongue.
Zevnie tried to bite Kalen’s side but got a mouthful of his shirt instead.
Kalen successfully regained his feet and aimed a heel at Zevnie’s gut, only to miss when she repeated his earlier move and dove for his other knee. Kalen leaped out of the way, tripped, and ended up landing on her again, elbowing her solidly in the ribs in the process.
From that point on, the fight devolved even further. Both parties rolled around on top of the rock, slapping and yanking hair and screaming.
“She was about to renew my apprenticeship!”
“I’ll die before I let you kidnap me!”
“You lied to me, you horrible little boy!”
“Nobody asked you to come here!”
“I thought you were weak!”
“I thought you were back at the village!”
“You were tricking me all this time!”
“You were spying on me all this time!”
“I won’t be replaced!”
“I won’t be taken!”
In hindsight, they would both realize the scuffle had continued for an embarrassingly long time before either of them finally listened to what the other was shouting about.
“W-what do you mean kidnap?” Zevnie panted, dropping the front of Kalen’s shirt so that he flopped onto the rock with a groan. “Who’s going to kidnap you?”
Kalen shoved her away from him without answering. Gasping for air, his body stinging and throbbing in far too many places, he crawled over to his water flask. He took a drink, tasting more blood than water thanks to a split lip. Then, he poured some of the cool liquid over his skinned knees.
Sitting in an undignified sprawl a few feet away, Zevnie eyed the water flask pointedly.
Kalen didn’t offer her any. “You and your master,” he said. “I don’t care if she is a sorcerer. I’m not coming with her. If you try to take me away from Hemarland, I’ll wait ’til your both asleep and jump off the boat.”
Zevnie scoffed. “You liar. You are out here practicing cantrips so that you can impress her!”
Kalen stared at Zevnie.
She stared back.
“I don’t want to impress her,” Kalen said slowly. “I’ve been trying to do the opposite of impressing her for weeks.”
“Ha! Then why are you performing cantrips? Nobody does those except to show off.” She stood up and looked down her nose at him, but her superior expression was ruined by the fact that she was wobbling around with all her weight on one foot. Her other ankle seemed to be hurt.
“I thought I was alone.” Kalen frowned. “You were supposed to be stuck at the village scrubbing your master’s weird magical tools and arranging shells into spell diagrams and…whatever else it is you do. And I wasn’t showing off! I always do cantrips. They’re my favorite kind of working.”
Zevnie’s mouth dropped open. “You know more than one?”
“I’m not stupid,” said Kalen. “I know several. This was a new one, though. And I was really excited about it, and I didn’t even get to celebrate because you slapped me.”
Zevnie’s whole body slumped. “So…you were faking everything this whole time? Your lack of knowledge and the trouble with the heating circle in your room and…and is enchanting work even your natural inclination? Or was that a lie, too? Who is your master, and why are they avoiding Master Arlade?”
Kalen knew he was in trouble, but it seemed to him that he was so deep in it now that there wasn’t much point in hiding everything from her. It wasn’t like he was going to shove Zevnie off the top of the rock to keep his secret. My best hope is persuading her not to tell her master about me.
“I’m really sorry I lied to you,” Kalen lied. “But Nanu said Master Arlade would want to take me away from the island if I was any good at magic, and I don’t want to go! I don’t want to leave my family. Please, please don’t tell her.”
Zevnie’s heavy brows drew in as she looked down at Kalen. She didn't answer.
“I’ll do anything you say!” Kalen added quickly. He was sweating, and he thought it was from more than just the fight. What if the sorcerer was so mad about the deception that she took it out on Kalen’s family and Nanu?
“I didn’t lie about everything! I’m only decent at cantrips and one breath thrawning and a few heating spells and some other little things. But I’m much slower at activating circles than you are! I didn't even know someone could be as fast as you. And I’m not hiding another master somewhere. There’s only Nanu. And my inclination really might be enchanting! Maybe. I don’t think it is, but I don’t know for sure that it isn’t. And—”
“What do you mean you are only decent at cantrips?” Zevnie interrupted. Now her eyebrows looked like they were trying to escape into her hairline. “That’s not even a good lie.”
