Forsworn a powder mage s.., p.1
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       Forsworn: A Powder Mage Short Story, p.1
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           Brian McClellan
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Forsworn: A Powder Mage Short Story


  Forsworn

  Brian McClellan

  All material contained within copyright © Brian McClellan, 2014.

  All rights reserved.

  This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and scenarios are either products of the authors imagination or used fictitiously. All resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Typesetting and ebook conversion by handebooks.co.uk

  The forest filled with the dry bone sound of fallen leaves swirling in the wind as Erika drew back on her bow. She pulled until the feather tickled her cheek, sighting down the shaft, then let out a breath as she released, accomplishing the entire act in one swift motion.

  The arrow glanced off a tree root forty feet away and careened into the underbrush. The squirrel she’d been aiming at raced up the tree, chattering angrily at her. She pulled an arrow from her quiver, set it to the string, drew back and fired again.

  The second shot thumped into the branch just below the squirrel’s bushy tail. Erika reached for another arrow, but the rodent had already retreated to the safety of its nest.

  “Your form is fantastic,” a stern voice commented. “Your speed is admirable and your movements precise. Only one thing lacking; you missed.”

  Erika glared over her shoulder at the Leora family mistress-at-arms. Santiole was a sharp-eyed woman in her late forties with weather-worn skin and more than a few gray strands in her brown hair. She was roughly the same height as Erika, but her stiff posture made her seem far taller. She had a way of looking down her pinched nose that might seem genuinely imposing to anyone else. Erika just found it annoying. Fifteen years as Erika’s tutor had done little to sweeten Santiole’s sour humor and she always knew exactly what to say to get under Erika’s skin.

  “I might have hit it,” Erika said, “if you weren’t sitting back there creaking in your saddle, scaring off my targets.”

  Santiole’s horse tossed its head impatiently and the mistress-at-arms shifted her weight on the roan’s back, eliciting yet another loud creak. “You need to learn to shoot with distractions.”

  Erika’s eyes rested first on the flintlock musket laid across Santiole’s saddle horn and then on the pistol tucked into the mistress-at-arm’s belt. Her fingers itched to go hunting with one of those. In all her nineteen years she’d never been allowed to do so. Handling a black powder weapon, even an unloaded one, was forbidden to her.

  After all, that would be illegal.

  “Go fetch your arrows,” Santiole said. “We should head back soon.”

  They were an hour’s ride from the Leora manor and would be back in time to wash up for dinner if they hurried. Erika slung her bow over one shoulder and set off into the trees.

  She rooted around in the brambles to find the first arrow, tearing a hole in her hunting doublet that would doubtlessly be noticed by grandmother, before returning to the offending tree and working her way fifteen feet in the air to dislodge the second arrow from its home in a thick branch.

  Mother would have a fit if she saw me here, Erika reflected as she shimmied her way out to the arrow. Mother would lecture Santiole, and Santiole would weather the tirade only to tell her a Kez duchess needs to learn to fend for herself. And then father would interfere, telling mother to leave the poor old mistress-at-arms alone and....

  Erika’s train of thought was interrupted as her eyes focused on something further in the forest: a subtle movement amongst the reds and browns of fallen autumn leaves.

  She retrieved her arrow and returned to the ground, where Santiole waited with a look of impatience. She opened her mouth to say something, but Erika interrupted.

  “Tie the horses and come with me.”

  The mistress-at-arms hesitated for a moment, but she dismounted and quickly tied up both their horses. “What is it?”

  “I’m not sure,” Erika said. “I saw something. Someone.”

  “Let me go first.” Musket at the ready, Santiole crept into the underbrush, barely stirring the leaves as she advanced. Erika followed her forward, an arrow nocked. They worked their way across a dry stream bed and came into a clearing some forty yards from the road. Santiole shouldered her musket.

  “It’s a child.”

