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Excerpt for Lake Of Stars by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Lake of Stars

by Alison McKenzie


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2018 Alison McKenzie

Published by Strict Publishing International


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Prologue


The void was dark, but warm and welcoming. One developing infant reached out instinctively and the elements, stirred to life by the sound of two heartbeats, prepared to enter their hosts.

The second twin was weak, the beats sporadic and fading fast. Moments later they stopped completely. The water element created solely for this being merged with the only lifeline it had left. Plunging together and fighting for supremacy in their joint union, one would always be dominant but both would be equally as important.


* * * * *


The little girl turned to look curiously at a boy standing in the water watching her. Smiling shyly and transfixed for a moment by his silvery blue eyes, it would be some years before she took any notice of him again. For now, something much more exciting had caught her attention.


* * * * *


Dana watched carefully from the gently sloping grassy bank. “Don’t go out any further, Jetta. You can’t swim yet.” She smiled at her friend Lorna, “Her element will come through any day. I’m certain she’ll be Waterborn.”

At four, her daughter’s element was late to show and Dana was growing impatient to see evidence of this particular milestone

“She’s nearly out of her depth.”

Lorna’s voice pulled her from her thoughts. On her feet in an instant and running into the cold water of the lake, she watched horrified as her daughter disappeared below the surface. Scooping her up she did not notice the little girl smiling and pointing at the “stars” she had seen in the water.

By the end of that week, Jetta’s element finally showed and her future was determined: she was Earthborn. Dana was pleasantly surprised. Maybe her daughter would stay away from the lake in future.



CHAPTER ONE

They called the wind all the way from the ocean. It was fantastic.”


The Fire-Master’s body was going to be cremated that night. Jetta’s friends did not even know he had died the day before; they had already left for the beach when the news broke. The whole valley was in mourning. If they arrived in town laughing and joking about their latest camping trip it would look very bad. She needed to warn them.

Taking a deep breath, the strong smell of pine brought a heady feeling of contentment and focused her thoughts, or was it the tranquillity of the still, blue water? Either way, she stopped running, deciding the lake was as good a place as any to head them off.

She could see a hive of activity in the distance on the southern bank that was mainly where work was carried out. Underwater caves beyond the imagination of all but the Water-Masters held secrets like a locked treasure chest. The north shore gently shelved into small lapping waves. The fine white sand, usually busy with noisy families, was today respectfully quiet. Jetta felt a familiar stirring and gave herself a quick shake. Her elemental skill was absolute, and consequently she could not explain the fascination she had with water. A sound caught her attention as the calm, blue surface was broken by two familiar heads popping up, and her friends started swimming towards her.

Cam pulled himself onto the shore and, reaching back, offered a hand to Rose.

“Finn’s still down there.” Rose frowned slightly, landing nimbly on the grassy bank. She shook her short hair and raked her fingers through it. It shone like polished copper in the sunlight. “Since he started training we hardly see him.” She stared hard at the lake as if willing him to make an appearance.

“Forget Finn,” Cam laughed, ruffling her hair and moving away quickly to avoid a slap.

“It’s a good thing he takes his training seriously, I guess. We need Water-Masters desperately.”

“Yeah, thanks for that,” Rose snapped. Cam smirked as Jetta realised what she had said. Luckily, they were all distracted by the sound of horses thundering through the valley.


* * * * *


Tym and Saffy raced side by side, their bright blonde hair reflecting the sun like shining halos. They pulled their horses to a stop and Saffy jumping off first, ran to Jetta giving her best friend a demonstrative hug. Tym watched his girlfriend with a lazy smile; the Airborns’ golden couple, Cam called them.

As the rest of the group dismounted, the smell of salt and surf hit her. She felt uneasy as it stirred an unexplained, familiar longing. Everyone was excitedly talking about the surf, the sea caves and the dolphins a few of them had spotted in the bay.

Jetta hated being the one to burst their bubble, but it would be wrong if they all went back to the town centre unaware of the death of the Fire-Master. The mood in the group changed instantly. There was a real outpouring of grief. An Elder as well as a Master, he had been much respected and loved.

“We have to be at the foot of the mountain by sundown,” she told them.

“Have they decided who’s leading the procession?” Saffy asked.

“I don’t know.” Jetta looked at Cam and Rose. “Have you two heard anything?”

“I know Warren asked to do it, being his closest friend and all, but that’s not going to happen.” Rose looked slyly at Saffy, who opened her mouth to say something.

Tym laid a warning hand on her arm, pleased she thought better of it. “I’m sure the Assembly will choose the right person,” he murmured, gently pulling his girlfriend away from the crowd. She was furious, and small air currents started to build up and whip around them. “Calm down, Saff. Rose’s opinion doesn’t matter, although on this occasion she’s probably right. Your Uncle Warren’s not Fireborn, and you know they will choose one of their own.”

Saffy was well aware of the protocol, but she was indignant that Rose had deliberately goaded her, and it was not the first time. “What is it with her lately?”

“We all know why. She was doing so well in her training, and you know how much she wanted it. Her abilities just seemed to have stopped growing over the last few months. She can’t dive for long and most of the rock minerals she finds are nothing special. Rose is desperate to make a discovery, but now she’ll never be able to explore the longer tunnels. She did buy you a lovely present for your birthday last week, Saff.”

Saffy felt guilty immediately. Rose was generous to her friends, even if she was a moody cow at times. “I can always trust you to remind me of what matters, can’t I, Tym?” She smiled, and the sharp breezes that had been blowing around them moments ago were replaced by warm summer flurries of air.


* * * * *


The horses still had not left. They were constantly nudging Jetta, and when she turned to give them some attention they nuzzled her affectionately.

“You can tell we’ve been infiltrated by a Harvester,” Cam said cheerfully. “Usually, those beasts can’t wait to rush off once they’ve been set free.”

