This one’s a bit longer than usual because there really wasn’t anywhere earlier to break it. It’s in a setting that I came up with originally for a completely different story that hasn’t yet gotten past the outline stage; I’m hoping for three or four stories there eventually.
Veran heard her father’s voice as she approached the house. He sounded angry. She hoped he wasn’t mad at her – she hadn’t been out that long, and he hadn’t actually told her to stay in the house.
“…boys for miles in every direction are already sniffing around her, and if we don’t…”
He stopped abruptly when Veran lifted the latch. She peered around the door to see her father standing in the middle of the room, arms raised, while her mother sat quietly in her rocking chair. Veran’s mother’s mouth was tight, and she was looking down at her hands, not at her husband – so she was angry, too.
They had probably been arguing, then, and Veran probably wasn’t the target of her father’s ire after all. She smiled as she stepped into the house, pretending she hadn’t heard anything.
Her father had not merely stopped talking; he seemed to be holding his breath. Now he let it out in a sigh as he looked at her. “Veran,” he said. “Where have you been?”
“Playing down by the river,” she said.
Her parents exchanged glances. “Who were you playing with?” her mother asked.
“Gorbin, and Dalleth, and the Weaver girls.”
“That sounds all right,” her father said. “But remember – ”
“There must always be another girl,” Veran said, completing his sentence. “I know.” She closed the door.
There was a sudden howl of wind, and the entire house shook; all three of them froze in astonishment.
“What was that?” Veran’s sister Helria called from the attic.
“I don’t know,” her father called back. He turned to Veran, and started to ask a question.
Before he had gotten beyond, “Did you…” there was a heavy knock at the door.
Startled, Veran whirled around.
“Was there someone following you?” her mother asked. She sounded worried.
“No!” Veran said. “The Weavers went home, so I came back, and Dalleth and Gorbin were still splashing around when I left. I didn’t see anyone else!” She didn’t mention that at least half an hour had elapsed between Alzi and Morin’s departure and her own.
The knock sounded again. Veran looked to her father for guidance.
“Who is it?” he bellowed.
“One who you would be unwise to offend, Larzam of Korbek!”
“The wizard,” Veran’s mother gasped.
“Open the door, girl,” her father barked.
Veran hurriedly turned and obeyed.
Wind swirled in the instant the latch released, and flung the door back against the wall, revealing a tall old man in a flowing black robe, his long white hair and beard fluttering in the breeze. His eyes were so pale a blue they almost seemed to glow, and Veran stared at his face, fascinated.
This, she realized, must be Algath Skybreaker, the wizard who lived atop the Gray Mountain and ruled the surrounding valleys – including the one her family lived in.
He stared back at her.
“Dread master,” her father said, kneeling. “What can I do for you?”
The wizard kept his gaze locked on Veran’s face; she was becoming very nervous, but did not dare look away. “This girl,” he said. “She is your daughter?”
“Yes, my lord. Her name is Veran.”
“How old is she?”
Veran blinked. Why was the wizard here, and asking about her?
“Thirteen, my lord.” His voice shook slightly.
The wizard’s expression changed; he cocked his head to one side, looking thoughtful. Veran tore her eyes away and glanced at her parents.
Her father looked nervous, but her mother, usually so calm in appearance, looked terrified. Veran swallowed uneasily, and turned her attention back to the wizard.
“That’s too young,” he said, not addressing anyone in particular. “But then, it may take some time to arrange matters and prepare her.”
Her father cleared his throat, and the wizard raised his gaze, looking over Veran’s head at him.
“Prepare her for what, my lord?”
“For what I have in mind,” the wizard replied. “I have a use for a beautiful woman, and my magic tells me that this girl has the potential to be by far the most beautiful woman in the Six Valleys.”
Veran blinked. Beautiful? Her?
“We… we had noticed her beauty, my lord. It has been… we have been concerned about it.”
“The local boys, my lord – they’re taking an interest. But as you say, she’s still too young!”
The wizard frowned. He looked down at Veran again. “Then perhaps we can come to an arrangement that will please us both.” He thought for a moment.
Veran wanted to say something – she had a hundred questions, and besides, they were talking about her as if she wasn’t even here – but she didn’t know how to talk to a wizard. And Algath Skybreaker, Lord of the Six Valleys, Master of the Gray Mountain, was not just any wizard; he was the ruler of the entire area. His magic permeated earth and sky for miles in every direction, and everyone who lived in the Six Valleys did so at his sufferance. He made the soil fertile, and kept away crows and locusts that would eat the crops. His magic cleansed the water and made it safe to drink. She couldn’t just talk to him as if he was an ordinary man.
And then she had missed her chance, as the wizard said, “I will have need of your daughter at some point in the future; I can’t say exactly when. Until that time, she will be under my protection, and anyone who would harm her, or touch her against her will, does so at his peril. I will provide you with rich fabrics, fine thread, and jewels, and you will see to it that she has clothing befitting her new role; if you and your wife are not capable of sewing suitable garments, I will find another to undertake the task. Beginning on her fifteenth birthday… ah, but wait. Do you consider a girl of fifteen to be of marriageable age?”
Veran turned to see her parents’ reaction; they were staring at one another.
“Sixteen,” her mother said.
The wizard sighed. “Very well. Her sixteenth birthday, then. From that day on she must always dress and conduct herself as if she were a king’s daughter, so that should she be snatched away without warning and brought to a royal court, she will give no evidence of her humble origins, but will appear to be a princess of the highest breeding. If you feel yourselves incapable of training her in the manners appropriate to a woman of high station, a tutor can be provided.”
“I… I think that would be a good idea, my lord,” her father said. “We’re just ordinary folk.”
The wizard nodded. “I will see to it that, however ordinary you may be, you will be very successful folk, for as long as you obey these instructions to my satisfaction.”
“Oh, yes. As long as you remain in my domain, and do as I have told you, your every enterprise will be met with good fortune. No vermin will trouble you. Whatever you may grow in your garden shall bear plentifully, and game shall present itself to you to be trapped or shot. Any man who displeases you will displease me, as well.”
“But… I don’t understand, my lord. Do you intend to wed my daughter?”
“Me?” The wizard jerked upright as if stung. “Me? By the good earth, no! I have no interest in children, no matter how lovely.”
“Then… I don’t understand.”
“I have a use for a woman of exceptional beauty. Your daughter will become such a woman, and there is no other in all the Six Valleys who will be her equal in the next hundred years. I am setting forth the terms under which you will grant me your daughter for my purpose.”