  The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve, with hair a shade lighter than Erika’s dark blonde. She huddled next to a hollow tree, knees clutched to her chest, wearing a woolen summer dress soiled with mud. Strips from the hem of her dress had been tied around her bare feet and the makeshift bandages were soaked through with blood.

  “Mistress,” Santiole started, but Erika was already crossing the clearing toward the girl.

  “Don’t come a step closer.” The child’s voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper, but the words—and her expression—were deadly serious. The girl wiped her small, round nose with the back of her hand, blinking tears from brown eyes. There were cuts on her left cheek, no more than a day old, and bramble scratches covering both arms. She brandished a penknife in one hand.

  “What are you doing out here?” Erika asked.

  “Go away,” the girl answered.

  “Do you need help?”

  “I said to go away.”

  “Look at her feet,” Erika whispered to Santiole.

  The mistress-at-arms regarded the girl warily. “She’s come a long way. There isn’t a town for thirty miles except for Bedland. She’s not local. We would recognize her.”

  “Visiting a relative?” Erika asked Santiole. “Perhaps got lost?” These were Erika’s grandparents’ lands and she knew them well, but Santiole knew them better than anyone.

  “No,” Santiole said. “Couldn’t be.”

  “Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you,” the girl said. The point of her penknife didn’t waver. “I’m right here.”

  “Where are you from?” Erika asked.

  “Go away.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “Nowhere. None of your business.”

  Erika drew herself up, her patience already wearing thin. These were her family’s lands and so it was her damned business and she would get answers.

  Santiole touched her on the arm and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Look above her right shoulder.”

  Partially concealed by the girl’s hair and a thick smear of mud, Erika could make out a dark, angry scar. It was about the length of a man’s finger and in the shape of a flintlock musket.

  “By Kresimir,” Erika swore.

  Not a natural scar. A brand. The brand of a powder mage who had been sentenced to hang by royal decree.

  “We have to turn her in,” Santiole said mildly.

  Erika whirled on her tutor and stared, feeling a bitter mixture of anger and resentment.

  “No,” Santiole said, “I didn’t think you’d allow that.” The mistress-at-arms cursed under her breath. “They’ll be hunting her.”

  Erika knew that. She also knew that the royal mage hunters—or the king’s Longdogs, as they were known unofficially—wouldn’t care that this was just a child. A powder mage was a powder mage, after all. They would pursue this girl from one end of Kez to the other and no one would help her. In fact, most people would turn the girl over, expecting a fat reward.

  “I’m not leaving her out here,” Erika said. She’d gotten lost in these woods once, when she was just a little younger than this girl. She still woke sometimes in the middle of the night sometimes, covered with a cold sweat, haunted by the memory of a labyrinth of trees and the terrifying approach of darkness.

  Santiole’s voice held a note of pity. “We don’t have a choice. If we’re caught....”

  “She escaped the Longdogs once.
She’s traveled Kresimir knows how many miles to get here and she’s obviously heading north. If this girl has the courage to try the northern mountains on her own in hopes of escaping to Adro, I will damn well help her.”

  Santiole sighed. “This is bloody stupid.”

  “What are you talking about?” the girl demanded, edging away slowly. “Leave me be. I’m armed!”

  Erika looked the girl up and down once, and then advanced a few feet to drop down on her haunches just out of the girl’s reach. “You’ll never make it across the mountains on your own,” she said.

  “I’m going south,” the girl said.

  “No. You’re not. You’re going north to Adro, where they don’t kill powder mages. I can help you get there alive. Or,” she added lazily, as if she didn’t care, “You can stay here and see which kills you first—winter or the Longdogs.”

  The girl sneered at Erika. “What do you care?”

  Erika smiled at her. “What’s your name?”

  “You tell me yours first.”

  “My name is Erika ja Leora.” Erika pulled the collar of her shirt down to reveal a brand—identical to the one that the girl wore, but smaller and more easily concealed—just above her left breast. “And I’m a powder mage too.”

