(A Wild Sorceress Short Story)
by Leslie Roy Carter
Innocema hurried along the garden path to the Headmaster’s house, noting with displeasure the weeds that had sprung up between the rows of flowers she had so carefully groomed less than a week before. She worried that this might be the reason she had received a short-notice summons to appear before the Headmaster. The upperclassman who had delivered the note had taken great delight in making sure everyone in hearing range knew Innocema was being sent for.
Although the note hadn’t mentioned the cause for the summons, her mind was all too ready to supply reasons. She had barely passed the standards for progressing to the second year of Provisioner training. The rumors had spread throughout her class that she was advanced only because she was an officer in the First Royal Mounted Sorcerers. This rumor more than likely stemmed from the fact that, like many older Neophytes who had spent their early youth in the service of the King’s army–hers in the Border Guards–many of her class had not scored high enough to pass the Test. Officially, they should not even have been admitted for sorcerer training.
The resentment the upperclassmen directed at her class was never going to go away and, in her case, seemed to double when she was passed upward. For all her efforts to learn the techniques of Power storage, her spells remained pitifully weak. Her roommate had suggested on more than one occasion that Innocema was a better Illusionist than Provisioner in that her conjured bread looked better than it tasted, let alone providing any sustenance. If she had so much trouble with basic foods, how was she ever going to advance to turning water into wine?
Nearing the vine-covered cottage that Magess Trelana preferred over the old Headmaster’s stone edifice, Innocema hoped that the sense of welcome from the neat, white-boarded home tucked amid the green ivy and flowers of many colors was not just a façade. She had been in the previous Headmaster’s home only once, for a reception of first-year Neophytes, and it had made her think she was entering a prison, so intimidating was the huge stone structure. The Inhestia Training Lodge had started as a Mage Sorcerer’s castle several centuries before, when magic-users ruled the land. The old Headmaster Mage Kelristo had followed in the steps of his predecessors by using the Lord’s mansion as his residence. Tradition dies hard among sorcerers, as Innocema was learning daily.
She stopped before the wooden door, which had a curtained window in the top half, and glanced at her reflection in the glass. From long habit she checked that her white student’s robe hung straight from her shoulders with the collar properly buttoned all the way up. Female Neophytes were not allowed to show cleavage until their fourth year, which was normally about the time most girls had anything to show. Entry to the lodge usually happened at age thirteen, and when Inhestia had first started training magic-users, the course had lasted five years.
At nearly nineteen, Innocema was small for her age, barely five feet tall. A childhood as the oldest of five girls born to a sonless dirt farmer had toughened her body early. Of formal education, she had none because she had joined the Border Guards at fifteen with most of her village friends. Fully grown, she and her follow veterans stood out from her classmates by virtue of their age, a difference that only added to the resentment – at least from the female upperclassmen. The men didn’t seem to mind except when called to task by an instructor for not paying attention. The mantra at Inhestia was, “Control, control your thoughts. You cannot create a spell without control!”
Glancing down at her chest, she pulled up the sash running from her left collarbone between her breasts and across her right hip, ensuring that the bundled wheat symbol of a Provisioner student was positioned correctly at the shoulder. The sashes had a tendency to loop forward under the weight of attached insignia and fall off the shoulder. In her case, she had only one metal weight, a single starburst designating her as a second-year student. Her suggestion to the class mentor of adding a belt to hold the sash in place was dismissed as improper. A belt would only accentuate the curve of the waist – another distractor.
Flipping her short, blonde hair away from her neck, she set a slight smile in place and, finally convinced that her appearance was correct, she knocked on the door panel. The curtain behind the glass was pulled aside to reveal the face of another girl, about her own age. There was no answering smile or anything but a brief nod of recognition from the woman who opened the door. It was Alexia, the fourth-year student in charge of Innocema Provisioner group. Not one of her favorite people.
“The Headmistress is in her parlor. Follow me and show some respect for her. She is not an instructor you can charm with your smile and wit, nor is she anywhere near an equal. You may be an officer in the Sorcerer squadron attached to Inhestia, but you are not an employee. You are not a member of her staff. You are just a student, a poorly performing one at that.”
Innocema was tempted to snap a salute at the woman, which she knew would really irritate Alexia, who hated all things military. Alexia demanded respect for her position but had never done anything to earn it. Innocema decided to follow along quietly – she didn’t need another enemy in the room with her.
