by Eric J. Juneau
“Mister Watkins, you know why you’re here again, right?” Vice-Headmaster Meech asked.
Caden sighed. “Yes. Because I was caught with a weapon.”
“No, because you were caught with a bladed weapon, capable of immediate and direct harm. Only students specializing in combat and battle are allowed to have those.” The vice-headmaster pointed at Caden. “The closest thing you are allowed is a staff. And that is for the express purpose of focusing your healing magic.”
“But other students get to carry weapons around. Swords and maces and spears,” Caden said.
“Watch your tone,” Meech said. “Some ranks are allowed small arms for defense. But yours does not. Because hælmancers never face combat. Ever. They’re too valuable to risk.”
“But what happens if I’m attacked?”
“Possession of a weapon in untrained hands is asking for disaster. We have these rules for a reason. Did you have a permission token to carry this knife?”
“It’s a scramasax.”
“I don’t care what it is. Unless you can show me a permission token for it, you’re not supposed to have it.”
“I just wanted to practice a little bit, since no one will teach me.” Caden had been sighted in the western tower, mimicking the assassins’ movements as they practiced in the courtyard. “I didn’t want to be a hælmancer. I wanted to train to be a knight or a warrior.”
“And what did your tests reveal?” Meech asked as a loaded question.
Caden’s memory of his trial rushed back–the wait for the administrators, the drawing of blood, the mixing of the flasks with other potions. Then, the anger and disappointment when the liquid within turned holy white.
Caden sat back and grumbled, “It said my mana signature was for convalescence.”
“Do you think the results were altered somehow? Or you were unfairly tested?”
“No,” Caden said. He’d already tried that avenue of escape. “But I don’t want to be a healer. I never did.”
“That doesn’t matter. Blood is the fluid of the soul. It tells whether you have the soul of a healer or a warrior or an alchemist or a sorcerer or anything.”
“Oh, come on, look at me.” Caden thrust out his meaty forearms for inspection. “I’m the tallest person in my class. I’m even bigger than some of the knights-in-training. Healers are supposed to be girls–they’re better at taking care of people. They’re nurturing. You really think I’m meant to fix people up?”
Meech held up his hand. “I’m sorry you don’t think that’s your calling, but the tests clearly showed your affinity for healing magic. There’s no mistake about it.” He paged through Caden’s folder. “And you are good at what you do. You get high marks in your classes, despite a few comments about your aggression. You can have a very fulfilling career with healing magic.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fulfilled playing nursemaid to dragon riders.”
“It’s a highly paid position in the kingdom’s army. Hælmancers tend to live longer than any other prentice.”
“Because they stay in a medical tent a mile away, surrounded by magic barriers. If they ever get on the field, it’s after the battle. How can you have a fulfilling career when you’re only in the background?”
Meech interjected, “Aids need to be where their supplies are. And soldiers can’t be defending themselves and their support at the same time.”
“But we’re not even trained in basic self-defense. What happens if the line breaks?”
“We’re not here to discuss tactics. Any combat training would take time away from what you’re supposed be learning–how to treat the sick and injured. You know our motto–do one job and do it well.”
Caden crossed his arms and sat back in his chair. “I’d do it a lot better if I was in the right job.”
“Enough.” Meech pulled open his desk drawer. “You’ll have to sort out your issues on your own. You are what you are.” He dropped the dagger in the drawer and shoved it closed. “So get used to it.”
Caden thought he couldn’t feel any worse, but when he entered Concoctions & Mixtures – Third Level, his heart sank deeper. Not because of anything new. Quite the opposite–it was the same old thing.
This class was the only one he shared with students who weren’t hælmancers–alchemists, some escritors, and sorcerers trying for extra credit. Since his body of work focused on helping others, instead of hurting them through various means, interaction with students outside his field was rare.
The majority of the class were Caden’s fellow female healing mages. They sat mostly on the left side, chirping about robe accessories and soldiers they were dating. The alchemists sat in a circle, discussing how to make an elfgrass pipe using a piece of chalk, a cheese wheel, and a blackbird. Sorcerers sat alone, individually drawing pictures of explosions and people with various stab wounds, killing time until the teacher came.
Caden eyed his empty seat by the window, away from everyone else. At least it gave him a view into the courtyard so he could watch the knights practice.
