Ancel Dorn brushed his hand against his beige coat’s breast pocket. Despite knowing the words by heart, the letter he kept there tempted him to take it out and read for the thousandth time. He clenched his reins tighter in his fist. Nine hundred and ninety nine is good enough.
His mare crested the hill lined on both sides by small fields and the Greenleaf Forest that dominated this part of the Whitewater Falls region. Miles to the right and north, beyond the forest, the Kelvore Mountains stretched their broad shoulders and snow-capped peaks. Straight ahead on the rutted road, Eldanhill spread before him and Mirza Faber.
The town’s white and yellow brick buildings glinted in the early morning sunlight. Dominating the town’s center, the square clock tower of the Streamean temple jutted up at least ten stories above the slate and tile roofs of the other sandstone and granite structures. Townsfolk bustled down the wide, yet already crowded, Eldan Road, appearing more like small colorful insects than people.
The distant buzz of a thousand conversations, clopping hooves, trundling wagon and dray wheels, and hundreds of daily activities played a familiar rhythm. Among them rang the clang of smithies and stonemasons, the whir and rattle of the many windmills along the Kelvore River, the receding roar from the Whitewater Falls to the northeast, and the bird song and chatter of small animals within the Greenleaf.
The clamor and his surroundings brought a soothing sensation along Ancel’s shoulder and neck. An unusually chill wind that smelled of rain streamed his cloak out behind him. Ancel shivered and glanced to Mirza who rode the chestnut stallion thudding a slow rhythm a few feet away.
Mirza tilted to one side, grabbing at the pages of the book he’d been reading as the wind whipped at the pages. He snatched for his reins and pommel, barely managing to prevent himself from falling. Ancel chuckled.
“That wasn’t funny,” Mirza said as he righted himself. His skinny legs, in the narrow pants he favored, squeezed against the stallion’s side. The fitted coat he wore matched Ancel’s own except for the book and pen insignia stitched to the lapel. Ancel’s emblem was a silver sword.
“Not funny to you,” Ancel replied. “But if you sat where I am and saw your arms and legs fly all over you’d be laughing too.”
Mirza passed a hand through his rust–colored hair. “I guess I would.” He smiled.
“You know, if you studied at night you wouldn’t need to cram the next day.”
“I did study,” Mirza protested. “But I’m not like you. I need to refresh the morning of a test so I don’t forget anything.”
Ancel shrugged. “The test will be simple enough.”
“Easy for you to say,” Mirza grumbled. “You’ve taken it already.”
“It was simple then too.”
“Well, if it’s so easy, how about helping? Ask me a few questions.” Mirza leaned over to hand him the book.
Ancel shooed him off. “I don’t need it. Just tell me what you want me to ask.”
Mirza straightened his back. He rubbed a thumb on the reddish stubble growing from his chin. “How about the gods? And Mater?”
Seeing Mirza touch his beard made Ancel’s own prickly growth itch. “You know, that’s a pretty broad area.” Ancel scratched at the offending sprigs of hair under his chin. “Here, I’ll try to be specific and start with something easy.”
Mirza nodded, hands fidgeting on the pommel of his saddle.
A few moments passed. Ancel said nothing. He stared off to the east where he could make out the rust colored Red Ridge Mountains beyond where the land dipped toward the Kelvore River.
Frowning, Mirza eyed him. “Well?”
“Well, close that,” Ancel said, his head gesturing to the still open book in his friend’s hand.
“Oh!” Mirza flipped the book shut.
“Uh, huh.” Ancel gave his friend a wry look. “You just happened to have the chapter on religion open.”
Mirza glowered at him. “Ask your questions already.”
“Name the gods and their titles.” Ancel’s lips twitched ever so slightly.
Eyes widening, Mirza stammered, “A–All their titles, and all the gods?”
“Fine. Name the major gods and the elements of Mater they represent.”
“That’s easy.” Mirza beamed.
“Really?” Ancel lifted his brow.
Mirza’s smile changed to a scowl. “Ilumni, Amuni, Bragni and Rituni, the gods of Streams. Humelen, Liganen and Kinzanen, the gods of Forms. Hyzenki and Aeoli, the gods of Flows. There.”
“Good, but not quite right” Ancel said, feeling a little sorry for his earlier sarcasm.
“What? They’re all correct.”
“Aeoli’s a goddess,” Ancel said with a bemused smirk.
“Here, I’ll ask you the first question you will see on the test, but you need to answer exactly as Teacher Calestis wrote or else she’ll mark it wrong.”
Intense concentration creased Mirza’s brows.
