“Concentrate! You must never allow your thoughts to wander when using magic!” Master Brok stood in front of the five students, his hard gaze falling on each in turn. “The consequences to yourselves and others can be dire if you do not have full control of your power! Bah!” He flung his skeletal arms up in frustration and raked his bony fingers through his thick white hair.“That is enough for tonight. Lessons will resume when Midsummer Festival concludes.”
The only sounds in the house were the sound of the students scrambling to their feet, gathering food pails, and the soft click of the door as the last one left. Brok stood alone, calmed by the silence, and watched the shadows lengthen as the sun began to set. Hunger finally drove him toward the kitchen where he fixed a cold supper of bread, cheese, and dried apples he had picked from his orchards. He carried his supper and a mug of ale outside and ate his food while the twin moons rose, one remaining barely visible above the horizon, bathing the village of Heart Stone in light. As Master Brok watched the night sky, he marveled at its mysterious beauty. Memories of his home world flooded his mind as he stared without blinking at the moons of Astra.
He longed to swim again in the warm waters of Gentra, savoring the colors emitted by the sherubite crystals while gazing at the vents that rose from the ocean floor. Brok thought the vents somewhat resembled the Astran Shadow Mountains. The behemoth mountain range was located to the north of Heart Stone, a great granite wall stretching as far as the eye could see.
He did admit this planet was also beautiful, although very different from the beauty of Gentra. The feel of grass beneath ones feet was truly a marvel! The smell of the flowers in bloom, the sound of the wind as it blew through the leaves of the trees, and the sight of the sun rising, which bathed this foreign world in a warm golden light. The morning and evening were his favorite times. He loved watching the world come to life, the dew as it sparkled in the new morning light, the birds chirping welcome to all who cared to listen. He equally loved the evening, the sky turning from bright blue, to midnight, to black, slowly filling with the twinkling of millions of stars.
He remembered how he felt when he discovered this planet also used the honorific title of Master to address the men folk. Among the four Guardians, only Brok was able to use his given name, which pleased him more than he would have originally imagined. Mystics-in-training gave up their surnames, and the name Brok was not so foreign as to arouse suspicion that he was not of this world. All these things helped to relieve his homesickness.
Brok retrieved his hand-carved wooden pipe and a small bag of pipeweed from the pockets sewn into his black robes. He lit the pipe and took a few puffs, the smoke curling around his heavily lined face. Heart Stone grew the best pipeweed and shipped it to the far reaches of Astra.
Brok glanced up as he heard a horse approach the front of the house. He stood slowly and walked toward the noise, speaking just before the person reached to knock on his door.
The man jumped nearly two feet, with his hands over his heart as he landed.
“Dear Spirits!” the man said, somewhat unsteadily.
Master Brok couldn’t help but grin at the man. Willam Stone was short, and rather obese. Brok was surprised by how high the man had managed to jump. Willam was bent over, breathing heavily and mopping his brow with a white handkerchief.
“I do apologize Master Stone! It was not my intention to frighten the wits out of you! Please, come around back and join me for a smoke.” Brok produced a second pipe from his robes and offered it to the still breathless man.
“Well now, Master Brok! That’s a little more neighborly of you!” Willam managed as he followed Brok to the back of the house. “It really isn’t right, scaring one in such a fashion…” The rest was lost as he popped the pipe between his teeth and took a long draw, which produced a fit of coughing turning his face an alarming shade of red.
“Latus eris” Brok whispered the words of power and Master Stone’s coughing subsided as quickly as it began.
“Now that is being very neighborly Master Brok!” Willam laughed as he took a seat on a stump.
The two men sat in silence and smoked their pipes, blowing the occasional smoke ring. Brok knew the man would eventually explain the reason for his visit.
Master Stone cleared his throat and glanced at Brok. “I came here tonight to speak with you about Jon.”
Brok nodded his head as the man’s words confirmed his suspicions. He had been waiting some time for the parents of this particular pupil to approach him.
Willam took a deep breath and rubbed his hands together with nervous frustration.
