Hala was picking rumpelberries the day she accidentally summoned the hill tiger. Two buckets, almost full. Hands slippery with juice. Stomach gurgling guiltily from the sour-sweet feast. Nothing on her mind but the warmth of the sun and her mother's rumpelberry tart. Rumpelberry soup with cream. Rumpelberry sauce on venison.
She'd just discovered another bush when the guttural warning sounded behind her. She whirled, berries flying from her hand, as a flash of dull orange blocked out the trees.
Pain seared her arm, where she'd lifted it to block her face. The beast's teeth dragged through her flesh until they ripped themselves free. Only then did she realize what it was: a real hill tiger. It glared at her through red slitted eyes, its black gums pulled back from three-inch fangs.
She swung the berry bucket at its head. It hissed and she screamed, but she kept swinging. Berries pelted down on them as the tiger's paws slashed through the sunlight and tore at her skin. She lashed out with a foot, so hard the tiger jumped away, arched its back, and hissed again. Then it was gone, running off so fast she hardly even saw it bolt. She didn't let go of the bucket's handle until the birds started singing again and the blood from her arm had begun to mix with the ruined berries on the ground.
Hala retold the story at least a dozen times that day, while the healer worked patiently on her wounds. Her brother wanted to know how fast it could run, and how thick its muscles were. Her mother demanded to know why she'd gone picking berries alone in the first place, though Hala insisted that thirteen years old was practically grown up. Her father grilled her for details of its location so he could organize the other villagers to keep watch with him through the nights to come. But the healer kept asking pointed questions about the hour before the attack, and what she'd been doing and touching and thinking about, and if she'd been particularly calm and content.
"You think she's got the gift?" the blacksmith asked with a smirk. "Of summoning hill tigers? That's useful."
The healer ignored him, and focused on Hala. "Do you often see animals when you're outside the village?"
"Do you have vermin problems at home?"
"Are you insulting my housekeeping?" her mother huffed. "Might I remind you that you haven't dusted those books of your since before the mountains rose from the plains?"
"Your housekeeping would have nothing to do with it," the healer said, then stopped her questioning. But the seed had been planted, and its roots were growing in Hala's head, blotting out the pain in her arm.
The village had nearly thirty families, if you included the outlying farms, but only one trained mage: the healer. She herself admitted she was better at herbology than magecraft. The blacksmith's gift was probably greater. He certainly acted like it, going around lighting fires with his glare and casting embarrassing suggestion enchantments on anyone foolish enough to submit.
The handful of other villagers with the gift couldn't do much more than enchant their bread to taste sweeter or make themselves look younger on nights when the village held dancing in the green. No one she knew had ever summoned animals.
All night, consciousness ebbing and flowing with the pain, Hala hoped it was true. Being a magic-wielder was something. Not as good as beauty or wealth, but something. And Kreg would finally notice her—Kreg who liked to sneak around doing his clever mischief under the protection of spotty look-away enchantments. Maybe she'd be brave enough, one day, to tell him that his spells never worked on her. She never looked away, since he was the most interesting thing in the whole village.
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