It’s been a while since I posted a short story. Here is The Touch of LIghtning, about young Kari, who is struck by mage lightning and transformed into someone with a great and terrible ability.
” Anger sparked in her mind. Kari would not be a helpless piece of a broken world. She’d be a weapon if she could. If her life were to be short, then she’d use what was left to save whomever she could.
If she had to be broken, then she would be sharp, like a shard.”
— from The Touch of Lightning, below
The Touch of Lightning
Anne Marie Lutz
Kari sobbed as the sorcerer’s conscriptors forced her best friend in the world toward the battered wagon.
Tulin struggled and cried out for help, but there was nothing anyone could do. The village had nothing to give the conscriptors in her place.
One of the conscriptors dragged Tulin toward the wagon by her long russet hair, while another guarded the villagers with a naked sword. Kari shifted from foot to foot, desperate, wanting to rush the wagon and pull Tulin to safety. But there would be no resistance, not from Kari or from the elders who watched from their own safe doorways. Just as there had been no resistance when Ibar had been thrown into a different wagon, or when Shaw had been tossed over a horse’s back with his hands and feet tied.
The children screamed. The baby ran after Tulin on his plump little legs, straight at the guard with the sword. Kari grabbed him, then knelt in the dirt and held the two littlest children tight against her. The same way Tulin had held Kari close when Mama had died.
As soon as the wagon rattled away, Kari let the little ones go. Half-blinded by tears, she stumbled toward the woods.
“Kari! Come back!” Papa yelled from behind her. “Come inside!”
Kari looked up and saw nothing but empty sky above the treetops. There were no mage storms anywhere near. Papa was always worried about nothing. She fled into the woods.
A little ways in there was an ancient tree whose roots rounded up from the earth to make a sort of chair. Kari curled up there and mourned, sobbing until her throat was sore.
I should have done something. Oh Tulin, poor Tulin.
When the shadows grew longer, Kari wiped her eyes and headed home. She emerged from the forest and looked up to see a single dark mage-squall that had drifted north from the storms of war raging in the mountains. She had only time to notice it before a single blinding bolt struck her in the heart.
Kari awakened to the sight of Papa’s terrified face peering at her. Something buzzed inside her head, like a swarm of bees.
“Are you all right?” Headwoman Isin’s voice was faint behind the wall of buzzing. Isin looked frightened, but that didn’t make sense, since Kari was the one struck by lightning.
Kari tried to sit up. A warm hand pushed her back onto the bedding. Words tumbled behind the screen of sound in her mind.
“Look at her neck,” Isin whispered. “Sorcery.”
Kari brushed a hand across her own face and neck. Except for the bees in her head and a tingling in her hands everything felt normal.
“You were struck by lightning,” Isin said.
Kari remembered the mage storm approaching from the south, out of an otherwise clear sky. Then she’d been hit, a blow full of light and sound that had slammed her into unconsciousness.
Something smelled like smoke.
An image of a man in worn leather armor flashed into Kari’s mind. She said, “A deserter’s coming. He has a sword. And coins to pay the tax.”
The others stared at her.
“Not making sense yet,” Papa said. “Not surprising. Thank the gods she’s alive.”
Kari sat up again, and this time no one stopped her. She didn’t know where those words had come from, but now that they were out in the open she felt they were true. As if the image had come from a sorcerer, or a god.
“No, you have to be on watch,” she insisted. “I saw him coming.”
“Hush now. How could you have seen anything?” Papa put a finger to his lips. His eyes spoke a warning.
Isin stared at Kari’s neck and one bare shoulder where the force of the strike had torn her shirt away. “Just like the mother,” Isin muttered. “Cover her, Draig, or others will see.”
The headwoman went out the door. She would go back to the village meeting, where they tried to figure a way to pay next month’s tax even though the marching armies had crushed part of the crops and taken their animals. Kari hoped the vision was true, and the deserter carried good coin. If not, more of the young people would be taken to fulfill the tax.
