In which a young girl demonstrates an unusual use for imaginary friends, and her guardian receives an unwelcome correspondence...
When Thanan was small, she had a couple of imaginary friends. Nothing strange about that, really. Other kids had them, too. Perfectly natural. Maybe Thanan was a bit more attached to hers than most kids, because she was an orphan. At an age when most children were letting go of theirs, Thanan still talked about hers. One of them, she began referring to as her older brother, and named him Vtoric--a common enough name in that region of the west.
It wasn't until Thanan was nine years old, or thereabouts, that things actually got strange. Of course, Thanan had no reason to believe it was strange. To her, Vtoric was a real person, just as many children honestly see their imaginary friends as real. So when she actually asked Vtoric to do something for her--she was thirsty, and wanted a glass of water--she was not at all surprised when he actually brought her one.
Thanan was in the care of Irinan, who cared for several other orphan children of varying ages. She was a kindly enough mother figure, and made sure to teach the children the same sorts of things their parents might have taught them, and maybe a little more. She also made a game, and for the older children, a competition, out of gathering various materials, for Irinan was also the closest thing the village had to an apothecary and healer. She disclaimed either label, along with allaying various suspicions that perhaps she was even more talented than that. Magic was not exactly forbidden in their land, but how well it was tolerated out in the countryside varied from age to age. Irinan was not averse to using a bit of her gift, for in truth, she did have one, but she knew better than to flaunt it.
So of course, the older woman knew when Thanan's "brother" did things for her. She waited to talk to Thanan, though, until one day, Irinan actually was in the same room when Thanan, entirely unaware that it was anything unusual, asked Vtoric to help with the sweeping up in the common room of the house. The other children, fortunately, were all out gathering herbs. This was not entirely an accident. Irinan knew she needed to deal with matters soon, before someone else saw what was going on.
After watching the "two" of them, Thanan and Vtoric, cleaning the room for a short while, Irinan cleared her throat to get Thanan's attention. Rather to her surprise, the broom that "Vtoric" was using continued its work, even as Thanan paused to speak to her. "What is it, Mama Iri?"
"I wanted to talk to you about Vtoric, Tha."
"He hasn't been making mischief again, has he?" the girl replied, and Irinan suppressed her surprise. Now, she was going to have find a discreet way to discover what sort of mischief "Vtoric" had been up to.
"No, not really, Tha, but...come here, child."
Thanan was an obedient girl, by and large, and did as she was bid. "Vtoric", however, continued to sweep. Mind you, Irinan could see no actual person, no spirit, no demon. But the broom continued to move, not idly or mechanically, but as if another person were operating it.
"Tha, dear...look over at Vtoric and tell me what you see."
Puzzled, the child turned and looked. "I see my brother, sweeping quite diligently. He's a very good helper, isn't he? He's quite strong, too. He helped me bring the wood in the other day, and he carried far more than I did!"
Irinan realized now that she had a bigger problem than she'd thought. This girl had stumbled upon a considerable talent, and had no idea she had any at all. For the first time in many years, she cursed the circumstances that had caused her own training to be so scant, particularly in the matter of teaching others. She knew enough, though, to know that this moment was delicate. Every person with the gift had to visualize that gift differently. Many people with the raw talent simply never found the key of their own imagination that unlocked it. If Thanan were dissuaded from believing in Vtoric entirely, her ability to access her talent might simply evaporate.
For one moment, and only one, she seriously thought about doing exactly that. Let the girl live a normal life, here in this village. There were worse places by far.
At the moment of decision, however, there was a knock at the door. Thinking quickly, Irinan said, "Tha, dear, ask Vtoric to lay aside the broom for a moment. We appear to have company." If the girl thought it odd that Mama Iri never addressed her brother directly, she gave no sign. Neither did she speak aloud, yet the broom found its place in the corner.
Taking a deep breath, Irinan opened the door, to find a travel stained young man, his horse hitched to the fence. The man--possibly boy, really--was weary, but also seemed determined to finish whatever it was that had brought him here. "Mistress Irinan?" he asked.
