Note: This piece was originally submitted to the /r/fantasywriters May fiction challenge. It is set approximately thirteen years before Catalyst Moon: Incursion.
Eris clambered out of the pond. Water streamed down her legs, she’d soaked her nicest gown, and Mama would be furious that her curls were ruined. But all that meant nothing, for her amulet was gone.
The sun was so bright, it was blinding. Eris stood on the shore, water dotting the sand beneath her fine slippers, and tried to squint through the rippling glare of sunlight over the pond. Maybe, just maybe, she could find the little disk of hematite on its chain, the necklace she’d worn her entire life. Maybe then, Mama and Da wouldn’t be quite so angry as she knew they’d be when she came inside so bedraggled on the day her grandmother was visiting.
But of course, she didn’t see a wink of silver beneath the opaque water.
“Da’s going to kill me,” she said aloud.
She stood alone on the sprawling green lawn before her family’s home, a stately manor with a history to match. It was still morning; the manor’s shadow had receded in the hour that Eris had spent outside with her pet dove, Lucie.
Lucie! Amulet temporarily forgotten, Eris whirled around, pushing her soaking hair from her face as she searched for the dove. There! Lucie was a few paces away, beneath one of the spreading oak trees, head bobbing as she searched for fallen seeds. Well, at least one thing had gone right. Eris hurried to her pet, gently scooping the pearly gray dove into her hands and holding Lucie up to her face.
“Your wings are clipped, silly. You have food and water, and anything else you could ever want. Why would you want to fly away?”
Lucie, used to being handled, regarded Eris with inky black eyes until Eris sighed. “I guess I can’t really blame you; I’d like to fly, too. But don’t you know you’re safe here?”
A soft coo was Lucie’s only answer.
Despite the fact that Eris would definitely be in trouble for the morning’s adventure, she smiled and stroked Lucie’s smooth back. The dove’s feathers were so beautiful in full sunlight; tiny flecks of light and color gleamed in a pearl gray that faded into charcoal at Lucie’s clipped wingtips. Eris sometimes wondered where Lucie would go if she could fly. If she could stretch her wings and glide into the wind, with air rushing between each feather…
Something prickled along the hand that stroked Lucie’s back, as if Eris had slept on it funny and the blood was rushing back. Then, to her astonishment, a few pearl gray feathers grew from her fingertips, glinting with their own tiny rainbows in the sunlight.
Eris gasped, but did not drop Lucie. Not believing her eyes, she held up her trembling hand to examine it. Yes, those were real feathers. Carefully balancing her dove, Eris tried to tug them free, just in case they’d fallen from Lucie, but they were stuck in her own skin.
Heart hammering, Eris turned and ran for the manor as fast as she could. She didn’t give her amulet another thought.
Not bothering to stow Lucie in her cage, Eris tore through the house to the parlor, where Mama, Da and her grandmother were probably waiting. She paused outside the door to check that the feathers were still there, then burst into the room. The three adults were seated by one of the windows that looked out onto the long drive leading to the manor.
“Eris, where in Ea’s blessed world have you been?” Mama demanded. “And look at your dress! What did you–”
“I know, Mama,” Eris interrupted as she hurried over. She held her hand up so that the feathers were in full view. “But see? It just happened! Aren’t they pretty?”
Grinning, she met Mama’s green eyes, so similar to her own, but her smile died at the look of horror on her mother’s face. Eris’ heart began to race again, but with fear. She looked at Da, expecting him to seem amused at her mother’s emotions, as he often did, but he, too, seemed terrified.
Eris’ father was never afraid.
“Da?” Her voice sounded very small. “Mama? I’m sorry about the dress, but–”
“What is this?” The voice was her grandmother’s, but not. It was a voice Eris had never heard, full of hate and anger. Grandmother was at Eris’ side in an instant, wrenching Eris’ wrist so that she could get a better look. Lucie nearly fell and Eris protested the rough treatment, but her grandmother was strong for such an old lady.
“She has magic?” Grandmother hissed at Eris’ mother.
Mama had frozen in her chair, face white and eyes huge. She nodded.
Da did not move from his seat, either, but cleared his throat to reply. “Aye. But we’ve bound it with hematite…”
Heat flushed across Eris’ face. “I lost the amulet in the pond,” she whispered, looking down. Water dripped to the plush carpet beneath her ruined slippers. “I’m sorry.”
The grip on her wrist tightened as Grandmother straightened to her full height. Her black and white Circle cloak fluttered around her feet. “The One has cursed this child,” she spat. “And you have defied the One’s law by keeping her here. She must go.”
Clutching Lucie with her free hand, Eris looked between her parents. “Go where?”
They exchanged glances before Da shoved himself to his feet. “I’ll not send my only child to one of those prisons!”
Prison? Lucie’s little heart raced; Eris’ own beat in tempo. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’ll find the amulet! Please don’t–”
No one listened to her. Da glared at Grandmother. “We won’t do it. You can’t make us.”
Grandmother opened her mouth to reply, but Mama spoke first. “We’ve always known this day would come,” she said to Da, touching his sleeve. “We must follow the One’s law.”
