A frustrated student of magic – Ethné’s first scene

Ethné“Now, concentrate,” Jerechai instructed his apprentice. “Feel the heartbeat of the hawk, fast and strong. Become one with it, feel your senses entering its mind. Then close your eyes, and you will see out through its eyes as it looks down upon us. There, can you see?”

He studied his apprentice closely, watching her silently incant the spell.

She was a young woman of some nineteen years. Her long dark hair was tied back in a simple braid, and her blue eyes narrowed against the afternoon sun as she looked into the sky at the hawk.

Ethné closed her eyes, trying to visualise what the hawk could see as it flew high above, circling the forest trees. She could feel its mind as it hunted for food. Yet she could not look through its eyes. Her brow furrowed as she tried harder, but it was no use. She released her hold on the magic and opened her eyes.

“I can’t do it uncle. Something is missing, I am sorry.”

She frowned, watching the bird in frustration as it flew away. She turned to her uncle, a clean-shaven man in his fifties, dressed simply in a black tunic and trousers, and a cloak about his shoulders. He smiled, and she felt the weight of failure bear down upon her again.

Her training had never seemed so hard, but despite every effort she could not master even the most basic of enchantments. Or ensure that she could rely on the effects they produced. She had trained with Jerechai all her life. He was an able mind magician and had taught her the theory of magic in depth.

It is just in practice that things go wrong.

Even when she cast a spell correctly, it seemed a random occurrence. She had innate talent for magic since she could remember. But she recalled times when as a child she used her powers subconsciously to disastrous effect at moments of emotional stress.

When she began training under Jerechai she learnt to control those impulses. Jerechai told her that it was extremely rare for someone so young to display power without teaching. It was also dangerous, because she could harm others as well as herself. Once her training began she developed this control, but found herself unable to focus her powers to any effect.

She sighed and sat down. She gathered her grey cloak about her and frowned at her focus, the device she used to draw her power together for magic. She ran her hands over it, a foot of intricately carved kaluri wood, painstakingly crafted and dedicated by her over several months. She reflected on the procedure for focusing power again, as she had a thousand times before, seeking some clue. Something she could do better.

Nothing.

Jerechai sat down next to her, putting a comforting arm around her. “Now,” he said, “Have I ever told you how long it took me to master the most basic principles of mind magic, the theory?”

“Yes, uncle.”

She began to repeat the words by heart, smiling despite herself. “You were twenty one before you could master your first spell, and your own teacher was a man of little patience. You told me many times. Something isn’t right though, my mind rejects it at the last moment. What if mind magic is not the form I was destined to learn? What if it is another form, is that why I fail?”

“Nonsense!” Jerechai spluttered, his bushy eyebrows shooting up in surprise. “Stop talking rubbish girl. You know as well as I that the Five Forms are not determined by birth. Yes, I admit that the dedication required to learn any one form makes it difficult to study another. But there is nothing preventing you from choosing mind magic. The only thing stopping you is what is going on in here.”

He tapped the side of his head. “Have patience, one day it will all make sense. Jendis also found it difficult, but look at him now.”

Ethné smiled at the thought of Jerechai’s former pupil, who sometimes came to visit from the League Arcana. “He is late this time, when do you think he will arrive?”

Jerechai’s face dropped, but realising Ethné was watching he shrugged off his concern and raised a smile. “He was due a week ago, but I am sure he will be here soon. Think of these days as more time to practice. You should be on your best behaviour to deserve that copy of the Codex Arcana he promised to bring. Although no doubt when he gets here, the pair of you will be up to all sorts of mischief.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied coyly. “Are we really going to travel with him this time? You promised before, but we didn’t go.”

“This time we are going,” said Jerechai, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Just think, while we are on the road you can speak Kiran and Old Arkavian with him, makes a change from me being the only one you can practice with.”

He paused for a moment. “I feel bad that you have never seen the world outside the forest, but Torlenmere is a good place to grow up. There are many people up to no good out there.”

Ethné shrugged. “I know uncle, I just want to see the things that you and Jendis have seen. Thank you.”

He smiled, then rubbed his face and looked around the clearing. “Well, we better head back to the village. That is enough practice for one day.”

The pair stood up, Jerechai extending a hand to help Ethné to her feet. They made their way out of the clearing, heading back beneath the canopy of ancient kaluri trees and evergreen pindar. Before long the path wound around the edge of Torlenmere, the lake for which her village was named. Sunlight sparkled on the water and she spied large white birds floating gracefully out beyond the reeds.

“Look, the revenir are back,” she said, pointing. “The true sign of spring, that’s what you always say, isn’t it?”