“I don’t know what to do about the boy! His mother and I are beside ourselves. He keeps going on and on about wanting to be a traveling storyteller. A storyteller!” The man stood and began pacing, gesturing angrily with his hands.
“That is no profession for a boy of Jon’s talent. He could have a good life as a Mystic, serving people, helping people. As a storyteller, he would live in shoddy rooms, stables, and tell stories for a few measly coins and a meal.”
Willam turned to Brok, a look of pleading on his face.
“What can we do? How can we keep him on the right path?”
Brok took a moment to collect his thoughts before answering. He had to use great care here. It was tempting to tell this man, this father, the truth about his son’s destiny. Jon Stone, with his other four classmates, Gwen Heath, Keera Flint, and the Barlow twins Saemus and Kaelin, was one of the Chosen. Although still unaware of their fate, these children carried the heavy burden of saving the galaxy from the formidable Mekans.
The five students believed they were under the tutelage of Master Brok merely to become Mystics, who were spiritual leaders for many Astran towns and villages. They were eagerly sought after and highly regarded. Being experts in herb lore and magic, a Mystic held a distinct and honorable position. Despite Master Stone’s ambition for his son to become a Mystic or Jon’s desire to be a storyteller, Jon was destined for more important things.
“I would not be concerned about your son’s future, Master Stone. He is young yet, and still has a young man’s dreams. Before his training concludes, he will realize his gifts are needed in ways other than for the amusement of telling stories. Listen, enjoy his stories, and be assured that your son is destined for great deeds.”
Willam took a moment to allow Master Brok’s words to sink in. “Thank you for putting a father’s fears to rest. I only want what is best for him.”
After saying their good-byes, Willam rode away towards his home. Brok re-filled his pipe and sat down to enjoy a last peaceful smoke before heading to bed. As he blew rings toward the Astran twin moons, he thought of the students’ performance during their earlier lessons. He shook his head ruefully. Who could blame their distraction, knowing that on the morrow, Midsummer Festival began? Brok was also looking forward to the festivities.
Town folk from two neighboring villages, Willow Haven and Oak Brook, would travel to Heart Stone and join in the fun, erecting tents in any available open spaces. Women would meet at the Town Center, a grassy area filled with flowers and surrounded by willow trees. Large ovens were wheeled from the smithy for baking a variety of goods. The air would fill with the most tantalizing aromas: sweet cakes, pies, pastries, cookies, meat pies and rolls, jams and jellies, and various kinds of bread. Contests were held for women and young girls to display their sewing, exhibiting many impressive quilts, dresses, and bonnets.
The men would gather and practice archery, knife throwing, fencing, sword and quarterstaff fighting, carving, sheering, and bird calling, wanting to hone their skills for the various competitions that would occur during the course of the entire week. Those men who brought ales and ciders for the judges’ consideration and for local sampling set up their barrels inside the inn. Eventually the brewers’ generosity led to disdainful sniffs from the women who later found their men rather drunk.
The children could be found everywhere, playing Catch Me if you Can, playing at sword fighting with large sticks, fishing, sneaking treats from the tables laden with baked goods, and racing their horses and ponies. It was virtually impossible to keep them near their families’ camp, so each adult would kept a watchful eye on any children within the vicinity.
Everyone looked forward to the festival, pausing to enjoy life while spending time with family and friends from the other villages and outlying farms and homesteads.
Brok tapped out his pipe and returned it to his robe’s inner pocket. He stood, placed his hands at the small of his back and stretched. Smiling, he realized this simple task had become another luxury he had really come to enjoy since arriving.
Brok stumbled into the house, cracking his toe on the door jam.
“Incendia” He uttered, silently cursing the pain in his foot from lack of foresight.
A small, pink, spherical ball of light appeared and hovered above his outstretched hand. He proceeded to limp toward his bedroom. A slight flick the ball of light winked out. He shrugged out of his robes, his wrinkled skin pebbling with goose pimples from the cool night air. He crawled under his blankets and as his body warmed, he drifted off to sleep.
The first day of Midsummer Festival began cool and bright, but quickly warmed as the sun rose above the horizon. Some folks had arrived from Willow Haven and Oak Brook the day before, and Brok watched them emerge from their tents, with faces full of excitement.