The Headmistress sat reading a lengthy scroll she held in her left hand, the right in the process of laying the previous scroll on top of the growing pile beside her on the tea table. She seemed so absorbed in the last scroll that she could not bring herself to put the one in her right hand down. Frowning, she looked back to her right and muttered “…that can’t be true!” That was when she noticed the two young women in front of her. “There are bandits attacking the refugees in our northern valley – where we just now settled them to be under our protection. This is unacceptable!”
Alexia made a moue to show the Magess her disapproval. “The very nerve of them. Where is the king’s army when you need them?”
Trelana waved away the comment and directed her gaze at Innocema, noticing the confusion on her face. “Which is why I sent for you, Neophyte Innocema.”
Drawing herself to attention, Innocema responded energetically, “The First Sorcerers await your orders, Ma’am. We can ride out and take care of the problem.”
“What?” It was Magess Trelana’s turn to look confused. “The bandits are the army’s problem. That is not why I sent for you two.”
“Ma’am, I am with the army.”
Alexia turned on Innocema and scolded her. “Nonsense, you are strictly a ceremonial concession to the idea of cooperation between our Council of Mages and King Phyrlatus. The Council long ago withdrew our support of the army. The war ended long ago. You are an unnecessary functionary.”
Innocema stared at Alexia in disbelief, then glanced at the Headmistress to see if she agreed. Magess Trelana was acting head of the Council and had approved the creation of the First. The old woman frowned at the two young women before her. One of them had been sheltered in the bosom of family and friends through the long conflict, and the other had fought in it. To Trelana the war was just yesterday; to Alexia it was “long ago”. The Headmistress cast a sympathetic glance in Innocema’s direction.
Alexia, clearly not noticing the lack of support, stupidly continued her scold. “Furthermore, our Sorcerer Guard, who have never been attached to the army in any form, have always protected us and all of the facilities run by the Council. They will ‘take care of the problem’, not you.”
Innocema’s rage nearly overmastered her. It was fortunate that she was not armed, but she fought the urge to put all that anger behind a fist and smash Alexia’s face in. Control, control, control… she recited to herself. “Just like they took care of the kidnapping of Magess Coleni’s baby, Novice Alexia?”
Alexia’s mouth dropped open, but no words came out. The kidnapping had shocked the entire training lodge, who mourned the loss of so many of their Guard who had failed to prevent the baby’s disappearance.
The Headmistress stood and stepped between the two students. Because she was taller than either, separating them was easy. Turning slightly to Innocema, she said softly, “You know that the Guard failed because of betrayal from within their own ranks. The bravery shown by the First in the recovery of the baby has been recognized by the Council. The problem I am trying to solve now is simpler and requires cooperation between the Guard and all of us here at Inhestia. Now we all need to step back and take a deep breath. Close your eyes and think, control.”
Both students did as they were told. Trelana returned to her seat and waited until both young faces were calm and watching her. “Now, let us start again, please. There is a group of refugees who have been driven off their farms by bandits. The refugees were given permission to settle on Council land until the army could win back control of the refugees’ farms. The process will take a while, and the likelihood of the refugees being returned to their land with any means of support from the crops they planted is slim indeed. That is why the bandits drove them off.”
The two women nodded at Trelana. Innocema, because she was raised on a farm, understood what the Headmistress was defining for them. Alexia nodded because she had heard the problem before and wanted to let her Headmistress know she was being cooperative.
“So the Council suggested our training lodge take on the project of sending our Provisioner Neophytes to the refugee camp and assist in supplying them with food and clothing to tide them over. This would be excellent training for our second-year students because they have advanced far enough in their training syllabi to be able to help. We will send along the Provisioner Sorcerer instructors who taught them their lessons and provide logistic support of a couple of sources. This is going to require more Power than the student sources can generate and we must be careful in our supervision.”
The two women continued to nod. They were taught from day one at Inhestia that all sorcerers drew the energy needed to power their spells from precious stones known as sources.
“Because all of the second-year students will be going, which stand currently at a class strength of twenty…” Alexia frowned at Innocema, as if she would not have included her in that number. Trelana feigned not noticing and continued, “…we will send a contingent of Sorcerer Guard to escort the second years to and from, for the students’ protection, and of course to prevent a valuable source from falling into non-sorcerer hands. After all, the last war was fought over such a thing.”
Innocema nodded. She hadn’t even known what a source was while she was a Border Guard, but she remembered quite a fuss was made about sources and who controlled the mines they were dug from.
“Therefore, I am sending Alexia, our upper-class lead for the second-year students, to be in charge. It is her senior class project and will be good leadership training for her.” Trelana gave Alexia a reassuring smile, but her eyes warned the upperclassman not to foul up the opportunity, what with her recent display of arrogance.
