It was just beyond the next hill.
They would make it before sunset.
Breanna would enter her wizard’s training by nightfall.
She looked at the others as they hurried along; Cassian, her first friend from outside the Weald Wood, kind and jovial. Koax, so stern and stoic but she knew better; she remembered the Fenner’s grin at a good jest or after a merry ballad, she would miss dear Koax. Broc, firm, often humourless but always patient with her and kind. She hadn’t told Mim that she wanted Broc to stay. She couldn’t imagine living without him close by. Especially if she would have to say goodbye to the others.
Leasha’s cheeks were reddened with exertion and her red hair swept back as she hurried along. She was a fierce warrior princess, and she made Breanna’s heart soar and her nerves tremble.
They would have to say goodbye just as they were getting close, just as the promise of something seemed to have been made.
“There she is!” Mim shouted excitedly, she pointed across the horizon with her staff and Breanna ran up the hill to stand beside her.
A great slope took them down into a valley basin surrounded by steep hills, as if a giant hand scooped out the insides of the green land. Off into the middle distance, no more than a few miles away was a mound of earth rising at an angle from the ground. It reminded Breanna of a slumbering figure resting in a pool of bright green pasture. Perched on the shoulder of this colossal figure was the narrow point of a tower rising higher into the sky than anything she had ever seen created by the touch of a hand.
Surely it was a tree, surely it was the high branchless trunk of a tree?
“The Wizard’s Tor,” Mim said brightly, eagerly looking to her apprentice. Breanna tried to return the smile and appear as if she was looking eagerly at her new home.
But she had never felt so far from the Woodland, so far from her family and tribe, and so frightened at the loss of her closest friends as she did now. It tore at her gut and she had to force herself to swallow a sob of agony.
“What?” Broc stood next to her, staring blindly at all that lay before them, “Where?”
Confused, Breanna lifted her hand to point to the Tor in the distance. “Right there,” she explained there was a low thin fog clinging to the hillside, but the tower was a clear enough silhouette on the horizon.
Mim shook her head. “He’ll not see it,” she sighed heavily and leaned on her staff, “and this is where we must-”
“No.” Breanna shook her head vigorously, the word had been uttered before she had even questioned herself. But now was not the time to part. She wasn’t ready. It couldn’t be now. Mim narrowed her eyes, but Breanna was firm. “You agreed that my friends and my brother could escort me to the Tor, and so,” She felt Broc’s hand on her shoulder and it gave her strength. She puffed up her chest and made full use of her few inches of height over the powerful Dwarf Wizard, “So they shall all come with me. All the way.”
Mim glanced at the little group as If she had barely known of their presence before. Then shrugged. “Best keep a hold of them or they’ll get lost in the mist.”
As Mim moved off down the hillside, Breanna wondered what she had meant. But Broc reached out blindly. “Perhaps we should wait for the fog to clear?”
Cassian agreed, but Leasha was by her side, “I didn’t even know this kind of magic was possible,” she whispered, “come on, you grab one, I’ll take care of the others, Koax is only half-blinded by it.”
Slowly the half-blind group, stumbling, and flailing, followed the Wizard down the hill and into the valley below. Breanna grew tired of pulling her brother along as he constantly wanted to head off to the right and doom himself to forever walk in circles lost in the mist. She dragged him along worried now that she had made the wrong choice, wondering if she could lead him all the way to the distant Tor but to her great relief he seemed to regain focus as they came to flatter ground.
Mim was already far ahead, and once the others had caught up they took off after her. It struck Breanna how quiet the valley was. Not even the sound of birds. As if the place was so thick with magic that it muffled the sounds of anything else.
Yet, she had expected to see others in the valley. Youngsters in training, Wizards, perhaps villagers, but there were no people and no animals.
She wondered if all the Wizards were huddled together within the Tor on top of the distant mound and it seemed odd to have the whole valley to themselves and yet use nothing but the Tor.
But to her surprise, even Mim seemed to be looking around for others. “That place over there in those circle of trees that a place of ritual.” Mim pointed with her staff as they walked on. “I just don’t know where all the buggers are,” she added under her breath.
It was odd at first, then eerie, frightening. Where had they gone?
The Tor itself was high on the tip of a steep mound, longer one side than the other. The path to the top was long and winding with ditches and walls ensuring that no army, if it managed to get through the mist, could charge.