She laughed. “They can smell the apple in my pocket.” She pushed the young horses away gently before they ripped her thin summer shirt to shreds.

Rose smiled. “It’s a bit more than that, Jetta. The horses love you.” She turned to Saffy. “Sorry, Saff. I don’t know why I said those things.”

Peace was resumed. The three girls had always been friends, and Jetta knew Rose was feeling left behind. She would speak to Saffy, make arrangements for a day out, and then they could spoil Rose and have some fun together, but that would have to wait. They had to prepare to join the community tonight and pay tribute. It was going to be a long evening.


* * * * *


As expected, a Fire-Master led the procession of Embers up the mountain to the funeral pyre. The rest of the community watched as the torches were carried higher and higher. From below it looked like a blazing snake winding its way up the steep path. As midnight approached, Jetta could make out circles of fire dancing and spiralling above. The Masters were putting on a good show before setting the body alight.

Suddenly, spears of white cut through the darkness and found their target. Gasps rippled through the watching crowd as the night sky became ablaze with flames that shot hundreds of feet into the air before dying to a cobalt blue as new red and yellow flares took their place.

A roar seemed to shake the valley. Wind from the south tore up over the heads of the onlookers, racing towards the mountain. Curling upwards, it crashed into the blazing sky. Everything was over in seconds. Dust started to rain down like an ash cloud until a fierce gust whipped up from below and scattered it for miles around. Everyone watched, silently remembering.

Jetta took comfort from the presence of her father, who was stood just behind. Every so often he would lay a hand on her shoulder and she would reach up and touch it, returning the gesture of support. Her mother and elder brother were on the mountain with the rest of the Fireborn. Jetta adored Max and missed his cheerful presence in the house deeply. However, joining with his partner had been the best thing that had happened to him. Jean was a calming influence on Max, who could fly off the handle very quickly at times, which was not a good thing for a Fireborn.

On one occasion, he had been brought home in disgrace from the study rooms for causing black smoke to engulf the Head Instructor’s office, quite a feat for a young Ember. His parents had thought he showed signs of channelling his skill and hoped he would become a Master. Like Rose, his abilities had not become any stronger but, unlike Rose, he did not care. With his temper, it was a good thing. Had he become accomplished, the valley would probably have gone up in flames years ago.


* * * * *


The crowd dispersed, and Jetta looked for Saffy. She had not seen her all evening and Tym was searching as well, by the look of it.

“Have you seen Saff?” Tym panted, catching his breath.

She shook her head. “No, I thought she’d be with you.”

“She was for a while. After the fire show I noticed she’d slipped away and I assumed she’d gone to find you or Rose. I can’t go to bed till I know she’s okay. Help me look?”

“Of Course I will. Can you sense any problems in the southern airflow, Tym? You’d be able to tell if there was anything wrong, wouldn’t you?”

“Not with all the other activity going on tonight, but you have given me an idea where she might have gone.” He started running towards the lake, following the natural air corridor south. Only minutes earlier the Masters had commanded the wind to race along it. Jetta was agile and able to keep pace with Tym. She glanced across at the dark water and saw it was bathed in silver moonlight, the stars’ reflections shimmered across its surface. Fairy dancers, Max had once told his little sister.

When they stopped running, she knelt down and laid her hands on the cool earth. “There’s been movement.” She concentrated harder. “The imprint is still strong. People passed here quite recently.” She looked up and saw Tym grinning; Saffy was walking toward them. There was something different about her, she looks so vibrant.

Saffy was beaming, her mane of blonde hair looking wild and windswept. “Did you see it? Did you see what I did?”

Tym looked baffled, but Jetta knew. “It was you, Saff. You helped command the wind tonight.”

“Well, no.” Saffy smiled. “There’s no way I could do that, but I was there. The Masters invited me to join them. I can’t believe it. It was wonderful, beyond anything I imagined.”

Tym finally realised what she was telling them, and he picked her up and spun her round. “My air princess,” he whispered as he put her down and planted a huge kiss on her lips.

“Oh Saff,” smiled Jetta. “I’m so proud of you. Does this mean you’ve been accepted for training?”

“Yes! Can you imagine?” Saffy was practically jumping up and down. “I don’t even have to wait till the solstice announcements. I can’t explain the thrill of helping to curl the wind just now. They actually let me help with the last bit.”

Tym was bursting with pride, and Jetta could see what delight he took in her exhilaration. If Saffy became an Air-Master, she would need the support of a loving partner, and Tym was perfect for the role. “That’s it,” she yawned. “I’m beat. I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” After giving them both a hug, she set off for home and the bed that had been calling to her for the last two hours.

Tym walked Saffy slowly back to the town square. “How many of you came down this way tonight, Saff?”

“Hal and Devyn took me to the end of the lake. They called the wind, all the way from the ocean. It was fantastic to watch that control. When it reached the mountains, they each took my hand and told me to feel the current and curl it upwards. I really felt it, oh Tym.” She sighed with pleasure.

He knew she was in her own world, so he kept his thoughts about Jetta to himself. She had touched the earth and told him people had walked there recently, and that was no small achievement. The girl I love and her best friend, maybe they could both become Masters. With that thought, he kissed Saffy goodnight.


* * * * *


A gentle misty drizzle covered the valley the next morning, perfect for dampening down the smouldering remains from the night before and making sure the ash would sink reverently into the surrounding earth, enticing new growth.

Jetta woke from a recurring dream she had been having for a number of years. It always started with her walking through the forest where comforting shades of green slowly morphed into blue and silver and she was floating in the lake. Sinking into the depths, the water became as black as night. Small bright lights, like stars, were guiding her along tunnels to sadness and desperation.

