Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Running Away

Kylin darted through the garden, keeping her feet on the narrow lines of dirt between the plants and the gravel walkways. All the days of playing hide and seek here had made her an expert at moving through it without a sound. It was just a precaution, though. The guards that walked the grounds at night didn’t walk the gardens. They stayed in the perimeter of the property along the protective wall.

Hunching down behind the three-foot-high, wrought iron fence, Kylin scanned the smooth expanse of grass on the other side while she caught her breath. The wall was a few dozen yards away.

“What now?” she whispered as Kaleb squatted beside her. “We probably can’t climb the wall, huh?”

He studied it for several minutes. “I could probably boost you up to climb over.”

“Yeah, but then how would you get out?”

He didn’t reply. Was he having second thoughts? She opened her mouth to ask, but he spoke first.

“Can we use magic?”

“Well…” She didn’t want to admit the truth, that she didn’t know any magic that could help, so she just kept silent.

A guard strolled into view in the distance. She wasn’t Daetani, but she was no less scary, dressed in a leather halter with matching boots that stretched all the way up to her knees. Above her breech cloth, a leather belt held her ginunting and a set of throwing knives at the ready. She strolled silently along the pale stone wall, her gaze roaming the periphery. Kylin and Kaleb ducked down under their cloaks to hide their faces, hoping to blend in with the shadowy bushes around them.

When the guard disappeared out of view, Kylin lifted her head and tossed her hood off. “It’ll be fifteen minutes before another guard comes through here. We gotta go now.” She straightened and stepped over the short garden fence. Kaleb’s footsteps rustled the grass behind her as they crossed the manicured lawn.

The protective wall was made of pale stones stacked ten feet high. She smoothed her hand over its surface, feeling for any bumpy places they could use to climb. The mortar between two stones crumbled beneath her fingertips. She paused and studied the spot. Gently, she extended her magic into it, willing the cracks in the mortar to grow and separate. Dust trickled down to the ground at her feet, making an indentation just large enough for her to slide her fingers into and grip the stone beneath.

“Help me,” she whispered.

“Help you what?”

“Make the wall climbable.”

For the first time ever, Kaleb didn’t hesitate as he lifted his hands between them, and Kylin was quick about removing his cuffs. She tossed her cloak open to tuck them into the pocket of her dress, but he grabbed them from her. Without a word, he stepped back and threw them as hard as he could over the wall. They flew so far, Kylin didn’t even hear them hit the ground.

“Now what do I do?” he asked, a wide grin stretching across his lips. She couldn’t help grinning too.

“Just crumble the mortar apart with your will,” she said. “Gently, like letting the air out of your lungs. If you push too hard, you could crack the wall and draw attention.”

Nodding, he squinted at the wall, his brow crinkling up with concentration. Kylin watched him do as she had done, directing him to stop when the indent was barely large enough for one of them to shove their toes into. Then she joined him, making the lower footholds and letting him make the higher ones.

“I think that’ll do it,” he said, stepping back a few minutes later. He scanned the yard in both directions, then looked at her. “Try it. I’ll catch you if you fall.”

Kylin took her sandals off and tossed them up and over the wall. Grabbing hold of the highest indent she could reach, she stuffed her toes into one of the lower ones and pulled herself up. Pain shot through her toes and fingers as she strained them with her weight, but determination pushed her up higher.

Before she knew it, she was high enough to grab the top of the wall. Grunting, she dragged herself up and swung her leg over it. As she sat up and looked back at Kaleb, her arms and legs were trembling with fatigue and her heart was pounding, but she could barely keep herself from squealing with triumph.

Movement drew her gaze. Another guard was coming. Her view of Kaleb was still obstructed by the garden, but she would see Kylin if she moved too quickly.

“Guard!” Kylin whispered as loudly as she dared.

Kaleb bolted for the garden. Kylin flattened herself along the top of the wall and rolled off the far side. She stretched down as far as her little arms could reach, and then she let go. Her bare feet struck the weedy dirt outside painfully and planted her on her butt. She jumped back up quickly, holding her breath and listening. She listened so long, she grew convinced that the guard had caught Kaleb. Surely he would’ve appeared at the top of the wall by now if she hadn’t.

Boy, they were in trouble now. Big trouble. But she couldn’t just leave him. She knelt and felt around in the dirt for her sandals. She would follow the wall around to the main gate and turn herself in.

“Pst!”

Kylin’s gaze shot up to the top of the wall. There he was, motioning for her to move out of his way. She did, and he jumped down.

“Thank the gods,” she whispered as she threw her arms around him. “I thought that guard caught you.”

“Nah, I just waited a while to make sure she was good and gone.”

He reached inside his cloak for his boots and put them back on his feet. It took Kylin forever to find her sandals and get them on. Then they walked away together.

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Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

A Plan

“Kaleb,” Kylin whispered, shaking his shoulder.

Muttering something unintelligible, he hugged his pillow.

“Kaleb, come on!” she hissed as loudly as she dared.

“Hmm…” As he rubbed his eyes, he rolled toward her. “Noah? What is it?”

Conjuring a flame, Kylin lit the candle on his bedside table.

The moment he realized it was her, a sour look came over his face and he put his back to her. “Get out, Kylin. Some of us have work to do tomorrow.”

She shook his shoulder again. “I need you to come with me.”

He shrugged her hand off. Pushing himself up to sitting, he rubbed his face and pressed his hands back over his bleached hair. “Come with you where?”

“Away from here.”

“That’s not an answer.”

Sighing, Kylin sank onto the edge of his bed.

“Why are you wearing a traveling cloak?” he asked, an edge of caution in his voice.

“Did you know Mom’s been keeping me imprisoned in my rooms?”

He smirked. “I’d hardly call it a prison, Kylin. Three meals a day, fruit in between, and you don’t have to do any work besides your studies. If that was what prison was like, everyone would be a criminal.”

“Prison is different for everybody,” she snapped. “For me, it’s not being able to wander my home freely and see the people I love. For you, it’s wearing cuffs that prevent you from becoming everything Pingra meant you to be.”

“Kylin…” he groaned. “You have to stop this—”

“I have an idea that can free us both.”

He studied her, his gray eyes guarded and skeptical.