Before he could cross into the room, somebody jumped on his back. Thin arms wrapped around his neck.
“Cadey!” a girl said, “Where have you been, big boy?”
“Hi, Ruki,” he said. Ruki loved to jump on Caden since she weighed half as much as him. He always pretended not to notice.
Ruki came from a long line of alchemists, stretching back at least ten generations. The subject was second nature to her, so much that she always wore chemist’s goggles on her forehead. She breezed through classes, and amused herself by attaching to the strange and unusual. A healing mage built like a barbarian was strange and unusual.
As he slogged forward, carrying her on his back to their desks, she said, “My perpetual motion machine gave me a bruise. Fix?” She held out a dark purple spot on her forearm.
Caden wrapped his hand around it and muttered something. A yellow glow brightened beneath his fingers, then dimmed. When he took his hand off, the bruise was gone.
“Thanks, sweetie. Where were you? What’d you do? Did you bring me something? Did you have lunch? What’d you have? Do you like my outfit? Where did you go?”
“Meech’s office,” he said.
“Meech the leech?” she said and dropped off his back. “Didja get in trouble? Healers never get in trouble.”
“Well, I did. They caught me with a dagger and took it away.”
“You should have had a permission token.”
“If only. But they won’t give those to anyone. Especially healers.”
“Yeah, those are hard to come by… Hard to make…” She drifted off for a few seconds, then shook her head to clear the cobwebs. “Anyway, did you get punished? What was it? Fairy wrangling? Cleaning out the unicorn stalls? Human resources?”
Caden shook his head as he stared out the window. “Trash duty.”
“Ooh, that’s the worst. The dump site’s full of scavengers and icky things. Thralls and hygreks. Hygreks with big teeth and red eyes and grungy fur. I hear they get stuck together from the grime, and they become this big writhing hygrek-monster-thing.”
“Thanks, Ruki. That’s comforting.”
“They call it a hygrek drudge. They can consume a human body in ten minutes, bones and all.”
“Okay, Ruki, that’s enough.”
Ruki pretended not to hear him. “Oh god, my best friend is going to die!” She hugged him around his thick torso and started mock-sobbing. Caden was unmoved. “You’re going to get turned into fertilizer, and there’ll be nothing but bones left, and I’ll have no one to make potions with, and I’ll be completely inconsolable for the rest of my days.” She stopped. “If you die, can I have your stuff?”
Caden glared at her. He pulled the goggles strapped to her head and snapped them.
“Ow.” She rubbed her head. “Meany.”
Caden smiled, which was all Ruki wanted out of him in the first place.
“I know,” she said, “I can make you a sneezing potion. You can pretend you have Mountain Flu.”
“Won’t work,” Caden said, “Meech is a stickler for healers. He gave me this big speech about how I should enjoy being one.” He slumped in his desk.
“I got it. I’ll turn you into a toad. Can’t take out trash if you’re a toad.”
“Or a kitten! Everyone loves a kitten.”
“Oh, go jump in a lake,” Caden said and turned away.
“Come on,” Ruki punched him on the arm, “Just because you wanna be a vicious knight doesn’t mean you always have to act one. Lighten up.”
“Sorry,” Caden lifted his head. “It’s just that graduation is less than two years away. And I’m starting to realize I’m… a healing mage,” he said with disgust. “It’s not going away. It’s not going to change.”
“Why couldn’t you do both?” Ruki asked. “You could take the medical program and the combat program.”
“Hah,” Caden said, “For one thing, there’s no way I could keep up with the course work. Second, healing mages are too valuable to put them in the line of fire.”
Caden heard a battle shout from the cadets in the courtyard. They were dueling in pairs with wooden swords, tapping and clicking.
Caden pointed to one in the corner. “See the little girl there? In the back?” He pointed to a full-armored, diminutive female defending blows with her stick. “Are you telling me she’s better at fighting than I am?”
Ruki leaned over Caden to look. “Maybe the school knows something we don’t.”
“Maybe they’re trying to keep the dragons nice and fat.”
The teacher arrived then, but did not enter the room. She stood in the doorway. “Students, gather your things. Follow me to the auditorium. There’s a special announcement.”
