The ring of eman vath, p.10
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.10

           Hal Emerson

  Chapter Eight: Rane

  In the latter half of the hundred years that followed the founding of the Peace between Charridan and Aeon, there existed a dark and stormy span of years when a man known as King Hulin ruled in the city of Caelron. He was to become the father of King Malineri and Crown Prince Rewlyn, and there was a saying in the Archipelago that he was a ‘king to prove the islanders right.’

  His rule was not as unfortunate as it might have been. The Guilds stepped in, and so did Var Athel, in its way, to mitigate what they could, and so the city and its power were at least maintained, despite the worst that Hulin did.

  But disaster could not be entirely avoided.

  Perhaps his greatest fault was that Hulin saw himself as capable and intelligent when he was neither. When he came to power with the death of his father, he had the best of intentions. He read through the scrolls of law kept in the palace and from them began to issue decrees, convinced of the righteousness of the men who had founded Aeon so long ago.

  But the laws he enforced were ancient and barbaric – laws that had long since been condemned and set aside as relics of a savage age. He came to believe firmly that punishment was the path to righteousness, and he commanded the city guards to remove the right hand of convicted thieves, to press night women into indentured servitude, and to put to death anyone that assaulted a man in the king’s colors. He relied little on his advisers and in some cases openly ridiculed them, even the Sorev Ael later known as Baelric the Wise, who he openly mocked in court as a “witch man”. Baelric, undeterred, did what he could to protect Caelron without the king’s knowledge, and in particular performed that which would become the single most important act of his life: he kept Hulin’s eldest son, Malineri, out of his father’s influence.

  Still, there was only so much that could be done to a sitting monarch, and only so much that his subjects would accept done to him. For often times, if people believe that a man has the right to rule, then they will accept any how.

  The city of Caelron survived, but its citizens lived in a constant state of unease that evolved over time into a peculiar kind of resigned dread. No one expected mercy if their case came before the king or the king’s courts, and so no one sought to extend mercy to others. No one looked to help their fellow men up and out of poverty lest they be tied unwittingly to a former criminal and framed as an accomplice. The only art that was produced was art that praised the state and the king. People did not talk to strangers, much less help them, lest they be found guilty of a crime unknowingly committed. Good people did not have the confidence required to do good acts, for they did not know if they would be rewarded or punished; and evil men, knowing they would be shown no mercy, did evil anyway.

  It was well known through experience and rumor that the streets were not safe to walk at night. The criminal underclass that exists in all cities went from virtually defunct to robust in a matter of years, thanks in large part to the draconian laws that Hulin put in place in an effort to suppress them. The more severe the laws became, the more the villains of the night sought protection from still stronger, smarter villains, and the more such men and women banded together, the more power they began to hold. In greater numbers, they had money to spend on bribes for those who had been wronged by the king’s uneven justice; and the more they spent in bribes, the more palms were greased and the more people were willing to look the other way when evil deeds were done in dark alleyways and deserted streets. Squalor crept into Caelron around the edges of the city like grime on a gilded painting, and the largest stain was the rise of the cynically named Thieves Guild.

  Such comes the fall of virtue. Not through revolution, but through the slow and creeping progress of incompetence, arrogance, and apathy.

  It was into this short but troubled time that Wren was born.

  He was as a light against a backdrop of dark and bitter tragedy. Stars are beautiful in part because of the inky fabric of deep and eternal black against which they are set to shine; and the sun is born, every day, from the secret heart of night. So it was with Wren.

  His story begins with his mother, Rane.

  During Hulin’s reign, Rane lived in Caelron with her parents, who had brought her from Aginor as a child and established a shop in the Merchant’s Quarter selling trinkets and antiques. Her father had earned a reputation as a man who could sell you anything if you were willing to pay for it, and her mother took the trade far and wide among the myriad shops of the great city, procuring items at cheap rates that were then sold for a decent profit.

  Rane was a dreamer, much as her son Wren would be. She loved the sky, for it was all she knew of the outside world. Her whole life revolved around her parents’ shop in the Merchant Quarter and the store seven blocks away where she often went on errands for food and cloth and trinkets.