Jerechai nodded and smiled. “Indeed. The priests of Ashaila will come through the village soon, it is a shame we will miss the spring festival.”

It is a shame.

Ethné enjoyed the spring festival, a time when servants of the earth goddess gave blessings and offerings to the land, to crops and all growing things. Jerechai always kept her away from the sacred rites, saying that magicians would not be welcome, but after the priests were gone and the celebrations began in earnest, there was feasting, dancing and more fun than at any other time of year save harvest.

They cleared the trees again and saw the village ahead, its boundary marked by an earthen rampart and palisade which protected the timber dwellings of its people. Long before Ethné’s time a large clearing had been made beside the mere, the ground given over to farming, an orchard of fruit trees and keeping of pigs and chickens, and these plots were encircled by the wall to keep away outlaws. Along the east wall a stream ran down toward the mere, creating an additional barrier which Ethné and Jerechai must now cross. Between the village and the mere was the mill, where the stream was dammed to harness the power of the water, and a wooden bridge provided their way across.

Ethné spied her friend Firgon the miller’s son on the bridge, watching their approach. A clean shaven boy of nineteen summers, he did not sport the long braids of a warrior but kept his dark hair tied back in a short ponytail. Once he saw that they were friends he winched down a short drawbridge adjoining the mill so they could cross. He grinned as they walked over the bridge, rolling his eyes in mockery as he caught a whiff of defeat in her demeanour.

“Been off playing in the woods again?” he asked, folding his muscled arms and leaning against the side of the bridge. “Why don’t you give up trying to learn all these tricks from your uncle, they aren’t really magic, are they?”

“Tricks?” asked Jerechai, assuming a scholarly tone. “I may never have had cause to show you, Master Firgon, but rest assured that what I teach is far from ‘tricks’.”

“He is only jesting, aren’t you Firgon?” said Ethné. She gave his ruddy cheeks a playful slap as she reached him. “One day, for your cheek I might turn you into a mouse. I will ask Jerechai to teach me that ‘trick’ soon, what do you think, uncle?”

Firgon laughed in disbelief. “From all your prancing around in the woods, you would be able to turn me into a mouse? I would like to see that.”

Jerechai loomed over the boy, narrowing his eyes. “Yes, a mouse, I think that would do nicely. Let me see…”

He put a finger over his lips then beckoned Firgon closer. The boy swaggered forward, smirking at this mock show. Jerechai placed a hand gently on his shoulder and whispered something in his ear, and Firgon’s feet came out from under him as though he had slipped on ice. He came down on the wooden planks with a smack and looked up at Jerechai in shock.

“What did you do to me?”

Jerechai looked at Ethné innocently, then back down at the young man at his feet. “Me, boy? Nothing. I only know tricks, after all. You seem to want some practice for a ‘mouse eye’ view of the world, though. Good for you. Seems you might need it.”

He walked on and Ethné followed him, covering her mouth to stop herself laughing out loud as Firgon clambered to his feet, confused.

“Tricks, indeed!” boomed Jerechai, carrying on toward the village.

They approached the wall, where the wooden gate stood open, watched over by an archer on the platform above. Beyond were wooden lodges and homes made of wattle, daub and thatch, surrounded by plots of land, some fenced off for the livestock, others where beans, corn and barley would soon be growing as the warm summer days came.

“That was funny,” said Ethné as they walked.

“Funny?” said Jerechai, frowning. “He won’t be so quick to doubt you now, to be sure, but I regret helping him to the floor as I did. Magic should never be used for idle purpose.”

“He will get over it, I am sure,” she said. Then she realised her uncle’s mood had changed, and frowned too. “You did that for me, didn’t you? To make me forget about the lesson earlier?”

Jerechai raised one eyebrow. “I am not a magical jester, here to make you laugh. Yet if my actions cause you to smile, then I am glad. You dwell too much on your failures, you must rise above them. Why don’t you go and find your friends and spend time with them for the rest of the afternoon? You will miss them when we are on the road.”

Ethné nodded. Edela had some news for her this morning, she was bursting to tell Ethné something but couldn’t in front of the men. Jerechai was right, it would be good to take her mind off her studies, it seemed to be the only thing she thought about these days.

“Very well, uncle,” she said. “I will be back later.”

Jerechai smiled and waved her off as she walked down the road toward Edela’s house. A blonde girl in a yellow shift dress came out through the open door as she approached.

Edela was buxom with hazel eyes and mousey hair, a girl of Ethné’s age set to wed Veldir the smith’s son a month from now. Ethné counted her amongst her closest friends, and although her gossiping caused no end of trouble, she was funny and was always the one Ethné turned to when she was down.
Edela picked a covered basket from beside the door and hurried over to Ethné.