Gasping for breath, her cheeks wet with tears, she could have cried for real with relief as her mother shouted through the door that Saffy was coming. Feeling an immediate lightness, she quickly dragged a brush through her unruly curls, splashed water on her face, grabbed an oat cake and rushed out of the house to meet her friend, the dream forgotten, for now.

“I hardly slept. I couldn’t think of anything apart from starting my training.” Saffy hardly stopped for breath.

“What? No small thought for Tym?” Jetta grinned. “You remember him, over six-foot-tall, hair like golden corn and eyes the colour of caramel.” She gave her friend’s hand a squeeze. “Come back down to earth for the next two days, Saff. You’ll have plenty of time to run with the big boys.” They both laughed. “Actually, I want to talk to you about Rose….”


* * * * *


An hour later the sun was high and the last of the mists had disappeared. The Air-Masters were working hard this morning, pulling in the fresh breezes. They left it to the Flyers to circulate them around the valley. Saffy and Jetta easily persuaded Rose she needed a day out with her best friends. Her mother packed them a picnic before they cheerfully set off to the eastern side of the valley.

The evergreen forests that ran down the east and west sides yielded an abundance of food and building materials. The east forest was dense; it seemed impenetrable in parts. But the three girls had been coming here for what seemed like forever, and they knew all the hiding places and delights the shadowy pines could offer. They walked for a while, their eyes soon becoming accustomed to the half-light. Jetta was instinctively drawn to the different mosses on the rocks and tree trunks, but her friends were having none of it. Marching her along between them, they soon collapsed giggling in an unruly heap.

“I’ve missed this.” Rose looked at them both and grinned sheepishly. “I’m so sorry I’ve been a bitch lately.”

Jetta recovered first and looked closely at her friend. She could tell Rose had been having real problems with what she perceived as her failure. “Cam must be helping you work through things? You two are as thick as thieves.”

Rose seemed a little evasive, but after more prompting she started to share her feelings. “I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s always there for me, no matter what. I know you’d like something to happen between us,” she smiled. “Forget it. I love him to bits, but not in the way you mean. I did have feelings for someone, though.” She fell silent.

“Finn?”

“How did you know?” Rose asked, taken aback.

“I didn’t, really. It’s just that you always seemed to hang around together, the three of you, and now I never see him anymore. Probably a good thing; you’ll always be competing with the other girls for his affections. That boy is way too popular.” He was certainly handsome, with his thick brown hair and uncommonly brilliant blue eyes, Jetta thought, but recently he seemed so detached.

“Finn’s changed,” Rose said sadly. “It’s not just that he’s busy with his Master training. I think he lost interest in me when my abilities stopped developing. He’s become distant. He doesn’t even spend much time with Cam, and they’re best mates.”

Saffy kept quiet, understanding a little what Finn might be feeling. It’s easy to let your element take you over. They had been advised, during study time, how best to balance their personal and elemental needs. She could not imagine ever cutting her friends, especially Tym, out of her life, even if her ability had to come first sometimes. Perhaps that was the difference between Air and Waterborn, or maybe Finn really was taking things too seriously. She was about to try to lighten the mood, but Jetta had started asking more questions.

“Has Finn said anything about what he’s found in the lake?”

“Not anymore. He used to. I’d sit on the bank for hours sometimes, with Cam, waiting for him to surface. He was full of it; the caverns, air pockets, tunnels, which ones branched right or left, the ones that went below the forests, or possibly straight under the fire mountains. Lately, he hardly speaks. It’s as if he’s completely obsessed with his diving.”

Jetta looked at her with disbelief. “They never go so far, surely? Has he ever seen lights in the tunnels?” Saffy and Rose were looking at her as if she was mad, and then they started laughing. The dreams must really be getting to me. She would have to try to speak to Finn. She could not bother a Water-Master with her questions. Not that Finn was very approachable, either. Rose needs someone that will fit into our tight circle of friends. He’s so cold and distant. She’s had a lucky escape.


CHAPTER TWO

We mixed it into cocktails once and drank them in the dark.”


A week later, mourning was over. Normal service had been resumed, and studies and work were back on everyone’s minds again. Jetta spent most mornings in the study rooms. Her skills were instinctive, but there was always more she could be taught by her instructors, from history books or experiments. She was also expected to work in the afternoons, which included spending time in the forests foraging for herbs and berries, or planting seeds and keeping the soil fertile. Not particularly hard work. As an Earthborn, Jetta and the other Harvesters barely had to touch the weeds to make them disappear. Also, she loved the forests and it was no hardship to spend time there. A variety of small mammals had begun to follow her through the pines, and once or twice she was certain she spied an amber-cat watching.

Jetta broached the subject with her instructor, Warren. He showed an immediate interest and promised to do some research. Coping well when he reached his middle years and his elemental abilities began to fade, Warren chose to utilise his knowledge in the study rooms where he could also surround himself with his beloved history books.

All the Elders found a niche; it was not in them to remain idle. Long after their skills had died they took on the many tasks that kept the community running smoothly, instructing, helping in the nursery, producing clothes and medicines, maintaining buildings. The jobs were endless. Some would eventually become Delegates and sit in the Assembly Hall, helping to discuss and find answers to any issues raised.


* * * * *


After studies were finished, Jetta walked to the lake hoping to catch Rose on a break. She could see Saffy in the distance with Hal and Devyn, the Air-Masters she had been with the night of the cremation. Hal raised his arms, circling them in a fluid motion, and small clouds above them shifted together and darkened. Devyn returned them to their original position and colour. She continued to watch for a while as Saffy tried. After some minutes, a small cloud started to move. It did not go very far or darken, but she could tell even from a distance that her friend was pleased.

Turning her attention to the lake, J searched the surface for any telltale signs of recent diving. There was nothing. The lake was placid and beautifully mysterious as always. About to leave, she heard the sound of someone surfacing and saw Finn swimming strongly towards the shore, near to where she was standing.

