2 – Could this get any worse?

The carriage jolted from the uneven road. Carriages were a rarity on this road; it was much more common to see a farmer’s cart, or occasionally a merchant caravan. Fancy people didn’t travel here. Not that the person inside the carriage thought it was fancy; quite the opposite, in fact, and very uncomfortable given the state of the road. She was pretty displeased at the moment; the entire journey had been for naught. A very uncomfortable waste of time. Another bump, and she swore under her breath. Could this get any worse?

She’d traveled from Redoaks city to a town in the south. The town had been getting prosperous in recent years because of trade, and a couple of merchant families had risen to wealth and status. She had gone to promote her private school, hoping to gain at least a new student or two, but none had joined. She knew that it was important even to just create some new connections, so technically the journey had been worth it, but she couldn’t help feeling otherwise. All she was bringing back was a sore bottom.

The carriage suddenly stopped. She heard a yelp from the driver outside, and some other voice. She opened the door to step outside and see what was happening, but was stopped by a dagger pointed to her throat. She looked in disbelief at the bandit holding the dagger in his right hand; in his other hand he held a rope which was tied around a kid who looked as deflated and defeated as anyone could possibly look.

“Glad you joined us; I’m feeling quite generous today, so if you give us all your valuables and the carriage, we’ll leave you completely unharmed.”, a voice said from the front of the carriage. She turned to see another bandit, holding a bow with a nocked arrow pointed to her driver. This must be the one who stopped the carriage.

“What’s with the kid?” Raising an eyebrow, she asked the bandit in front, who appeared to be in charge. The other bandit pushed his dagger closer to her throat and barked: “You don’t get to ask questions!”. She sighed and turned to look at the one threatening her.

“Listen, I’m already in a very bad mood, if you don’t leave right now you’re going to regret this very much.” The bandit in front of her was surprised by her tone, while the one in charge frowned and said: “Well, you just lost the chance of being left unharmed!”

The bandit with the dagger attempted to stab her in the shoulder. But, shockingly, the blade crumbled like it was made of dirt. Before even having the time to be surprised, the bandit grabbed with both hands at his throat, suddenly unable to breathe. The bandit with the bow quickly turned towards her and loosed the arrow. It, however, swerved to the side as if blown away and didn’t even land close. The shooter also started suffocating. Both bandits dropped to the ground after a few seconds, still thrashing. After a while, they passed out and stilled.

The passenger stepped out of the carriage and turned to the kid, who was still looking at his feet and seemed to not have noticed what happened, dazed.

“Joe, help me tie them up. Ugh, we’ll have to drag them to the nearest village or something. I almost want to leave them tied up on the road…”, she said addressing the driver, who was still quite surprised by the turn of events and took a while to move. The woman moved to untie the kid, who suddenly realized that something strange was going on.

“What’s your name? What happened to you?” she asked him. He looked at her confused. Then he looked around and saw the carriage, and the two bandits on the ground. Wide eyed he turned back to look at her. He saw a rather plump woman dressed in expensive clothes. “Can’t you hear?” she said, busy undoing the knot.

“I… what… how…” the boy finally spoke, still wide eyed. The woman asked again, “What’s your name?”

“I’m… Spear…” he said, finally free of the rope.

“What happened to you?” she repeated her previous question.

“I… they… I think they said they were going to sell me as a slave…” the boy finally answered.

“Slave? Are there slavers around here? Damn, we’ll have to bring those two back to the capital to be interrogated… I doubt we can trust any of the villages around here to do that… Ugh…”, she said while dragging one of the bandits to tie him to the other with the help of her driver. “Did they kidnap you?” She asked the boy.

“They surprised me in the woods… How did you…” Then, a sudden realization hit him: “Are you a wizard?”, he asked, his eyes once again as wide as can be.

“Yes.” was her answer; “What were you doing alone in the woods? Did you get lost?” He didn’t answer, instead, he ran to her and started begging: “Please! Please! Take me with you! Teach me! I’ll do anything you want! Please!”

