Blazing jets of dragon’s breath blasted through the coffin-shaped box, melting Staleem’s amulet onto his forearm. A wave of exhaustion passed through his tortured body as his magic drained away into the flames, leaving him semi-conscious and only semi-breathing. The harsh stench of his burning hair, combined with the green smoke from his weathercloth gowns, filled the Punishment Room. The sickly concoction wound its way around the corners of dozens of torture and correctional implements, and hung in the air between them, thickening the atmosphere.
Eventually the smoke turned sulphurous yellow and Judge Fremmet clicked his fingers. Two guards stepped forward and turned the large wooden wheels at either side of the small stage. A third pulled a huge, polished lever in the wall. Thick metal chains engaged, clunking as the firebox lifted out of the pit, and tilted back to an upright position. Staleem found himself standing, the soles of his feet blistering against the red-hot footplate.
The hinges of the firebox door screeched and Staleem fell forward, banging his head on the stonework at the feet of his accuser, Baraben Locklier. Even with his nostrils full of smoke, the scent of wallcreeper flower perfume emanating from Baraben was unmistakable.
Each of the three guards threw two buckets of icy blacklake water over the cowering man. They washed away the remnants of his wizard’s garments, cooled his naked flesh and healed his wounds. His hair would grow back, but his weathercloth was gone for good.
Judge Fremmet stiffened on his marlwood podium. ‘Staleem Mentasis, you have been found guilty of arson, destroying six Kaymar houses. As we could not recover your wand from the fire you started, we could not use it to strip you of your power. Instead your magic has been removed by a dragon’s breath cleanse, which offers at least some poetic justice.’ He paused for breath. ‘You may no longer practice as a wizard in the lands of Kaymar.’
The Judge waved his hand towards a folded grey cloak on the corner of the stage. A guard stepped forward and helped Staleem to his feet, another fetched the cloak and helped him into it, still dripping and shivering from the blacklake dowsing.
‘But it wasn’t me. I keep telling you.' His voice cracked in his scorched throat. 'I didn’t start the fire, my wand was stolen.’
‘A shred of your fancy gown was found at the house, as you know. You are, were, the only wizard in Kaymar to own weathercloth since Professor Killiban died and left his to his sister, Caramant in Yali.’ Judge Fremmet spat on the floor.
‘Did you have to destroy it? It was my father’s only bequest.’
‘Since it would only work for its rightful owner, you, we had no use for it. And since you are now stripped of your powers, there seemed little point in you keeping it. It would be nothing but a dull, lifeless gown. Much like the one you are wearing now.’
‘Is there any way I can regain my magic?’
‘If you can prove your innocence and recover your wand, we can use it to restore your abilities with any firespell. But this seems highly unlikely. It was concluded by the courts that your wand was destroyed in the fire you started with it.’
‘I wasn’t even there. I was home looking for my wand, I didn’t even realise it had been stolen until I was arrested.’
‘Mr Mentasis! We heard your story over and over in the courtroom and were not convinced then.' The Judge toyed with his quill. 'It seems a terrible coincidence that the house in which the fire started was that of your long-standing rival, Baraben Locklier.’
Baraben shuffled his feet and bowed his head. Staleem stared intently at the other wizard.
Judge Fremmet banged his gavel. ‘This case is complete, and my word is final. Just be grateful I’m not sentencing you to any time in Kangafell!’ The Judge gestured to the guards and they roughly ushered Staleem out of the Punishment Room through the back door, dumping him unceremoniously in the filthy alley behind the courthouse.
It only took a few moments for Staleem’s eyes to adjust to the dingy light, but his nose did not adjust to the rotten stench. At least he’d had a trial, and avoided the attention of Judge Randour or Judge Brekon. They were jointly responsible for the decomposing bodies of the luckless defendants he was now picking his way through. And, therefore, for the deathflies that buzzed round them.
Staleem wandered through the cobbled streets, between crooked, half-timbered, houses and crowded drakbeer dens until he reached the site of the blaze. The three tell-tale lightning bolt scorches in the ground had almost completely faded now, but they proved it had been his wand that started the fire. There was the spikey wallcreeper vine curling over the remains of the ground floor brickwork. That very vine had played host to the ripped weathercloth that had sealed Staleem’s fate.
The fact that his robes had no signs of a tear, and no missing fabric, had been ignored by Judge Fremmet and denied by his advisors. ‘The accused must have repaired the garments.’ They’d said.
Staleem stepped through the gap where the front door would have been and kicked at the ash in the once rustic kitchen. Now that his trial was over the burned-out houses were no longer off limits. If, by some miracle, his wand had still been there after the Council had searched, it had probably been taken by looters while Staleem was detained at the pleasure of the Court. He sifted his way through the debris anyway, checking all six devastated homes.
The moon was high when he finally gave up and went back to his own humble dwelling. He was greeted at the door by his mother, Marinett, trembling in the candlelight.
‘A messenger came and said you’d been released hours ago. Where have you been?’ She reached out her arms to hug him.
‘Looking for my wand.’
‘At the Locklier house?’