Caden scowled. He didn’t like changes in the schedule, but followed everyone out.
Other classes mingled in the halls as well. All of them were specialized in support and aid. Warriors occupied the spacious ground floors needed for warfare and mock battles.
They crowded into a small auditorium where a man wearing the red and gray of the Royal Guard stood next to a map.
“Know what this is about?” Caden asked Ruki.
“Ooh, maybe we’re having a dinner party.”
“I doubt it. Do you smell any food?”
“I could make some. Makito knows how to make bread dough out of nails and wood. It’s how the cafeteria does it, I bet.”
Master Tweedy, a member of the school council, ushered everyone in. “Quickly, quickly now. Don’t have much time. Things to do.”
The students quieted as he picked up a pointer.
“I apologize for this interruption. The reason for this meeting is that there is a large group of Fitgaran Spiders coming from the mountain. They might be migrating or sent by Emperor Varscazino. Our troops have been fighting for three days and they need a break. The Royal Guard has requested a contingent of cadets to aid the battle.”
Students murmured, realizing they were about to be sent into the real world. The hair on Caden’s arms stood on end.
“Don’t worry about the danger. We’re only sending enough students to fill some gaps. No one will be put in harm’s way.” Tweedy picked up a card and read from it. “Tomorrow, there will be a caravan heading to the Gullachin mountain pass. The following people should be on it.” He picked up a notepad. “Ahem. Any alchemists with more than twenty-four credits.”
Ruki raised her arms. “Woo-hoo!”
“All mechanics with thirty or more. Animalists above twenty-seven. Healers with more than fifteen.”
Caden’s heartbeat jumped. He had twenty-five credits.
“There you go,” Ruki punched him on the shoulder. “See? Now you get to see some real action.”
“Real action?” Caden whispered back. “We’re students. The only thing we’ll be doing is watching.”
“Maybe,” Ruki said, “But then why are we being sent out instead of the fighters?”
“Good point.” Caden raised his hand.
“Yes. Question, Caden?” Master Tweedy asked.
“Are the warrior cadets being sent out?”
“The warriors?” The royal guard asked. “They were sent out two days ago.”
Caden slumped in his chair as the teachers pointed out where the battle was, and how far from it they would be.
Caden’s adventure in the field fulfilled his expectations to the letter–from the long, bumpy wagon ride out to the plains, to the orientation by the monotone coordinator, to the hours of uninterrupted, menial labor. It was like watching trees grow.
And in-between was the waiting. Waiting for people to arrive, waiting for authorities’ approval, waiting for horses to rest, waiting for orders.
“Caden,” called Bosevius, his supervisor. “Take these bottles over to the infirmary tent.” He dropped a box on the table. Flasks clanked together, threatening to break.
Caden groaned and rubbed his shoulders. His total body of work so far consisted of carrying crates from one end of the encampment to another. Any monkey could do his job, but since he was the only healing mage who could do more than one pull-up, all the heavy lifting was his.
“You’re not flaking out on me, are you, cadet?” Bosevius asked.
“No, sir,” Caden barked.
“Good, because if you expect to get a job in this kingdom, you’d better shape up. You slack off, you get the boot. Get me?”
Bosevius was fond of mentioning “the boot”. If Caden didn’t finish those rope assemblies, he would get the boot. If he didn’t clean up his attitude, he’d get the boot. Caden imagined Bosevius tossed and turned in bed, having nightmares of being chased by a giant boot.
He picked up the crate and traversed three tents over. This camp was only for medical support. Further back, the alchemists worked on repairing catapults and armor. The sorcerers were arranging materials for spell-making. Escritors proofread the records of who was where. Everyone was doing something related to their position. Even with his hatred for his lot in life, he didn’t even get to do a hælmancer’s job.
Caden opened the flap for the infirmary tent, balancing the box on one arm. His fellow students were attending to the fallen–removing bandages or sealing wounds. It was busy, exciting, productive. Despite the workload, everyone wore a smile.
The only elder mage he found was teaching a group of girls how to heal a poisoned leg gash. Caden carried the box to her.
“Make sure you wipe evenly.” She placed her index finger at the top of the wound and wiped down. A blue trail followed, replacing the red with pink skin.
