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Otto Shenk sat at a desk outside Franken Manor, a sprawling mansion not much smaller than the royal palace. A ledger, its first page half filled with names, rested in front of him while a line of wizards waiting to be interviewed stretched across the lawn. The turnout surprised him. After Wolfric announced the restoration of all wizards’ rights, Otto had assumed at best a third would volunteer to join the army. From the numbers on the lawn he guessed he’d underestimated by half.
The sky above was leaden and gray but at least it wasn’t raining; with fall fast approaching he expected the cold wet rains to arrive soon enough. The weather this time of year controlled much of what they could do. Once winter arrived that was it, most travel would be shut down, and forget about fighting in Straken. The snow would make that impossible.
He’d had almost no rest since the king’s funeral last week. Following his meeting with Lord Karonin at her tower, he had volunteered to turn the estate into a training area for the new company of wizards they planned to raise, the War Wizards. It hadn’t been difficult to convince his father-in-law, the estate’s owner, especially when Otto explained that, in thanks, the Crown would be refunding their property taxes.
So far Otto had found twenty-two people with sufficient power to be useful on the battlefield. Men and women who for their entire lives had been looked down upon as lesser and dangerous, now had their moment to shine.
Magic was what would win the war and see Garenland become the center of a new empire. When the ordinary people saw how valuable wizards could be, they would be quick to accept them as equals. Or at the very least they’d realize messing with them would be unwise given their power. One way or the other, Otto intended to see wizards take their proper place as respected members of society.
Now that he knew how to use them, several of the items from Lord Karonin’s armory would be a great help in the coming war. But first he needed wizards to wield them—most of them anyway.
He shook the stray thought away. He could explore his new magical toys later.
A lot had to go right before he and Wolfric could see their dreams come true. A chill breeze sent a shiver down his spine. If winter came early this year, their hopes of defeating Straken before the snows fell would come up short.
Speaking of Wolfric, he had already ordered the Northern Army to deploy and secure their northern province. It would take a few days for the three legions of soldiers to march and they would have to do it without wizards to support them. At least at first. Otto figured he needed a minimum of three weeks to get a few units up to speed enough for them to be useful.
He focused on the next person in line, a woman about thirty, dressed in grimy, soot-covered clothes. She refused to meet his gaze, instead looking a fraction to his left.
“Your name?” Otto asked.
“Tabitha, my lord.” Her voice was strong and steady even if her gaze wasn’t.
Otto made a note in his ledger. “Tabitha, welcome. How many threads can you wield?”
“Six, my lord.”
“Splendid. Show me.”
She blinked like a fish just yanked from the river. “What do you want me to do?”
“Just conjure them from your hand and make them glow. Nothing complicated, just enough to demonstrate your strength.”
Her face scrunched in concentration and she turned her hands palms up. Six thin threads of ether shot up from her fingers. Not terribly potent, but good enough to make the cut.
“That’s fine, thank you.” Otto jotted another note. “Please take your place with the other new recruits.”
She bowed and moved a little way off to the side to join the others that had passed the first test. He sighed and looked down the line. Another fifty waited to be tested. If the ratios held, half of them would be strong enough to be of use and he’d have half his unit. Maybe more, probably less.
A boy even younger than Otto stepped up to the table. Much like Tabitha, he was dirty from working at a foundry, skinny as a fence rail, and too nervous to look Otto in the eye.
“Cal, my lord.” The boy’s voice broke halfway through giving his name and his face reddened.
“Cal, and how many threads can you wield?”
“Two, my lord.”
That wasn’t enough to be worth taking to the battlefield. “I’m sorry, Cal. Five is the minimum to join.”
“Please, Lord Shenk. I want to serve the kingdom. His Majesty’s announcement that we’d all be true citizens filled me with such pride. I would die for the king should he ask it.”
Otto stood and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “King Wolfric doesn’t want your life, he wants your loyal service. Just because you aren’t strong enough to join the War Wizards today, doesn’t mean you can’t serve Garenland. This war will be long and difficult. We will have great need for armor and weapons. Your work in the forges and foundries will feed the army the weapons it needs to win. Remember that and do your utmost to create the finest steel you can. Take pride in serving in your own way and as you grow and increase your power, a time may come when you can join the army and fight Garenland’s enemies directly.”