“Hey,” she shouted, waving her hand to get his attention. He did not acknowledge her, but she felt sure he had glanced over. Rose was right: Finn was acting strangely. Jetta watched as he turned and swam back out to the deep water. He’s avoiding me. Kicking her shoes off and wading to her ankles, she shouted once more. This time Finn looked straight at her and gave a quick, if reluctant, wave before disappearing below the surface. Frustrated and annoyed, she attempted to take the few steps back to dry land, but it felt as if her feet were stuck. She tried again but she could not move. This is ridiculous. What’s wrong? Closing her eyes, she concentrated and started to walk slowly, expecting to feel the dry sand. Instead, the water began lapping against her thighs.

Totally disorientated, her heart started to pound. The more she panicked, the deeper she seemed to go. Her muffled cries now held an edge of fear. When she fell forward, her head was submerged below the surface, and in the instant before everything went black Jetta saw a light shining as brilliantly as a star.

The next thing she knew she was on dry land, unceremoniously dumped on the shore. She looked up and saw Finn’s silver blue eyes staring down at her. He seemed to find the whole thing amusing. About to speak, he thought better of it as someone approached.

Saffy leapt down the side of the bank. “What were you doing? I heard shouting, but by the time I got here you were nearly up to your waist. You were wading in, out of your depth nearly.”

Jetta looked at Saffy’s concerned face. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. I was walking out of the lake, at least… I thought I was. There was a light, under the water.”

An unmistakable look of surprise on Finn’s face was quickly replaced by irritation. He looked at Saffy. “I don’t know what she thinks happened. I saw her going out too far, heard a splash, and that’s all there was to it.”

“What about the light?” she asked, getting upset.

“There isn’t any light. It was the sun reflecting on the water. “That’s what you saw as you delicately belly flopped in.” Finn grinned, and Saffy started to laugh. Jetta frowned at them both. She was sure he had not been there while she was being pulled towards the centre.

Finn grabbed her hand and yanked her effortlessly to her feet. “Keep out of the water in future, love.”

Biting back a sharp retort, she started to ask him about the tunnels, but as soon as he saw she was okay, he was gone. How bloody rude. Couldn’t get away fast enough. She had sensed something, and her Earthborn skills told her it was organic. Something to do with that light that she felt sure Finn was keeping a secret. All the Masters had secrets, the whole community accepted it, but Finn was not a Master. Nothing about the lake made sense anymore.


* * * * *


Dana was busying herself in the kitchen clearing up the remains of breakfast and looking forward to a rare opportunity when she and Rob would be working on the same project. Conducting studies on the fires deep in the mountains needed both Fire and Earthborn. The heat affected the rock that ran below the town and, among other things, kept the homes warm in winter and provided them with endless hot water. Only the Masters could enter the unstable fire caves, but there was plenty to do nearby.

Before leaving the house, she looked in on Jetta. Having heard her tossing and turning through the night again, she was beginning to worry. Watching her sleep for a few minutes, her black curls tumbling over the edge of the blanket, Dana’s hand automatically tucked her own tight curls behind her ears. At forty-four, her glossy black hair showed no signs of turning grey. The elements were kind to them. The ageing process was slow, almost non-existent until they reached their middle years. Then, as abilities were lost, so was much of the elemental protection. The knowledge would be with her forever, but she would lose the skills to channel it. When that happened, she would become an instructor and teach young Embers how to make sparks fly around the classroom. She sighed quietly. It was another reason everyone wanted to be a Master – they were the only ones that retained their elements until they died.


* * * * *


Dana took the town route to work. As she was crossing the main square she saw Rose and her mother Lorna hurrying over.

“Dana, wait,” boomed Lorna.

Can’t that woman ever talk quietly? Dana tried not to grimace as they approached. “Hello, you two. How’s things?”

They both answered at once, but the sheer volume of Lorna’s voice soon drowned out her daughter. “We were so sorry to hear about the accident. How is Jetta? Has she recovered?”

Dana went as white as a sheet, thinking something must have happened to her daughter in the few minutes she had left her in bed. She turned to run home but Lorna grabbed her arm.

“You don’t know, do you?” A small look of satisfaction crossed Lorna’s face; she enjoyed a bit of gossip. “Jetta nearly drowned yesterday. It was lucky Finn was there to save her life. Well, it doesn’t bear thinking about; I mean, what if he hadn’t seen her?”

“For god’s sake, don’t be so dramatic.” Rose could see Dana was getting upset. “Really it was nothing. She fell in and Finn pulled her out. That’s all there was to it.”

“Rubbish,” bellowed Lorna. “I heard what Saffy was telling you. Jetta was wading into the lake, going into deep water. She did that once before, do you remember?”

Dana looked blank. Jetta had said nothing about it to her or Rob when she had come home last night. After a hot shower, she had gone straight to her room, calling out that she was not hungry and needed an early night.

Rose glared. “Saffy was too far away to see properly, she admitted that herself. She told me Finn’s version of what happened and he was right there. It really was just a case of tripping over. That’s probably why she didn’t mention it. She wouldn’t worry you for no good reason.”

Dana had heard enough. Lorna took delight in passing on gossip. She had a good heart, just a very irritating habit of wanting to know everyone’s business. “Thank you, Rose.” Dana removed her arm from Lorna’s vice-like grip. She would not go home and question her daughter now; that could keep till later. She changed the subject abruptly. “Are you working on the hot stones today, Lorna?”

“Yes, but I...”

“Good,” Dana interrupted. “We can walk together.”

Lorna fell in step, a little disappointed her exciting news had been made light of, but even she knew when to stop. The determined look on her friend’s face confirmed she should keep her mouth shut on this particular subject. Dana set off at a quick pace, not really caring if the other woman kept up or not. She had to focus on the work ahead today. But there was a nagging picture in her head of Jetta as a little girl playing in the lake, doing exactly as Lorna had just described.