“Chancellor Torva’s daughter is sailing for Velstrum in only a few days, and she’s taking with her dozens of serving boys.”

“So? You don’t think they’ll count the number of serving boys aboard the ship and notice two stowaways?”

“Not if one of us has magic.”

He leaned forward a little, his interest clearly piqued. “You think you can hide us from them?”

She nodded.

A smile tugged at the corners of his lips, but then he flopped back against the pillows again. “Mom will notice us missing and send guards out to retrieve us. You’ll be in even bigger trouble, and I’ll lose all chance of fetching a high price. No one will want a boy who’s a flight risk. My whole life will be ruined in one single night.”

“Only if we’re caught.”

He let out a mirthless chuckle. “The ship will most likely depart from here, the capital city, and we’re the senator’s kids, Kylin. Every guard in Lolora knows what we look like. There’s no scenario I can imagine where we’re not caught.”

“The ship is departing from the chancellor’s home city of Quez’gapo on Naji island. I heard them talking about it yesterday when Mom took me to a meeting with her.”

Sitting up more, Kaleb shook his head. “But that’s not even the only thing I’m worried about. I mean, you’re talking about leaving our home, leaving Mom, Noah, and everyone else forever. That ship is going to a completely different country with different laws. And there are dragons there, Kylin. Have you ever even seen a dragon?”

“No, but—”

“Me neither, but from what I’ve heard, they’re scary. I don’t know if I wanna live somewhere like that.”

“But if you stay here, you’ll have to wear cuffs and depend on women to take care of you your whole life.”

Gnawing on his lower lip, he glanced around the shadowy room, and Kylin began to grow nervous. The possibility hadn’t occurred to her that he might not want to go. Why would anyone want to stay in a place where they couldn’t be free?

“Fine. I’ll go on my own,” she said, moving to get up.

He stopped her with a hand on her forearm. “What else do you know about this Velstrum? Have you read anything?”

She relaxed. “Before Mom banned me from reading about it, I learned that men and women are equal, and everyone uses magic. A king sits the throne now, and his name is Castian Stutney. His son will succeed him, along with the chancellor’s daughter as queen. Dragons might seem scary, but they protect the king and queen, and all the people, and anyone born with Pingra’s circle can train to join the Sky Forces and partner with one.”

His eyes shot wide. “Partner with a dragon?”

“That’s what I read.”

Still gnawing on his lip, he looked down at the quilt over his lap.

“I wouldn’t want to go there if I thought it was a bad place,” Kylin added.

He looked at her. “But nothing’s perfect, Kylin. What are the drawbacks?”

She shrugged. “I guess we’ll see when we get there.”

“What if we get there and it’s nothing like what you read? What if the dragons eat the criminals? We will be criminals, you know, stowing away on a ship like that.”

“They won’t know we’re there, I promise.”

He hesitated a little longer, his fingers rubbing at the cuffs magically fastened around his wrists.

“It’s okay,” Kylin said as she rose to her feet. “If you don’t wanna go, I won’t hold it against you.” Beneath her cloak, she hiked her pack up higher on her shoulders.

Throwing the covers back, Kaleb jumped out of bed. “As your big brother, I can’t let you go on an adventure like this alone.”

She grinned. “Pack quickly. We only have till dawn to get as far away from here as possible.”

He went to it.

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Isolation

“The house is on fire!”

The shout startled Kylin out of her reverie. Only then did she realize she was hunched over the book she was supposed to be reading, her thousand-mile stare fixed somewhere across the library.

Straightening, she turned to her tutor. “What was the question? Sorry, I was distracted.”

Makena sighed and sat down on the edge of the table beside Kylin. “Yes, I know. You’ve been distracted all day. Is there something I need to know?”

As she slouched back in her seat, Kylin watched her fingers rub at each other. “Why can’t boys use magic?”

“You know the answer to that, blueberry. We’ve had this discussion before.”

Normally that nickname—earned because of the way her dark blue hair looked when twisted into a bun on the back of her head—would call forth a pang of annoyance, but not today. Today Kylin was too troubled by her late night argument with Kaleb to be annoyed by anything.

“I know, but no one will explain to me why.”

Makena blinked at her like she was confused.

Kylin sat up. “Why does everyone say boys can’t be trusted with magic? Did some boy do something terrible a long time ago?”

“No. The teachings of Pingra are clear that women are the chosen wielders of it.”

Kylin squinted at her tutor. “So just because some priestesses say Pingra said that, we took away magic from half our people?”

“Do you need more than that to motivate you to do something?”

“Yeah, I think I do.”

Makena looked offended.

“Well just think about how much faster and easier all the work would be if the men could use magic,” Kylin pointed out. “And they’d be able to forge Waleian steel too. And what about being warriors? Couldn’t we use some more Daetani?”

Makena’s already pinched-looking face scrunched up like she’d just bitten into something sour. “No. I could think of nothing more terrifying than a man with all the power of the Daetani.”

“But—”

“Like it or not, Kylin, this is the way things are. Pingra wills it so, and we obey because if we anger her, we will not like her wrath.”

She was so sick to death of that excuse! Curling her fingers around the arms of her chair, Kylin stared point blank into her tutor’s eyes. “What about Velstrum?”

Makena’s head shot back on her neck and her eyes narrowed. “What about it?”

“They have a king, don’t they? Boys use magic there, and they’re a peaceful country.”

“They’re also blasphemous. They deny the gods and forge magical bonds with animals.”

“If it’s so awful, why haven’t the gods destroyed the whole country by now?” Kylin straightened her backbone, rather proud of herself for that bit of logic.

“I’m sure their punishment is just long in the making.”

“But—”

Makena slammed her fist down on the table. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. You’re supposed to be reading, and I suggest you get to it, or we’re going to be here all evening.”

Yesterday Kylin would’ve done as she was told. She would’ve shut her mouth and gone back to reading and just trudged through the rest of the day like a good girl. But that was yesterday.

Smacking her palm down on the open pages, she shoved the book away. It slid across the polished table and hit the chair on the other side hard enough to knock it backwards. Amid the resounding crash of wood on the polished marble floor, the book landed in a jumbled heap of pages.

Makena’s mouth fell open in an oval of shock that looked disproportionately large among the rest of her small features.

