Dale touched the leaves of the young willow. The tree had grown fast, at least a metre over the last year. After her hurried escape from Earth she’d propagated a stem, no longer than her hand, and planted it to commemorate yet another friend who had died because of her. She’d watered it every day in summer.
“Hello, Cat.” She gathered up her linen skirt and sat on the grassy bank to pat the ground beneath the sapling. “I miss you.”
A tiny hand appeared beside hers and patted the ground too. Dale looked at her little sprite standing beside her; even with Dale seated, the sprite was so small her head barely reached Dale's shoulder.
In her usual purple dress, Esme grinned, revealing her little fangs, but then her expression morphed into a picture of despair and she threw her arms around Dale’s neck.
Dale’s breath shuddered as she hugged the sprite back. “It’s all right, Esme. I’m just sad. It was a year ago today that Cat died. I miss him.”
Esme stood back and wiped Dale’s eyes, before flinging the tears on the ground. Then she turned to the grave and pointed her finger a number of times giving Cat a soundless lecture with a stern face before disappearing as suddenly as she’d arrived.
Dale laughed and cried at the same time. Even with Cat gone, Esme was still trying to argue with him.
She wiped her eyes before nestling into the long grass next to Cat’s grave, and took her sketching pad and pencil from her satchel – the only remnants from her old life.
Dale opened the pad and flicked through the images – a mix of things from this world and her old one. A butterfly from Earth; another of Arcadia; city lamps twinkling in the dusk sky. There was a dragon she’d drawn years ago – its mouth open in a ferocious snarl, ready to spit fire. And a sketch of Ness. She took a quick breath and wiped her nose before opening to a fresh page.
As she sketched, thoughts of Ness cycled through her mind, questions about where she could be and if she was still alive. Dale had dreams, nightmares – Ness in danger, alone and in the darkness. Dreams that replayed that moment Ness was captured. Natalia’s evil powers had been too much and Ness had used the last of her strength to send Dale back to the Borderlands.
“But was I worth it?” Dale stopped sketching to look at the willow. She’d given them all hope – her mother the queen, Ness, Jaral, Rhys, and all the people of Arcadia and beyond. But the more time passed, the more their hope faded.
Dale pursed her lips tight and focussed on the sketch, shading vigorously. Her life was different now. In many ways, it was better. She had a mother who loved her and refused to doubt Dale would be a powerful sorcerer one day. She had friends, especially Agathina and Jaral. Rhys too, she supposed. She paused her sketching for a moment when she remembered the way he’d kissed her. Sometimes, at night when she was alone, she tried to predict what would happen when they met again. Would he kiss her just like that?
She held the sketchbook out to look at the image she’d created. It was Cat. He sat in his typical pose; head high, paws together, his eyes looking out to a distant horizon, just like he used to do in the boat. Joy was still moored at the Eastern Gate, the place where she had first entered the Borderlands. It was at least a three-day ride by horse.
“Just as well Joy's so far,” she whispered to the willow. “Sailing away solved all my problems once before.”
A pop sounded above Dale’s head and she jumped. Rose petals fell in spirals around her; a gentle rain of perfumed flowers.
Dale turned to see Agathina grinning. Her dark hair straight and shiny in the morning sun, fanned out over her slim shoulders.
Dale laughed. It was nice to have a friend her own age. Time worked differently in Dryadalis, where Agathina was from, and Agathina was much older that Dale, though she didn't look it. The Dryadalin people lived very long lives, much longer than Earthens, even longer than the dwarves of Gloryll. Not that it mattered. Here in the Borderlands everyone lived for centuries, and for the first time in her life, Dale belonged somewhere. She even had a best friend.
“I’ve been summoned to collect you. Thought you’d be here.” Agathina’s yellow eyes shifted to the willow. “With Cat.”
“Yes, I wanted to talk to him.”
Agathina embraced her and kissed the top of her head. “Happy birthday, my sweet friend.” Like all the Dryadalins, Agathina was very tall and slim. Her ears pointed delicately up, her eyes were more like a wolf's than a human, and when she smiled, she showed two small fangs. When Dale had first arrived over a year ago, she had to force herself to stop staring, but now she was quite used to their appearance. Most who lived in Arcadia looked like the elves of Dale’s childhood dreams. Although they weren't called elves here. 'Seru' was the term used to describe them. It vaguely translated as 'very old'. But there were some here like Dale with rounded ears – the 'Novu'. There were also dwarfs, both from the planet Gloryll and the Stonwold Mountains here in the Borderlands. Arcadia had become a shadow of its former glory since most of the population had gone to the Verge to fight the war. Rhys among them.
