There is a difference in the air. At first Illean thought it no more than the fresh, clean scent that follows a night of storm. She cupped her mug in her hands for warmth as she frowned at the deep blue of the sky.
No indication of the tempest that had roared over the island only hours past remained. Her bare feet took her down the cliff path to the sands below, and she stood quietly and watched the gulls as they fought over a tidbit left behind by the storm. Her gaze traveled over the breaking waves.
Her cottage was the on the farthest promontory of the farthest island of the Green Isles, and her view to the north was the immense, uncharted Great Northern Sea. Legend said all life in the Seven Kingdoms had come from the north, from beyond the Sea, but nothing had come out of the north since the day the dragons had been Called, and that was a thousand years in the past. Illean half-closed her eyes and studied the gray waves.
The difference is in the sea as well. Illean stilled as she absorbed the strangeness, tasted it, tried to define it. The air and the sea, oddly changed in the night.
The answer came, shocking in its suddenness and clarity, and the clay mug, made for her by the village potter, fell to the sands unheeded as Illean sprinted up the path to her stone cottage.
She flew through the small cottage, pulling out drawers and emptying baskets as she mentally chastised herself. Her sleep had been plagued with dreams, dreams of fire and smoke, and she had waked unrested. That was the excuse she allowed herself for not noticing.
Her swift movements stopped suddenly as her gaze fell on the open door.
The view from this cliff top was one Illean had never tired of in her time in the Green Isles; the sound of the sea birds; the rhythm of the waves that lulled her to sleep; the scent of salt that filled her every breath. She took one long moment to imprint the memories before finishing her packing. When she was done, she headed down the dirt path that led to the village, away from the Great Northern Sea, and she never looked back.
They found her halfway to the village. Swooping through the clear skies, invisible to sight, but Illean felt them, and they felt her, swirling all around her. The very sand she strode on was lifted up by the air, forming mini-cyclones that Illean tried in vain to swat away. She headed into the village surrounded by them, but any fears she might have had of being conspicuous faded.
The village; normally as quiet and placid as an inland pond, especially during the daylight hours, with the men at sea. The children would be in the one room schoolhouse practicing their penmanship, or their spelling, or sums. If not there, they would be with Illean herself, in the small hills and meadows to the south, learning herb-lore and the ways of nature, or reciting the old legends with Tomas. The few adults left in the village would have their own occupations, baking and weaving, mending the nets. Until the boats returned, near sundown, life in the village was peaceful.
But not today. The children filled the main square, leaping and shouting in happy voices, trying with joy to catch unseen objects. The adults not at sea, including, Illean saw, the headman Jaim, his wife Emma, and the island schoolmaster, stood and watched the laughing children with bemused eyes.
Illean wove her way through the children to Jaim and Emma. The headman’s wife turned her gaze to Illean, her face filled with awe. “Can you feel it?”
Illean smiled faintly. “I can feel it.”
“Is it…” Emma hesitated.
“Is it magic?” Illean asked for her, and Emma nodded. “Yes. These,” Illean waved her hand around at the swirling airs, “are the air elementals.” She found her eyes following the tiny tornados as they whisked a feather into the sky, or grabbed the long, loose hair of one of the young girls, making it stand on end while the girl giggled.
Jaim sat down abruptly. “Air elementals. They have not been seen in the Seven Kingdoms for a thousand years.” He looked at Illean accusingly. “Not since the wizards died.”
“No,” Illean said. “Not for a thousand years.”
“Are you sure?”
Schoolmaster Daveid, who had lived on the island only a half dozen years, overheard and moved closer. “Scholar Illean is correct,” he told the headman. “None of us have ever seen them, but she’s right.” His voice was filled with a shy wonder as he watched the air elementals gather round Illean, whipping her clothing and hair mischievously.
A smile lit up Illean’s face, and she turned to Jaim and spoke more firmly. “I am leaving Last Isle.”
“What?” Jaim looked surprised. “Leaving? But why? Because of the sprites?”
“Yes.” Illean sat down next to him, and Jaim looked in sudden alarm at the packs she carried.
“But the return of the air sprites is a good thing,” he exclaimed. “It means the return of magic. Doesn’t it?” he asked anxiously, and Illean nodded.
“Yes, Jaim, that’s exactly what it means.”
“And you go to find out more? You go to the other Kingdoms?” Emma seemed to understand more quickly than her husband, and Illean nodded again.
“All the books, all the learning, all the legends, none of it will be the same now. I must find out what is new.”
“But why do you have to leave? Can’t you find things out here?” Jaim asked.
Illean raised her eyebrows. “Jaim, this village is the only village on the smallest, northernmost island of the smallest, northernmost Kingdom in all the Seven Kingdoms. The elementals came out of the north. That means they’re heading south. And so I am going south. I must know more.”
“You mean you want to know more,” Jaim corrected her.