“What does she mean?” Kari said. “Just like the mother, she said.”
Papa’s finger traced the lines that ran like the veins of a leaf down her forearm. “Your mother had these marks. She said they marked her as sorcerer’s get. But Kari, she used that power in temper, and you know what happened.”
Kari shivered, the heat and the shock all gone. She still felt the absence of her mother’s comfort after all these years. She’d never seen the body. Papa hadn’t allowed it.
She lifted her arm and stared at the branching patterns, red against the pale skin. “Am I like Mama now?”
“Never let them hear you say so,” Papa said.
The deserter was a big man, scarred from battle. His beard was striped with gray. He could have been someone’s father’s father. He wore a sword in a worn scabbard that called out to Kari in a way she’d never felt before.
Deserters had been sneaking away from the battle to the south when their commanders weren’t watching. Kari didn’t blame them. The southern sky had been dark for days, warclouds roiling into a huge tower, lightning flashing between the ramparts.
The townspeople gave the deserter smoked meat and ale. They gave him as much ale as he wanted, which was a lot. When he dropped the tankard, Mikom and Lake dragged him to the guesthouse and flopped him onto the bed. They shoved his sword and his boots under the sagging pallet, stole four coins from his pouch and shut him into the near-dark.
Kari crept into the room when all was still, following an irresistible pull. She kneeled and swiped her arm back and forth under the bed. It bumped into a slippery leather thing. She clutched it and pulled it after her toward the door.
The bed creaked and a hand grabbed her ankle, stopping her.
“I ain’t too drunk to make an end to you, thief.”
Kari reached blindly for the hilt. Just as she touched it, the man kicked the sword away toward the wall. He hauled her to her feet and pulled her toward the door.
Kari dragged her feet and struggled, but in spite of his drunken state and his age the man was strong like an ox. He pulled her outside and stared down at her in the faint light of the last moon and the village watch-lights.
“By the gods, you’re one of ‘em.”
She knew what he was looking at. Her hood had dropped down to reveal the touch of the sorcerer’s lightning on her neck.
“Leave her alone.” Isin’s voice came from the corner.
“Thief tried to steal my sword from me. Good thing she didn’t touch the metal.” But the man didn’t seem angry. He looked at her wide-eyed, as if she were someone special, then turned his head and belched. “That’s some pretty crummy ale you people have here.”
“It was good enough for you two hours ago.” Isin’s voice was cold. “Let go of her.”
Several of the villagers had gathered, drawn by the disturbance. There weren’t many left, just a few old men and old women who struggled to plant and harvest now that most of the young people had been taken.
The deserter snorted. “Where’s all the rest of you? I remember coming through here years ago, was a decent-sized place.”
Isin stepped forward under the man’s chin. “How dare you? You know where everyone has gone.”
All the boldness seemed to go out of the man, and he was just a paunchy red-eyed deserter, running from the same war that had taken their best away from them. “Guess I do, then.”
Kari drifted backward while everyone’s attention was occupied. The sword should still be sitting against the wall where the deserter had kicked it. She melted back into the doorway and bent to grab the scabbard. Her hand found the hilt.
She slid the sword out of the scabbard. The pathways that had been etched into her skin by the lightning burned. The air crackled like fat in a pan.
She reached a fingertip towards the nicked metal of the blade.
“Stop!” The deserter shouted. “Don’t touch it!”
Kari jumped. She dropped the blade onto the reeds on the floor of the guesthouse. The deserter rushed to yank the sword out of her reach.
“By the gods!” he swore. “Don’t you know what you are?”
Kari looked up at him, then at the others crowding the guesthouse door. Everyone stared at her arms, seeing the writing the lightning had left on her, as it had on Mama.
“Another one! We’re cursed!” someone screeched.
“Just like your mother.” The priest grabbed the fabric of her sleeve and pulled her into the torchlight. He was careful not to touch the marked skin. “Sorcerer’s get. We’ll be rid of you too.”