* * * * *


It was almost noon before Jetta woke from a deep sleep. It was odd that she still felt so tired. A scavenge around the kitchen produced apple and ginger muffins. She warmed them quickly, adding a drizzle of honey. Balancing a cup of fruit tea on her plate, she carried her late breakfast outside as a loud rumble from her stomach reminded her she had not eaten since noon the day before.

Only five weeks till the Summer solstice. She took a bite and leaned back on the large cushion, thinking about the upcoming parties. It was the strongest time for the Earth and Fireborn. They would host feasts, shows and dances, something all the community looked forward to, a real time of celebration. New relationships always blossomed, couples that were already joined would find excuses to spend more time together, and everyone felt a romantic pull. The age-old magic. Jetta smiled wistfully.

The Masters would be looking carefully at those who were showing promise, and announce their new trainees. By the Winter solstice it was possible they would all be rejected. If just one became a Master, the Valley and everyone living in it would benefit.


* * * * *


Dogwood Bark and Elderberries, Jetta guessed as she studied the rich colours of her new outfit. Her dark violet eyes glowed in the reflections of the purple and mauve dyes. The light, sleeveless top and three-quarter length trousers were made from the softest silk. Luckily, Mulberry bushes were plentiful in the valley.

Tending the gardens was a job that the Elders managed well. The Harvesters would still look in to check the fertility of the soil or check on the health of the grey moths and silkworms that inhabited the trees and bushes. Production of cloth was very much in demand, and the Elders would spend long days together, contentedly working and taking great pleasure in the mixing of dyes. No two batches were ever the same. They all had their own secret recipe, a little something to make a green silk shine like an emerald or a yellow cotton look as though it had been kissed by the sun. Very often it was obvious which Elder had put his or her personal touch to the colour or cut of a certain pattern, and everyone had a favourite designer.


* * * * *


It was late to roll up at the study rooms, but Jetta was keen to find out if Warren had had any thoughts on their conversation the day before. She found him in the general office studying a rare history book that had been sent from Three-Lakes. Shuffling her feet for a while, she cast a shadow over the yellowing pages

He looked up, surprised for a moment that life went on around him. “Ah, Jetta, I’m pleased it’s you. Come and sit.” She slipped into one of the two easy chairs by the window, and Warren left the precious book to join her. “I was thinking about what you told me and I had a conversation with Marli. She’s had her eye on you for a while, apparently.” Jetta was unable to suppress a look of astonishment. “With what I said plus some tales young Tym has been telling Petra, I think there has been a great deal of discussion about you recently.”

“Warren, I don’t know what you mean. I have no idea what Tym’s been saying about me to his grandmother. Wait till I see him.”

“Don’t blame Tym. He was only repeating what he’s seen, and Petra must have thought it was relevant. Talk to your parents; I’m sure they’ll be pleased. I shouldn’t really tell you this, but… I’m going to,” he chuckled. “The Earth-Masters will be choosing you for training. It’s so near the solstice festival, it will probably be announced then.” He watched as different emotions flitted across Jetta’s face. “Enjoy your last month before the hard work really starts,” he smiled.


* * * * *


Saying goodbye and making her way past one of the study rooms, she caught a few words from a lesson in ancient history. The young students sat enthralled listening to their Instructor. She hovered for a moment, remembering the exact same lesson.

“That happened after the skies went dark,” the instructor was saying, “After the period in history referred to as “The Time of Abusing”. It was hard enough for ancient humans to accept there was no sustainability in the modes of transport and other great inventions that had taken centuries to perfect. When the weather changed and hurricanes ripped across the planet’s surface for almost ninety percent of the year, bringing down the last of the aeroplanes and preventing even the biggest ships sailing, they seemed to give up entirely. When the Earth eventually healed itself, the few pockets of remaining human life had to completely rethink their lifestyles and values. Of course, it took thousands of years to evolve into what we are today.”

“They couldn’t live now, could they, the ancient ones?” a young girl asked.

“Well, actually, yes, I think they could, but it would be very hard with no elemental help. The work would be backbreaking, and people would most likely resort to stealing, or violence if it made their lives easier. That was their nature.” She smiled at her class. “Happily, that should never be the case again. We know so much more now.”

“So, the people didn’t kill the planet?” an older boy asked.

“No, remember what I told you,” the instructor replied patiently. “We need the Earth; it doesn’t need us. Always remember that. We are quite capable of killing ourselves, but not our home. The Earth will always recover, in some form. It will be here many billions of years after humans have gone.”

“Can you tell us about the sky dancers?” A chorus of yes please echoed around the classroom.

The Instructor chuckled. The children were never tired of hearing the old legends. An Air-Master who commanded lightning storms to rain down on invaders when the valley was in danger. Fire-Masters who, with a word, stopped volcanoes erupting. The stories were endless: tidal waves, earthquakes, everything it seemed had been generated or controlled. Even the forest pines had been commanded to uproot and move to cover secret trails. The nicknames Flyers, Embers, Gills and Harvesters had originated from the storybooks. It was these aspirations that kept producing accomplished Masters, and although none of them had managed to move mountains or sky dance, they still continued trying.

“Take a break first. We’ll read the stories together after a short recess.”

How had people lived that way? Jetta wondered. To destroy everything with such corruption. What a greedy race. Half of them had eaten themselves to death, whilst the other half starved. They had thought of themselves as technically advanced but to what end? It was no wonder the elements had lain dormant. They had been waiting for the right time when a civilisation would eventually evolve that was receptive to them.

“Still here, Jetta? Penny for them.”

“Oh, Warren, I was just leaving, but I couldn’t help listening for a minute.”