  But though her body was held captive by the city and her parents’ life, her mind roamed far and wide across the land of Aeon. She imagined what it would be like to see the villages to the south, to see Var Athel to the north, even to go beyond the land to the Shining Sea itself, and south past the Archipelago to the open, endless expanse of water that people called the ocean. Every day she watched the sky – blue in summer, gray and clouded in winter, but always there, always changing, always proof of a world outside her little life. She found joy in it and smiled often, even in such dark and troubled times as Hulin’s reign. She knew that life was wonderful in a full-body kind of way. She believed it in her blood and bones and soul, even though the world tried to convince her otherwise.

  Such untempered optimism is a dangerous thing.

  Her fall began with Domin. She never mentioned him to her parents, nor did she mention when he made her an offer of marriage. He was everything a young woman was supposed to want: well-spoken, well-dressed, of good breeding, and with charm and a smile that made her blush. He took her to places where they danced through the night, and when they collapsed, exhausted, afterwards, he spoke soft words into her ear that made her feel on fire. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes, even though she had only known him for a handful of weeks. They celebrated that night in a room upstairs of the inn, a room with a door that locked.

  They drank heavily, though Rane told Domin that she did not want to drink much more. He continued to pour her wine, however, and she drank when he told her too. He smiled and spoke such sweet things about what would happen when they were married that she even went so far as to let him touch her.

  But when the clock downstairs of the room rang midnight, Rane realized she had stayed out far too late. Her parents would be wondering where she was. She pushed Domin away and told him they’d lost track of time, but he did not seem to care. He playfully pulled her back as she made for the door, and she felt then the first lurch of fear in her stomach, though she did not acknowledge it as she should have. She believed in dreams still, and the dream of Domin was so great that she would not – or could not – allow herself to acknowledge his reality.

  She tried to leave once more, but she was stopped again, and this time Domin frowned. When she asked him what was wrong, he told her simply that he was displeased, and that she must not go. She told him that she must; but when she turned again for the door, he stepped between her and it. The latch clicked and the lock turned, and no one came when she screamed.

  She returned home several days later just as morning broke across the city. Her parents were in a terrible state, and the sight of her walking through the door brought tears of relief that quickly turned to cries of horror.

  That very hour, wasting not a single second, they took her to a Healer, that brand of Sorev Ael that can fix the mind and body. They were told that she had been severely beaten and was close to death from dehydration. She had a number of broken bones, and her skin was torn in a dozen different places. She’d been struck so brutally about the face that her eye sockets had been crushed, and it was because of this that she had wandered around for days before finding her way home.

; She was blind, and she was pregnant.

  After doing what she could, the Healer gave them strange-smelling poultices and salves and told Rane’s parents how and when to use them. She wove enchantments over the girl to ease what grief she could, but stopped short of the final step. She had the power to erase Rane’s memorizes entirely – a power that only the best Healers have – but she refused to do it. There was a terrible risk that such an enchantment would come undone as Rane’s pregnancy progressed, and if that happened, it would tear her mind apart.

  Rane lived at home until the baby came. She lived in darkness then, both literal and figurative, for she never regained her sight and she refused to venture out into the light of day where she could be seen. Her parents were asked what had become of her, and they told the kind inquirers of a trip to the countryside – of an aunt they had left behind in Aginor who had taken Rane for the summer so that she could see the world outside of Caelron. Those who knew her were overjoyed at such news, for they knew it was her dream to see the world, and they wished her well.

  Rane overheard, and wept.

  There was nothing her parents could do to draw her from the dark, unstable depths into which she had descended. They asked her who had harmed her, her father even going so far as to rage and storm about the house, demanding that she tell him, but she adamantly refused. They tried cajoling her, tried making her favorite foods and offering a real trip to the countryside, but she would not eat, and she refused to hear of leaving.

  They loved her as best they could, but it was not enough.

  She remained secluded. As the months wore on, her parents fought amongst themselves, each in turn questioning the wisdom of their decisions, saying they should seek out the Healer again to force Rane from her despair with sorcery, or maybe even bring her out into public. But no, the shame she’d suffer was worse than keeping her locked away – locked away for months though, how could that be good? Still, a relatively short stretch of solitude to keep her free from a life of scorn, wasn’t that a small and necessary price to pay?