She was startled, then shook her head. “Don’t be silly, we have to bring you back to your family. They must be worried sick.” The boy recoiled.

“No! Anything but that! I can’t go back!” He took a few steps back.

“Did you run from home?” She asked with a raised eyebrow. The bandits were tied and laid back on the ground. Joe had taken their weapons and put them in a box on the carriage. “I’m sure your family will be happy to have you back safe and they’ll forgive whatever has happened before.” The boy shook his head and attempted to turn and run away. Quickly realizing his intentions, she grabbed him and held him firmly. “I can’t leave you here! Don’t you realize how dangerous it is? You were lucky these two idiots decided to attack an unguarded carriage. What will you do if you stumble upon more bandits? Or a beast?”

The boy started sobbing. “Please! Don’t bring me back! Please!” His words became less and less intelligible as his crying intensified. He started looking as defeated as the first time she saw him. She sighed. Could this get any worse?

✤ ✤ ✤

After the bandits woke up, they were tied to the carriage, sitting (quite uncomfortably) on top of the luggage in the back. The boy and his savior were inside the carriage; Spear wasn’t feeling grateful though, he was just slumped in a corner crying. They headed towards the closest village, which to the boy’s dismay happened to be Dustwater. The journey took less than an hour – going by carriage on the road was much faster than walking through the woods, especially when the person walking through the woods doesn’t really know what they are doing.

At the village gate – which was, as usual, open during the day – they were stopped by the guards, who were quite surprised to see a carriage – probably for the first time in their life. The woman stepped out of the vehicle and addressed them.

“I’m Miranda Wellspring, schoolmaster of the Wellspring Private School of Magic in Redoaks city.” She hoped that flaunting her position would help things along with these villagers. “We were attacked by bandits not far from here, those two tied in the back; they had kidnapped a kid, perhaps he’s from this village? In any case I’d like to speak to the village chief; the kid mentioned being sold to slavers, which would be troubling news and requires immediate attention by all the authorities.”

The guards looked at each other. They seemed to have no idea about what to do. Great, more idiots, thought Miranda. She looked at them sternly and raised her voice. “Go call your village chief!” One of the guards woke up from his stupor and ran inside, while the other stood there uncomfortably. Sighing again, the schoolmaster went to grab Spear from inside the carriage. The boy didn’t resist, once again resigned to his fate, but she still had to drag him out, and he tried to hide behind her. The guard immediately recognized him though.

“Spear! You’re in big trouble, boy!” His face turned red with rage; the night guards had been severely punished for allowing the kid to get out unnoticed, and Spear was less popular than ever in the village. The guard moved to grab him, but Miranda stopped him.

“The boy is already frightened, he doesn’t need any of this right now!” she told him. The guard turned his anger towards her: “This is none of your business! I don’t care who you are, your fancy titles don’t matter here!” He pointed his spear towards her.

She raised her eyebrow. “Seriously?”, she said. Before anything could happen though, the General arrived with a group of guards (including the one who went to call him).

“What’s going on?” he asked with a loud, commanding voice. Then he saw Spear, and his expression turned into disgust. “You! You’ll regret wasting my time once again!” He turned to one of the guards, “Go get Whip!”, then moved to grab the kid, who had started crying again. Once more, Miranda got in the way – she was getting pretty annoyed at this point.

“Are you the chief? We have important…” He interrupted her, barely sparing her a glance: “You’re not getting any reward for bringing this piece of trash back.” Then tried to push her aside. She grabbed him and her voice grew loud: “Now listen! I’ve wasted too much time already! There are…” but she couldn’t finish again.

“How dare you!”, he raged, then slapped her, turning her head to the side and forcing her to take a half step back; at the same time all the guards had pointed their weapons at her. She turned back to him and raised an eyebrow.

