Thunder rumbled in the distance, covering the sky in a blanket of noise. Jena glanced out the window of the small cottage into the darkness beyond, glad she’d made it back inside before the storm hit. She shivered despite the heat in the room.
Beside Jena, her master, Thornal, blew on his spoonful of rabbit stew, sending splashes of the meaty liquid back into his bowl. A small lump of carrot landed in his long, white beard.
Jena huffed out an annoyed breath. “Let it sit if it’s too hot,” she said, frowning. “There’s no need to guzzle it.” The stew had been bubbling away on the kitchen hearth all day; she’d spent a long time getting it just right.
“On the contrary, there’s every need.” He blew on another spoonful and shoved it into his mouth, chewing with surprisingly strong teeth. “What’s the first spell in chapter eight?” he demanded. The raven perched on the high back of his padded chair flapped its wings and resettled.
“Fire explosion spell,” she answered automatically, then took a bite of her own stew-dipped bread. The fire flickered in the hearth next to her. Despite the feeling of goosebumps along one arm, Jena moved away from the flames, uncomfortable with the heat on her scarred side.
The Great Mage Thornal nodded, sending a brief smile in her direction, before shoving another spoonful of stew into his mouth. He stared, transfixed, into the hearth fire for a moment, before returning to his meal.
Jena peered at him more closely, noticing for the first time dark circles under his eyes and extra lines around his mouth. He looked every one of his hundreds of years tonight; long grey hair fell around his shoulders and his mage robes hung off his tall, spare frame. A long-healed scar ran down one side of his right cheek, making his lined face look even more gaunt. It made her feel she hadn’t been looking after him properly.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, a strange fluttering in the base of her stomach.
Thornal ignored her words. “What’s the third ingredient for the explosion spell on the same page? Exact quantity.” He took another mouthful of rabbit stew, closing his eyes as he savored the taste.
Jena didn’t hesitate. “Powdered horseradish root. Three pinches.”
The Book of Spells balanced on the arm of Thornal’s chair, glowing gold in the low light. He didn’t check the ancient book; he already knew she was accurate. Every page was burned into her mind; she had seen every spell; often casting them herself.
Thornal had insisted, despite the ancient laws.
“Bring me powdered horseradish root from the herb room, if you please,” said Thornal, absently chewing on another mouthful of rabbit.
Jena glared at him, but put down her stew to do as she was bid. He’d tell her soon enough what was happening.
The raven flew ahead of her and watched with fierce eyes from his perch as she searched for the powdered horseradish. Bottles, vials, books, and drying herbs cluttered every surface. It was a wonder that Thornal could ever find anything in this mess. There was a layer of dust in some areas thick enough to plant next season’s vegetables. But she was never allowed to clean it.
At last, she found the horseradish under a pile of cut leather, and gathered a spoonful. The raven cawed in approval and flew to land on Jena’s right shoulder, grappling with the materials of her shirt and woolen wrap.
“Ouch. Away with you, Raven. You know better.” Jena lifted her arm to shoo the raven off. The bird stepped daintily out onto her forearm, bobbing its head. Its claws still dug in, but the burn scars on her arms were less sensitive to the pressure than the flame-warped skin on her right shoulder.
“Do you want some dinner?” she asked, reaching up to stroke the bird’s head. The raven tipped its head to the side, leaning into the caress. Jena smiled; a quick lopsided motion that disappeared as soon as the burned skin on her right cheek tightened against the curve of her mouth. She didn’t like smiling; it reminded her of things she’d rather forget.
“I believe that’s a yes.” She walked to the kitchen where she prepared another bowl of the stew and placed it on the table. The sleek bird jumped off her arm onto the table, its sharp claws tap-tap-tapping on the wooden surface. It began to eat, pecking bits of vegetable and meat out of the gravy.
Jena went back into the main room where Thornal waited. “Here you are. Horseradish root.” She placed the leather pouch on the table by the mage’s chair. His eyes glittered up at her for a moment, before he turned his attention to the powder. Thornal took three delicate pinches and dropped them into another small leather pouch at his side. He closed his eyes and drew on the earth’s energy to seal the spell inside the bag.
Jena’s breath hitched. Why was he making the fire spell?
“Thank you. Now eat up. You’ll need the energy later.” He took another large spoonful of his stew. “You’ve a way with stew, my girl,” he muttered around his mouthful.
Jena frowned, ignoring the compliment. “Why will I need the energy? I’ve just been hunting; we’ve enough for days.” As she spoke, a gust of wind howled along the outside edge of their cozy little home, and she pulled her wrap tighter around her shoulders. Winter was closing in on them; the nights were getting short and cold, despite the heat of the days. She wasn’t going out in that weather again tonight.
“Don’t worry, it’s not hunting. Not yet.” Again, Jena caught him looking at her with his bright blue eyes, a secret whirling in their depths. He was up to something. She knew it, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.
He remained silent throughout the rest of the meal, and soon Jena had wiped up the last of her stew with her bread. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the small leather pouch with the explosion spell sitting on the small table.
With a sigh, she took their empty bowls to the kitchen. The oversized raven clicked about on the table and cawed at her, its beady eyes watching as she cleaned their plates, as if it, too, knew something was up. Then it abruptly opened its wings, sending a draft of air across the room. It flew back to its master.
Jena poured hot water from the fire-kettle into their mugs, then carried a slice of poppy seed cake and hot chamomile tea into the room for Thornal.
He was staring into the fire and didn’t even glance in her direction. Putting the mug and cake next to the horseradish on the small table, Jena sat down while trying to determine what was so fascinating about the leaping fire. He wasn’t praying to the Flames; it looked like he was meditating.
The flames played tricks with the light and at first Jena didn’t notice the shadow behind her master’s chair. Then the darkness moved forward, placing an elaborately decorated knife at Thornal’s throat. Instinct jerked her forward, only to be pulled back by rough hands behind her. The feeling of someone touching her skin made her insides crawl, and she struggled wildly until she felt a sharp knife-edge pierce the scars on her neck. She stilled immediately.
Jena tried to look around but the rough hands behind her tightened. Her heart was beating frantically. She managed a deep breath that calmed her thoughts enough to hear the first man speak.
“Where is the Book of Spells, old man?” The voice was quiet, emotionless.
Jena stared at the intruder who had spoken, trying to take in every detail. As Thornal liked to say, it was always in the details. He wore black from head to toe, and an impassive expression on his face. The glowing red fire in his eyes told her who he was: a Flame Hashishin, one of an elite group of soldiers who guarded Ignisia’s King and did his bidding. Why would the king care about the Book of Spells? No one but a mage could use it, and they only wielded the power in the king’s name.
Thornal didn’t answer the Hashishin’s question. He gave her a steady look, his eyes calm and in control, reminding her to stay calm as well. Then he lifted his hand and threw the mixture from the pouch toward the book, speaking the igniting words under his breath.
The ancient Book of Spells—her constant companion for the last five years—burst into flame, exploding right before her eyes. The force of the explosion whipped Jena’s hair back off her face and tiny bits of burning paper were pitched into the air. Smoke billowed upward, following the path of the burning book.
Her master had just destroyed the most valuable artefact in the entire Kingdom. A book he was bound by a blood oath to protect at all costs.
Excerpt From Fire Mage
By Trudi Jaye
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