Brok walked down the winding dirt path from his house to the main road that led through Heart Stone. He approached the Town Center and his stomach gave a rumble as he caught a teasing whiff of the food baking in the ovens located at the edge of Town Center. Many of the goodwives had already begun creating their culinary masterpieces. Brok continued walking toward the north side of the green and made his way down the stone-paved path to the Meadows Inn.
“Whoa young man!” Brok said as he stumbled back from the front door as a lanky boy came sprinting out.
“Sorry Master Brok! Ma says I gotta go feed the stock before I can go play!” Wes Meadows said as he waved at Brok, not slowing his pace as he raced toward the stables.
Brok entered the inn and made his way over toward the west wall where the hearth was located. He took a seat in a well-cushioned chair and lazily stretched his long, bony legs.
“Good morning to you Master Brok,” said Lily Meadows, mistress of the inn. “Care for some breakfast? I just made eggs and bacon, and in about two shakes I will have hot bread from the ovens.” Mistress Meadows was a large, boisterous woman whose very presence filled any room. She stood with her hand on her hip, awaiting Master Brok’s answer.
“That sounds delicious Mistress Meadows. And if it’s not too much trouble—”
“A strong mug of black! I’ll bring some out straight away.” interrupted Lily, giving Brok a quick wink before she disappeared through the door leading to the kitchen.
“Ah, Master Brok! A good morning to you.” Brok found himself joined by Tad Meadows. Tad was a large, balding man, who was always wiping his hands on the dingy white apron around his waist.
“Good morning, Master Meadows,” Brok replied as Lily appeared with two mugs of steaming black and set them on the table before the two men.
“Thank you, wife.” Tad picked up his mug and inhaled slowly. “There is nothing better to start your day than a mug of black!”
“I will bring you both something to eat. Liana will be here shortly to begin cooking the mid-day meal. Then I’ll need to prepare for the contest,” Lily said as she patted some stray hairs that had come loose from the thick, dark braid wrapped around her head.
“No one stands a chance against your cooking Lil.”
“You are too kind my husband. And a little biased too I think.” She gave his cheek an affectionate pat before bustling back to the kitchen.
“How is the ale this year Tad?” asked Brok.
“Oh good, good! I brewed a new kind! I added a little pear juice, cranberries, and some…” Tad stopped, giving Brok a sideways glance.
Wanting to reassure the suddenly cautious old man, Brok laughed and said, “Not to worry old friend! The secret to your brews will always be safe with me! But perhaps it is best not to reveal the formula. I shall sample it soon enough.”
Tad turned toward the mantle over the hearth where his medals for winning ale and cider contests he had won were displayed. Tad took great pride in his brews. Every Midsummer Festival he would introduce some new concoction, never failing to please both the crowd and judges. His wife had also won many prizes for her culinary prowess. Lily was renowned for her sweet treats and always had some on hand for the children.
After eating breakfast, which had consisted of scrambled eggs blended with small green onions, mushrooms, and white cheese, accompanied by hot crispy bacon, and as promised, fresh hot bread dripping with butter and honey, the men headed out to take in the sights of the festival.
Lines of wagons, carts, horses, and people arrived at Heart Stone from Oak Brook to the south and from Willow Haven to the northwest. Tents began springing up like weeds, with the goodwives directing the placement of beds, the ropes to be hung for the wash, and the filling of tubs and basins with water, making any five-star general proud. After the camps had been assembled, the children were allowed to run off and reunite with their friends whom they had not seen since last year’s festival. The men would also go to join friends, find a place to drink some ale and smoke a little pipeweed.
The village was soon filled with a cacophony of sound. The women at Town Center laughed as they caught up on all the latest gossip. The men drank, smoked and swapped stories that became more exaggerated with each telling. Adolescent girls giggled and made calf’s eyes at the young men, who appeared quite dumbfounded by all of the attention. Children were everywhere, running, playing, and making mischief.