The doors flew open hard enough to slam against the walls behind them, and Mom stepped into the room. “What is going on in here?”

“Your daughter is having a fit over boys and magic,” Makena said as she rounded the table toward Mom. “I’m finished for the day, and unless you can get her attitude under control, you can find yourself a new tutor.” With that, she stormed out.

Mom didn’t move from the doorway. She simply folded her arms across her chest and glared. “How many times do we need to go through this, Kylin?”

Rising from her chair, Kylin mirrored her mother’s posture. “The laws don’t make sense, so why can’t we change them? There’s so much to gain by—”

“There is nothing to be gained by giving men magic, Kylin. Trust me on that.”

“But Velstrum—”

“This is not Velstrum!”

“But it could be!”

“Enough!” Mom shrieked.

Mom’s hard leather shoes clacked loudly against the marble floor as she rushed toward Kylin. Her hand collided with the side of Kylin’s face hard enough to knock her off-balance. Pain shot up the back of Kylin’s neck, and her teeth snapped shut on the edge of her tongue. The floor came up to meet her backside with jarring force, and the side of her face blazed with heat.

“No one wants Fargitan to resemble Velstrum, Kylin. No one except you!” Mom shouted. She smoothed her shaky hands over her ebony hair and drew a deep, calming breath. “Pingra forgive me, but sometimes I wish you’d been the boy and not your brother. Then I could sell you to the chancellor’s daughter, and in a week’s time you’d be on your way to that damn country you’re so obsessed with.”

Something sharp pierced Kylin’s chest, and she dragged herself up off the floor. “You’re sending Kaleb across the ocean?”

The anger melted from her mother’s features, and she sank into the chair Kylin had been using. “Of course not. He still has a few years more before he’s ready to be out on his own.”

Kylin wilted with relief.

“I’m not the monster you think I am, Kylin. There’s no conspiracy at work here because all the senators hate men. Pingra loves Pingto, despite his fickle and explosive moods, and I love your brother every bit as much as I love you, but I can’t change his nature.”

In all the hours she’d spent playing with Kaleb, Kylin had seen no hint of the nature her mother described, and in all the times she’d removed his cuffs to teach him magic, he’d never once done anything that would lead her to believe he couldn’t be trusted with it. But she couldn’t tell that to her mother, not without getting them both in big trouble, and Noah too, so she said nothing at all.

“I know what’s happening here,” Mom went on. “You’re spending way too much time with the men of the house, and they’ve manipulated you and planted their treacherous ideas in your head.”

“That’s not—” Kylin tried to argue, but her mother cut her off.

“It’s my fault. I’ve been so busy with senatorial responsibilities that I allowed Noah the privilege of acting as your caregiver, when I should’ve known better.” She let out a long, resigned sigh. “But not anymore. From now on, you’re confined to your private rooms, and I will personally oversee your exposure to anything and anyone outside them.”

Kylin’s mouth fell open. “But that’s not fair! You’re taking away everyone I know and love!”

“Life isn’t fair, Kylin. Welcome to the world.”

Mom got up. She grabbed Kylin’s arm and dragged her out of the library and up the main staircase. Kylin fought her the whole way, but it was pointless. Mom was stronger, and in the end, she still found herself stumbling across her bedchamber.

“Go to bed,” Mom said as she slammed the door.

For a long time, Kylin lay there, staring into the darkness and thinking about everything her mother had said. She imagined never again sneaking into the kitchen to steal cookies while Landon’s back was turned, or thanking him for a delicious meal with a hug, or doing a silly dance to one of his crazy made-up songs.

She thought of Noah, of his features that resembled hers and Kaleb’s just a little too much to be coincidence. She thought of how she would never again see his cheeks bunched up with an indulgent smile, or his round, gray eyes set in a stern, gentle reprimand. He would never again pull the covers over her, wrap his arms around her, and kiss her forehead.

But it was Kaleb she would miss most of all. Kaleb, her brother, co-conspirator, and best friend. She had always known he would eventually grow up and have his Introduction Party, and she used to hope he’d find a good woman to care for him.

Something had changed in her, though. She could no longer stand the idea of him spending his whole life suppressed and dependent on a woman to care for him. So fickle were her mother’s favors that Kylin had seen men fall out of them and end up removed from the household. Was Noah now meeting the same fate? Would Kaleb one day meet it too?

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Losing a Friend

Plucking the decorative gold sticks out of her hair, Kylin shook her dark blue locks down around her shoulders. It was the first thing she did everyday after finishing her study session with her tutor, Makena. She set the sticks on a random table on her way to the main staircase.

A flash of movement drew her eyes, and she stopped short. Baggy beige linen and bleached hair at just about Kaleb’s height disappeared through a doorway. Kylin followed. She burst through the door and looked both ways down the dim servants’ corridor. She just caught a glimpse of him turning a corner.

“Kaleb!” she called as she ran after him.

When she rounded the corner, he was still walking.

“What’s the rush?” she asked as she caught up to him.

“Just doing my chores.”

It was hard to keep pace with him, his legs were so much longer than hers. He stared straight ahead, but Kylin could see that his left eye was ringed with all the shades of purple and blue. There were streaks of the same colors across his cheek, jawline, and forearms.

“I’m done with my studies for the day. Do you wanna meet me on the beach when you’re done with your chores?” she asked.

“I don’t have time to play today. Sorry.”

He still hadn’t looked at her. That alone told her something was wrong, but there was a coldness in his tone too. She stopped walking and watched him make his way to the end of the corridor without missing a stride. As he turned a corner and disappeared from sight, she swallowed hard through the painful tension in her throat.

So he was mad at her. Sure, maybe she’d talked him into taking off his cuffs, and she had told him how to do the magic, but he could’ve refused. He could’ve put his foot down and said no. He wanted to learn magic just as much as she wanted to share it with him. He was really only mad because they’d gotten caught, and that wasn’t her fault.

With a huff, she spun around on the toe of her shoe and went back the way she’d come. Let him be mad; she didn’t care. She had plenty of other people to play with.