The path forced the companions to walk along in single file. None of them spoke, and Breanna hardly dared breathe too loud.
Built with stone so smooth it could have been moulded from the earth itself, the Tor wound its way up into the sky. High and narrow, and thrumming with the magic.
“I’ve seen nothing like it,” whispered Cassian.
“You lot, wait here,” Mim looked to Leasha, “Don’t let them wander off… I’ll just…” Mim sent a cautious glance to the building that made the hairs on the back of Breanna’s neck stand on end. “I’ll not be long.” She beckoned to Breanna and with a cautious glance back at her friends, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time she ever saw them, Breanna followed the Dwarf Wizard through the great open doors of the Wizard’s Tor.
A staircase dominated the first room. It loomed in the centre leading up and around to the side like a hair parting in the centre of the head. It was quiet. Their boots echoed against the walls. Mim was cautious and lit a light at the end of her staff that crackled like a small dancing ball of lighting.
Steadily they ascended the main stairs, then as they followed the steps around and up onto the next floor Mim spoke softly. “There should be more than a hundred Wizards and Mages in training… there seems to be no sign of a fight, no burning no breaking, but…” she trailed off.
The stairs led them into a large round room, shelves covered every surface of the walls, rows and rows of shelves cutting through the room like slices cut into a round loaf. More shelves were laid out leaving a central circular bench. In gaps on the wall were empty sconces, and only Mim’s light allowed them to see. Breanna ran her hand along one of them, there was little dust, they had not lain empty for long.
“They’ve taken the books,” Mim shook her head and her voice held a trace of pain, “Every blinking one of them.”
In the room above were dozens of beds, stripped and laid bare. Breanna stared at the walls half expecting to see those same words, ‘no more’, scrawled in blood. But they were blank. Whoever had been here had left without a trace.
Mim muttered and strode off towards yet another staircase. Breanna lingered a moment wondering why. Had they been attacked? Had the protective fog failed to protect them from intruders? Had they been snatched? Killed? But she quickly hurried after the light at the end of Mim’s staff and up onto the open roof of the tower. The wind lifted her hair and whipped it across her face.
There was a figure. Standing by the edge of the roof, cloaked in dark red. As she emerged he turned slowly and shouted over the wind.
“Greetings, Myrddym. We all thought you were dead.”
“No such luck, Raspian. Where are the others?”
Mim didn’t lower her staff and cautiously Breanna reached for her Fenner blade. She wasn’t sure how much good she could do but if Mim was ready for a fight, then she ought to be as well.
Whoever this strange man was he didn’t seem that he was on friendly terms with Mim.
Breanna couldn’t tell if he was young or old. His voice was a little thinner and lighter than most men and his features were soft and delicate like an Elf, yet he did not share the colouring or the sharp ears of her meadow friends and appeared instead more akin to the Druid’s of Midwinter. Yet it was as if his boyhood still clung to him and his age only became clear as they drew close enough to see the lines of time across his features.
“You have brought strangers into the valley Myrddym, you know the penalty.”
“They’re not strangers, Raspian, merely escorts for my new apprentice.”
At this Raspian looked to Breanna for the first time. He stared at her for a long moment and she struggled to hold his gaze. Holding her breath, she tried to stand up straighter; Breanna wasn’t sure what a Wizard apprentice looked like but she wanted to put on the best show she could and was suddenly aware of her dirty and torn clothing, and her unkempt hair.
Raspian turned back to Mim. “You have not taken on an apprentice since-”
“She’s a Dragon Mage.”
Raspian raised his eyebrows and walked over. He seemed to inspect her but she couldn’t tell what he was looking for. He reached out and took her chin, peering into her eyes. Breanna wasn’t sure if she should resist.
“So, you speak to Dragons, then eh?” He asked, his voice was low, he somehow seemed to be able to whisper in the wind.
“We can all speak to Dragons,” Breanna said, “I can just hear their reply.”
He smiled. “I see her training has already begun.”
“It has.” Mim nodded and winked at her, despite her fear, she felt a little leap of joy.
“Pity,” Raspian said, he shook his head and turned away, “All that potential lost.”
Breanna tightened her grip on her knife, and Mim’s staff thrummed with magic, “Lost, Raspian? Why?”
He turned back at Mim, confused, and opened his arms, “Have you not noticed, Myrddym? You and I are the only Wizards left.”