The older tutor looked at her shrewdly. “Without the past, we wouldn’t have the knowledge. Remember, it wasn’t all bad.”

“I know that. They were the real pioneers, weren’t they? Sometimes I wonder.…” She gave a wistful smile.

“If we lost part of ourselves over time? I think we did. Just because we don’t have the need to go forth and conquer or even explore, doesn’t mean we aren’t still curious.”

“This is getting a bit profound,” Jetta laughed. “I better go.”

“Never be afraid to seek knowledge. I have no idea if the elements suppress certain urges within us, but I do know I wouldn’t change things.”

“Hmm, you’re right. I feel like that too. Contentment, my mother calls it.”

Warren watched her walk away, and his fingers started to itch with thoughts of getting the old charts out and seeing the world as it was thousands of years ago. He marched purposely back to his room, thoroughly content with the prospect of immersing himself in history for the rest of the day.


* * * * *


When Jetta wanted company, she went in search of Rose or Saffy, but today she was unable to find either of them. Having a free afternoon to enjoy, she was at a loss what to do with it. In the end, she walked towards the west forest and skirted down the inside past some of the wheat fields. The Air-Masters would have to keep any strong winds away from this area until harvest time.

Further south, she reached the large grassy pastures where sheep and goats grazed freely among the wild valley horses. She approached quietly, but as soon as they became aware of her presence excitement rippled through the herd and they trotted over to greet her, increasing in numbers until she was surrounded. She had no concept of the spectacle she created. Standing in her indigo silk with black curls tumbling to her waist enveloped by a herd of wild horses, it was little short of breathtaking. She was oblivious to the two Earth-Masters watching her from the forest.

Marli turned to her companion. “She has a great ability. I’ve never seen it in a Harvester before, and she’s so unaware.”

Greg nodded. “Training is certainly going to be interesting this summer. I don’t know how much guidance we can actually give her, though.”

“I agree.” Marli watched for a while longer. “You or I could call the herd to us in an instant. However, to have them all surround her like that of their own free will, without even the smallest command, it’s astonishing. That girl has something very special. Do you know what is strange, Greg?”

He tore his eyes away from the mesmerising scene before him and waited impatiently to hear what Marli had to say.

“Jetta’s birthday is dead on the Winter solstice.”

Greg opened his mouth in surprise. “I didn’t know that. I’m surprised her element is so strong, in that case.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Marli continued. “Our skills are at their weakest around that time. You’d have thought the air or water elements would have claimed her. We must share this with Petra. I see some exciting but possibly challenging times ahead.” Greg nodded in agreement and turned back to carry on watching the captivating scene. “Come,” said Marli, “Let’s leave her in peace. Jetta deserves some privacy.” The two Masters melted away into the forest as if they had never been there.

There was another watcher nearby. He had heard their conversation and was trying to make sense of it. Like Greg, he was unable to tear his eyes away from the spectacular display before him, the same silver-blue eyes that had gazed so deeply at her on the lakeshore.


* * * * *


Jetta jumped on the nearest horse that had pushed itself forward, a large white stallion, and she started to ride back to the town. She had to give a series of commands to stop the rest of the herd following her back through the fields. She had not noticed immediately; it was only when she glanced back and saw a trail stretching behind in a convoy.

Drawing parallel with the lake, she watched a large gathering of Waterborn and spied Cam approaching from the direction of the town. She rode towards him and he waved enthusiastically at.

“Jetta, I wondered who that woodland fairy was riding her horse. You look stunning; obviously recovered from your dunking in the lake yesterday.”

“I’m trying to forget about that.” She dismounted, thanked her horse for the ride, and giving his long nose a tickle sent him on his way. Falling in step with Cam, they walked towards the lake. “What’s going on here? Why so many Gills?”

“Preparations for the night dives. We have to wait for the full moon to reflect on the phosphorescent algae we need to harvest. It’s the only time we can be absolutely sure of cutting the correct one.”

“I love that stuff. We mixed it into cocktails once and drank them in the dark. You should have seen the bottle. It looked like a thousand fireflies were partying inside it. When Saff took a drink, her whole face lit up. She was a mass of blinding light and yellow hair, so funny.”

“I’m shocked! How could I possibly think you looked like an innocent, clean-living fairy? Saffy and Rose are older than you, so they should know better.” He grinned. Cam could not do stern, not even pretend.

“They’re only a year older. You’re just miffed because we didn’t save any for you.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he conceded. “Come on, let’s find Rose. She’s here somewhere.”

Rose ran over as soon as she spotted Jetta. “We’re expecting a good haul. I think we could be here all night if it’s going to be as bountiful as Grogan thinks.”

“Grogan’s here? I’d like to speak to him about the lakeweed,” Cam said. “It’s unusual for him to join us for the night dives.”

“He’s been here all day already, diving for ages actually. Now that’s odd.”

“What is?” She followed the direction her friend was looking and saw Finn in the distance on the southern shore of the lake.

“Finn’s down there.” Rose looked puzzled. “He wasn’t there earlier. I’ve been here for a couple of hours. “Where did he come from?”

“Maybe he was diving with Grogan?” Jetta suggested.

“No, he definitely hasn’t been under today. I saw him in the town square earlier this afternoon. Why is he down at the south bank when we’re all up this end getting ready?”

Cam shrugged. “Well, he hasn’t come from the direction of town in the last hour either. I would have seen him when I walked here.”

“Maybe he’s just been out somewhere. He is allowed, you know.”

Cam looked at Rose. “Yeah, stop with the conspiracy theories, just because he doesn’t fancy you.”

Rose laughed, but Jetta knew she did not find that particular remark funny. She glared at Cam. Talk about inappropriate comments. She knew he would never intentionally say anything to hurt anyone, especially Rose. It was just that Cam was so laid back that nothing ever bothered him. He forgot not everyone was the same.


