The Choice of Magic – Michael G. Manning

Will, along with most of the other children, followed the carriage as it rolled through the village. Newcomers of any sort were always a major event, but a gilded carriage was big news. He had never seen anything like it before. Unlike a wagon, the carriage was entirely enclosed, and it was constructed with such delicate craftsmanship that it was hard to believe the conveyance was made of ordinary wood and metal. Whoever rode inside had to be extraordinarily important—and wealthy. The driver was dressed in expensive clothing, and a footman rode at the rear. Both men looked wealthy to Will’s eyes, and if they hadn’t so obviously been acting as servants, he might have thought them lords. The village children followed in the carriage’s wake like a swarm of friendly—and very dirty —bees, waving and calling to the unseen occupants. The driver ignored them, but a small window in the back opened, the wood panel sliding to one side, and Will caught sight of a pair of bright blue eyes staring curiously out at them. The moment passed quickly, as a hand appeared with slender yet masculine fingers, and slid the window shut once more, cutting off Will’s view of the girl who had been staring out. Unlike the children, the adults of the village of Barrowden studiously avoided the carriage, and parents who spotted their own offspring quickly caught them and herded them into their homes. While ordinary travelers or merchants might have drawn a crowd, the ostentatious carriage was a warning sign to them. No one old enough to understand the ways of the world wanted to catch the attention of whatever lord or lady might be within. Nothing good ever came of interacting with the rich and powerful. By the time the carriage had passed through and reached the opposite end of the village, only a few children remained to follow it.

One of the few who remained was his friend and cousin, Eric, who stopped Will by tugging on his arm. “We should stop here,” suggested Eric. “They’re just passing through, and that man on the back looks mean. He might do something if we keep following.” Will gave his friend a look of amazement. Usually Eric was the wilder of the two of them. It was rare for him to caution restraint. “Really?” Eric shrugged. “I have to go home anyway. Dad’s waiting for me to help him.

” That soured Will’s mood. Ever since they had turned twelve, Eric’s time had been more and more restricted as his parents began asking their son to take on more responsibilities. Eric’s dad, Johnathan Cartwright, was relatively prosperous by their village’s standards, making a good living as a wainwright and wheelwright. Will shared the same last name, since his mother, Erisa, was Johnathan Cartwright’s sister, and had never married, but the similarities between him and his friend Eric ended there. Unlike Eric, Will didn’t have a father, or a trade to inherit. His mother’s work didn’t require much help, and as a consequence he was still relatively carefree—carefree, and with little hope for the future. “Go home then,” said Will flatly. “What are you going to do?” said Eric, squinting suspiciously at his cousin. Will grinned. “Worried I’ll have an adventure without you?” “As if you could!” said Eric in disbelief.

Will deflated. “You’re right. I’ll just go home. It’s in this direction anyway.” “Don’t follow them down the road. They might get angry.” “I won’t,” said Will. “It’s quicker to cut through the woods.” With that, he waved goodbye to his friend and took to his feet, running through underbrush that bordered the village and into the deeper shadows of the forest of Glenwood. Weaving and ducking through the heavy brush, Will followed a route that was not so much a path as a game trail.

Like all the children of the village, he was well acquainted with the territory and he knew the easiest way to reach his destination, particularly since this was his usual way home. He reached the house in less than ten minutes. His home sat not far from the road he had left, but since the road followed a curving route, he was confident that the carriage wouldn’t pass by for several more minutes. He stopped and hid in the bushes to get one more good look at it when it came by. Sure enough, he soon heard the sound of horses, and the carriage appeared shortly thereafter, but to his surprise it didn’t pass by his home. Instead, the carriage turned and pulled into the wide path that lead to the house and stopped a short distance away. The footman jumped down from his seat and moved to open the carriage door for the occupants. “Why are they stopping here?” muttered Will quietly to himself. Will’s mother, Erisa Cartwright, made her living growing herbs, tending the sick, and acting as a midwife whenever one of the village women gave birth. Hers was a humble life, especially since she was a single mother with no husband.

Will couldn’t imagine what a strange nobleman would want with her. The man who stepped out of the carriage was a prime example of wealth and privilege. Slender and of medium build, the man had light brown hair and a sharp nose. He exuded pride and arrogance with every breath he took. His clothes were a rich burnt orange, heavily embroidered with gold thread; even in the dappled sunlight of Glenwood he seemed too bright to look upon. A girl in a yellow dress tried to follow him out, but the man turned and stopped her. “No, Laina, stay in the coach. This place is filthy. You’ll ruin your dress.” Laina had warm brown eyes and matching hair.

She pouted unhappily. “But, Father, I’m bored. I can’t stand another minute in the coach!” The man pressed her firmly back. “That’s why Selene came with us. Be a good girl and play a game with her inside.” He shut the door before she could protest further, then he turned and strode toward Will’s home. Is he going to buy Mom’s herbs? wondered Will. That made no sense. A nobleman from the city could buy anything he wanted in the markets there. There was nothing special about his mother’s wares.