Mirza squinted and stroked his stubble with his thumb. After a few more moments, he said, “Mater is the core elemental power which exists within everything. It makes up the three elements the gods represent and their individual essences.” He looked over for Ancel’s approval.
“Go on,” Ancel encouraged.
“Mater is more than just the elements driving our world. It drives all worlds,” Mirza said with an air of finality. His face lit up.
Ancel smiled. That last bit was Teacher Calestis’s favorite saying. “Excellent. What’s the most important thing to practice and master before learning how to touch your Matersense?”
“Control. Emotional and physical.”
“Ancel,” Mirza said, his smooth voice becoming serious. “Why’re you back in the same class as me?”
Ancel absently brushed his breast pocket. “I told you. I failed the end of term test. They decided I needed to take religion and principles again.”
“They’re saying you failed it on purpose.”
Ancel’s eyes became slits. “Who?”
“The other students,” Mirza said before he quickly averted his gray eyes. “They’re saying you failed on purpose. Just so you could be in the same class where Irmina used to come meet you.”
Ancel clenched his jaw, against both Mirza’s words and the image of Irmina’s golden brown eyes, her raven black hair, and her lithe form and shrugged. “They can say what they want. I failed. It’s as simple as that. And what did I tell you about saying her name?”
“I, I’m sorry.” Mirza scrunched up his face and shook his head. “I mean, no, I’m not.”
Ancel glared at his friend. His hands tightened on his reins.
“Listen,” Mirza pleaded. “You’re my best friend. If I don’t tell you, then who will? You’ve always been the smartest of us all. You’d have to be, to become the youngest trainee since…well ever. But after she left, you stopped caring. I hate watching you throw everything away.”
“You don’t know shit,” Ancel spat.
“Burning shades, Ancel. I watch you every day. You practice the sword for the women. You bed as many as you can, and you daydream through class. That’s not who you are. It’s about time you moved on. She did. A year you said, remember? But you still pine over her. Now you risk failing classes again. All the things we dreamed about when we were young, playing at becoming Knights, of going off to join the legions, maybe one day crossing the Vallum of Light to help defend Granadia. It’s all there for you. Why—”
“Just shut it,” Ancel said his voice like ice. Another chill wind kicked up. This time he didn’t shiver.
A sudden multitude of colors like miniature rainbows swirled through Ancel’s vision as he stared toward Eldanhill. The hues appeared to jump across people and animals. They even stood out on the flock of birds in the near cloudless sky. He closed his eyes and rubbed his thumb and forefinger across his lids. When he opened his eyes, the colors were gone.
Ancel glanced toward Mirza, but his friend showed no reaction to what he’d seen. Instead, Mirza drew his cloak around himself, and his eyes focused on the rutted road ahead. Mirza ground his teeth, obviously still upset.
A soft coo made Ancel look toward the field to his right. Charra, his daggerpaw, loped through the short grass and shrubs. He stood as big as a bull, his head reaching almost to the withers of Ancel’s mare. His shaggy, whitish fur was stained brown with whatever mischief he’d gotten himself into. Charra shook his broad muzzle, sending slobber flying into the air. The soft bone hackles, which extended around his neck and down his back in a bushy mane, swished.
“Where’ve you been, boy?” Ancel shouted, his mood a little lighter at seeing his pet.
Charra’s golden–eyed gaze swept to Ancel as he responded with a growl, crossed to the field on the other side road, and trotted a few feet ahead of their horses. Ancel shook his head. There was no accounting for Charra’s moods.
Ancel returned to studying Mirza who still rode in silence. If only you knew how right you are. Ancel took a deep breath. Try as he might, he couldn’t think without Irmina crossing his thoughts. His hand found its way to his coat pocket again.
“She wrote me the day she left, you know,” Ancel said, his voice low.
Mirza looked at him from the corner of his eyes. “You mean the letter you read every day?”
Ancel cocked an eyebrow. “When’d you notice?”
“Hard not to,” Mirza replied with a shake of his head. “We’re only together every day. When you aren’t touching that pocket of yours, you’re lost in thought. Then sometimes when you think no one’s watching, you pull the letter out and start reading.”
“Why didn’t you ask?”
Mirza gave him a rueful smile. “You promised to run me through if I ever mentioned her name.”
“I’m surprised you listened for so long.”
“You’ve never seen your own face when someone mentions the woman.”
Ahead, Charra stopped to stare into the Greenleaf Forest. Ancel peered toward the tree line, but saw nothing. He dismissed it as part of Charra’s recent habit of growling at shadows when he was in a foul mood.
“So what’s in the letter?” Mirza asked.
