Beryl eyed the decaying wards on the town wall with pity; they barely had any glow at all, flickering in the corner of her vision. They would fail if the town was attacked before they were repaired. Refugees from nearby towns wandered the small town square, eyes dull with exhaustion and despair. Northern bandits and raiders had been attacking all season, pillaging what they could while the mountain passes were open. The army had patrols on the border, and the nearby towns, but the attacks continued.
“Six hundred,” Jared snapped, glaring at the man before him.
“Four hundred is the most that we can pay.” The Mayor replied, fidgeting with his chain of office.
“It’s six or I leave your town as is. The most you would get for four is the stables warded.”
“We would not be hiring a hedge mage if we had that much gold!” he sputtered.
“Then send a message to the Wizard’s Council and see if they will cut you a deal. I doubt it.” Jared sneered.
Beryl listened with half an ear as she wandered away from the pair. She could at least shore up some wards while she waited. Asking six hundred for warding a place this small was ridiculous. At the most she would have charged four, but a mage from the royal council would have charged eight. The Monarchy was stingy with their magical resources, claiming to save the magic for important problems like droughts and wars.
“Every drop of her sweat has a price! Every gram of energy spent warding your precious village is magic that can’t be used on the next.”
“Half the towns around here have been attacked. Our wards are not what they used to be. Would you leave us defenseless?”
“If you won’t pay, then the next town will. Maybe they will take your sorry selves in when the raiders take your gold and your city.”
The low wall circling the town was barely five feet high. A determined child could scramble over the rough stones in moments. The town had counted on the wards to keep the town safe, blocking out arrows or magical attacks aimed at the town.
Beryl doubted the wards could do much more than stop a handful of arrows without failing right now. She pressed a few small runes in where she could discretely. It would not do much, but it might keep the wards stable for a while longer.
“Five fifty,” The mayor snapped, gesturing for a bystander to go collect the gold. He held out his hand and sagged once Jared gave it a perfunctory shake.
“Girl, get to work! The wall, inn, and stables are to be warded.”
“Yes, Uncle Jared,” she said with a frown, walking back and handing over her cloak at the man’s impatient gestures. Gods, she hated it when he called her “girl.”
“Thank you for your work, Mage.” The mayor said, offering her his hand.
“Beryl Marcian,” she said, fighting to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
The man would forget her name as soon as she walked away. It was her curse, something so small and simple that no one spared it a moment’s notice. She glanced at the other townsfolk watching from their doorways and porches. Those around they would remember them, called by name when someone needed them. They would not be known as “Girl” and “Woman” for the rest of their days. The best she could hope for was that they called her “Mage.” That, at least, she had earned.
Beryl pulled a coil of copper wire from her pack and got started. It took hours to carve and spell the runes needed to power the warding on the wall. Each carved rune was filled with copper and spelled to collect ambient magic. The more people that lived in the town, the more magic the wards would collect and the stronger they would become. It might take a few years, but the wards would strengthen.
She finished warding the wall and inn as the day darkened into night. The mist slowly turned to steady rain as she worked, drumming against the stable’s roof in a steady thrum. A series of pattering clicks sounded as something struck the roof. She spun with a gasp as something buzzed past her shoulder, leaving a line of pain behind, thunking into the wall next to her. She fell back unbalanced as the next arrows slapped into the wet ground around her.
Beryl stood frozen, the sound of pounding feet and thudding doors ringing out around her as the villagers locked themselves in their homes or raced for weapons. Raiders charged silently out of the mist as arrows slashed down into the town. A scream rang out, snapping her out of her daze.
Lurching, she threw herself toward the nearest section of wall at a scrambling run. Striking the rough stone, she barely felt the pain of her scrapped palms as she poured magic into the old wall while shaping new runes and directing them to link to the old and new wards. She lost herself to the spell and runes as the fight raged around her.
She struggled to concentrate. Then, the wall glowed steady silver as she fed power into the wards. Silver fire lit the night as the runes connected to each other, bridging the openings in the wall and locking out the next wave of raiders, they threw those that tried to force their way through back with burns. Beryl sagged for a moment, catching her breath while looking at the chaos unfolding around her.
The runic shield stopped the incoming arrows but did little to help those fighting within the town. Townsmen fought against swords and crossbows with little more than axes and farming implements. The raiders left them dead and bleeding in their wake.
The clash of weapons, shouts of anger, and screams of pain bled into each other as she panted. She could not stay here. Snatching up handfuls of loose stones, she filled her pockets as she ran to the side of a house.
Pressing her back into the wet wood, she darted a quick glance around the corner. Chaos filled the streets of the small town. Several roofs smoldered, adding dark choking smoke to the falling rain.
