Aren had a talent for attracting chaos. It’s not the kind of talent you want when you’re a man of twenty years old—give or take a year—but you learn to live with it, just like you learn to live with voices screaming in your head at inconvenient times. So, when the two flailing figures came hurtling along the riverbank towards him, Aren only sighed as he set down his book and willow fishing pole. Swatting a bug that had landed on his tan skin, he addressed the black swan that had been preening itself in the river shallows a few feet away. “This is not how I wanted to start my holiday.”
The swan paid Aren no mind as he checked for the blade he usually kept strapped to the outside of his right boot. When his hand brushed against nothing but leather, he cursed under his breath in several dead languages as he reached for his pack. Rifling through it, he found blankets, water, a whistle flute, and the little girl’s beat-up shoes—but where was his knife?
He glanced up at the men, who were closing the distance. They were yelling, waving, stumbling like drunkards kicked out of a tavern. Aren pushed the longer strands of his chestnut-brown hair away from his green eyes. One of the men looked to be carrying a large stick. It was a fishing pole—no, a broken oar. Aren squinted against the late-summer sun sparkling in the river like a shower of broken glass.
“That’s a staff!” Aren said, dropping his pack and scrambling into the tall grasses to find his blade. The swan honked, startled by his sudden movement and the approaching disturbance. It spread its wings, black feathers drifting in its wake as it took off towards Tiede Wood. Aren watched it for a moment, his mind racing. Even the bird knew better than to stick around and take its chances against a mage wielding a staff. Aren had never seen a real mage in action before, but he’d read enough about the magic-wielders to know how deadly they could be. According to the histories, a single mage with a staff could destroy an entire army with a simple spell. “Damn it!” Aren said, trying to quiet the voices fighting for attention in his head. “Why’d it have to be magic?”