“Thank you,” Dale said, dusting off her skirt.
Something wet nuzzled Dale’s hand and she turned to see Vulpanna. Dale chuckled and scratched behind the wolf’s ears.
“She wants to say happy birthday too,” Agathina said.
Vulpanna was Agathina’s hysbryd and was never far from her mistress. All the sorcery novices had hysbryds now. All bar Dale.
“Thank you, Vulpanna,” Dale said as the wolf lay down and rolled over for a scratch on her tummy.
Dale couldn’t help but smile. “You’re such an opportunist!” But she obliged and gave the warm fur of the wolf’s belly a good rub. Vulpanna’s tongue hung out at an angle that made her look rather ridiculous, and far from the menacing fighter she could become. The wolf eyed her and the odd feeling Dale sometimes got with animals buzzed through her. Vulpanna's eyes were the same amber-yellow as Agathina’s.
“So, you’re eighteen today. They tell me this means you’re an adult in your world.”
Dale gave Vulpanna a final scratch behind the ears and stood. “Yes, it means I can do things like drink alcohol and vote back on Earth. And pay taxes and drive a car. Well, in most countries anyway.”
“Countries? And a car? What’s that?”
Earth was so different from the Borderlands and the other two worlds. All three had only what Dale would describe as a ‘mediaeval’ standard of technology. There was much use of cogs and wheels, and pulleys and fire to work metals, but no modern technology. She’d spoken about it with Jaral, and he’d said Earth had forgotten about the importance of balance many centuries ago and now took from nature more than it should.
“A car is one of those machines they have on Earth. It gets people from place to place.”
Agathina frowned. “They don’t have horses for that?”
“Well, yes, some people have horses. But cars have mostly taken over their role.”
Dale smiled. Agathina was equal parts curious and confounded about Earth. Maybe one day she could take her there to visit although they’d have to weave an enchantment to hide her ears, eyes and teeth. Agathina would have to cast it though, Dale's powers were nowhere near strong enough. “So, you had to summon me?”
“Hmmmm? Oh yes!” Agathina’s hands went to her cheeks. “Quickly! We’re supposed to hurry to the Fane!”
Dale frowned. “The Fane? Sorcery lessons aren’t until mid-morning.”
“I know, but there’s been a change and Jaral wants all the novices there now. I’m sorry! I got distracted with that silly birthday spell with the roses. Did you like it?”
“It was lovely, thank you. But I suppose we should hurry.” Dale packed her sketchpad and pencil into her satchel. “So why the change anyway?”
“Jaral didn’t tell me exactly, only that we have a special visitor.”
Dale’s heart stopped. “Visitor? You mean someone from the Verge?” A special delegation from the war front was due to arrive today to take part in the celebrations for Dale’s birthday, and to discuss the war with the queen. All the councillors would be present here in Arcadia for the first time since the war began.
Agathina locked eyes with her. “That would be my guess, but who?”
Dale swallowed. Who indeed. What if it’s Rhys? She checked her skirt. There was mud on the back. Her hands went to her hair in panic; she hadn’t even brushed it yet.
“Come.” Agathina grabbed her arm. “We best hurry.”
The Fane of Sorcery stood at the top of a hill surrounded by old woodland to the east of the Palace. It resembled the temples of ancient Rome and Greece with a polygon shape, tiled dome roof and four-arched entry points to the north, south, east and west. It was customary for novices to pass through the eastern entrance, and Dale and Agathina walked quickly toward it, both slightly out of breath from the climb up the rocky path. For a valley, Arcadia had a lot of hills.
As they approached, Dale could make out those already present. The other novices were all seated, and Jaral stood at the front addressing them. He wore his formal robes, and they made him look so different, so official. Dale and Agathina were the last to arrive. She squinted, but couldn’t see Rhys.
The two young women slowed their pace as they entered the arch into the Fane.
“Nice of you to join us, ladies.” Jaral’s smile was too forced; his eyes lacked their usual cheekiness. There was a warning in his gaze, and when Dale looked past him she understood.
“Princess Dalendra.” Even with his head bowed Master Aethyll was tall, and his beard almost ran the very length of him.
The butterflies in Dale’s stomach started somersaulting, and she swallowed a hard lump. “Master Aethyll, I hope you’re well.”
The old sorcerer smiled. “Very well, and eager to see how you’ve advanced.”
Dale blinked. Didn’t he know? Hadn’t anyone told him? Master Aethyll’s face was a picture of giddy expectation, like a child on Christmas morning. And just like a child who receives no presents, he was about to be crushed with disappointment.
