∙ Chapter One ∙
Frankie stared at what was left of the sandcastle. In a rare moment of fast-fleeing childhood, he and Elise had built the lumpy structure by hand only a few days before. Waning moonlight reflected off a dark tide that ate at the sandcastle’s walls. Frankie didn’t pull his cloak any tighter, even as the winter wind skipped across the ocean’s surface toward him. He welcomed the gusts that scraped against his cheeks and pulled through his curls, hoping it would chill the hot anger brewing inside him. But the anger burned brighter with each wave that lapped against the sandcastle, eroding its turrets and crenulations.
He had lived in a castle for a short time and could name all its specific architectural terms. He had been a prince. Perhaps he still was, though the title wasn’t worth much when the king was actively hunting his head. Frankie was a sage. He, his twin sister, and others of his kind were on the run from his father, who would not tolerate their presence in his kingdom. To the king, sages were blasphemers, claiming the power of God for themselves and, more grievously, plotting to use their powers to take Stromboden’s throne.
The sages who had been flushed out of hiding during the Great Hall skirmish between Count Carvil’s obluvium-born henchmen and the royal family were now living a nomadic existence on the outskirts of civilization. They never stayed in one place too long for fear of capture and execution by the king or capture and execution by the king’s enemy. The mad Count Carvil would stop at nothing to take the throne from the king, going so far as to pursue the king’s twins into another reality and back again.
Six months ago, Frankie opened a portal to escape from the castle dungeon and had taken Elise, Sigurd, Onora, and Ingrid with him. The number of outcast sages they traveled with had grown to the size of a small village in the time since. Six months of scraping together food and shelter for seventy-plus people in a country already on the brink of war was taking its toll on all of them. Frankie knew they couldn’t endure this for much longer. It was only a matter of time before something caught up with them, be it the king’s soldiers, Carvil’s unholy henchmen, or the elements.
Wind breathed through the thin fabric of his tunic, and he stared, trembling with bitterness and cold as another foamy wave washed over the sandcastle. Things could have been so different. He could have been so different if it weren’t for his father. He could have had a good childhood instead of being shipped off to an alternate reality. He could have been helping lead his people to prosperity instead of leading a fraction of them to starve at the edge of the kingdom. All this rage and anger inside him never would have been seeded if his father had been a better king, a better person. What Frankie hated most was that this internal anger echoed the wrath he had witnessed in his father on a regular basis. He hated that he was just like him.
The sandcastle endured yet another wave that reached to Frankie’s feet. Cold water seeped through the seams of his boots and crept up the toes of his thin wool socks. He tried to be like his half brother, Sigurd. He tried to keep his composure while everything around him was unjustly falling apart. But in the end, his anger flamed hotter in the winter air, and he couldn’t feel the cold anymore. In a rage, he kicked the sandcastle’s remaining walls. Sand and water sprayed in all directions before they were caught up in the wind. He stomped the castle into the sodden beach until there was nothing left for the next wave to take away.
Sweat trickled down his temple as he turned on his heel toward the quiet of the camp. The fires were being lit. It was almost time.
Elise reached out with her mind to the brightest energy she could find in the darkness. An elkhound pup named Bain lay sleeping with his mother in a tent about half an acre away. He dreamed of loping through a sun-streaked forest chasing a brown rabbit. He launched over fallen logs and skittered under low branches until he caught the soft ball of fur. The rabbit wriggled loose from his jaws, and the chase was on again. It was an exciting dream for the young dog, and Elise borrowed the waves of his joy, running along with him as an unseen witness to his experience.
A muffled voice alerted Bain, and he was pulled from the dream into the waking world of his mother’s scent and a torch-lit tent. Elise brought her mind back to her own body in a snap. She kept her eyes closed tight. “I am good. I am happy,” she muttered to herself. “I am good. I am happy. I am—”
“—too dark in here. We need more light to pack properly.”
“I should rouse Sera. She’ll need more time to—”
Elise’s mantra failed. Snippets of her fellow sages’ thoughts were rushing in at her, mingled with their anxious feelings concerning their midnight move.
There was a time when this would never have happened. Her sage talent used to be limited to communicating with animals by initiating contact with them first. Now, the thoughts and emotions of animals, people, and plants—anything with a mind—would bleed into her consciousness unbidden. The night of a camp move always brought heightened emotions to the community. It seemed this was when they were in the most danger of Elise hearing their minds, and she was in the most danger of forgetting herself.
