The last of the winter snow had finally melted. For most, that was a good thing. It meant an end to the cold days. No more children trapped inside the house to drive their parents crazy. No more worrying about a small chill causing a terrible illness, or the deeply rooted fear that the food might run out before spring. The end of winter was a joyous time for everyone.
Everyone but me. Tessa frowned as she sipped her tea and stared out at the sunrise. She hated spring. Winter was good to her. It meant she could show off her skills by keeping the animals and the people of the town warm and well. Winter was a time of appreciation and gratitude for a farm wizard. Spring meant nothing but work.
Her bright green eyes stared out bitterly at the birds fluttering outside. They twittered happily, splashing in the puddles left by the melting snow. Tessa wondered briefly if anyone would notice if she set them on fire. Probably not worth explaining to the locals why I immolated a bunch of songbirds on the first day of spring. Probably.
She finished the last of her tea. A wave of her hand and a soft incantation, and the cup was clean again. She set it on the counter to await the remedy she would likely need for her sore muscles tonight. With a grimace, she took her cloak off the hook by the door and walked out into the chill morning air.
Her sensible leather boots sloshed in the mud. Tessa straightened her back and adopted the more noble demeanor suited to her station. A wizard, even a farm wizard, was one of the elite. She may only be dealing with peasants here, but the Seminary always expected their wizards to act as though they were about to greet royalty.
The thought of the Seminary brought another frown to her face. They trained almost every wizard in the country, from families both rich and poor. The payment was the same for everyone: Twelve years of service in the role of the Seminary’s choice. Refusal to serve meant punishment, usually in the form of a far worse assignment. And no matter how much you didn’t like your role, there was always a worse one.
Tessa was one of their star pupils. From the time she was a child, she excelled at everything the Seminary had to teach. Everyone said she was destined for greatness. She was hoping for her twelve years to be spent doing research with the great astronomers, or perhaps serving as a mediator for important contracts and treaties. And then, upon her graduation, she was assigned to be a farm wizard at the edge of civilization.
She sighed. She knew farm wizards were essential. Without them, many people would starve. Their magic protected the crops from inclement weather, disease, and parasites. They kept livestock healthy, and usually acted as healers and advisers to the communities they served. But it was also backbreaking physical labor, not to mention twelve long years away from any semblance of academic life. Tessa was afraid that after so long away, her dreams of research and discovery would be a thing of the past.
The voice belonged to Leopold, one of the farmers in town. She smiled graciously as she turned to him with a gentle bow. “Leopold. Good morning. How is Marta?”
The old man’s wrinkled face was cheerful, even at this early hour. “She’s doin’ well. Be out in the fields with the rest of us soon as the baby’s sleepin’ through the night.”
Tessa nodded. “That’s good to hear. I know she’ll be happy to get outside after this winter.”
“It was a bad one, wasn’t it?” Leopold grinned, shading his eyes as he looked toward the rising sun. “But thanks to you, we’re all through it. Even the little ones.”
She bowed again. He was being sincere, as he always was. Leopold always went out of his way to let Tessa know that she was appreciated here. But every time he did, she felt even lonelier and further away from civilization than she was.
Suppressing her resentment, she closed her eyes breathed in deeply. Her expression said she was enjoying the new spring air. Leopold chuckled. “Still our little city girl, even after two years with us. That air’s the best smell in the world.”
Tessa smiled. “It’s a far cry from the Seminary, that’s for sure.” That much was true. The Seminary had been filled with the smell of old books, incense, and lavender. Tessa forced her satisfied smile to remain, even though all she could smell out here was pig shit.
“Well.” She clapped her hands together. “I guess it’s time to get started. Since you’re awake first, shall I start with your field?”
He nodded emphatically. “That’d be an honor.”
An hour later, the sun was hot overhead. Tessa stretched and tossed her cloak over a nearby fence before returning to her work. She drove the shovel deep into the mud, pulling up the dirt and throwing it into the growing pile beside her. The hole had to be deep enough for the clay pot she would be burying in it. She groaned, her back aching. Not for the first time, she wished she could get some help digging the hole. But the magic relied on every step of the ritual being done by her. Everyone knew that the wizards’ enchantments protected the crops. No one ever talked about the work involved.