She pressed a turning spell against her chest and whispered a prayer to Ruth that it would work. She had created the spell to turn unwanted attention away while she was traveling. Too many times she’d been cornered by either her drunken Uncle or a tavern patron looking for someone to hurt. The spell made people ignore her as long as she wasn’t drawing attention to herself. She shivered as a fighter stalked past her hiding place, eyes passing over her.
Clutching a stone, she pressed a sleep spell into the rock, fighting to ignore how her vision blurred for a moment. She had already used too much magic warding the town. She would have to be careful; if she pushed herself too far, she could collapse mid spell. In the past, she had infused the spell into other objects for knocking out a drunk and violent Jared. Hopefully it would work the same tonight.
A raider lunged out of the gloom, slashing at a retreating townsman. Shouts of pain and rage echoed in the dark along with the taunts of both the attackers and defenders. She shivered at the rictus of hate masking both men’s faces.
“Don’t run from your death, little boy! Fight me like a man!”
The first stone skimmed just above the man’s shoulder, missing him and clattering to a stop against a house’s porch. The raider turned to track the noise and the next stone slapped into his back with a slight thud. The spell flared for a moment as she activated it; he crumpled to the dirt, asleep.
Someone shouted over the roar of the fight. “Push them to the square!”
She wiped rain out of her eyes and tried not to shiver. Beryl was covered in mud and soaked to the skin. She pulled out another stone and tried to pick a target through the downpour. Blinking raindrops away, she sent her next target into the mud before she crept to a new vantage point.
Beryl darted from building to building, fighting to control how her hands shook. She wasn’t trained in weapons or fighting. All she had were a handful of stones against men who were killing everyone around them. It was madness. Fighter after fighter collapsed into unconsciousness, helped along the way by her magic-infused stones.
Fighting to keep calm, she crept along the edge of a house toward the next knot of fighters. A whimpering cry drew her gaze to a slight form seated on the edge of the fight. A toddler sat bawling in the dust mere feet from where the men fought. Beryl started trying to clear a path to the boy but as quick as she took down one raider, another stepped up to take his place.
The child screamed as a fighter stumbled over him. She watched as the man turned and kicked the small body away. She was up and running, drawing at her magic before the blow landed. Her magic filled her body like bottled lightning, pulsing and clawing at her control. She pulled at the magic stored in her mage belt, recklessly draining the gemstones. Her vision narrowed until all she saw was the boy.
She needed it to stop. Everything needed to stop. Throwing herself through the fight, she pushed the fighters out of her way without a thought, slamming her body into them. The sword was just being raised to kill the small boy when she slid through the mud to snatch him up, sparks of magic crackling between her fingers.
“Make it stop!” she screamed, pushing the magic outward as she poured everything into the command. The magic exploded outward, slamming through the town like a shock wave. The town fell silent around her as the raider dropped his sword. Every fighter dropped into the mud, limp in sleep. Beryl hugged the boy to her and crawled to a safe corner of a nearby house before the magical depletion caught up with her, pulling her under.
“Up, get packed!” Jared snapped, shoving her out of the warm bed where someone had placed her.
“Yes, sir.” She gasped, gripping her head as she fought her way out of the tangled blankets.
“Hurry and get breakfast. We leave as soon as the sun is up.”
“Yes, sir.” Beryl said, staggering to her feet, her head pounded as nausea clawed at her throat.
She was exhausted, magically depleted, and bruised from the battle. It would be an endless day if Jared was leaving at first light. Beryl thought he would take advantage of the grateful townsfolk while he could, but he seemed determined to be on his way, hangover or not. She wondered what he had stolen this time as she gathered up her wet, muddy clothes from the previous night.
She forced herself to eat the porridge they gave her for breakfast. Then, Jared rushed them out the door, snatching her wrist and gripping it hard enough to bruise as he rushed her out of the Inn. She trudged through the sucking mud after him, rubbing her wrist. Jared stomped away at full stride, each step spraying the surrounding air with gouts of mud and water.
One villager stepped forward stopped her for a moment, handing her a wrapped bundle, “Just a few things to make your journey easier, child,” she said, her voice pitched low so not to carry to Beryl’s snarling relative. She smiled her thanks and slid the bundle into a small bag. With a slight wave, she headed after her Uncle.
Once she caught up she asked, “Where are we headed next?”
“Breyton,” Jared muttered, digging out a tin of ground betnut and filling his lower lip with the red narcotic powder. “They have a good crowd at the gaming tables in the Inn.”
He shot a thin stream of red tinted spittle to one side, rubbing at the blackened gums he sported with a dirty finger, the mark of a betnut user. Beryl fought to keep her disgust from her face. It was a nasty habit. She shuddered as she avoided his spittle.
She didn’t bother responding, moving to place her bedroll farther away. It was always the same. They traveled from town to town, Jared fleecing those he could at the gaming tables or negotiating for her to ward the town or people’s homes. She was so tired of it.