The spell was basic second-year stuff, but the students were enraptured. “Kirathan taliandor,” she repeated as she erased the wound. “This changes the poisonous elements to water. The body then-“
“Ahem.” Caden had to interrupt before she started a lecture. The load was beginning to strain his elbows. “Where do you want these healing salves?”
The elder mage jumped. “What-? What th’-? Oh,” she said. “What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you in hælmancy? Don’t you know I could have left a scar if you interrupted the spell?”
“Sorry,” Caden said.
“Over there,” she pointed. “There’s a cabinet. Put them in there.”
Caden carried the box to the other end of the tent as the students giggled. He heard one girl say, “He so doesn’t belong here. Remember first year? When he tried to hide chain mail under his shirt?”
Another responded. “Or when he used too much power in the wakening spell and he couldn’t sleep for days?”
“Or how about when he poked that old man in the eye when he tried to heal his cataract?”
With each memory, there was snide laughter. Caden just wanted to die. At least he could bring himself back to life if he did.
Caden dropped the box in front of a blue cabinet at the end of a long row of occupied cots. He caught the eye of the patient behind him–a gruff man sitting up in bed with an eye patch and a slung arm. The uniform on his bedpost had a captain’s insignia on the sleeve.
“Cadet,” the patient greeted.
Caden turned from the bottles. “Captain,” he answered.
“Whoa, you’re a man?” the captain asked. “I thought you were just big. You sure you’re wearing the right uniform? Looks like you barely fit into your robe.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Caden said and continued stocking the shelves.
“Never seen a boy in a healer’s robes,” he said.
“Not like I had a choice.” He remembered his manners. “Sir.”
“But your classes must be full of comely maidens. They must be falling over each other trying to impress you.”
Caden scoffed. “You’d think so. But really, they just shun you because you’re not one of them. You’re an invader in their territory.”
The captain arched his eyebrow. “You sound like someone who’s studied tactics.”
Caden turned around, “I did. I thought I was going to be a warrior. I studied all the books on weapons and stances and positions, watched all the fighting choreography at the theater. But no, when I get accepted into the academy, I get stuck with healing magic.”
“Mmm,” the captain said. “But the test doesn’t lie, I suppose.”
“They keep telling me that, but something must have happened. I’m always screwing up–I’m not gentle, I’m not caring. To be honest, I’d rather be slicing someone’s arm off than reattaching it.” Caden shoved the last flask in the cabinet and rose.
“Are you any good at healing?”
Caden shrugged. “My skills are fine. But the teachers all want me to be more like them. ‘Better bedside manner, Caden’, ‘Don’t be so intimidating, Caden’, ‘Caden, don’t talk to him about the battle he lost his leg in’.”
“But you hate being one of them?”
Again, Caden shrugged. “It’s not that I hate it, I just wish I was a knight instead. People respect you more. They look up to you.”
“Mmm,” the captain muttered. “Seems to me you’ve got the harder job of the two.”
Caden cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
“You ever break a pot?”
“Pretty easy, wasn’t it?”
“You ever try to put it back together?”
Caden nodded. “I guess you have a point. But it’s the pot-breakers who get the medals.”
“Is that what you’re looking for? A medal?”
“No, but I don’t want to be something with no prestige. There’s no song called ‘The Ballad of a Hundred Miles Behind Dragon’s Wharf Where the Healers Fixed Up the Hero’.”
The captain smiled. “Maybe not. But somewhere, I bet someone’s thanking the mage who fixed up their dad from that battle.”
Caden opened his mouth to argue, but nothing would come out.
The captain said, “Being a knight isn’t about swords and shields. It’s about courage. Maybe being a healer doesn’t give you much opportunity to show your courage. Might be why there aren’t as many songs. But they do get remembered. I guarantee you that.”
Caden looked down at his empty box, unsure of how to respond.
At lunch time, Caden stood in line at the mess tent, tapping his foot. Meals were usually the highlight of his day, so he was eager to get them. It meant he could forget about himself for a few minutes.
Two dowdy servers dropped a slice of pork, steamed vegetables, and fruit on his tray. He carried it off to the nest of tables.
Several circles of classmates had already formed, but as usual, he chose an empty seat to eat alone.
He sat down and made it through one bite of pork when someone elbowed him in the ribs. Ruki stood beside him with her tray.