Alexia gave a small bow of acknowledgement.
“And you, Neophyte Innocema, will assist her with your extensive knowledge of moving people and equipment from point A to point B with maximum efficiency. This operation is not unlike a military movement of forces. You’ll take your orders from Neophyte Alexia, who I’m sure will leave the minor details for getting the job done to you and not interfere with the minutiae of the small tasks. Am I clear on this?”
Innocema stiffened her back and replied, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Trelana clearly hesitated to say “dismissed”. Innocema suspected the Headmistress feared that Alexia would not understand the order or leave the room with any assurance of what her task was. Instead, Trelana stood and gave the senior girl a hug and a smile, wishing her good luck in her endeavor, and gently pushed her toward the door. Turning to Innocema, she offered her hand and a grim smile. “Follow her orders, but don’t do anything stupid.”
The young woman answered her smile with one equally grim. “I hear and obey, Magess.”
Three wagons conveyed the group, two filled with laughing students and one with sacks of grain. The oversized platoon of the Sorcerer Guard rode behind, trailing leisurely. There were scouts out ahead of the wagons, and the Guard looked relaxed, but their eyes stayed alert to their surroundings. This might seem a stroll in the woods, but they knew the convoy offered an opportunity too good for an enemy to overlook. Their orders were to prevent anyone from capturing the sorcerers or, more importantly, the source they carried in the lead wagon. The Guard leader glanced nervously from side to side. She would have felt more comfortable with the presence of a couple of Aggressors, student or not. Fireballs and lightning bolts from a sorcerer level Aggressor would go a long way to frighten off bandits and make her job a lot easier.
One of her detached scouts came around a bend in the road and signaled they had found the refugee camp. The experienced captain gave the order for the rest of the guard to deploy to make a sweep for the ambush she would have set if she were the bandit chief. She sent her aide to tell Alexia in the lead wagon to get her people in hand and to keep alert. They should be behaving more like magic-users doing serious work than giggling children.
The Neophyte Provisioner riding separately on a cavalry mount moved to intercept the aide and took the message from him. She closed with the lead wagon and transmitted the orders after first speaking with the fourth-year student. The gaiety died down quickly under the glare of the woman giving the orders, and the students gave her their attention.
“The Guard did a marvelous job driving the bandits away, don’t you think so?” Alexia asked Innocema, who sat on her horse and watched their escort chase after the fleeing raiders. Innocema phrased her reply in a neutral tone. “The ambush was poorly executed by the bandits, who did not seem to put up much of a fight after their initial volley of arrows. I am worried that this might be an attempt to draw the Guard into a better prepared trap.”
“Nonsense. The bandits were clearly overmatched and running for their lives. Now, gather your classmates, and we can get this provisioning project started. The first thing we need to do is to create journey bread in quantity enough to tide over…how many refugees are there? Magess Trelana said something about over fifty people. That means two loaves a day for a week-then there are the children, who can get by on a loaf a day. Next…”
Alexia rushed off to consult one of the instructors about the advisability of switching to hardtack as their next course of action. Innocema could only shake her head in disbelief. The security of the sorcerers and refugees was hardly guaranteed, and her leader was thinking of anything but their safety.
Innocema rounded up the students who had been standing around the wagons watching the skirmish unfold. They had not bothered to arm themselves with their personal weapons, even though all students were required to go armed and spent an afternoon each week in self-defense training. She wondered if these kids would even have tried to defend themselves if the bandits broke through the Guard. The refugees had not, fleeing the safety of their camp and scattering in the forest beyond. She had seen this reaction so often during the war. People were conditioned to flee from things they feared.
Using her command voice, which sounded surprisingly loud coming from such a small frame, she forced their attention back to their purpose for being here – to feed people. Their interest in the project now revived, they started to ask numerous questions about how it was going to be done. None of which she had the answers for. In the army the Provisioners worked with the quartermasters to supplement what the cooks needed to feed the troops; the Provisioners did not actually cook the food.
“But we already have what it takes to make bread: flour, water, and salt,” Colastia, the outstanding student in her year, said, “I don’t cook, I conjure.” She materialized a delicate pastry that plopped into her open hand. Taking a bite out of it, Colastia smiled to the watching crowd. “That is how it is done.”
A hand took the delicacy from Colastia. Alexia nibbled it and said, “Too sweet and needs more salt. From the release of Power we all just felt when you cast that spell, I’d say you could repeat that effort maybe a dozen more times before you’d be drained of Power. Then after you have meditated for at least eight hours using your student source, you could make a dozen more.”