It had only happened once that night in the Great Hall. She had used her power to control a flock of crows. They swarmed one of Carvil’s men and killed him. There was no communication involved during her interaction with the crows, only control. Once was too much. She couldn’t ever let it happen again.
“—stacking the blankets on top of the baskets. They’ll transport better that way.”
She shut her eyes tighter and tried to force her mind shut also, to concentrate on Ingrid’s teaching. “Remember who you are,” she whispered to herself. Elise rifled through her memories for something to cling to so as to drown out her neighbors’ thoughts. The afternoon spent at the beach with Frankie came to mind first.
It was a day of bright sunshine and crystalline waves. She remembered the cold, wet sand squishing between her fingers as they formed the walls of their sandcastle. It was a bizarre, sprawling construction that looked nothing like their alabaster ancestral home perched atop the hill in Stromboden. Elise had clapped in excitement when she found the perfect clam shell to use as their drawbridge, and Frankie had smiled eagerly as he dug out the deep moat. She hadn’t seen him smile like that in months. The joy of building something just for the fun of it had temporarily eclipsed their dire circumstances. It was a happy time.
A familiar presence swept through the sunny memory, causing it to drift apart. This presence bore an air of formality and intensity about it that was unmistakable: Onora. Elise fluttered her eyes open before the stalwart guard tapped on the outside of the taut canvas tent they shared. Onora pulled the flap back and entered with a torch, pausing briefly at the sight of Elise sitting upright on top of her pallet of blankets. “You’re already awake,” she stated.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Elise replied.
Onora nodded in understanding and tossed the torch onto the long dead fire at the center of their temporary space. Firelight flickered off gold strands in her honey-colored braid as she knelt and began to roll up the blankets on her own bed. “It’s almost time. We need to take down the tent.”
Elise rose and went about her usual routine of gathering, rolling, and packing the few items in the tent. The swirling thoughts of those around her threatened to pull her away from her tasks, so she attempted to engage the taciturn Onora into conversation. This was typically not an easy feat, but Elise was growing desperate.
“Where are we going this time?” she asked.
“To an abandoned village at the northern edge of Anmira County,” Onora answered, untying the canvas from the narrow pine log supports.
Elise straightened, her interest piqued. “An abandoned village? That sounds perfect for us. Why haven’t we gone there before now?”
“It wasn’t abandoned before now,” Onora answered ominously. She handed Elise the canvas while she gently leaned the pine poles to the ground. Elise folded the large patchwork of stiff fabric quietly while feeling the anxiety of those around her amplify her own. The sages were running out of places to hide, and this village in Anmira was certainly ideal. But why had it been abandoned? Anmira was closer to Carvil’s stronghold in Tierren County, but she didn’t think he had expanded his reach to the surrounding counties, had he?
While she mused on this, she “helped” Onora carry the pine poles, but really Onora did all the work. Elise’s small frame wasn’t built for heavy lifting. Their tent poles nestled with the rest of the community’s poles on the largest wagon they had. It was fitted to two sleepy draft horses who hadn’t had enough hay in the last few days. Perhaps they would find provisions left behind in this abandoned village to supplement their shrinking rations for animals and people alike.
She and Onora then took up their places in the line of sage families with their bags on their backs and baskets balanced on their heads. Bleary-eyed children held the hands of tight-lipped adults. Horses stamped impatiently, and a few dogs barked and herded straggling chickens back to their flocks.
They waited with subdued voices in blinking torchlight as if some strange ritual was about to commence. Elise kept clinging to her memory of the sunny sandcastle so the peoples’ thoughts wouldn’t drift into hers. Eventually, she spotted Frankie’s mop of brown curls as he moved down the line of people. He walked purposefully along with Sigurd’s long strides toward the head of the line. As they passed, Elise noted that Onora’s presence seemed to withdraw within her body. Frankie’s freckled face mirrored Sigurd’s hardened expression. Sigurd stopped at the head of the line of people, but Frankie continued walking forward a few paces. A flash of gold sparked a few feet in front of his face. He stretched out his arms and drew them wide, and as he did so, the spark grew brighter and expanded to form a wide glowing circle—a portal to their new dwelling place.