By Tyrean Martinson
Therese had just managed to escape from her room when destiny showed up on her doorstep, several feet below her. Clinging to the branches of the sorrel tree, Therese listened as the two riders banged on the front door of her father’s house. They hadn’t even bothered dismounting and one of the horses had flecks of sweat in its mane.
Finally, the door creaked open and Therese’s stepmother stepped out to confront the riders. “What do you mean by . . . oh, I apologize for my manner, Lords. I thought that ruffians had . . .”
“Never mind that, good woman. May we speak to Master Chutney?”
Therese’s stepmother put her hand to her chest and shook her head sorrowfully, “ah, my Clement. He died only a fortnight ago and . . .”
“Did he have any heirs?”
“Excuse me?” Therese’s stepmother lost her sorrowful act.
The second rider, a woman, put up her hand. “We mean no offense, Mistress Chutney, but our errand is urgent. We need the heir of Master Chutney for a rite at Shadow Castle.”
“Well, now, my husband passed without any male heirs, but he did have a daughter, a sickly child with . . .”
In her tree, Therese stiffened. She wasn’t sickly. She was house-bound by her step-mother, forced to do indoor chores and never let out of the attic, except by escape.
The horsewoman glanced upward and caught sight of Therese in the tree. “Why don’t you come down, girl? And, come with us. We have need of you in a life and death situation.”
Therese clung to the bark, willing herself to blend. She wasn’t sure she wanted to take part in any rite at Shadow Castle. Her father hadn’t liked the wizards there, often crossing the street to get away from them in the market and muttering about how he couldn’t stand the sight of them in church.
It didn’t work. She supposed it was too late now that the riders had noticed her.
“Therese! Get down here, now!” Therese’s stepmother bellowed up at her, and then turned sweetly to the horse riders. “I’m so sorry, but she gets these addled thoughts in her sickly head, and I really don’t think a rite at the Shadow Castle would . . .”
“How much?” asked the woman.
“What? I can’t think what you might . . .”
“How much money do you want for her, to take her off of your hands?” the woman stated.
The male horse-rider had reined his horse backwards, slightly. He looked up at Therese.
As she looked at his black eyes, Therese didn’t feel the chill her father warned her about; but she did feel a longing. She scrambled down the tree and went to stand by his stirrup, staring up at his dark eyes.
“That’s enough, Reggie.”
The man, Reggie, blinked, and suddenly his eyes were a muddy brown.
Therese backed away from him. “How? Why?”
“We didn’t have time to do this gently, child,” the woman said.
“I’m no child!” Therese stood up straight and glared at the woman. She was an adult, short for her age, but an adult.
“Good and I’m Daria, of the First Order. We need your help to unlock the scrolls of the Wizard Chutney, of the 7th order.”
“There’s never been a wizard in the Chutney family.”
Daria sighed. “I wish that were true, considering your family’s streak of stubbornness. Now, we haven’t time to waste. Get on the back of my horse, and you might just have a chance to save a life.”
Therese didn’t particularly want to ride on the back of the woman’s mare, but she didn’t want to return to her stepmother either. This was, at least, a chance for freedom. She accepted the woman’s help and swung up behind her saddle, sitting on the edge of blanket behind it.
They rode in silence. Therese had the sense to see that the other two were grim and hurried. For her part, she thought she should study them more closely before she submitted to some rite at Shadow castle and helped them unlock scrolls, if she even could.
Daria’s hair was tightly woven into tiny braids, which were braided together and knotted at the base of her skull. Her clothes were fitting, severe black, and well-kept. Even the tack of her horse looked like it had been polished.
Reggie, although he wore the same uniform, had a much different demeanor. His clothes looked well-worn, his boots were polished but scuffed, and the tack of his horse needed mending on the back of his saddle. Despite all of this, he sat straight in his saddle and rode just as well as Daria.
Therese wasn’t sure what to make of either of them by the time that the towers of Shadow Keep loomed above them.
As they neared the gate, she shifted in her seat, considering the possibility of jumping off and making a run for it. She knew she couldn’t outrun the horses, but the idea of going into the keep that her father had cursed so often made her twitchy.