Looking around at the astonished faces of the assembled students, she tossed the half-eaten bun to the ground. “Congratulations, Colastia, you have shown us that you are capable of keeping yourself and one refugee from starvation – not going to save many people that way, are we?” Shaking her head, she continued, “No, we are not. Nor are we going to waste our time mixing the flour and kneading the dough, waiting for hours to let the bread rise, punching it down and repeating the process. We are sorcerers, users of Power. We use magic wisely, efficiently, bypassing time and process with transformation.”
“Transformation?” Colastia asked.
“Anyone can conjure wine…” After looking around at the other students, Alexia turned her eyes on Innocema. “…well, almost all of us. It is more efficient and uses less Power to turn water into wine. Let me show you how. Now, pay attention, we don’t have time for repetition.”
Despite Alexia’s smart remark about her failure to produce wine, Innocema grudgingly had to admit that Alexia’s process for making bread without conjuring proved both effective and efficient. The team began to produce an impressive number of loaves without exhausting their supply of Power. Innocema organized her classmates into two teams of nine, one team transforming the raw ingredients into loaves and wrapping the loaves for distribution while the second team meditated before the main source. This procedure was also new to them all because that source was large compared to the one each student carried around his or her neck. Because it was easy to overload their storage capacity, they were closely supervised by the Sorcerer level instructors.
By the end of the day, all the students dropped into an exhausted sleep. Innocema had not participated much in the actual production. She had kept too busy ensuring everyone took proper care of themselves by drinking water and remembering to eat. She was getting more nervous as the day worn on because the Guard had not returned from their chase. The handful that remained behind did not seem too worried about their fellow guardsmen’s absence. The sergeant-in-charge pointedly reminded her that she might be an officer in the army, but she had no authority over them at all.
Innocema left the sergeant and took a short ride around the perimeter of the refugee camp. She was about to ride after the main body when a messenger came trotting along the path. The female Guard did not stop when Innocema hailed her, instead hurrying to the sergeant. She was delivering her message as Innocema joined them.
“The Captain says it looks like the bandits joined up with another group and took off into the hills. She believes they were a scouting party originally sent to reconnoiter the refugees and did not expect our arrival. The Captain was going to send out scouts herself to see if those bandits would merge with a larger force and return to attack.”
“What are the Captain’s orders to us?” the sergeant asked, cutting off Innocema as she started to ask the same question.
“She wants me to pass her respects to Neophyte Alexia, requesting that she hurry with her project and be prepared to move tomorrow morning, with the refugees, back towards Inhestia.”
“Best do it now, Sergeant,” Innocema said, trying to make her remark sound like a suggestion and not an order.
“I’ll let Neophyte Alexia make that decision, Ma’am. But I’m sure she will follow the direction of Sorcerer Martiles, who is the senior sorcerer present.”
“The Guard is tasked with our protection, Sergeant. I’m sure the Captain will remind you of that if a sorcerer comes to harm. It is up to you to make that decision. You know magic-users have little common sense when they get wrapped up in their magic. They will want to finish what they started because they don’t realize the danger.”
The sergeant waved the messenger on and reached out a hand to grab Innocema’s bridle. “The Captain sent her respects to Alexia, not you. You heard the order. Convince your own people if you feel so strongly about it. Now leave us alone and go play soldier somewhere else.”
At dawn, with professional detachment, Innocema watched the bandits ride past the refugee camp without breaking formation and engage the few sentries the Guard had stationed around the sorcerer wagons. As the attack began, the refugees, aroused by the noise of the fight, did manage to man the barriers they had erected earlier. Their actions would not have made much difference in the outcome of the combat, as the bandits showed no interest in the refugees at all. They were after the sorcerers.
The Guard sentries had not been taken by surprise but were outnumbered. The bandits rode in with a platoon-size force, the Guard reduced that by ten or so. They fought bravely enough. Their Captain could not fault the sergeant’s effort, but it was not sufficient. All that stood between the bandits and their goal were twenty teenage kids, two middle-aged sorcerers, and one Lieutenant in the First Royal Mounted Sorcerers.
A rider passed through the ranks of the bandits and slowly rode toward the sorcerers’ wagons. A grizzled veteran from the last war, he showed his age but sat straight in his saddle. A shock of recognition crossed Innocema’s mind. She recognized the man.
“I would have a word with your leader, Neophyte.”
Innocema replied, “Sorcerer Martiles suggests you take your men and leave the area immediately. He has been informed that a squadron of the King’s cavalry is on its way, and our detachment of the Sorcerer’s Guard is between you and your route of retreat. Any delay in your departure is not advised.”