  Rane heard all of it, for their rooms over the shop were small and the thin walls ill-made for secrets. Her parents spoke of her as an abstraction, never thinking that she might overhear them or that she might have an opinion of her own. Unbeknownst to them, she had made her own decision.

  One night, many months after her return, Rane heard her parents close their door and fall into the deep embrace of sleep. She stood and made her way to the stairs, navigating by feel. She descended to the ground floor, crossed the shop, and left.

  There are a series of waterworks in Caelron on the far eastern edge of the city, wonders made with the help of the Sorev Ael. They rise from where the natural shoreline was built upon, and they tower nearly a hundred feet in the air, made of enchanted brick, stone, and mortar that cannot be worn away by the constant surging power of the tide. The fresh water that comes down to Caelron from the northernmost tip of the Windy Mountains passes beneath the city, collecting refuge as it goes, and empties there into the bay, where it is submerged by the current and taken out to sea.

  It was to these waterworks that Rane made her way.

  She navigated by sound and feel, as she had no sight. At first she moved aimlessly, weeping as she walked. Not the racking sobs of momentary desperation, but the constant, streaming tears of defeat and unendurable grief. Perhaps even she did not know fully what she intended. Perhaps some shred of her former self would not let her know it.

  But before she reached her destination, her belly began to ache, and soon, through the haze of her grief, she felt her muscles pull and shudder within her. She thought of the baby’s father, thought of what it would mean to raise such a child, and her despair only deepened. She continued moving through the back alleyways that allowed her to maintain her solitude, away from eyes that might see and stop her. She tripped and fell over debris. Her dress was soon slick with dirt and grime and her own bodily fluid, and her feet were torn and bloodied.

  She did not make it. She fell one last time in a back alley near the waterworks, and it was there that she gave birth.

  The baby came easily, which caused Rane to laugh through her tears. Of course it would – of course this would be easy when nothing else was. The baby’s cries echoed her own, and as she lay there in her own fluids, her body took over and she swaddled the boy instinctually as he cried and groped blindly at her chest.

  She rose again, not knowing what else to do, and walked on.

  She traversed the streets like a vengeful spirit, sobbing and wailing as one possessed. Soon even that, though, was lost in the rushing sound of cascading water. The machinery called out to her with a ceaseless roar, and she followed it blindly until she lost her mind in the maze of the city and knew no more.

  It was a Sorev Ael who found her – the king’s adviser, Baelric.

  He was known as a wise man even then and had made a study of philosophy and human nature. His mind worked in a way that many minds do not, with both compassion and pragmatism in equal measure. He saw the evil of the world and yet was never disillusioned by it. He studied it with the kind of detachment that a carpenter might possess when studying a dilapidated building: looking for ways to cut out the rot and rebuild stronger what could be saved. At the height of Hulin’s reign, he wandered the streets at night with groups of men and women skilled in healing in order to help those that he could not help by day, and to keep the great city from falling into ruin.

  And on this night in particular, he had even gone so far as to bring the Crown Prince with him, the man who would several years later become King Malineri.

  Caelron was large city, and it sprawled over the hills on which it was built to cover the tip of the Peninsula from bank to bank, extending a far distance beyond its ancient walls. A casual observer might say that the mere chance that Baelric took Malineri to the edge of the city that night, to the dangerous Waterworks where the criminal and destitute made what living they could, was astonishing. That they also stumbled upon Rane makes one think of absurd coincidences, or perhaps the hand of fate.

  When the conjured light atop Baelric’s oaken staff fell on Rane’s lifeless body, he held up a hand and flicked it in a smooth, practiced motion. Those he’d brought with him, sympathetic royal guards doing their best to look proud and strong for their prince that night, spread out and searched the street, but found no one else and nothing of interest.

  “My prince,” Baelric said. “Come here.”

  Malineri came. He was only a young man then, little more than a boy, but old enough and strong enough that he could face the world as it was. He was not particularly brave, nor particularly wise, but he was good and earnest, and that is enough upon which to lay the foundation of a king.

  He was dressed in guardsman’s clothes that night as a disguise, but even still his bearing was unmistakable. The green and red of his cape and the soft leather of his boots and gloves beneath the burnished silver of his armor only seemed to highlight his bright eyes, smooth face, and the noble grace bred into his carriage. He came up next to Baelric and looked down at the ruined body of Rane, and then looked away. He had never seen a woman dead or dying before, and the sight of it moved him more than he’d thought possible.