Papa was beside her, his eyes shocked in his drawn face. “We’ll go. I swear, we’ll do no harm. We’ll just go.”
“Not you. What do you think we’ll do here without a healer? With all these old folks, and everyone else run away from the war?” One of the men took hold of Papa’s arm. Someone else grabbed rope, and they tied Papa’s hands and feet, right there in front of Kari.
“Go,” Papa told her. “Now. Fast!”
The deserter grabbed her arm, fearless of the touch of her marked skin. “Come on,” he hissed. He drew the battered sword and held it ready in the faces of the villagers. “Now this sword might be notched, but it’ll still do against the likes o’you. You’ll let us go with no quibblin’. Move!”
The villagers moved. The deserter pulled Kari away from Papa. She sobbed goodbye and went.
The deserter was too bulky, or still too drunk, to run. He moved in a hurried walk, pulling Kari by the arm until she yanked away and ran ahead of him. She risked a look behind, but no one was following.
“They’ve got arrows,” she said.
“Surprised if they have the nerve,” he panted.
Once they were safe, the deserter brought her a skin of water from a nearby brook and began to stack branches for a shelter.
“I got a use for you,” he said. “There’s coin in it for you, and I’ll take care you don’t get caught.”
“I don’t even know your name.” Kari sat on the damp earth. The chill crept through her thin clothing. She couldn’t stop thinking about Papa.
“My mates call me — ” he flushed. “Never mind. My real name’s Jak.” He sat next to her and gulped from the waterskin. He had taken off his leather armor, and his shirt underneath was stained with sweat.
“Don’t worry about your papa. They won’t harm a healer. He’s safe there, has as much food as anyone and no one goin’ to try to slit his throat. You’re the one he told to run.”
Tears filled her eyes. She sniffed and wiped them away with her sleeve. In two days she’d lost Tulin and Papa, and no way to get either of them back.
“Look. You’re not dead, and you have somethin’ special.” He reached for her arm, and after a moment she gave it to him. He pulled the sleeve back, exposing the red vines the lightning had left behind.
“Why did you yell for me not to touch your sword?”
“You can’t touch metal, don’t you know?” He traced the lightning’s marks almost reverently. “Well, you can, but–”
“You’re sorcerer’s get. Only sorcerers can use the lightning. That’s one of ‘em up there right now, using it to fight the war. Takes the lightning in, and lets it out. All that fire goes into wherever he wants it. It’s a powerful weapon, burns down the men like kindling.”
“I can do that?”
Jak shook his head. “My guess is, no. They study for years. But I’m still not stupid enough to let you touch my sword. I’m sure somethin’ll happen.”
Kari had been very young when her Mama had died. She still remembered the acrid smell of smoke, and the tears and the funerals. There was a blackened scar where there had once been a house, and missing people at the next harvest dinner. No one had ever told her what Mama had done.
She looked at Jak’s sword propped up against a nearby trunk. It called to her. She wanted to touch it, feel the cold metal heat under her hands. She put both hands under the fabric of her shirt.
“Good idea,” Jak said. He got up to finish building the shelter.
When the shelter was finished, she crawled in and ate the smoked meat Jak gave her. After a while she pushed the thought of rescuing Papa to the back of her mind. With Kari gone, he would be an honored healer in the village and in no need of saving. Poor Tulin was beyond Kari’s help. It was time for Kari to go her own way.
Besides, if she was anything like her Mama, Kari didn’t have long to live. She should try to put what remained of her life to good use.
“You said you had a use for me,” she said.
After a restless night in the damp air, Kari filled the waterskin from the brook. Jak was grumpy until he’d stretched the aches out of his joints and eaten more smoked meat.
“Follow me,” he said. “I’ll show you the mark.”
They went cross-country between old trees with little undergrowth to slow them. After noon they dropped down a slope onto a rutted wagon-road. The road curved ahead of them as it entered low hills that Kari knew would eventually grow into the southern mountains.
Their mark was headed toward the battlestorms of the south.
It was almost days-end when they saw the wagon. They scuttled up the rise at the edge of the road and crouched in low brush.