CHAPTER THREE

That’s enough pathetic jokes for one night. Come along, fire boy.”


Max and Jean were sitting on the front porch sipping cold drinks with Dana. Jetta had not expected them to visit this evening and it was a pleasant surprise, although perhaps a little too convenient?

“Hello, squirt.” Max picked her up in a massive bear hug, squeezing far too hard as usual.

“Put your sister down,” Jean frowned, hearing a small squeak of discomfort. She prised Jetta away and kissed her cheek. “He’s so rough.”

Jetta grinned. She had grown up with huge displays of affection and noisy disagreements from her demonstrative Fireborn mother and brother, and she was used to it. When her father joined them, finding room to sit between Dana and Jean, she knew things would quieten down slightly. He had a natural calming air about him. It had served the family well over the years.

They relaxed, letting Max take centre stage. People were drawn to his easy banter and quick wit, even though he frequently put his foot in it. He had inherited Dana’s golden-brown eyes and, like his mother, they always held a ready twinkle. Jetta adored him, as did Jean. The petite red-haired girl constantly sent loving glances in his direction. “Are we eating anytime soon?” he finally asked.

Rob suggested that if his son had finished his incessant talking they could indeed go inside and have supper.

The large pine table was laid with their evening meal. Rob was a good cook and could make simple food taste delicious with the added herbs and spices he and Jetta grew in their back yard. They were having basic roots, with a rich sauce containing clover and ground pine nuts. Huge chunks of wheat bread sat temptingly in beautifully crafted clay pots in the centre of the table.

By the end of the main course, Jetta was stuffed but did not dare turn down pudding. Luckily for her, it was a light mulberry mousse, the fruit being plentiful at this time of year. Her mother would preserve the excess in large glass jars, which gave them a taste of summer in the cold, dark winter months to come.

“I have something to tell you all.” Jetta made sure she had their attention before she continued, “Umm, I spoke with Warren today and, well, he thinks…” She stopped. They were all grinning. “You know already, don’t you? I wondered why you were here tonight.” She glared at her brother. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Rob was the first to speak. “Words can’t say how we feel. We love you so much; what an honour.” He looked at Dana, who nodded at him to continue. “We only have three Earth-Masters. Greg, as you know, was only eighteen when he was chosen. He completed his training in less than a year to become one of the youngest Masters for a very long time. That was six years ago, and no one has come close to completing since then. I’m sure you could join them, within a few years.”

“You’re going to make up for my abysmal failure. The family will be able to stand tall again and look the community in the eye,” laughed Max.

“For goodness sake,” Dana tutted. “Don’t be so dramatic. We’re every bit as proud of you.”

“He’s joking, Dana,” Jean giggled. “Don’t let him grab the limelight. This is Jetta’s night.” She smacked her partner across the head.

“Ouch, watch it.” Max sent a few small sparks in her direction.

“You really want to do this here?” she challenged.

Max looked at her with obvious desire. “Right, time we left. Well done again, squirt. I shall be cheering the loudest for you when the official announcement is made.”

Jetta looked horrified. She had completely forgotten she would have to go through that palaver during the solstice celebration. “Why couldn’t this have happened a few months ago,” she grumbled quietly. “I could have just slipped into training like Saffy, with just a few congratulations from the neighbours. That would have suited me just fine.”

Max hugged her, more gently this time. “C’mon, squirt, you know Saff won’t get away with it. You’ll be on the stage together, with the other new hopefuls. The others that are still in training always get a mention too; well, those that haven’t been dumped, anyway.”

“Don’t say it like that, Max. It’s a huge recognition of skills to even be put forward, whether they complete training or not. You know we hardly ever get a Master.” She felt a lot better now that her brother reminded her she would have Saffy standing with her.

Jean started to usher him out through the front door. “That’s enough pathetic jokes for one night. Come along, fire boy.”

Everyone laughed as Max let his dainty partner push him out of the house. He turned to her on the porch and said, loudly enough that they could all hear, “Fire boy, indeed.” Then he spoke quietly, for her ears only. “Perhaps it’s time to make our own little fire boy or fire girl, eh, Jeannie love?”

She smiled sweetly at him. “No time like the present. Stop talking so much and get me home then. Although, I have a feeling anything that happens tonight will result in something Waterborn.” She laughed at his alarmed expression.


* * * * *


Jetta and her mother cleared up together, leaving Rob to relax on the porch. “You’ve made us very happy tonight. I’m overjoyed.” Dana started stacking the clean plates. “I have no doubts that you will complete. You deserve this. Remember what you told your brother earlier, though: the honour of being chosen is huge. The ones that don’t make it shouldn’t see it as failing.”

Jetta knew exactly what she meant and loved her for trying to relieve some of the pressure. She thought about Rose. How’s she going to feel watching Saff and me on the podium? She was standing there last summer. It had not helped that Lorna had gone around crowing about her talented daughter to everyone that would listen. When it was obvious to the Masters after four months of training that Rose had not advanced, she had resumed her duties as a Gill. Jetta and Saffy had done what Lorna should have. They had given their friend back her confidence. It also had not helped that she had a crush on Finn and felt his interest had evaporated along with her training and her dream.

Finn, where had he been this afternoon? She was cross at herself for thinking about him. She would have to get the lake conversation out of the way with her parents. Now was as good a time as any. Dana had gone back outside with Rob. Sighing, she went to join them. A quick rendition of Finn’s version, hopefully, should do it.

Luckily, it was easier than she thought. Her parents were full of expectations for her future and, for the time being at least, Dana had forgotten the feelings of dread she had experienced that morning. Jetta told them quickly what they needed to hear. Dana might have probed a bit further, but Rob had already moved the conversation on to the other Earth-Masters.