“Not much. We’d spent the night together. When I woke, she was gone, and the letter was next to my pillow,” Ancel answered absently, his gaze fixed on his daggerpaw. “The letter said she had to leave. That there was another.” Ancel’s chest throbbed with an almost physical pain. “She said she may never return to Eldanhill. That one day when I completed my studies and passed the trials, I’d understand. She just left me, as if I never mattered.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. Somewhere among the trees, a bird began a mournful lament.
“Life and love are brutal teachers. Learn, adjust, and survive. Or die. Those are your choices. I choose life,” Ancel said. He shrugged at Mirza’s frown for his sudden statement. “Those were the words she repeated several times before she left. I think I’m now beginning to understand.”
Ancel reached for the letter. At the same time, Charra growled, low and hard. His bone hackles rose into a ridge of hardened spikes, their edges sharp as a newly forged dagger, the ones about his neck almost a foot long before growing less dense and shorter as they tapered off near his tail. Ancel’s gaze flitted from Charra to the woods. Brambles and bindweed snarled through the undergrowth and across stone outcrops beneath the trees. Red cedar and oak thrived. Except for the occasional sunlit patch, their canopies kept the forest in deep shadow.
“What’s gotten into him now?” Mirza nodded to Charra.
“I don’t know. He’s been moodier than usual the last few days, growling at shadows and the like. But this…” Ancel stopped his mare. The horse pranced, and he rubbed its neck until it calmed. This had to be more than just Charra’s mood.
“I’ve only seen him like this when we’re hunting wolves.” Mirza brought his mount next to Ancel’s.
“Wolves wouldn’t come this close to town,” Ancel said.
Charra raised a shaggy foot and took one tentative step forward. He growled again, louder this time. The sound vibrated through Ancel. The horses’ eyes rolled, and the animals whickered.
Stomach aflutter as he peered into the woods, Ancel frowned.
“Listen,” Mirza said, his voice almost breathless.
Ancel did. His brow knitted tighter.
No birds sang. No animals chattered. The only sounds reaching them came from Eldanhill.
The wind rose again, a little stronger than before. A faint smell from some animal, long dead, reached them. This time Ancel found himself rubbing his arms from the chill.
Did a shadow just pass through that patch of sun? Ancel squinted at the spot within the woods, but he saw no other movement.
“Did you see that?” Mirza whispered, his question confirming what Ancel thought he saw.
The breeze passed, and the air stilled. The silence remained for another moment before birdsong rose and other sounds from the woods resumed.
Charra whined, bone hackles softening and receding until they once again lay flat against his fur. He turned and loped toward Eldanhill.
Ancel and Mirza sat there for a moment more, their gazes still riveted on the dappled shadows.
Mirza broke their silence. “What do you think it was?”
“I don’t know. But I wouldn’t worry about it now.” Ancel nodded toward Charra who continued toward Eldanhill. “He isn’t.”
“I guess.” Mirza flapped his reins and started his stallion down the road.
Ancel followed, troubled by Charra’s reaction and Mirza’s earlier words about Irmina. As much as he wanted to return to his old self, he was not sure he could. It’s not like I asked to feel this way about her. It just happened. Somehow, I’ll work this out. I think.
Charra, on the other hand, was another issue. With his erratic behavior increasing, Ancel hoped his father wouldn’t listen to the townsfolk and ask him to leave the daggerpaw at the winery. Not being able to bring him to school was one thing. To do without him in Eldanhill altogether was another entirely. Given a choice, he would rather not come to town at all if it meant leaving his daggerpaw behind.
Of course, not going to Eldanhill presented another set of problems. His need for female companionship would suffer. The thought made him remember today’s rendezvous.
“By the way,” Ancel said, “I’m supposed to meet with Alys after school.”
Mirza looked over his shoulder. “Is this your way of telling me you’re shirking your duties again? We’re supposed to be gathering kinai for Soltide and your father’s winery later.”
“I know,” Ancel said. “But in case I lose track of time, I wanted you to know where to find me.”
“Which means I will have to come find you.”
Ancel snorted. “If that’s what you think, then—”
“Here’s what,” Mirza interrupted. “I’ll do it if you’re willing to make a wager.”
“If you want to lose more coin to me,” Ancel shrugged, “Who am I to argue? So what’s the bet?”
“Simple. I bet you’ll think more with your cock than with your head. I know you won’t be able to hold back. Not with Alys. So if I have to come get you, it’ll cost you a gold hawk. If you manage on your own, I owe you two.”
Ancel grinned. “There’s no way I’ll lose.”
They continued on their way to their classes at Eldanhill’s Mystera.