Lucie struggled. It took Eris a moment to realize that she held the dove too tightly, so she forced her hand to relax. Were they really going to send her to prison for losing a silly piece of jewelry? She tried to speak, but her heart had wedged itself in her throat.
“How can you say that?” Da said to Mama. “Your own daughter!”
Mama glanced at Grandmother, and shrank further in her seat. Her eyes were wet but her voice was calm. “It must be this way, Gerald.”
Anger and fear flashed in Da’s eyes again. He turned from Mama and back to Grandmother, and ground out his words. “Who cares if she grows a few sodding feathers?
“Even you are not above the law.”
Something in her words made Da’s shoulders sink, his face twisting into bitter resignation. “The law,” he muttered. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“I will do my duty,” Grandmother said.
“It’s for the best,” Mama added in a whisper, gaze on her lap.
Da shook his head, but he was already backing down. “She’s just a child.”
Grandmother’s voice was ice. “A child corrupted by magic.”
Magic? But they were just feathers! Eris could still feel the feathers prickling her hand. Were they evil? Was she, for having them? Ice swept through her veins to form a hard lump in her belly as she tried to see them through Grandmother’s bony fingers. Out of the sunlight, they looked dull and ragged. She wanted to rip them off, but Grandmother’s hand tightened again; would Eris’ wrist shatter in that iron grip?
This isn’t happening. She looked into her grandmother’s face, searching for something she recognized.
Only disgust looked back.
The sentinels came a week later. They looked fierce: five men and women in hematite armor and helmets that concealed most of their faces. Each carried a pair of wicked daggers and a sword that hung at their belts. One of them approached Eris and her parents, standing before the manor door.
“Where is the mage?” he asked.
Mama was sobbing, and could not answer. Da rested a hand on her shoulder, which Eris shrugged away. “Here, Captain,” he said.
The sentinel removed his helmet to tuck it beneath his arm. Blond hair so pale it was nearly white glowed in the morning light, and his blue eyes were serious as he regarded her. “How old are you?”
Eris only scowled at him. Her father answered. “Eleven. Twelve next midsummer.”
“Eleven.” A strange look crossed the captain’s face before it fled. He nodded and made a gesture to the others, who stepped forward to bind Eris’ wrists with hematite cuffs. They pulled her from her parents’ grasp, led her to the carriage they’d brought, and shut her inside.
Mama’s sobs seemed to echo through the morning, but Eris could not summon tears of her own. Not any more. She clenched her jaw and faced the sentinel in the carriage with her, and did not look back when the vehicle jolted forward.
A week later, Eris stood in the courtyard of Starwatch Bastion, with only the blond sentinel by her side. This far north, the mountains loomed close by and the air was chillier than Eris was used to, but she refused to shiver in the biting wind. She would be like those mountains: hard, unyielding, fearless.
“You’ve got her, Jonas?” one of the other sentinels asked him as she shut the carriage door.
Captain Jonas gave the woman a wry look. “I think I can handle the girl alone, Gan.”
With that, he took the chain that ran between Eris’ cuffed hands and guided her to a modest stone building, past more sentinels, past mages dressed in simple, warm clothes. No one spoke to her. She held her head high and kept her gaze ahead.
The sentinel led her down a dark stone corridor, with torches set into the walls. He stopped at a door near the end, rapped once, then opened it to peer inside. Within was a sleeping pallet and stacks of books and scrolls, and a small brazier meant to keep the room warm.
A petite, dark-haired girl had been sitting upon the pallet, a book in her lap, but at the sentinel’s entrance she got to her feet, clinging to a worn groove in the stone wall to help herself up.
“Kali,” the sentinel said as he brought Eris into the room and began to remove her cuffs. “This is Eris. She’s going to live here, too.”
Kali beamed at Eris. “Nice to meet you.”
Eris said nothing.
After Captain Jonas left them alone, Kali nodded to the door. “Are you hungry? They make the best honey-cakes in the kitchens here.”
Eris frowned. “Honey-cakes? Now? Isn’t it too late for breakfast?”
A wicked grin crossed Kali’s face. “Not if you know where to look.” She offered her hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
But Eris crossed her arms. “You’re really a mage?”
“I am.” Kali giggled. “So are you. That’s why you’re here.”
“Why’d he take the cuffs off?” Eris asked, jerking her head to indicate Captain Jones.
“We’re in a bastion,” Kali said. At Eris’ scowl, she rolled her eyes. “Mages don’t have to wear cuffs in a bastion.”
Kali nodded, then looked thoughtful. “Which bastion did you come from?”
“I didn’t come from a bastion.”
The other girl looked surprised. “Then…where are you from? Where’s your family?”
Heat pricked behind Eris’ eyes; she scowled and fought back the tears, as she’d done since leaving her parents’ home. “I don’t have any family.”
Kali looked into Eris’ eyes; hers were very dark, almost black. Like Lucie’s. “You do now,” she said softly, then offered her hand again. “Come on. I’m starving.”
Eris studied the other girl’s hand, then clasped it with her own, the one that held the promise of feathers. “Aye, me too.”