Daria glanced back. “We need you, Therese. I wouldn’t ask you, otherwise.”
Therese sighed. She didn’t doubt the sincerity of Daria’s words. The woman seemed too intent, as if she bore a heavy weight of responsibility on her shoulders.
As they crossed through the gated threshold into the yard of Shadow Keep, Therese expected something to happen, some foreboding or prickling, or sense of unease. Instead, she felt as if she had come home.
Around them, children, young people, and elderly people were gathered around the courtyard, either cooling down horses, herding sheep into a pen, making music, or just simply talking by the stall of an enterprising coffee seller. Everyone seemed comfortable with one another; although Therese could tell that everyone was somber. Even the music held the soothing tones of a lullaby or a hymn, although it was no song that Therese had ever heard.
A few feet into the courtyard, Reggie dismounted swiftly and handed his horse off to a young man who seemed to be waiting for their mounts.
Daria nodded to Therese in encouragement.
Therese swung herself to the side of the horse, using her hands as leverage, and then slid down. As her feet touched the pavement, Therese felt a hum of contentment course through her from the soles of her feet to the top of her head, and she leaned into the flank of the horse for a moment, letting it soak into her like a warm bath. Every part of her felt invigorated, and when she looked up, she noticed that the courtyard had gone quiet.
She turned slowly and noticed the play of light and shadow over the faces of everyone in the courtyard, and on ground, stretched out around objects and buildings. A particular shaft of brightness poured from the uppermost tower of the keep, but it was sullied by a strangely pulsating shadow unlike any of the others in the courtyard.
“What is that?” she asked Daria, pointing to but not touching the pulsating shadow.
“You see it?” Daria looked shocked. “Dear heavens, I’m glad we brought you here, Therese.” She jumped down from her horse, and grabbed Therese’s elbow. “Come with me now. If you can see it, then you can certainly help us defeat it.”
“But it is a shadow and is this not Shadow Keep?” Therese resisted Daria’s gentle pull on her arm.
“There are shadows and there are shadows,” Daria said with her mouth thinned into a narrow line. “We don’t work with that kind here.”
Therese nodded and allowed Daria to pull her forward into the keep’s castle proper. They hurried past guards, groups of students and magicians, up a grand staircase and then up a smaller spiral staircase that led upward to that small tower above. On the way, Therese would have liked to watch the shadows and the light flickers on the walls, but she could feel that pulsating miasma now, all around them, and she understood Daria’s hurry.
At the top of the stairs, Daria pushed her way through another set of guarded doors, and led Therese to a book on one side of the room. The center of the room held a chair with a single occupant, whose eyes were widened in horror at the dark miasma around him. In a silent scream, he looked frozen by the darkness, but his eyes darted wildly from side to side as if searching for something.
Therese hesitated, looking at him. How was she, a mere girl from the village, supposed to save him, when he was obviously a shadow master by the cut of his clothes?
“Don’t focus on him,” Daria said. “This book is the one we need you to open.”
Puzzled, Therese gazed at the book that Daria held in her arms. It was a thick, aged tome with a leather binding and yellowed pages.
“Why do you need me to open a book?”
“We believe it holds the cure for the mess that Roger’s let loose on himself and the keep, but we can’t open it. Only the true heir of the Chutney clan can do that.”
“How?” Therese had heard some horrible stories about how the Shadow Magicians went about their business.
“Just stand by the window, so the light from the sun casts your shadow on the book.”
“That’s all? No sacrificial blood?”
Daria shook her head. “The stories they tell in the village are . . . ridiculous. No, we don’t need any blood. Just your shadow.”
Therese walked over to her, took the weighty book into her hands, and stood by the window so that the sun’s warmth hit her face and cast her shadow on the cover of the book. Then, she opened the book’s cover gently and peered inside. The pages were blank.
Therese glanced at Daria. “I don’t understand.”
Daria bit her lips. “Do you have a family talisman: a necklace, a charm, a pair of special glasses, a coin, or something that your father kept apart from all other things?”