“Dude,” she said as she sat down. “This rules. We get out of school, get some sun. They showed us how to make a time bomb out of a frog and a spool of bronze wire.”
Caden stared at her. “How does that work?”
“Very messily. So how’s your life experience training going?”
“All I’m doing is hauling boxes. I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I was back at the academy. I should have faked sick.”
With a mouthful of mashed potatoes, Ruki said, “How do you fake sick if you’re a healing mage?”
“I don’t know.” Caden dropped his fork and put his head in his hands. “This is so boring. All anyone talks about is all the cool stuff they’re doing in battle. And all it does is make me want to be there.”
Ruki stopped eating. “You know, there’s a caravan leaving for the battlefield in a few hours, right? Most of the fighting’s done, so they’re taking students on a tour.”
“Of course,” said Caden. “But you need a permission token from your teacher. Besides, they’re not letting my people go. They’re too busy. Too valuable.”
“You know,” Ruki said, dropping her tone, “I could have blueprints for a device that can create permission tokens. And the supply tent could have the parts for it.”
Caden lifted his head. “Are you serious?”
“Say the word.”
Caden looked around, as if anyone was paying attention to the two of them. “Let’s do it.”
Ruki smiled. “Good. The caravan leaves at dinner time, so sneak out and get to the guard post. Ooh, this’ll be fun.”
Caden ground the end of his staff into a patch of grass. He tried to act inconspicuous standing in line behind the cadets–mostly support aids–climbing into the caravan, but that was hard when he was a foot taller than them.
A lanky man in a kingdom uniform took each student’s permission stone and let them on. He looked too young for the army. Maybe he was a rookie who drew the short straw for babysitting duty. He stopped Caden at the front.
“Say, are healers supposed to be going?” he squeaked.
“Um, special exception. I’ve got my token right here,” Caden handed him a small red gemstone.
The soldier peered into it like an eyeglass. “I can’t make out the signature.”
Ruki, who stood at the mouth of the wagon, said, “It’s Master Tweedy’s. He always fudges his tokens. It’s okay, I saw him give it.”
The soldier shrugged and pocketed the stone. “Fine, let’s get this over with.”
Caden grabbed hold of the guard rail and hoisted himself up before anyone could change their mind. The driver cracked his whip and the horses pulled forward, hugging the edge of the forest.
“That was close,” Ruki said. “Maybe I need to fine tune the carbon injector.”
“Shh,” Caden frowned. “If anyone finds out, I’m dead.”
The caravan swayed and rocked over the uneven field. The others didn’t seem to mind–they percolated with excitement, like going to an art museum after seeing all the pieces in class.
After the encampment faded from view, they heard the far-off murmuring of gruff voices and the clanking of metal swords. Caden leaned over the rail, hoping to see something interesting. But the knights and soldiers were just gathering equipment off the ground.
“You can see over there,” their guide said, “That’s the twenty-fifth division, I think, by the pile of shields. Down there you can see a wyvern claw. Must have fallen off in the battle.”
The carriage rolled by a thorn about as large as Caden’s hand, its root caked in blood.
“Ewwww,” the students uttered.
The soldier said, “This is what the army has to deal with. You should respect their plight.”
Caden rolled his eyes.
Ruki pulled out another permission token, a green one. “Dude, isn’t this great?”
Caden shrugged. “Not as exciting as I’d hoped.”
“I mean my machine. I put in a series of progressive crystal globes that displace the chromatics. And it transfigures light and mass energy. If I can find a pulley-harness and a fermiphone, I can jigger the transmuter prism-”
“Okay, okay, I get it.”
Ruki handed him the token. “Bet you can’t tell the difference. This one’s supposed to let me into mess hall tent. After this, we can steal some ice cream.”
Caden looked into it. He didn’t see anything but translucent emerald. “It smells funny,” he said.
“Side effect. From the ingredients.”
“What happens if someone asks why you have a smelly permission token?”
“Look,” Ruki took the stone back, “When you invent a chromatic displacement absorptioner, then you can criticize me. Until then, keep your lip zipped.”
“What’s it made out of?”
She leaned back against the railing. “Oh, some geodesic chemicals. Then you grind it down to a coagulated triple-star resin. A little of this, little of that. The active ingredient is galia rosewood for the color.”