She smiled and let them talk. She was full of her own thoughts, and tonight’s big meal was lying heavy on her stomach. Her eyes closed as she listened to the gentle voices of her parents while they carried on reminiscing. She was aware, sometime later, of her father guiding her to bed, wishing her a good night and dropping a light kiss on her cheek.


* * * * *


It was dark when she woke, choking and coughing. The same lake thing again! Jetta hoped that once her training started her brain would be too full of earth power to have any room for these unwanted dreams. Bright lights were shining below the surface, but as soon as she had tried to see what they were, she woke up feeling as though her lungs were full of water. As the dream faded, the lights changed and for an instant she was looking into a pair of silver blue eyes.


* * * * *


The next few weeks passed uneventfully. There was a general buzz of excitement and anticipation running through the valley. Both solstices were the height of community celebrations. Everywhere preparations were underway for two solid days of shows and parties. The days were long and hot, and the Airborn were doing their best to keep the valley temperatures pleasant. Flyers were able to help fan the breezes and circulate them to where they were needed most, but it was only the Masters that could command them to blow into the valley in the first place.

Even the greatest Air-Masters could not change the weather at will. If the valley had suffered a period of drought they would have to go north into the mountains or south to the cliffs overlooking the ocean and find a build-up of cloud they could manipulate. If there was no cloud to be seen, then everyone suffered the heat, some more quietly than others.


* * * * *


Jetta was on tenterhooks waiting for a visit from one of the Earth-Masters. When it did not come over the passing days, her excitement dwindled and with it, her confidence. Feeling sorry for herself, she walked to the town square, hoping instead for inspiration to make an outfit. It was not long before she bumped into Saffy and Tym browsing around the market stalls.

“Cheer up,” Saffy smiled. “What on earth are you looking so glum about?”

“Was I? Sorry, I didn’t realise. Really there’s nothing wrong.” She made an effort to join in with the light-hearted chat that flowed so easily between the loved-up pair.

“You’re not fooling me for one minute,” Saffy whispered to her friend. “I’ll send Tym off on some errand, and then you and I are going to have a talk.” True to her word, a little later Tym was sent on a mission to buy some Shepherd’s Purse. Saffy had reminded him how much his mother liked the peppery leaves in her summer salads. He took the hint good-naturedly and left the girls to talk. He was well aware why he had to disappear. Detouring around the herb and vegetable stalls brought him to the jewellery quarter. He knew that the crimson firestones were Saffy’s favourite.


* * * * *


Ushered to a table and ordered to sit, Jetta watched with amusement as her friend navigated her way to the front of the queue, coming back with cold fruit juices and a large honey cake to share.

“Saff you are awful. All those people patiently waiting and poor Tym ordered away.”

“Oh, they don’t mind, and Tym’s fine. I suggested he looked for something in the herb section because it’s close to the jewellery.”

“Could you be any more contriving?” she laughed. “I bet you’re right though. He’s probably there now looking at rings for you.” A few minutes with her friend and the smell of honey cake that Saffy was already demolishing had already lifted her spirits.

“C’mon then, spill. What’s up with you?” Saffy asked between mouthfuls.

“It’s just that nothing’s happened. No one’s said anything about training. I think Warren may have been jumping the gun telling me I’m going to be chosen. They don’t think I’m ready yet.”

Saffy looked at Jetta in disbelief; her friend had so much natural ability. Tym had filled her in on the night of the Master’s funeral. Her Uncle had also heard of her encounter in the horse pastures from Marli and had repeated the conversation to Saffy, with strict instructions to keep it to herself. She loved Warren. He was a favourite in the study rooms with all the students. He always got himself into trouble for passing on information he had been told to keep to himself. He took great joy in giving good news to the students, even when it was not his place to do so.

“There’s another week to go. The Masters are really busy this time of year. I bet you anything Marli will see you a day or two before the announcement is made. It’s not just you either. There’re bound to be other trainees she’ll have to speak with.” Saffy felt mean being so blunt, but she knew her friend and it was a sure way to sort her out.

“You’re right, as usual, and look, I’m fine now. I’m so good, in fact, I’m going to eat the last piece of cake before you can have it.”

Saffy watched in disgust. “Greedy pig. All that’s left for us now is a bit of retail therapy. I may just have to sneak over and see what Tym’s doing.”

“Don’t you dare spoil his surprise. Come and help me choose material for the forest party. I already have an outfit being made for the fire night. Mother’s sorting that one.”

“It’ll be amazing then. I saw just the thing for you earlier, a beautiful cream silk with matching lace. It’ll make a gorgeous dress. I would have got it for myself, but I think with your colouring it’ll be stunning.”

Jetta chuckled and let Saffy lead the way. After some serious bartering with her father’s honey and lemon blossom wines, she managed to get the one and only piece of glossiest cream silk in the market.

“Can you and Tym get time off tomorrow? We’re all going to be too busy next week. We can round up Rose and Cam, maybe head to the meadow. You lot can have a dip in that freezing pool.”

“Definitely. I may have to bring Danny though. I’m meant to be looking after him. Mother’s helping with the dressmaking for a few days and they’re inundated with requests. He’ll love to spend time with Tym; he idolises him.”

“That makes two of you then,” she grinned, and looked forward to spending some time with Saffy’s younger brother. “Oh look, we seem to have wandered over to the jewellery section. How did that happen?”

“Have we?” Saffy pretended to look surprised. “Oh well, as we’re here, I wonder if I can spot him?”

Jetta shook her head in despair as Saffy craned her neck to see the stalls ahead. She gave a yelp of surprise when Tym came up from behind, a big bushel of Shepherd’s Purse in his hand, the beautiful firestone ring well hidden. It had cost him three weeks of his free time to help construct an extension on one of the family homes. He knew it would be worth every hard minute’s graft to see the look on Saffy’s face when he gave it to her.


* * * * *


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