“Tommandros, put those clouds back where you found them,” his mother called from the doorway of their cottage. “Can’t you see I’ve got clothes on the line? How do suppose they’ll dry if you keep the fog rolling in like that?”
“She has a point, you know,” Gran’s voice said. But she wasn’t there. Not really. She was dead, lying blissfully unaware of the failure-of-a-summoner her grandson was in her absence. Still, she spoke to him from a shaded corner in the back of his mind, a warm place steeped in memory, ghost and conscience all wrapped in one.
“Besides,” his mother added, her voice softer, more inviting, “it’s time for supper.” Orange light splashed behind her silhouette from the fireplace crackling within, and though he could not see her face, he knew there was an impatient, yet loving smile written upon it.
“Yeah, yeah, alright. I’m coming,” Tomm called back from across the field, exhausted from his long string of failures. There was no victory to take away from the day, so he made no attempt to hide the sound of defeat in his voice. Truth be told, he felt more drained than disheartened; perhaps even a tad irritated with his mother for breaking his concentration, but was no fault of hers that he could not succeed at what was supposed to be—according to Gran—a simple first degree summoning. The Smell of Rain, they called it.
The Smell of Frustration is more like it, he groused. Gran’s memory didn’t respond. She never indulged his self-deprecating comments in life. In death, she was equally, if not less, sympathetic to his moaning.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter at this point,” he muttered to himself. You said it was easy, he accused the silent voice of his grandmother.
He felt a stirring in his thoughts. “Now, when did I ever say that?” she said. He didn’t reply. “That’s what I thought. I said ’simple.’ I never said it would be easy. You just need to concentrate, Toad. Clear your muddled mind.”
But no amount of concentration or endless trial and error could help him accomplish his task if he was going about it the wrong way to begin with, and neither Gran nor any skilled summoners were around to correct him.
I should know this by now.
There were likely hundreds of summoners across the land who were capable of calling a cloud and drawing its essence without spilling so much as a drop of rain. That was the most depressing thought of all: Everyone else could do it. Everyone except for him.
“If a toddler still soiling their linens can do it, then I’m sure you can too,” he remembered Gran saying once, but that provided little encouragement to him now, after he had just wasted the better part of his day trying to do so.
Ensnaring a passing cloud was easy enough; even he had succeeded in this task. Many times, in fact. He knew he was capable of calling a whole fleet of clouds if he so desired. But to hold a single cloud with the threads of one’s thought, to carefully weave them around every molecule water and gently coax the scent of rain from it; delicate and fleeting; was not so facile. Such a feat required patience and a great deal of finesse, which he sorely lacked.
“That’s because your technique is over-thought, too abrasive,” Gran had explained to him once.“But I’m sure you will get it with time, my love.”
He stared at the stubborn nimbus in disgust as it dangled there like a jewel over his head, just out of reach, taunting him, an ever-present reminder of his incompetence. The only reward for his labors was his clothes, which were soaked through with rain.
When he grew sick of looking at the cloud, he released his mental hold over it, and it scuttered away like a frightened fish back to the shoal. With a resigned sigh, Tomm turned and walked back toward home, feeling as though he had lost a game whose rules he never quite understood in the first place. It’s not fair.
He remembered the first time he had tried his hand at the Smell of Rain. Gran had been there, and so he knew whatever happened, he could always try again and she would be right beside him, encouraging him until he got it right.
“Easy now, Toad,” she had said, using her special nickname for him. “You’re not lassoing a bronco here. Clouds may appear soft and harmless things on the outside, but never forget at their heart, there’s a sleeping thunder, a storm waiting to break free and make a royal mess of you—” She had paused and smirked. “—much like your mother.” She had chuckled devilishly at her own quip. Tomm had laughed along, too, but looked over his shoulder just to make sure his mother was not standing behind him, tapping her foot with a scowl on her face.
“Don’t tell her I said that,” she had said. Tomm promised that he would not, as he would likely get a good ear-pinching at the mere mention of it.
“More to the point,” Gran had said, continuing with her lesson, “how does one tame something so temperamental?”
“I don’t know,” Tomm had answered.
Gran had replied, “With a firm voice and gentle words. Now, understand this: summoning is not magic. It’s not some string of silly incantations. Those gentle words I’m referring to are merely the utterances of your will, and they are less spoken words than they are very loud thoughts. Though, actual words may help one focus their thoughts more clearly, but that is a lesson for another time.