As she dug, she thought back to her time at the Seminary. Tessa had gone there at the age of six when her powers first started to manifest. Everything she ever tried, she mastered. Spells that some students found impossible, she finished with ease. So why, after all that, was she sent to this?
Driving the shovel in with a bit more force, she thought bitterly of Isabel. One of her classmates and probably her best friend at the Seminary, Isabel had been assigned to the High Magistrate's office. She wrote to Tessa occasionally. There was always some great matter that she was involved with. Tessa wanted to be happy for her, but it was difficult. Not bad for someone who could barely cast a basic enchantment. I wish I could've gone with her.
Tessa was not ungrateful for the opportunities that the Seminary had given her. It was much better than anything she had to look forward to in the slum she had been born in. But she felt wasted here. Surely someone with her prowess belonged in a more influential position. Was she being punished for something?
The hole was finally deep enough. Tessa wiped the mud from her hands with a heavy sigh of resignation, then walked the few steps to where the clay pot waited. It was filled with water, and she knew exactly how heavy it would be. I bet Isabel has an army of servants to carry all the heavy things. Lucky. She put her hands on the handles, steeling her resolve and preparing her muscles.
A loud noise broke through her thoughts. It wasn’t a typical sound from the farm. She looked up, trying to figure out where it came from. It sounded again. It reminded her of distant thunder. Or perhaps . . .
Tessa looked towards the edge of the field. The farm wasn’t that close to the wastelands. Even though the town was located on lush and fertile land, the mutants had never ventured this far in before. But that was gunfire. She was sure of it now. So what else could it be?
All thought of the protective enchantment forgotten, she ran toward the sound. She shouted to Leopold, who was leading a plow horse nearby. “Get everyone to the shelter, quick!”
“What about you?” He looked confused.
“I’ll be fine, trust me. Just go!”
Without looking back to see if he had listened, she kept running. As she reached the far edge of the field, the first of them broke through the trees.
It was huge. A giant, twisted and corrupted by the radioactive fallout of the wastelands. In its massive hands was a gun the size of a tree trunk. Tessa had learned all about the ancient weaponry the mutants used. This would propel an explosive big enough to level the entire village. She raised her hands and started chanting, hoping she hadn’t lost her touch.
The mutant grinned, its razor-sharp teeth stained with blood and gore. With a terrifying laugh, it fired the weapon. Tessa finished her chant just as the sound echoed over the hills. The rocket left the barrel, then immediately went back inside as if pushed by some invisible hand. When it exploded, it blew the gun and the mutant to smithereens.
Tessa could smell the burning flesh from where she stood. There was no time to celebrate, however, as ten more of the mutants rushed in. These, fortunately, carried smaller guns. She conjured up a ball of lightning and hurled it at the nearest one, leaving him twitching on the ground. The next two fired their weapons at her. A bullet grazed her left arm and made her shriek in pain.
Focus, Tessa. They gave you pain. Channel it. Show them what pain means.
The training from her days at the Seminary came back in force. She breathed in slowly. As she exhaled, she raised both hands with palms open toward the mutants. A moment later, she clenched them shut. With a roar, the ground opened up and swallowed her enemies, snapping shut as soon as they were gone. Tessa kept her focus on the spell, driving them deeper and deeper underground. There would be no digging their way out of this.
When she was sure there were no more coming, she allowed her legs to fall out beneath her. She was exhausted. But she felt more alive than she had in years. She finally understood. This was why they sent her here instead of the Capitol with Isabel. She was here to protect the edge of civilization from the threats beyond. Tessa wasn’t being punished. Her skills were being put to use in the best way possible.
Leopold was rushing towards her. “That was . . . I’ve never seen anythin’ like it. You ripped the ground right open and swallowed ‘em up!” He gave a whoop of glee. “We’re the luckiest farmers in creation, havin’ you here for protection.”
Protection. Tessa turned back to look at the clay pot. With a groan and a heavy sigh, she laid down in the mud to rest for a moment before finishing the ritual that would keep the insects away from the crops.
One field almost done. Only thirty-eight to go.