Days went by. When she saw Kaleb in passing, she straightened her backbone and lifted her head high, determined to show him that she didn’t miss his company. The longer this went on, though, the harder it got to maintain that attitude. Each time he greeted her formally, each time he left the room without looking back, each time he failed to come looking for her in the garden or on the beach, her outer shell of confidence began to crack and chip.

Why didn’t he miss her? They’d been more than playmates; they’d been best friends.

One night, Noah tucked her into bed like normal. “Sweet dreams, my little blossom,” he said as he pulled the quilt over her. He hugged her tight and kissed her forehead.

“You too.” Rolling onto her side, she tugged the quilt up to her chin and closed her eyes.

She knew Noah had put the lantern out when her eyelids went dark. Then she heard the click of the door shutting as he left. She laid there, still as stone, for a long time, giving everyone else a chance to get comfortable in bed, giving the house a chance to settle for the night. It seemed like forever.

Heart pounding, she threw the quilt back and crept across her bedchamber. A line of light seeped in under her door from the hallway outside. Slowly so it wouldn’t creak, she opened her door just a crack and peered out. Nothing but woven runners and teak wood spanned her limited view. She eased the door a little wider and stuck her head out. The sconces had been turned down to a dim glow, and the doors lining the hall were all closed.

Kylin slipped out and eased the door of her bedchamber shut. Her bare feet rushed silently over the runners and hardwood floors. She darted across the top of the main staircase and down another hallway. Near the end, she grasped a door handle and pushed it inward. Light splashed across a big bed, and Kaleb rolled toward her, rubbing at his eyes.

Pressing her back to the door, she pushed it shut again. “It’s just me,” she said.

“It’s the middle of the night. What do you want?” he asked as he rolled over and put his back to her again.

“Are you mad at me?”

“No. Why would I be?”

“Because Noah caught us and you got in trouble.”

“Go back to bed, Kylin.”

She took cautious steps toward him. “No, Kaleb. This is stupid! I wanna be friends again. Don’t you miss chasing me through the waves and chewing gum while you hunt for my hiding place in the garden?”

“I’m too old for children’s games. You’ll have to make due with the servants’ children from now on.”

She sat down on the edge of the mattress. “You weren’t too old for games a few weeks ago.”

“You don’t get it!” he snapped, sitting bolt upright. His face was scrunched up in an ugly glare that reminded her of their mother. “My life isn’t fun and games like yours is. I can’t risk getting in trouble again, or no woman will have me. It’s time for me to grow up and learn to work hard like Noah. It’s the only way I’ll be able to impress a rich woman at my Introduction Party.”

“What do you need some rich woman for? Mom—”

“Mom will sell me for the highest amount she can get, and if no one makes an offer, I’ll be worthless to her. She’ll toss me out. I’ll end up like the Rag Men, begging on the streets and selling sex to feed myself.”

“I’ll never let that happen to you—”

“Well I can’t marry you, Kylin, so tell me, exactly what are you gonna do about it? Huh?”

She swallowed hard.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, nodding. “This is the way it is, and there’s nothing you or anybody can do to change it, so just get out.” He flopped back down and turned away from her.

Why? She wanted to shout. Why did it have to be that way? Her heart was pounding, and her hands were shaking, and all she wanted to do was grab the nearest thing and throw it at the wall. She wanted to destroy the whole room and scream while she did it. She wanted answers and reasons, and not the crappy ones everyone recited to placate her. She wanted reasons that made sense.

As she opened the door of his bedchamber, the cool air in the hall turned her cheeks to ice. She reached up and wiped at the wet streaks, and slowly, she made her way back to her own bed.

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Caught

“There were so many Daetani, Kaleb! They were everywhere! And the furnaces were so hot, it was like walking through an oven! And I got to watch an am-al-gam-ator use magic to finish a blade, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”

Kaleb grinned, his gray eyes sparkling. “How did she do it?”

Kylin grabbed his hand and pried his fingers open. His skin was still bright red and raw from his last attempt at magic, but the white circle was unmistakable.

His brow furrowed as he studied his palm. “What does Pingra’s circle have to do with Waleian steel?”

“The amalgamator lady told me anyone who has it can feel the energy in things.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

Kylin glanced around their mother’s garden. Between the trellises of tropical vines and the huge, decorative stone planters, she could see no servants. She reached for the cuffs on her brother’s wrists.

He jerked away from her. “We shouldn’t,” he whispered. “Remember last time?”

“This is different. You can’t get hurt if you screw this magic up. And besides, we’ll be able to hear Noah coming down the gravel walk ages before he can see us.”

Hesitantly, he held his hands out to her, his gaze darting around.

Kylin laid her fingers along the iron cuffs and willed them open with her magic. They split wide, revealing the green malachite inside them that dimmed Kaleb’s magic. Tucking them into the pocket on the front of her dress, she stared at him, waiting patiently for him to say something.

“So?” she prompted after a long time. “Can you feel energy?”

He grinned. “I can feel your energy. This is gonna sound crazy, but it feels… red.”

“What?” Crinkling her nose, she giggled. “What does that mean?”

“I have no idea,” he said, chuckling with her.

“Try to feel something else.”

He got up from the cement bench they were sitting on and went to a nearby planter. He brushed his fingertips across the leaves and flowers.

“White,” he said, turning back to her. “Their energy is white.”

“What about this?” She picked a round gray stone up off the ground and brought it to him.

He wrapped his fingers around it and closed his eyes. “Yellow,” he said after several minutes. “But it’s paler and colder than living things.”

“Can you mix it together with something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.” She glanced around at all the plants. It didn’t seem right to mix a living thing with a nonliving thing. There were plenty of sculptures, but Mom would notice them missing.

An idea popped into her head, and she stepped carefully over some small plants to the sweet gum tree. When they were little, Noah had showed them how to peel the bark away and let the sap harden into gum. She found a stone with a sharp edge on the ground and used it to scrape a glob of sap off the tree.

“Here. Try this,” she said, stepping back onto the gravel path and holding it out to Kaleb.

“You want me to mix this—” He held up the rock with the sap on it. “—with this.” He lifted the round stone up beside it. He sounded doubtful.

“Yeah. I saw a lady put steel inside obsidian using nothing but magic.” She put her hands on Kaleb’s shoulders and met his eyes. “You can do this. I have faith in you.”

“If Pingto wills it,” he murmured as he sat down again.