"These are the shapes of your Calling, that power invested in you at birth to do great things, to change the world around you. It looks different for all summoners, even you. What comes easily to others, may take you a little more time, and that’s just fine. Just as singing may calm a weary horse and make it tame, when commanding such unruly creatures as the elements of nature, your calling must become a kind of stormsong.”
She had been right, of course, as she often was about most things, but she was no summoner. She was just a wise, old woman with a knack for knowing things and a lovely mischief in her eyes.
“On a similar yet unrelated note,” she had added, “always remember that women share quite a bit in common with clouds.”
Tomm gave her a quizzical look.
“We are not the meek things the world; especially men; perceive us to be. Summoner or no, know this: every woman can call a storm of her own making. Or she can quell one with hidden magics that only our kind possess.” She had smiled as if reflecting on a private joke. “But we will not speak of the ways in which a woman can quell a storm. Not until you’re older, that is.”
As he approached the cottage, the last rays of daylight flitted through the trees and across his sandy hair. He looked very much like his father at that age. Both had the same keen, bright eyes. Except Brekken Telleran lacked the noticeable guiler’s horn rising a few inches just above his brow. An opalescent spike of bone, which glinted in the sun. Tomm was the first guiler to be born in his family for several generations, or so Gran had told him.
“Come now, you don’t want your supper to cool,” his mother said. “Not after I spent so long preparin’ it especially for you.” She ushered him in and closed the door.
Immediately, Tomm was greeted by a rich aroma that set his mouth to watering. Three bowls of steaming stew sat on the table by the open window, suffusing the air with the smell of tender beef, sweet apples, and sundry spices used for cooking in the fall.
“You look like a drowned beaver,” his mother said, lifting the bottom of her apron and patting his face dry. “Quick, go change out of those wet rags before your father catches you. And take those boots off! You’re tracking mud everywhere on my nice, clean floor.”
Compliantly, Tomm kicked off his sopping boots and placed them next to his father’s much larger ones. A cobweb stretched over the throat of one of his father’s boots where a spider had taken up residence.
He went to his room, changed, and when he returned, his mother was waiting for him in the hall, a sad, proud smile touching her eyes.
“Better,” she said, lifting his chin and turning his head from side to side. Then, she licked her thumb and rubbed at his cheek before he could swipe her hand away.
“You’d think someone soaked from head to toe wouldn’t have a spot of dirt on ‘em, but you’d be wrong.”
She mussed his hair. Tomm winced in pain and she quickly withdrew her hand and grimaced awkwardly.
“Sorry, I hadn’t realized,” she said, stammering for apology. “Oh, your poor head, I’m so sorry.” She held her hand against his forehead, gently this time, careful not to touch his horn. “Gracious, you’re hot as a kettle.”
She had watched him earlier, as she went about her various tasks, looking out the window occasionally, keeping an eye on him. He had tried so hard to make it work, whatever he was trying to do. She had seen him kicking at the dirt every time he failed, and though it broke her heart to see him struggle, she knew it was best to let him work through it on his own. She knew the toll his calling took on him: the headaches, the fatigue, but lately he’d been running fevers as well.
“I’m fine,” he admitted. In truth, his horn throbbed miserably, radiating deep from the base of his skull where the bone originated. Tendrils of hot pain spread across his scalp, fanning outward like a fisherman casting his net.
“What exactly were you trying to do?” his mother asked.
“I was trying to . . .” He paused, feeling somewhat embarrassed to finish to the sentence.
She gave him a puzzled look that said, “Go on.”
“I was trying to catch the Smell of Rain.”
“What?” she exclaimed. “All you’re gonna catch is a cold if you keep at it like that. If you want to smell the rain, just open a window next time.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Gran always said that subtlety was key to guilercraft. I’m plenty strong-willed, but I’m terrible at being subtle,” he admitted glumly.
“Oh, I’m already aware of that,” she said with a smirk, “but I don’t see what that has to do with turning yourself into a human cistern.”
“Too weak a summoning and you’re only grasping at air. Too strong and you get your own personal rainshower like me.” He nodded to his pile of wet clothes in the corner.
“I see,” said his mother.
“If I can’t master this one simple feat, how am I supposed to prove myself before the council?”