"I am," she replied, discarding the brief temptation to deny it. The boy bore a badge in the shape of a tower, enameled in royal blue. A badge she knew well. Chances were good her likeness had been shared with him directly by someone who knew her. There was no prevaricating here.
His eyes went unfocused, consulting that memory, and then returned to the world in front of them, with a firm nod to himself for good measure. "I have a message for you, Mistress." And with that, he handed her an envelope of stiff parchment. The seal was roughly the same color as his badge, and had the same basic tower shape imprinted in it.
Briefly, she considered asking the boy for information, but she could tell he had been ordered to be discreet. He had called at an hour when she was almost alone in the house, when she had no customers nearby to hear and wonder. The villagers would see him make the delivery, certainly, but as the "wise woman" of the village she often received deliveries.
Instead, she simply took the envelope, and said, "Young man, you have clearly come a long way. Will you rest, or at least take a meal?"
"Thank you, Mistress," he responded, "but I am not yet done for the day." She saw then that he carried a satchel, which looked still quite full. She was nearly positive it contained more envelopes like her own. That told her a great deal, all by itself.
"Very well, young man. But remember you need to eat, and drink. You wouldn't let your horse go without its feed and water, would you?"
The boy blushed, and smiled. "No, Mistress. I promise I will eat a meal at the next village I stop in, which should only be another two hours' ride, I believe."
He had been well briefed, then, on his route, or perhaps had a map. There was, in fact, another village, roughly two hours' ride west, and their inn, in truth, was slightly better than the local one. "Very well, young man. See that you do!"
He smiled again, mounted his horse, and moved along. Irinan closed the door, and then closed her eyes, and sighed a deep sigh.
"What is it, Mama?" In truth, Irinan had almost entirely forgotten Thanan had been standing there the whole time, despite the importance of the conversation that had been interrupted. Now she started, and looked at the girl's concerned eyes very seriously.
"Tha, dear...oh, heavens. I had something important I needed to talk to you about. I still do, and I still will, but right now, I need to read this. Please, go back to cleaning, dear, and I will talk to you in a little while."
The sentence had hardly finished when the broom that "Vtoric" had laid in the corner was busy at work again. Thanan nodded gravely, and picked up her own broom and resumed her work.
Irinan sat down at a table, where she was in plain sight of the girl and the other, phantom sweeper. She must not forget to have that conversation, but the letter must come first. Those who had sent it would know it had been delivered the minute she touched it. To read it and, if it contained what she suspected, then ignore it, would be a crime. To not read it at all could be put down to an old woman's failing memory, but it would have been very, very foolish.
She broke the seal, knowing that the sender would know that, as well, and drew out a parchment dyed a slightly darker blue, with its characters drawn in silver. She read it all the way to the end, without allowing herself to react to its contents. Then read it again, to be sure she had not missed anything, and then a third time, committing not just its content but its image to memory. In another few minutes, the silver ink would fade away to nothing, leaving no trace of writing on the blue-stained page.
Her guess when she saw the boy's satchel had been correct. They were summoning everyone. Even people who had tried hard to be forgotten, like her. Many would ignore it, refuse it, hide from it, she knew. This far west, it would be difficult to compel the recalcitrant, no matter what the law said. Many more would try to make the journey, and fail, for various reasons, travel being always fraught with incidents and accidents. Weather, sickness, highway robbery, animals...any or all of these could beset a traveler and even the best prepared could be bested if their horse tripped on a rock and threw them.
No matter. She was going to have to go. She couldn't take the children, not all of them, so she would need to make arrangements.
But Thanan. Thanan was coming with her. There was really no alternative. If what the letter hinted at was even possible, the girl would need protection, and training.
And if what Irinan suspected of the girl's abilities was true, the Tower would need Thanan, far more than they would need a drop-out like herself.
This is the beginning of a thing I've been ruminating on for a while. The bigger thing it would be a part of doesn't really have a name, yet, but the great thing about having committed myself to short things is, I'm not really worrying about that, yet. Chances are, there will be other chapters of this, and the tags should tie it together, but I'm not really worrying about writing a book or anything. I'm just writing one episode of whatever comes to my brain at a time....