Cal had swelled with pride as Otto spoke. “I will do my best to make the king proud, Lord Shenk.”
“I have absolutely no doubt about that.” Otto smiled and gave Cal’s shoulder a final squeeze. “Off you go.”
Otto sat back down and checked his ledger. Hopefully he’d find more Tabithas than he did Cals.
“You’ve become quite a leader, Lord Shenk.”
Otto knew that voice. His head snapped up and he found himself looking into the kind, familiar features of his former teacher, Master Enoch. The months had been reasonably kind to him. He wore a new brown robe and his beard was combed and neatly trimmed. He certainly looked better than when Stephan had chased him out of Shenk Castle.
“Master, what a wonderful surprise.” Otto moved around the table and they shook hands. “I feared I’d never see you again.”
“It was a rough winter, but I found work where I could. When word of the king’s proclamation reached me, I headed for the capital as fast as possible. I can’t believe how much you’ve accomplished since we parted ways. And married as well I understand. Congratulations.”
Otto’s good mood soured at the mention of Annamaria, but he quickly shook it off. The less he thought about his blushing bride the better.
“Thank you, Master. If you’re willing, I’d be delighted to have you as my second-in-command as we train the new recruits.”
“I’m not sure how much help an old man like me can be, but if you think I’ll be of value, then I’m happy to serve you once more.”
Otto reached back to the desk and removed from its box one of the mithril rings he’d brought from the armory. He’d brought only one box of the apprentice rings after his last visit, his plan being to give them to the strongest of his new wizards both to enhance their power even more and to make sure he kept them under control.
Lord Karonin had created the rings for her apprentices and the runes running inside the band allowed one who knew how to use them to take control of the wearer’s magic and turn it against them in the event of a betrayal.
Not that Otto expected his former master to betray him, but he was the most powerful wizard Otto had encountered today, so why take chances?
He handed the ring to Enoch who gave it a curious look. “Silver?”
“Mithril. If you channel your threads through it, they become thicker and more powerful.”
Enoch’s eyes widened. “A very valuable item. How many do you have?”
“Not enough for everyone, unfortunately. I’ll be giving them to the strongest recruits once they finish their training. I’m giving you this one now as a sign of your position as my second.”
Enoch nodded and slipped the ring on his right middle finger. He tried channeling a single thread through the metal. It grew about twice as thick as normal. “Amazing. I’ll do my best to be worthy of it.”
“If you can help me get through this line of recruits, you’ll already be more than worthy. We’d best get back to it. It’s good to have you back with me, Master.”
“It’s good to be back, Lord Shenk, though I hardly think I’m worthy of being called your master anymore.”
Otto shrugged. “Old habits I suppose.”
They resumed the interviews and with Enoch’s help, Otto finished ahead of schedule with forty cadets. Less than he’d hoped for, but not by too much.
“Shall we retire for dinner?” Otto asked. “You’re welcome to stay at the mansion if you’d like.”
“I couldn’t impose. I’ll stay at the barracks with the other wizards. Maybe I can give them a few pointers in the evening.”
“As you wish.” Otto was about to insist Enoch at least join him for the evening meal when a boy came running up, a scroll clenched in his hand. “Yes?”
“Lord Shenk? Message for you, my lord.” He held out the scroll.
No seal, so it wasn’t from Wolfric. Who’d be sending him a message? Otto flipped the boy a penny and took the paper.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Enoch said. “Good evening.”
Otto nodded and turned toward the mansion. As he walked, he unrolled the scroll. He read the first line and froze. It seemed someone had seen him using his magic to redirect the assassin’s blade and if Otto refused to pay him ten double eagles, he’d tell Wolfric. The meeting was supposed to take place tomorrow at dawn in a park outside the city.
Clearly whoever sent the scroll had no idea that Wolfric had helped plan his father’s assassination. Still, better for everyone if Otto dealt with this quietly rather than bothering the new king. Wolfric had enough on his mind at the moment. Otto didn’t know who’d be stupid enough to threaten him, but whoever it was would rue the day he troubled Otto Shenk.