  The girl followed them back to the road. She kept her distance, as if unsure as to whether she’d have to run at any moment. When they reached the road she remained in the shadow of the trees and clutched her penknife. The girl hid it well, but she walked with a slight limp. Every step must have been painful for her.

  “I’ve heard of you,” the girl said.

  Erika would have been surprised if the girl hadn’t. Powder mages amongst the nobility were rare enough. “Good things, I hope.”

  “Just that you’re Forsworn,” the girl sniffed. “You can hide your brand.”

  “Yes. Because I’m the heir to a duchy,” Erika said. She realized after the words had left her mouth how incredibly unfair that must sound—that a noble could live unmolested as a powder mage, while the commoners were hunted and executed for it. “That’s why I have this,” she hefted her bow. “I’m not allowed to touch a musket, by law.” Or black powder, for that matter.

  Powder mages could manipulate the energy of black powder with their minds or ingest it to enhance their senses and increase their strength and speed. They were considered incredibly dangerous, and no one hated them more than the king’s Privileged cabal of elemental sorcerers and his personal cadre of Longdogs.

  Erika realized that her statement about the powder couldn’t have been very consoling. This girl was running for her life, for a crime she had no choice in committing.

  “Come with us,” Erika said. “You can ride with me.”

  The girl shook her head. “I...no. I can’t go on the roads.”

  “I’ll protect you.”

  “That’s what my brother said. And they killed him.”

  Erika couldn’t put words to a response.

  “Riders on the road,” Santiole said, taking her musket off her shoulder.

  Erika turned to the girl to tell her to hide, but she had already disappeared into the trees. She swore quietly under her breath and turned to watch as a pair of horses rounded a bend further up the road to the south and came toward them.

  As they drew closer, she made out that both men were armed with small swords but neither pistol nor musket. One was paunchy, broad across the shoulders, while the other was whip thin and slouched in his saddle. They wore the green on tan of the king’s Grand Army but with white sashes across their chests that spoke of special commission. The sashes were emblazoned with images of thin, narrow-headed hounds from which the Longdogs got their nickname.

  Erika felt her stomach turn.

  “You, woman,” the paunchy one said to Santiole. “What business have you on the king’s highway?”

  “We’re hunting,” Santiole said. Her thumb brushed the hammer of her musket, but she kept the weapon pointed at the ground.

  “On whose permission?”

  “The duke of Leora.”

  “Do you have papers?”

  Santiole took papers from her jacket pocket and gave them over. The thin Longdog looked at the papers, speaking quietly to himself as he read, and then handed them back to Santiole. He nodded to his partner.

  “Seems to be in order,” the paunchy man said regretfully. “Have you seen any strangers in the area?”

  “No,” Erika said. “Why?”

  “I wasn’t talking to you, girl,” the paunchy man said. “Let your betters speak.” The thin Longdog leaned over and smacked his partner on the shoulder, to which the man swore loudly.

  Santiole said, “You shouldn’t talk that way to the duchess-heir of Leora. I’d be within my right to knock your teeth in.”

  “Ah,” the fat man said, muttering his apology. He scowled at his partner.

  “Who are you looking for?” Erika asked.

  “A dangerous fugitive, my lady. A powder mage.”

  “Sweet Kresimir, I hope you find him,” Erika said.

  The thin man cleared his throat. “My lady, would you excuse us for a moment?”

  The two drew away to confer between themselves some distance off. Santiole scowled at them, her musket still lazily cradled beneath one arm, thumb resting gently on the hammer.

  Erika turned herself away from the two men and reached in her pocket. She surreptitiously drew out a snuff box and flicked open the lid with her thumb.

  “What are you doing?” Santiole whispered. “If they see you....”

  Erika took a pinch of the black powder and held it up to her nose, sniffing. She shuddered as a warm feeling flooded her body, an equal mix of euphoria and nausea. The world became a torrent of noises, scents, and sights as the black powder took effect, sharpening her senses, and the voices of the two Longdogs reached her ears.