Nobody present was able to process what happened next. Their brains refused to accept the sensory inputs they received; it was like reality had broken and made no sense anymore. Miranda slapped the General back. The General flew to the side and slammed into the palisade surrounding the village. It was like a child throwing a rag doll. In a moment, Spear’s father’s body was sprawled to the ground, unmoving. One of the guards, perhaps quicker than the others at regaining his senses, or perhaps just in denial of reality, thrust his spear at Miranda. The weapon crumbled as if it was made of dirt. The guard stumbled forward, carried by his own momentum, and landed face first on the ground. The woman, furious, grabbed the crying boy and walked inside.

“Is there a single person with a functioning brain in this damn village?”, she yelled. Attracted by all the commotion, Jeneth was approaching. The guards were either still dazed or unable to decide what to do. The one who had been sent to fetch Whip had stopped in his tracks and was now staring at Miranda wide eyed. The wizard looked at her, then he noticed she was holding Spear (who was still crying), and grew concerned. (From his position, he couldn’t see the General, still unconscious outside.)

“Let the boy go!”, he yelled at her. Miranda turned to face him.

“Finally someone concerned for the kid!”, she said. “Are you the village chief?”

Jeneth was taken by surprise. “No… I’m just the village wizard…” he said, frowning.

“Ah, well, at least I can hope you can understand speech!”, she said, then continued: “I’m Miranda Wellspring; my carriage was attacked by bandits, and they had kidnapped this poor boy, apparently to sell him as a slave. Hopefully you understand how serious that is. I was planning on informing the village chief, and bringing the poor kid back to his family, before I head back to Redoaks city and deliver the bandits to the authorities to be properly interrogated.”

Jeneth’s eyes widened, then he glanced at the carriage outside the gate and back at the woman. “You’re that Miranda Wellspring?”, he asked incredulous. She sighed and nodded. He hurried to kneel in front of Spear, who was still sobbing. “Spear! It’s me! Are you hurt?” The boy looked at him, and finally realized who he was. Then he looked around, confused. What happened to his father? Where was Whip? The wizard insisted: “Are you hurt?” The boy shook his head. Then his brain, finally working again, realized what had happened in front of the gate; his eyes widened and he turned to look at Miranda, jaw gaping: “You defeated my father!”

The woman spoke again: “If you’ll take care of the boy, I’m going to get going. No point in spending any more time in this stupid place.” She started to turn around, but Jeneth called to her: “Master Wellspring, please! We need to talk!” He stood up and looked at her with determination. She sighed and covered her face with the palm of her hand.

“Speak, then”, she said. The man looked around.

“Not here; if you’ll follow me?”, he said. Resigned, she nodded, and he started walking towards his cabin, with Miranda and Spear in tow.

✤ ✤ ✤

“Master Wellspring, allow me to apologize first for not being able to offer proper accommodations…” Jeneth said, as they entered his cabin. Miranda looked around, there was hardly enough space for the three of them to stand; the cabin was shoddy, the books were old and worn, and they were just laid around everywhere with no apparent organization; it was rather dark, except for rays of light filtering from holes in the roof. Once again, it was worse than her already quite low expectations. A perfect symbol of my journey so far, she thought. The boy seemed to be much more at ease now, as if everything was right again, being inside this messy, ugly place.

Jeneth explained Spear’s situation, the lashings, and how he and Sara had helped him escape, hoping that the woods would be better than whatever his brother Whip had in store for him. Miranda frowned; “In other words, he was being whipped for reading books?” She covered her face with the palm of her hand and shook her head slowly. “I can see why the boy wanted to run back in the woods rather than let me bring him back here…” Then she turned to him: “Why didn’t you tell me all this?”

Spear was surprised by the question. “Would it have changed anything?” he said, in a low voice, looking away. The woman thought for a moment.

