In Elena's world words have power over life and death—but none more so than hers.
As the daughter of shopkeepers, Elena has always known that the mysteries of reading and writing are closed to her. Only the mageborn can risk harnessing the power unleashed from putting pen to paper. Until Elena discovers an impossible new ability and joins the elite ranks of the mages.
But with the kingdom at war, the authorities can't agree if Elena is an asset, or a threat they need to eliminate. Thrust into the unknown world of the Royal Academy without friends or experience, Elena will need all of her wits, strength, and new power to carve a place for herself.
Except as the threats to both Elena and the kingdom mount, wits and strength won't be enough. Elena will have to turn to new friends and an enigmatic prince to unlock the mysterious potential of her words—because both her life and her people depend on her becoming stronger than she ever dreamed possible.
If you enjoy strong heroines, fantasy worlds, adventure, intrigue, and romance, then try the Spoken Mage series now. Available for a reduced price in this complete series set.
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The Spoken Mage: Complete Series
I was hurrying home along the dirt road, already late, when I heard the cry. It clearly came from a young child and was too loud to miss and too pained to ignore. With a sigh, I slowed and tried to pinpoint the source. I had spent longer in the woods than I usually did on my herb-gathering expeditions, and the sun was already drawing low. But I was well outside the village now, so no one else was likely to hear or intervene.
An angry voice followed by another cry sent me around some bushes and onto the flat patch of ground bordering the small river that flowed past our town of Kingslee. A small child who I vaguely recognized—not more than three years old—cowered in the dirt away from a boy and girl my own age. I leaped in, placing myself between the child and his attackers before my brain caught up. I shot a pained look at the girl in front of me.
She winced. “We had to step in, Elena. He was endangering us all. You would have done the same.”
I turned to glance at the boy who now clung to my leg. He didn’t look dangerous. Tears ran down his cheeks, one of which bore the distinct red mark of a hand. I turned back to glower at the other two.
“I really don’t think I would have.”
Alice winced again. “Well, maybe not that. Samuel got a bit carried away, perhaps…”
“No, I did not.” Samuel narrowed his eyes at me. “That boy needs to be taught a lesson, and even you should know that, Elena. Isn’t your family’s house just down the road?”
I rubbed my head. I was too tired today for riddles.
“What are you talking about, Samuel?”
Samuel just pointed at the scuffed dirt beside where we all stood. I looked helplessly across at Alice.
She leaned over slightly, pointing more closely. Reluctantly I bent down as well, frowning at what appeared to be a single short, curving line drawn in the dust, deeper than the other muddled depressions.
“It’s a…line?” I picked up the crying child, who was now attempting to climb my leg, and settled him on my hip. “So he’s been drawing in the dirt. What of it?”
“Yes, just a line. Thanks to us.” Samuel stepped forward, his posture belligerent, and I fell back a step. But only because of the boy. I didn’t want Samuel taking another swipe at him.
Samuel ignored the child, however, pointing instead at something on the other side of us. It appeared to have been pushed aside and partially concealed by a bush during whatever scuffle had occurred before my arrival. The half page still visible was enough to show what it was, though—a single sheet of printed parchment.
I gasped and jumped back instinctively, nearly dropping the boy.
“What—? Where did that come from?”
Samuel crossed his arms in front of his chest and regarded me again with narrowed eyes. “And now you see. We’ve saved us all. And that child needs to be taught a lesson.”
“He’s only a baby,” I protested, my arms tightening around him. “He doesn’t know any better.”
But I could feel the shake in my limbs as residual fear burned through me. How close had we all come to death? I scrubbed at the dirt with my foot, removing even the faint traces of whatever had been marked there.
“Why haven’t you burned it?” I asked. “Before someone else sees it. Like a guard. You know the penalty for possessing writing, let alone the danger…”
Samuel shook his head. “We’ll burn it once that boy has learned his lesson.”
I stepped back again as he leaned forward threateningly. Alice put her hand on his arm, restraining him.
“I think you’ve scared him enough, Samuel. Look, he’s still crying. Elena is right. We should burn it.”
For a moment Samuel and I stood frozen, our gazes locked. But then Alice pulled at his arm again, and he sighed, shaking her off.
As he pulled out tinder and flint, I tried not to look at the parchment. The firm black marks called to me, however, and I couldn’t resist stealing several glances. I couldn’t read what they said, of course. None of us could. But I knew enough to recognize words when I saw them. Their loops and curves and straight edges fascinated me. What mysteries would they unlock, if only I could decipher them? If only I hadn’t been born Elena of Kingslee, daughter of two shopkeepers.
As the first bright lick of flame ignited the paper, the forbidden letters burning away, I shook myself. I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. Not even the wonders of the written word and the magical power it could unleash for those with the right bloodlines.