He scraped the sweet gum sap onto the round stone and tossed the other rock away. As he drew a deep breath, his shoulders tensed and he straightened his spine. Then he cupped his other hand over the one holding the materials and closed his eyes.

Light seeped out between his fingers. Only a moment later, it died, and he opened his hands. Resting on his palm was still a stone with a glob of gum on top of it.

“You have to try harder. Concentrate,” Kylin said.

One corner of his mouth tightened. “Why don’t you try?”

“I don’t have Pingra’s circle.”

“Well maybe I’m not powerful enough to do it. Don’t people train for like five years to learn to make Waleian steel?”

“Yeah, but that’s steel and obsidian. This is just a rock and some gum.”

Sighing, Kaleb cupped his hands and closed his eyes again. This time he focused so hard sweat began to bead his forehead and upper lip. He didn’t move for so long Kylin began to get antsy.

It had to have been at least ten minutes later when the light in Kaleb’s hands winked out abruptly. Pushing the air from his lungs in a rush, he reached up to brush the bleached locks out of his face. His cheeks were flushed like he’d been running.

Kylin studied the stone on his palm with wide eyes. It had changed color from dark gray to a lighter, yellow tinted gray. “Can I touch it?” she asked.

“Sure.” He held it out to her.

The stone was soft but slightly sticky. She squeezed it between her fingers, and it had a bit of give, but it was solid too. She threw it down at the seat of the bench between them, wondering if it would stick. It bounced up so high it went over Kaleb’s head and landed in the bushes a dozen feet away.

“Whoa!” Giggling, she ran after it.

“Let me see,” Kaleb said, snatching it from her as she came back. He held it up to the sun and turned it this way and that. “I can’t believe I made this.”

“Not bad, for a boy,” she teased.

He bounced the stone off the bench. It hit Kylin’s forehead and flew away again. Squealing with laughter, she retrieved it from a planter and threw it back at him. The stone bounced higher and higher each time, and they chased it all around the garden.

“What’s going on over here?” Noah asked, his voice playful. They’d been laughing so loudly, they hadn’t heard his footsteps on the gravel walking path.

“Nothing,” Kylin said quickly as she tucked the stone into her dress pocket.

Kaleb clasped his hands behind his back to hide his bare wrists.

Noah squinted at them and tilted his head slightly. “All right, let me see it.” He held out his hand.

Chewing on her lower lip, Kylin laid the stone on his palm. He examined it closely for several long minutes.

“What is this?” he finally asked. His gray eyes flitted from Kylin to Kaleb and back again.

“It’s a stone,” Kylin said.

“What did you do to it?”

“I changed it.”

“How?”

She swallowed. “I added gum to it.”

The color suddenly leached out of Noah’s face. He shoved Kylin aside and grabbed Kaleb’s arm, jerking his hand out from behind his back. The moment he saw Kaleb’s bare wrist, he rounded on Kylin.

“What have you done!”

“We were just playing.” She reached into her pocket and produced Kaleb’s cuffs.

Noah grabbed her arms and shook her. “You could die for this. Do you understand that?” The cuffs tumbled from her fingers and landed in the gravel at their feet.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling against his hold. Her throat tightened up. Her eyes stung, and Noah’s terrified face blurred.

He dropped her. Kylin stumbled back, and her feet tangled, putting her on her butt, but she didn’t even feel the impact. She was too horrified by the closed fist Noah was bringing down on Kaleb over and over again. Kaleb wilted beneath it, first to his knees, and then to his side. Blood gushed from his mouth. It splattered the gravel.

“Stop it!” Somehow Kylin found the strength to launch herself at Noah. She grabbed his arm and pulled with all her might. She was too small even to budge him, but at least he stopped hitting Kaleb. “It’s not his fault; it’s mine. I took his cuffs off, and I told him to do the magic.”

Noah pulled free of her. Chest heaving, he scanned the garden around them. “Put ‘em back on,” he whispered. “Now.”

Kylin picked the cuffs up and knelt beside her brother. Keeping his head down, he pushed himself up to sitting and held his shaking hands out to her.

“Are you okay?” she asked as she sealed one of the cuffs around his right wrist with her magic. He only nodded. She fastened the other cuff into place.

“Kylin,” Noah called.

She looked over her shoulder at him. Sitting on a cement bench now, he waved her over. She went cautiously. He cupped her head in gentle hands, and she could see fear in his wide eyes and creased brow.

“You will never speak of this to anyone,” he said.

She nodded.

“And you must never do it again. Understood?”

Again, she nodded.

“If anyone ever found out about this, we would all be put to death for it. Tell me you understand, Kylin.”

“I understand.”

“Good.” His hands fell away from her. “Now go.”

“But what about Kal—”

“Go!” The boom of Noah’s voice made her jump, and she ran for the house.

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Making Waleian Steel

Kylin was pretty sure she’d be smelling smoke everywhere she went for the rest of her life. She’d seen a great warehouse full of raw obsidian and a massive clay bloomery used to smelt iron. Everywhere she turned, metal hammers struck glowing ingots with a rhythmic clang, and there was an underlying breath from the billows that kept the forge furnaces hot. Sweaty, sooty faces greeted them as Mia led Mom and Kylin past. The large area was open, but covered with an awning to keep the frequent rains off the women as they worked. Even with the ocean breeze constantly sweeping through, sweat still trickled down Kylin’s face and neck.

“Over here is where the magic happens,” Mia said, leading them away from the heat.

Inside a large stone building, women were seated behind long rows of tables. Some of them were working with obsidian, shaping it into daggers, swords, arrowheads, and axes. A haze of light surrounded the rest of them. Kylin could feel the magic being used in the air like the static buzz just before lightning strikes. It made the hair on her arms stand on end and a prickly sensation skitter across the surface of her skin.

“This is Nalani. She’s one of our best amalgamators,” Mia said, stopping in front of a tiny woman with piercing pink eyes.

“The best, you mean,” Nalani said with a grin.

“Of course that’s what I meant,” Mia said. “This is Senator Barathany and her daughter, Kylin.”

Nalani stood and bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Senator.” Brushing a few stray locks of graying emerald hair back from her face, she straightened. “And you, little one, are as lovely as your mother.”

