Summary: Set about a thousand years before Rare Kinds, this story chronicles the adventures of Niklaus, Nick's first incarnation as a Northkind mage. Joined by an elf and a mortal Roger, he travels far in search of a way to control his power, but his companions provide many distractions along the way.
Niklaus wondered how long it would take for them to find him and burn his house down. He knew it was just a matter of time. His father had died very recently, his sole protector. The only one of his people who had stood by him, prevented the others from destroying him.
Niklaus didn't know much about poisons, but his father had taught him how to tie knots when he was very young. He threw the rope over the central beam in his cottage. He could kill himself, save them all the trouble.
He couldn't imagine being burned alive. The last mage discovered in their village had been ripped apart by the mob and the pieces burned to ashes. They had slaughtered even his animals, salted his gardens, saying they were also cursed. They'd even burned his home to the ground. Niklaus would rather hang himself first; at least then his death would be on his own terms.
As he tied the rope around the beam, standing on a chair so he could reach, he heard the front door of his cottage fly open and then slam closed. It was something it had done often. The house was old and their village was windy, and father never got around to fixing the door. But tonight Niklaus had shoved one of the chairs against it, to keep it closed and to make noise and warn him should the villagers finally decide to drag him from his home.
His whole body tensed as he turned his eyes to the door, fingers tightening on the noose in his fingers. He could have sworn he had seen something move in the shadows but it could have been his imagination. His mind was all a ramble since father's death. He had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and the other families said they had always known. Always known he was different.
He couldn't control the magic, could barely call it his the way it seemed to show itself without his bidding. Whenever he was angry or afraid it would manifest. Ever since he was a child he could make light in darkness. He could steal flames from the fire and hold them safely in his hand. Once a group of the local boys had caught him in the forest while he had been gathering wood, and beat him mercilessly. He had disappeared under their clenched fists and his father had found him behind their cottage bloodied and bruised. His leg had been broken and had never healed correctly. To this day many years later it ached in the winter; and it was always winter in Staatsgard.
He could have left this rat-spit village if it wasn't for his leg, and the treacherous snow drifts that marked the descent into Tannika to the south. There they appreciated magic. There those who wielded it were called blessed, even revered. They had a college where all could study it, even those who hadn't the natural "talent" as they called it. His father would have taken him there. He had expressed his regret and said himself what a coward he was for not secreting him away to … what had he called the city? It didn't matter. His father was dead now, even if his regrets still lived, darkening Niklaus' heart.
Sjyla Blackheart even confessed she thought he had killed his own father! Why would he do that? They never trusted magic, and treated him like he had chosen it. Magic chooses the bearer, not the other way round! It didn't matter to these people. Everything that went wrong in the village was somehow his fault. Crops went bad, it was Niklaus. Children come down with Bone-Bite fever, it was Niklaus. Wolves would kill goats and it was still somehow his fault.
Niklaus' fingers shook as he pulled the noose over his head. The candle on the table flickered and then puffed out. The smell of melting tallow and smoke filled his nostrils when he took a breath, preparing himself. Could he do this? Could he take his own life?
Something scrambled around in the shadows, and he paused to scan them though his eyes could see not much at all in the dark.
"Is someone there?" he asked the shadows and received no response. He felt silly. Perhaps he was subconsciously delaying his suicide, imagining things were moving in the dark. No, he thought, it could be Wilhelm or one of his friends, intruding to lop off his head and burn down his house before the mob came. Most likely to get all the credit of ridding Staatsgard of its evil.
Then the candle lit itself and he gasped, losing his feet on the chair as it slipped sideways in his panic. His body dropped and he dangled, choking on the rope around his neck. His fingers clawed at it desperately. This was wrong! He couldn't do this! But if only his father had been alive! It would break his heart to see this.
Something cut the rope over his head and he fell to the dusty floor of the cottage. Just before he passed out he saw a man standing over him, his long golden blond hair hanging down in his face. A flash of metal in the candlelight told him the man had a knife in his hand.
"Wake up, friend. Can you speak?" Niklaus groaned and rubbed at his sore throat, which felt as if the rope was still around it, choking him. It wasn't there anymore. The man leaned over him while he lay on the bed. He must have put him there. "What's your name?"
"Niklaus," he croaked, his voice was weak even to his own ears and it pained him to speak. "Who-What?"
"I was here to rob you, but you have nothing and seemed to recognize that fact as I found you hanging yourself from the ceiling," the man said casually and leaned back so Niklaus could get a look at his face. The man was young, around his age, but he had never seen him before. Niklaus knew everyone in the village, Staatsgard was very small. Perhaps this man was a traveling thief, though he couldn't imagine why he would bother saving him from suicide. Or why he would be in such a poor village as this.
Niklaus struggled to sit up on the straw bed, nodding his thanks when the man helped him, even pulled the furs over his legs to keep him warm. He studied the man warily. Surely this man would kill him when he next had the chance. Hopefully it would be clean and quick, and he would not be left to the mercy of the villagers.
The man was tall when he stood, but skinny, not like the rest of the Northmen here at all. All were bulky, muscled from farming and woodsman work like himself. This man was lithe, dressed in leathers dyed black that hugged him like a second skin. In armor like that he'd not survive the harsh cold here very long. No doubt he was on the run if he was indeed a thief, but the dark clothes would hardly hide him in the white snow. This was a man that relied on shadow and stealth.
His face was thin, but handsome, set with a strong jaw and a nose that would have been too pointed on any other face. He was not a Northman, at least, he didn't look like one that Niklaus had ever seen, and although the man spoke his language he sounded different though he couldn't put his finger on it. The man held out a brown leather bag, which Niklaus found out was a skin of water when the man pressed it to his lips. He drank deeply, throat burning as he swallowed.
