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On the medieval planet of Vosj, seventeen-year-old Brodia’s abusive father wants her to marry so he can get the money. But Brodia is as goat-stubborn as her father. She seeks adventure and fears becoming the next ‘do-gooder’ for the village.
So, when the kingdom’s fearsome Grand Wizard Preem, known as the Bone Crusher, comes looking for an apprentice to help in the looming wizard wars, she sees a chance to escape by having Preem pick her boyfriend as his novice. She doesn’t understand why she alone feels nauseous when the wizard does his magic. But despite the discomfort, she breaks the king’s edicts against women and risks a whipping for attending a wizard’s meeting. It is all done so she can get her boyfriend chosen.
All her schemes come to nothing when the Brotherhood snatch her to sell as an indentured servant. And if she ever manages to escape from the Brotherhood, the psychotic apprentice of the enemy wizard lurks nearby. He enjoys strangling young women like Brodia so he can watch their fading eyes.
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In the fourth kingdom of the planet Vosj, during King Attim’s reign, teenage Brodia was two days from her second whipping.
But today, caught in a sudden warm summer shower, she crossed Widemouth’s bustling market. Swerving around the women who scowled at her from under their shawls, she relished the refreshing smell of beech and oak as heavy raindrops beat down the dust.
Years in the sun gave her a dark complexion, emphasizing a lighter scar on her chin, a trophy from a preteen misadventure. Brodia accepted that her lean face, high cheekbones, and button nose gave her an odd appearance. Plus, the scowling women undoubtedly had opinions about her pear-green beret and the men’s clothes she preferred to wear.
She basked in their derision.
Ahead, she saw her friend Missus Kella sitting in the rain. Hurrying to her side, she squatted beside the beggar, gasping at the smell of stale urine. She couldn’t bear to see her friend so neglected. Brodia tapped the crazy old widow’s begging bowl. “C’mon Kindness, let’s gets you outta this rain. I’ve gots dried meat for you today.”
Missus Kella had been that woman who always had time to help others. Every village had one. Then, last winter, her husband died of a fever, causing something to snap in her mind. Now Widemouth needed another do-gooder. And Brodia dreaded becoming trapped in that role, left behind by Adventure to marry a well-intentioned farmboy.
Brodia tried to pull up the heavyset woman. Glancing around, she sought help from the market, but none of the women came to her aid. Tugging on her ear, she turned back to the beggar. “Kindness, you’re too heavy for me.”
Suddenly waves of dizziness made her collapse into Missus Kella. Brodia twisted away, hugging her stomach as she retched. Bewildered, she held a deep breath to slow the world spinning around her.
Screams pulled her attention to the market, where she saw a gray-dressed man sitting cross-legged, floating above the throng. All around, women scattered like mice fleeing a cat. The wizard – for what else could he be? – stared at her like a farmer assessing a pig for slaughter. Even the rain avoided him, splashing off an invisible roof above his head. However, the scariest things were his eyes that glowed in the shadows of his short-peaked wizard’s hat.
Brodia clutched Missus Kella’s shoulder. No man would find her defenseless again. Clenching her fists to suppress the dizziness, she compelled herself to glare back, letting the rain splash off her face.
This wizard was much younger than Sarn the Sage. So, it must be the Bone Crusher who was scaring people and casting nausea spells. The villagers hid behind the market stalls. Only Brodia remained, facing the wizard in gray as she guarded her beggar friend.
The wizard broke off the staring contest when he rose higher before flying to the north. She could breathe again as her vertigo vanished with the departing wizard.
Soon the women milled around, gossiping in excited tones at the wonder they had seen. While Brodia only felt dread at how the wizard stared at her. There was a knowing to his sparkling eyes. He had seen her while ignoring everyone else. Glancing down, she saw Missus Kella’s dark eyes staring straight ahead, giving no clue whether she saw the gray wizard.
“Brodia, can I help?” Her dear friend, Hirin, squeezed through the crowd to join her. When he squatted down, he pulled back his head, wrinkling his nose.
She flashed her Ma’s green eyes at the blond farmboy. “Sure, Slowness.” She gave him a squeeze on his well-muscled forearm. “Help me gets Widow Kella over near the Meeting Hall and into somes shelter.”
