Updated: January 5, 2009
Bren sat down and surveyed his accomplishments.
The floor was swept, the furniture in order and the fire was burning. Bren was particularly proud of himself for washing the dishes after dinner. His wife was pregnant and he tried to help out in any way he could. He plumped up the cushions in her favorite chair and placed an upholstered stool in front of it, anticipating Sara's needs. Bren knew she was accustomed to luxury. Her father was a prominent merchant, who purchased the house they lived in as dowry for his daughter. They had no servants, but Sara didn't seem to mind, and was very content with her life. She ran a spotless home. That is, before the pregnancy and Bren's pathetic attempts at house keeping during it. There were some domestic tasks that he couldn't perform properly, no matter how hard he tried.
It wasn't Bren's fault he couldn't abide metals. All mages couldn't.
Metal absorbed magic. It was known as the mages' bane and it was used to turn mages into regular people. Mage hunters would track down and capture any man or woman suspected of having magical abilities and turn them into the hands of smiths, who in their turn would clamp metal bands onto the mage's wrists. This close to the body, the metal in these bracelets would sap all the magic from a mage, turning that mage into a normal person.
Bren had been forced into a pair of these bands many years ago.
"Are you brooding again?" Sara asked, smiling.
Bren turned to look at her. She carefully eased herself into her favorite chair and gently caressed her belly. The baby was due anytime soon. At least, that was what Sara has been saying for the past week. Bren knew nothing about babies, except how to make them.
Bren still couldn't figure out why Sara had wanted to marry him. She had practically proposed to him. When he had told her he had nothing to offer her, she had laughed and called him a big silly. She has said that he had the best thing in the world to offer her. Himself.
"I'm not brooding." He answered and closed his eyes. She was right, he's been brooding. There was no other way to describe his thoughts. Still, they were inevitable in these quiet moments of the evening. Memories flooded him as he looked at the fire dancing. Bren picked up a poker and shuffled the coals in the fire. The poker had a wooden handle, like most tools they had in the house. As he stirred the coals, his thoughts trailed back to the stories of generations past, when the mage hunters didn't use wrist bands. These had been both better and worse times for mages. Whenever a mage had been branded with an earring or ring, that mage had preferred to cut off his earlobe or finger and be free again. However, these mages had never been able to show themselves in public again. It had meant their death, so they had run away to live as hermits in forests and high in the mountains. There was even and old wives tale that they had built a whole city and welcomed any mage who wished to join them.
Bren knew this story to be false. He had looked for this city when he was young. All in vain. There was no city, no village or even a hut welcoming those with magical abilities.
Now, Bren worked as a baker. It was the only job he managed to hold. There was no metal involved in dough kneading. It wasn't easy, but he'd never been afraid of hard work. There was flour and water, wooden surfaces and a big stone oven. With his hands up to the elbows in dough, he would forget his wrist bands. And, his work made it possible for him to provide additional income.
Bren dared a glimpse at his wife. She fell asleep, and he rose to his feet to wake her up and help her to bed. Then he reconsidered and decided to let her have a few more moments near the fire. The bedroom would be cold. He quietly got up and placed two bricks in the fire. He would use them to warm her side of the bed.
She looked so peaceful and happy, one hand resting on her belly, the other, holding her shawl from slipping. Bren uttered a silent prayer that their child would not be born a mage. Not because he was convinced there was anything wrong with the likes of him, but because he didn't want his kid to experience magic and then be denied it. It was a terrible feeling. Like being pinioned.
Mage hunters were not known for their cruelty. They were professional hunters and experts at that. But, the smiths accompanying them tended to be real bastards. In Bren's case, they had made a particularly vicious kind of joke at his expense. Bren's wrist bands were made to look like feathers.
Bren brushed one of the bronze atrocities with the tips of his fingertips. He vividly remembered the moment they had clamped them onto him. He'd been weak from the hunt and couldn't put up a decent fight. He hadn't even had enough strength to scream when they wrought the bronze onto his flesh. It had hurt, but the physical pain was somewhat dulled compared to the sudden feeling of suffocating. It had hit him like a wall, and he gasped for air that was freely flowing into his lungs.