“For the life of me, I’ll never know how your moon-witted grandmother—may she rest in peace—came to know so much about the craft. But I’m no summoner. I can’t tell you what’s right or wrong, nor can your father. Neither of us have a magical bone in our bodies. You’ll need to figure that out for yourself, but I’ll not have you worryin’ over dark clouds a moment longer, least of all here.” She lowered her voice. “There’s been enough gloom in this house since your father took ill.”
He threw up his hands. “But—”
“That’s enough,” she said. “You have that horn, don’t you?”
“You have the calling, don’t you?”
He nodded again.
“Then there’s nothin’ to it. If you possess those two things then it’s not impossible. You just need to keep at it. You didn’t choose to have these powers. The summoner’s life chose you. I expect you will do just fine in the end.”
“If you say so,” he said, his tone indicating he didn’t really believe what she was saying to be true.
“I know so,” she said, her voice sure as the dawn.
A moment of silence passed between them, and then his mother opened her mouth to speak again.
“You know what else Gran used to say?”
Tomm looked up at her with forlorn eyes, expecting some sagely words that might scoop him out of his depression.
“‘If at first you don’t succeed, by God’s white beard, Toad! Eat somethin’ and come back to it later’.” She made her voice sound a bit too husky for Gran’s, but Tomm cracked a smile nonetheless.
“It’s good advice, I think. And speaking of Gran, I cooked up one of her old recipes in honor of your special day. I dare say, it came out better than if she had cooked it herself.”
There was a soft thud from the other room, followed by the slow scuffing sound of feet across wooden floorboards. Tomm’s shoulders stiffened.
“What’s all that racket in there, Tyla?” came a gravelly voice from the other room. A moment later, his father appeared in the doorway, a once proud figure now sullen and emaciated in his failing health. One hand rested on a gnarled walking stick. His cheeks were hollow and pale, but his eyes were no less sharp.
“Still trying to be wizard, eh?” he said.
Tyla shot him a disapproving glare.
“Summoner,” she corrected.
“Actually, I’m still a guiler,” Tomm corrected her. “Only after I’ve passed my assay will I be considered a true summoner—”
“I know what you are,” his father snapped. He coughed. “Don’t make much difference to me if you can move a damned mountain, if you can’t pull your meager weight around here. You know your mother’s been—”
“That’s quite enough, Brekken,” his mother said. “You two weren’t built for the same sort of work and that’s that. I’ll not have discord under my roof. Not while your lungs are rotten and most certainly not on Tomm’s nameday, or had you forgotten your son has finally become a man?”
“Says who, other summoners? I’ll be the judge of when—”
Tyla stopped him with a dangerous look. He fell silent and stared down at his walking stick. He cleared his throat. Cold silence wrapped around the room, filling every recess.
Ever since Tomm was a boy, his guiler’s horn, little more than a glossy white pedicle on his forehead, a patch of abalone, was the harbinger of his Calling. It meant that someday, when he approached the age of fifteen, he would have to appear before the council of master summoners and prove himself a worthy apprentice.
It had been two winters since Gran’s passing and his horn had barely grown a spiral taller. He felt neither wiser nor more in control of his calling. Gran was the only one who understood the preparations needed for his trials. Since her passing, his training had suffered greatly. He was no good at teaching himself, and his family could not afford the tutelage of a summoner or, at the vert least, a scholar of guilercraft like Gran had been. It would have been nice to journey down the road with Gran by his side, but instead, he had to endure his father’s withering disapproval. And his mother, though supportive for her part, did not know the first thing about guilercraft. He was alone.
While his parents exchanged hushed words of disagreement, his thoughts wandered to Jahaelis where the council awaited him. He had never seen the city, but Gran, being a well-traveled woman in her youth, had described it to him many times: tall, gleaming spires with the trailing banners of the various orders of summonerhood snapping in the wind above their crenelations. Would the council’s gaze be as scrutinizing as his father’s? Would he be able to perform a simple summoning of the first degree in their presence? Such questions loomed over him like storm clouds on the horizon.
Through the open window, almost undetectable amidst the smells of Gran’s stew and the fireplace, the smell of rain came to him. He felt an inexplicable calm wash over him. He held it there, deep inside his lungs, for a long moment. And in that moment, he remembered Gran and how her hair always smelled of freshly-baked bread with just a hint of lavender. He smiled and exhaled.