Jak grunted in satisfaction. “That’s them. They’re carrying silver, tribute from the abbey-town. I want it to grease my way outta here.”
The wagon pulled over at the side of the road was battered and old. Some of its wooden slats had fallen off. A pale face peered through one of the gaps. Someone shouted and two boys ran out of the woods and jumped into the wagon. The man who had been guarding their stop climbed back into the wagon and let his weight down onto the driver’s perch with a groan.
Something clutched at Kari’s heart. “They’re taking people to serve in the war.”
“Serve, you say.” Jak spat into the undergrowth. “I s’pose so, for as long as they’ll last. Just fodder for the front lines, is all they are.”
One driver and three guards escorted the wagon. The metal they wore pulled at her; there was a lot of it, in their weapons, the horse’s bit and oddments on the harness. The woman warrior reeked of it; when she turned to scan the road behind them, Kari saw the glint of chain mail under her coat.
The lightning in her veins heated.
She craned her neck to see, but there was no sign of Tulin. This must be a different wagon, different conscriptors, sent to reave what they could from unwilling folk, leaving villages broken and helpless behind them.
Anger sparked in her mind. Kari would not be a helpless piece of a broken world. She’d be a weapon if she could. If her life were to be short, then she’d use what was left to save whomever she could.
If she had to be broken, then she would be sharp, like a shard.
“I’ll help you get your silver,” she told Jak.
“I’ll give you a share. You can take it, run north as far as you can until you reach the city.”
Kari didn’t care about the silver. Jak could have it all. She wanted to hurt the conscriptors, punish them for taking Tulin. She wanted to save whoever was in that wagon.
She remembered the day Mama had died. The way no one would talk to her about what had happened, the pall of smoke over the village, the burn scars on the ground. She stretched her fingers, feeling the sizzle and burn of the lightning in her own veins.
I’m sure somethin’ll happen, Jak had said.
Maybe she could fight after all.
The wagon creaked forward. Kari watched how the woman and one of the men rode up front, and the remaining warrior brought up the rear. That one had metal stirrups and a sword. A saddlebag stuffed under the driver’s perch must hold Jak’s silver.
The conscriptors began to round the bend, heading away from the spot where Kari and Jak hid. The back of the wagon swung around until Kari could see in.
“Here’s the plan,” hissed Jak.
Two boys huddled against the forward end of the wagon. There was an older man, maybe a craftsman of some sort. A woman. Kari caught a glimpse of tangled russet hair, big dark eyes staring in her direction in consternation.
She’d thought Tulin would be gone already, taken to the battleground on the mountain. But the conscriptors must be circling through other villages, because here they were. With Tulin.
All common sense fled. Lightning licked up her arms and neck, rewriting the patterns it had left. Kari flung herself out of the concealing greenery and down the slope. Jak’s frantic call faded into the rush of sound in her mind. She ran as fast as she could at the back of the wagon, blind to all but the flashes in her vision and Tulin’s wan face.
“Hai! Stop!” The warrior guarding the rear rode at her and grabbed her by her coat.
The warrior was strong. He held her by the arm and used a booted foot to hold her far enough away that she couldn’t bite or kick him. He laughed. “What we got here?”
The woman warrior came around to the rear. “Throw her in. We can use another one.”
“No!” Tulin cried. “Leave her alone!”
The woman warrior barked a laugh. “Friends, I see. Throw her in!”
“Yes, Commander.” The warrior hefted Kari up and into the wagon. Kari rolled into the group of sweaty bodies inside. Her head banged into the wooden slats and pain arced up her neck, more earthy than the crackle of the lightning in her veins.
The tailgate swung up. A wooden bar scraped into place on the outside.
“What’s happened, Kari?” Tulin bent over her. “Why are you here?”
“I’m going to get you out of here,” Kari gasped.
“You shouldn’t have come.” A tear ran down Tulin’s cheek. Her cloak was torn, and dark bruises lined her forearms. “They’ll only hurt you, too.”