“Well, that’s done then,” said Alice when the parchment had turned completely to ash. “We should be going.” She looked over her shoulder at the road, clearly eager to be gone.
But uneasiness stirred in me.
“Surely the real question is where did he get it.” I looked down at the boy who had snuggled into my shoulder, his tears finally fading at the mesmerizing sight of flames. “Where did it come from? Kingslee doesn’t need that kind of trouble.” Not when we stood so close to the capital, in all too easy reach of any number of the king’s guards.
Samuel grunted. “Didn’t you see earlier? A couple of fancy carriages came rolling through on their way to Corrin.” He gestured up the road past my house to where the capital lay, far out of sight. “They deigned to stop, and the mages inside even went into your parents’ store. I’ve no doubt one of them dropped the thing, and this idiot found it.”
At his angry tone the boy began to tremble, attempting to burrow into me. I hoisted him a little higher on my hip and glared at Samuel again.
“It’s not his fault. He’s too young to know better. Things like this aren’t supposed to be lying around.”
“He’s obviously a smart one.” Alice watched him with sadness lurking in her eyes. “To try to copy what he saw.”
“Smart? Ha!” Samuel barked a laugh without humor. “Idiot fool, more like. He could have exploded us all with a single word, you know that.”
“Well, he didn’t!” I snapped, my nerves having eaten the last of my patience. “And it’s getting late. I’m taking him home.” I narrowed my eyes, daring Samuel to try to stop me, but he merely glared back.
“Do you know where he belongs?” asked Alice tentatively.
I nodded. “I recognize him. I’ll have him home soon enough.”
Neither of them moved, so I took off, winding around them. I would have preferred to walk behind them, out of their sight, but I didn’t have time to wait around. Not now that I would have to return to town before heading home.
I walked quickly, the boy’s weight growing heavier by the minute. I considered putting him down and letting him walk, but the slow pace would have killed me. Instead I pushed on, stopping only once to switch hips.
So someone from the mage families had passed through today. It made sense since no one else would have written words with them. If I hadn’t been out gathering, I would have seen them for myself. Spoken to them even, perhaps, if they had come into the store as Samuel said.
What would they have been like? It was one thing to learn the facts of them in school. How they alone could control the power that written words always unleashed, and therefore they alone could be trusted to read and write. About the way they built the kingdom with the power of their written compositions. Even about the different color robes they wore to signify their various disciplines. But that wasn’t the same as knowing what they were like as people.
Proud, haughty, and disagreeable? That was how I always imagined them, and how the ones who occasionally rode through Kingslee usually looked.
But what if they had instead seemed normal? Friendly even. A person just like me, only wearing fancier clothes. Would that be worse? To know that no more than an accident of birth separated us.
I pushed open the door of a small cottage, set a short way back from the main road, without knocking. A young woman, her eyes red, looked up and gave a small shriek.
“Joseph! There you are!” She rushed forward and snatched him from my arms, wrapping him in her own. I had thought he looked like Isadora’s boy, although I had forgotten his name.
She regarded me with wide eyes. “Where did you find him, Elena?”
I shifted from one foot to the other. “Down by the river.”
She shrieked again and squeezed him so tightly that he protested and tried to wriggle free. I only just refrained from rolling my eyes. This was a lot of dramatics for someone who hadn’t even been out searching for her child.
I wanted to hurry away, but something kept me locked in place. I cleared my throat.
“He wasn’t in any danger from the river,” I said and instantly received Isadora’s full attention.
“What do you mean?”
“He didn’t show any inclination to go swimming. Perhaps because he’d found something.” I glanced around but could see no one else in the small two-room house. I lowered my voice anyway. “A piece of parchment. With words. Samuel thinks someone in those carriages from earlier must have dropped it. Joseph had found it and…” I paused. “He was trying to copy some of it. In the dirt.”
I had been sure my revelation would earn another shriek, but apparently it had shocked Isadora into silence instead. She looked round-eyed between me and her young son.
“And…” Her voice wobbled. “Samuel knows of this? He was never one to know when to keep his mouth shut.”
“Don’t worry,” I said quickly. “Joseph is practically a baby still. And we burned it. I’m sure Samuel won’t stir up any trouble, no matter what he says.” I hesitated. “But you need to make sure he understands—” I bit my lip. “He must be very smart. Has he…has he ever tried anything like that before?”
“Of course not!” She looked offended this time. “He’s never even seen words before. Where would he? But he loves to draw. He’s always trying to copy the shapes from the pictures at the market, and from the signs…” Her words trailed off, and she dashed her hand across her eyes. “He’s smart like you say.” She shot me a look. “Like your brother, Jasper.”