“It’s true!” Kalen said. “Look…I…wait just a second. Wait right there!”
He scrambled to his feet and grabbed Cantripy of the Sorcerer Brou from where he’d dropped it when he started the seed cantrip.
It was entitled “For germinating grain” which had always made it sound too boring to attempt. But Kalen had only had a few days left of practice, and he’d thought the pattern that accompanied the chant was simple enough he might be able to manage it in the remaining time.
He raced over to Zevnie and thrust the book at her. “Look! It’s my favorite book, and I still haven’t mastered even a third of them. The ones I know are marked. I inked a star beside the titles.”
Zevnie flipped through the book quickly. “You can perform…thirteen different cantrips?” she said. Her tone hovered between doubt and some other emotion Kalen couldn’t place.
“Well, fourteen now that I know the germination one,” he said hurriedly. “I’m really bad at forming casting patterns, which is why I can’t do the cantrips with the more difficult ones. I think that’s why I can’t activate the heating circle as fast as you can, either. Even though that’s a relatively simple activation rune, it still takes a minute or two. But cantrips are supposed to take a minute or two anyway while you do the chant.”
“But cantrips are nearly impossible to perform,” Zevnie said in a baffled voice.
“I like cantrips because they’re easy!” Kalen said at exactly the same time.
They stared at each other.
“They’re not hard,” said Kalen.
“They’re not easy,” said Zevnie.
The apprentice held a hand up in front of his nose to silence him. “We will be trusting my opinion on this matter, rather than yours,” she said with a glare. “Because your opinion is ridiculous. If you’re being serious….Kalen, do you even know what cantrips are?”
He thought he did. But her voice made him suspect there was some trick to the question.
“They’re spells you chant?”
She stared him down.
“And…they have really limited internal casting patterns. And no external ones?” External patterns were things like diagrams or circles or even hand gestures.
Zevnie was still. Staring.
“And a sorcerer named Brou made some of them up?” Kalen said hopefully.
Zevnie closed her eyes. “I almost fear your answer. But just…out of curiosity,” she said, “what do you think it means for a spell to have no external patterns? Or limited external patterns in this case. The chant itself is a sonic pattern, by the way.”
Kalen mentally filed the idea of sonic patterns away for later exploration. But he didn’t understand what she was getting at.
“It makes the spell easier,” he said finally. “Because you don’t have to spend time drawing a diagram on something?”
She made a choking sound.
Not the right answer then?
“I don’t know what you want from me,” Kalen said, exasperated. “I like cantrips because I can do them without buying a lot of expensive supplies, and it’s fun when you suck in all that magic and it just whooshes out of your pathways into the spell.”
“You suck it in. And it whooshes…”
Kalen nodded. “You know how it rushes out? And then you get to let it all rush back in again before you cast the next one.”
Zevnie took a step back from him. “Dear gods,” she said, looking Kalen up and down. “It is like someone has taken all of my nightmares and shaped them into a little farm boy.”
Zevnie told Kalen not to go anywhere while she took time to, “Recover my composure and collect my thoughts.”
Then she limped down the stairs and headed for the large silk pack she’d cast aside when she was in such a hurry to slap Kalen.
He thought she’d grab the bag and be right back, but she sat down on the ground beside her pack and closed her eyes.
Is she meditating? Right now? Kalen wondered. What am I supposed to do?
Feeling sore and out of sorts, he sat on the edge of the rock and watched her do nothing for nearly an hour, trying all the while not to worry that she was hatching a plan to tie him up and deliver him to her master.
When she finally retuned, Kalen scowled at her. “Are you composed?”
