The story can be considered "Yurt, the Next Generation" (by those who have read the original Yurt series), or it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone. It's a "YA" book (aimed at a young-adult audience), because Antonia, the heroine, is fourteen when it begins.
A sneak preview is below. Enjoy!
THE STARLIGHT RAVEN
Of course I knew my mother was a witch.
She never needed a match to light the fire. She knew immediately if someone new had come to town, even if she had spent the entire day at home, sewing. Sometimes in the evening, after she had finished tailoring a new ballgown for the mayor’s daughter or embroidering a new altar-cloth for the church, women would knock quietly on our door, giving quick glances up and down the cobbled street, and Mother would tell them if they were going to have a baby boy or a girl.
But I had no intention of living an uneventful life as a small-town witch. I was going to study to be a real wizard.
That would be easy, I thought. My father was head of the wizards’ school in the great City, a much more interesting place than our little town of Caelrhon. He’d said himself that I could come and study there when I became fourteen, the first girl the wizards’ school had ever admitted. Already I knew how to turn someone into a frog, something even my mother couldn’t do.
But on my fourteenth birthday it all became much less easy.
It started two weeks earlier. A gentle hand on my shoulder interrupted my dreams. “Antonia, wake up.”
“It’s too early to get up for school,” I mumbled into the pillow.
The hand remained on my shoulder. “It’s not a school day.”
Then I remembered. “We’re going to the City!”
I was out of bed with a bound, and then, with another bound, right back under the covers. The air from my casement window was cold. ”It’s not even morning yet!”
Mother flicked a flame into life on my candlestick. She was already dressed, her brown braids neatly wrapped around her head. I loved her hair, smooth where mine was always tangled, darker than mine but showing golden highlights in the glow of the candle.
“I want to go there and be home again before it gets late,” she said firmly. “After all, tomorrow is a school day. In fact I hear,” she added with a smile, tugging the quilt off me, “that at the wizards’ school they give the new students only one warning. Then, if they aren’t on time for the first early-morning class, they set the dragons on them.”
I swung my legs out of bed and kept them out. “Sometimes I think everyone’s seen dragons except for me. Father even killed one once when he was young, even though he won’t talk about it. And there was the time we arrived in the City just too late to see a whole flock of them.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon either,” said Mother. She had the brush and was working the snarls out of my hair. “I think it would be more terrifying than exciting. And I’m not at all sure they come in ‘flocks.’”
I let her work on my braids, thinking that once I was a wizard I would go visit dragons myself, rather than waiting for them to come to me. A herd of dragons? A pack? A clutch? I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be a gaggle.
“Besides,” I said after a minute, “I know they don’t punish students for sleeping late. Father told me that when he was a student at the wizards’ school, he hardly ever made any of his morning classes.”
There was a chuckle behind me. “Antonia, your father is an admirable man in many ways, and he’s made himself an excellent wizard over the years, but I would not recommend using him as your model when you become a wizardry student.”
I shrugged and laughed myself. Having my hair braided was very pleasant. I glanced toward my window, still nearly dark, and was hit by a sudden memory. “I had the strangest dream,” I said slowly. “It was about a bat. He tapped at my window and squeaked this really high squeak, but when I sat up he flew off. And for some reason I wasn’t frightened at all.”
“Of course not,” Mother muttered through hairpins. “Bats won’t hurt you. I’m glad you knew that, even in a dream.”
“And the strangest thing of all,” I went on, “was that he had a little cylinder tied to his leg—you know, like the carrier pigeons wear.”
“Who would send messages by a bat?” said Mother abruptly. The last pin went sharply into my hair. “Really, Antonia, you’re old enough to know that nobody finds someone else’s dreams very interesting. Get dressed and come downstairs.”
She slammed my door behind her, leaving me wondering why she could possibly be so irritated by a dream.
No time to worry about it. I splashed cold water on my face from the washbasin, pulled on a school dress, and laced up my boots. In front of the mirror I smoothed out the hairs disarranged in getting dressed. I grinned at my reflection and blew out the candle. I was the daughter of a witch and a wizard, almost fourteen years old, and I didn’t think there was anything I couldn’t do.
When I clattered down the stairs into the kitchen, Mother was frying bacon and smiling again.
But then I saw it, lying on the table amid dressmaking scraps: a tiny piece of parchment, half unrolled. It looked like the kind of message usually brought by a carrier pigeon.
We took the air cart. It was barely light as we hurried down the streets to the livery stable, where we rented space for it. The building was still locked this early in the morning, and after Mother had concentrated for a moment she said that there was no stable boy inside who might have answered our knock.
But that didn’t slow us down. The wind tugged at our cloaks as I used a tiny lifting spell to turn the tumblers in the lock and drive the bolt back. The spell worked perfectly the first time—a good sign, I thought, for my future as a wizardry student. Mother led the cart out into the street, talking soothingly to the horses in the stalls, and I relocked the big doors.
The air cart was the skin of a purple flying beast, a gift to us from Father a few years ago. It had been born in flight, and even though long dead it would still start flying if not carefully tethered. This was wizardry, not witchcraft, and I had learned the spells even before Mother had. We climbed in, and I confidently gave the commands in the Hidden Language. The cart took off, wings flapping steadily, to circle above the narrow streets and dark tile roofs of Caelrhon.
I glanced sideways at Mother, saw that she seemed deep in her own thoughts, and quietly muttered the spells that made the air cart pick up speed. I loved to go fast.
The sun rose behind us as we headed toward the City. It was springtime, and the trees and meadows below us were fresh and green in the light of breaking dawn. Finally I got up my nerve to ask. “What was that letter I saw on the table?”
Mother shrugged, unconcerned. “Just a message about a dress I’m supposed to be making.” I would have believed her and thought no more about bats—except that no one in Caelrhon would have sent her a pigeon-message. They would have used the magic telephones or walked over to talk to her in person.
Most of the time it was fine having a mother who kept her concerns to herself. She had calmly bandaged me the time I’d come home all bloody from beating up a boy who’d invented an insulting song about witches. She’d just shaken her head when the teacher sent her a frosty note saying she hoped I would never cover another student with green spots again—I didn’t even have to explain that I had virtuously resisted turning him into a frog.
And this last year, when I’d gone to a few school dances with the same boy who’d come closer to being a frog than he realized, she just asked me when I got home if I’d had a good time. She didn’t quiz me about what we had and hadn’t done—as I’m sure my father would have in her place, as if I didn’t have excellent good sense!
But if someone had trained a bat to carry messages, which I’d never before heard of anyone doing, then the content of that message must itself be interesting. If I’d been waked in the middle of the night by a bat, I thought, and the bat was carrying a message, I’d certainly tell my daughter about it.
© C. Dale Brittain 2015
© C. Dale Brittain 2015