The early morning chatter in the hall drew Arton from his sleeping room into the outer chamber. Only embers remained in the huge fireplace that kept the rooms warm since the nights grew colder. He stepped into the stone corridor and strode to the room where a morning meal waited.
Grasping a bowl he ladled porridge and drizzled sweet syrup over the tip. With bowl in hand he passed the table where the younglings sat and the one where eight wizards of the second level ate their meal. He reached the small table where his rival bent over his dish and shoved food into his mouth.
Arton sat opposite Cregan. Big, fill of him self Arton’s rival had a crudeness that pushed people away. Only his ambition and grasping for power marked him as Mecador’s son.
Arton ate slowly and drank the bitter brew made from ground beans purchased from the traders. The fall fleet would arrive soon. Alas they would carry no dragon pelts. He spring caravan had brought news of a blocked harbor and a destroyed ship. Only small fishing boats could navigate the ring or rocks.
Cregan looked up and glared. Arton looked away. Cregan’s sneering smile brought a concern about some snide plan. Cregan usually schemed to cause Arton to earn a punishment. His hand gripped the spoon hard enough to bend the metal. The stripes on his back though long healed itched.
Cregan bolted to his feet jarring the table to splatter liquid on the table. Arton turned. Mecador strode across the room and halted at their table. “Good. You are alert. You will join me in the workroom. Your testing begins.”
A buzzing akin to the humming of an apian hive spread through the room. Arton glanced at his rival. A smug smile of confidence spread across Cregan’s face.
Arton drew a deep breath. How many of the wizards, younglings and old would enter the workroom to observe? He braced his shoulders. Though he had no idea what test Mecador chose Arton knew he had to do his best. Did his rival know what they would be asked to do?
He trailed behind the chief wizard. The stones of the wide corridor walls had been coated with a white substance. Torches on the walls in sconces burned with flickering light. The arched entrance to the workroom showed a bank of windows brightening the white walls of the workroom. Tables, benches and chairs divided the large room into segments.
Arton wondered who besides the twelve council members would attend. He noticed the younglings and second level men found seats along the walls. Arton’s stomach clenched. The presence of so many fyrestones in the room made him edgy.
Do not allow the presence of the curious to add to your tension. Arton prayed he could follow the inner warnings.
“Blindfold them,” Mecador said. “Lead them to the tables.” He paused. “Your first test is to separate the white fyrestones from the colored.”
Arton gulped a breath. Could he defeat his rival in this test? He sensed latent power in all stones. The other wizards dismissed the yellow, orange and red as inert. Since the white were usually smaller he had to separate by touch.
The black cloth cut off all vision. One of the wizards guided him to the table. Arton touched the sides of a sorting mat. The blaze of power from the gathered stones caused him to swallow acid rising from his gut. He gulped breaths of air filled with the stench of his own fear. Carefully he held his hands above the stones. Energy surged through him.
Size. Only the size of the stones matter. Whites are smaller.
He touched the first taking time to feel the contours and feel the weight. As he separated one from the others his hands burned. He needed to discharge the accumulated power.
Why was he different from the other wizards? He wasn’t kin to the men in the room. Was that why he sensed the stones in a different manner? His mentor had questioned him about his life before the traders had brought him to the citadel. He’d never recalled a thing before awakening on a ship.
“I’m done,” Cregan said.
Arton touched the last stone in his tray. “So am I.”
“Remove your blindfolds,” Mecador said.
Arton blinked several times to clear his vision. He shook his hands to release the power gathered during the test. He’d found four while two whites remained with the others. Cregan had separated all six in his tray. Arton’s shoulders slumped. He had lost this test.
Mecador strode to the table. “Cregan has one point of the three needed.” He patted his son’s shoulder.
“I’m willing to continue now.” Cregan grinned. “Strike while head.”
Mecador shook his head. “The next test will be held during out visit to the clan gathering. I have a task for both of you. Arton, fyrethorn wythes are needed so new wands can be made. You will cut at least twenty.”
“I’ll leave now.” Arton crossed the room and pulled one of the large knives from the wall and a length of cord. Seeing the dull edge he lifted a honing stone and sat to sharpen the blade.
Once he finished this chore he left the workroom and walked to the outer courtyard. He halted near the grill and peered into the hareem court. He saw her, tall, lithe with her dark hair in a long braid. She stirred a kettle.
His gut tightened. His member throbbed. His desire to win her escalated. He refused to allow Cregan to despoil her. With a vow to save her he nodded to the gate guard. “Open the gate.”
He strode from the citadel and across the grass to reach the path leading to the tangle. The growth was so thick he couldn’t see the center of the tall green growth. The bushes were ever green. Only the thorns and berries fell. He saw Cregan holding several sacks.
Cregan stood and plucked thorns from the protruding branches. Arton frowned. His rival seemed to have no fear of being stabbed by the long poisonous spikes. When Arton reached the tangle he saw the reason for the fearless behavior. Cregan wore gloves made from green dragon hide. His arms were covered almost to the shoulders. Arton clenched his teeth. Mecador had given his son an advantage.
Arton walked around the tangle. He sought an area of new growth where the branches bore few thorns. Quickly he cut as many wythes as he found and tested them for suppleness. He cut until his arm ached and counted the number. He laughed. Forty two potential wands lay on the ground. Many more than he’d been assigned to cut.
The afternoon sun raised a heavy sweat. He pulled off his tunic of red dragon skin to let the air dry the perspiration. He stared at the bushes and saw a multitude of thorns almost ready to fall.
“Cregan, here are branches with clusters.”
“Bring the thorns to me.”
“And risk being stabbed?”
Cregan laughed. “Are you afraid?”
“I would rather not gather them but to help you I have an idea.” He placed his shirt beneath the laden branches. Using his knife he tapped the limbs. A shower of thorns landed on his shirt. He bound his wythes and picked up his shirt being careful to hold the cloth away from his body. He circled the tangle to where Cregan worked.
“Hold one of the sacks and I’ll dump these in. Should fill the sack. I’m taking the wythes to the workroom. Started after you and finished before and lacked the special protection you seem to have received.”