Brok and Tad stood just outside the door of the inn, calling out greetings to the men, shaking many a hand. Men and boys began arriving at the inn with their wagons and carts full of barrels of ales and ciders for the contest. Tad, with help from Master Brok and young son, Wes, spent the next few hours unloading the barrels and placing them down in the inn’s cellar to keep cool.
Liana, the inn’s cook, brought the hot and thirsty men mugs of ale. She fed the hungry men a mid-day meal consisting of barbeque beef, roasted potatoes, and fresh bread. After eating their fill, the men settled back into their chairs with sighs of contentment. Soon, the common room filled with the haze of pipe smoke and the lull of conversation.
With the setting of the sun came the musicians. Soon, the grassy areas around Town Center were full of adult men and women, teenage boys and girls, and even the younger children, who paired off to begin the intricate steps of the Country Dance. When the pace of the music began to increase, people entwined arms with one another more swiftly in order to match the brisk tempo. As they exchanged partners, the women’s skirts whirled about them creating pinwheels of brilliant colors. Soon, their hair began to escape their tightly woven braids, only to stick to their flushed faces and damp bosoms. Eventually, the dancers could no longer keep up. They stopped, panting and sweaty, their eyes radiating nothing but absolute joy.
The twin moons provided enough pale light so no lanterns were needed. There were several small fires scattered throughout the Town Center, but they were used more for the toasting of fluff candy than for illumination. The music and dancing lasted well into the night, until finally, the musicians became too tired to continue, and the revelers nearly slept where they stood. The townfolk, along with their visitors, stumbled to their beds, falling asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows.
“Shhhhh! You’ll wake him up!”
Jon Stone suppressed a grin as he lay in bed, his face toward the wall. He pretended not to hear his three younger sisters, Holly, Fara, and Niki, sneaking into his room. The three girls crept closer and closer, stifling their giggles.
“Now!” His sisters shouted in unison.
Within seconds, his bed was full of thrashing and flailing limbs as the girls assaulted Jon with their surprise attack. He pretended to be scared out of his wits and this thrilled his sisters to no end. Once the giggles began to subside, all three girls simultaneously began babbling to Jon about all they had seen and heard the first day of festival. Jon listened with the infinite patience of a big brother who adored his very talkative and very enthusiastic little sisters.
“Jon! Come downstairs, dear! Your friends are here to see you!” Jon’s mother, Beth, shouted up the stairs.
“Oh, sorry! We were supposed to tell you that!” With a look of chagrin, Holly gathered the two younger girls off the bed and out of their brother’s room. Jon grinned as he listened to the girls clomping down the stairs. Soon, he heard the hum of his sisters’ constant chatter rising from the kitchen. Jon threw on fresh clothes, washed his face in the basin, and scrubbed his teeth with salt. He walked down the hallway, passing his sisters’ rooms and the guest room, and ran down the stairs into the kitchen.
“Well, well! We thought you’d be in bed all day! Were you ever planning to get up and join us for the festival?” Gwen Heath shot Jon a grin as she teased him. Her stunted, dwarf’s legs did not reach the floor when she sat. Gwen was adorable, with a little button nose decorated by a smattering of freckles.
“He had to rest for the storytelling contest,” said Kaelin Barlow, who was originally from the village of Willow Haven. She was a stunningly beautiful girl of seventeen, with pale skin, black hair, and black eyes. Her twin brother, Saemus, sat to her left, an exact duplicate of his sister.
Keera Flint, from Oak Brook, sat at one end of the table, between Saemus and Gwen. She was as fiery as her curly hair was red, and quite unpredictable.
Joining his friends, the other four Chosen from Astra, Jon and ate a quick breakfast before heading to town.
The Stone’s farm was located at the northern border of Heart Stone where the village’s three main roads intersected. The road which led to Gains Port and the other coastal cities of Astra ran to the northeast, the road to Willow Haven ran to the northwest, and following Heart Stone’s main road to the south would lead toward Tarrow Creek and Oak Brook.