Each took an arm as they guided Kella across the corner of the village square. At the side of the Meeting Hall, Brodia found a dry spot beside the bell tower. “Sit here, Kindness.” And the simple-minded woman plopped down without a word.
Brodia placed a piece of dried meat in the woman’s hand before pushing it up to her mouth. The old widow smiled at its taste. “Stay outta the rain. I’ll be backs tomorrow to checks on you.”
“Did you see him?” Hirin asked her.
Brodia twisted to face him. “I did.” She stood. “You dones for the day then?”
“Got off early. Ma asked me to get some cheese.” He reached down to tinkle a coin into Widow Kella’s bowl. Brodia smiled at him and mouthed a thank you. “You got some time to talk?” he asked.
“I haves to get back. I boughts some chicken livers for my birthday tomorrow. They aren’t going to keeps fresh for long.” Hirin looked disappointed as she pulled her pear-green beret down over her ears and beetle-black hair from her father’s seed. “C’mon, Slowness; you can walks me home.” She liked the boy with a big smile. But though he was the only boy she’d consider marrying, she didn’t want him that much. He was distant, never gave her a nickname, and never touched her or talked silly.
But she feared he was saving to pay her father for a marriage contract. She still believed there were new adventures out there. She wanted to see the capital with paved streets and the Western Mountains where the snow never melted. If only she could grasp one of these exploits to escape her father’s cruel ways and clumsy hands.
She walked across Widemouth’s grassy square sheltered by a gnarly oak tree in the middle. Hirin kept pace beside her. He was a head taller, and his wet blond hair hung down to his broad shoulders.
“Wasn’t that great? A wizard came here,” he said. “The rumors must be true.”
She smiled at his enthusiasm but also remembered being sick. “Did you feels anything different when he was here?” she asked but was disappointed when he shook his head. “Weren’t you scared as he flew through the village?”
“Not me,” he said too quickly. She remembered everyone running to hide. “Wouldn’t it be great if they gave a magic show?” he said as they passed back into the market. The rain continued to soak their clothes. “I didn’t believe the rumors about them coming here, but it must be true. What did you hear?”
“I don’t listens to gossip.” She remembered the old wizard stories from school, all the things the wizards did to stop Harpin invading her homeland, monstrous things. Still, she didn’t believe all those stories; some were just to scare her. Stories like Arrox killing everyone in the Barrens were too crazy to believe. It was the kind of story father liked to tell her so she couldn’t sleep. “Never seen no wizard before now. Seeing Sarn would be nice.” She stopped at the crossroads south of the marketplace. “But what about his apprentice, Preem the Bone Crusher? Would you want to sees him too?” The more she thought about it, the more confident she was that the wizard in gray was younger than Sarn the Sage.
“Do you believe the stories about the Crusher?” Hirin said. She shuddered at the thought of how he got his name. But this was probably a lie too. Surely no man would do that to another person.
“Don’t you?” Brodia turned right to follow the River Forks Road toward her farm on the other side of the river. “He mades me sick today.” She confessed finally.
“Like throw-up sick?” he said, she could tell he didn’t believe her. Still, she nodded it was true. “Must be something you ate. I don’t remember stories of men being sick.” She hated his emphasis. “The wizards are good people. Grand Wizard Sarn stopped them in the last war against Harpin, the first kingdom.”
“I would loves to sees old Sarn do his magic and hears his stories.” She imagined sitting on the grass listening to the wise old wizard holding his long staff while telling stories about the Midnight Towers that no one except a wizard had ever seen. Then she remembered the edicts against women. “But I’ll never gets to hears them, given girls can’t goes to the wizard meetings.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll repeat any stories they tell.”
She wanted to punch the fool. Didn’t he get it? It wasn’t that she’d miss the silly story; it was that she couldn’t hear it from the wizard’s own mouth. She trudged along the River Forks Road in the rain, which only worsened her mood. One day, she promised herself, one day, she could stop pretending she was a boy. An awkward silence fell between them.
Beside the last house, she saw two men sheltering from the rain. They wore the long pale-yellow robes of the Brotherhood Against Wizardry. She glared at these men people nicknamed the Daffodils; the stealers of women. One of them smiled, tilting his head to one side as if buying a horse, sending chills down her spine.