‘Yes, and all the others.’
‘You should stay away, Son. Stay away from there, they’ll say you’re up to no good.’
‘I need to find my wand. It could prove my innocence and get me my powers back.’
‘They’ve taken your magic?’
‘Yes, and burned Father’s weathercloth gowns.’ A tear escaped Staleem’s eye.
‘I suppose that makes Baraben the Helm Wizard of Kaymar?’
‘They’re holding the ceremony in two days.’ Staleem’s fists clenched and he dropped his gaze.
‘What will you do my love?’ Marinett put her hand on his shoulder.
‘I don’t know, maybe ask for work at Hailem’s farm. I’ve always been good with the animals there.’
Hailem was receptive to the idea and Staleem started milking the very next day.
‘It’s strange to see you doing anything by hand!’ Hailem said, as Staleem pulled his milking stool up to the eighth grengoat that morning.
‘I suppose it must be. It feels strange too. And not having a wand is unnatural.’
‘I don’t trust the new Helm Wizard you know. I think he consorts with that lot over at Yali.’ He spat on the ground.
‘Yes, I avoid the place myself. What makes you think Baraben is going over there?’
‘I saw him with a red-haired wench wearing their colours. Dressed in velvet she was, neat hair, silversight jewellery, monied I’d wager.’
‘He brought her here? To Kaymar?’
‘Yes, bold as breel. He was stinking of wallcreeper flowers and she was carrying one of those gowns over her arm, like the one you had. It changed colour with the clouds and shone bright yellow when the sun came out.’
‘Weathercloth! Are you sure?’
‘Absolutely. Baraben wanted to buy my sourmilk but I refused to sell. Not while he was with that Yalian.’ He spat again. ‘Can’t trust ‘em since the war.’
‘What did he want with sourmilk? Don’t you usually sell it to the blacksmiths for their fires?’
‘That’s right, it goes straight from my stellcows down to the smithy. I don’t think wizards can get a license for it anyway. Dangerous stuff in the wrong hands.’
Staleem finished his work, collected his pay, and ran home. As soon as the sun went down he pulled on his boots and wound his way through the village to the smithy. Carfall was still there, but the others had gone for the day, as he had hoped.
‘Evening friend.’ Said the blacksmith, removing his gloves as Staleem approached.
‘Evening Carfall.’ Staleem reached out his hand and they shook. 'How goes it?’
‘Better for me than for you, I hear.’ He pulled his gloves back on and pushed a black metal bar into the forge.
‘Yes, though at least I wasn’t sent to Kangafell for something I didn’t do.’
‘What are you doing for pay?’
‘Hailem’s farm. He’s always been good to me. Actually, it’s because of him that I’m here. He mentioned that Baraben was poking around after some sourmilk, but Hailem refused to sell it to him.’
‘Sourmilk? Yes, he was here asking for that too. He thought I didn’t see, but waiting round the corner was a girl in Yali colours,’ he spat, ‘and a weathercloth robe. I didn’t give him any, but a small jug was missing from the stores the next day. None of my men knew what happened to it, but I caught the scent of wallcreeper in the barn.’
‘Did you report it missing?’
‘Yes, but Fremmet wasn’t interested.’
‘You reported it to Judge Fremmet? And he didn’t mention it at my trial?! I’ve been truly set up.’
‘You think Baraben set the house alight to get you fired?’
‘Or worse. And it sounds like the Judge was in on it. Explains why I wasn’t tried by Randour or Brekon. I was grateful for that until just now. But at least they use evidence.’
‘Why would he need sourmilk?’
‘There were three lightning bolt scorches in the ground at the house, proving it was my wand that set the fire. But he would have needed something to make it catch.’ Staleem took a deep breath. ‘He’s a water wizard and mine’s a fire wand. It would only produce sparks for him, not enough to burn a house to the ground. But with enough sourmilk…’
‘I thought a Helm Wizard could control any wand?’
‘He’s not the Helm Wizard, yet. I was at the time. I think the ceremony to make him Helm is tomorrow night. After that he’ll be able to do whatever he wants with my wand, as long as he finds a way to hide the lightning bolt marks.’
‘And it seems he’s got friends in Yali.’ Carfall spat on his coals. ‘We don’t want them gaining his powers.’ He pulled the metal bar from the fire and placed the tip on his anvil.
‘Can you fight him?’ Sparks flew as Carfell brought his hammer down.
‘Without magic?’ Staleem shook his head. ‘I need my wand back, and someone to cast a firespell on me with it.’
‘Baraben’s staying with his parents since the fire. Maybe your wand’s in their house?’
Staleem crept up under the open kitchen window of the thatched cottage on the edge of town and settled on the grass to listen in. It wasn’t long before the scent of wallcreeper flowers tickled his nose.
‘I’m so excited for the ceremony tomorrow.’ It was a female voice with a local accent.
‘Yes Ma, me too. Helm Wizard Baraben Locklier! Sounds very grand. And I’ll be able to move you into a new house, closer to town, with a tile roof and a garden.’
‘It’s a shame I can’t be there.’ A second female with a sing-song Yalian accent. Caramant!