“Not remotely,” she said, sitting down beside him. “Are you seriously afraid of being taken away by Master Arlade?”
“Yes,” said Kalen. “I don’t want to leave my family.”
Zevnie hesitated, then said grudgingly, “You understand that being her apprentice is the highest of honors, don’t you?”
“I don’t care.”
“You should…” Zevnie muttered. “Very well. If you swear on your magic that you will not intentionally reveal your true nature to Master Arlade for the next twelve months, then I will swear on my magic not to tell her the truth about you either.”
She was glancing at him sideways, as if she couldn’t quite meet his gaze.
“I swear,” said Kalen.
“I swear too.” Zevnie spoke so quickly, she sounded almost panicked.
A feeling like a tiny knot formed inside Kalen.
Zevnie sighed in apparent relief. “It is not as strong an oath as it would be if we were more experienced practitioners. But it is an old magic, and it should be enough.”
Then she reached over and slapped one of Kalen’s knees. “What is wrong with you, you foolish boy? Arlade Glimont would give you the world on a platter if you agreed to be her apprentice! She would leave me here in a heartbeat and forget my name so that she could focus all her attentions on your development. Are you weak in the mind?”
“What?” said Kalen, confused by this sudden change.
“You do not know anything about the world of practitioners! You should not make such an oath unless you fully understand it. You have just done something ignorant and reckless!”
“But you’re the one who asked me to do it!?”
“Do not swear oaths on your magic just because a stranger wants you to!”
“Okay!” Kalen said loudly. “But you told me to!”
“Yes.” Zevnie sighed. “And now that I have stolen something of immeasurable value from you, I can give you only a pittance in return. I think we have about three days time before the aurora fades. We must make the most of it. First your magic. You are adopted. Please do not be insulted by the question, but are you sure you are completely human?”
“Um…what else would I be?”
“Part spirit,” she said seriously. “Or maybe part sea person.”
“Aren’t spirits just the ghosts of the dead? And the sea people aren’t real.”
“No, they were real. They’ve all been dead for many years, but they were. And they still have a few descendants. On Makeera, there was a girl born with gills only a century ago, and when they tried to burn her, the ocean boiled.”
While Kalen was trying to figure out if this story was the truth or if Zevnie was making a strange joke, the apprentice was pulling things out of her bag—her own flask of water and a length of bright red yarn.
“Look here,” she said, showing them to him. “Pretend my flask is full of raw mana. You are the yarn. You have just performed a difficult working and you need to perform another, but you are all dried up. How do you perform the next spell?”
Is this a lesson? It felt like one. Kalen was still a little off-footed by the oath and the apprentice’s reaction to him giving it. “Are you really going to teach me for the next three days?” he asked.
“Yes. Do whatever you want with the yarn. But this is a metaphor for yourself, so try to make it accurate. I need to understand how you cast your cantrips.”
Rather intrigued by the idea, Kalen set to it with a will. He cut the red yarn into pieces with his knife and made a tangled shape on the stone, fraying the ends of the yarn to represent his narrowest internal pathways. He made a vaguely circular shape out of a few of these frayed pieces. “To represent the sympathetic pattern of a working,” he explained to Zevnie. “Only it would take me longer than this, really, because the pieces like to tangle together.”
Zevnie watched him silently until he asked for her to pass him the flask. “Now, since you are empty, you must take in the mana you need for your working,” she said as she handed it to him. “How do you do it? How long does it take you? Do you use a pulling technique to speed the process?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” said Kalen. “I don’t know any special techniques yet. It’s just like breathing in, isn’t it? Well, it is when the aurora’s here, anyway. So one minute you’re out of magic and the next…”
He poured water all over the yarn until the entire tangled pile was soaked.
Zevnie stared at it.