The Chosen walked at a leisurely pace. Jon, Saemus, Kaelin, and Keera kept Gwen between them and matched their pace to her rolling, twisted gait. All four watched over Gwen, shielding her and protecting her, though most of the time none were aware of their protective behaviors. Gwen didn’t mind. Growing up as a dwarf and as an only child had been excruciatingly lonely. Gwen had shut herself off, not even trying to make friends. It wasn’t until she discovered she had magical powers, and she began training under Master Brok, that she finally began to open up. Her classmates were a little unsure of her in the beginning, but all five students soon became fast friends. She was the strongest in the power and the others were in awe of what she could do. What she lacked in physical strength, she more than made up for with her magical prowess.
She glanced to her left and then to her right and felt a small stab of jealousy as she gazed up at Saemus and Kaelin. Everything she wasn’t, these two were. They were tall, thin, graceful, and beautiful. Their hair was the color of ebony, sleek and shiny, their skin was so pale it was almost transparent, and their black eyes shimmered like deep pools of liquid onyx. Although near mirror images in appearance, the twins had distinct personalities.
Gwen smiled as she remembered the many times the other students would try to get Saemus to relax and lighten up, to put down his books, and to forget studying if only for a minute. His sister would torment him to no end, but Saemus remained serious and ever studious.
Gwen glanced to her left again and looked away as she caught Jon’s dazzling blue eyes. She had been totally, completely, and hopelessly in love with Jon Stone for as long as she could remember. She longed to run her fingers through his sandy blonde hair, to gaze into those bottomless blue eyes. Even though they were both raised in Heart Stone, they hadn’t spent much time together until becoming students of Master Brok. She had cultivated a hope in her heart that Jon might eventually notice her. Her hope died on the day Kaelin Barlow walked–no–glided through Master Brok’s front door. Gwen recognized the painful truth as she watched Jon stare at Kaelin’s perfect form.
Gwen closed her eyes to force back the tears. How bitter was the loss of her unfulfilled love, even after all these years! But she couldn’t really dislike Kaelin. The girl was as kind as she was beautiful.
Keera Flint caught Gwen’s eye and gave her a wink, almost as if she could read the girl’s mind. Only she knew about the love Gwen bore for Jon. The fiery redhead had made it her personal mission to assist Jon in noticing her friend, and took pleasure whenever she showed up the beautiful Kaelin. Keera would often let loose her temper onto the poor, and unsuspecting, Kaelin, who was completely unaware as to the reason why she had become the object of Keera’s infamous tantrums. Although Gwen always felt a sense of gratifying retribution when Keera got the best of Kaelin, she couldn’t help but feel guilty for taking such delight in Kaelin’s torment. Well, she thought after the briefest of hesitation, perhaps only a little guilty! The group made their way toward Town Center with hopes that by begging a goodwife or two, they would be rewarded with a tasty treat from the baking ovens.
“Good morning Mistress Meadows,” Jon said. He and the others knew to visit Lily Meadows first, since she was not only known for being one of the best cooks, but she was also known for doling out samples of her scrumptious treats to the children passing by.
“Good morning, children! If you are looking for Master Brok, he’s judging the trout catching and bird calling contests over at Heart Stone Pond.” Mistress Meadows gave the five students a side-long glance while she continued to knead her latest batch of dough.
“Well, actually…uummm…” Jon looked to his companions for help but was saved by Lily Meadows’ snort of laughter.
“I shouldn’t tease you all so!” She laughed as she directed the five youngsters toward her display table. “Try my newest creation.”
“Mistress Meadows! This pastry is the best I have ever tasted!” Keera closed her eyes in ecstasy, as she licked the last of the filling from her sticky fingers.
“Why, thank you child! I don’t know if I would say it’s the best….” Mistress Meadows patted the braid wrapped around her head and managed to look embarrassed.
“Oh, truly! They are the best!” Gwen assured her.
The five students, their hunger sated at least until lunch, wandered away to see more of the festival. Keera, Jon, and Gwen went to the east of Town Center to see the fire-eaters and jugglers. Saemus and Kaelin, hearing a commotion, walked toward the main road to find what was stirring up all the excitement.
“It’s a runaway! It’s a runaway!” Someone was shouting.
