The dragon roared as it died, shaking the ground beneath our feet. We could see the arcing lights of whatever high-born magic killed the giant lizard as they stained the sky and burnt the clouds. We just didn’t care. That was the high-born, doing their best to waste our world. We weren’t them, follow?
No, we kept up with what we were doing. Well. The others kept up. I kept watching them. They beat on Ken a while longer and then just got bored, drifting away in little clumps. I took notes. Technique: who favored which arm, who liked to kick, to bite, that sort of thing. It came in handy to know.
My parents had been high-born, but fell from grace due to serving the crown too well. No one talks about it, that sort of thing couldn’t happen, they’ll say, and so we moved down the hills and into the dirt and I don’t even really remember a different place.
The high-born had schools. They learned things: Magic, courtly dress, how to use a sword and be insufferable, yet always boring. We had the dirt and the air. We had the few years until we started working for the rest of our lives. So this, watching Ken get used like a sack of flour, this was school.
They were taught how to ride horses. We learned or we fell off. They were taught how to duel. We were taught how to bite through a cheek. Though, to be fair, I say “we” and meant “the boys.” No, I was supposed to learn how to wash chamber pots and polish silver. Something like that. Lucky for me my parents saw the world a bit different. A bit clearer, really.
“Enndolynn,” my father told me while teaching me how to hold a knife, “people are people. They don’t want you to know that, but it’s true. And people,” he grinned, “bleed.”
“Enndolynn,” my mother chided, “pay attention.” She held the needle out and let me inspect it. “You will need to know how to sew, and where best to stab with a needle should you need to.”
I wasn’t strong and I don’t consider myself smarter than everyone else. I’m smart. So are a lot of people. No, what I am is prepared. The thing of it is, prepared people look at angles different. We look at costs, and we see outcomes. So we’re put to the side as strange and left alone. The low-born didn’t want me and the high-born wouldn’t know what I even was. I was myself. Simply born.
Being apart from everyone had advantages, anyway. Like I’ve said, I was prepared and I saw things. I learned how to use it when I was seven. Doran sat alone, as he often did, and studied his feet seriously. Curious, I asked after his problem. It turned out Dain and Kaylein had stolen his hat. Kaylein just liked to attack Doran, yelling that he was a Moor, as if anyone with a dark skin couldn’t possibly have been born here, and Dain, well, Dain liked to hurt people.
Doran’s mother spent time on that hat and she wouldn’t take kindly to making another. Kaylein wouldn’t care about it, but Dain would wear it as a trophy. So I told Doran I would get his hat back. I didn’t know it at the time, but that stupid hat set my course.
Dain wore the hat all right. He wore it all around, telling people where he’d gotten it. But I knew that he couldn’t take it home. Taking a hat like that home meant explaining where you go tit. No one would believe Dain had made the hat himself, no, and if he risked telling his parents he’d stolen Doran’s hat things could go bad. Sure, they might laugh and be proud of their twisted child, but they might also beat him and not want the possible trouble.
So he wore the hat all day and then, well I thought I knew. So I followed him home. I didn’t have the high-born’s animal familiar to track him, nor a House Tracker to use. I had to simply be quiet, be unseen, and not get caught. Easy. Or so I told myself as I sweated my way through following Dain into the wood. Chances were I could take him in a fight, but not without crippling him. I would, but the trouble wouldn’t get Duran his hat back and wouldn’t do me any favors. To put it mildly.
Dain, anyway, went to a tree and shoved his hand, hat clutched in a fist, inside a large knot. Then he turned and went home. I made sure to be able to watch him get the hat and store it a few more times, making sure he always used the same place.
“But Enndolynn,” Doran said, whining through his nose when I told him, “why didn’t you just grab it?”
“Do you want him to beat you worse for taking it back? No. Listen, just over the next few days agree with whatever I say to Dain.” I fixed him with a hard stare. “Don’t embellish, just agree. I say the sky’s pink you say ‘Sure is,” got me?”
Doran agreed, because what else would he do? and the next day I strode up to Dain, looking at the hat in wide-eyed terror.
“Dain,” I said, keeping a grim lock myself, “don’t you know that hat is cursed?”
“Cursed? Oh hey,” he said, “it’s little Endy, scared of a hat.” He laughed, along with most of his friends.
“It’s true, Duran’s grandmother worked for a high-born and stole an enchantment so that if anyone else wears the hat they’re in trouble.”
“I been wearing it for four days now, Endy,” I hated to be called that, “and nothing bad’s happened to me. Duran, she telling the truth?”
“Y-yeah,” Duran said. He took a step back just in case. Some people.
“Oh sure,” I said over my shoulder as I left the field, “be cavalier about it, Dain. Good luck with that.”
That night I did nothing. Two days later, when Dain grew even more convinced that I’d either lied or he stood so powerful as to defeat curses, I snuck out to the tree he kept the hat in, a linen bag tight in one fist. I took out the hat and emptied the bag into it.
The next day Dain started to scratch at his head. He ripped the hat off and Kaylein cackled. “Fleas!” she laughed and pointed, “Dain, I guess the curse is real, or your mother can’t keep house, huh?” The laughter rippled through the assembled group but Dain just stalked off to wash the hat undaunted.
The next day he reached his hand into the tree to get the hat and drew back as the hornet’s nest I’d carefully, oh Lord so carefully, put inside the knot burst. He showed up without the hat, but welts everywhere. That day the laughter grew. But still, Dain wanted that hat.
It was the fourth day, when the tiny bit of fresh meat I’d tucked into the hat attracted the dogs to chase Dain for hours, that he threw the hat at Duran, cursing the whole time. Later, Duran thanked me, but seemed taken aback when I asked for payment.
“But you were doing me a favor!” he said, the nasal whine growing.
“No, Duran, I was doing a job. It’s done now.”
“I can’t pay you!”
“Your family grows good potatoes. Just arrange some. Call it a gift. Tell your parents you feel pious, they’ll buy that, and your mother will be so glad you found your hat—”
“You got it back, I didn’t—”
“Duran, so help me. You found. Your. Hat. I had nothing to do with it. But it made you feel pious and you took pity on my family so you are thanking the Lord by giving us potatoes.”
“That makes no sense, Enndolynn.”
“It’s religion, it doesn’t have to make sense.” Duran bought the potatoes and his family were none the wiser.
My family, however, well. They sighed, both parents, and told me to stop whatever it is I’d done to the poor boy. So I explained. That’s when they started training me in earnest. If I was going to solve problems and be a sneak about it, I needed to not get caught.
Quietly, despite my intentions and instructions, word spread. I got asked to help with all sorts of things. Cases, my dad called them. Cases, I said to myself, liking the sound of it. And I didn’t get caught, not in a way anyone could prove. Oh, I was often shunned because no one wants a snoop around, not when the information from just knowing me could be used against them. But I never got caught.
That lasted a few years, until I was 11. Until the high-born needed my dad’s help. Until Mage Emeline got involved. Then things got messy.