Gisela paused, one foot planted on a fallen log, the other buried in a mound of long brown pine needles.
Beaten, cast out with her sisters, Gisela burned with fury that Harbart had turned on her this way.
She’d left their village to protect her sisters but as Harbart chased her Gisela’s reserve burned away in the flames of revenge.
Harbart’s obsession with magic would be the world’s doom.
Stars Drifting Ever Upwards
By Meyari McFarland
Gisela paused, one foot planted on a fallen log, the other buried in a mound of long brown pine needles. The rough bark of the pine scraped against her bare sole, as rough as a rasp despite the wet dragging her hair down over her eyes. The forest was quiet, nothing but the sound of water dripping, dripping, endlessly dripping from moss-covered branches and drooping bunches of needles as long as her hand.
If it were summer, if things were different, Gisela would stoop and gather great handfuls of the needles so that she could bring them home and carefully weave them into baskets for sale. Or bundle them into loose balls to set aflame, piney sap filling the air with the scent of summer and joy and heat. But these needles were already half rotted, the clear amber color so prized during the summer turned to musty brown patched with blackish mold.
Nothing good could come of the needles right now. But at least they did not burn. That was good. Better. Safer. For the moment. They shouldn’t bring too much attention to themselves, not while they fled. Someday, once they had a new home, then they could be open again but not now.
Ahead, Alli had one shoulder under Coby’s arm, supporting her so that they could hobble along together, their three good legs doing what they could to spare Coby’s badly broken leg. Even if Coby still had the crutches that had been taken from her they wouldn’t have done much good. The forest floor was too uneven, the blanket of pine needles too thick, for crutches to help.
It still burned that they’d taken the crutches away before chasing them out of town.
Gisela shook her head, spraying tiny hot sparks all around her as the anger shifted and left her. A few yards away Liselot glowered at Gisela, sparks rising from her eyes. They’d all agreed, no fire, no magic, no revenge for the slight but it was hard to let anger go.
Necessary, yes, but still hard. Gisela shook her head again, ignored the upward drifting sparks, and lifted her skirts as she followed Alli and Coby. Her back ached where the mob had kicked, hit, beaten her. Her neck throbbed where the mob had wrapped a rope around her neck, tried to drag her to be hung before Gisela had burned it away in a flash of fury and fire that had sent people screaming in terror. When she swallowed sour bile crept back up, tainting the back of her throat like the hurt fury that wouldn’t leave.
People were stupid, no matter what sweet, pale, gentle Viona claimed. Her magic was all light, all warmth, a fire so intense that it seemed barely there. She stood at the top of the ridge, staring down into the valley with her stark against the black-brown bark of a great pine. It was like staring at the sun, sometimes, or a single candle flame burning in a still, still room. Viona never had wavered, never had doubted, never had to worry about whether people accepted them or not.
Her fire burned so hot that she had little to fear.
Gisela did not have that luck. Her fire was the smoldering fire of a stove as morning came and new wood was put on old embers, the deep fires of the earth that moved continents and shoved mountains towards the sky. Slow burning, inevitable, like the turn of the seasons and the heat of the sun on a winter day. She couldn’t set the world on fire but if she decided to burn something it was going to go up in flames eventually. Viona was the fast spark, the oil-fed flame that leaped up before you knew it was there.
“What do you see?” Liselot called to Viona. “Anything?”
“They’re following us,” Viona replied.
Her voice drifted down the hillside like snow flakes on a windless night, still and calm but still carrying the promise of smothering death. Gisela cursed, hurried up the slope to prop herself under Coby’s other arm. Damn fools, they should have learned already. They’d gone. What more did they want?
“He’s in the lead,” Viona continued as if Gisela’s curses weren’t sending off waves sparks that scorched the branches overhead, sizzling water droplets and transforming them into puffs of steam. “He has a spear. That shield.”
“Idiot!” Gisela shouted. “He got what he wanted. What more is there?”
“But he didn’t,” Viona said. She turned and looked at Gisela, her eyes glowing with white-hot light that made her look as though she was flame wrapped in a paper shell, barely alive, barely holding the flame back. “He wanted you, Gisela, you without the magic. He wanted you to renounce it so that you could breed little boys for him, powerful little mages that would give him status. Importance. Money. Rank.”
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