  “Do not look away,” Baelric scolded. “This is what the city has become. This is what you must end, and what must never be allowed to return.”

  Malineri forced himself to look again, and a wave of sorrow rushed over him. The woman was worn away to nothing, and the swollen belly of a recent pregnancy told him quite clearly that she had left behind a child.

  “Can you not help her?” Malineri asked quietly, trying to keep his voice even.

  “She is beyond help now,” Baelric said softly. His beard, already turning white, glistening with the dew of the mist that so often covered the city at night, and as he laid a calm, understanding hand on Malineri’s shoulder, the sleeve of his robes fell back to reveal black ink etched into his pale skin in the form of ancie
nt runes. “The dead are beyond our help. What we must do, what you must always do, is learn from death, not wallow in it. All must die – all of us. She is beyond help or harm now; what concerns us, and the rest of the living, is that she need not have died here and now. She need not have died for many more years to come, and she need not have died grieving and alone. If there is a way to stop others from dying in such a place, in such sadness, then we the living must seek it out.”

  Malineri nodded, feeling the truth of his mentor’s words ring through him. The guards listened too; many of them were young and would grow with Malineri throughout his life, as was the tradition of Caelron.

  “What about her child?” Malineri asked, seeing again her swollen belly.

  Baelric paused and turned back to her. He muttered a sound under his breath and there came with it a rushing wind, though Malineri, not gifted with the talent of Words, did not understand the sound or its meaning. The Sorev Ael paused as if waiting for response, but when none came but the silence of the dark night, he turned back to the prince, his face heavily lined with sorrow.

  “The child is not nearby,” he said. “She left him, where I cannot tell. All we can do is see this woman buried, and hope that someone will find the child and care for it in her place.”

  Malineri stood there for a long moment, even though it was clear to him that Baelric wished to leave. He stood watching the face of the woman: her eyes empty white and unseeing; her face preternaturally lined with grief and sorrow; her skin marred with scars that he could tell had pained her greatly.

  It is perhaps one of the world’s great ironies that the significance that Rane could never achieve in life was achieved in death. For Malineri the King was born that night truly and in full, though he was yet a prince. It was her face that haunted him when he thought of sending men to war, her face and those sightless eyes staring up at a dark sky full of stars that made him fight for dreams and hope. It was her face that made him think of the world his men might never see again.

  They searched the alley but did not find the boy, for Wren’s mother had cast him over the side of the nearest cliff.

  Do not worry. He fell, but lived.

  For it was those same cliffs that made the Thieves’ Guild possible. Below the surface streets, among the underground rivers whereby the city disposed of its sewage and waste, a great crowd of cast-off human refuse also gathered.

  It was into this strange underworld that Wren fell.

  His crying brought a woman to him, a woman who was woken from a dream of her own lost child. She was recently disgraced, the victim of the king’s incompetent brand of justice that had had her husband executed and no provision made for his pregnant wife despite the well-known fact she had no family. She soon found herself unable to pay for food, and then was forced to sell her home. She was a skilled woman – she’d been an apprentice once in the Herbalist Guild – and when her child died, she rejected the city that had so wronged her and joined the Thieves.

  So when she woke and heard the child’s cries, she could not resist investigating. She traced them through the tunnels and out to the edge of the Waterworks, along the rushing underground river that formed the main spur of the watery warren. She followed it, out and out and out, until she came to the very edge, where the underground river spilled through the air to crash down into the bay so far below.

  She spotted him almost immediately, wrapped in cloth soaked with water and bodily fluids and hung from a broken spar of stone.

  Tulia reached out, careful of her footing lest she slip and fall herself, and grabbed the bundle. She slipped it off the spike and stumbled back as the cloth unraveled and the baby began to slip. She gasped and almost shouted as the fabric unrolled in her hands – she dove for the child and caught it before it hit the ground.

  The boy began to scream, and Tulia thought that he quite honestly had the right. He looked like a newborn – red and puckered, his head awkwardly squashed – and she held him to her chest fiercely.

  She blinked back tears, and took him in.

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