“Ah, if you would be kind enough to take your seats,” Jaral said. Dale gladly turned her shoulder from the Master of Sorcery and sat with Agathina on the bench seat that lined the Fane’s interior. She glanced at the other novices. There were nine all told. Hentiel gave her a short smile that was almost a grimace. Alf and Troidan, the only dwarfs in the group, both gave her a wink. The others looked straight ahead. Dale shut her eyes, suddenly angry no one had bothered to tell Master Aethyll the truth. Not Jaral, or Sa'r Atapole, not even her mother.
“Very well.” Master Aethyll clapped his hands together and Dale jumped. “Let’s begin. Time to see how you have all progressed. It’s a nice day.” He looked through the northern arch. “I can see Lake Verne clearly, let’s heave some fireballs into it!”
“Yes!” Samblar, the youngest novice, threw a fist in the air.
“Ah, might I suggest, your excellency,” Jaral took a step toward the front, glancing at Dale, “that we begin with a very basic spell, so that you may witness technique. Something like an illumination spell perhaps?”
Dale took an easy breath and thanked Jaral silently. Yes, she could do an illumination spell… well, some of the time.
Master Aethyll’s bushy eyebrows came together. “Excellent idea, Jaral. Let’s begin with an illumination spell. You boy.” He pointed. “What’s your name?”
Samblar was a tall and skinny adolescent not long arrived from Dryadalis. He wore his blond hair short and spiked in a way that reminded Dale of Esme. Master Aethyll had already left for the Verge when the boy first came to them. He liked to use his magic to blow things up. It was annoying, but Samblar would be an asset on the warfront. He stood. “Samblar of Kelaryth, S’ar Aethyll.”
“Well, young Samblar Ap Kelaryth, you shall begin.”
After Samblar, each novice was called upon in turn to conduct the spell – one of the first spells they had learned. It was simple, but important, and with the wrong technique it quickly failed. Dale knew from experience; she’d failed it often. But the others were all demonstrating their competence.
“Excellent, Troiden. Good to see you’ve stopped jigging about when you cast your spells.” Master Aethyll gave his approval once again as the young dwarf returned to his seat. Then he turned his bushy brows toward Dale and Agathina.
Dale held her breath.
“Agathina, please come forth.”
Agathina squeezed Dale’s hand before standing, and Dale exhaled slowly. Great, I’m lucky last.
Agathina stood in front of the southern arch, facing them; the sunlight fell on her hair making it shine like black silk. She closed her eyes and stilled her breathing. Then she raised her right hand, palm up, and whispered a word, barely audible, “Solas.” A globe of light materialised instantly, easily, its brightness growing with every second, glowing stronger than any other novice had managed.
Master Aethyll had to shade his eyes. “Well done, Agathina. Thank you. I see your magic has continued to improve.”
Agathina closed her fist and the light disappeared, leaving everyone blinking. She returned to her seat.
Master Aethyll’s gaze followed her. He now knew what everyone else did: Agathina was the best novice among them. He would soon know who was the worst.
“Princess, please.” Master Aethyll’s expectant expression returned.
Dale tried to calm the butterflies that bounced in her stomach. They never helped. Jaral gave her an encouraging nod as she took slow steps and stood where Agathina and the others had. The other novices all wore the same expression. They hoped her magic would work for her – this time. Nice of them, but their concern for her probable failure wasn't exactly helping. The warmth of the sunshine on her back calmed her nerves a notch. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing – the easy part. Then she opened her second sight, where the elements that made up the world were revealed in the true realm – earth with its browns and reds formed a solid mat beneath; shiny particles like prisms of rainbows made up the air, and the yellow beams thrown by the sunlight represented fire. Tiny shards of blues and greens revealed the droplets of water that floated everywhere and had surprised the other novices when they realised water wasn’t constrained to the lakes and oceans. Above it all, in a silvery light, floated the aether.
Dale had to draw on the latent power all around her and twist it into something through the spell. She picked at the elements of fire with her aura, gathering them and weaving them with air and aether. She tried to call them, just as she would call a friend. Some of them came to her, but she needed more. Frustration nibbled at the corners of her awareness. Two of the free spirits appeared, on this plane they looked like diamonds of light, but Dale recognised them. They were Jaral’s gnomes, Tut and Spiros. She hoped they were here to help rather than make mischief. Not that they would dare in front of Jaral, but Dale was never sure with the free spirits. She ignored them and refocussed, raising her palm; she willed a globe from a small fusion of air and fire. “Solas,” she commanded and opened her eyes to see the globe glow with a dull bloom, then disappear, like a torch with a flat battery. The two gnomes giggled silently with little hands over their mouths before Jaral gave them a scowl and they disappeared.