Therese put her hand to her waist, just above where she kept her hidden pocket inside her clothes. It was there, but she didn’t want to give it to anyone, for any reason.
“What do you have?” Daria’s eyes went to Therese’s hand.
“It’s my family heirloom. It’s one of only things I have left of my father that my stepmother hasn’t taken from me.”
Daria stepped back. “It’s all right. I don’t expect you to hand it to me, but I suggest you take it out, and cast its shadow on the book’s pages. I believe it will help us to read what is hidden there.”
Therese handed the book to Therese, and deftly pulled out her father’s compass. For the first time, she noticed the way the light sparkled over the glass and the needle cast a shadow in different directions, based on how she held it in the sunlight. She wondered what that could mean, but she took the book from Therese’s hands and cast the compass shadow over the pages. Words slowly appeared on the page, only in the shadow of the compass.
“Oh, thank the Lord of light!” Daria exclaimed. “Can you find the spell of banishment?”
Therese glanced at her, and then slowly looked over the first pages of the book, which seemed to be a neatly written table of contents. She found the title of the spell of banishment with a page number, and following that to the page she needed. “It is here,” she said, showing the book to Daria.
“Please read it,” Daria said.
“But, aren’t you the magician?”
Daria smiled. “No more than you, Therese. This is your family’s magic. Please, read the spell aloud.”
Therese let Daria’s words sink in. She didn’t want to be a magician. But, the book had opened for her. And the keep felt like a home to her. And the boy in the chair was in pain. She couldn’t leave him like that. So, slowly, she read the words on the page letting each one fill up the room before letting it go. It felt like the words were bits of light pouring out in to the room, and the dark miasma responded to them; first, by swelling, and finally, but diminishing into a small spot that disappeared with an audible pop.
The boy’s eyes stopped darting from side to side and his gaze came to rest on Therese. “Thank you.” He tried to sit up and Daria went to him, putting her arm around his shoulders.
“Take it easy, Master Roger. You’re going to feel weak for some time.”
He nodded, and then he held out his hand to Therese. “Please, heir of Chutney, may I know your name, now that you have come to your rightful place in Shadow Keep?”
Therese stiffened, and nearly dropped the book. Belatedly, she remembered the manners her father taught her. She folded the top of the compass and tucked it inside of her blouse, closed the book, and then curtseyed in her pants. “Master Roger, I’m afraid that I must know more before I can commit to a life here.”
“Of course,” he said, dropping his hand. “It’s not exactly a promising place when the Lord of the Castle is caught up in his own foolish mistakes and nearly pulls the keep down around everyone’s ears. I’ll ask Daria and some others to show you around, you can spend the night here in one of the guest rooms, and if you will break your fast with me tomorrow, we can discuss the possibilities of life here at the keep. It may be that I need a Chutney heir to keep me in line.”
Daria gave Therese a glare. “You want to go back to your stepmother and let her treat you like an imbecile?”
“No,” Therese said. “I’m just considering my options carefully.”
Roger smiled at her. “See, that’s just the kind of sense I obviously need to have around me.”
Daria scowled at him. “As if all of your senior advisors didn’t warn you about messing with that minor shadow demon. There’s no such thing as minor shadow demons. And, although I want Therese to stay, you must know from history that the Chutneys were never known for sense, just as your line isn’t.”
Roger smiled. “And now, my master plan is revealed. I need someone here that will shake things up a bit.” He winked at Therese.
Therese fought a smile building up her face, and she hastily hid her lips with the hand that held the compass.
When the compass passed her lips, with the sun against her profile, the shadow on the ground revealed something Therese had only seen once before in her dreams: a laughing girl standing in front of the family crest: a compass and a telescope. She stared at it, transfixed by her childhood hopes.
“What is it? What do you see?” Daria asked.
“An answer.” Therese kissed the compass, and tucked it back into her pocket, where it nestled against the miniature telescope her father had given her as a child.
Bio: Tyrean Martinson believes, daydreams, and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She has written and published three novels, three collections of short works, and three writing prompts books. You can find her online at twitter and at her blog: http://tyreanswritingspot.blogspot.com/