Kalen continued. “And then to cast, you hold the pattern in place…only I’ve washed it away haven’t I? Pretend I didn’t. You hold the pattern in place. Or if it’s a cantrip, you actually build it in time with the chant. And since those take a lot more magic than the other workings I know, I just…”
Kalen picked out the whole pile of yarn and squeezed it as hard as he could. Water oozed out through his fingers, and he dropped the soggy mess back on the stone. “Well…” he said apologetically. “It would be easier to explain if I had a sponge instead of yarn. You soak all the magic in until you’re heavy with it, and then you squeeze it all out again until you’re dry. And then to cast the next working, you just do the same thing again. Right?”
Zevnie lay back on the rock and closed her eyes.
“Be quiet. I am recovering my composure and collecting my thoughts.”
But Kalen fell silent.
After only a couple of minutes, Zevnie sighed and sat upright. She pulled another length of yarn from her pack. “Shall I show you how I renew my own magic?”
Kalen nodded eagerly and watched as Zevnie made a shape on the surface of the stone. It was surprisingly similar to a sandglass, with a few elegant whorls inside. “Obviously this is simplified. I do have more pathways than this. But this is the basic shape.”
“I see,” Kalen agreed, admiring the orderly spirals she had made.
“Now, let’s say I have just cast the most exhausting thing I can. Which is a thrawning called Strong as the Coconut, by the way. Not a cantrip. Because I am a mid-level magician, and I cannot move enough magic to cast prototype spells that are created by pre-ascendant sorcerers in order to show off for their colleagues.”
For some reason, she gave Kalen a dark look. Then, she cleared her throat. “Anyway, my yarn is now nearly empty of magic. Here is how I would refill it.”
Kalen was surprised when she poured the water beside the yarn instead of on top of it. She took a single strand, curled it around the tip of her pinkie finger, and brushed the edge of it against the pooled water in a slow sweeping motion. Then, she did it again. And again.
“When are you going to wet the yarn?” Kalen asked.
“I am wetting it.”
“Only a little bit of it.”
“The moisture will wick up and wet everything eventually.”
Kalen frowned. “Yes. But what if you needed to cast a spell faster?”
Zevnie glared at him ferociously and moved her pinkie slightly faster.
Kalen got the point. “Are you…is something wrong with your magic?” he said sympathetically.
“No, you little monster!” Zevnie shouted, abandoning her demonstration so that she could flick water from the puddle at him instead. “This is how it’s supposed to work when you’re a beginner! There’s nothing wrong with me!”
Kalen reached for the water flask, intending to retaliate, but she pulled it out of the way.
“Never mind.” She sighe. “But I will have you know, nobody sucks magic into themselves or squeezes it out all at once like a sponge. That sounds completely impossible. And hideously painful. And I’ve never heard of anyone being able to cast a cantrip before they were at least a mage.”
“Oh,” said Kalen. “What about the tangles?”
“Is it really as tangled as that pile of yarn you made?” Zevnie asked. “Or were you being dramatic?”
“It’s more tangled even than that,” said Kalen. “It’s a big mess compared to yours. Am I supposed to be doing something to straighten it out? Is that something I could learn if I had the right book?”
“I’m…afraid not,” said Zevnie. “Your nature is your nature, and it doesn’t change unless you do something horrible. Like summon demons or perform soul shredding spells. As you grow in power, the pathways you are born with widen and strengthen. You are supposed to gain new ones, not simplify what you already possess.”
Kalen wondered if all the color had just drained from his face. He felt like it should have. “You mean it’s going to get more tangled as time passes?”
She nodded. “You really are like a little package of mysteries for Master Arlade to unwrap one at a time.”
“But you won’t tell her.”
“And you won’t either,” Zevnie said. “Not for another year at least.”
“What about then?”
“We will worry about that when we come to it. But for now, I am going to tell you why you should want me to tell her.”
Kalen looked at her doubtfully.
Zevnie glanced up at the sky. Overhead, the aurora’s magic undulated slowly, glimmering with rainbow light at the edges. “Kalen, what do you know about the Archipelago?”