Bren's gift was flight. Apparently it was very rare, even among mages. He couldn't explain it, and he couldn't forget it. It wasn't similar to bird flight at all, it was more like levitating. Rising to a certain height above the ground and then landing safely. It was a harmless gift in a harmless man. But, it was magical and so, had to be suppressed. For the greater good they had said. And for the greater good, he'd been hunted down, shackled and made normal.
Bren looked away from the fire. It was making his eyes water.
The next day he went to the market.
This was usually Sara's responsibility, but lately it was difficult for her to get around, not to mention carrying provisions. He hoped he wouldn't have to haggle. He didn't want to speak at all, or to handle coins more than was necessary. Sara was aware of his discomfort and had prepared as much small change as possible for him in advance. His wrists hurt and he concentrated on moving through the throng of people. No one gave him a second glance, despite his height and the clearly visible bronze bracelets. He was just another face in the crowd and he was relieved for that.
Bren walked briskly, to spend as little time as possible outside and this close to so many people. He didn't like people. They had a tendency to talk to him, to ask him questions he didn't have answers for, and they often stared. Today, the people in the street seemed uninterested in him and he was very grateful for it.
Just as he was starting to feel more relaxed, he noticed signs of commotion around him. Although, the activity wasn't directed at him, it made him feel uneasy and alarmed again. He gravitated towards the nearest building and paused to think. People were decidedly rushing in both directions. Some seemed to be set on getting away from whatever was happening ahead, others were drawn towards it, probably out of curiosity. There were more people trying to get as far from whatever it was as possible.
Bren made an easy choice. He headed back home. He was no fool. Commotions meant trouble, and trouble was the last thing anyone needed. He could go to the market later, when things have settled. He knew his wife would approve.
He bowed his head and quickened his step, taking care not to bump into people.
Within moments he realized he wasn't quick enough. Shouts reached his ears and he turned back to look at what was happening. People were getting out of the middle of the street, trying to squeeze closer to the buildings. Someone pushed him trying to hide in a nearby doorway. Bren spun on his heels and found himself standing alone in the middle of the street. He dashed after the man who pushed him but was met with a wall of people huddled together and was left with no choice but to stand out. His eyes darted in every direction trying to locate a nook in the human wall he could melt into. It was hopeless and he simply stood nearby, trying to look small and insignificant.
He couldn't see beyond the bend of the street but he could hear horses' hooves upon the cobbles and more shouting. They were heading in his direction. He looked around again. The situation hasn't changed. If anything, it was even worse, because a child began sobbing somewhere near him and Bren knew it was only a matter of time before the sobs turned into crying, drawing even more attention to his own bulky figure.
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and attempted another assimilation into the crowd at his back. It partially worked. People were more preoccupied with the source of the noise getting closer.
They came around the bend and Bren gasped.
It was a mage hunt.
The mage was a young man, very thin and haggard. He was barely standing and with his last efforts he was defending himself from the hunters' capture attempts. He was half running half stumbling backwards, always keeping one eye on his pursuers, not letting them come too close for their metal to sap his magic completely.
Bren rubbed his wrists absentmindedly.
The hunters were dressed in their usual boiled leathers, studded with steel spikes. On their hands they wore gauntlets and their helmets were adorned with crests of metallic bristles. Their weapons were made entirely of metal, from the handles to the pointy tips. And of course, there was the net. This item Bren remembered with vivid hatred. This had been the tool of his undoing as a mage.
The net was made of rope, interwoven with steel threads. Its edges were weighed down with chunks of iron. The hunters had used the net on him when he hadn't expected it. One of them had hidden on a roof top and had thrown his net directly onto Bren. The net hadn't opened properly and had simply landed on his head, but it had been close enough to his skin and the metal in it had absorbed his magical abilities instantly. He had already been very tired from the chase, and with his magic gone, he had given in to fatigue and collapsed.