“Perhaps not; perhaps I would have dismissed anything you said as a lie or an exaggeration. I admit that I was just eager to get rid of you and the bandits and move on; but, normally, I would have tried to confirm your story before putting you in any risk. So I guess I should apologize to you. It’s embarrassing to confirm your distrust of adults.”, she said, lowering her head. Spear couldn’t hide his shock; never in his wildest daydreams he could have imagined hearing that. He looked at her with renewed admiration. Then a memory from a book came to his mind, and his shock reached levels he didn’t know it could reach.

“You’re… that… Miranda… Wellspring…” his expression was quite amusing to watch, his jaw doing its best to reach down to the floor.

“Yeah, yeah, no greater wizard in the whole kingdom and all that.” She waved her hand as to quickly dismiss the whole topic. She turned back to Jeneth: “So, why have you allowed any of this to happen?” The man looked at his feet.

“Do you think if I was a proper wizard I would be living here?”, he said, ashamed. “I know a few tricks and can make some potions, that’s all.”

She continued: “Therefore you’re going to ask me to rescue him from this place?” She was more amused than annoyed, if she were to be honest, but she made sure to appear offended.

“Master Wellspring! I beg you. Spear is very talented. With proper guidance he could become a real wizard!” The man bowed as far as he could, given the cramped cabin. Miranda raised an eyebrow.

“And I should trust the word of someone who knows a few tricks and can make some potions?” Jeneth grew stiff, but said: “I know enough to say that he’s better than me.” Spear turned his still gaping face to him. Miranda continued: “And you’re going to pay my school’s tuition?” The man raised his head a little and looked at her wide eyed. “I didn’t mean to imply…”, he started to say, but she laughed.

“You two are amusing.” she said, then she turned to the boy and her face grew stern. “I’m going to give you a test. Of course, you’ll have some time to prepare. Three months, let’s say. If you somehow manage to impress me, I’ll admit you as a student in the Wellspring Private School of Magic.” Then she chuckled: “You’d be the recipient of the first ever scholarship in my school.” Her face turned serious again: “Don’t get your hopes up, it’s very unlikely you’ll impress me; but, some other wizard in the city might take you as an apprentice. I’d say if you put enough effort your chances are pretty good.” Then she smiled to herself: “If you actually impress me then this cursed journey will not have been for naught.”

Jeneth bowed deeply again. “Thank you!” Then he barked at the still gaping Spear: “boy!” That made him regain his senses, and he bowed as well.

“Thank you, Master Wellspring!”

She said: “Well, with that settled, it’s time to go”, and turned to the door. Then she sighed: “I don’t suppose they’re just going to let us leave?”

✤ ✤ ✤

All the village guards were arrayed outside the cabin, their weapons pointed at the three who had just come out. Whip was with them, weapon in hand, and started grinning as soon as he saw Spear. Most of the villagers were also looking with curiosity. The General was nowhere to be seen, perhaps still unconscious or maybe too hurt to walk. One of the guards, supposedly the one in charge with the boy’s father indisposed, took a step forward and spoke loudly: “You attacked our General! You will receive thirty lashes, then you’ll wait in a cage for him to decide what to do with you!” Then he smirked: “Unless you decide to resist, then you’ll never leave here alive.” Miranda raised an eyebrow. Jeneth stepped forward and yelled at them: “Do you know who you are talking to? Lower your weapons!” The guard turned to him: “And you, Jeneth! Don’t think that you’ll get away with this!” Then he addressed his men: “Grab them!”

A gust of wind. All their weapons turned to dust and were blown away. The guards that had been at the gate earlier turned and ran away. The others didn’t know what to do. The one in front turned red and stepped forward: “I don’t need weapons to kill the likes of you!” Then he started suffocating; he surprised Miranda by continuing to step forward even while his face turned blue. After a few steps, he dropped to the ground, still struggling. Seeing this, Whip yelped, and ran. After a few moments the remaining guards decided to follow suit. The one on the ground finally passed out. “Let’s not waste any more time.”, Miranda said, and started walking.

Next chapter: 3 – What you don’t know

Spear of Aiste by Gabriele Santilli is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
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