“Galia rosewood?” Caden asked, recalling something from class. “Isn’t that supposed to be an arachnid attractant?”
“It does what now?”
Suddenly, a giant yellow and black spider, as big as a cow, dropped from the forest canopy. It latched onto the rails of the wagon with its two front legs. The students shrieked and scrambled over each other to get away.
Ruki jumped up, but her small size prevented her from pushing through.
The spider’s mandibles hooked into her tunic and jerked her out of the wagon, like picking a toy from a chest
“Ruki,” Caden shouted. He started forward, but the soldier held out his arm.
“Are you crazy kid? That thing’s poisonous.”
“That thing’s going to kill her,” Caden exclaimed.
The spider’s leg joints clicked as it backed towards the forest. Ruki flailed her limbs, helpless as a doll.
The students gasped. One held her hand to her mouth. Others closed their eyes and ears. “Tell me when it’s over,” one said.
“Aren’t you going to help her?” Caden responded, addressing the entire caravan. “She’s going to die if we don’t do something.”
“It’s too dangerous. We’re lucky it didn’t grab us all,” the soldier said.
The spider was almost at the edge of the forest. Once it entered, pursuit would be impossible. A spider’s agility between the trees was no match for a human’s.
Ruki clawed at her tunic, trying to unfasten the clasp, but the tension kept it too tight. She caught sight of Caden and reached out her hand.
“Screw this,” Caden said and leapt off the wagon.
“Get back here. You want to get killed too?” the soldier shouted.
Caden’s heavy robe flapped against his legs as he ran towards the spider.
“Oy! Oy, spider!” Caden shouted and raised his staff. The spider took no notice of him. Yelling wouldn’t work, so he launched himself forward and swung his staff at its head. It bounced off the iron-like carapace.
Still holding Ruki’s collar, the spider turned towards him and blinked its coal-black compound eyes.
Caden tried not to look at the hideous thing. Instead he gritted his teeth and smacked it again. “That’s right. I’m right here. Come and get me.”
The spider opened its jaws and hissed, dropping Ruki. She rolled away as it started for Caden.
Startled, he tripped over his own feet, and ended up on his back. The spider approached him like prey and made a sizzling sound— the poison was gathering in its mouth. All Caden could do was thrust his cane forward, jamming it into the spider’s maw.
“Kirathan taliandor,” he called.
A thin mist sprinkled out of the spider’s mouth. Confused, it spit again, sounding like an asthmatic. Water dribbled from its jaw.
Caden yanked the staff out and whapped it upside the head. “Get out of here,” he said.
The spider complied, too puzzled to attack. It backed into the forest and disappeared into the shadows.
“And so,” Vice-Headmaster Meech began, “In light of recent events, brought to me by student Ruki Tyruki and Captain Rusco . . .”
Meech acknowledged the captain, whose craggy face upturned in a smile. His eye had healed but he still wore an arm sling. Caden smiled back.
“We have decided to acknowledge your special skills. It appears something in your soul needs to fight as well as to heal. I know the mission statement of our school is to ‘do one thing and do it well’. But it looks like we may have chosen the . . . wrong thing for you to do.”
Caden cocked his head in a “told-you-so” way, but said nothing.
After exchanging goodbyes with the vice-headmaster and captain, he left Meech’s office. With his new schedule in hand, he started walking down the hall. Somebody jumped on his back.
“Well,” Ruki said, “What happened? Punished?”
“Nope,” Caden smiled. “They created a new classification, just for me. Defender.”
“Really? What’s that?”
He read, “‘A soldier with the ability to defend himself and others, using both magic and physical prowess. Fighting skills are used to protect and guard, but not to attack.'”
“So you get to handle swords and stuff then?”
“I think so,” Caden said through his grin.
“You know, since you’re like a healing warrior, you’re going to need a special sword. And I’ve got some plans . . .”
Eric Juneau is a 31-year-old software engineer living in Minnesota with his wife and two daughters. His hobbies are writing, video games, reading, and eating as much barbecue as he can find. His writing philosophy is “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” (G.K. Chesterson)
He blogs somewhat regularly about his quest to become a ‘capital-A’ Author at http://author-quest.blogspot.com.