Looking past the young woman before him, the bandit leader smiled. “I knew ‘Spuds’ Martiles when he was just a Novice. Tell him to turn over all the sources in his possession, and I will let all of you Inhestia youngsters go. Oh, and we’ll take all the bread you have worked so hard to prepare.”
Innocema was sure she knew this man. “If you knew Sorcerer Martiles, you would know he is not to be trifled with.”
The leader turned to stare at Innocema. “Look, young lady, stop the idle threats. I can tell by your robe that you are a second-year Provisioner student, as are all your friends gathered around the wagons. I know Spuds is a sorcerer Provisioner. There is nothing you people can do that will harm me or my men. You have no Aggressors or those blasted Illusionists in that crowd.”
“Sir, I make no idle threats.”
“That tale of the cavalry just over the hill is not a credible threat.”
Innocema glowered back. “If you know so much about sorcerers, you would know we communicate with sources. Help is on the way, Commander Naldestus!”
Glancing down at her horse’s saddlery, Naldestus frowned. “Ah, now I see why you know my name. You’re one of the kids we met in battle last year.”
“And we fought you to a draw, as I recall.”
“Yes, the baby incident. We deliberately let you go. You weren’t worth the trouble of pursuing.” The Commander leaned forward. “I will not be fooled by another female magic-user ever again. Get back to Spuds and tell him I will be attacking in ten minutes if I don’t see a flag of surrender from him. I will kill you all this time.”
Innocema turned her horse away and trotted back to the wagons with their embarked cargoes of students. She rode over to the wagon where Sorcerer Martiles stood waiting. He calmly received her message. After a brief conversation, he spoke to Alexia, who was standing next to him. She bowed in response. She addressed her class in a high voice that could be clearly heard by enemy and friend alike. “Neophyte Innocema has been given permission to take over this class and instruct your efforts. Remember what I taught you last night. You must control your Power, but don’t let it get away from you. Sorcerer Martiles will assist as necessary. Innocema, take charge.”
Innocema drew her saber to salute Alexia, who returned the salute with a little half-wave. Facing the bandits, Innocema laid the sword across the pommel of her horse and awaited the attack.
Naldestus sighed and signaled his men. “They have made their choice. We will attack on foot, single line abreast. Form up.”
Innocema watched the line form and noted their commander remained mounted in the center of the line…the best place to direct the action. She glanced to either side, where Colastia and her fellow students crouched behind the wall of their wagons. With a roar the line charged, the bandits quickly closing the gap.
Innocema called out, “On my command, at twenty-five feet. Volley fire. Commence fire.”
Trelana stood at the head of the commons and watched as the two wagons rolled through the gate at Inhestia, proceeded by their escort of Sorcerer Guard. There were not as many as had ridden out a week ago, their ranks sadly depleted by the losses inflicted by the bandits. Their commander split her column and lined the field as the wagons trundled forward. The assembled student body waited silently, flanking the commons on all sides. The faculty grouped behind their Headmistress, everyone straining to see into wagons.
A lone rider following the last wagon trotted forward and presented herself to Trelana. Innocema saluted and reported in a loud, clear voice, “Mission accomplished, Ma’am.”
The students sitting in the wagon stood up and waved to the crowd, who erupted into cheers at the sight.
Trelana waited as Innocema dismounted and stepped to embrace her. “How did you defeat the bandits, Innocema? You were outmanned, using civilians who were unexperienced in combat.”
The young Lieutenant offered her a slight smile. “We gave the enemy the battle they weren’t expecting. It was a fight our class was well trained for and ready to wage. A good old-fashioned food fight. We used Colastia’s sticky buns spelled to harden on contact, and plastering them into immobility. You could say we stuck it to the enemy and they were ours.”
About the Author
Born into a Navy family in Washington, D.C., Leslie Roy Carter lived all over the United States, as well as in Argentia, Newfoundland, while growing up. After receiving a B.S. in Physics from the College of William and Mary, he was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. While serving as a naval officer, he earned an M.S.E.E. from the Naval Postgraduate School. His career as a surface line officer took him to many ports such as Pearl Harbor, Long Beach, San Diego, and Charleston, culminating in command of the Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigate, U.S.S. Reid. He then switched to the acquisitions specialty, eventually becoming a major program manager before his retirement in 2002 with the rank of Captain.
In retirement, he turned his attention to writing as well as his volunteer service in the Maryland Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.
You can keep track of all Leslie’s books on his author page at Writers Exchange E-Publishing:
Also by this author, and set in the same “universe” (All available from Amazon, B&N, etc):