Certainly nothing that would warrant a nobleman coming to buy them in person. He was torn by the desire to go in and discover what was really going on, but the stern looks on the faces of the driver and footman made him hesitate. The driver left his seat and stood by the door to the carriage, while the footman followed his lord to Will’s house. The footman knocked, and then opened the door without waiting for an answer. He ducked inside for a moment and then stepped back out. “Only the woman is home, milord. It should be safe.” “As if I need your protection,” said the nobleman dismissively. Going inside, he shut the door behind him. The footman took up a guard position by the door.

Fear touched Will’s heart and he worried for his mother. Erisa Cartwright was a strong woman, but strength mattered little when it came to men such as these. That lord could kill her and walk away, and no one could touch him, he thought. What to do? At twelve years of age, Will didn’t have the size needed to protect his mother. Any one of the three men was more than a match for him, and the footman and driver looked exceptionally vigilant. Briefly, he considered circling around and trying to enter his house from the other side, but then movement from the window at the back of the carriage drew his attention. The wood panel slid to one side, and a pair of slender legs appeared as the girl in the yellow dress eased herself through the opening. She hung from the edge for a brief second before dropping lightly to the ground and waving her hand at a second girl looking out. Once again Will spotted the blue eyes he had seen before, framed this time by raven-black hair as a second girl poked her head out the window. This girl seemed older, somewhere closer to Will’s age, and she seemed unhappy with Laina’s escape plan, but she kept her silence.

Laina motioned to her friend again, and the second girl turned around and eased out the same way, feet first. The two girls were hidden from the view of their guardians by the carriage itself, and they carefully snuck towards the bushes across from where Will watched. He couldn’t help but admire their craftiness, for both the driver and the footman seemed oblivious. Backing away from his home, Will began stealthily circling through the woods, working his way around so he could watch the girls and see what they were up to. For a moment he thought he might have lost them, since he had to take a longer route to avoid being seen, but then he heard a rustling ahead. He grinned. They were good, but it was nearly impossible to move without making some noise with so many leaves on the ground. Reaching down, he pulled his thin leather shoes off. Barefoot, he could probably get much closer without alerting them. Trying to sneak up on others in the forest was a game that he and his cousin Eric often played with each other, and he was fairly certain of his skills.

If I can’t follow a couple of spoiled brats from the city, I’ll eat my shoes, he thought confidently. He wedged his footwear into the crook of a familiar tree so he could find them later, then set off after his quarry. Will wasn’t perfectly stealthy—that sort of silent movement just wasn’t possible with the early fall leaves carpeting the forest floor—but he didn’t have to be. He only had to be quieter than the two girls, who were no longer even attempting to move silently. He couldn’t keep them in sight, either. From his games with the other children of the village, he knew all too well that the human eye was designed to detect movement, so he had to follow them by staying at a distance and keeping them within earshot. Over the course of the next ten minutes, he thought he had lost them several times, when they got too far ahead, but he had the distinct advantage of knowing the area. He was able to guess which way they would go, because he already knew the easiest way through this part of the Glenwood. The two strangers would follow the path of least resistance. They’ll probably stop at the mossy rock, he told himself.

The mossy rock was a large, flat monolith that sat in a clearing not far ahead, and it was a popular spot for the children of Barrowden. In the spring it was a beautiful place to picnic, when all the wildflowers were blooming, but even now, in early autumn, it was a magical place to play or relax. “Look, Selene! It’s a castle!” That was Laina’s voice, so Will assumed the other girl must be Selene. “It’s just a big rock,” responded Selene dryly. “A magic rock,” insisted Laina. “In fact, it’s probably a fairy fortress, disguised by illusion to prevent our eyes from seeing the fair folk.” Selene snorted. “Bollocks. I don’t sense the slightest bit of magic coming from it. You should know better, Laina.

You’ve already begun your training.” Laina sighed. “Can’t you play pretend anymore? Why do you have to be so boring?” “If you want magic, call Tyranil,” responded Selene. “You don’t have to pretend.” “He’d just burn everything,” said Laina, her voice sounding glum. “That’s not very fun.” “I’ll show you how to make a grass wreath,” suggested Selene. Will was at the edge of the glen now, and he could see the two girls sitting on the sunny side of the big, mossy rock. A thought came to him and he smiled. He’d give them a scare.

The ground of the clearing was soft and damp, and there weren’t many leaves. Working his way slowly to the left, he crept out into the open from the opposite side, where the bulk of the stone would keep him out of their view. Moving ever so slowly, he made his way forward, taking care to avoid rustling the grass. Once he reached the rock, he could come around from one side and surprise them. His plan worked, and soon he was just a few feet from the two unsuspecting girls, peering at them from around the rock. Will paused then, studying them. The older girl, Selene, struck him as particularly beautiful. Will had never cared much for girls—most of those in the village were either much older, much younger, or extremely annoying—but Selene seemed cast from a different mold. She had a certain grace to her movements, a calmness and surety about her that he wasn’t used to seeing. That combined with her glossy black hair and the somber, midnight-blue dress she wore made her seem almost otherworldly, like one of the fair folk that Laina had been rambling on about before.