“Thank you,” Kylin said. “What’s an amaglamator?”

“Amal-gam-ator,” Nalani corrected.

Kylin let out an embarrassed chuckle and copied her pronunciation.

“It’s a person who uses magic to combine different things into a brand new, better thing,” Nalani explained.

“Why can’t you just mix them together while they’re still melted?”

“Well, because what gives obsidian and steel the qualities we need for good Waleian steel is their hardening process.”

“Oh. So how does it work?”

Nalani sank back into her seat. She picked up a long, thin strip of steel and laid it on top of a smooth, shiny obsidian sword. Her shoulders lifted and her chest expanded. As the breath eased out of her, she focused on the objects, splaying her fingers out and keeping her palms pressed to either end of the steel strip.

Light stretched out from beneath her palms. It spread the length of the steel, then poured through the steel to the obsidian. The volcanic glass began to glow the way stained glass did in the sunlight. Slowly, the metal faded from view the way smoke dissipated into the air. It took several minutes for Kylin even to notice the subtle difference in the sword’s glow. At first, it only dimmed. Then it took on a strange, rusty tint. The light winked out, and Nalani lifted a proud grin to them.

Mom picked the sword up by its unfinished handle. At first glance, the blade still looked as black as obsidian, but at certain angles, it caught the light from the chandelier overhead and revealed swirls of dark amber deep within.

“How did you do that?” Kylin asked.

“It’s very advanced magic,” Mia said.

“You can tell me. I’m good at magic.”

“Do you have Pingra’s circle?” Nalani lifted a hand and showed her the white circle birthmark on her palm.

Kylin’s shoulders sagged a little with disappointment. “No. Kaleb was born with Pingra’s circle.”

Nalani shot a questioning look at Mom.

“My son,” Mom explained.

“Ah, I see. Well, women with Pingra’s circle can feel the energy inside other things.”

“Things like steel and obsidian?” Kylin asked.

Nalani smiled. “And animals and people and plants…”

“Wow…”

“Yup. And when I combined these—” She gestured to the sword that Mom had returned to the table. “—I used my magic to break apart the steel’s energy and bind it to the energy of the obsidian. It’s very difficult to learn and easy to mess up, but when done correctly…” She picked the sword up, swung it around and slammed it down on the edge of the table. A high-pitched chime rang through the building, drawing stares from some of the other workers. Laying the blade across her palms, Nalani held it out to Kylin. “See for yourself.”

Kylin studied the blade. Despite the fact that she knew obsidian to be quite brittle, she could find no notch, or even a crack, anywhere along the edge. “That’s amazing.”

“It sure is,” Mia said. “That’s why amalgamators are the highest paid crafters in Fargitan.”

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

A Day of Riding

A rock wall jutted up so high on the left side of the carriage that Kylin couldn’t see the top. On the right, she looked down into a deep ravine. She could barely make out a fast-flowing river at the bottom.

“Are we in the Moalahei Mountains yet?” she asked.

Mom lowered her parchment to her lap and glanced out the windows. “Looks like it,” she murmured, and she went back to reading.

The ride through the mountains was rougher and slower than the road through the jungle. Kylin kept a close eye on the towering ridges of rock. Twice she was sure she saw a dragon, but they were only glimpses, so she couldn’t be sure.

A distant, high-pitched moaning sound filled the air. She considered asking her mother about it, but she decided not to interrupt her again. If it was a worrisome sound, Mom surely would’ve said something to their driver and escort by now.

After what seemed like hours, the road finally leveled off. The moaning had graduated to a strange sort of melody, like the sound of a hundred people each blowing a different note on a flute. The Whistling Bridge. She’d heard it described, but she’d never seen it with her own eyes before.

She stuck her head out the window a little and looked ahead. They were moving across a wide stone structure with gemstones along the rails that gleamed in the afternoon sun. All different sized holes were cut out of the bottom half of the bridge like Swiss cheese. They caught the wind and made music that reminded Kylin of Noah and his pan flute. The bridge wasn’t very long, but it was high. She looked down at the channel of the sea between her home island of Bek Tun and the third largest Fargitan island, Folo’we. They had to have been at least a mile above it.

A flash of orange caught Kylin’s eye. It was a pixie darting out of one hole on the bridge and into another. Pixies were little faeries about four inches tall with ugly faces and dragonfly wings. Each one had a messy thatch of neon colored hair that would glow when they were angry, a warning that they were about to hex you with one of their famous bad luck charms.

“Look, Mom! Pixies!”

“Mhmm.” Mom didn’t even look up from her parchment.

Kylin turned back to the window. Her grin was so big her cheeks ached. She’d never seen a pixie before either. They preferred to live in places that were built by people but no longer used by them, and there weren’t too many places like that around Fargitan.

The bridge placed them in the Ponkau Mountains, and from there, it was a short journey down to the ferry. Their carriage parked on the deck among dozens of wagons mounded high with coal gathered from all around the country and iron ore from the mines on the north end of Folo’we.

“Well, this is promising,” Mom said, finally looking out the windows.

“They’re going to turn all that into Waleian steel?” Kylin asked, craning her neck to see everything.

“That’s the plan.”

The ferry docked at Hanicuni, the second largest of the Fargitan Islands, and the wagons began vacating the deck. The town around the dock was a lot smaller than Lolora, but the buildings were similar, built of white cement with rounded edges and corners. To the north, in the distance, Kylin could see the black volcano named for Pingto. Bright ribbons of viscous lava trickled down its sides. It was a short ride along the beach before they came to a black wall that towered a hundred feet up into the dusky sky.

“Oh good, we’re finally here,” Mom said, tucking her parchment back into her satchel.

Four women stood guard outside a pair of Waleian steel doors. Each one wore only a beaded breech cloth and a matching strip across her breasts. They were armed with tall spears, and a variety of blades were strapped across their chests and around their thighs.

The Daetani were Fargitan’s ancient order of warriors. Becoming one was a lifelong commitment, and it meant severing all personal connections, even to the family who raised them. It was worth it, though, to some. They were among the most powerful people in the world. If the stories could be believed, they were capable of magic that could be compared to dragons.