Saemus whipped his head around toward the sound of pounding hooves coming from the north. At that moment, a horse came racing down the road, its eyes rolling, and frothy lather dripping from its heaving sides. A terrified young boy clung to the horse’s mane, screaming in terror. One of the townsmen stepped into the road.
The horse squealed and reared, hooves pawing the air. The boy lost his grip, falling face-first onto the hard ground. The frightened animal stomped on him as he lay helpless.
Saemus ran over to the boy and grabbed him before the horse could do more damage. He ran back toward the grass and laid the boy down gently. Saemus felt the contents of his stomach rise when he saw the damage done to the boy’s head.
“Someone get Master Brok! Great Lucian’s Ghost!”
Saemus distantly heard someone running for the pond in search of Master Brok. Saemus knew it was very unlikely the boy would survive. He was already so near death. Without thinking, Saemus placed his hands on the boy’s ruined head.
“Curatio,” he whispered.
“Saemus! What are you doing?” Kaelin knelt at her brother’s side. “He is too far gone! There is nothing to be done!” Her words became frantic as she watched him delve deeper, drawing more and more magic.
“Saemus, stop!” She watched, tears of frustration and helplessness running down her cheeks.
“Saemus! Kaelin, what is he doing?” Jon demanded as he and the others joined the twins kneeling next to the boy.
“Kaelin! Do something! He is drawing too much!” Keera screamed as Saemus’ face lost all color and his breathing became ragged.
“Saemus! No!” Kaelin wailed and reached out a hand to her brother, her twin, her other half which made her whole. Without comprehending how she did it, Kaelin somehow opened herself, allowing him to access her inner magical power. She gasped as she felt her magic draining. Saemus’ eyes widened as he felt the magic flow into his body. His eyes tightened as he focused their combined powers.
The young boy was suffused with a warm, golden light. Kaelin had to look away as the bright light intensified. Looking at her brother, she saw the same awe reflected within his black eyes. She knew him, could sense him in a way that was both frightening and familiar. Tears sprang into her eyes as she felt the power flowing between them and into the injured boy. The whole experience lasted only a brief second to onlookers. For Saemus and Kaelin, this extraordinary experience seemed to last a lifetime. Kaelin wanted the feeling to last forever. Saemus broke the contact when he noticed the boy sitting up with visible improvement. His once ruined and broken head was now healed.
Kaelin moaned and fell to the side. Jon ran to her and cradled her in his arms. Gwen and Keera ran to Saemus and held his hands, gazing at him in nervous wonder. Jon glanced up and saw Master Brok running toward his fallen students.
“Dear Spirits! What has happened here?” Master Brok placed his hands on the foreheads of the twins.
Jon relayed the details, from the boy getting trampled by the horse to Saemus’ attempt to heal the boy and coming close to draining his own life energy. Jon hesitated when he tried to explain what happened next. He didn’t understand what had happened between the twins.
“Kaelin…I don’t know, Master Brok! She touched Saemus and…I don’t know!” Jon was too worried about Kaelin to continue. He looked lovingly upon her beautiful face. He had every line, every curve committed to memory. He longed to kiss her closed eyes, the tip of her perfect nose, her soft lips. Only the presence of the onlookers kept Jon restrained.
“Master Brok! It was amazing! As soon as she touched him, he was able to heal the little boy! The light surrounding them was so bright; it was like looking into the sun.” Keera looked at Master Brok as she breathlessly gave the account.
Gwen kept silent. Seeing Jon hold Kaelin, tenderly brushing her hair back from her forehead, was almost more than she could bear. The sharp realization that Jon would never look upon her like that, hold her, or kiss her, destroyed something sweet and innocent deep within her. She sobbed as she wondered if anything great or wonderful would ever happen to her.
The Portals of Destiny Series
The Mekan horde threatens all life in the galaxy and only the Chosen, a select group chosen by fate, can fight these metal monstrosities and save those that call this galaxy home. But when one of the Chosen is murdered, the untimely death could spell doom for all.
This series will bring the reader face-to-face with an age-old question: How much of our lives are preordained and how much of our future do we determine for ourselves? Do you believe in fate and destiny or do you believe that your life is what you choose it to be?
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