The wagon groaned into motion. Kari sat up and peered at its other occupants. They were a sorry-looking group, grim-faced and filthy from travel.
“Tulin, next stop, when the time is right, you need to run. All of you need to run. Don’t wait for me. There’s a man waiting up on that hill, I think he’ll help you.”
“You’re havin’ delusions,” mocked one of the boys. “No little girl’s going to get us out o’this.”
Kari peered over the edge of the wagon, looking at the tree-lined slope above the road. Knowing what she was looking for, it wasn’t long until she caught sight of a cloaked shape, a gray-striped beard blending into the dappled shade. Jak would get his silver too, she would make sure of it.
Something trickled down the back of her neck. She put a hand to it and drew it away smeared with blood.
“It’s not that bad,” Tulin soothed. “Head wounds bleed a lot. But what’ve you done to yourself?” Her friend’s eyes were on the red veins, the words of the lightning on Kari’s arms.
“Just go, as soon as you can.” Kari couldn’t spare more words. It was getting hard to concentrate. She could identify every jot of metal there, from the bits on the harness to the signet one of the warriors wore on a chain around his neck. The swords all smelled like blood.
The lightning burned in her veins. She welcomed it.
She would wait until they dropped the tailgate and make the diversion she needed. Then Tulin could run and be safe, and the others, too, even the nasty-tempered boy hunched in the corner.
She thought of Mama. There’d been fear in Isin’s eyes after Mama’s death. The village had smelled like ash for days, even weeks. Kari swallowed, pushing back her fear.
“Help!” she yelled. “I have to stop!”
The others in the wagon drew away from Kari. It was no wonder. She felt half-crazy, and no doubt she looked it too.
The horses plodded on for another half-mile before her cries got the party to stop. The rear guard banged on the tailgate. “Shut up in there!”
“I need out,” Kari said.
“Ya ain’t getting out.”
“What’s going on?” The Commander stared from horseback at the miserable group inside the wagon. The third warrior joined them too, black-bearded and fierce-looking.
“Gonna be sick,” Kari said. “I need out.”
The woman’s shrewd eyes narrowed. “What’s that on your neck?”
“Blood,” Kari said. “Let me out!”
“It’s not blood.” The commander’s head came up sharply. “Gods! That’s the lightning’s mark. You, Hal, get the tail open now!”
The black-bearded warrior jumped. “What?”
“Now! Let the little monster go!” The Commander shoved the warrior aside. She reached from horseback down to the wooden latch.
“Run,” Kari whispered to Tulin.
Tulin nodded. She looked sad. But she pulled her legs under her, ready to spring up and go.
Kari flung herself at the Commander, half-fell over the dropping tailgate and grabbed onto the woman’s chainmail with both hands. Something surged inside her.
The lightning ran from Kari’s chest, down her arms and into the hands that clutched the metal.
Someone shouted from the edge of the forest, a man’s voice — Jak, yelling. Feet pounded as the wagon emptied fast, conscriptees swarming over the tailgate in a mess of arms and legs.
The Commander screamed. Her horse echoed her scream and dropped to the road, the Commander pinned beneath the saddle in helpless pain. Kari held on as she was pulled on top of the Commander, feeling lightning explode through the metal – the mail, the sword, the harness – and arc to the second warrior’s body.
The air around her crackled and burned. Kari’s body seized, a living carrier to sorcerer’s lightning.
More energy rolled through her, arced from sword to sword. The captives were gone, safe. Tulin was safe. The wagon’s driver had followed them into the woods. Jak would take care of him.
She tasted metal on her tongue. Her hands reached for more. Two had fallen but there was another warrior, the black-bearded one, deluded into trying to come to the rescue. As his sword came down she reached for the naked blade, welcoming it. Even exulting in it.
Maybe this was how Mama had felt when she died. It was all worth it, every bit of it, to save Tulin.
When they had torn her world apart, they hadn’t counted on Kari.
The world exploded into fire.