"Why were you killing yourself? Is it the village? I've never seen such a miserable place. Nothing worth stealing here at all."
Niklaus coughed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I don't think it matters now," he croaked his confession, "I'm cursed with magic."
"Ha!" The man exclaimed, smiling sympathetically. "Funny how people talk of that here. I think they throw the word curse around when the wind changes."
He nodded seriously and the man looked flabbergasted. "Bad batch of mead and I'm the cause…" Niklaus groaned and hung his head. "If you're here to kill me please just get on with it."
"I'm not going to kill you. You don't even have any gold." The man said with a laugh. He got up and began stoking the fire, which he must have lit while Niklaus had passed out.
"If it's not you then they'll kill me. The whole lot of them have been out for it ever since…" His eyes when to his father's bed on the other side of the room and he sighed mournfully.
"I noticed the grave out back. Recent. Must have been difficult digging one so deep in ground this cold."
"It took all night," Niklaus said, his voice monotone as he remembered doing the deed himself. "Then I came inside, my hands…" He looked down on the blisters on his fingers and palms and saw his father's lifeless face.
"If you've got magic you can heal them yourself."
"It doesn't work like that… I can't control it."
"Then you'd better have this," The man said and went to sit beside him on the bed once more. He pulled something from a satchel that was slung around his shoulders, a small pot, and scooped some white paste from it with his fingers. As he rubbed it over his blisters, Niklaus sighed, feeling a tingling sensation in his skin. It didn't hurt; in fact it felt wonderful as the man worked the paste in gently. "Is that better?"
"Yes, I thank you."
The man nodded, still gently rubbing his palms and fingers, the sensation making him almost dizzy and unseasonably warm. "Don't see why I'm bothering if you're just going to try and kill yourself again."
"There's nothing for me here anymore."
"Was it your wife?"
"My father," Niklaus answered, curious that the man would think anyone would wed a magic-wielder knowingly. Not that he had any interest in marriage, but it was expected from any other Northman, especially in Staatsgard. "Came down with a cough but then he never got well."
"How is it that you didn't catch it?"
"I wish I had. I wish I had died and he had lived." Maybe then the village wouldn't have shunned him for hiding his son away for what he was. His father could have had a normal life without him. "Why are you here?"
"I told you. I was going to rob you," the man said simply, stilling rubbing his hands but surely the paste was worked into his skin by now. "I was cold and your cottage is removed from the village. This copse of trees hides your very door from view. I figured I could sneak in, perhaps the occupants were at the mead hall, I thought, and would come home to find they were cleaned out long after I had left."
Niklaus pulled his hands away from his but the man grabbed them back. When he gave him a questioning, suspicious look the man shrugged and said, "The warmth helps the healing." The way the man smiled revealed that to only be half-true. "Seems a waste to kill something so fine."
"I'm sorry?" Niklaus succeeded this time in pulling his hands away though this time they were shaking. To his mortification he realized all the attention on his hands and fingers seemed to arouse him. Luckily the thick, heavy furs seemed to hide that if they couldn't hide his reddened cheeks.
"No? All right." The man shrugged again and sat back, still with that odd smile on his face. "If there really is nothing for you here you could leave. The country to the south doesn't hold as much weight in curses, magic or no. You could live quite comfortably with others of your kind. Without fear of someone setting fire to you as you sleep."
"Mages, if that is what you are."
"I'd never make the journey."
"Not alone. As it happens I've grown tired of this country. Nothing but snow and mountains and people without two coins to rub together." The man spat disdainfully. "And the occasional goat. Nothing good here but the mead."
Niklaus was inclined to agree. Though he had lived here all his life he couldn't see himself having a good quality of life here. Not if he didn't choose to end his life before the villagers finally roused their mob. "What are you saying?"
"You could come with me."
"I don't think I'm cut out to run with a thief. My whole life all I've known is farming."
The man gave him an appraising look. "I can tell… but let me worry about that," he said. "And it doesn't matter. We can part ways in King's Town if that's what you want."
"Is that where you're from?"
"No. An encampment of Sliverwood is not far from here. They don't hold the same superstitions as your people. I'm sure they would welcome us… for a time."
"Sliverwood? With the elves?" Niklaus was aghast. The man didn't look like an elf. His father had told him tales of the Sliverwood elves, how lithe and pale, ghost-like they were. "You're no elf!"
"Only part but don't tell them that when we get there. I'm not known this far north and they wouldn't trust me if they knew."
"So you'll take me with you?"
"Why not? I could use the company. It's been lonely these past few months."
"I don't travel very well. My leg," Niklaus said as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. "It was broken many years ago. Had a limp ever since."
"Hmm…" the man hummed, watching him as he got to his feet. "Then I think you'd better grab what food you can and we'll leave now."
Niklaus grabbed a bag and shoved what little food he had within, along with a few bottles of firebrand mead. He never liked the taste of it, but it was good for chasing the chill away. He grabbed some furs and before they left the cottage, and the man extinguished the fire. Niklaus went around back to say goodbye to his father. The thief followed, a curious expression on his face as Niklaus waved his hands over the stones that marked the grave.
"May you find peace and comfort with our ancestors, my father."
"We should go," the thief said impatiently. Niklaus could hear him shifting his feet anxiously in the snow behind him.
"Just a moment," he said, kneeling down to press his forehead against the cold stones. After a moment of silence he got to his feet and turned back to the man. "I'm ready."
They were just outside the village when he turned back and saw a rising pillar of black smoke. So the villagers had come for him, and finding him gone set the place ablaze. Clenching his teeth he set his eyes at the thief's back, determined not to shed a tear though his vision was already blurry and wet. That part of his life was over and he would never look back again.