The doors fell open as their carriage approached, massive hinges shrieking. As they pressed on, Kylin watched small stone buildings fall behind them. More Daetani were scattered about. The seasoned warriors could be picked out by the rings tattooed around their biceps. Each ring represented an enemy killed in battle.

“Why are there so many Daetani?” Kylin asked.

“Waleian steel is our most precious commodity. It must be protected.”

The carriage stopped before a mansion almost the size of Kylin’s home. It was a cluster of dark stone turrets that were ringed with balconies. The footman opened the carriage door, and Mom stepped out.

“Hello, Senator Barathany! Welcome!”

“Thank you.” Mom approached a squat woman with short aquamarine hair and greeted her by kissing each round cheek.

Kylin climbed out of the carriage and stretched her stiff legs gratefully.

“This is my daughter, Kylin,” Mom introduced.

The woman’s grin got even bigger. “I’m Mia, the forge mistress.” Kylin and Mia exchanged kisses. “It’s such a pleasure to have you both. Please, come in and get freshened up before supper. Tomorrow, after you’ve rested, I’ve planned a tour of the forge.”

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

The Way Things Are

As she followed her mother into Temple Mountain, Kylin gazed up at the towering marble pillars that framed the entrance. They had to be three stories tall; they were taller than her whole house. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outside to the dimmer firelight chandeliers and wall-mounted braziers. The murmured prayers of those present made a melodic sound that wrapped around Kylin the way Noah’s arms did when he tucked her into bed at night.

On the right, a massive statue of Waleian steel portrayed the goddess of the sky, Pingra. Her hair curled into waves of water that flowed down her naked body, between her heavy breasts, to her wide hips. The stars were in her eyes, and she cradled the sun and moon in her palms. Standing opposite his eternal love, Pingto’s hair looked like flames. The features of his face and the muscles of his naked body were chiseled and hard like the mountains with flat plains here and there.

The stone bench was cold and unforgiving against Kylin’s knees as she knelt beside her mother at Pingto’s feet. They came here often, but this place still made her feel small. It was hard to believe that her ancestors built all this, along with eight smaller temples surrounding this one, each dedicated to a god or goddess of fertility, health, wealth, or war.

“Dear Pingto, father of the ground beneath our feet, maker of the mountains and soil and sand, we thank you for your gracious bounty, and beg of you safe passage this day through the Moalahei Mountains,” Mom said, her voice rising up with all the others.

Kylin mimicked her mother’s straight back, folded hands, and closed eyes. Then she repeated the prayer, focusing all her concentration on making sure her words reached the god’s ears. She could feel the resonance of this place, how it amplified the strength of the prayers, whether by magic or some other means, she didn’t know.

By the time she and her mother left the temple, Kylin was confident that Pingto hadn’t just heard their prayers, but he had granted them. They were going to have a wonderful trip.

The carriage was full of plush pillows and velvet cushions, but Kylin was too excited to sink into them. She perched on the edge of her seat and stared out the window at Lolora. The capital city was a spectacular sea of white cement and rainbow art. Small disks of different colored steel were set into the walls of buildings. Clay tiles formed mosaics across walkways, archways, and entrances. Stained glass windows were everywhere. Artsy painted signs hung in front of every shop. The people coming and going were just as colorful as the city.

As the city fell behind them, Kylin saw wide, flat farms speckled with distant huts made of sticks and palm fronds. She settled back among the pillows.

“Mom, why can’t boys use magic?”

“Because they can’t be trusted with it.”

“Why not?”

Mom drew a long breath. “Men have evil hearts. In other parts of the world, they use magic to fight for control over each other. That doesn’t happen here, and we’d like to keep it that way.”

“Girls fight too,” Kylin pointed out.

Mom pursed her lips. “Men are manipulative. They’ll do and say anything to get more power, and once they have it, they treat it irresponsibly, to the detriment of everyone.”

“But—”

“Look at the gods, Kylin.” There was a sharp edge to her mother’s voice now, a sure sign that she was tiring of the questions.

“Pingra and Pingto?”

“Yes. Pingra is the sky. She’s infinite, yet she nurtures everything here on Migaria, creating life where there would be nothing. Pingto is the ground beneath our feet. He gives us stability and comfort, but he is finite, limited. And because of this, his heart burns so hot that sometimes he destroys Pingra’s creations out of spite. Such is the natural order between men and women.”

“Oh.” It was all Kylin could think to say.

Chewing on her lower lip, Kylin looked down at her lap. She could see the point her mother was trying to make, but still… It seemed to her a stupid excuse to forbid boys from using magic. For one, humans were not gods. A man could never be as powerful as Pingto. Secondly, magic made life so much easier! She couldn’t help thinking about how much better Fargitan could be if all of its people had the ability to work equally.

Mom dug a roll of parchment out of her satchel and began reading it. A signal to Kylin that she was to be seen and not heard until Mom finished with whatever she was doing. Sitting forward on the edge of her seat again, Kylin watched out the window as a lush, tangled jungle flew by.

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Supper with the Chancellor

“This pork is exquisite,” Chancellor Torva said.

Kylin couldn’t have agreed more. Landon had made it just the way she liked it, glazed with pineapple and ginger and smothered in soy sauce.

“All credit goes to my chef.” Mom pointed behind Kylin, where the servants stood along the wall. Landon was the chubby man at the end.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, stepping forward to bow.

Kylin turned in her seat to grin at him. He winked at her and stepped back into line.

Someone knocked on the table in front of her. When she turned back around, she looked up at Noah beside her. There was a stern warning in his gray eyes. If she forgot her manners again, she would be sent to bed. She picked up her fork and started moving the food around on her plate.

Pretending not to notice Kylin’s rudeness, Chancellor Torva said, “I sent an invitation to King Castian of Velstrum this morning.”

“The beginning of an alliance?” Mom asked.

“I did promise that alliance before you and the other senators elected me.”

“Yes, but I admit, I wasn’t sure you’d be able to pull it off.”

The chancellor’s eyebrows arched over her lavender eyes. “Really… So I won the election with good looks and charm then?”

Kylin could believe it. With her pale yellow hair, tan skin, and dark make-up, Chancellor Torva was gorgeous.

Mom shrugged one shoulder. “Among other things.”