‘We have to keep you out of the way until we’re married. I wish you wouldn’t come into town with me at all until then, or at least wear Kaymarian clothes.’
‘I can’t dress like a Kaymarian, it’s an insult to my parents. And even if I did, they’d still see my red hair. I can’t cast a new colourspell every day.’
‘Then you'll have to stay here and hide until Judge Fremmet marries us. Once that’s done we can combine our powers and he’ll help us take over. Two Helm Wizards ruling Kaymar. With my water powers and your command of the air, Judges Randour and Brekon will regret choosing Staleem Mentasis over me!’
‘And we have fire too, with this!’
Staleem tensed as he imagined Caramant brandishing his wand. As Helm Wizard of Yali she would have the powers to use it to its full.
‘Yes, we just need an earth wand and nothing will stop us.’
‘Doesn’t Brekon’s niece have earth powers?’ asked Baraben’s mother. ‘I’m sure I heard that somewhere.’
‘I think she does.’ Said Baraben. ‘I think she does.’
‘This fire wand feels strong. I want to try it out.’ Caramant said.
‘Put it down. You’re attracting way too much attention as it is!’ said Baraben.
Staleem took his chance. He stood up from under the window and stared into the kitchen, coming face to face with Caramant in her green and blue velvet.
‘Who are you?’ she demanded, taking a step back.
‘It’s that filthy Staleem! Listening to our plans!’ Baraben said.
Caramant raised the fire wand in her right hand, aiming it directly at Staleem. She brought her left hand to her hip in a circular motion, summoning power from her core. A small fireball appeared, hovering above her fingers, its swirling reds and yellows glowing with heat.
‘Stop!’ Baraben reached for the fire wand but it was too late.
Caramant shook both hands towards Staleem, casting the fireball into the air and pointing the wand to guide it between Staleem's eyes.
Staleem stood firm and let the flames hit him full on. The heat felt good, a bolt of power coursing through him. It travelled through his body, recharging him, bringing his dormant magic back to life. He raised his fingers to eye level as a red and yellow aura built around his forearms and hands, tingling his skin.
Baraben grabbed for his own wand and followed the fireball with an icy wave. The water crashed through the open window. Staleem side-stepped the waterspell and called to his wand, noting the three lightning bolt scorches that had appeared on the ground where he stood. Alongside them, the symbol of a sail was also forming from the waterspell cast by Baraben. Evidence was mounting, evidence that Randour and Brekon might take seriously, especially with the testimonies of the farmer and the blacksmith.
The fire wand spun in Caramant’s hand, burning her skin and forcing her to release her grip. It flew through the air, out of the window, and stopped, floating level with Staleem’s chest. Staleem grabbed it and ran.
‘Caramant! Stop him! Whip up a whirl wind and bring him back!’
‘And have my mark made on the ground too? I’d be found as guilty as you and I’m not even supposed to be here. You deal with him. I’m going back to Yali before they find me. If I cross the border they can’t try me here.’
Caramant ran to the door, taking only her air wand. When she was far enough from the cottage so as not to be blamed for attacking Staleem, she conjured a tornado to speed her over the border. The outline of a cloud, left in the bark of a tree, marked the spot where she had used her wand.
Staleem sped to Judge Brekon’s house and hammered on the grand, arched, door with both fists. It was opened by Leemona, a timid, yellow haired, servant in a black and white uniform.
‘Quiet! Please! Do you know whose house this is?’
‘Yes, I do. I need to speak with the Judge immediately. His niece is in danger.’
‘What’s all this noise?’ The Judge appeared on the grand stairs at the back of the marlwood panelled hallway, smoking a cigar.
Brekon took Staleem into his library, where Staleem presented his wand and told his story. Brekon sent messengers to fetch his niece, farmer Hailem and Carfell the blacksmith. They all arrived within the hour and his niece was left in the protective custody of four of Kaymar’s finest soldiers. Hailem and Carfell were questioned thoroughly, and Judge Brekon sat back in his chair.
‘It takes six hours for wand markers to start fading.’ Brekon waved his servant over. ‘Leemona! Send soldiers to the house of Baraben Locklier. Have them arrest him and his companions, tell them to look for wand markers. I want to know how many there are, where they are, and what they are. Don’t brief them about why, or what to expect.’
The soldiers returned with Baraben and his mother in shackles. They also brought Caramant’s weathercloth gown. It sat grey and dull in their hands but when they passed it to Staleem and asked him to identify it, it turned as black as the night, and silver dotted constellations appeared in the fabric. Upon examination a small square of fabric had been cut from the gown, the exact size of the piece used to frame Staleem.
‘It may not be your father’s, but it seems it has decided that you are its rightful owner.’ Said Judge Brekon. ‘Keep it. And here’s your wand too.’
Helm Wizard Staleem Mentasis wandered home, dazed from drakbeer, after his reinstatement party. He passed the entrance to the alleyway that ran behind the courthouse. A whiff of rotting flesh caught in his nostrils and along with it came the familiar scent of wallcreeper flowers.