Bren looked at the poor youth. He was near breaking point. A few more steps and he would topple. He stepped backwards and reached the point where Bren stood. A brief glimpse from him at Bren's wrist bands made him widen his eyes in understanding and newfound resolve. He concentrated and straightened a bit. That was when two of the hunters chose to launch their nets.
A wrong moment for them, thought Bren.
He was right. As the nets began to unfold, two cobble stones burst out of the paving and into the nets. The nets' momentum wasn't enough and they spun upon themselves, eventually falling limply in street, away from their mark.
Meantime, the youth managed to distance himself a few more steps away from the hunters. He still wouldn't let them out of his sight, but he was getting farther from them.
Bren was relieved that the people in the street didn't interfere. They could have easily overcome the young mage. Most had probably carried something metallic about their person. Yet, they didn't. They were enjoying the show, allowing professionals to do the dirty work. Afterwards, they would go home and tell stories of this morning to anyone who would listen.
Bren sighed. The youth stumbled.
One of the hunters pulled out a crossbow and knocked an arrow made entirely of steel.
No, Bren thought. Not this.
As long as a mage didn't fight back, the hunters didn't use excessive violence. They used nets and tried to wear down their prey. They didn't torture the fleeing mages. After all, a mage was almost normal, and the hunters didn't want to harm a potentially normal person. That is, until it was apparent that the mage was unwilling to conform. When a mage fought back, that mage died.
The hunters' quarry saw the crossbow being pulled, as well, and dropped to his knees.
"Please!" he rasped. "It was only self defense. I didn't hurt anyone!" His eyes were brimming with tears, and Bren could feel a sting in his own eyes. He looked at the hunters. The rest of them were already knocking arrows into their own crossbows. All that metal was making him dizzy. Or maybe, it was the bleakness of the scene before his eyes, and how similar it looked to what had happened to him.
They don't understand. Bren though. How could they? Only a person who had lost one of his senses could know what it was like to lose magical ability. It became easier with time, but the feeling of loss never dulled.
He looked at his wrists. He became more aware of the presence of the warped bronze feathers burning into his flesh. They seemed to be pressing more than usual, squeezing his limbs in an even tighter grip.
"Please! Please! Just let me go!" the young mage wailed. "I didn't hurt anyone! I don't wish to hurt anyone! Please, don't do this to me! Please!" Tears were streaming down his cheeks and he was shaking.
The hunters advanced silently, showing no signs of mercy.
One of them fired.
Again, one of the cobbles shot up, deflecting the arrow. The mage barely held his ground. "Let me go! Please, let me go!" he sobbed and crawled backwards.
Bren watched his last struggling attempts. The youth refused to yield, and he refused to die. He was only defending himself, and still the hunters didn't withdraw their bows.
Another hunter fired his crossbow and this time several cobbles shot upwards, one deflected the arrow, and one of the rest hit the hunter's weapon.
After that, everything changed. All the other hunters leveled their weapons at once. The youth collapsed flat on the cobbles. And Bren jumped forward into the line of fire.
He wasn't thinking. There was no time. There was no need. There was only a dire urge to save the other mage. To protect him just enough and to give the young man an opportunity to escape. And a last opportunity for himself to fly.
As he fell, Bren thought about his wonderful Sara and their child. It was too late to stop, and he cursed himself for thinking too slowly to stop his body from flying through the air and into the trajectory of the arrows. Too late to avoid the piercing pain in his chest.
He landed on his side, and helplessly rolled onto his back. The arrow heads were pushed back into his back and he screamed. His eyes were closed against the pain, but it burned hot white through his eyelids, and he cried out in agony and protest. Around him, it was very quiet. No one moved. No one comprehended what had just happened. No one dared believe their own eyes.
Bren squinted, trying to peer through his eyelashes at a different world. A still, silent world that was slowly turning black at the edges. And in the center of this world he could see his own hands clutching at the arrow shafts protruding from his chest and on his wrists, the two feather-shaped bronze bracelets.