Illean waved her hand, dismissing the words. “I am leaving, Jaim, Emma. I’m sorry, but I need to do this.”
“But who will teach the children?” Jaim asked. This new Illean, this changed Illean, seemed to confuse him.
“Daveid will,” Illean told him. “As he always has.”
“Well, yes,” Daveid said agreeably, “but you and Tomas have helped these past few years.”
“What about the fishing fleet?” Jaim asked sharply.
“What about them?” Illean was taken by surprise at his question.
“How will they know where the fish are feeding?”
Illean was astonished. “I have never told the fishermen where to cast their nets.”
“That one time you did,” Jaim said stubbornly. “You said they should go east past the last channel, and they did, and that’s where the fish were.”
“I told them that because I saw the boats from two islands over fishing there,” Illean told him, “and they were already headed there anyway. Jaim, I would never presume to the tell any of the men where to look for fish.”
“The translations.” Jaim used his last argument. “You’ve been working on them for over two years.”
“I have been assisting,” Illean stressed the word, “Tomas at his work. He’s been working on those translations far longer than I. Jaim, you are inventing excuses.”
“But where will you go?” Emma asked.
Illean sniffed in contemplation. “I must see Cowen first,” she said. “Beyond that, I am unsure.”
Jaim frowned. “Cowen?”
“Yes. Can you sail me over to King’s Isle?”
“Yes,” Jaim said, giving in with a sigh. “Very well, Illean. If you must leave, I will sail you off the island myself.”
“Thank you, Jaim. Emma, the salve for Malcolm is on the shelf in my kitchen, in the green pot. There should be enough for a couple of months. Tell him to go to Mirra over on Tall Isle when he needs more. She knows the way of it.”
Emma nodded. “What of your books?”
“I have what I need. Daveid, go through them and take what you like. Give the rest to Tomas.”
“When do you need to leave?” Jaim asked.
Illean hefted her packs. “Now is good.”
Jaim led Emma and Illean down towards the tiny harbor, while Daveid stayed with the village children. Illean watched the headman’s worried face and finally spoke. “They will not stay. The air sprites, I mean. Most of them will be gone by the morning.”
“Gone?” Emma asked sharply. “But why? Where will they go?”
“They are of the air, Emma. They will go wherever the breezes take them. Some will stay,” she reassured the woman, “and others will come and go with the winds. You must find Tomas,” she said suddenly. “He has books that speak of the elementals, and he’ll be able to tell you more. Look for them,” she added, “when the storms sweep the island. They’ll watch out for you if you let them.”
Emma’s face grew thoughtful at Illean’s last comment. They were nearing the harbor, and when Jaim stopped dead in his tracks Illean nearly walked into him.
Her gaze followed his.
The fishing fleet was coming into the harbor and the sun had not even reached midday.
“Of course,” Illean whispered. “The sea was different too.”
Jaim and Emma looked at her in confusion, and Illean waved her hands at the approaching boats. The nets on the decks were full, after a bare three hours of fishing.
“The water elementals have also returned.”
The three watched as the tiny wavelets that surrounded the fleet rose and fell, pushing the boats towards the docks. Illean thought she could see forms in the water, tiny figures that slipped from ship to ship, the joy in their movements almost visible.
The men, and the women who rushed down to the docks from the village to help with off loading the catch, were too caught up in the amazement and wonder of the day to pay much attention to Jaim’s announcement that he was sailing Illean to the King’s Isle. Illean knew she should feel slighted that her departure went practically unnoticed, but she felt nothing more that a sense of relief. Partings had always been painful for her, though she’d known since her first day in the Kingdom of the Green Isles that one day she would leave. She’d come for the books, ancient books passed down from one island family to the next. Books that spoke of legends, books that told stories of death and dragons, wizards and magic. But now the magic was returning, and Illean no longer needed to read about it in books.
In the end it was only Jaim, Emma and Tomas, who had joined them at the last moment, to see her off the island.
It was hard to say goodbye to Tomas. Illean and the old man had grown close in the two years since she had begun working with him. Tomas, Illean always felt, though he buried himself in books written in a dead language, knew more than he ever let anyone realize.
“Where will you go after King’s Isle?” he asked, and Illean shook her head.
“I don’t know, Tomas.”
He nodded and hugged her with his thin arms. “I will read the legends, and see what I can find. Send word if you can.”
A fresh breeze caught the sail, the air elementals hugging the sail with glee, and Jaim kept the small boat running south as he skirted the northern tip of Maribel Island and headed towards the open sea that led to the Passage. A half day at least, usually, Illean knew, down the deep channel to where King’s Isle faced Grand Island across the Passage of Arvath. The sprites would cut the journey in half. They would be at the King’s Isle by midafternoon.
The small boat leapt, heading southwest, and Illean kept her eyes always forward.
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