She thought about her small horde of coin and supplies with a sigh. It was enough to get her to the coast, but she would need more for passage. She had her magic and not much else to pay her way; it would have to be enough.
“Just a little more, a few more months,” she whispered under her breath. She rubbed one gem on her Father’s belt, trying to ignore how many times she’d made that same promise to herself.
They reached Breyton two days later, just as the last bit of light slipped from the sky. Jared went straight to the inn, but Beryl dawdled outside. Jared would go straight to the bar to drink before gambling for the rest of the night. The wave of laughter and music that came from the open door was enough to keep her outside. The inn was packed with people, and she wanted some time to relax without having to ward a corner of the bar from intruders.
The tiny village sat at a crossroads. Glancing around, she turned down a side road. She walked along until she came to a small clearing with a pile of boulders. Climbing up, she fished out the small bundle the villager had given her. She might as well see they had given her.
Inside she found a pair of brown leather gloves that were a size too big. She set them in her pack and pulled out a wrapped packaged of honey bars, a slab of berries and nuts held together with honey. Happily, she broke off a piece and took a bite, letting the hard mass of honey and berries melt as she sucked on the treat.
Next, there was a small bag of herbal leaves that could be seeped to make tea, a small pot of healing balm, three candles, and a black pouch which was bound and sealed with wax. She tucked everything away but the pouch, feeling the rough leather and rolling the contents between her fingers as she crunched through another bite of berries and nuts.
Breaking the seal, she almost dropped the three stones that rolled into her hand, smooth spheres of onyx, jade, and moonstone. Each was about the size of a walnut. Where in the world had such a tiny village gotten them? They were stones without flaw, waiting for magic to be poured into them—blank wells waiting to be filled.
She hopped down after replacing everything in the bundle except for a last chunk of nut bar. Clearing a spot of ground near the boulders, Beryl wrote a quick circle of runes and prepared to call in the pack where she kept her handful of treasures and supplies she didn’t want Jared finding. The actual bolt hole where she stored her pack was in a well warded cliff face near her old childhood home, originally a hideaway in the event of an attack by raiders on the village. It was well hidden and unused now that she was the only family left who knew of the location. After a few weeks of Jared’s ‘tender care,’ she’d crafted the two-way sending spell to protect her things.
Writing the last rune, she paused. Her father had often spoken of magic having ways to correct wrongs. She had stopped believing in that soon after the news arrived. Tears built in her eyes as she remembered the day. She had been staying with a neighbor while her parents traveled. It had been their first big trip since the accident, but the creditors would wait no longer. Her father was sent off on a commission, and her mother went with him as a minor holiday; neither reached their destination.
Attacked by robbers, they were killed on the road. Her father was struck by an arrow before he could cast a ward; her mother died of her injuries soon after. The attackers were caught trying to sell the mage belt her father had always worn.
Dashing the tears from her eyes before they could fall, she finished the circle and sent her pack back to its hiding place. After scuffing the marks away, she headed back into town, fingers lingering on the gem studded chain belt she wore. She needed to make sure Jared had gotten her a room. In the last town she had to sleep in the Inn's stable, and she was still tired from the fight and warding two days ago.
Beryl spent the next two days doing what she could to avoid her Uncle. He was in a foul mood, and he dragged her from the room that first morning by her hair, tossing her clothes out after her. The small wards she cast around her bed had failed in the night. She was just too fatigued to try casting something stronger.
She spent her time wandering the town, trading small wards and charms for supplies they would need once Jared left the village. Her nights were spent in their room at the Inn or in a small, warded corner of the barroom. She waited through the hours, counting her savings, trying to decide if it was enough to run with. If she could get far enough away, eventually Jared would have to give up on her, and she would be free to do what she wished.
They had been at the Inn for two days when the visions caught up with her. She was walking across the main floor, heading toward the stair to the Inn’s rooms when pain stole away her sight. She crumpled as the Inn faded from her sight and was replaced with a battlefield.
Her eyes were drawn to a bloody and sweat stained soldier as he fought his way toward a fallen comrade. Her head pounded a marching beat as she staggered her way to his side. She watched, unable to speak or touch the soldier as he tried to help his friend.
“Captain,” the fallen man gasped, as he coughed and choked on the blood filling his lungs, his grey uniform stained black.
The man pulled the soldier over his shoulder and started fighting his way back to the camp they marched from hours before. The surrounding landscape was blurred, Beryl’s only focus was the man and his burden. She followed as they wended their slow way through the fighting, watching as he fought through the debris and picked his way around the bodies.
A trumpet sounded in the distance and most of the fighters disengaged, pulling back to their own lines. Nearly every man was injured; they were all exhausted. Beryl watched in silence as the Captain staggered to the medical tents with his lifeless cargo.