I smiled, but it felt false, tension still radiating through me. “That would be fortunate indeed for him. For you all.” I refrained from letting my eyes run over the poorly kept interior of the cottage. “But first he has to live long enough.”
Isadora shuddered. “It’s been burned, you said?”
“Well…” She sighed. “Hopefully that will be the end of it.” But I could see the fear lurking in her eyes as she watched Joseph who had managed to work himself free and run off to play on the other side of the room.
“Yes.” I inched toward the door. “I’d better be going…”
“Of course, you’ll be wanting to get to your dinner. Thank you, Elena.”
Joseph looked up, as if on cue, and repeated, “Thank you, Elena,” his high voice mangling the words slightly. His mother’s face melted, and even I couldn’t resist a smile.
But it fell away as I jogged back out of town. Isadora should have been more careful. Should have been watching her son more closely. He was old enough now to understand. I shivered. Or perhaps he wasn’t. I could hardly remember Clementine at that age, let alone what it had been like to be that age myself. Still. A whole village had been lost only last year. One big bang and the whole thing had disappeared. No one knew exactly what had happened, of course. Not after the fact when there was nothing left.
Just that the explosion had been untrained, out of control. Deadly. Someone had been writing. A commonborn without the control to shape the power that flowed out of them as soon as they began to form written words. A commonborn like me and every single other person in the kingdom not born to a mage parent.
And that could have been Kingslee. Nearly had been, perhaps. I swallowed and veered off the path to collect my leather satchel which I had abandoned in the bushes when I rushed to defend Joseph. Jasper would scold me as he always did if he ever heard of it, telling me I was far too protective.
“And you’re not even the oldest, Elena,” he would say, pulling affectionately on my hair. “Aren’t I supposed to be the protective one?”
I always smiled and played along, but we both knew the truth. Jasper was our shining light. The one who was going to lift us all out of poverty. The genius with perfect recall who could compete even against the mages when it came to academics.
One day he would secure a lucrative position and take us to the capital. Which meant it was left to me to do the protecting, of both him and our younger sister Clementine. Although he was far away at the Royal University these days. Too far for either teasing or protecting.
It had always been clear that Jasper would not be accepting our family’s conscription responsibility. Any more than there was any question of weak, sickly Clementine being left to go to war.
So if I was to bear the ultimate burden of protecting my siblings, why not start early? Even if my eighteenth birthday was still more than a year and a half away.
When I pushed open the door to our home, my sister greeted me with a glad cry as she always did. Unlike the house I had just left, everything here was neat and in good order, the furniture sturdy and every surface scrubbed clean. Even the curtains looked newly washed. It was larger, too, with two more rooms tucked away, as well as a loft where Clementine and I slept. The reward of my parents’ careful running of their small store. That and their willingness to live out of town where there was room for a bigger house.
I tried to smile, but Clementine knew me too well. Her face fell, and she hurried over to take my hand.
“What is it, Elena? Is something wrong?”
I shook myself. “No, indeed. Don’t mind me, Clemmy. I’m just tired.” And it was true. Nothing was wrong, now. But still I couldn’t dislodge the feeling of unease that had settled over me beside the river.
“Oh, poor thing. Of course, you’re exhausted, traipsing through the woods all day.” She hurried to take my bag from my shoulder, gesturing for me to sit down while she emptied it, laying the herbs out neatly on the table.
“We had some special visitors while you were gone.” She giggled. “Well, not visitors exactly. Customers.”
I ran a hand over my eyes. “I heard. Mages, were they?”
She nodded, looking a little crestfallen that someone had beaten her to the news. “One of the ladies caught sight of some of our fresh fruit and had a ‘hankering that couldn’t be denied’ apparently.”
I rolled my eyes, but Clementine was obviously fascinated by her brush with the upper class. Our oppressors. I pressed a hand to my head. I must be more tired than I realized. Now I was the one getting dramatic.
The mages might wield all of the power and much of the wealth in the kingdom, but they were also the only ones able to control the power. And we did all see at least some benefits from their abilities. If only because their growers and wind workers ensured the crops grew, and their creators built roads and public buildings. Even their healers were available to those who could afford them.
“I hope they paid well,” I said.
“That they did,” said Mother, bustling into the room. “And extra. As if counting out the correct amount wasn’t worth their time.” She shook her head in wonder.
“That’ll be us one day,” said Clementine, pride in her voice. “Once Jasper graduates, and we all join him in Corrin.”
“Aye, that it will,” said Father, coming in from outside. He picked Clementine up and swung her around, although at eleven she was really too old for such things. None of us protested, however.
When he put her down again, his eye fell on the neat rows of gathered herbs on the table. He raised his eyebrows.
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