  “...that is?”

  “No idea.”

  “The heir of the Leora duchy? It’s that powder mage brat that the duke is always going on about.”

  “You think she’s hiding the girl?”

  “Pit, we don’t even know if the girl is within twenty miles of here. She could have gone northwest, for all we know.”

  “So what?”

  “So what? We put down this girl and the duke will throw us a bloody parade, you twit. He hates it when nobles get off just because they’re nobles.”

  “Now that’s damned risky. Her chaperone looks like a handful.”

  Erika’s eavesdropping was interrupted by Santiole. The mistress-at-arms had stepped closer and said quietly, “Let’s just mount up and go. With them searching we can’t risk helping the girl.”

  “And if they find her and she tells them we offered to help?”

  “We deny everything. There’s no evidence.”

  “They’re talking about killing me, by the way.”

  Santiole blinked back at her.

  “The thin one just suggested they make it look like an accident. The fat one thinks they could plant some black powder on me and make it look like they were defending themselves.”

  Santiole let out a sigh. “Pit and damnation. You better take the fat one.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Shoot him in the chest.”

  Erika hadn’t actually thought of killing anyone. “But I....”

  “But nothing. You’re going to be a Kez duchess. It won’t be the first time you get your hands bloody.” Santiole brushed a strand of hair behind one ear and stepped into the middle of the road. She pointed into the forest. “A squirrel up in the tree. There!”

  Erika slipped the bow from her shoulder and drew an arrow.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” the thin Longdog asked.

  “Teaching my mistress to kill vermin,” Santiole said.

  Erika sighted at an imaginary squirrel in the forest, then turned toward the paunchy man and let her shaft fly.

  The arrow sunk into the man’s chest just below his
heart. He stared at it in shock. The crack of a musket shot broke the air and smoke rose above Santiole. The thin man slumped forward in his saddle, his sword half-drawn, and Santiole dashed forward to snatch the reins before the horses could bolt.

  She pulled both bodies from their saddles, setting the horses free to gallop back down the road. She yanked the arrow from the fat man’s chest and handed it to Erika. “Clean this off.”

  While the thin man was most definitely dead, the paunchy one was not. Erika watched in fascination as his round stomach rose and fell and blood gurgled from his mouth and nose. Santiole drew her pistol and checked to see that it was primed, then aimed it at the arrow wound and pulled the trigger. The fat man jerked once and let out a moan of anguish, his arms flailing. She bent over to finish the job with her knife.

  Santiole wiped the blade off on the dead man’s pants. “And that’s how you put down a dog.”

  “Why’d you shoot him?”

  “To destroy the wound. So no one knows he was shot with an arrow. Would look awfully suspicious.”

  “Ah. Thank you.” Erika drew a shaky breath. What the pit had she been thinking? Two of the king’s Longdogs, dead at her feet. She struggled to keep down a rising panic, breathing deeply and counting to one hundred in her head. This was self defense, she reassured herself. These two had been chasing down a mere girl and had plotted to kill Erika, the granddaughter of a Kez duke! They had deserved what they got.

  The girl emerged from the woods, dry leaves rustling at her approach, her hair full of burs and twigs. She stared at the two bodies, her eyes never leaving them as she inched toward Erika.

  “You protected me.”

  I protected myself.

  None of this would have happened if Erika hadn’t stopped to help this girl. She would be on her way back to her grandfather’s manor, blissfully ignorant of Longdogs or fugitive powder mages, and with no blood on her hands. She’d probably be wondering what the cook had made for dinner.

  She was in it now. And she couldn’t turn back.

  Norrine couldn’t tear her eyes off the two bodies. The men lay side-by-side in the road, rivulets of dark crimson soaking into the dirt. The older woman, Santiole, reloaded her musket, one foot resting on the paunchy man’s stomach like he was some kind of trophy. She hummed softly. It reminded Norrine of how Da used to hum as he skinned the small game animals he’d bring home from his hunts.

 
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