“What’s in there?” asked Ethné.

Edela shrugged. “Just some eggs for Veldir’s family. I have something more important to tell you though. You can’t go.”

“Why not?” asked Ethné.

“You have an admirer.”

“Me?” Ethné said, blushing.

There were a couple of the village boys she liked, but they kept their distance. Being a magician’s apprentice was not normal behaviour for a girl, at least not here. Village boys preferred girls like Edela or Ahlvira, she could tell because Ethné often caught them looking, but they never looked at her.

“I don’t believe it,” she said finally.

“I heard it from his own lips,” said Edela. “Tilain fancies you. I think he’s going to tell you. Isn’t that exciting?”

Ethné’s heart raced. Tilain was one of her dearest friends. She had never realised he thought of her like that, though once or twice she had idly wondered whether there might be more to their friendship. As children they had played together, set up pranks for the others. As son of the village leader Almric, Tilain had even been schooled by Jerechai for a while in writing and numbers, and they had spent many days in each other’s company. In more recent years they had drunk cider together, laughed, even danced at the summer festival last year. Her stomach sank.

Now I am leaving.

She had longed for this moment for years, to see the world, and the places she had read about for so long. She felt she had outgrown the village some time ago, none of her friends really understood her, though they tried. Even Tilain.

Now, to know someone liked her, when she had convinced herself she would always be an outsider in Torlenmere.

“Damn,” she said finally.

Edela put her hands on her hips and eyed her friend critically. “Don’t you go chewing your lip, missy,” she said. “The other girls would give their right arm to have his attention, Ahlvira most of all. Is he not good enough for you? You prefer lads more like Gelthir, that won’t take no for an answer and get you with child, then leave you to fend for yourself?”

Ethné scowled. Gelthir had been chased out of the village a few months ago after getting the blacksmith’s youngest daughter pregnant and denying it was his.  “Don’t be stupid,” she said.

She paused as they saw another girl approaching from a house to the left. She was blonde and pretty, dressed in a plain grey skirt and faded blue blouse with a wool cloak over the top.

“Ah, here comes Ahlvira now,” said Edela.

“It’s not he’s not good enough for me,” whispered Ethné. “It’s just that I will be leaving soon, I don’t know when I will come back… it’s confusing.”

As she reached the pair, Ahlvira smiled but her eyes were cold. “So, did you put some spell on him, then?” she asked.

“Ahlvira, it’s not like that,” said Ethné. “We are friends, that’s all. Edela says you like him too, maybe you should ask him to dance at the festival. I won’t be here anyway, I am leaving…”

“Did you hear that?” said Ahlvira, looking at Edela. “’Like him too‘, she said.” She squared up to Ethné. “So you admit it? You like him, you bewitch him with that slutty smile, but you won’t have him. Then you give me your blessing to dance with him? It’s just as well you are going away, you teasing bitch.”

She grabbed Ethné’s focus from her belt before Ethné could stop her, dropped it at her feet then stood on it, squashing it down into the mud. Then she turned and walked away.

“Edela?” she called. “Are you coming?”

Edela rolled her eyes. “I am sorry,” she said. “I need to head that way to Veldir’s house now. I will tell her how it is.”

Ethné clenched her teeth as she watched Ahlvira walk away. A so called friend.

“Don’t bother on my account,” she said to Edela, picking her focus from the mud and wiping it clean.

“Are you alright?” asked Edela.

“Never better.”

“Edela!” came a shriek from down the road.

Edela shook her head and walked away to follow Ahlvira, hitching her basket onto her hip.

Ethné breathed in through her nose and out through pursed lips to control her racing heart and centre herself again. She looked down at the focus in her hands. Years of study and dedication, and what had it gained her? Isolation, suspicion, jealousy. Even her closest friends did not understand her.

I do not belong here.

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About Scott Foley

Scott Foley is a British fantasy writer based in Manchester. He is author of Knight of Aslath and the Dreaming God Chronicle. Brought up on a steady diet of Tolkien, roleplaying games and a never-ending fascination with the question ‘what if?’, writing fantasy novels seemed the only sensible and worthwhile thing to do with his life.

Knight of Aslath is his first novel, and he is currently working on the sequel Warlords of the Dreaming God. Both novels form the beginning of the Dreaming God Chronicle and are set in the fantasy world of Teth-Kiran.

Knight of Aslath is available on Amazon, and you can find out more about Scott’s work at: http://www.scottfoleybooks.com