Dale grimaced, but raised an eyebrow to glance diagonally at Master Aethyll. There it was – disappointment, just like a child with no presents Christmas morning.
“Oh, Dale. Aren’t you excited? You’re finally going to be re-bonded to the Borderlands, and you get to see the prophecy. Things will start to happen now, you’ll see!”
Dale winced as Agathina shoved a hairpin into the curled braid atop her head, scraping her scalp. Agathina’s smile reflected in the mirror, it was warm and genuine as always. Her friend had spent hours over the past year comforting Dale after their sorcery lessons when she had failed to do a simple spell, and here she was again, comforting. Agathina hadn’t lost hope like many of the others. She still believed Dale was the one who would save them from the Unseelie monsters. Like Dale’s mother, Agathina believed once Dale saw the prophecy her powers would finally awaken.
“There, all done.” Agathina stepped back and appraised her work. Dale's long red hair now sat braided in a series of complicated knots and twirls. “It looks lovely. Rhys will be impressed.”
Dale turned from the mirror when she noticed a blush starting. She couldn’t think about Rhys now or she’d throw up. If Master Aethyll hadn't known about her failure in sorcery, Rhys wouldn’t know yet either. What would he think of her once he did? “Well, I suppose we should dress. Here, you first.”
Dale helped Agathina into her gown. It was made from fine golden silk that matched her eyes. She laced the back, and straightened the shoulders, then asked Agathina to twirl, which she did with a giggle.
“Do you think Jaral will finally notice me?” Agathina asked. She’d had a crush on Jaral ever since she’d met him, not long after Dale had met him over a year ago. But almost every girl in Arcadia had a crush on Jaral. And it seemed he did everything in his power to encourage them.
Dale smiled. “You’re so beautiful, and talented. I cannot see how he couldn’t notice you. Maybe everyone got it wrong. Maybe you’re the one the prophecy means.”
Agathina put her hands on her hips. “Don’t be ridiculous, Dalendra. Everyone knows the saviour has come from hiding on Earth. Now, your turn.” Agathina picked up Dale’s dress, a long creamy white gown encrusted with tiny emeralds, another gift from Casandriella, Arcadia’s most famed seamstress.
“But how can anyone really know if we’re all supposed to keep the prophecy’s revelations to ourselves?”
“Dale, we’ve been over this. Some things are known. Some things can be shared, and you, my friend, are one of them. You’re the saviour, and everyone knows it.”
Dale breathed in as Agathina buttoned the gown. “But some things you must never speak of?”
“Well, to be more accurate, some things we're incapable of speaking of. The Prophecy won't allow it.”
Dale turned to face her friend. “And there are things the prophecy showed you when you saw it? Things you’re not allowed to share?”
Agathina’s eyes looked down. “That’s right. Things that make me sad, too. But they may not come to pass.”
Dale frowned. “Well, why place so much faith in the stupid prophecy if you can’t even be sure it’s telling the truth?”
Agathina shook her head. “Dale, you know why. The messages the prophecy gives to us are gifts. Gifts for us personally, and gifts to us as a whole. It's all relevant to our growth. To our stability. Even if its predictions don’t come to pass, Master Atapole says the prophecy teaches us lessons without the emotional exhaustion of having to learn them otherwise.”
Dale sighed. Yes, Sa'r Atapole, Master of Philosophy. He was the only council member who had stayed in Arcadia while the others went off to war. He knew of Dale’s failures. At least he’d grown accustomed to them, but even he had no answers.
“Now, let me look at you.” Agathina’s smile lit up her face. “Beautiful. Let’s go and impress them. Everyone will be on the terrace by now.”
Dale’s heart stopped. “Who? The council members?”
“Yes, they were arriving when I came to get you.”
“And is Rhys with them?”
“He should be by now.”
Dale swallowed. She looked over her shoulder through her bedroom balcony window to the path in the distance that would take her over the mountain, toward Whistler’s Lake, and back to Joy. If she put one foot in front of the other, eventually she would arrive at the jetty, and if she wanted to she could simply hoist the sails of her little boat and feel freedom wash over her. She wouldn’t have to see the prophecy, she wouldn’t have to watch the disappointment in everyone’s eyes when it made no difference to her sorcery. She wouldn’t have to see Rhys and wonder how stupid she must look when she blushed every time he glanced her way.
“Come, Princess.” Agathina touched her shoulder. “Let’s go.”