“Well now I’m intrigued.” The chancellor folded her arms on top of the table and leaned forward a little. “Tell me about these other things.”

“If we’re being honest, my favorite thing about you is your excellent taste in wine,” Mom said, lifting her glass for a sip.

The women giggled.

“So how do you plan to succeed where your last two predecessors failed?” Mom asked.

“I have something they didn’t. Something I know King Castian needs.”

Mom blinked, patiently waiting for the chancellor to go on. It reminded Kylin of the way Mom looked at her when she was waiting for her to admit to breaking a rule she already knew about.

“Daughters,” Chancellor Torva said finally. “I’ve heard that Prince Searan is of marrying age, and so is my oldest, Lorelei.”

“And you would send her to a foreign country?”

“What’s she going to do here? She can’t follow me as Chancellor. At least she can rule there, and Fargitan will have gained a valuable ally.”

Mom’s nose crinkled up like she’d suddenly caught a whiff of something terrible. “They’re also allied with dragons. Their military rides them around like horses.”

The chancellor laughed. “They’re a lot more powerful than horses, Leah, and I promise you, we’ll benefit from that arrangement if anyone threatens our country.”

“True enough, I suppose. So how do you intend to fatten her dowry? With Waleian steel, I presume.”

“Of course. A ton of it.”

Mom’s jaw dropped open. “Do we even have that much stockpiled?”

“No, which brings me to my reason for coming to supper tonight. Would you go to Waleia and meet with the forge mistress? I need accurate inventory and a time frame for completion of that order.”

“Of course. I’ll leave tomorrow, and I’ll take Kylin with me.”

Kylin perked up. “Me?”

“Isn’t she a little young to travel through the Moalahei Mountains?” Noah cut in.

Mom glared at him like he was something horribly disgusting that had just landed at their table, but then a grin split her face and one of her too loud, scary laughs rolled out. “Did you just try to tell me what’s best for my daughter?”

“No, ma’am. I was just thinking about the cliff crawlers up there in the mountains, an—”

Mom waved a dismissive hand, and he fell silent at once. “We’ll stop by the Temple on our way out and offer prayers to Pingto for safe travels through his mountains. We’ll be fine.”

“Of course. I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”

Mom and Chancellor Torva exchanged looks of amusement. “He’s quite pleasant to look at, but sometimes he forgets his place,” Mom said, and she took a long drink of wine.

Swallowing, Noah looked down at his empty plate like he was trying to hide how bright red his face had turned.

“I can’t wait to go,” Kylin piped up, hoping to shift some of the attention off Noah.

“And I think it’s a brilliant idea,” the chancellor said. Her grin lit up her whole face and showed off a row of straight, white teeth between her dark violet lips. “It’s a perfect chance for you to see some of the most beautiful parts of Fargitan, and you’ll get to learn how our main export is made. If you wish to follow in your mother’s footsteps and become a senator, it’s never too early to start learning the ins and outs of our country.”

Kylin straightened in her seat and flicked her long curls of dark blue over her shoulder with one hand. “I don’t wanna be a senator. I wanna be Chancellor.”

“Oh,” Chancellor Torva said, chuckling, and she looked back at Mom. “Quite the force to be reckoned with, isn’t she?”

Mom grinned. “Absolutely.”

“And what an amazing chancellor you’ll be,” Chancellor Torva said, smiling at Kylin again.

Butterflies swarmed Kylin’s tummy. She couldn’t wait for tomorrow.

Small Heroes - A Fargitan Tale

Just a Little Magic

“It’s not enough just to wanna make fire,” Kylin said. “You have to concentrate. Hard.”

Kaleb took a deep breath and squinted down at the upturned palm of his hand. She had to stifle her giggle as he scrunched up the freckled features on his long, narrow face.

A tiny flame appeared in the center of the white circle birthmark on his palm. It was no bigger than the flame on a candle wick.

“I did it!” he shouted, brightening with a huge grin.

No sooner had he said that than he spat out a curse and shook the flame away. It fell to the grass between their folded legs and smoke trickled up. Jumping to her feet, Kylin stomped it out.

“You can’t hold fire, dummy!” she snapped.

“Well how was I supposed to know! I never conjured it before!” He was looking up at her from the ground, cradling his injured hand against his chest.

Pity softened her shoulders and washed away her annoyance. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know anything about magic because boys were forbidden to wield it.

“Come on, stupid. You gotta put water on that.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet.

“Who are you calling stupid!” He elbowed her off-balance and fled through the grass and wildflowers.

Laughing, she chased him. They ran down a short, steep embankment to the sand and raced for the ocean.

It was times like these that Kylin had to remind herself that Kaleb was twelve, three years older than her and almost a man grown. In only a few more years, he would have his Introduction Party, and after that, some wealthy woman would make a husband of him.

As he bent to dip his burned hand, his bleached hair gleamed white in the setting sun. She could see the dark blue growing out at the roots, the same color as her own long curls.

“This isn’t gonna be any fun while cleaning tomorrow,” he said as he lifted his hand free of the water to survey the damage. His whole palm was red, and a large blister had formed.

“Crybaby Kaleb,” she teased, and she kicked the cold water into his face.

He splashed her back. Shrieking, she took off running down the beach. Water swelled up as high as the middle of her calves, then receded, and her feet pummeled the sparkling sand.

“Kylin! Kaleb! Supper!” It was their caregiver, Noah.

Kylin skidded to a stop. Kaleb crashed into her, and they both fell just as a wave came to swallow them up. Getting her knees under her, she reached into the pocket on the front of her soggy dress and grabbed the thin iron bands there.

“Here! Quick!” she whispered.

Watching over her head, Kaleb stuck out his shaking hands. With magic, she locked the first cuff around his left wrist. She fumbled with the second one, almost dropping it in the water that was rising up their legs again. At the last second, she caught it and got it around his right wrist. The moment it was fastened, she let go of the breath she’d been holding.

“There you are,” Noah said.

Kylin glanced over her shoulder and saw him standing atop the embankment a dozen feet away.

He beckoned to them with a wave of his arm. “Come on now. Time to get cleaned up for supper.”

She met her brother’s gray eyes as she got to her feet. He looked just as terrified as she felt. That was a really close call this time. Almost too close.