Selene’s hands were deftly weaving long blades of grass into a wreath while her friend watched. Too bad it isn’t spring, or she could have put flowers in it, thought Will, having forgotten his plan to scare them. He was thoroughly entranced. “I want to try,” said Laina, inspired by Selene’s efforts. The younger girl turned in Will’s direction, and but for the fact that she was staring at the ground, she would surely have spotted him. Moving forward while bent over, she searched for a good patch of thick grass to pluck. Utterly still, Will watched her approach, until he spotted a sinuous, green length on the ground just before her. Oblivious, Laina’s hand reached for the grass that was hiding the viper. “Look out!” shouted Will, leaping forward and shoving the smaller girl to push her back. Laina stumbled and fell hard, several feet away, and after recovering from her first shock, began to scream.

Selene jumped up, dropping her wreath. “Don’t touch her!” she yelled, rushing forward to defend her companion. She produced a small dagger, which she held in front of her, though Will hadn’t noticed her wearing one previously. Will’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the sharp steel pointed at him. “It was a snake!” he announced, trying to reassure them. Looking down, he spotted the viper near his feet, beginning to make an escape through the grass. Without pausing to think, he bent quickly, his hand snapping out to catch the reptile just behind its head. Straightening back up, he held it out to one side. “See? It would have bitten her.” Laina, who had just begun to recover from her first fright, screamed again at the sight of the reptile.

Selene’s response was more measured, though. The older girl’s eyes widened, but she stepped back and lowered her knife. Grinning, Will twisted at the waist and threw the snake toward the far side of the clearing, where it couldn’t threaten them. “In another month they’ll be asleep, but it’s still warm enough right now that you have to be careful,” he told them, confident in his knowledge. Then Will heard a crashing noise coming from behind him. The bushes shook and branches broke as the carriage driver charged into the clearing. Spotting Will, he ran forward. “Get away from them!” shouted the driver, his face red with anger. “I was just—” The world exploded with pain as the driver’s fist caught Will in the side of the head, sending him tumbling to the ground. Stunned, Will stared upward in confusion, trying to clear his head.

In his ears he could hear the girls yelling, but he couldn’t make sense of their words. “How dare you?” continued the driver. Then he raised his right arm, unfurling the coachwhip he carried and bringing it down in a long, sweeping stroke that caught Will across the face. He cried out in pain and rolled over, trying to shield his wounded cheek, then felt a second line of fire as the driver whipped his back. Everyone was yelling, but the driver lashed him once more before the girls finally calmed the enraged man down. “There was a snake, you idiot!” yelled Selene, hanging onto the driver’s arm. “He saved Laina from being bitten.” Selene continued to berate the driver while the younger girl cried, a reaction to both the shock of seeing the snake and the sudden violence she had witnessed. Will gradually pulled himself together and got to his feet, tears of pain running from his eyes and mixing with the blood of his cut cheek. “We need to return,” said the driver coldly, taking Laina by the hand and leading the girl away.

Selene stayed still for a moment, then started to follow. “We can’t just leave him here!” she insisted. “He’s hurt.” “He’s a peasant,” snapped the driver. “If you cared so much, you shouldn’t have left the carriage. Lord Nerrow will have my hide for letting you two slip away.” Will watched them go, his vision blurry. “It’s all right,” he said. Taking a step forward to follow, the world spun around him, and his right leg collapsed under his weight. Crashing to the ground, he wondered what was wrong with his leg.

It was throbbing with pain, but he couldn’t remember the whip striking him there. His heart was racing and beating so hard it felt as though it might burst from his chest. Why can’t I catch my breath? “Something’s wrong!” said Selene loudly, running back to him. Will tried to focus his eyes, but nothing seemed to work properly anymore. All he could see were the girl’s blue eyes staring down at him. She looked worried. He felt cold fingers on his leg. “He’s been bitten.” His vision narrowed to a tunnel and then vanished entirely as his consciousness surrendered to darkness. Chapter 2 “What happened to his face?” demanded a deep voice that Will didn’t recognize.

“My apologies, milord, I thought he had attacked your daughter,” said the driver apologetically. Opening his eyes, Will recognized his surroundings; he was home, in bed. The unfamiliar voice had been that of the lord who had come to see his mother. The lord looked distinctly unhappy. “Do you realize what you’ve done? Do you know who he is?” demanded the lord. The driver stared at his feet. “Just a peasant boy from the village, milord.” “He’s Erisa’s son!” shouted the lord. “Her only son. You know why I’m here.

Think about that for a moment.” The driver’s face paled. “Forgive me, milord. I didn’t realize…” “Get out!” shouted the lord. “I’ll deal with you later.” In the silence that followed, Will slowly became aware of someone crying in the background. Turning his head, he saw his mother sitting on a small stool at the foot of the bed. The lord was standing over her, his features remorseful. “Erisa, I’m sorry,” said the lord

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